Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence

By Robert E. Van Voorst
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2000). xiv + 248 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
11.2 (Fall 2000) : 270-272

The last dozen years have witnessed a flurry of books and articles relating to the subject of the “historical Jesus.” The infamous “Jesus Seminar” has concluded that the Gospels actually contain very little of the genuine words and works of Jesus of Nazareth. Evangelical reaction to this “Search for Jesus” has spanned the gamut from scorning mockery to abject capitulation before the same higher critical methodology followed by those advocating the “New Quest for the Historical Jesus.”

Eerdmans Publishing Company has launched a new series, edited by Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans, called “Studying the Historical Jesus.” The editors say that “the purpose of this series is to explore key questions concerning Jesus in recent discussion” (back cover).

Robert E. Van Voorst’s Jesus Outside the New Testament is the first to appear in this series. Van Voorst is professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Much of the research for his book was done while he was teaching a related course at Lycoming College (ix, x).

Simply stated, “This book examines the ancient evidence from outside the New Testament for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus” (ix). While such evidence certainly is important to those scholars who consider themselves part of the “new search for the historical Jesus,” the subject is certainly not new. Before the recent spate of writing on this subject, two books by authors affirming the historicity of the Gospels have served their generations well.

F. F. Bruce, that late doyen of twentieth-century NT scholars, contributed a major work, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974). Bruce, always conversant both with the sources and the secondary literature, covered the field thoroughly in his characteristically irenic manner.

Ten years later appeared Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus by Gary R. Habermas (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984). Habermas covered the evidence with a particularly “apologetic” slant, seeking always to affirm the historicity of the canonical Gospels while being rather dubious about the value of the non-canonical sources. (Surprisingly, Habermas supports the Shroud of Turin as evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. See pp. 156-59. Most books in this genre ignore the Shroud since it is not a written source.)

In what ways, therefore, does Van Voorst’s book advance this discussion?

First, Jesus Outside the New Testament is thorough, covering all the “sources” (valid and otherwise) that seem to refer to Jesus. The author, after a brief history of research, divides three of the following chapters into “Jesus in Classical Writing” (19-74), “Jesus in Jewish Writing” (75-134), and “Jesus in Christian Writings after the New Testament” (179-214). His discussions show awareness of the issues and the scholarly literature surrounding each one. His fairly exhaustive “Bibliography” (219-34) indicates that he is aware of the scholarly work on this subject in both English and German.

Second, Jesus Outside the New Testament is unique in including a chapter that was not found in Bruce or Habermas. Chapter 4 is titled “Jesus in the Sources of the Canonical Gospels” (135-78). In this reviewer’s opinion, however, this chapter is the weakest part of the book. Van Voorst’s observations are marred by his simply assuming the existence of the mythical “Q ,” “M,” and “L” sources—none of which has ever been found, except in the fervent imagination of source critics. One wonders how this chapter fits into a book that is supposed to examine evidence outside the New Testament. Furthermore, every other source Van Voorst examines post-dates the canonical Gospels. Are we to conclude that these “sources”—none of which has ever been found—predate the form of the canonical Gospels? Asking that of his readers is to ask them to affirm the existence of documents for which there is no external evidence!

Further indication that Van Voorst has capitulated to higher criticism is found in his occasional statements indicating his rejection of the Gospels as reliable sources. In discussing later Rabbinic traditions about Jesus’ illegitimacy, the author states that such traditions arose from the Christian doctrine of the virgin birth. “This doctrine was not explicitly formulated by Christians until near the end of the first century (Matthew and Luke), and even then may not have been widely shared as a leading doctrine by other Christians (Pauline and Johannine churches, for example)” (121).

It is Van Voorst’s skeptical attitude toward the Gospels that mars an otherwise helpful book. Scholars will still benefit from his handling of issues surrounding these later post-biblical sources. Everyone, however, is still better served in this subject by the volumes written by the “irenic” Bruce and the “tendential” Habermas.