In an interview about this book with IVP's Daniel Reid, Paul Barnett-Anglican bishop of North Sydney, Australia, and research professor at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C.-recounts his astonishment when, as an undergraduate in ancient history thirty-five years ago, "We heard of Jesus only in the third year, and then only in relation to Constantine and the circumstances in the fourth century." Barnett, already a theology graduate and a seminary junior professor, was amazed that all that he had studied from the Bible "had made so little splash in the minds of ancient historians."
Starting from the premise that one of the primary tasks of historians is "to notice change and to account for it," Barnett set out to write a New Testament history that took proper notice of the historical changes wrought by early Christianity. What could plausibly account for its actual impact? Barnett's answer is that "Jesus himself is the 'engine' that drives the story of the New Testament." He drives it because, in fact, "the 'Christ of faith' was one and the same as the 'Jesus of history.'"
"So long as an unbridgeable gap is seen to lie between 'Jesus' and 'Christ,'" Barnett observes, "then 'Christ' can be held at arm's length as one deity among others on offer and … Christianity itself can be regarded merely as a matter of religious poetry and mystical worship." But if this gap is historically untenable, then "Christ's claims on individuals and societies are tenacious and real because they are based on the genuine historicity of Jesus as the Son of David, on his death for sins and upon his bodily resurrection." Barnett works to establish this by using standard methods of historical research and analysis. These include taking the historical facts that are incidentally related in the New Testament epistles especially seriously, since they were not written to convey new information about the historical Jesus or the rise of early Christianity.
He also argues that the history of the New Testament is a sacred history that fulfills all that was promised beforehand in the sacred history of the Old Testament. Thus, there is historical continuity between the Old Testament and Jesus, which leads the New Testament writers to present his claims in messianic rather than in charismatic terms. "The core belief of the New Testament is that Jesus is the Christ." And strikingly, as Barnett notes, even early unbelievers like Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus, and Suetonius always saw Jesus as "Christ" or as "Jesus the so-called Christ." It was unbelievers who, just a handful of years after Jesus' death, invented the name "Christians." The Greeks and Romans, Barnett observes, did not call Jesus' followers "Jesusianoi, 'followers of Jesus,' but Christianoi, 'Christians,' 'adherents of Christ.'" This, Barnett claims, "must reflect very early preaching that Jesus was the Christ, a doctrine that, in turn, arose out of the conviction that Jesus was, indeed, the Christ." So here is even more reason to think that the 'Jesus of history' and the 'Christ of faith' are not as distinct as, for instance, J. Dominic Crosson maintains.
Barnett says that completing this work has meant that "after a lifetime of attempting to do so by other means, I am now at last beginning to grasp the message and meaning of the New Testament." Indeed, this book, although not taking the shape of a doctrinally motivated defense of the historicity of the events related in the New Testament, tends to confirm its readers in their truth. It comes with the strongest recommendations of scholars such as D. A. Carson and Robert Yarbrough.