Jesus: A Question of Identity: A Review

JESUS: A QUESTION OF IDENTITY. By J. L. Houlden. London/New York: Continuum, 2006. Pp. vii + 136. $19.95, ISBN: 9780826489418.


At a time when the print run of new books seems to expire almost while the ink is still drying on the copies as they first arrive on the shelf, any volume that is still being republished fourteen years after its initial appearance probably ought to deservedly attract our attention.


In this primer, which grew out of lectures given at King’s College, University of London, J. Leslie Houlden, Emeritus Professor of Theology at King’s College, cogently interweaves together history, biblical studies, theology and apologetics in an effort to explore what we can know about Jesus. While not shying away from some of the perennial ‘problems’ and tensions involved in such a quest, Houlden, with eloquence, humility and non-technical style, invites his readers to engage seriously with the question of Jesus’ identity, not only as a Galilean carpenter’s son, but as God’s; as not merely the object of cool enquiry but as the subject and centre of living faith. He asks: ‘What are we now to make of Jesus, both as a historical figure and as involved with belief?’ (pp. 8–9).


Houlden is acutely aware that with the history of Jesus, both as recorded in the centuries following his death, and its subsequent developments, we have to do with interpreted history. ‘In this sense’, he writes, ‘theology takes precedence over history in the Christian story’ (p. 11). ‘The Gospels’, he contends, ‘are slanted. They were not written to answer our modern questions, about the order of events, causality and psychological awareness, but to commend faith’ (pp. 42–3). That is why Houlden turns first to Paul, and then the Gospels, while properly steering clear of driving any wedge between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. He is well aware throughout the essay that the modern ‘quest for a neutral view of Jesus and of Christian origins, one fully and solely evidenced from “the facts” (for example, from the Jewish context of his life), is a chimera’ (p. 124). He characterises the historians’ task thus:


The historian’s assessment has to steer a careful course: between seeing Jesus as so distinctive that he makes no sense in the context of his times and seeing him as so ordinary, so thoroughly part of his background, that the massive and speedy effects of his life become incomprehensible. Two extremes are unlikely: on the one hand, that our accounts of Jesus are wholly shaped by faith and that in reality he was nothing very remarkable; and on the other hand, that the accounts owe nothing to faith and that all happened and was said exactly as told. What is hard is to know at what point between the extremes truth lies. (pp. 53–4)


Tracing the story of Jesus – and the ‘vast yet specific tradition’ (p. 111) that pertains to him – as interpreted from the first century through to the early ecumenical councils, from Pliny and Ignatius of Antioch to Aberlard and Julian of Norwich, from John of the Cross and Aquinas to Schleiermacher and Schweitzer, from Reimarus and Strauss to Hengel and Sanders, from Kant, Tillich and Cupitt to Bonhoeffer, Barth and Moltmann, Houlden offers us a portrait of Jesus impressed with the wrestle marks of the Christian community.


But, as Houlden insists, no matter which of the many different postures about Jesus one adopts, in order to be ‘meaningful’, Jesus cannot be coolly and disengagedly observed from a distance: ‘Jesus must be (at least) my saviour: in that sense subjectivity has to be part of the picture. We are concerned with a religion, at whose heart he stands, not in the first instance a theory, which must be consistent if it is to be satisfactory’ (p. 113).


Houlden possesses a gift all too rare among Christian theologians and biblical scholars – the ability to harness the breadth of the church’s thinking regarding its Lord and communicate it in a way that is palatable, uncondescending and clear to a readership still finding its footing both inside and outside of the church and the academy. While some readers may wish to question some of Houlden’s presuppositions regarding the dating of divine recognition among Jesus’ first disciples, for example, and not all will follow all of Houlden’s theological conclusions, or perhaps even the route taken itself, his essay remains both informed and constructive, suitably identifies many of the important issues at stake, avoids most of the usual pitfalls, and provides us with some direction for how we might proceed. To this end, the volume includes – in addition to an index – a helpful list of suggestions for further reading linked with each chapter.


While Houlden’s opuscule is intended for the enquiring lay person – both ‘sceptics and enthusiastic believers’ (p. 118) – who wishes to ‘understand more about Jesus as a historical figure and as the object of devotion and faith’ (p. vii), it will not fail to educate and inform those more conversant with the technical issues at stake not only in the life and ministry of Jesus but also how that life and ministry touches our life and that of our multi-faith world. A commendable contribution to an ever-growing library of Jesus studies.


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