Recovering Jesus: The Witness of the New Testament
Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2007. 328 pages.
Note: This review was first published in Mission Focus: Annual Review 16 (2008). It is re-published here by permission.
Thomas Yoder Neufeld, a New Testament professor at Conrad Grebel University College, describes his new book, Recovering Jesus, as “an introduction to the Jesus we encounter in the New Testament” (19). For him, this means giving his readers a sense of the main debates among New Testament scholars and identifying his own position; namely, that the Gospels are our most reliable witnesses regarding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Before getting into the Gospels themselves, Yoder Neufeld provides a thorough but succinct summary of the evolution of the stories of Jesus from oral to written form, and their subsequent inclusion in the canon. He then discusses the different audiences to which the four Gospels are directed, which explains their various emphases and methods of organizing material.
For Yoder Neufeld, the New Testament is difficult to read, if not unintelligible, without knowledge of the faith story of the Jewish people, and its place in the wider ancient history. Yoder Neufeld also presents an overview of the cultural, political, and social conditions of Jesus’ time, including brief descriptions of the different social groups from which Jesus drew followers, such as Pharisees, Zealots, prostitutes, tax collectors, the poor, and the sick.
Yoder Neufeld then delves into the birth stories of Jesus, explaining much of the symbolism and many of the references to the Jewish scripture. His interpretation of the ministry of Jesus takes the form of a five-part exploration of various aspects of the Kingdom of God, including its definition, Jesus’ calling and commissioning of his disciples, Jesus’ relation to the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus’ parables, Jesus’ miracles of healing and multiplying food, and the social justice of the Kingdom.
Jesus’ death and resurrection receive a similar treatment to Jesus’ birth; Yoder Neufeld essentially provides a reading of the gospel texts, with valuable explanations and commentary woven throughout. The book ends with a look at the titles used for Jesus, such as Lord, Messiah, Son of God, Word, Wisdom, etc., and unearths their origins and meanings among Jesus’ earliest followers.
Recovering Jesus is a testament to the author’s experience as a teacher; the book is both an accessible introduction for those unfamiliar with New Testament studies, and a concise review for those with more biblical and theological education. The well-organized chapters would easily maintain their coherence if read individually by theological beginners, or in a group setting. Yoder Neufeld freely uses charts of the gospel parallels in discussing certain material common to two or more gospels; these are helpful visual aids. The lists of sources attest to the vast amount of scholarship Yoder Neufeld has distilled into one volume, a task all the more impressive because it is simplification without oversimplification.
Particularly fascinating are Yoder Neufeld’s treatments of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection narratives, in which he brings to light the rich references to Jewish scripture and symbolism. For example, he draws attention to the ways in which the birth story of Jesus is meant to echo the birth story of Moses, complete with a close, protective relative named Miriam (Hebrew for “Mary”), a massacre of Jewish infants, and safety found in Egypt. Also worth mentioning is Yoder Neufeld’s differentiation between resurrection and simple “resuscitation.” Resurrection is “a radical re-creation of the person in an entirely different mode, one fit for immortality”; this is what makes Jesus’ resurrection different from his miracles of raising (resuscitating) people from the dead, according to Yoder Neufeld (282). Details like these make the reader appreciate the care with which the New Testament was written, and challenge the opinion that it is hopelessly fragmented and unreliable.
Yoder Neufeld writes primarily as a believer and a biblical scholar, and, as already mentioned, brings his readers into some of the main debates of his academic field. Some readers may question his inclusion of material from non-Christian sources, as found in the section, “The Gospels as Historical Sources,” in Chapter 2. Claims that Jesus was never resurrected or that the Gospels distort the true events of Jesus’ ministry may seem irrelevant to a believer’s discussion of the New Testament; however, Yoder Neufeld is impressive in his treatment of these dissenting voices, which he firmly but respectfully refutes.
In all, Recovering Jesus is a very worthwhile read, and truly does serve to recover dimensions of the New Testament, particularly its ties to the Jewish faith, that have been downplayed or overlooked by several branches of Christianity. Thanks to Yoder Neufeld’s work, Christian readers will likely find themselves re-reading the Gospels with new understanding, and those unfamiliar with the New Testament will likely find it more fascinating than they expected.