Jesus' Identity and Message Stir New Questions


By Richard A. Horsley

and Neil Asher Silberman


288 pp., $27.50


By Susannah Heschel

U. of Chicago Press

317 pp., $48 ($20 paper)

Nearly two millennia after his brief appearance in a remote Roman province, Jesus Christ continues to inspire questions. Centuries of study by theologians and scholars have failed to fully answer even some basic questions: Was Jesus a Jew or a Christian? An inspired teacher or the divinely appointed Messiah? And finally, was he a historic personage or a mythical fabrication? Two new books approach and answer these questions in very different ways.

The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World, by Richard Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, is a highly readable history of the first century of Christianity. Spanning a period roughly covering the birth of Jesus to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (AD 70), "The Message and the Kingdom" places the Master in the context of the history of the Holy Land and of the Roman Empire.

Horsley and Silberman powerfully evoke the horrifying oppressions of Rome. This was a culture in which some lived in unimaginable luxury and others wallowed in unspeakable poverty. The reader can almost see the riches and beauty of the imperial court, and all but smell the putrid salt-fish factories surrounding the Sea of Galilee in the time of Jesus.

The main thrust of "The Message and the Kingdom" is sobering and timeless. For the early Christians, the destruction of the temple and of much of Jerusalem brought the painful realization that Jesus' assurance "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32) was much more a spiritual than a political promise.

The long-awaited Messiah was not sent to free the Jews from the yoke of Roman rule, but to liberate all mankind from corruption of every sort - political, moral, mental, physical.

"The Message and the Kingdom" tells an exciting story, and tells it well. The authors quote extensively from Scripture, from early histories of Christianity, and from current scholarship. Time lines and bibliographical notes provide a path for further research. The dynamic, vivid images of Jesus and of Paul, almost on fire with Old Testament promises of deliverance and freedom for humanity, make for inspired and exciting reading.

Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, by Susannah Heschel, reminds us that scholarly historical investigation of Jesus Christ, such as "The Message and the Kingdom," are a relatively recent phenomenon. Geiger (1810-1874), a German rabbi, was one of the founders of Reform Judaism. He was also a brilliant philologist; his doctoral dissertation studied the influence of Jewish writings on the Koran, but he soon turned his gaze to the New Testament. There he found overwhelming evidence that Jesus' teachings were not novel, but solidly rooted in Jewish thought.

Few Christian scholars welcomed Geiger's insights, and most found the concept of a Jewish Jesus deeply disturbing. Jews were despised in Europe; discrimination was so routine that Geiger could not even reply to criticisms published in scholarly Christian periodicals, since submissions by Jews were automatically rejected. Reaction to Geiger's findings reached horrific heights in the 20th century, with the Nazi claim that Jesus was not Jewish at all, but the consummate Aryan.

As compelling as this story is, "Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus" leaves much to be desired for the reader unfamiliar with the rabbi's life and work. There are numerous paraphrases, but almost no extended quotations from Geiger's writings, and so few details of the rabbi's New Testament insights are given. Also, Geiger's achievements as one of the founders of Reform Judaism receive little attention, but it was surely his intent that this branch of Judaism address some of the problems facing Jews in a Christian society, just as his writings were to establish a bridge between Jewish and Christian thought.

Neither "The Message and the Kingdom" nor "Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus" answer all the questions about Jesus as a figure in world history. Finding the Master through the study of ancient or modern history inevitably sheds light on some but not all aspects of his ministry. The search for answers is one that is as much personal as it is universal, as much spiritual as historical. It is a search that will and must continue.

* Judy Huenneke regularly reviews books on religion for the Monitor.

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