Saturday, January 28, 2012

Book Review: The Christ Files by John Dickson

John Dickson states in the introduction to The Christ Files that questions from skeptics about the historicity of Jesus and the validity of the New Testament drove him to write his book. Subtitled How Historians Know What They Know about Jesus, the work assesses the various sources of information available and the methodology used to arrive at reliable conclusions about Christ.

Dickson, who is a senior research fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University, Australia, emphasizes the fact that “professional historians, regardless of their religious persuasions, treat the New Testament and its portrait of Christ far more seriously than the general public realizes.” (19) Unfortunately, he says, the media’s penchant for publicizing sensational, controversial topics that do not necessarily reflect serious and valid scholarship gives people the wrong impression. They end up thinking Scripture is just mythology and nonsense based on its negative portrayal in the news.

However, as Dickson notes, most skeptics do not deny the historicity of Jesus. There is just too much evidence for his existence as a real historical figure to be able to dismiss him honestly. For the purposes of his book, Dickson looks at what he calls mainstream or “middle” historians. They neither use the historical information apologetically to prove the truth of Christ nor approach it atheistically to attempt to disprove Jesus’ reality. In fact, he says, mainstream historians have little interest in debunking or defending Christ or Christianity. They are interested in history for history’s sake and treat the books of the New Testament as they would any other historical documents.

This represents one of Dickson’s strongest points, that neutral historians accept the fact that the religious nature of Scripture in no way diminishes its historical value. In fact, he says, it is “simplistic and unhistorical to say Christian bias undermines the historical worth of the New Testament texts.” (48) He lists a half-a-dozen criteria used by historians to assess documents (i.e. coherence, dissimilarity, multiple attestation) and explains how each, when applied to the Biblical record, validate God’s Word from the historian’s perspective.

Dickson also devotes considerable time to assessing non-Christian writings from ancient pagan authors such as Tacitus and Pliny the Younger and ancient Jewish writers such as Josephus as well as the “secret gospels”. With regard to the latter, he addresses the idea that documents such as the Gospel of Thomas have been purposely kept hidden by the Church because they do not line up with orthodox Christian belief, pointing out that the so-called secret gospels have never been a secret at all. And, yes, he does mention Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code and the misinformation that people have gleaned from it regarding Jesus and Scripture.

Dickson also discusses oral tradition and the popular question of why the account of Jesus was not written down until several decades after his death. Dickson says that is like asking the question, “Why weren’t the Sydney Morning Herald or the New York Times published on the Internet until the mid-1990s?” (73)

Lastly, he looks at sources that give us information about the culture of Christ’s era and puts Jesus in the context of his time. For example, “the Mishnah allows historians to set Jesus’ ministry against the backdrop of what mainstream rabbis were teaching in Palestine between, say, 50 BC – AD 70.” (80)

The book includes discussion questions that can be used in a small group study and there is a DVD of The Christ Files available as well. Ideally, it would be good to purchase both together for corporate study.

Dickson’s work is brief (only 116 pages), but surprisingly thorough. He presents his information simply, but effectively. The book particularly suits the everyday person who has neither the time nor the inclination to delve into huge historical tomes. It’s a handy thing to have on the shelf when a co-worker or your next-door neighbor says, “But Jesus didn’t really exist, did he? I mean, there’s no evidence that he was real, is there?” This book provides clear, concise answers for such questions and is, therefore, highly recommended.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Mary Lou is a Canadian journalist currently working on a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from Tyndale University College and Seminary, Toronto, Ontario. She holds three other degrees, including one in history, and writes poetry and fiction as well as non-fiction.


NFQ said...

I'll add this to my to-read list.

Obviously I haven't read the full ~100pp set of arguments yet, but I see some problems right away with this point:
Dickson also discusses oral tradition and the popular question of why the account of Jesus was not written down until several decades after his death. Dickson says that is like asking the question, “Why weren’t the Sydney Morning Herald or the New York Times published on the Internet until the mid-1990s?”
That might be compelling if people hadn't been writing down important information for millennia at the time of Jesus' life, and if not for the common Christian assumption that God personally guided the writing of the scriptures to record and preserve them for posterity.

Regardless, although I'm not holding my breath, I have been asking Christians for a reason for/explanation of how it is possible to "validate God’s Word from the historian’s perspective" so I will definitely check this out. (It seems not to be about just whether there was a person named Yeshua who lived in Jerusalem at approximately the right time, which is totally plausible and likely to be true, but whether he was exactly the sort of person the Bible describes and whether he did all the things the BIble recounts.)

emmzee said...

I haven't read the book, but I have watched the DVD, and was rather disappointed with it to be honest. I bought it and previewed it to see if it would be appropriate for small group study at my church. Unfortunately although it has good production values I was underwhelmed by the depth of teaching. It seemed like such a waste: Here they were, spending the time & money to travel to all of these historic places, only to give cursory details and sometimes shallow arguments. There are some good questions asked, but these questions really demand more thoughtful responses than the 2-3 minutes they spend on them.

On the other hand, NFQ, IMHO you are setting the bar so high that it's impossible to satisfy. My free ebook at applies the same sort of historical tests used of other ancient documents to the NT documents, and I'm probably rather biased, but I think it does a pretty decent job of it. :) But I'm not sure whether it will meet your criteria, not because it is inadequate, but because the criteria itself is unrealistic.

MaryLou said...

To NFQ re: oral tradition and written documents:

There is a great deal of material validly supporting the assertion that first-century Jewish culture was an orally-dominated one and that oral transmission of material is reliable.

However, there are also scholars who assert that written material was more widespread than some believe and they argue that there is no reason to believe that the first Christians relied only on oral transmission. As New Testament scholar John Meier notes, the Jews were tied to written material (that is, Scripture) in a way that many Mediterranean people weren't.

Either way, the argument for reliability of the New Testament can be made validly.

To emmzee: Perhaps the book fills in the gaps that you felt existed in the DVD. I haven't seen it so I can't say for sure. The book is not as thorough as Blomberg's The Reliability of the Gospels, by any means, or even Bruce's The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? However, I think it would serve as an excellent introduction for those who have never done any study of the subject and who know nothing of how historians approach their work.

Anonymous said...

Dickson is brilliant. A thoughtful, honest scholar (and pastor now) who approaches issues fairly and with penetrating insights. Never loses sight of the big picture.

Being an Aussie, I've been aware of Dickson for a while, have read a few of his books, dvd's etc and have seen him speak a couple of times. It is heart warming to know that he is gaining a profile over there in the US as a result of a couple of his recent books. He definitely deserves it, there is zero doubt about that.

Anonymous said...

good response MaryLou,concerning the widespread of writing ........


for ict 99 said...


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