Helen Bond Guides the Perplexed on the Historical Jesus (review)

Helen Bond

Over the Christmas break, I had a chance to read several books I have eagerly been waiting to dive into. One on the top of my list was Helen Bond’s The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (T & T Clark, 2012). This “Guide” series is aimed at introducing a certain topic to a wider audience unfamiliar with the history of study and the jargon that normally is understood in in-group scholarly conversation. Bond does an absolutely fantastic job discussing the study of the HJ in view of the intended audience.

The book (of about 170pp.) is divided into two parts: Background (chs. 1-2) and Snapshots of Jesus (chs. 3-13).  In the first section, Bond deals with the scholarly tools and approaches to the study of HJ. In the second part, she offers a kind of guided tour through the life of Jesus based on the Gospels, but especially with a view towards the material from the gospels that historians can feel some confidence as reflecting historical reality.

Now, that Bond is optimistic about the quest for the historical  Jesus does not mean she is naive regarding the pitfalls and limitations of historical inquiry. She recognizes its subjective nature and the complexities of working with the gospels as sources. However, in the end, she argues: “This does not meant that the search for the historical Jesus is bound to fail, only that we have to be extremely careful about the way in which we go about it” (3).

Chapter 1 (In Quest of the Historical Jesus): In this brief chapter, Bond takes the reader on a tour of the history of the HJ “quests.” She follows the normal divisions of Old Quest/No Quest/New Quest/Third Quest. I learned a few new things here. For example, regarding Bultmann and the “No Quest,” Bond points out that it is not the case that Bultmann took no interest in the HJ at all. In fact, Bultmann wrote a book on Jesus (Jesus and the Word) which attempted to outline his life and teaching from a historical perspective. However, he maintained the viewpoint that “faith could not be dependent on the shifting sands of historical enquiry” (Bond’s words about Bultmann, p. 14).

Bond also points out that during this so-called “No Quest” phase, there was still HJ study, but it tended to be pushing forward outside of Germany. She flags up, in particular, the work of Jewish scholars like Claude Montefiore and Joseph Klausner.

At the close of this chapter, Bond gives sustained attention to nine modern HJ scholars and their impacts: Geza Vermes, E.P. Sanders, Richard Horsley, J.D. Crossan, David Flusser, J.P. Meier, N.T. Wright, J.D.G. Dunn, and Dale Allison. I found this section invaluable and, when I teach on the HJ, I will undoubtedly turn to Bond here for her concise summaries of contributions.

Chapter 2 (Sources): Bond’s discussion of Biblical sources for the study of the HJ is rather standard, but I found most helpful here final remarks on the reliability of the Synoptic Gospels.

…modern study of memory has shown how unreliable and fragile human recollections can be, and how dependent it is on unconscious inferences and wider assumptions. Dunn is surely correct in arguing that it is unrealistic to expect to sweep away the faith perspective of the Gospels and uncover a different historical Jesus behind them. The Gospels reflect the impact Jesus made on his earliest followers, and to a large extent this impact is the historical Jesus, or as close as we are ever likely to get to him. While we may be able to disentangle some of the clearly later elements in the Gospels (post-Easter theology, pastoral concerns reflecting the later church and so on), we will never be able to present an uninterpreted Jesus, completely cut free from the hopes and dreams of those who followed him. The Synoptics, then, are an extremely good source for the life of Jesus, but we should not ask more of them than they can possibly give. (52)

In a nutshell, this is Bond’s perspective on working with the Synoptics:

…the actual words spoken by Jesus (even if they could be recovered) would not take us very far. In general, I shall assume that those who formulated the Gospel worked creatively with their traditions, that some sayings may have been originated within the church (perhaps under the inspiration of Christian prophets?), but that, in general, the Gospels are a broad indicator of the types of things Jesus’ earliest followers remembered him doing and saying…Although the words of Jesus will clearly play some role in what follows, my more immediate concern will be with the broader picture of what Jesus stood for, how he saw his role, and why he died on a Roman cross (53).

Chapter 3 (Historical Context): Nothing to add here. A good standard discussion.

Chapter 4 (The Birth of Jesus): On the subject of the “virginal conception” Bond points out that, while Matthew and Luke suggest that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus, “Large sections of the [NT] appear simply to assume that Jesus was the son of Joseph” [she talks through Paul, John, the genealogies]. Bond concludes: “The simplest way through the evidence is to go along with the assumption of the majority of the New Testament writers and to take it that Jesus was born quite naturally to his father Joseph. The story of the virginal conception, preserved by both Matthew and Luke, seems to have been an early attempt to show both that Jesus’ miraculous birth signalled from the start that he would be a great man, and also an attempt symbolically to underline his divine paternity” (70).

When it comes to the birth storied in Matthew and Luke, Bond sees so much theological symbolism in these narratives that she is persuaded that they were constructed to serve as “theological overtures to the rest of the works” (71).

Chapter 5 (Galillean Origins): In this chapter, Bond delves into the controversial subject of the social setting of Galilee in the first century. Was it more Jewish or more Hellenized? After a helpfully succinct summary of the debate, she concludes that “Galileans at the time of Jesus were thoroughly Jewish, that they shared the the Judean’s devotion both to the Law and the Jerusalem Temple, and that they embraced their southern neighbours’ hopes of future restoration…In all the ways that mattered, Galileans were Jewish” (75; her conclusions lining up with Sean Freyne).

What about Galilean economy? Again, the evidence is not crystal clear, but Bond believes that it points to a prosperous city “relatively at ease with its Jewish ruler” (p. 77).

Did the story really happen where Jesus chats up the Temple teachers when he was 12? Bond thinks not, since this kind of story appears so frequently in ancient literature (of a precocious lad, such as Josephus).

Was Jesus poor? Bond would feel comfortable classifying him as a peasant, his family “self-sufficient,” but never far from poverty.

Was Jesus able to read? Bond is skeptical, but allows a decent possibility that Jesus had very basic reading skills (especially for the purpose of studying Torah) (p. 79).

Chapter 6 (John the Baptist): Did John the Baptist really baptize Jesus? Bond allows the criterion of embarrassment to confirm this (85). In terms of chronology of John the Baptist’s ministry and that of Jesus, Bond favors the perspective of the Synoptics over John (going against the opinion of folks like Dunn, DM Smith, and Meier).

Chapter 7 (Jesus’ Messsage): Of course, in this chapter, Bond addresses Jesus’ preaching of the “Kingdom of God” which she explains as “God’s active reign over the human word” (89).

The Kingdom of God, then, is a shorthand way to describe what the world would be like if God were in control, and to symbolize his reign of justice, mercy and peace (89-90).

This reminds me of John Drane’s paraphase of the expression “Kingdom of God” – God’s way of doing things.

When it comes to the thrust of Jesus’ teaching, Bond follows the rather wide stream of scholarly opinion that detects a strong “apocalyptic dimension” in his messages (94).

Bond thinks the “Son of Man” self-designation of Jesus is historical and important to understand.

It stresses his shared humanity, but also his particularity (the Son of man), perhaps underlining his sense of having been chosen for a special purpose by God. (101)

Chapter 8 (Healer and Exorcist):  “That Jesus healed the sick and exorcized demons in a way that struck onlookers as miraculous is virtually certain” (102). But Bond adds: “Yet the stories themselves give no hint that Jesus got to know the people he healed, or that he made any attempt to understand their emotional, psychological or social problems” (108). Rather, his healings were probably meant to be indicators of the dawn of the new age as expected according to the Jewish Scriptures (see 108).

Chapter 9 (Family and Supporters): Did Jesus have female disciples? Probably, BUT: “Tempting as it might be to see Jesus as a ‘feminist’, the evidence cannot support such a claim. Women play a role in his movement not primarily because of Jesus’ radical social views but rather because Jewish society of the time allowed them to act in these ways” (p. 116). And, on the question of how scandalous it would have been for women to travel with Jesus, Bond thinks that it would not have appeared as progressive as some scholars suggest “particularly if the [women] were seen to oversee domestic arrangements” (117).

Chapter 10 (Opposition in Galilee?): Bond thinks it unlikely that the Pharisees were the driving force behind Jesus’ execution. That is, the idea that they plotted to kill him is an exaggeration and perhaps a vilification of the Pharisees. Bond thinks it likely they did not like Jesus, but “The Pharisees were not in a position to kill anyone, they had no reason to wish to do away with Jesus, and when he was eventually executed the people who handed him over to Rome were not the Pharisees but the chief priestly rulers” (130).

Chapter 11 (Jerusalem): “Jerusalem was both the most Jewish and the most Hellenistic city in Israel” (p. 135)

Did Jesus predict his own death? Bond is quite confident that the canonical Gospels offer predictions that seem to come from knowledge after the fact. However, she is quite open to seeing Jesus as aware of the direction he was going and the possible measures that could be taken by his opponents to stop him (145).

Chapter 12 (Trial and Execution): How historical are the trial scenes? “While the broad outline of events may be assumed to be historical, the details of the various interrogations owe much to the theological outlooks of the evangelists” (154).

Chapter 13 (Resurrection) Can this be studied historically? Bond is appropriately cautious, but she admits: “One of the strongest arguments for its historicity is its strangeness. As Wright notes, the account is remarkably free from the Scriptural allusions that permeate so much of the Passion narratives” (170).

While you cannot “prove” the resurrection historically, you cannot establish it as historical “fact,” what you can say is that it is likely that the disciples “found the grave disturbed and empty” (171). Also, she seems to be giving a hat-tip to N.T. Wright again by confessing: “The Christian claim [for the resurrection of Jesus] would have been a bold one, but it would have taken something of enormous magnitude to explain the sudden and unprecedented outpouring of devotion to Jesus among early Christians very soon after his death” (174).


I personally am undecided regarding what I think about the value and benefits of the ongoing study of the historical Jesus. Nevertheless, I highly value Bond’s very self-reflective “chastened” use of the standard authenticity criteria. One may disagree with her here and there on a given issue, but she has done her historical and archaeological homework, and she knows there are many hills on which she refuses to die! I found almost all of her conclusions reasonable, even though I tend to be a bit more maximalistic regarding authenticity.

I don’t say this often, but this book was just a “fun read.” It would work well for a course on Jesus where you want to dip into the “Quests” and you want to offer “snapshots” of life in Jesus’ time from a critical perspective. I think Helen Bond was the perfect person to write this guide-book combining eloquence, mastery of the subject, and concision.

Those who are a bit more advanced will find the notes up-to-date and extremely useful.

If I had to pick out some weaknesses in the book, I might say that I wished she would have talked more about what the HJ may have said about salvation and heaven. Also, I was a bit disappointed to see rare appeal to and discussion of the Gospel of John. While it was normal to leave John out of the conversation in the mid-1990’s, times have changed and thanks to folks like Richard Bauckham, Marianne Meye Thompson, Craig Blomberg, Craig Keener, and Paul N. Anderson, I think it behooves Jesus scholars today to give the last Gospel a good consideration as a source.

Neither of these criticisms do much to lower my high opinion of this guide-book and Bond’s outstanding mind. If she teaches like she writes, Edinburgh students are very fortunate. I have said this before and I will say it again, if you are interested in doing a PhD on the historical Jesus, you cannot ask for much better supervision than what Bond can offer.


4 thoughts on “Helen Bond Guides the Perplexed on the Historical Jesus (review)

  1. Thanks for this, NIjay. I purchased this book over Christmas and I am reading it right now. It’s an interesting read especially on the heels of having read Keith/LeDonne on the death of the criteria.

  2. Hi Chris. I will be giving a review of the Keith/Le Donne book soon and one of my thoughts is: “I wonder how Helen Bond would respond to this book.” I do hope she writes a review, either on a blog or a normal academic review. Her approach seems sensible. I wonder what Morna Hooker would say about Bond’s book! 🙂

  3. The (King) Jesus EmManuel of the gospels was actually King Izas Manu of Edessa.

    According to history, King Izas Manu was a Nazarene Jew who wore a ceremonial Crown of Thorns and fomented a revolt against the Romans in Judaea in the 1st century. But he lost this war and was crucified in the Kidron Valley, but was taken down from the cross by Josephus (Flavius) and survived.

    Sound familiar? it should do, because this was the real history that the gospels were based upon. See ‘Jesus, King of Edessa’.

    The “Gospel of King Jesus Trilogy” includes:

    “Cleopatra to Christ”

    “King Jesus”

    “Jesus, King of Edessa”

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