The Messiah in Brief

Book cover
Jesusby By Paul JohnsonViking. 256p $24.95

For obvious reasons, Christians have been arguing about the identity of Jesus Christ for a very long time. Christological battles have raged, the Trinity has been analyzed by theologians both great and small, and the relationship between Christ’s humanity and divinity has fuelled squabbles in fourth-century Alexandria, 19th-century Boston and many times and places in between. Deciding what, who and why Christ was represents the most urgent task Christians can set for themselves. It is an obligation, frankly. It is therefore rather curious to find a book about Christ declaring that it is “futile for us to inquire into the nature of Jesus and God.” Yes, the Christians always have to admit that our feeble intellects can grasp such issues only in imperfect ways (through human concepts and human language), but calling the enterprise futile seems rather pessimistic. Still, this is what the British historian Paul Johnson does in his latest book.

He does find time to declare his own belief in Christianity, he quickly asserts that Christ was both God and man and, so far as one can tell, his positions on issues such as the Trinity, the authenticity of Christ’s miracles and the Resurrection are politely orthodox. By and large, however, Jesus: A Biography From a Believer is not very interested in theology. Johnson’s sole objective is to “write about Jesus the man” and to provide a potted history of his deeds and ideas.

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As the author concedes, pocket guides to Christ’s life and times are ten-a-penny. Johnson claims that “there are over one hundred thousand printed biographies of Jesus in English alone,” so we are bound to ask whether we require another. If Johnson had conjured up some new insight, or if he had sought to engage with all the fruitful scholarly research that has interrogated the creation and reliability of the Gospel texts, then his book might have represented a substantial contribution. Regrettably, he does neither. All we are offered is a cozy, straightforward synopsis: essentially, the canonical Gospel stories rehashed. Johnson’s book is well written and heartfelt, but if you have taken the trouble to read the New Testament you will not learn anything new here.

There is room for puzzlement. Johnson’s earlier studies of Christian history have not been to everyone’s taste and they have only rarely moved serious scholarly debates forward, but a book like his A History of Christianity at least possessed a certain chutzpah. This book, by contrast, is strangely anodyne. It also misses some obvious tricks. Even if you are dedicated to avoiding engagement with Christological debates, you are surely obliged to take a critical approach to the texts you are using. There are obvious questions, the kinds that oblige us to see Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as something more complicated and sophisticated than “essentially the memoirs of eyewitnesses.” How accurately do the Gospels report Christ’s utterances? How and when was oral tradition transmuted into written words? What were the strategic decisions that determined the content of the canonical Gospels? How should we approach the alternative versions of Christ’s message and ministry encapsulated in Gnostic texts? Asking such questions does not make one a disloyal Christian. If anything, it will make for a better one. That Johnson has largely ignored these pulse-beats of current early Christian scholarship is baffling.

Johnson ends by summing up Christ’s message in 10 new commandments. At last, the reader will hope, something daring and more substantial has arrived on the horizon. Sad to say, the list is very predictable: We are all equal in God’s eyes; power should be exercised with restraint; love should be the cornerstone of human relationships; we should all have open minds and believe in universality; and so forth. There is absolutely nothing wrong with lionizing such ideas. Vague as they are, they would probably lead to a cuddlier word, but two points have to be made. First, providing such a digest of Christ’s ideas is the least novel undertaking imaginable. Second, there is a huge risk of recruiting Christ as the harbinger of modern philosophical nostrums and forgetting that he was a denizen of the first century C.E.

Johnson wants to tell us about Christ the man. If you hope to do that well or originally, an aversion to reductionism, a sense of the mutability of the Gospel message during the church’s early centuries and a dislike of ahistorical platitudes are useful weapons to have in your interpretative arsenal. The author seems to have left them at home this time around.

As an expression of personal gratitude to Christ for influencing a Christian life, this book possesses great charm. It bears the hallmarks of authenticity. As a meaningful contribution to our table talk about Christ, or as a serious book about a serious subject, it is disappointing.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Robert Koch
8 years 4 months ago
I see Mr. Jonathan Wright uses the term C.E. rather than A.D. which is the more common usage, especially among Christian authors

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