The Jesus of history and faith

The varieties of religious experience -


With impeccable millennial timing, Oxford University Press has produced a handsome, valuable, and thoroughly accessible new book, "Jesus Christ: The Jesus of History, the Christ of Faith."

Its splendid art reproductions and text by J.R. Porter are a trenchant reminder, if any is needed, of the immense impact of one life on 2,000 years of religious and cultural history - the carpenter of Nazareth become "Christ Pantocrator, ruler and redeemer of the universe."

It would almost be enough to own this book just for its visual content. The quality of some of the images, especially the mosaics, is good enough to spark a pilgrimage to see the originals. This is no coffee-table book, however. What will ultimately sustain a reader's interest is Porter's engaging text.

Jesus' story has no equivalent in human history, but, Porter notes, he "is a figure seen through the eyes of the early Church." All our information is filtered through people who never had direct contact with him. And, adds Porter, their "view of his significance was, crucially, shaped by their belief in his physical resurrection."

At the end of the 20th century, fresh controversy has surfaced around the question, "Who really was Jesus?" How accurate are the four New Testament gospels? Can we look to them for reliable information about either the Jesus of history or the Christ of faith? Porter's response seems to be, Let's put everything on the table that the gospels, history, and modern scholarship have to say about Jesus - and then take stock.

Wisely, Porter has grounded the entire presentation in the content of the gospels. "One of the most assured results of modern New Testament scholarship," he writes, "is that the evangelists provide virtually all that we know about Jesus, and that therefore we can approach him in no other way than through the gospels."

The vast, complex subject matter is organized in five sections - "The Setting" ("the general geographical, political, religious, economic, and social contexts in which Jesus operated"); "The Life" (not "a biography of Jesus in the modern sense" but an "evaluation of his life and deeds as recorded by the evangelists"); "The Teachings" ("a survey of Jesus' distinctive teaching methods," as well as "the main themes of Jesus' message"); "Interpretations" ("how the person of Jesus has been understood over the centuries"); and "Jesus in Art" ("a survey of the rich and varied traditions of Jesus in the history of Christian art," separately written by Jennifer Speake).

Those sections are further divided into 16 subsections. Porter's text is distributed by topic into 83 minichapters, each only two or four pages long. Within the chapters are many boxes and sidebars, all topically identified. The artwork and photos are closely tied to the written text.

The whole is masterly in its clarity, concision, and comprehensiveness. Porter's familiarity with scripture is profound, and he commands the knowledge gained from a long and distinguished career in biblical history and scholarship. His handling of a multitude of disputed points is consistently dispassionate, non-judgmental, and non-confrontational, even conciliatory, granting the possibility of validity to diverse points of view. Many readers will find themselves vigorously challenged to consider more thoroughly the source of their faith.

The best way to approach this book is to enter it with no set plan or agenda. Let the book beckon and suggest what you might look at or read. A good deal of the enjoyment comes from following the cross-references, using one to move to a related theme in some other chapter (or box or sidebar), perhaps picking up another one there and moving again, backwards or forwards. It's not unlike meandering through countryside that is basically familiar but whose side roads and foot trails are unexplored. The book is full of interesting side trips. Go where the spirit moves.

*Linda L. Giedl is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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