God Comes First

Book cover
Familiar Strangerby By Michael J. McClymondWm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 210p $16

Michael McClymond is Clarence Louis and Helen Irene Steber Professor of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. In language that is both accessible and engaging, he has provided a concise, straightforward and balanced overview of contemporary Jesus studies that should prove helpful to a variety of readers. Those with some background in biblical studies and Christology will appreciate his fine survey of recent Jesus research, while instructors looking for a reliable text as they begin seminars, say, on the theology of the New Testament, the historical figure of Jesus or Christology might require their students to read this “state of the question” to make sure everyone is on the same page. The book should prove a welcome resource for M.Div. students preparing for comprehensive exams or for clergy and others in ministry who want to keep abreast of Jesus studies. Familiar Stranger is more academic and scholarly than the title suggests, but it is not dry.

McClymond recaps major research on the historical figure of Jesus, drawing particularly on the work of John P. Meier, E. P. Sanders and N. T. Wright. After giving a brief historical sketch of Jesus, McClymond retraces the broad lines of Jesus research from Hermann Reimarus (d. 1768) to the present and then examines the “sources and methods” currently used for learning about the figure of Jesus (Chapters 2 and 3).


The next three chapters look at Jesus’ cultural context, the role of John the Baptist and the kingdom of God as the core of Jesus’ message. The author then turns his attention to Jesus’ deeds, his teaching, the controversies in which Jesus was engaged with religious leadership, and Jesus’ death and the resurrection. In the penultimate chapter McClymond lays out the case for thinking of Jesus as prophet and as sage, since the Gospel texts support our thinking of Jesus in both apocalyptic and sapiential terms. He was both “apocalyptic prophet” and a teacher of wisdom. The last chapter analyzes four popular perceptions of Jesus. Here McClymond argues that the “family-values Jesus” is inadequate, because in the Gospels Jesus actually gives discipleship and service to the kingdom priority over family life; that the “end-of-the-world Jesus” does not take into account Jesus’ preferential option for the poor; that the “socially inclusive Jesus” tends to overlook Jesus’ insistence upon conversion and repentance; and that the “global spirituality Jesus” is seriously at odds with the fact that in the Gospels, Jesus requires complete allegiance from his followers. In this regard McClymond characterizes the Jesus of the Gospels as “totalitarian.”

There are two places, however, where Familiar Stranger does not go far enough. First, the chapter on the resurrection is much too brief. Granted that the Gospels do not tell us much about what happened after Easter (Mark’s story ends with just the empty tomb), theologically speaking Easter is the presupposition of each Gospel. Perhaps because I had just finished the 700-plus pages of N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003), the three and a half pages devoted to the resurrection in Familiar Stranger struck me as inadequate.

Second, I was wishing that McClymond had paid some attention to liberation theology as he reviewed the ministry of Jesus, the reasons for his death and the consequent import of Jesus’ having been raised from the dead. North Atlantic culture has produced a wealth of Jesus research, but there is great freshness in the way liberation theologians have been appropriating that scholarship and furthering it. In the course of mentioning a number of popular works on Jesus in Chapter 2, for instance, it might have been good to include the three volumes of Just Jesus (2000)—the good news as told to the people of Latin America—instead of allowing this title to languish in a footnote in the last chapter. Liberation theology, after all, does not simply promote economic and social change; it challenges us to think about the adequacy of our understanding of God by refusing to separate the life of God from the life of God’s people. And this refusal has implications for the way we read and study the Bible.

Finally, I agree with McClymond that it is best not to study the origin of Christology on the basis of titles applied to Jesus and that Jesus made claims about himself that were largely implicit in the actions and teachings that constituted his ministry. But in one way or another all of us reveal something of our self-identity through the way we present ourselves. The self-understanding of Jesus, however interesting it might be if the Gospel texts allowed us to penetrate it, in the end may not be all that consequential. Our redemption does not hinge on what Jesus thought of himself. Should we not therefore locate the origin of Christology in the resurrection rather than in the ministry of Jesus? If so, then it is worth recalling that raising Jesus from the dead is something God does; before there can be Christology there has to be theology—the mystery of God comes first. The title “son of God” acquired a new level of meaning once Jesus was identified as the one whom the God of Israel had raised from the dead.

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