Brief Reviews

Jean-Pierre Isbouts – The Fractured Kingdom [Review]

The Fractured KingdomA Slightly-Fractured Case for Unity

A Review of

The Fractured Kingdom: Uniting Modern Christianity through the Historical Jesus
Jean-Pierre Isbouts

Hardcover: Morehouse Publishing, 2023
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Reviewed by Joel Wentz

It is not particularly insightful to make the observation that American Christianity is divided and polarized in the year 2023, but what is more intriguing is a call towards ecumenical unity through an understanding of the ministry of the historical Jesus of Nazareth around which the various and fragmented branches of modern Christianity can rally. Jean-Pierre Isbouts new book is a well-researched, briskly-written and genuinely penetrating historical study that ostensibly has an imagined Christian unity as its primary goal.

The problem, and perhaps a bit ironically, is that The Fractured Kingdom is itself a fractured book. On one side of the fracture, Isbouts explores the historical and cultural setting of Jesus’s earthly ministry with great aplomb and keen astuteness, pulling on serious academic work and drawing helpful connections and salience to our current socio-political divisions and tensions.

“The fact of the matter is that Jesus’ ministry unfolded in a time of unprecedented social and economic disruption, producing a vast gap between the rich elite and the vast majority of the poor and dispossessed. . . That in itself makes Jesus’ teachings so eminently relevant for us in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when we ourselves witness the fall-out from our growing inequality and the yawning gap between a tiny elite and a vast majority of American citizens struggling to get by” (25-26).

These early chapters of The Fractured Kingdom sparkle with helpful insights and plausible historical reconstruction of ancient Judea, Rome and Galilee. Isbouts’s discussion of what the so-called “lost years” of Jesus’s youth may have looked like is genuinely fascinating, more so than many similar accounts this reviewer has studied. Especially so is Isbouts’s proposal (backed up by historical scholars) that disease and malnutrition were endemic issues that were deeply and specifically entangled with subsistence levels of poverty and oppressive taxation policies of the time, all of which Jesus would have encountered daily in his formative years. The political maneuvering of the wealthy and powerful of Jesus’s day would have only exacerbated the suffering and frustration in which Jesus was socially immersed, and this all provides a powerful backdrop for understanding the impact of the healing and feeding miracles that are all associated with the historical Jesus of Nazareth. These chapters are a rich reading experience, suffused with Isbouts’s deft writing and passion for historical study. Those who are interested in the historical Jesus, but do not have the time or energy for the hundreds of pages written by the likes of Richard Horsely, John Meier or N.T. Wright would greatly benefit from Isbouts synthesis. Indeed, if The Fractured Kingdom was more strictly about making these scholarly works more accessible, it would be a fantastic success. It is where the book pivots in the second half, towards a plea for Christian unity that it stumbles.

The second half of The Fractured Kingdom moves through a line-by-line study of the Lord’s Prayer, with the reconstructed historical backdrop of Judea and Galilee perpetually in the background, to put forward an invitation for Christian unity around the pillars of Jesus’s values and ministry as articulated in the lines of this famous prayer. On the surface, this is a worthy and compelling notion. If any piece of ancient liturgy should provide a rallying point for a fragmented Christianity, it may very well be the Lord’s Prayer! The problem is that Isbouts occasionally forgets that a call for unity should be sensitive to each “branch” of the modern Christian tree to which he is ostensibly appealing.

For example, Isbouts deploys the occasional blunt statement that, while completely inoffensive to those acquainted with academic historical-critical scholarship, would deeply rankle a more conservative reader. “In effect, Paul unmoored the Jesus movement from its Jewish roots altogether, and made it a new religion uniquely suited to the needs and aspirations of the Roman world” (109, emphasis added). Such a sweeping statement about Paul is far from settled in Pauline scholarship, and simply feels like it doesn’t belong in an otherwise careful and nuanced study. In a second, and even more surprising, example, during a discussion of the historical veracity of the passion narrative in the Gospel of Mark, Isbouts openly agrees with the much more critical strand of scholarship that questions the reliability of the written canonized account (a conclusion that, of course, is itself deeply contested) to the extent of encouraging the “many devout Christians [who] feel deeply uncomfortable with this line of reasoning” to “skip the remainder of this chapter and move on to the next one” (171). It’s one thing to discuss a knowingly charged and contested historical matter, and even to openly acknowledge one’s biases on the page, but the choice to do so in the midst of a book that is explicitly about appealing to Christian unity in a deeply polarized time is, to put it mildly, a bit of a baffling editorial decision.

In conclusion, I really do not want to overstate these concerns. In fact, they are only concerns at all because Isbouts’s intention in writing is to appeal to, and build towards, Christian unity. Had these occasional jarring assertions in the second half been edited more carefully, or perhaps better yet, had the book been more carefully structured and branded as a popular-level synthesis of historical Jesus research and a consideration of some of the cultural parallels between today and Galilee in the 1st century, I dare say it would be a smashing success. I genuinely enjoyed Isbouts’s writing style, found many of his historical ideas compelling, and found myself reimagining some of Jesus’s most famous parables and miracles with his proposals in mind. The discerning reader, especially one interested in the cultural background of the Gospels, will likely find great insight here as well, but it is the discerning reader that also may be a bit flummoxed by the ways Isbouts’s argumentation occasionally agitates against his own stated desire to unify Christians in our time.

Joel Wentz

Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com

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