"A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Volume Two: Mentor, Message, and Miracles," by John P. Meier (Doubleday/Anchor,

1,232 pp.; $40, hardcover); "Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom," by Ben Witherington III (Fortress, 352 pp.; $35, hardcover); "The Gospel of Jesus: The Pastoral Relevance of the Synoptic Problem," by William R. Farmer (Westminster/John Knox, 240 pp.; $19.99, paper). Reviewed by Robert W. Yarbrough, associate professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary, Saint Louis, Missouri.

In a cover story on "The New, Unimproved Jesus" (CT, Sept. 13, 1993), New Testament scholar N. Thomas Wright surveyed the most influential recent attempts to reconstruct the "real" Jesus. While sharply critical of some of the arguments he assessed, Wright concluded by affirming the value of historical study of Jesus: "Let us not be on our guard against learning more about Jesus as he really was. In dismissing maverick writers and rejecting unsound scholarship, we should not miss out on the possibility of a new vision of the real Jesus that could revitalize the church and challenge the world of the twenty-first century." Since Wright's piece was published, the output of scholarship on the historical Jesus has continued at a prodigious rate. Here is an update from the field.

Remember that playground ditty sung out by children jumping rope? Rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief / Doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief. Scholarly theories about the historical Jesus have by now multiplied to a tangled mass every bit as disparate as the characters in the jump-rope rhyme: Wandering preacher, zealot, activist, magician; / Cynic peasant, prophet, wisdom-logician. (The rhythm works out after about a dozen tries - honestly.) ...

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