John Dickson has an impressive CV. He was the Founding Director of the
Centre for Public Christianity. He has a degree in theology and a Ph.D. in
ancient history. An ordained Anglican minister, he was a Research Fellow of the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, and became a Visiting Academic in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford (2017-18), and teaches a course on the Historical Jesus for the Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney.
With such an impressive resume, a book on the historical basis for Jesus
should be an interesting read. Yet it is a disappointing book, on what should
be a fascinating topic. The structure is disjointed, and the focus just gets
lost. Dickson offers a potted history of historians’ approach to Jesus, and
then some observations, but the book does not offer any valuable insights.
Sometimes, his conclusions are suspect, particularly when he makes some highly flawed logical jumps. In comparing the Gospel of Mark with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he argues they contain similar phrasing about the last supper but were written independently. Dickson writes: “These two accounts of the Last Supper then, must be recognised as two independent mid-first century version of the same basic testimony about Jesus’s final meal.” Maybe so, but it is also possible that the Gospel of Mark and Paul’s letter drew from the same oral traditions in the new Christian community. It is also possible that both writers used the same source which is now lost.
A raft of questions also exists about the authenticity about these documents,. It is a matter of strong debate when were they written and by whom. Moreover, there is some suggestion, rightly or wrongly, that the two men knew each other. “And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, bringing with them John whose other name was Mark [Acts 12:25].” Even if incorrect, surely such arguments could be discussed, but they are not even considered. Dickson is certainly not critical enough of the views he expresses. Dickson’s conclusion that the two documents ” must be recognised,” is deeply suspect.
Dickson just pushes his case too hard, making a lot of clear jumps in logic.
The overall result is not convincing or even engaging. It is a tedious,
disorganised, repetitive, and heavy-handed book with little or no value. It is
so poorly organised that sections appear to be undergraduate notes. Dickson often talks down to readers and has the unfortunate habit of using italics when he wants to emphasise something significant. The books also contain irrelevant sections called ‘In a Nutshell,” in case we miss the italics.
In comparison, Reza Aslan’s Zealot combines scholarship and a
provocative argument about the true nature of Jesus Christ as a historical
figure. Even if you do not agree with his conclusions, Aslan provided an
extensive notes section with every critic of his work and a full bibliography.
Nothing of this nature is present in Dickson’s book. There was an interview
with Aslan on the conservative Fox News, where the interviewer asked why should a Muslim write about Jesus – arguing that someone from a different faith could not consider Jesus. Dickson also shared the disdain to Aslan’s work concluding in a review: “The Jesus depicted in Zealot is certainly a figment of the imagination of a professor of creative writing, but he is likely to do concrete damage to the public’s appreciation of a vast and worthwhile academic discipline. Aslan’s Jesus is giving history a bad name.” If Aslan gives history a bad name, then it is challenging exercise to place Dickson’s effort.
Curiously, the Fox News journalists comment might actually highlight
Dickson’s central problem. It might be that Dickson is simply too keen to prove the historical basis for Jesus, given his strong Christian faith. I have no problem with christian apologists, having read every word written by C. S. Lewis, but this is a book on history.
For those interested in the topic: Did Jesus Exist? The Historical
Argument for Jesus of Nazareth” by Bart D. Ehrman is a stronger and more
capable work. The papers in Chris Keith, and Anthony Le Donne, Jesus,
Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. London ; New York: published in
2012 provide different views to similar material.