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The Real Historical Jesus

January 27, 2010 

A review of Is Jesus the Only Savior? by James R. Edwards (Eerdmans, 2005).

By: Louis Markos

Studies have shown that Christian youth are just as likely as their secular, non-believing peers to agree with the statement, “everything is relative.”  They may have a deep relationship with Christ and a clear understanding of the basic tenets of Christian orthodoxy, and yet believe simultaneously (and without feeling any cognitive dissonance) that Christ is but one of many paths to God.  The situation is often the same when we move from the youth to their parents.  James R. Edwards, professor of biblical languages and literature at Whitmore College (Spokane, WA) and an ordained Presbyterian minister, has written just the right book to speak to those in the Church who find it hard, if not impossible, to reconcile their faith in one who claimed to be the Only-Begotten Son of God with their often unconscious cultural commitment to relativism, pluralism, and multiculturalism.  He has also written a book that will speak to skeptics and seekers who are drawn to Christ but who feel that they cannot, in this day and age, embrace a Savior (or at least a Church) who claims to be the exclusive mediator between God and man.

Edwards begins Is Jesus the Only Savior? just where he should: at that point in Western history when the supernatural and universal claims of Christ and the Church first came under serious and sustained scrutiny.  That point, of course, is the 18th century Enlightenment, when biblical scholars began their quest for the “historical Jesus.”  Edwards takes us carefully through three distinct phases of this quest.  In Quest I, Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Jefferson sheared Jesus of the miraculous and presented him as a moralist.  Quest II, while retaining a Jesus shorn of miracles, preferred to see the carpenter from Nazareth as a modern existentialist.  During this second phase, which extends well into the twentieth century, scholars like Rudolph Bultmann sought to demythologize the Gospels by removing them from their historical setting and reading them in a more abstract way.  Quest III, best summed up by the media savvy Jesus Seminar, returned Jesus to his original historical setting, but cast doubt on the authenticity of the sayings attributed to him in the Gospels.  A more eclectic group than those who partook in the first two quests, the members of the Jesus Seminar (most notably, John Dominic Crossan) promise to free us from a church-invented Christ. And what they offer in its place is a Jesus that is surprisingly like themselves.

Interestingly, what Edwards traces in Chapters 1 and 2 of his book, lines up perfectly with a passage from C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters (incidentally, written many years before Quest III and the Jesus Seminar).  In instructing his nephew in the demonic arts of temptation, senior tempter Screwtape offers the following advice in Letter XXIII:

You will find a good many Christian-political writers think that Christianity began going wrong, and departing from the doctrine of its Founder, at a very early stage.  Now, this idea must be used by us to encourage once again the conception of a “historical Jesus” to be found by clearing away later “accretions and perversions” and then to be contrasted with the whole Christian tradition.  In the last generation we promoted the construction of . . . a “historical Jesus” on liberal and humanitarian lines; we are now putting forward a new “historical Jesus” on Marxian, catastrophic, and revolutionary lines.  The advantage of these constructions, which we intend to change every thirty years or so, are manifold.  In the first place they all tend to direct men’s devotion to something which does not exist, for each “historical Jesus” is unhistorical.  The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new “historical Jesus” therefore has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another, and by that sort of guessing (brilliant is the adjective we teach humans to apply to it) on which no one would risk ten shillings in ordinary life, but which is enough to produce a crop of new Napoleons, new Shakespeares, and new Swifts in every publisher’s autumn list.

Though Edwards is, of course, less bitingly satiric than Lewis, he is equally adept at uncovering and critiquing the assumptions that underlie the various phases of the quest for the historical Jesus.  In fact, in Chapters 3-6, he answers these assumptions (especially those of the Jesus Seminar), by marshaling the recent work of such scholars as John Meier, N. T. Wright, Ben Witherington III, and Luke Timothy Johnson: all of whom have argued forcefully that the Jesus of the Gospels accords well with what we know and are continually learning about first century Palestine. Edwards also surveys past and present scholarship to show both the high degree of reliability of the New Testament documents and of the uniqueness of Jesus’ claims to divinity.  Far from being an invention of later Church Fathers and Councils, the central doctrines of the biblical writers (Incarnation, Resurrection, Atonement, etc.) all appear early and in a form distinctive from both contemporaneous Judaism and paganism.

Here, and in all his chapters, Edwards writes in a concise and lucid style, carefully defining his terminology so that the lay reader with no biblical training will nevertheless be able to follow his argument.  Though thoroughly informed by modern scholarship, his book never becomes overly technical and resists bogging itself down with an abundance of notes.  In fact, Edwards strikes just the right balance between judiciously-chosen quotes from cutting edge scholars on all sides of the debate and pastoral, even homey illustrations to clarify his points.  Indeed, Edwards invites the reader to join him as he attempts to determine what Christ himself taught and how those beliefs impacted the first generation of believers.

Were he to stop here, Edwards would have already provided us with a useful book; but he is only halfway done.  In the second half (Chapters 7-12), Edwards musters up to some of the more difficult questions raised by our modern and postmodern culture: Can Jesus’ exclusivist claims still be taken seriously in a pluralistic society? Does the moral relativism of our day render irrelevant the Christian teaching that Jesus saves us from our sins? In a world of many and diverse religions, is Christianity not a hindrance to global understanding and peace?  To answer these difficult and pressing questions, Edwards reminds us again and again that Christianity was born and came of age, not in the midst of a monolithic culture, but in a society as radically pluralistic as our own.  Just as in our own day, first century believers had a host of religions, truths, and moralities from which they could choose.


The early Christians were well aware that their religion was not only distinctive from the Mosaic Law but that it was incompatible both with the public, universalizing cult of the Caesars as well as the more personal, intimate mystery religions practiced in secret by numerous cultic groups. Though there were strong contemporary forces that should have dissuaded them, the early Christians continued to preach – in the face of ridicule, persecution, and martyrdom – the reality of sin and the absolute need for grace, as well as the universal, cross-cultural truth of their “metanarrative” of creation, fall, and redemption. As an illustrative aside Edwards may have also mentioned the  cross-cultural reach of the gospel by referencing the recent and tremendous growth of Christianity in Africa and South America, and the missionary zeal of local Christians in China and South Korea. However, he does lay forth a sound, biblical foundation for a global and expanding Church that respects other cultures and religions while still insisting, boldly and unapologetically, on the unique and saving power of Jesus Christ.

There is, to my mind at least, only one sour note in the book, and that is Edwards’ exclusive use of gender-neutral language, which includes his decision to quote from the gender-inclusive NRSV and to avoid using the masculine pronoun when referring to God. Of course, in doing so, Edwards is merely marching in lockstep with most of his peers in academia and the seminaries. Here, however, his use of trendy, politically correct language flies in the face of what he is trying to resist in our culture. He himself reveals how the various quests for the “historical” Jesus have ventriloquized Christ and the Gospels; yet, he quotes from a Bible translation that consciously and systematically forces Jesus to speak a neutered language favored by an elite minority. These academics and seminarians have used their position to enforce their agenda on two generations of faculty, students, and parishioners.  He claims (correctly) that “in the final analysis our insistence on the essential unity of different religions is not based on comparative data but on the desire that they be alike” (205); yet, he allows himself to be ventriloquized by a type of language that arises, ultimately, from a desire for a type of androgyny (i.e., “desire that they be alike”) that violates the very nature of our essentially gendered selves. Considering Edwards is refreshingly and courageously critical about the excesses of Western pluralism, it is a shame he could not have extended this critical approach to an inclusivist agenda so widespread that academics have forgotten that it is an agenda and not, as many would claim, a natural outgrowth of social and linguistic evolution.

Apart from this extended caveat, Is Jesus the Only Savior? is a richly researched and argued book that should prove invaluable to those with a passion for apologetics, informative to those who want a more balanced and objective approach to the claims made by (and about) Jesus, and challenging to those who would label themselves seekers or agnostics.

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Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. He is author of From Achilles to Christ, Lewis Agonistes, and Pressing Forward: Tennyson and the Victorian Age. His personal website is: www.Loumarkos.com.

We recommend by Louis Markos: From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (InterVarsity Press, 2007).

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