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Hugh J. Schonfield, Jesus: Man - Mystic - Messiah. London: Open Gate Press.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


I recall how my eighth grade Physics professor responded to my teen-age fundamentalist zeal by recommending Hugh J. Schonfield’s The Passover Plot. At that time I did not know that this was neither the first nor the last book the indefatigable Schonfield would have written on the subject of Jesus the Nazorean. All I knew then was that here was the voice of doubt. I recall how a fellow fideist warned me, “Don’t read that book—it’s poison!” That is, the book was inimical to a faith fortified with ignorance. Many years later, teaching a freshman New Testament course at Drew University, I assigned the book. It duly shocked many of the students, though by this time I recognized how essentially conservative was Schonfield’s treatment of the gospels and their historical value.

In the meantime I had read many more works by other scholars on the search for the Jesus of history, and I had come to espouse alternative theories, far to the left of Hugh Schonfield’s. And yet it was only after these many years, having read much of the scholarship Schonfield himself appealed to (e.g., the similarly underrated Robert Eisler) that I fully appreciated what vast and deep erudition Schonfield had brought to his task. Among his other books, According to the Hebrews, Those Incredible Christians, The Authentic New Testament, and The Essene Odyssey top my list, though I have to admit I love them all. The author was always able to dredge up some eye-popping piece of esoterica no other scholar had considered. I soon learned how little it mattered that the serious student agree with every point, even the main point, of a book. The thing is to find fresh food for thought and to encounter new perspectives not presented in the stale tomes of the orthodox and conventional.

Even in this, his last (and posthumously published) manuscript, Hugh Schonfield manages to stir the pot anew. Out came my underlining pen. Never looked at it that way before! And this is so, even though the book is his most basic one on Jesus. He devotes a succinct passage or two to the accuracy of the gospels, the principles to be employed in cutting away mythical accretions, and the great gulf that lies between the original Jewishness of Jesus and his gospel and the Gentile Christian reinterpretation of it. Schonfield’s work is rooted firmly in a particular generation of New Testament criticism, that of Rendel Harris, R.H. Strachan, R.H. Charles, and others. On the whole, his estimate of the gospels recalls that of Adolf Harnack: even after you subtract the legendary and Hellenistic distortions, you have enough left to reconstruct a striking historical figure. But when it comes to the teaching and mission of Jesus, Schonfield was much closer to Albert Schweitzer. Both rejected Harnack’s view that apocalyptic belief was merely window-dressing for an essentially moral message. Both Schweitzer and Schonfield, apparently independently, came to understand Jesus as a preacher of national renewal and restoration.

This is still a viable position held by many scholars. But one misses in this, as in many of Schonfield’s books, any discussion or even awareness, of whole generations of gospel scholarship. So much has happened in the field that one burns with curiosity to know how Schonfield’s own theories might have been affected had he taken seriously the work of other and more recent writers, including Bultmann, Bornkamm, Robert M. Fowler, G.A. Wells, and Burton L. Mack. Like Schonfield, G.A Wells has written many sequels to his original book on Jesus, but unlike Schonfield, each one is considerably updated, interacting with contemporary scholarship in general and his critics in particular. We are the poorer for Schonfield’s self-imposed isolation.

One surprising absence from this book, yet one that might make it a good one to recommend to the new reader of Schonfield, is the omission of any discussion of the notorious “Passover plot” itself. Schonfield had imbibed from the eighteenth-century Rationalists the notion that Jesus set about his messianic career with a detailed game plan, engineering “prophetic fulfillments” to establish his messianic credentials. This theory scandalized many orthodox readers, who were only too happy to misunderstand Schonfield. They supposed he was casting Jesus in the role of a charlatan and a hoaxer. Of course, Schonfield only meant that, if Jesus inferred aspects of the messianic role from his study of scripture, he cannot have helped marching forward into his appointed destiny, intentionally seeking and taking the opportunities he found to fulfill scripture. How is the orthodox view much different? Do they think Jesus only accidentally fulfilled prophecy?

Of course, the major point of objection is another bit of Schonfield’s debt to the old Protestant Rationalism, his near embrace of the Swoon Theory. Schonfield posited that Jesus sought to be crucified and to cheat death, appearing alive again after a rescue from the cross. In fact, it is not uncommon to read that Schonfield simply subscribed to the Swoon Theory pure and simple. He did not. He admitted Jesus died, killed by the unanticipated spear thrust of the soldier (John 19:34). The resurrection appearances were cases of mistaken identity, a theory based on the repeated emphasis in the texts (Luke 24:16; John 20:14; Mark 16:12) that the Risen Jesus was at first unrecognized.

But of all this Jesus: Man – Mystic – Messiah is innocent, as if Schonfield was tired of fighting that battle. But the omission also makes it clear that, for Schonfield, these elements were never central to his consideration of Jesus anyway. His goal was to delineate a Jewish prophet dedicated to the renewal of his people and to their leavening influence on the rest of humanity. This last book focuses on what Schonfield always thought most significant about Jesus, his dedication to the will of God, not some clever agenda of scheming and manipulation.

No reader of this book can fail to notice the remarkable parallel between Hugh Schonfield’s own religious explorations and those he hypothesizes for Jesus. Schonfield recalls how his interest in the historical Jesus was kindled by his early acquaintance with Christians (first Christadelphian sectarians, then evangelical revivalists) during the apocalyptic days of World War One. The world was exploding around him, pregnant with both new and unimagined dangers and possibilities. These factors pushed him into studying the apocalyptic inheritance of his native Judaism as well as an inquiry into a Man whom Christians but not Jews venerated as the Jewish Messiah. We have a sense of deja vue when Schonfield describes Jesus as a youth soaking up the influences of the apocalyptic movement and earth-shaking events of his own century. Has Schonfield, like so many historical Jesus questers, merely remade Jesus in his own image? Or has he rather followed the principle of analogy so absolutely central to historical research: understanding the past on analogy with present experience? Do we end up with a Jesus modeled after Schonfield, or a Schonfield modeled after Jesus? There is much to learn either way.



Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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