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Weekly Alibi Ignorance Is Not Bliss

J.R. Porter's 'Jesus Christ: The Jesus of History, The Christ of Faith'

By Steven Robert Allen

JUNE 14, 1999:  Jesus Christ, this is a great book! Unfortunately, the nature of Porter's undertaking is such that we're inevitably left unsatisfied. If only we could step through a wormhole, slide back through time and space to first century Palestine to hunt for the man who's had a greater effect on Western civilization, and perhaps the entire planet, than anyone who ever lived. Of course, we'd have to brush up on our Aramaic first. We could set up a lunch date at Bennigan's, tape recorder in hand, and wag a microphone in front of his beard for a few desperate hours or days or weeks, until we discovered the truth.

Does he even have a beard? Is he nice? What color are his eyes? Is his voice calm and intelligent? Or is he a raging schizoid who twitches when he speaks? He'd probably be short. For some reason, I'm convinced of that -- but that's about all I can say. And hell, I just read the man's biography.

That's the danger of trying to compose a biography of Jesus of Nazareth. A little speculation, though, can go a long way in satisfying the imagination, if not the historical record. Biblical scholars can't be certain of much, but they can make pretty decent guesses about what was and wasn't plaus-ible.

Was Jesus from Nazareth? Yes, probably. He was probably born more than two thousand years ago, sometime between 7 and 4 B.C. The gospel accounts of his life weren't written down until decades after he was killed for what were probably political reasons. He probably spoke Aramaic. He was probably quite familiar with the Hebrew scriptures. He was probably well-versed in the various doctrinal conflicts between the different Jewish groups active during the first century. He probably died at the hands of the Roman authorities because of a fear that he would stir the people to rebel against the Empire and the entrenched Jewish Temple authorities who groveled before Caesar.

Probably, probably, probably.

Yet despite this essential reliance on vague scholarly speculation, Porter's book is a beauty. Full color maps, photographs and prints carry the reader back to the land and time of Jesus. The book is also logically organized to present modern biblical scholarship in the clearest possible light.

Jesus Christ begins with a section describing the geographic, political, religious and economic background of first century Palestine. It moves on to consider what we can guess about the life of the historical Jesus from our very limited sources: the four canonical gospels, the less reliable apocryphal gospels, the letters of Paul and the few brief statements from non-Christian, first century historians that refer to Jesus. Then comes a brief section on Jesus' teachings gleaned from the same sources, followed by a section on interpretations of Christ from diverse camps, including the early Church, Gnosticism, Judaism, Islam, feminism and liberation theology.

The book concludes with a section on artistic renderings of Jesus throughout the ages. This last section is a surprisingly apt conclusion to the biography because it emphasizes the underlying thesis of the text by illustrating the dichotomy between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith, between man and deity, between the irretrievable historical record and the chronology of the cult which became a world religion. The art shows how the image of Christ developed and fluctuated in the minds of his followers, how the quality of the religion itself had at least as much to do with the people who've called themselves Christians as it did with the man who began the whole movement in the first place.

In the 1940s two dramatic archaeological discoveries -- the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of writings from an obscure Jewish sect called the Essenes, and the Gnostic documents found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt -- shed new light on the era and the early Church but did little to further illuminate the actual life of Jesus of Nazareth. Maybe one day we'll find his autobiography stuffed inside a clay jar buried deep in the sands of the Judean wilderness. Until then we'll just have to rely on the tenuous methods of clever biblical scholars whose work and theories we may never be able to verify. (Oxford, hardcover, $35)

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