Sometimes, to the amusement of my wife, I just decide to “do” things, such as make lists of my favorite books on a given subject. No idea why I’ve been doing this lately, except that it’s fun for me and I find it very helpful when others do it (like here). So I’m making four such lists, and this is the first. I hope you’ll not only benefit from this but make your own list on whatever you like to read about!! I decided to start with my list of books on Jesus. Now this shouldn’t need to be said, but I certainly don’t (actually, I couldn’t) agree with all of what these authors say, but these are the ones I have found most helpful. I’ll try to put them in an order in which I’d suggest reading them.
1. Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John For Everyone by N. T. (Tom) Wright. Obviously nothing on this or any other list should replace actual attentive readings of the four biblical Gospels. These are God’s gifts to the church as we seek to follow and understand our living Lord. I strongly recommend reading the Gospels with a guide, and I know of no better one than N. T. Wright’s short and simple commentaries in the For Everyone series. If you don’t know where to start in learning about Jesus, pick a Gospel, get the matching For Everyone commentary, and begin working through it section by section, making notes in a journal as you go. (Our church uses and strongly recommends the S.O.A.P method as available in a Life Journal.) Along similar lines, check out Mark Moore’s Chronological Life of Christ, which goes through the Gospels in harmonized form.
2. Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice. While Jesus is alive and active today, God saw it fit to send him to earth two thousand years ago into a particular historical and cultural context, and we will only understand the truth about Jesus to the extent that we take this “particularity” with full seriousness. The problem here, though, is that for most folks books that describe historical contexts are not too captivating. Enter Anne Rice, whom God may have saved for just this purpose. I’m kidding, but this little work of historical fiction is based on solid research and, as only a novel can, brings this research to life in telling the story of Jesus’ growing up years. She takes a little too much license in some areas I think, but as long as you remember that it is fiction, then no real harm is done. If you want really to feel “the Galilean dust between your toes” as one of my teachers puts it, then read this. In particular she helps one tune in to the revolutionary nature of the times. For an excellent (though large) nonfiction exploration of Jesus’ world, see N. T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God.
3. The Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren. I hear that McLaren has gone too far lately in his attempted re-definition of Christianity, and I don’t doubt it. But in The Secret Message he was at his best. This is in many ways a popularization of the work of Wright and others, with some of McLaren himself thrown in of course. It’s far from a perfect book, but really there aren’t very many good books on Jesus at an introductory level, which is what this is. McLaren takes some of Wright’s most important stuff — about the Jewish context in general, and the rival Jewish factions in particular — and makes it easy to understand. He also goes further than Wright in discussing the implications of living out the kingdom today. (The most annoying thing about the book for me was his suggestion that “kingdom” needs to be one metaphor among many that communicate what God did in Jesus. We can use some of his others in addition perhaps, but there’s something integral about kingdom that must be maintained.) Some other introduction type books are The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, Philip Yancey’s moderately helpful The Jesus I Never Knew, and the more devotional The Signature of Jesus by Brennan Manning. [Note: I’m hoping that Recovering Jesus by Thomas Yoder Neufeld will replace this book as my favorite easy-to-read-but-based-on-solid-scholarship introduction to Jesus, but I haven’t read the whole thing yet.]
4. The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright. No one who knows me will be surprised to see Wright’s name on this list. The only difficult thing was choosing which of his Jesus books to highlight. So I’m going to cheat and talk about a few. Chapter 5 of Who Was Jesus? is perhaps the best simple chapter on what Jesus’ life and mission were all about in context, but the rest of the book isn’t awesome. The Original Jesus has more of a beginner’s introduction feel to it than Challenge and helpfully talks about the differences between the four Gospels, but it’s not as exciting to me for some reason. The Meaning of Jesus, in which Wright and Marcus Borg alternate chapters, was probably the most influential for me personally, if only because of the order in which I read them. I’m not exaggerating in saying that through this book God saved me from a very subtle form of Gnostic-like “spirituality” that to my surprise characterized much of my faith at the time. As I read I realized that in some ways my Jesus looked more like Borg’s, but that Wright’s was clearly the more biblical vision. But it is The Challenge of Jesus that I ultimately chose for this list, perhaps because it’s the one that left me the most excited about clearly seeing Jesus and his mission to inaugurate God’s kingdom through his life, death, and resurrection. Another reason was the last two chapters, in which Wright explores what it would mean to follow this Jesus today.
5. The Living Jesus by Luke Timothy Johnson. Pushing back against the whole “historical Jesus” movement (represented by Wright among others), in The Living Jesus Johnson stresses the necessity of remembering that it is a living person of whom we speak when we speak of Jesus. Jesus is not just a guy who lived a long time ago and did some really cool stuff (like heal people and die to save the world), but a resurrected and therefore living personality whom we come to know. Though he goes too far in many ways, he is certainly right to remind us that the resurrection should matter for how we think, talk, and write about, as well as pray to, worship, and follow Jesus. He also stresses radical obedience to God and self-sacrificial love for people as a common thread weaving together all of the New Testament witnesses to Jesus.
6. Jesus and Community by Gerhard Lohfink. I remember being surprised at how much I liked this book, and I’m not at all sure that it meant as much to many others as it did to me. For whatever reason, it sticks out as being very clear and helpful. More specifically, this book confirmed to me that the church was not secondary or an afterthought to the mission of Jesus. Though the word “church” needn’t be forced on his band of disciples anachronistically, Jesus clearly called together a community of followers who, by embodying his way of life, would serve as God’s renewed and restored “Israel” and an ongoing embodiment of God’s kingdom come to earth. This book helped free me from the oppressive illusion that my personal relationship with God comes first and only after that my involvement with the church (a demonic dichotomy, if you ask me!). It also helped me see the continuity between Israel and the church (fulfillment, not replacement) within the purposes of God.
7. Christology: A Global Introduction by Veli-Matti Karkkainen. I definitely wanted a “theological” work on this list, and Karkkainen’s book is one of the most helpful around. It gives an adequate (not great) assessment of the biblical foundations and early developments of “Christology” (the doctrine of Christ), but its strength lies in its survey of twenty contemporary perspectives on who Christ was and is (half of which come from persons and movements other than “western white guys”). For anyone wanting to know what people have said and are saying about Jesus all over the world from different (sometimes opposing) perspectives, this is the best place (I know of) to start. Also from a theological perspective, see the very solid chapters on Jesus/Christology in James McClendon’s Doctrine and Stanley Grenz’s Theology for the Community of God.
8. Crucifixion by Martin Hengel. This is a short classic that explores many facets of the crucifixion, including the history of the practice, how it was and wasn’t done, and its social and political significance in the ancient world. Pretty foundational stuff, though not necessarily riveting reading.
9. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views. Among the many vital questions concerning Jesus Christ, the question of the atonement — how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection save us — certainly deserves special attention. There are lots of good books on the topic but very few great ones. And unfortunately, this area of theology is a battlefield for competing “atonement theories.” In part for this reason, the atonement book I decided to include here is one that presents multiple points of view. Three of the four in this book are worthy of close attention: Greg Boyd on “Christus Victor,” Tom Schreiner on penal substitution, and Joel Green on a “kaleidoscopic” view. For more on the latter, see Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Joel Green & Mark Baker. And for one of the best short statements on the topic anywhere, see chapter 4 of N. T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. Also don’t forget John Stott’s The Cross of Christ. I survey many more statements on this topic here and offer some of my own thoughts here. (Michael Gorman may prove to turn a great corner in this whole conversation, btw.)
10. The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. Since Yoder has perhaps been the most influential in terms of drawing attention to the inescapably social/political context and content of Jesus’ ministry, this one had to make the list. As I’ve written about elsewhere, Yoder’s two goals in this book were (1a) to demonstrate that Jesus was, in fact, political, and therefore (1b) we cannot write him off as irrelevant to questions of “social ethics” today; and (2) to show that the single point at which we are called to imitate Jesus is by patterning our lives after his social nonconformity, which was centered in a resolute commitment to suffering love. For other works on this topic: from an evangelical perspective, see Shane Claiborne’s Jesus for President and Irresistible Revolution; from a non-evangelical perspective, see Richard Horsley’s Jesus and Empire and Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, as well as Marcus Borg’s Conflict, Politics, and Holiness in the Teachings of Jesus.
11. Lord or Legend? by Greg Boyd & Paul Eddy. I’m not big on apologetics per se, but it’s helpful to have a solid grasp on some of the arguments for the Gospels’ general reliability. For that I’d definitely start with this little book (which has a larger counterpart – The Jesus Legend). See also the much larger (and difficult to read) Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham. The most important apologetic question for me is the resurrection, and lots of good stuff has been written about that, of which the best I’ve read is N. T. Wright’s Resurrection and the Son of God. I’m honestly not real well-read on this particular topic, so feel free to suggest your own favorites.
12. Jesus & The Victory of God by N. T. Wright. This is the second in Wright’s project six volume Christian Origins and the Question of God, the fourth volume of which is due out next year (on the Apostle Paul). JVG is one of the very best books on Jesus I’ve ever read for sure. It is Wright’s contribution to the “third quest for the historical Jesus,” and while helpful on methodology and what not, it also (and perhaps better) serves as a good summary of the portrait of Jesus put forth in the synoptic Gospels (less emphasis on John unfortunately, but necessarily for what Wright was trying to do). You can’t read this book without learning something about almost every corner of the Gospels. And on a personal note, for whatever reason reading this book (along with the other smaller ones mentioned above) made me a better Christian. This portrait of Jesus helped me truly take the focus of my “walk with God” off of myself. See also, especially in terms of method, The Aims of Jesus by Ben F. Meyer. For a survey of the “quests of/for the historical Jesus,” see Ben Witherington’s The Jesus Quest. And for a sometimes helpful, sometimes obviously wrong, and quite different perspective on Jesus, see John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography and The Historical Jesus.