Dear Sir / Ma’am:
I was interested to read in your edition of Thursday, January 21st an article by Dr. Daniel C. Peterson about a book by James R. Hutchinson engaging various aspects of so-called Historical Jesus research.
I was also interested to see that Peterson does not go much beyond the description of the book as found on Amazon; following it so closely that a link to Amazon would have saved column-inches and allowed Peterson to engage more robustly with the work itself. For instance, rather than superficially discrediting some aspects of Historical Jesus research as Peterson suggests, readers would have learned more of Hutchinson’s primary purposes.
Although Hutchinson has, in his own words, engaged his sources breezily (xxvii), his approach is not a drive-by debunking of HJ research in the single-minded pursuit of traditional ideas about Jesus. For example, Hutchinson writes that the presentation of Jesus as a deluded fanatic:
has been effectively refuted by the renowned historical Jesus scholars of the past twenty years—scholars such as N.T. Wright, John Dominic Crosson, Geza Vermes, Richard Horsley, Marcus Borg and many others (267).
As the names in that list imply, Hutchinson has worked through much of the last century’s more popular HJ research to present both contrary and supporting evidence for his own opinions – that Jesus “may have been a well-trained Jewish rabbi who had a very specific mission—a mission to save the human race from itself” (xxvii).
How well does Hutchinson’s work stand up? I cannot say that I recommend this book but some parts are both interesting and well-done. By way of a problematic example, Hutchinson’s work with Gnostic texts agrees with most that these works, rather than contributing to the historical knowledge of Jesus, are evidence that the world of early Christianity was a vibrant and diverse place. However, he goes on to write that “these alternative versions died out or were suppressed as the followers of Jesus came to recognize that the Jesus portrayed in the canonical Gospels, who fed the hungry and cured the blind was the Jesus who spoke to their hearts” (208). The reality is far more complicated.
On the other hand, I did enjoy many of Hutchinson’s points regarding the parables of Jesus. Quoting the work of Brian McLaren, he writes:
if you are part of this kingdom you won’t curse and damn the notorious sinners and scoundrels to hell; instead you’ll interact with them gently and kindly, refusing to judge, even inviting them to your parties and treating them as your neighbors—being less afraid of their polluting influence on you than you are hopeful of your possible healing and ennobling influence on them (179).
Just at the moment, I find myself thanking Peterson for reminding me of that last clause about not fearing pollution – there’s a good deal of room for McLaren’s thinking on this in the LDS world just now.
What else can be said about Hutchinson’s ideas? He is a four-source theory man with enough grounding in textual criticism to begin to explain to LDS readers why the KJV is unreliable and to help them move beyond typical threadbare harmonization of the Gospels. He also explains the challenges presented by penal substitution theories of the atonement, favoring himself the idea that Jesus died not as a human sacrifice, but because of his dedication to proclaiming the truth about God and his offer of reconciliation. For drawing the attention of LDS readers to a book that engages such under-examined notions, Peterson is also to be thanked.
Finally, should the Deseret News find itself in need of genuinely independent, insightful opinions on matters pertaining to study of the Bible, the twenty or so of us here at FPR are always happy to bring our expertise to bear in defense of truth, the faith, and furthering the kingdom.