Tuesday, 30 January 2018

[Book Review] Ian Jones, Joshua, The Man They Called Jesus (1999).

Review: Ian Jones, Joshua, The Man They Called Jesus (Lothian Books: Melbourne, 1999).

Well played, Vinnies.  Well played.  I went to your op shop in Shepparton in November last year.  You charged me $3.00 for this book.  You got the best of the deal.

Joshua, The Man They Called Jesus is an attempt to write a secular biography of Jesus of Nazareth.  This is an interesting notion, but it requires an adept and perceptive historian.  Jones is neither.  He is an amateur historian whose 'expertise' was developed in writing about the Australian Light Horse of the Great War and about nineteenth-century criminal Ned Kelly.  These are undemanding topics beloved of Australia's amateur historians: the historical record is fairly limited, almost entirely in English, and the audience easily satisfied.  Unfortunately, this means that he is utterly out of his depth in writing about biblical history and theology.

The book starts from the assumption that the life of one "Joshua" has been distorted by 'the church' to make him the Jesus revered by Christians as the literal Son of God.  Making this his starting assumption seems to have resulted in him not consulting any theological works.  Unsurprisingly, he then can't make a lot of sense of much of the Gospels (or much of the rest of the New Testament).  He attempts to cut through the resulting intellectual maze by taking a crude "true or false" approach to the Gospels in which only one description of events can be correct (e.g. p.266).  This is of course an absurd approach which no competent historian would take to any historical event (for example, would anyone writing about Australia's Federation debates insist that Edmund Barton's recollections must be disregarded entirely if they differ from that of Alfred Deakin?).  The other technique for shoe-horning the evidence into his predetermined pattern is by building assumption on assumption.  For instance, he makes no attempt to engage with the vexed question of whether Jesus of Nazareth had brothers.  He simply assumes that they were, and then builds a chain of further assumptions that they were also His disciples (p.48).  Any problems this approach creates are explained away with the speculation that the Gospels have been mistranslated or doctored.

This unconvincing body of argument isn't helped by being clad in simple errors.  A hypothesised 'pre-Gospel' text is said to be "codenamed Q" (p.2).  Naturally, this isn't a codename, but a scholarly shorthand for the German Quelle (source).  Other errors are simply bizarre: for example, Jones' belief that astrology - foretelling the future from the stars - is a scholarly discipline and a serious support for his arguments (p.12), or the claim that Gospellers Mark and Luke were Gentiles (p.259).  Even an undergraduate would know better than to claim his argument is supported by "respected scholars" without identifying them.

It will come as no surprise that Jones has a "profound disrespect for the forces that have distorted" the life of Jesus (on the dustjacket notes).  He seems to identify these forces as "the Church" without once identifying what he means.  Which church?  Catholic?  Orthodox?  Mormon?  Probably the Catholic Church, given that he accepts the crude equation of the Virgin Mary with a type of goddess, an argument memorably made by infamous anti-Catholic bigot Alexander Hislop.  In any case, it is clear he has avoided learning anything that the churches could have explained to him.  For instance, he claims that "Christians protest that their Jesus is speaking symbolically" with regard to eating His flesh and drinking His blood (pp.159-160).  This would no doubt come as a surprise to Catholics and Lutherans and other denominations which accept the Real Presence.  He also has trouble making sense of the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, apparently believing that the 'Jesus of faith' should have been happy to go to his death (pp.218-9), suggesting he doesn't understand the full humanity of Christ (a basic grounding in theology would have been invaluable).

The most grievous theological balls-up comes when he describes as "appalling" the idea that Jesus/Joshua "should serve as a human sacrifice to atone for the sins of mankind", stating that "no Christian with any love and respect for God ... could imagine such a thing" (p.194). This failure to understand the most fundamental point of Christianity is inexcusable, and should have served as grounds for the publisher to reject the manuscript. When you're shown even less understanding of your subject matter than a Jack Chick cartoon, you've blown all of your credibility.

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