Jesus

A Very Brief History

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Helen K. Bond
Very Brief Histories
  • London, England: 
    Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
    , March
     2018.
     128 pages.
     $14.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780281075997.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Helen Bond has written a short yet solid introduction to Jesus. Despite the fact that there is a staggering amount of material on Jesus, Jesus: A Very Brief History is an excellent and succinct presentation (78 pages of text) that gives the reader a complete overview of all the main points regarding the historical Jesus, and the continuing Jesus tradition in history. I would say that this is as good as “short introductions” can get, proof that Bond is a scholar who not only displays a profound mastery of the material, but is also a master-communicator. 

Divided into two parts: part 1 (chapters 1-5) deals with the “historical Jesus,” and part 2 (chapters 6-8) covers Jesus’s historical legacy. Chapter 1 asks whether Jesus really existed. Bond concludes that although Jesus was “a peasant from an insignificant part of the (Roman) Empire, we actually have surprisingly good evidence not only for his existence but for the course of his life and even the contents of his teaching” (8). 

In chapter 2, Bond gives an overview of Jesus’s context and early life. Chapters 3-5 go on to paint a broad picture of Jesus’s life, teaching, and ministry using Mark and Q as a basis (8). Jesus imagined that God would appear soon and “herald a time of cosmic judgement and world transformation” (16). His teaching can be called an “interim ethic” (17) in preparation for the eschaton. It called for repentance and radically reorienting life towards God through ethical behavior (17). Another noteworthy aspect was Jesus’s extraordinary powers to heal the sick and drive out unclean spirits. Historians have no way to verify these claims; what they can do is note that “people around Jesus seem to have thought he had amazing abilities” (19). The “message and miracle” of Jesus’s ministry were all geared to the proximate coming of God’s reign (20), which in effect meant Israel becoming whole again, and Rome swept away as God establishes his reign for ever. This carried a dangerously subversive character (21) which led to Jesus’s death.

Chapter 4 “Friends, enemies-–and a wife?” deals with several contemporary topics of interest and acts as an important qualifier for some commonly held notions. For example, “there is enough to suppose that the common assumption that Jesus’s family supported his mission is misplaced” (23). Instead, Jesus had an “extended family” that included his followers, and even women, one of which was Mary Magdalene (23). Bond segues to the suggestion that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and concludes that common arguments for this do not hold weight (24). Instead, Mary Magdalene acquires prominence in later gnostic gospels but, again, it is a mistake to assume that this reflects a historical possibility of Jesus and Mary Magdalene being married (25). Despite the popular perception first proposed by Pope Gregory the Great, there is no evidence to support the suggestion that Mary Magdalene was a repentant prostitute (26). The oft-reviled Pharisees also get a much-needed clarification: although they are characterized as hypocrites in the gospels, they were actually “well liked and respected by ordinary folk,” and Jesus had much in common with them (27).

Chapter 5 is an even-handed presentation of the crucial events that led to Jesus’s death. Noteworthy is the mention of pro-Roman elements in the passion narratives that seemingly betray the historical setting of the earliest Christians in which missionaries tried to minimize the role played by Rome in Jesus’s execution. Jesus, for Bond, should not be seen as the “first Christian,” given that his main concerns were the renewal of Israel, and the establishment of God’s reign, not a new faith (40).

Part 2 of the work deals with Jesus’s legacy, the paramount issue of which was the process by which this Jewish prophet came to be considered “Gentile God” (chapter 6). This is due to the fact that his followers were convinced that God had raised him from the dead. That resurrection “turned them from frightened disciples into bold missionaries willing to die for their faith” (45). Paul played a crucial role in this process. By putting “theological weight on the cross and resurrection and seeing them as the basis of human salvation and the start of a new age,” Paul virtually made the death and resurrection of Jesus eclipse other aspects of his life and made that the basis of Christian identity (47).

In time, the canonical gospels served as biographies for Christianity’s founding figure. Still later, other writings, such as those commonly considered to be gnostic in origin, had portrayals of Jesus that might well be considered “the product of pure curiosity” (54). It was at the pivotal church councils—particularly Nicaea and Chalcedon—that the mainstream Christian view of Jesus was formulated and, by the 5th century, Jesus was “understood within Greek philosophical concepts,” and was now “worshipped by his followers as God incarnate” (60).

In chapter 7, Bond deals with important aspects of how the legacy of Jesus continued in history—particularly in the areas of art, in the practice of pilgrimage, the reverence for relics, and the liturgical sacralization of time. Chapter 8 concludes with an enlightening treatment of Jesus’s legacy today as it is found in contemporary Christianity, in other religious traditions such as Islam and Judaism, in popular culture, and in increasingly secularized Western societies in which many people are, in effect, “cultural Christians.”

If I had my way, I would further underline the link between Jesus’s legacy in Christianity and “empire,” considering this fact explains a good deal why Jesus has had such an impact on history. That does not detract from the fact that, as it stands, I consider this “very brief history” one of the best and succinct treatments of the topic. I highly recommend it to beginning students or those who need an excellent summary of the most essential points about Jesus.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Julius-Kei Kato is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at King's University College, London, ON.

Date of Review: 
March 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Helen K. Bond is Professor of Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh.

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