Monday, 26 July 2010

John Dickson's, Jesus A Short Life


BOOK REVIEW :  Jesus : A Short Life, by John Dickson. 2008. A Lion Book, imprint of Lion Hudson, Wilkinson House, Jordan Hill Road, Oxford UK

Reviewed by Joan Durdin.

In recent years several popular books have made extravagant claims about the life of Jesus – often within the text of an otherwise ‘secular’ story. An example is The Da Vinci Code by novelist Dan Brown. It was widely read and made into a blockbuster film. John Dickson is critical of any books, whether by novelists, theologians or skeptics, presenting aspects of the life of Jesus that cannot stand the test of historical method.
 
Dickson is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University, Sydney. He claims that his book is not primarily a work of scholarship. He intended it to be an accessible and reliable re-presentation of what the leading historical experts say about Jesus. He has chosen to explore only what historical method can discover, and what the majority of scholars accept as probable. His sources are the gospels, parts of the epistles, and the writings of accepted historians in the years between 50 and 100 AD.

The chapters begin with ‘Vital Statistics’: When and where was Jesus born? Where did he grow up? And what do we know of his family and trade? What do we know of his ministry, his teaching, his last days? The content of chapters are indicated in their headings – ‘Mentor and competitors’; ‘Kingdom of Judgement and Love’ (the subject of one of Warren’s recent sermons); ‘Strange Circle of Friends’; Miracles, History and the Kingdom’; ‘Contra Jerusalem’; ‘Last Supper’; ‘Crucifixion’ and ‘Resurrection’.

I found this book easy to read. The author avoids academic language, and occasionally lightens the content with contemporary allusions. For example, ‘the historical Jesus proclaimed God’s coming judgement in a way that would give any modern fire and brimstone preacher a run for his money’ (p, 59) . On the question of the financial cost of Jesus’ three-year ministry in Palestine, he noted that some of the women among Jesus’ followers supported him out of their own means (Luke 8: 1-3), ‘not like modern missionary supporters who send money, by electronic transfer, from the comfort of their homes!’ (p 75)

Here and there throughout the text important points are highlighted in the margin, providing a summary of the content of each chapter. There are also copious illustrations in colour, which draw our attention to some of the sources which the author used, some of the works of art which add to our appreciation of the words of the gospels, and scenes in and near the modern Jerusalem which reveal details of its antiquity.

As one who enjoys reading both history and biography, I found Dickson’s book a lucid, engaging account of the life of Jesus, an account which confirms my Christian belief. I think that it could be used to advantage as the subject of group discussion. Participants could share their own questions and comments, and hopefully advance their own grasp of the essentials of Christian belief that come from a study of the life of Jesus. 

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