The study of the historical Jesus is a complex enterprise—especially for college (or even seminary) students who are learning about it for the first time.It doesn't take long before students can be lost in a forest of German names, ancient historical sources, and higher-critical theories. Therefore, professors are always on the lookout for tools that may help students learn the necessary information while also holding their attention and piquing their curiosity. The recent book by Bruce Fisk, A Hitchhiker's Guide to Jesus, may just be one of those tools. Rather than taking the standard pedagogical approach, Fisk creates a fictional character, Norm Adams, who is on a quest to discover the truth about the historical Jesus. Norm is a recent college graduate who is going through "theological puberty" (p. 11) and journeys to the Holy Land to find the answers to all his questions. The book follows the travels of Norm as he encounters the key geographical and historical sites of Israel and explores how they match with what he reads about Jesus in the gospel accounts. Along the way, Norm interacts with a variety of characters (even his old college professor) that present new ideas and challenge his thinking.In short, the book is a fictional account of one person's theological discovery.
Despite the fictional framework for the book, Fisk finds a way to introduce the reader to all the standard issues in the quest for the historical Jesus and the study of the Gospels. In chapter 1, our character Norm learns about the key German "questers"—from Reimarus to Schweitzer—and also explores some of the earliest historical testimony about Jesus (Pliny, Josephus, Tacitus). Chapter 2 focuses primarily on John the Baptist, his historical relationship to Jesus, and possible connections to Qumran. Chapter 3 focuses on the historicity of the birth narratives in the canonical gospels and whether they can be trusted.Particular attention is given to the issue of the virgin birth and its parallels with pagan birth narratives. Chapter 4 dives into the issue of miracles, particularly Jesus' healing miracles and how those compare to other ancient figures who were known for healing (e.g., Appolonius of Tyana, Honi). Chapter 5 introducesus to the Kingdom of God theme and Jesus' own expectations about his second coming. Chapter 6 is about the historicity of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple, and the betrayal of Judas. Naturally, the seventh and final chapter engages the issue of the historicity of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
There are several strengths of this book worth noting: (1) The storyline is creative and interesting (and even entertaining!); no doubt the average student will connect well with the casual and conversational style. (2) The book helpfully juxtaposes the geography of modern-day Palestine and the ancient world in which Jesus lived. The "back and forth" between the modern and the ancient proves to be an effective story-telling device (not to mention a helpful lesson on the geography of Israel). (3) The book is chocked full of interesting graphs, charts, pictures, and notes. Many of these visual aids are used to expose the reader to primary historical sources or to compare passages of Scripture side by side. (4) The difficult questions related to the historicity of the Gospels and the quest for the historical Jesus are not sidestepped but addressed head on. Fisk is not afraid to tackle controversial topics and helps the reader recognize that some issues related to the historical Jesus are complex and difficult to resolve.
That said, there is still a broad area of concern about the approach of this volume. While Fisk is quite willing to engage with the critical challenges presented to the historicity of the Gospels (as noted above), his answers to those challenges are not as forthcoming. To be sure, answers are given to some critical challenges (e.g., Fisk provides some helpful counterpoints about the claim that Luke 2:2 is mistaken about Quirinius' census). However, as a whole, Fisk is quite content to leave the reader with more questions than answers. As one reads the volume, it becomes increasingly clear that a prominent thread throughout every chapter is that uncertainty is unavoidable in the quest for the historical Jesus. Thus, by the end of the volume, Norm is willing to give up his quest for certainty: "My need for certitude . . . loosened over time as I came to accept that we never see with clarity but always through the glass" (p. 257). Again, Norm says, "Even my best work left many questions unresolved, not least of which concerned Jesus' understanding of himself, his death, and the things to come. If Jesus is indeed on this side of the tomb, so too are the persistent questions and lingering uncertainties" (p. 266).
Of course, we can agree with Fisk that some things regarding Jesus and the Gospels are complex, confusing, and "uncertain." Not all parts of Scripture are equally clear. Moreover, one can appreciate that Fisk refuses to give the reader pat answers to every question and to wrap up all difficulties in a clean package with a bow on top. However, the things that Norm remains uncertain about are not minor issues. As the above quote makes clear, Norm remains uncertain about matters such as Jesus' own self-identity and the purpose of his death. For this reason, it is difficult to avoid the impression that A Hitchhiker's Guide to Jesus is not designed merely to introduce the reader to the quest for the historical Jesus but also to make it clear that the quest cannot be finally resolved. Thus, there is a bit of a postmodern feel to this book.In essence, the reader is told that questions are more important than answers.It is the journey that matters, not the destination.
The book's refusal to reach any solid conclusions is most aptly seen when it comes to its approach to the truthfulness of the Gospel accounts. While denying that the Gospels are fiction, Fisk seems quite willing to acknowledge that there are unhistorical "embellishments" in these accounts. Indeed, towards the end of the book, Norm reflects on how his approach to the Gospels accounts has changed: "That was then, when my world was tidy. Back then answers were more interesting than questions. . . . I now understood that every historical account is someone's, that every story has a teller, and that ancient storytellers, like modern preachers, rarely announce when they slide from history into explanation into embellishment. Remembered history, like Dylan's harmonica, always bends, but the bent notes can convey just as much truth, sometimes more" (pp. 249-50). It is here that the postmodern approach to the book comes out vividly. Norm looks back to his former ways of thinking and sees them as naïve; he now realizes that the Gospels, like any historical account, must have biases. However, Norm tries to retain some sense of authority in these books by declaring "bent notes convey just as much truth."
The book's commitment to uncertainty (which is a bit of an oxymoron) is quite unfortunate because it really is a wonderful book in many other ways. As noted above, A Hitchhiker's Guide to Jesus is well-written, creative, informative, and engaging. And it superbly introduces students to the key issues in historical Jesus studies. It would have been especially refreshing if it had been willing to affirm that, even in the midst of uncertainty about some things, there are core historical truths about Jesus that can be known and relied upon. When it comes to the average college student today, that is the message they really need to hear.