Book Review – “Searching for Jesus” by Robert J. Hutchinson

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As a lay apologist, I am always interested in reading on various aspects related to Christian evidence.  The various “quests” for the historical Jesus are just one aspect that I enjoy reading about.  I saw a new book on the issue, and immediately requested one from Thomas Nelson publishers (through Book Look Bloggers) to read and review.

Searching for Jesus by Robert J. Hutchinson is a very detailed read.  The text is 275 pages, not including the acknowledgements, selected bibliography, notes, index, or “About the Author” page.  The notes are extensive, adding up to 41 pages. The total page count is 350 pages.

The book is interesting.  The main thrust of the book is to show how (to borrow some phrases from the subtitle) “new discoveries in the quest for Jesus of Nazereth” mainly “confirm the gospel accounts.”  The book takes as its main task to argue that “many of the ‘scientific’ or scholarly ideas about Jesus paraded in the media every Christmas and Easter are increasingly obsolete, based on assumptions, theories, and unproven hypotheses that are, in some cases, more than a century old and which have been superseded by more recent research” (p. xvi, emphasis in original).  Rather, Hutchinson argues, “new discoveries are causing some experts to wonder if the basic portraits of Jesus in the Gospels is far more plausible than the elaborate reconstructions created by academic skeptics over the past 150 years” (p. xvii, emphasis in original).

Throughout the book, the author tackles the most prominent issues surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, examining the evidence to try to see what it shows us and what the best view of Jesus is based on that evidence.  Chapter 1 tackles the question on whether or not the gospels contain eyewitness testimony.  Chapter 2 looks at the arguments that the Jesus we have come to know is primarily based on legendary material and developments rather than historical facts.  Chapter 3 asks whether the gospels are forgeries that have a late date or whether they actually date earlier than previously thought.  Chapter 4 looks at archaeological finds relating to Jesus and the New Testament.  Chapter 5 asks whether the idea of the Messiah as someone who would suffer was invented by the Church, or whether it dates back to Judaism itself.  Chapter 6 examines the Jewishness of Jesus.  Chapter 7 looks into whether or not the gnostic views of Jesus are accurate.  Chapter 8 asks if Jesus was a revolutionary in line with the Zealots, or whether His revolution was something entirely different.  Chapter 9 examines ideas from the Gospel of Judas, specifically whether the view that Jesus planned His own death is accurate or not.  Chapter 10 examines what proof we have of the resurrection, and what it meant for Jesus to be resurrected.  Chapter 11 looks at how early in the history of Christianity the idea developed that Jesus was divine.  Because he covers so many topics, he cannot dig as deep as could be done into any of them, but he does a great job of giving a broad overview of the issues from multiple perspectives, ultimately arguing in favor of what the gospels seem to say.

Throughout the book, Hutchinson lays out all the various perspectives related to the issues above.  He doesn’t merely argue for the conservative, orthodox views.  He also clearly (and fairly) explains multiple views that would traditionally be considered liberal and skeptical.

Which leads me to the concern I have with the book.  As it is published by Thomas Nelson, I honestly think I went into the book expecting something more traditional and conservative.  In reality, the book, while mainly conservative, tends to be more open to liberal arguments than what I am used to reading.  From what I can tell, nothing on the back of the book or inside flap led me to believe that the book would be written that way.  An endorsement from N. T. Wright on the back says that “[q]uestions remain,” but it never mentions what kinds of questions or how many we should expect.  The inside flap does say the book is “Written for skeptics and believers alike,” but many conservative apologetic works make that claim. Once I started reading the book, however, it quickly became apparent that this was not a standard apologetic work.

In the book’s introduction, Hutchinson states:

Finally, a quick note on the Bible in general: In my own mind, I am writing for two groups of people: committed Christians of many denominations who have a wide variety of beliefs about how and to what degree the Bible is inspired or even inerrant; and, secondly, general readers who are interested in Jesus of Nazareth and early Christianity but who are not wedded to any previous notion that the Bible is based on real events.  Writing for these two groups presents many challenges, of course, but I tried to steer a middle course and remain respectful both of Christian orthodoxy and secular skepticism. What’s more, most of this book is about what secular, Jewish, and not necessarily Christian scholars and archaeologists are discovering and concluding–and how their recent research is, to a surprising degree, supporting much of what the Gospels say about Jesus of Nazareth.  Thus, this book is not primarily a work of Christian apologetics as such but rather a brief overview of the changing world of New Testament scholarship. (p. xxvii)

To me, something this clear should have been included on the dust flap or the back of the book rather than tucked away inside the introduction, especially since this book is published by a company that, to the best of my knowledge, is usually known for quite conservative and orthodox books.  People just getting into apologetics could pick up the book thinking they are getting something along the lines of Strobel or Geisler, when in reality, this book is far different.

The author goes on to explain how he struggles with the same skepticism as non-Christians, but that he is willing to dig into the evidence of contemporary scholarship to follow the evidence where it leads.  I admire this honesty, of course; I just wish it would have been clearer somehow on the outside of the book, which is traditionally the promotional part.

The last paragraph of the introduction begins:

I approach the effort to understand Jesus with what I hope is an open mind.  Although I am a believing Christian, I have no trouble questioning many of the central assertions of historic Christianity, especially when there are good reasons for doing so.  At the same time, however, I feel equally free to question the assumptions and unproven theories of contemporary New Testament scholarship, especially when there are good reasons for doing so.  I view them with the same skepticism and weary familiarity with which other people view the doctrines of Christianity. (p.xxviii)

Again, no fault to the author for his forthrightness.  I just wonder how many people will pick up the book based on reviews or the cover without realizing this is the mindset the author is coming from?

So, what is the end result of the author’s writing?  What does he leave the reader with in the last part of the Epilogue?

Whatever Jesus “really” was–and as we’ve seen in this book, after two hundred years of relentless scholarly digging, no one can agree what this is–whether Jesus was God incarnate or three quarters God or just a little God–it is literally true that he is and has been a “light of revelation” for untold billions of people throughout history.  For those who believe in him, skeptic or not, Jesus is nothing less than the human face of God. (p. 274)

This is far from a traditional conclusion to an apologetic book.  We have already established, however, that this is not a strictly apologetic book in the usual sense of the word.  For conservative Christians, however, who take in hand to read through this book, the ending may come as a shock. While the author doesn’t outright deny the traditional claims for Christ’s life, his desire to take a “middle course” keeps him from ultimately landing on either side, leaving it up to the reader to decide on his or her own.

So is this a book I would recommend?  Yes . . . and no.

Yes, I would recommend the book to skeptics who are open to historical evidence.  I would recommend the book to apologists who are interested in keeping up with recent findings in New Testament scholarship regarding the life of Jesus.  I would recommend this book to anyone who has already read and is familiar with the liberal and conservative arguments regarding Jesus of Nazareth.

But no, I would not recommend the book to new believers.  I would not recommend the book to someone interested in only a conservative, orthodox defense of Jesus of Nazareth.  There are other books that are better for that.

So how do I rate the book?  In terms of what it is intending to do, to clearly lay out multiple explanations for who Christ is based on current New Testament understanding and scholarship, it does a great job.  In terms of showing how recent evidence is pointing us closer to what the New Testament gospels have said all along, it succeeds.

Unfortunately, the “packaging” of the book from Thomas Nelson seems to leave something to be desired.  The outside of the book can easily lead someone to believe the book is something that it isn’t.  It seems like a traditional apologetic book on the defense of Jesus of Nazareth against liberal and skeptical views.  While there is some of that in the book, there are also more times the author concedes liberal views than what many Christians are used to reading about.  Again, I don’t fault the author of the book for being forthright in his views.  I just think it should have been clearer on the outside of the book.

Ultimately, this book is good for those I mentioned above, those who are familiar with the discussion and want to read more recent information on it.  But I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more successful if published by another company or if the outside was clearer?  I fear that skeptics will avoid the book because it is published by Thomas Nelson, a known Christian publisher, and because the outside of the book seems to describe it almost as a traditional apologetic book, or at least it doesn’t clearly explain that it is not.  Since the author’s stated purpose is to reach skeptics, I wonder if he will succeed this way.  On the other hand, I fear some Christians who have never been exposed to liberal or skeptical arguments may have their faith shaken up, if this is the way those arguments are introduced.  There are other books that do a better job of refuting those arguments and introducing them in ways that don’t sound as if they carry more weight than they sometimes do.  So there is the potential for confusion to be brought in to some people who the author ultimately wants to strengthen.

In short, the book is one I would recommend, with certain reservations, to certain people. But I could not necessarily recommend this book to just any Christian reader without making sure they have resources or people to help them wade through the contents.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.  

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9 thoughts on “Book Review – “Searching for Jesus” by Robert J. Hutchinson

  1. I have checked Amazon and ‘Look Inside’. The book has acknowledgement and selected bibliography.
    So, your words “The text is 275 pages, without the acknowledgements, selected bibliography…” would be “The text is 275 pages, beside…”.

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    • Simon,

      I apologize for the confusion. I included the notes in the “without” list, and then I went on to explain how many pages the notes take up. I intended it to show how many pages the main body of text took up, not as an indication of what was missing from the book. In other words, “without including the notes, acknowledgment, etc., the book was 275 pages, but it is longer if I include those.” I could have worded it better, I am sure. I will try to edit and reword it.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. So the fact that the author was trying hard to be objective and honest, but you were expecting apologetics, “concerns” you? Seriously?

    I’ve been poking around the Internet to see if I can determine how objective Hutchinson is in his book or if it is mere apologetics that can’t be trusted. Your review has helped me get a step closer in determining that. It’s shown me that maybe I can trust Hutchinson, but that I definitely couldn’t trust YOU with any claim to facts.

    I’m not interested in bias or apologetics from either side of the question, believers or skeptics. The only thing I value is to learn the truth as best as I can. That should also be your highest value, and the highest value of every Christian, even the new, fragile ones.

    After all, Jesus never taught, “Apologetics shall make you free.”

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    • I’m sorry if my review came across that I value apologetics more than truth. Anyone who knows me will tell you that is not the case.

      My concern was in the packaging of the truth contained in this book. I agree that he was objective, and you certainly would not go wrong in reading this book.

      But I think that on occasion Hutchinson gives more value to some arguments than is warranted. Unfortunately, someone new to the discussion would not know that.

      Again, I apologize for any misunderstanding in the intent of my review. If I thought that it was not worth reading, I would have said so. I thought I was quite clear in saying the value of the book, although with caution for certain people. There are times that people like Ehrman bring out good points, for example, but I wouldn’t recommend him to someone new in the faith, as Ehrman can also overstate his case.

      Regardless, I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment on my review, although it saddens me to see the misunderstanding and tone of your response. To judge my character and intent off of one review seems a bit harsh.

      If you do get and read the book, I would be interested in your stopping back by and hearing your thoughts!

      Blessings!

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    • I also wanted to add that I wouldn’t recommend Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ” to new believers or apologists either because of one known error regarding Quirinius’ inscription on a coin, I believe. To me, it is about having enough knowledge to wade through the material presented before just diving in, I suppose. Thanks again for the feedback!

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  3. I have also read the book and I am able to follow your review, Martin, quite well. That is, I agree with you for the most part. I especially appreciate your quote from the book about his purpose in writing the book, “Thus, this book is not primarily a work of Christian apologetics as such but rather a brief overview of the changing world of New Testament scholarship. (p. xxvii)” That is exactly what he has done in the book. He has written an examination of some of the views of present day “scholars”. As I was reading his book, I also, like you Martin, expected more analysis of what was new in terms of the “new discoveries in the quest for Jesus of Nazareth” which mainly “confirm the gospel accounts.” Instead, there was more of an explanation of many different writers new conclusions about Jesus. Another fault with the book was his reliance on the “Q” source as if it were real. Hutchinson seems to believe that there is some validity in this theory of a compilation of “Jesus” sayings from which the Gospel of Matthew was written. In other words, Matthew didn’t really write the Gospel of Matthew that we have in our Bibles today. What we have, according to this theory, is a compilation of “Jesus sayings” which have just been called “the Gospel of Matthew” to give it more substance. This theory is nonsense because there is no good reason to believe that the eye witness, Matthew, an apostle of the 12, did not write what was actually written in the Gospel of Matthew. What would have helped Hutchinson is the inclusion in his research of many of the discoveries that Grant Jeffries notes in his book the Signature of God. For that matter, anyone truly searching for Jesus could find Him in Grant Jeffries book, which mentions many present day archaeological discoveries that confirm, without a doubt, the Biblical account.

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    • Will,

      Thank you for the comment! I agree that “The Signature of God” was a good book. I read it years ago. I might need to pull it out again some time.

      Thank you for stopping by, and God bless!

      Martin

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  4. I’m one of those secular types and I’m only just discovering this direction. My interest is in the truth and I often find that the truth simply cannot be had regarding Christianity or ANY religion until we pass away. My question is do you personally feel that this Author operates from a place where he feels he’s in possession of fact or is he learning along with the reader in faith? I could likely read the work if it is the latter, the former turns my stomach and makes my head ache.

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    • Joe,

      Thank you for stopping by! I hope you don’t mind if I dialogue with you a little bit on my blog. I apologize in advance for the length of my reply, but you managed to pack a lot into your comment.

      I’m interested in your phrase “I’m only just discovering this direction.” Are you referring to a secular view, or a view of Jesus and Christianity? In other words, are you coming from a religious direction and only now discovering a secular one, or coming from a secular direction and only now looking into religious ones?

      We do have something in common: An interest in the truth. I’m not sure how familiar you are with Christianity, but Jesus himself made an interesting claim when he said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32, CSB). Jesus, then, was also insistent on understanding truth, but he took it further when he said he is the truth in John 14:6. I think it was Christian apologist and philosopher Dr. J. P. Moreland who actually raised his children by telling them that if in their study of Christianity they ever felt that truth led away from Christian claims, they should follow the truth, as that is what Jesus would want them to do. Of course he also spoke that from a perspective of confidence that an honest study of truth claims would support Christian views. If you have run into Christians who are not interested in looking at truth, I apologize. It is not a Christian perspective to ignore truth. A quick search in one translation of the Bible yielded 163 times the word “truth” was used in the Bible, not including any synonyms or similar words or phrases. So truth is very important to Christianity.

      In short, keep searching for truth wherever you find it! I encourage you in that. My life has been on a long process of searching for truth myself. I was raised in a Christian home, went through a strong period of doubting and questioning, and my search ultimately led me back to Christianity, but in a stronger, better way.

      Regarding the book, I feel that the author comes from both perspectives, as do we all. On one hand, the author is much more open to questioning and re-examining his perspective and claims than some may come across. On the other hand, if there is something the author feels has been well established by facts, he will, of course, “[operate] from a place where he feels he’s in possession of fact,” as you stated it. I think you would be well served by reading the book. It is not, as I stated in my review, what I would consider a traditional apologetic book, by any means.

      I want to preface the next part by saying up front that I love genuine discussion, and I have no problem talking with people who have viewpoints different from my own, as long as it is done in a respectful way. The downside is that by typing online, we run the risk of losing tone of voice and being misunderstood. I want to state that nothing I type here is meant to be rude or confrontational beyond legitimate discussion from a friendly perspective.

      If you don’t mind my providing something for you to consider, you say that you couldn’t read the work if the author comes form a position that he is in possession of fact. You say that that type of book would turn your stomach and make your head ache. Is it possible that you feel that way because you feel that there are certain facts you are in possession of, whether you have thought of it that way or not?

      If I may provide an example, you stated, “I often find that the truth simply cannot be had regarding Christianity or ANY religion until we pass away.” Based on your wording, it sounds to me as if this is more than your opinion. You feel very strongly about it. In actuality, I would say that it may qualify as a fact in your view that you feel you are in possession of. It is possible that I am misunderstanding you, and that you lean this way without feeling it is a fact. If so, then it would be possible that we can have truth regarding Christianity or religious views prior to passing away, and more study may show that.

      If, however, you do feel strongly enough about that statement to say it is a fact you possess, let me reassure you, that is okay! One fact I feel strongly about is that nobody can really function in life without having certain facts they feel they are in possession of. We may think we can escape them, but we truly cannot. We can, however, be aware of them and take them into account when studying and learning. In other words, we can be aware of our worldviews and presuppositions and do everything we can to acknowledge them when learning. We may find we need to abandon them altogether or merely change them a little. Or we may find that we continue to hold onto them as they seem to be supported by evidence and reason and experience.

      If I may give one more example of how that works. Let’s say someone says, “A person cannot know anything with absolute certainty.” That statement sounds open enough; who could be less in possession of facts than someone who makes that statement, right? But if you look at it closely, you may realize that the statement itself is a statement of absolute certainty. So it turns out to be a statement of fact, and unfortunately it is also self-defeating. If the statement is false, then one can know things with certainty. If the statement is true, however, then it becomes a statement of absolute certainty, which makes the statement itself false in the long run.

      In reality, the best way is not to feel frustrated by people who seem to possess facts, but to realize we all do in different ways. When we acknowledge that, we can then think and dialogue more freely. You and I may hold different facts to be true, and there are only a certain number of possibilities when we realize we disagree: (1) you may be right and I may be wrong; (2) I may be right and you may be wrong; or (3) we may both be wrong and someone else may be right. But the first step is not to say we don’t want to read or listen to anyone who thinks they have a grasp on facts; rather, it is to accept that it will happen and begin to read, think, listen, and dialogue critically yet respectfully.

      As you search and read and learn, whether you are moving toward or away from secular ideas, let me encourage you in a few things.

      First, keep it up! I am impressed that you are searching and not merely taking what others are saying as true without thought and examination.

      Second, don’t be frustrated by those who claim to possess facts. We all do, and that is okay, contrary to what current views may try to say.

      I apologize again for the length of my reply. I hope it has helped some. If you want to dialogue more, I look forward to it, time permitting. We may agree or disagree as the dialogue continues (and we may find we do both!), but I believe we can do so agreeably and respectfully.

      Blessings to you as you seek!

      Martin

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