A Hitchhiker's Guide to Jesus, Bruce Fisk

I have just finished Bruce Fisk's enjoyable and fun A Hitchhiker's Guide to Jesus: Reading the Gospels on the Ground (Baker Academic, 2011). I saw the book in a Baker Academic announcement a couple weeks ago, and since I am teaching a course on Jesus and the Synoptic Tradition this coming fall, I thought I should check it out (not to mention that Bruce Fisk teaches at my alma mater Westmont College). After reading the first chapter, I was hooked and knew that I would be placing the book on the required reading list for my course.

Hitchhiker's Guide to Jesus, A: Reading the Gospels on the GroundWhen my copy first arrived, I read through the comments from an impressive list of academics and was a bit skeptical of what seemed like overly positive praise. Rereading those comments now, they are right on. For example, Gary Burge states: "Bruce Fisk has possibly written the most creative, fascinating, and informed book on the Gospels in a generation..." For me, what makes this book so appealing is the way in which Fisk weaves together many different genres of literature: academic introduction to Jesus and the Gospels, guide book to the land of Jesus, a forthright picture of daily Israel/Palestinian relations, and example of holding faith and learning in tension. And in the midst of this, Fisk makes continual references to primary sources, songs, poetry, film (especially Monty Python's "Life of Brian").

Norm Adams, a recent graduate of a religious studies program in the States, is on a journey to find the historical Jesus, and he guides the reader through his travels and studies. His journey is academic and spiritual, but it is also a literal journey through the land where Jesus lived. Like many students before him, Norm is trying to make sense of the disconnect between the Jesus he learned about in church and Sunday School and what he has learned in the university classroom. What about Jesus can be accepted at truth? Can the Gospels be trusted as history? What is ancient history in relation to modern history? What did Jesus do? What did he say? Why was he killed? Which sites in Israel, venerated or otherwise, are actually where the events of Jesus' life took place?

In the first chapter, the reader is introduced to Norm and to the questions that drive his journey. He begins his adventure in Israel by tracing the life of John the Baptist. This takes him across the Jordan to the possible site of Bethany beyond the Jordan and to Machaerus. Then he travels to Bethlehem and wrestles through Jesus' birth stories in Matthew and Luke. Chapter 4, the longest chapter, recounts Norm's hiking around Galilee as he asks questions about miracles and Jesus' ministry. Chapter 5 recounts Norm's ascent to Jerusalem and his working through the historicity and meaning of Jesus' statement about "this generation" not passing away until "all these things take place" (Matt 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32). Chapters 6 and 7 concern Norm's sorting through the issues of Jesus' death and resurrection.

All the challenges of historical Jesus study and the major scholars are found in the book, but the book's style as a hitchhiker's guide is really about "reading the Gospels on the ground." Norm emails questions to one of his professors back in the States; his professor is always the skeptic. Norm has a dream in which he converses with J.P. Meier, Dominic Crossan, Scot McKnight, and James Dunn. In Israel, Norm dialogues with a British atheist, a couple of doomsday "prophets", a PhD student, is guided around the temple mount by a Jewish rabbi, smokes a water pipe on the roof of a Palestinian guesthouse outside Bethlehem with a couple seminary profs and students, and he even attends a Palestinian wedding in the West Bank.  These conversations and experiences help Norm to see Jesus and his message through the world and culture of the Middle East. One striking such experience is a bus "tour" he takes to Hebron where he begins to see why Pilate might have crucified an innocent man. On this excursion, Israeli soldiers are caught between the religious zealotry of some settlers and the law. As can be seen from this last example, Norm is always being confronted by the present political realities of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the midst of his academic and spiritual journey.

As Norm's journey progresses, he stops looking for specific answers and is more willing to let certain questions remain. On the second to last page, Fisk writes in Norm's words: "This, I'd come to realize, is how it must be. The Man who traversed the land and the One who strides the Gospels has many faces. He is preacher and prophet, poet and peasant, seer and sage. He lurks at society's margins and lingers in its marketplaces. His was a suspicious birth, an obscure childhood, and an unlikely public launch in the shadow of a desert holy man. His tales of the kingdom, spun from the common fibers of the underclass, clarified but also mystified. His miracles impressed some and offended others. And his sense of mission drove him to confront not only the minions of hell but also the gatekeepers of the temple. Very little about Jesus was straightforward and self-interpreting. Almost no story pointed in only one direction. If Jesus was often difficult to track, he was always impossible to tame."

Fisk's book is an engaging way to introduce students and others to the issues of historical Jesus studies. Norm will serve as a helpful guide through the literature, the land, and the learning.

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