This is the latest work of one of America’s most extraordinary and prolific Catholic theologians. Gerard Sloyan, a priest of the Diocese of Trenton, is a prominent Catholic scholar whose years of service have stretched beyond the biblical warrant of “four score and ten” and yet has not missed a beat, as the quality of this book on Jesus attests. He was a leader in Catholic religious education in the formative years prior to the Second Vatican Council, particularly in his leadership role in the department of religious studies at The Catholic University of America, and served after the council and until today as an eloquent and informed voice interpreting and amplifying the work of the council, particularly in the areas of Scripture, liturgy, religious education and interreligious dialogue.
This volume was originally intended to be part of a series of college textbooks, but the series itself never came to fruition. Fortunately, this work can easily stand on its own. Sloyan’s goal is to offer his readers a grasp of the person and mission of the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels, the Pauline letters and other New Testament books. He begins with a firm assertion that holds throughout the book: Christian faith is centered not as such on Jesus but on God, to whom all worship and praise is due. The Jesus of Christian faith, however, enters the heart of this God-centered faith as the one in whom the very presence of God is fully embodied. As the testimonies of all the New Testament literature agree, it is the death and resurrection of Jesus (which Sloyan prefers to refer to as the “upraising” of Jesus) that both confirms and reveals the astounding identity of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the world.
This fundamental Christian faith in Jesus’ victory over death, affirmed by the testimony of multiple apostolic witnesses, including key disciples and ultimately Paul himself, is the starting point and ending point of the New Testament portrayal of Jesus. Paul’s letters focus unerringly on this central mystery and, somewhat inexplicably in Sloyan’s view, forgo much interest in the activity of the earthly Jesus. Paul, however, develops in profound ways the meaning of the Christian’s union with the risen Christ and the implications of this for the character of Christian life and worship.
Mark’s Gospel, the first to be composed and one that serves as a primary source for Matthew and Luke, is, in a sense, a “homiletic” narrative reflection on the life of Jesus, but it, too, focuses on the climax of the Jesus story in his total self-giving and in his being raised from the dead, vindicating his mission and revealing Jesus’ identity as the triumphant Son of Man and the unique Son of God.
Matthew and Luke accept and absorb the fundamental portrayal of Jesus found in Mark’s Gospel but also provide their early Christian readers with examples of Jesus’ moral teaching and his compassionate healing and exorcisms, as well as his extraordinary power over nature—traditions that serve as instruction for Christian discipleship while confirming Jesus’ unique identity and mission.
John’s Gospel moves in a different key, while retaining the same fundamental melody: Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, reveals the true face of God through his words and deeds and, especially, through his death as an act of friendship, love and his vindication through resurrection and exaltation.
Reflecting Sloyan’s own deep knowledge of Jewish tradition, he notes that most of the teaching of Jesus fits clearly within the religious heritage of Judaism and finds coherence in the backdrop of the Hebrew Scriptures. Neither Jesus nor early Christianity can be properly understood apart from their Jewish matrix.
Sloyan concludes his portrayal of Jesus by demonstrating how the New Testament assertions about Jesus carry over into the post-New Testament period, including the writings of the Apostolic Fathers and the early councils.
It took me a while to realize that Sloyan’s eloquent and erudite summation of the New Testament faith in Jesus has virtually no footnotes or explicit engagement with other scholars. He writes what seems to be a personal synthesis of a lifetime of study and reflection on his subject. It is clear that he is well acquainted with contemporary as well as classic literature on this subject, and he does provide a brief list of suggested “Further Reading.” But his engagement with alternate approaches to Jesus is dealt with in clumps. It is clear that he has no time for the rationalistic approach of those who question the very existence of the Jesus of history. (Sloyan cites with relish the book of Richard Whately, an English clergyman who wrote a spoof directed at such rationalists entitled Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte—a book written two years before Bonaparte’s actual death.) He also refutes those who portray the Christian faith in Jesus as Son of God and Savior in an evolutionary manner—departing from the actual Jesus as an ordinary, if remarkable, rabbi and religious personage to being transformed over time by early Christian interpreters into a Hellenistic-type divine figure.
As he rightly emphasizes, Christian faith in the profound identity of Jesus began almost instantly with the experience of him as risen that prompted thoughtful Jewish Christians to re-interpret their Old Testament Scriptures in the light of this experienced reality. And he vigorously critiques the attempts of those who consider the New Testament portrayals as masking the reality of the Jesus of history (the Jesus Seminar is a prime culprit) and seek in vain to reconstruct a “Jesus of history” apart from or even in contradiction to the overall portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament.
As noted above, this work of Gerard Sloyan was intended to be part of a series of college textbooks. I think only an undergraduate who is a star and an informed theology major would be able to absorb this book without being overwhelmed. Its density, assumptions and its somewhat circular organization pose challenges for the novice reader. On the other hand, college teachers and scholar colleagues will find here a beautiful example of the contribution of a scholar who is in sure command of his subject, who has put together a compelling restatement and helpful analysis of the New Testament belief in Jesus the Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the world. As Fr. Sloyan notes at the outset of his work, this is the fifth book on Jesus he has written, the first being a religious education aid written in 1960. This latest work, written nearly 50 years later, is his best so far.