Jesus & the Land
By Charles R. Page II
Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
9.2 (Fall 1998) : 258-260
This reviewer approached Jesus & the Land with great anticipation and expectations. The church greatly needs scholarly works that are informed as to the geographical and cultural backgrounds of the Bible, particularly in the area of accurate treatments of the Jewish context of Jesus’ life and ministry. The author is Dean of the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies in Jerusalem. He states, “Jesus and the Land is an attempt to reconstruct the life of Jesus based on insights gained from the Land” (13). Alas, that word “reconstruct” reveals a large part of the serious problems with this book that disappoints at almost every point!
The biggest problem for the reader who has confidence in the accuracy and consistency of the gospel accounts of Jesus is that Page attempts to “deconstruct” the gospel accounts before he attempts to “reconstruct” them. Over and over again, he asserts that the Synoptics and John are hopelessly in conflict. Oftentimes, he attempts to correct them by insights from the Mishna (which he neglects to mention was written well over a century after the gospels). One glaring example of this is when he asserts that Jesus’ encounter with the religious elders in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-51) occurred “after Jesus had reached the age of thirteen and one day” (54). He bases this on a passage in Mishna Niddah 5:6 which states that “ if a boy is thirteen years old and one day, his vows are valid.” One wonders how this helps to “correct” Luke who clearly writes that Jesus was “twelve” when this event took place (Luke 2:42)!
Page’s cavalier attitude toward the gospels is evident on almost every page of the book. He cites approvingly the view of the critic, Hendrikus Boers, that the events described in the virgin birth accounts never happened (40). Speaking himself of the virgin birth, Page concludes, “[W]e must understand that this entire theory was a non-issue in Christianity’s formative beginnings” (41). This translates into plain English as, “Later generations of Christians invented the idea of the Virgin Birth.”
Page often wants the reader to know that he is basing his “reconstruction” on Jewish sources and customs, but his “evidence” is faulty and highly selective. One of his authorities is David Flusser of the Hebrew University, whom he quotes as stating that some Essenes married, but only after their betrothed wife became pregnant (39-40). However, an examination of the context of Flusser’s statement in his work, The Spiritual History of the Dead Sea Sect, reveals no source (e.g., Philo, Josephus, Pliny, or any of the “scrolls”) that affirms such a practice among the Essenes. Even if that was the case among them (and it would be so un-Jewish as to be “heretical”), one fails to see how this was the case with Joseph and Mary. This is particularly true when the gospels make it clear that Joseph and Mary did not have sexual relations until after the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:25).
Page acknowledges that his approach to the subject is greatly influenced by Father Bargil Pixner of the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem and Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee, who is also an adjunct faculty member at Page’s school. Pixner, in his articles and especially his book, With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel (Rosh Pina: Chorazin, 1992), posits that a Davidic clan settled in Nazareth after the return from the Babylonian Captivity. This family was very “fundamentalist” in its beliefs, with heavy influence from the Essenes. Page even refers to them as “Hasidim” (34, 62, 77, 96)—a strange connection since the only references that Josephus has to the ancient “Hasidim” place them in the second century B.C. in Judea. That this is such a grand assumption is evident in light of the language that Pixner uses in his quotation asserting this connection. Note the phraseology that appears over and over again: “One can justly assume . . . presumably came . . . in all probability . . . One can surmise . . . one may well take it for granted” (36, 37, citing Pixner, 16, 17). The perceptive reader shudders when he realizes that the major thesis of this book rests on so many assumptions and unproven scenarios.
Page’s low view of Jesus is again evident in his explanation of the three “conversion experiences” through which Jesus went at various times in His ministry. Page explains each “conversion” by the Greek word metanoia, but neglects to mention that this word never describes Jesus’ actions in the gospels. His first “conversion” was from his supposed narrow “Hasidism” to a more inclusive “Hillelian Judaism.” This took place when He moved from Nazareth to Capernaum (62 ff.). His second “conversion” was from this inclusive Judaism to including the Gentiles. This came in the incident with the Syro-Phoenician woman (99). His third “conversion” was from “Pharisaism” to hiding alone with his friends. This supposedly took place on Tuesday of Passion Week (132, 133). What this declares about Jesus’ Messianic self consciousness and the implications it has for a high view of His Deity is obvious to the discerning reader.
Sadly, it is not only theological problems that abound in this volume. It also contains scores of outright factual mistakes. Page ends Solomon’s rule in 922 rather than the consensus date of 930 (20); he has the Hasmonean Mattathias refusing to offer “swine,” although 1 Maccabees 2:23-25 says nothing about the type of animal (25); he has Herod killing Mariamne five days before his death when he actually killed her over 25 years earlier (31); he writes that a church tradition states that Joseph worked at Sepphoris, when this is only an assumption, not based on any textual evidence (44); he states that John baptized in the Yarmulk River (normally spelled without an “l”), forgetting that it is a fast flowing river, unlike the Jordan (57); he calls the richer section of Capernaum the “upper city” forgetting that both sections of the city are next to each other on the shore (67); his geography of the Temple is either wrong or presented in a confusing way to the reader (photos 60, 61 on pp. 127,128); the captions are erroneous on photos #5 (30), #43 (97), #78 (151), #79 (153). Finally, the photographs are “reversed” on pages 13 and 148 and even the photograph of the Arbel Cliff on the cover of the book is reversed!
This reviewer would like to say more good about this book, but the writer’s motive of placing Jesus’ life in a more Jewish context is all I can find to commend. He does not, however, deliver on his goal. A volume that adequately relates the Savior’s life to His land remains to be written.