Christ on Earth: The Gospel Narratives as History

By Jakob van Bruggen
Grand Rapids : Baker (1998). 320 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Robert Thomas
10.2 (Fall 1999) : 316-318

How refreshing to see a new work on the Gospels that takes them as historically credible documents! This English translation of Professor van Bruggen’s 1987 work in Dutch is now available as the first of six works on the Gospels that he will eventually publish with Baker. The author’s remaining volumes in the series will be one dealing with the person and teaching of Jesus and a set of four commentaries on the four Gospels, the last of which treating the Gospel of John and written by P. H. R. van Houwelingen rather than by van Bruggen.

The first chapter of Christ on Earth review s a wide variety of possible sources for information about the life of Christ. It concludes that the four canonical Gospels are the most reliable sources because they trace their origins to people who either participated personally in the life of Christ on earth or had direct contact with witnesses who saw and heard Jesus.

The author’s second chapter addresses the question of whether or not the four Gospels are harmonizable and therefore historically trustworthy. He briefly discusses source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism and points out how their negative answer to the question of historical trustworthiness belies the known facts about the origins of the Gospels (84-85). His conclusion is that the Gospels are capable of harmonization and that accepting their reliability as historical in character is absolutely essential: “The character of the Gospels is such that they can be read as sources of historical information provided by eyewitnesses and [they] even demand such a reading” (85).

Chapter 3 deals with “The Periods of Jesus’ Life on Earth,” stating first a rationale for dividing H is life into periods. Two advantages for such divisions are (1) the provision of an organizational structure into which to fit the data of the Gospels and (2) the aid of such divisions in defining unique characteristics of each Gospel. All four contain markers useful in identifying periods. With the periods in mind, one can avoid incorrectly equating stories that belong in separate periods. The periods identified by van Bruggen are “From Birth to Baptist,” “From Jesus’ Baptism to John’s Arrest,” “The Galilean Period and the Gospel of John,” “The Journey from G alilee to Jerusalem,” and “The Period of Jesus’ Death, Resurrection, and Ascension.” The author concludes this chapter with a brief section on the chronology of Christ’s life in which he assigns 5 B.C . as the date of Christ’s birth and A.D. 33 as the year of His crucifixion.

Most of the book’s remaining chapters deal with various periods of Jesus’ life: Chap. 4 with His birth and youth, Chap. 6 with John the Baptist and Jesus, Chaps. 8–10 with His ministry in Galilee, Chap. 11 with His ministry in Perea and Judea (i.e., from Galilee to Jerusalem), and Chaps. 12–13 and 16–17 with the events of Passion Week. Eleven helpful tables at the conclusion of the volume offer summary harmonizations that coincide with these chapters. Interspersed among those chapters are chapters discussing tangential issues such as “Jesus’ Brothers and Sisters” (Chap. 5), “The Galilean Period in the Gospels” (Chap. 7), “Was the Sanhedrin Allowed to Carry Out a Death Sentence?” (Chap. 14), and “The Plan to Kill Jesus by Cunning” (Chap. 15).

At the conclusion of Chap. 7 van Bruggen devotes several pages to “Narrative Sequence and the Synoptic Problem.” His focus is upon the argument from order that is usually used to support the literary dependence of one Synoptic Gospel upon another. After surveying various sequential peculiarities of the three Gospels, he concludes that evidence of this type opposes the idea that Matthew and Luke are secondary sources dependent on Mark in a literary way.

Though it is easy to raise minor points of disagreement regarding such matters as why van Bruggen did not see Jesus’ six-month ministry to the Twelve as a separate period or how he can advocate an A.D. 33 crucifixion date in light of Jesus’ age stated in Luke 3:23, Christ on Earth has so many commendable and positive instructive features regarding the life of Christ that this reviewer cannot refrain from giving the book his unreserved recommendation. In defense of historicity, it offers plausible harmonizations for many alleged discrepancies between parallel Gospel accounts of the same events, such as the cleansings of the Temple (135-37), the healing of the blind in Jericho (202-5), and the Triumphal Entry (207-8).