Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Dawn of Christianity by Robert J Hutchinson

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

Hutchinson proposes this book as a narrative account of Jesus' ministry and the first decades of the Christian movement. He claims to write as a Christian for Christians, but also as an unbiased seeker of truth. This is definitely a conservative perspective, although not militantly so - he gladly posits that Jesus probably didn't cleanse the temple twice, as a harmonized version of the gospels would indicate.

However, there are some basic problems with this approach - 1) it's a bit haphazard. In some areas the logic and argumentation is thorough and spotless (even if I don't always agree); in other areas the argumentation is beyond thin and poorly discussed.* 2) it's a bit cyclical. As a skeptic of the skeptics, Hutchinson is taking a pretty standard perspective on the historicity of the New Testament and puts more value than many on the New Testament witness - this requires a strong foundation of faith, essentially starting with an end point and giving the evidence as much benefit of the doubt as possible. This, in and of itself, is sound, but to then go and build a historical account of the same material using that faith-infused witness as foundation makes the process ever more dicey.

Finally, and this is the biggest issue we have using scripture as historical evidence, is that it leads us to shift the focus from the purpose of scripture - to tell us something about God - and makes it more about history. That might seem self-evident, but, if one is not careful, it ends up in a fundamentalism of both theology and history. I don't think Hutchinson arrives there (or anywhere close), but he uses the road, perhaps without enough caution.

I believe the New Testament is a valid historical witness, but we can never divorce that witness from the theological purpose of the text. If we begin to draw historical conclusions without the lens of genre and purpose we find ourselves in a very untenable position.

That being said, the book is really interesting. It does portend to take a critical-historical look at the timeline of Jesus' last days with an assumption that the gospels are fairly valid historical documents. Part of his plan seems to be to show, from archaeological evidence, that indeed scripture is more accurate to historical reality than often assumed. That case is made. However, there are many times when he uses a traditional perspective and, I'd argue, irresponsible attempts to harmonize the gospels (for example with the anointing of Jesus' feet and the timing of the Last Supper) that detract from this purpose.

It's almost as if there are dual purposes to The Dawn of Christianity - both to provide historical background, but also to affirm traditional understandings of history, sometimes regardless of their appropriateness based on evidence. I was often surprised, though, that Hutchinson presented many parts of the narrative that would shock the typical evangelical; his Jesus is very much human, planning events without the disciple's knowledge and working in very "human" ways to grow a movement strategically.

There are some biblical references Hutchinson obviously deems ahistorical and thus doesn't include (like Jesus re-attaching Malchus' ear at Gethsemane). At the same time, he presents historical and archaeological discovery in the same measure and voice as simple scriptural references, which ultimately makes this book useless to anyone but an expert. It's a great juxtaposition of the biblical narrative with outside information, but with no real division between the two, it lends itself to the grave error of taking scripture as historical narrative rather than just historic theology.

I'd say, if you're really interested in archaeology and history, it's got some great information wrapped in a convenient package, but if you're looking for a serious, critical address of the historicity of the Christian narrative, you'll find very little of value here. It's not that the book is bad; I think its gracious, thorough, and generally well done. I just don't see much practical use for it.

*For example, Hutchsinson compares the historical witness for the New Testament to the historical witness for the Battle of Thermopalae, specifically the 300 Spartans who held off the Persians - and this is an apt and well argued comparison - but he fails to mention that no historian worth their salt actually thinks the story of the 300 is anything but dramatic embellishment; it's not historically received in the same way he believes the New Testament should be. His defense of the possible historicity of John the Baptist's birth prediction is equally erratic.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

No comments: