Book Review: A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus by John Dickson
John Dickson started out as a professional singer-songwriter but now works as a writer, speaker, historian and media presenter. He is the author of more than 15 books, and the presenter of three TV documentaries on the history of Christianity. He was also the Founding Director of Australia’s Centre for Public Christianity from 2007-2017.
This book is part of a series that seeks to communicate aspects of Christianity to a broad audience without assuming that they have any prior knowledge of the subject matter. Furthermore, John Dickson, although a Christian himself and an ordained Anglican minister, does not approach this topic from that of a Christian first and foremost, but rather that of a historian. In essence, he tries to walk a fine line where he will interject what he and other Christians believe on a topic, but most of the time, he makes it clear that what he is communicating is the agreed upon information we have about Jesus from those who are well-versed in that field of study.
The book begins by acknowledging that we often try to create a Jesus of our own. We allow our desires or the ideas of the society around us to be the primary contributors to what or who we think Jesus is. This is contrasted with the individuals who have actually looked into the material and evidence in order to inform their understanding of Jesus. That is exactly what this books seeks to do in an easy-to-read manual. As Dr. Dickson says: “the viewing public is left understandably perplexed, unaware that most of the best scholarship never reaches them” (p. 15). It is far easier to assume that the commonly held assumptions come from the scholars, but this is rarely the case.
The book considers the sources for how we know what we know about Jesus (chapter 2). He then goes on to consider Jesus as a teacher and how His words and actions have impacted both those who heard Him in history but also those who continue to follow what was recorded (chapter 3). Then the miraculous claims are assessed. Did Jesus do miracles? If so, how could we quantify them? What do scholars think on this subject? All of these questions and many more are considered (chapter 4). The author then turns to considering Jesus in His Jewish context and the land of Israel (chapter 5).
The subject of Jesus’ self-understanding is then taken up. What does it mean that Jesus is the Christ? How did Jesus understand what that title entailed? This self-designation is explored (chapter 6), followed by Jesus’ role as a judge (chapter 7) and friend (chapter 8). These chapters consider His social life and how He was viewed by others.
The final six chapters consider more of the “personal” side of Jesus and the implications of His life and actions. The reader is shown how Jesus re-defined the temple and worship, how we are to be saved from ourselves, and what true life means. Dr. Dickson also considers the implications of Jesus’ claims on the politics of His day. Since Jesus claimed to be Lord, that meant that He and His followers were seen as socially subversive because Caesar also claimed to be Lord. Finally, the combination of His claims to divinity coupled with His action of service and humility are considered.
Both the content and the layout of this book are easily accessible and digestible. A figure such as Jesus is so considerable that writing a primer on such a topic is no easy task. Yet Dr. Dickson does excellent work in setting out the questions, the difficulties and evidence. His work is especially helpful in causing the reader to consider both the common assumptions about Jesus as well as the common objections to Jesus. In both cases, he brings the evidence before the reader and even though he does not cover them extensively, he always gives food for thought and suggest the most relevant material in the field if the reader would like to pursue the matter further. This is an excellent book that is a one-stop-shop as a primer to Jesus – both His life and influence. Any person wanting to consider the matter objectively need look no further than this volume.
John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018. 251pp.