FROM JESUS TO CHRIST: THE ORIGINS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT IMAGES OF JESUS by Paula Fredriksen New Haven: Yale University Press. 256 pp. $22.50 IT'S Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, not Jesus, who stands out in Paula Fredriksen's attempt to sift the true Jesus from the images of his character and activity created by New Testament writers. As apostle to the Gentiles, Paul was dedicated to the universal Christ represented by Jesus. As historian, Fredriksen is committed to the unique - the individual - fact and event. The tension between the two approaches to Jesus in this book makes it exemplary of the drama it unfolds so carefully: the eclipse, as Fredriksen sees it, of the historical Jesus as Messiah by the spiritual, universal Christ.
Fredriksen traces the historical Jesus back into the Jewish traditions out of which he emerged. Her book is shaped like an hourglass. At the center is a short chapter on Jesus of Nazareth that ends with his crucifixion. She approaches this narrow focus from Paul and the gospel writers, the latest ones first.
Fredriksen confronts her documents - principally the writings of the New Testament - as an archaeologist would an especially rich, complex site. With great care she distinguishes the literary images from historical fact. As she does so, she explains the images of Jesus in terms of the strategies and purposes of the writers Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Much information about the situation of the early churches is conveyed.
Jesus' career, Fredricksen argues, both fulfilled and disappointed the expectations of the Jewish community. She argues that the Jews understood Jesus in terms of their own prophetic traditions but felt that his message - ``The Kingdom is at hand'' - left them vulnerable to reactions from the nervous Roman occupiers.
So he was crucified. Each Gospel, she shows, had to deal with ``the dynamics of expectation and disappointment'' in the long wait for the second coming. Each Gospel creates an image of Jesus appropriate to its author's situation.
The anxiety caused by the delay of the coming manifested itself in caricatures of Jesus' enemies in the Jewish communities. Fredriksen builds on the best modern scholarship to show how easily the conflicts within Judaism could be exaggerated by writers intent on goals other than historical record.
Indeed, Fredriksen measures Paul and the gospel writers by the standards of her profession - standards implicit in a concept of history that allows for facts and events but not for ideas and interpretive patterns. In the end, we learn more about the limits of this approach to history than about what her title promises.
As a summary of the last 200 years of historical scholarship of the Bible, ``From Jesus to Christ'' is useful. Fredriksen's clear, lively style is superbly confident. But by not granting that the Christ of her title - the Christ of Paul and John, for example - is as much a part of history as was ``the historical Jesus,'' Fredriksen knowingly neglects the fuller concept of history entertained by early Christians.
John, for example, thought the forward movement of history - even the expectation of the End - was overtaken by the certainty of already having overcome the world in Christ. For him, the knowledge of faith was as certain as the knowledge of an individual thing. But Fredriksen does not perceive the flowering of John's understanding of Christ as rooted in one of the seeds planted by Jesus. Nor, she says, can she grasp the ``content'' of Paul's vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, even though she has lucid, energetically argued pages on Paul's career before the vision. The presence of Paul's inspiration is felt on every page of this stimulating, provocative book.
Thomas D'Evelyn is on the Monitor staff.