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The best books on Jesus

recommended by Robert Morgan

Jesus was a 1st century Jew from Galilee who had a ministry of teaching and healing. He gathered disciples around him, but was eventually arrested and executed by the Roman governor of Judaea from 26 to 36CE, Pontius Pilate. But what else do we know about Jesus and what is his significance in an increasingly secular age? New Testament scholar Robert Morgan talks us through his favourite books on Jesus.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

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What’s the significance of Jesus in an increasingly secular age?

That’s a good question because it underlies all the Five Books that I’ve chosen, and lies behind the discussion of the last 200 to 300 years. By increasingly secular, we mean pluralistic. There’s a wide variety of belief: a lot of people are not religious, and a lot of people are not Christians. Still, a lot of people are Christians. The significance of Jesus is bound to be different for Christians and for non-Christians. Also, Christians in the modern world are going to see him differently, in some ways, from Christians 300 years ago. What his significance is is a huge question that keeps cropping up and is between the lines of everything else that we say about these books. Significance means significance for whom?

Broadly, both sides and all centuries have agreed that he is a historical figure, a 1st century Jew from Galilee, that he was baptized by John the Baptist, that he had a ministry of teaching and healing. He gathered disciples around him and spoke to crowds of God—and so how to live—through parables and wisdom sayings, emphasizing the nearness of God and the imminence of God’s rule already operative in his messianic activity, transforming the world, mending the broken and soon to be consummated by the Creator God who loves this good creation. It is also generally agreed that he was arrested and executed by the Roman governor from 26 to 36CE, Pontius Pilate. That’s common ground whether one is a believer or not.

In terms of how Christians see him, that historical way of looking at things has now affected how they too see him. Some see him in a traditional, stained-glass sort of way, others as a remarkable human being. The important thing is whether or not you think he reveals God. That’s the real dividing line, not whether he performed miracles or even how far his moral teaching is useful today, or how Christians can understand the central mystery of their faith: his vindication by God and risen presence with and in God, and by his Spirit, in the world.

I was going to ask you who he was, but perhaps you’ve already answered that?

Yes and no. Who was he and who is he? He was that historical figure about whom we know a certain amount. For believers, he is a living presence through whom they believe themselves to be in relationship to God. So his relationship to God, which was important for him, is also important for those who call themselves his followers today. The question ‘Who was he?’ puts the emphasis on the historical question. That’s a natural way of looking at it, for us, today, in a way that it wasn’t a few hundred years ago, but for Christians it remains subordinate to the question of God which they abbreviate by the doctrine of his divinity.

He has a lot of names: Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, the Galilean, the Messiah, Christ. What does Christ mean?

Christ is the Greek for Messiah. The Hebrew word ‘mashiach’ means anointed. So ‘Christ’ means the one anointed by God. It’s one way that his followers said he was God’s special agent, more than a prophet and teacher, which he also clearly was.

But did he call himself the Messiah?

He probably didn’t call himself the Messiah, perhaps because that could easily be misunderstood in a political way. He wasn’t trying to be a revolutionary—overthrowing the Romans—which is what some Jews of the time wanted. So he may have avoided the word. Whether in his lifetime or immediately afterwards, it’s clear that around the time he died, some of his people thought of him as Messiah, come at the end of the present age as the representative or agent of God. Then, within a very short time, a few months or years, it had become another name. We say Jesus Christ. But Jesus also remains ‘the Christ (of Israel)’ a designation showing his religious significance.

So if he had called himself ‘Messiah’ that would have denoted he wanted to overthrow the Romans?

No, because the word Messiah has a range of meanings. Many Jews were expecting a son of David—that is to say, a royal figure—who would rescue the nation from Roman imperialism. Others understood that prophets and priests were anointed by God. Contemporaries saw Jesus as a prophet, and he accepted that description while claiming a greater initimacy with God his father, or Abba. Some Christians also thought of him as a priest, even though he wasn’t of priestly descent like Caiaphas. They saw him as a mediating figure, bringing them into relationship with God.

So the Romans wouldn’t have objected to the word Messiah?

The Romans would have seen crowds welcoming him as Messiah as a political threat. So the notice on the cross, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ meant Messiah, a warning to the population about where power lay.

What about Nazareth versus Galilee?

Nazareth is the village where he was brought up in Galilee, Galilee being the whole area.

And Bethlehem?

Bethlehem is down south, near Jerusalem, where, the legend has it, he was born, because it was expected, by some of the prophets, that the Messiah would be born in that city of David. David was a thousand years earlier, the greatest Israelite king. He was later expected to have a successor of his line.

Let’s get on to these books you’ve chosen. You mentioned as we were walking here that you’ve read more than 200 books about Jesus.

That’s a guesstimate. There are scores of historical books about Jesus and thousands of articles, hundreds of theological books, and thousands of religious books. There are also scores of scholarly books on each of the four gospels. In my lifetime I’ve read quite a lot . . .

Why is Jesus important to you?

He is the key to my belief in God. I believe in God, the mystery that can be known only if somehow God makes it happen. I think that has happened in the Jewish-Christian tradition, as elsewhere. Jesus is the central figure following centuries of preparation, and followed by 2000 years of effects or follow-up. Jesus himself is for Christians the focus of God revealing himself to the world and putting the world right. As a historical figure he is also of legitimate interest to anybody. It’s not just what Christians make of him that matters today. And even Christians can wonder how much we know about him over and beyond what we think of him religiously.

Shall we start with the book by Rudolf Bultmann? This is quite a short one, so if people don’t have much time it could be a good choice. Its English title is Jesus and the Word, and it dates from 1926.

Rudolf Bultmann was the greatest New Testament theologian of the 20th century. He was an exegete, a Classicist and a historian, but also a theologian. He was a professor of theology relating what he knew as a historian to what he believed as a Christian. The reason I picked him out—in a book that is now 90 years old and therefore in some ways out of date (it was written before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947)—is that he was writing after 60-odd years of people writing lots of lives of Jesus. What he is saying is, ‘That’s not the point.’ A positivistic historical picture of Jesus misses the main point about him, and misses the main point about history too. History is about an encounter with the past, it’s not just a description. It’s about our own relationship to the past, our identity. So when he was asked to write yet another historical book about Jesus, he agreed, but he thought he would try and write one which communicated some sense of why Jesus was important to him.

He saw his own history writing as a dialogue with history, and his own apprehension of Jesus as confronting him with a decision about the meaning of his life, God and the world. So he’s written a book that has included what we know about Jesus’s history, but somehow gives it a sense of what it all means for him.

What does it mean for him?

He’s not interested in the brute facts of Jesus’s life. Of course Jesus was crucified and that’s at the centre of things, but Bultmann sidesteps the whole dogmatic structure of Christian belief. He’s saying, ‘Here is someone or something that confronts me with a decision about my life and how I understand myself.’ To be a believer is to understand oneself in a particular way, in relationship to the transcendent. Jesus’s proclamation of God or the kingdom of God and the will of God, about how we should live, communicates something of that and says ‘It’s about you: are you going to go along with this and become a disciple or a follower? Or are you just going to look at it in the historical distance and say, “That’s interesting”.’

Here’s a passage from the book that I found intriguing: “We are accustomed to distinguish between the physical or sensuous and the mental or spiritual life. The life of the spirit is the meaning of existence…this is completely alien to the teaching of Jesus.” In translation, ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ just means life. So when Jesus says, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” (Mark 8:36) all that is meant by ‘loses his soul’ is ‘dies’.”

A lot of Bultmann’s remarks are gunning against the people who have written before him. That particular saying of Jesus—one of the ones he probably said—is an interesting one. The Greek word that we translate as soul—namely psyche— comes up 500 to 600 times in the Greek Old Testament as a translation of ‘nefesh,’ which means life. So you could read it as Jesus saying, ‘What’s the use if you’ve got everything and then drop dead?’ That’s a common sense interpretation. But then, when that got translated into the Greek as ‘soul’, it acquired new levels of meaning. You’ve got all these material possessions but you lose your personal integrity or your real ‘self.’ It’s worthless and pointless. That secondary meaning is also true, and more profound. It shows what happens to some of Jesus’s sayings as they are handed down in people’s reflection about God and the world.

So does the distinction between body and soul come in only with Descartes? Or was it always part of the Christian tradition?

It’s part of the Greek tradition and therefore comes into Christianity fairly early on. With Descartes and the modern world you again get a sharp mind/body dualism. Some people think that has messed up the whole of modern philosophy, and therefore a lot of modern theology as well. Going back to the Bible is partly a way of getting away from that the kind of sharp dualism, and saying, ‘No, the Greek idea that the body is just a tomb and the real self is the soul, is bad.’ We are bodies and to understand ourselves we have to recognize that. That’s much closer to Biblical ways of thinking about it.

Looking at Jesus as a historical figure, one of the books mentioned that the first mention of him in the secular literature comes only in the second century, in Tacitus. So all our knowledge of him comes from?

Believers. Tacitus, Pliny the younger and Suetonius all reflect what is widely known through the existence and witness of his followers.

You mentioned the Dead Sea Scrolls. What did they add in terms of our knowledge of Jesus? Do they mention him?

No, they don’t. They add hugely to our knowledge of one branch of sectarian Judaism at the time. Some people think John the Baptist may have had some contact with this monastic sect at Qumran, near the Dead Sea. But they were down in the south, so it’s unlikely that Jesus, in the north, in Galilee, would have had much contact with them, and his teaching was different. They had their own founder, the ‘teacher for righteousness’ who died 150 years earlier. Their community, at Qumran, by the Dead Sea, was wiped out by the Romans in the Jewish War. But there were a lot of Essenes living elsewhere and some of them probably became followers of Jesus. For example, some people think that the writer of the fourth Gospel may have been an Essene.

“Christ is the Greek for Messiah. The Hebrew word ‘mashiach’ means anointed. So ‘Christ’ means the one anointed by God.”

We know a lot about Judaism from the Old Testament and later Jewish writing. All the New Testament is written in Greek, and it contains our main sources of historical knowledge of Jesus. Having some Hebrew and Aramaic writings, some from that sect, enables us to know more about the Judaisms of Jesus’s time, and helps us construct historical pictures of Jesus. That’s what’s so good, when we come to it, about Gerd Theissen’s book, the use he makes of these. Bultmann couldn’t offer so much here because he was writing 20 years before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and his focus was different.

Was Judaism breaking up into different sects at that time?

Not breaking up. There were just different points of view, and different sects and groupings — Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots. Some became followers of Jesus, seeing him as Messiah.

And Christians?

The followers of Jesus became first a Messianic sect within Judaism. Looking for a Messiah they think they’ve found him. Other Jews were looking for a Messiah but didn’t think they’d found him.

And Islam?

Islam was founded some 600 years later.

Also what I found interesting was that ‘Love to God and to one’s neighbour’ was part of rabbinical teaching at that time. I associated it more uniquely with Jesus.

It’s a straight quotation from Deuteronomy 6—Hear O Israel . . . love God with all your heart and soul and strength—and from Leviticus 19, love your neighbour as yourself. But your neighbour is primarily your fellow Jew. Jesus apparently said love your enemies as well. That was startling. Also, putting love God and love your neighbour at the centre. You may get the combination in one Jewish text, but it’s not typical. Loving your enemy is very untypical, some Jews would say. So you’re right to focus on that as at the heart of the matter but of course it’s Jewish. Jesus is thoroughly Jewish and his relationship to other Palestinian Jews is therefore a crucial question about him.

Let’s go on to the second book you’ve chosen, The Quest for the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer. This is from 1906.

Yes, this book is nearly 120 years old, but I would put it top of my list of the classics. The reason I chose it is because it’s mainly about what other people have made of Jesus. I think to get at Jesus through what other people have made of him is the best way of going about it. If I were writing a book on Jesus, that’s how I would go about it, and the way Schweitzer did it is marvelous. Then he gives his own account of Jesus, which is partly wrong, I think. But that doesn’t matter. It’s still brilliant and stimulating and exciting. And he’s also a childhood hero: He was the missionary doctor in Africa from 1913 to 1965. We were brought up to admire him.

So he goes through the historiography, looking at how some 19th century scholars looked at Jesus.

Yes, and one rather earlier. Reimarus died in 1768 and was part published by Lessing in 1774-8. Liberal theologians disliked dogma or the doctrine, even though the Gospels are themselves interpretations. They wanted to get behind them to Jesus as he really was. But they can only give their own interpretations. Even their own historical accounts of how they think he really was, are interpretations. Schweitzer argued they were reading a lot of their own 19th century perspectives into Jesus’s teaching. Schweitzer says, ‘No. Jesus was totally and utterly and completely different. He was more like Nietzsche’s superman. He was expecting the end of the world and he was completely wrong.’ That’s an oversimplification about what Jesus thought about the future. Schweitzer’s accounts of all the other people are wonderful but I don’t buy his own reconstruction. Somebody has to do a Schweitzer on Schweitzer himself.

And your Schweitzer on Schweitzer would focus on Jesus saying the end of the world was nigh…

It’s what that might mean that’s difficult to get your hands on. I think Schweitzer was over-influenced by some newly discovered apocalyptic writings in the 19th century, and said, ‘Jesus must have been like that.’ It’s pretty clear to my mind that Jesus wasn’t like that. Even though one or two sayings do sound a bit like that, on the whole Jesus is much more of a prophet and a wisdom teacher. This nightmare scenario, of an apocalyptic end of the world like you get in the book of Revelation is really rather removed from my mental picture of Jesus. But that may be because I imagine the Jesus I love and want to follow.

So for you, Jesus is someone who teaches what?

He points us to God. Jesus was all about God. Being about God means being about the meaning of life, about how the world is and our moral responsibilities, to save the planet and to love our neighbours. It’s got a very strong ethical or moral dimension. It’s also got a strong future hope, because what we think about the world and God has to do with how we think about the future.

Does Jesus prophesy a lot?

Yes, he does a bit. Schweitzer picks up on him saying—which I don’t think Jesus actually said—in Matthew 10, “You will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Kingdom of God comes.” Like a number of sayings in the Gospels, I think that reflects a slightly later perspective of some people who did expect that end very soon, as Paul did. The reason historical pictures of Jesus differ is that we disagree to some extent about which sayings he actually said, and which ones he didn’t.

That’s what I found fascinating in a number of these books, the author going ‘Jesus is quoted as saying X. He would never have said that!’ The authors seem to have a strong opinion on what he did and didn’t say.

Yes, and of course it’s only probability judgments. We can’t be certain. Like the rest of them, I have opinions about what he did say, and what he probably didn’t say.

What’s the most meaningful saying for you, of the ones he did say?

I would find it very difficult to pick one. I would pick about 30-40, among them the ones you picked out. The love commandment is certainly central. Attitudes to material possessions are important. The Sermon on the Mount contains a whole lot of things that he did say and one or two things that he probably didn’t. I’d include most of the Sermon on the Mount. Although we haven’t got much information about his personality, we get a sense of the human figure that has been an icon for Christians ever since. Most people agree he was a good man, and that he was unjustly executed. I think he probably saw his execution as following through what God was wanting of him. His self-giving love inspired others to live that way.

I’m still not clear on why he was executed. The Romans felt threatened by him?

Probably, or by people getting excited.

And the Jews didn’t have much to do with it.

The Jews as a whole didn’t, no. But how much the high priest, Caiaphas did, is a nice question. I think he probably was helped by one of the inner group of 12 disciples to make the arrest possible away from the crowds. You’ve got a Roman occupying army with a very volatile people who think they shouldn’t be there. They’re always having to monitor the political situation and they’re relying on the local stooges—like the high priest, the aristocracy—to keep a lid on things. Hundreds of thousands of people come to Jerusalem at Passover, there’s a risk of riots. You can read all about it in Josephus’s history of the Jewish war. They would naturally be nervy and what St. John’s Gospel says Caiaphas thought—We need to get him removed otherwise we’ll be in trouble with the Romans—might actually be how it was. But clearly his crucifixion was a Roman decision and carried out by Romans. The idea that the Jews killed Jesus is a grotesque defamation.

You hear that people normally end up believing what their parents believe, so someone born in Syria is likely to be Muslim, Brits are likely to be Church of England. I’m Dutch so maybe it’s predictable I’ve come to think of myself as humanist. What I find interesting about Jesus is that there is much in this teaching that is attractive to a non-believer.

Yes, I agree. I thought you were going to say being Dutch you were Calvinist. I would say the Church of England has plenty of humanism in it and Jesus has a lot of humanism in his teaching. Thomas Jefferson’s Bible—which is the bits he liked—is generally good humanism. So, yes there has got to be common ground in terms of moral values between Christianity and a lot of other people. But, at the end of the day, it’s what you make of God that is the ultimate decider and what you make of God is also what you make of yourself and the world, at least if the believer is well-informed about what the tradition means.

So it’s not about the ethics.

That’s part of it, but it’s not the only part. And it’s ethics in a different context, and gets a different flavour, from being in a religious context. The sense of wonder is basic to religion, and, in that sense, a lot of humanists are probably more religious than they think. Ethics and philosophical ethics can be discussing moral principles without much sense of wonder about why there is a world at all. Ethics doesn’t have to be religious, but often ethics has been.

Your third choice of book is yet again by a German. Why are there so many Germans on your list?

It’s because I’ve gone for classics and up until quite recently the Germans have been the great pioneers.

How did that happen?

It was the 18th century Enlightenment. In France, it was often anti-religious, or anti-Catholic. In Germany, the Enlightenment was quite religious and quite Protestant and therefore German theology, like German philosophy, took on board the Enlightenment early on, and a big strand in German academic theology was infused with Enlightenment beliefs and values. In the early 18th century, English Deists were pioneers in criticism of the Bible and dogma, but in the 19th century all the leaders were German or German influenced. That remained roughly true till about 1970. With some exceptions, it’s only in the last 40 years that the Roman Catholics and Americans have made major contributions.

Were German theologians not in danger of getting into trouble?

Some did, but generally no. Unlike Roman Catholicism there was no mechanism for chucking you out if you were a Bible critic. The conservative side of the German church was hostile to Biblical criticism. But the German theological faculties in state universities had some independence while closely tied to the provincial churches. Theologians were able to follow the evidence as they saw it. They divided into different schools but the radicals were allowed to publish books and teach students who then became clergy. So the German church as a whole was open to Biblical criticism sooner than the Church of England.

To be a New Testament scholar do you need to read German? What other languages?

If you don’t read German, you miss out on a lot that hasn’t been translated which is very good. Greek is your starting point, because the New Testament is written in Greek. But the Old Testament is written mainly in Hebrew, so you’ve got to know Hebrew as well. Aramaic is tricky, because we don’t know all that much about 1st century Aramaic, and the experts sometimes disagree.

Aramaic being what Jesus himself spoke?

Yes, probably. Most people in Palestine at that time would be speaking Aramaic. Jesus may have understood some Greek, and he would have understood Hebrew. But it was the Hellenistic age, Greek was the lingua franca and a few miles from Nazareth there were Greek towns. So Jesus would have heard Greek spoken and a couple of his disciples have Greek names: Andrew and Philip. Latin, not so much: The Roman authorities would have spoken Greek as well as Latin.

OK, so this book number 3. It’s called The Shadow of the Galilean and it’s by Gerd Theissen. I’m in the middle of it, I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m completely hooked. I’m constantly flicking to the back to read what’s in the footnotes, which is a definite first for me for any book on anything.

I’ve chosen this book by a contemporary. I knew him even before he was a professor, when he was teaching in a school and writing this book. He’s the most creative Biblical scholar of my generation, so he had to be on this list. The particular book I’ve chosen is amazing. Jesus never appears, it’s just the shadow of the Galilean. It’s getting at the truth of Jesus through a novel. But it’s absolutely loaded with scholarship and theological reflection. Some of the scholarship you’ll see in the footnotes. But those who know what to look for will see layers of theological reflection in there as well. It’s a wonderful book that one can go back to, and read at different levels. It’s a book I put in everyone’s hand when I get the chance.

Tell me more about what it’s about.

It’s a short novel about someone made to spy on Jesus by the Roman authorities, to see whether he really is a danger to them. In the course of that, it says a lot about the Judaism of that period and of the political situation between the Romans and the Jews. Theissen also manages to feed in some of the apocalyptic, the nightmare stuff.

It’s the indirectness I like. Anyone who gives a direct portrait of Jesus is likely to be partly looking in the mirror. To try and get at him through an indirect method, of which this book is the clearest example, actually catches some things that a straight biography might miss. Everything Theissen writes is creative.

What might a biography miss?

Biographies vary, but they do try to give the meaning of the person. Where the meaning of the person is essentially religious, it’s very hard to describe directly. A picture of the outer history of Jesus doesn’t get at the inwardness of it all. Attending to someone else reflecting on him can get more of the inwardness of what is going on in Jesus, which Christians call God. Of the outward picture, a number of important facts are pretty clear. But even when all agree that a central theme was Jesus proclaiming the Kingdom of God, God ruling, God in charge, how Jesus understands that remains elusive. So I like to get different people’s perspectives on that and then make up my own mind. But you’ve got to be historically informed to do that responsibly. The thing about Gerd Theissen is that he’s a very good historian. He’s also a brilliant preacher. The book originated in a teacher entertaining the kids as well as informing them.

Is that why you haven’t yet written a book about Jesus, because it’s hard to write?

To write something really good, yes. Any New Testament scholar can write a book about Jesus, it goes with the turf. You wouldn’t be competent if you couldn’t. But to write a good book about Jesus is difficult. I’m still trying. I’ve always been interested in the history of the interpretation of the Bible as a way of getting at what it’s all about.

In a way, for me, reading these books you’ve chosen the other night, it felt like I was interacting with 2000 years of history.

That’s become a big industry now, the reception history of the Bible: what people have made of it. When I was a student in Germany we spent a lot of time on the history of the interpretation, but that tended to be what theologians thought about it. Now we’re saying, ‘Let’s see also what artists and novelists and musicians and poets have made of it.’ All that is part of the impact of Jesus, and the impact is as important as how it all began. But how it all began is a good way of checking which bits of the impact are authentic, and which bits aren’t.

Let’s talk about your fourth choice, Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah.

I put Raymond Brown in for two little reasons and one big reason. The little reasons are that it would be monstrous not to have a Roman Catholic, because there are now many good biblical scholars. I also needed to have an American, because in the last 40 years, Americans have been the most productive in writing about Jesus. I wish he’d been a woman because then I’d have a woman writer as well: I’m afraid these books are all by white males, and three of them are dead. But, more importantly, I wanted to include a commentary. The reason I wanted a commentary is that the four best books on Jesus are called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

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Of the hundreds of commentaries, I chose this one because it’s Christmas time, the story that’s told at the beginning of Matthew and Luke’s Gospel. This book is a commentary on those two chapters in Matthew and two chapters in Luke. Brown was an exegete. That means he’s trying to say what the texts are saying. He’s not so much saying, ‘We can’t know what happened: there’s hardly any history in the birth narratives,’ he’s trying to get at the meanings of the text. That’s the important thing.

Why is it important to include a commentary?

A commentary addresses the difficulties that a reader is likely to find in the biblical text, difficulties that are not only historical but also hermeneutical and to do with religious or theological meaning—what it’s all about. Some commentaries don’t give you very much on that, but Ray Brown does give quite a lot.

Just to clarify: he’s grappling with the fact that the stories of the birth of Jesus—which only appear in Matthew and Luke—are often ignored by theologians because they consider them silly in a post-Enlightenment age, with their exotic magi, a birth star, angelic messages and a Virgin birth. He writes, “The stories do not have the same historical value as the stories of Jesus’s Ministry.” But he still thinks they have enormous value doesn’t he?

There’s very little history in there, except that Jesus was born. Somewhere. And his mother was Mary. Not sure about his father, we don’t know. Joseph was presumably dead by the time Jesus was grown up, as he doesn’t appear. Nevertheless, these stories are fraught with both religious and deep theological meaning. They are important for that reason. Also, they’ve fed into the tradition in a lot of different ways. A lot of Christians have thought they were a straightforward matter of fact, which can’t be right, given the contradictions between Matthew and Luke. But they’re there in the creed, so they’re part of Christian doctrine, and therefore important to reflect on.

As a Catholic priest, Brown wants to say how these texts relate to Catholic doctrine, especially what Catholics believe about Mary. What actually happened, I don’t suppose he knows, but he’s very cautious and reverently agnostic about it. He isn’t wanting to be upset people by saying, ‘It’s a load of rubbish!’ He doesn’t think it is a load of rubbish. Nor do I.

Christmas is a huge part of the way people participate in Christianity!

That’s the Christmas story. How much of that depends on the historical reality? Except that Jesus was born and that Jesus was important. All the stuff—say the ox and ass in the stable—they’re not there in Matthew or Luke. It’s a detail taken from Isaiah. As is the crib.

Don’t tell me there was no ‘no room at the inn’…that’s in there isn’t it?

Yes, that’s in Luke. That’s the main Christmas story, in Luke, plus the wise ones, the Magi, in Matthew. That’s a nice story, because it has Jesus becoming a refugee.

He had to flee to Egypt?

According to Matthew’s account, they fled from Herod to Egypt. It’s important to me, when we think about refugees today, to remember that about Jesus. I doubt if it’s historically accurate, but Jesus did say, ‘Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ In my sermons over Christmas I’ll have that in mind. The Christmas story is vital, but not much of it is history, which doesn’t matter.

Brown is also focusing on the fact that the Christmas story has been put in there by Luke—and to some extent Matthew—for a reason, it was important to them, it signified their way of interpreting what had happened.

Exactly. So Matthew’s short birth narrative has a lot of quotations from the Old Testament. His main point is that all this happened to fulfill what the Old Testament prophets said was going to happen. It’s the story of Israel and the Messiah . . . and God. In Luke, which is a much longer one, he talks about John the Baptist’s birth as well as Jesus’s. He sees the spirit of God is at work in all this.

So you can have all these wondrous things happening…

Yes, Luke knew he wasn’t writing history. Luke wanted to write history when he wrote the Acts of the Apostles. It’s not a modern critical history, but it’s history of a sort. In the story of Jesus’s ministry and arrest and death there’s quite a lot of history too. But in the birth narrative Luke knows perfectly well that he is telling a story to bring out the real meaning, and he even does it in Biblical language. His style in chapters one and two is different from the rest of the Gospel, it’s echoing the style of the Greek translation of his Hebrew scriptures.

Brown mentions that the celebration of Jesus’s birth at Christmas dates from the 4th century.

Yes, nobody knows the date of Jesus’s birth. Around December 25th was already a Roman pagan festival, Saturnalia. The Greek church actually celebrates it more on January 6th. The western church plumped for December. I suppose because it was close to the solstice.

We’re now on to your final book, by British theologian Andrew Lincoln. The title is a question: Born of a Virgin?

Yes, it’s nice to have one Brit and a recent book — the most recent I’ve read on the subject. He’s one of our two best New Testament theologians in England. The reason I included it was the sheer theological seriousness of it. This is a heavyweight book of theology on a subject I wouldn’t have thought it was still possible to write a major treatise. He’s saying, ‘Here’s something which some Christians think is absurd to think happened. Others think it’s really important that it’s historically accurate—fundamentalists really do think that—so let’s try and understand both sides and see all the different layers of meaning.’ What matters is what it means, but to unpack that, you have to get at why some people think it’s important that it happened, and to get the two sides to able to talk to each other — so that you don’t have the absurd situation where some Christians are not talking to other Christians because they think the others have got it all wrong.

He could have written a commentary on this like the Ray Brown book, but actually to have a big theological reflection on it, including what the greatest 19th century theologian—there is a chapter on Schleiermacher, the founder of modern of theology in the book—made of it all, is an amazing achievement

How does he pull it off?

He says all the things an exegete is going to say by looking at the text. But he also explains how it’s been understood in the subsequent Christian tradition, ancient as well as modern. And a certain amount about what it means to be a Christian today, which is to be loyal to the tradition but also critical of it. If you’re an intelligent Christian you need to see how you understand the tradition and he makes it clear how he does. I find it persuasive, right across the board. It’s a little theological education in itself, this book: you understand what it means to be a New Testament theologian by seeing him reflecting on these texts.

He’s goes into the mystery of the Virgin Birth in a very practical way doesn’t he? He says there are three possibilities: 1. Joseph was the father, 2. God was the father, but that’s a problem given what we now know about DNA. 3. Jesus was illegitimate.

That’s just level one. Is it historical? Now, for those of us for whom it isn’t historical that’s just mentioned to be got out of the way. Questions of DNA or the biological issue are a total non-issue for us. But they might be for someone who thinks these things actually happened. Lincoln realizes that a lot of Christians still think it is historical, so you’ve got to engage with those questions, and give reasons why others think it’s not historical. That has to do with the kind of writing we’ve got here. It’s more a story than a history.

Then, going into what people have thought and why they’ve thought it. Joseph doesn’t appear in the rest of the gospels. There’s a reference to Jesus in Matthew as the son of the carpenter, but Mark’s earlier account says ‘Is not this the carpenter?’ Presumably Joseph had died. But whether or not Joseph or somebody else is the father—and there’s all sorts of guesswork, even somebody saying Mary was raped by a Roman solider and goodness knows what—Christians would still say he is the revelation of God. Or that he is the son of God, meaning the revelation of God. It’s not an either/or between son of Joseph or son of God.

I found it surprising, the way he was willing to go into it.

Lincoln is more generous towards conservative views than many, but he’s a critical theologian too. In the introduction, he mentions how he said what he believed when he’d applied for a job at a conservative institution once. They wrote back saying, ‘Don’t bother to turn up for your interview!’ He’s a very impressive man, and has written a great commentary on St John’s Gospel as well.

The authors of these books, starting with the Germans, were never scared where their critical investigations of Jesus’s life would lead them?

I don’t know but I think they strongly believed that, ‘God is truth.’ So they weren’t scared to use their heads. Also, Christianity is a religion of the person, rather than a religion of the book. It centers on the person of Jesus. That means that we can challenge even something that the New Testament—which bears witness to Jesus—says. The decisive thing for modern, rational people is that religion can be self-critical and in the last 300 years, and earlier with Erasmus and others, Christianity has been very good at being self-critical and self-reforming. That is exemplary for religion in a pluralist world.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

December 24, 2015

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Robert Morgan

Robert Morgan

Robert Morgan was Reader In New Testament theology at the University of Oxford and is vicar of Sandford-on-Thames. He has published books on Biblical Interpretation, The Epistle to the Romans and The Nature of New Testament Theology. He is also the author of many articles and has translated various essays from German classics.

Robert Morgan

Robert Morgan

Robert Morgan was Reader In New Testament theology at the University of Oxford and is vicar of Sandford-on-Thames. He has published books on Biblical Interpretation, The Epistle to the Romans and The Nature of New Testament Theology. He is also the author of many articles and has translated various essays from German classics.