“Jesus” by Humphrey Carpenter

One of Carpenter’s most well-known biographies, part of the “Past Masters” series of short books on influential thinkers.
Overall Carpenter seems to go as far as he can in sympathising and admiring Jesus, stopping short just at the point beyond which lies accepting something of the supernatural, whether it’s miracles, resurrection, fulfilment of prophecies, or Jesus’ status as some kind of representative or agent of God on earth (or, of course, God himself). He spends a lot of his time analysing Jesus’ teaching, coming to the conclusion that most of it points towards the message: “the Jewish Law is essential and should be obeyed, but it’s not enough – you need to use your consciences to follow its spirit, not just its letter, and to help you when the Law, either through ambiguity, contradiction or silence, cannot help you.” Carpenter is clear that Jesus’ teaching is interior to Judaism: all Gentilising hints are later interpolations.
He’s very good, at the start of the book, on the sources, explaining that Paul’s letters and teaching are earlier than the Gospels; this leads to some puzzlement later in the book, when Carpenter observes that although written later, they represent a tradition which runs counter to Pauline teaching – you’d have expected the later accounts of Jesus’ life to follow Paul more closely. The fact that they don’t lends them credibility. He describes Paul as not really being interested in what Jesus said, but more in him as a risen, and hence present, Lord, and, in his attempts to spread the religion to the Gentiles, is much more relaxed than Jesus about moving away from the Jewish Law. In fact Carpenter talks about other scholars’ describing Christianity as founded by Paul, not Jesus, and this makes real sense.
There’s good test-case discussion on what Jesus says about, for example, divorce, the poor, and the Sabbath, and on what he might have thought about himself: this last focuses on the phrase “Son of Man”, whose meaning seems to range from “human” to “agent of God ushering in the end of the world”: tricky. Carpenter appears to conclude that Jesus saw himself as something definitely special, perhaps close to contemporary ideas of “Messiah” (a new David-like king to bring the Jews their political independence), but more importantly someone who would free the Jews from their dependence on classes of interpreters of the Law (Scribes, Pharisees) and give them the confidence to apply the Law of Moses to their own lives themselves.
The book, as all Carpenter, is really well written – an easy read, but one which addresses and deals clearly with complex ideas and questions, and which distills and clarifies a large amount of background reading. Sometimes, however, because of the paucity of evidence, he attempts to explain the world of the Gospels by using itself as evidence: for example (pp 70f) he sets the scene for a discussion of the accounts of Jesus’ driving out demons by explaining that Judaism had incorporated dualist ideas of good and evil forces during its exile in Babylon. The evidence for this just seems to be the Gospel accounts he is seeking to explain.
So it’s a very impressive book – very (in an Enlightment-careful) sense balanced and “reasonable”, steering a path between what he would regard as unacceptable positions of superstition and casual dismissal.

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1 Response to “Jesus” by Humphrey Carpenter

  1. Good post! Jesus as ‘Son of Man’ and/or ‘Son of God’ is my essay topic this term, so might look this book up for use.

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