The author warns that Jesus' message is not for the fainthearted. Neither is this book. It presents an alternative picture of Jesus that often challenges and sometimes frankly contradicts the more traditional images presented by biographers. Offered is a literary portrait of a Jesus who is fully human, suffering from the same doubts and struggling with the same problems that beset other people. This story is no mere chronicle of the well-known sayings and events of the life and times of Jesus. It attempts to get in touch with the "inner man" so to speak, shining an academic light on the situations and experiences that eventually formed the "teaching that inspired Christianity," as the front jacket cover announces.
The forward clearly spells out the author's intention "to understand Jesus on his own terms rather than in the categories of conventional scholarship and theology" (xviii). This is going to lead to seeing Jesus in a way or ways that could possibly be a bit unsettling for readers searching for an updated but standard pious hagiography. This, the book certainly is not. The events of Jesus' life are framed within his cultural and social background. What comes through is a "portrait of Jesus as an inspired rabbi with an exclusively Jewish agenda" (xix). The story occasionally goes beyond the scriptural warrants and deals with logical surmise, but this is always clearly stated so the reader remains oriented to what is going on.
Chapter One begins with the birth of Jesus as a mamzer, a person of questionable parentage who is plagued by charges of being illicitly conceived all his life. As a young boy growing up a veritable outcaste, Jesus would have been both socially and religiously marginalized in the Galilee of his day. The author tells the story of "a small child standing apart from other children, wishing to play but not being included" (16), of someone excluded from regular synagogue activities. This, it is suggested, is the root of the unique and radically inclusive vision of God and humanity that Jesus preached and practiced throughout his life.
Chapter Two presents Jesus as not returning to Nazareth with his family after the incident of being lost in the temple. Rather, Jesus stays in Jerusalem, an adolescent with a rebellious and venturesome spirit, trying to break out of the conventional piety of a rural area that barely accepted him. The image is of a destitute vagabond huddling in doorways, thin and gaunt, begging on the streets. This is a far cry from the image of a pious young boy returning meekly to Nazareth with his parents, growing in strength and wisdom with the favor of God resting upon him (Luke 2:40).
Chapter three opens with Jesus as a young man meeting up with, and becoming a disciple of, John the Baptist, learning a mystical asceticism which informs and inflames his vision of reality ever afterward. Eventually, when Jesus does return to Nazareth, he does so as a prodigal son. Do we have here the origin of a famous parable drawn from real life experience? Chapters Four through Nine have Jesus formulating his message into a mature teaching and widening his field of influence. His itinerancy is an attempt to stay one step ahead of a gradually growing opposition. This is not an easy life. Jesus "was often testy and defensive, prone to overreact to any suggestion that he wasn't loyal to Israel" (70). His growing practice of fellowship at meals leads to questions and doubts about how carefully he observes the ritual practice of purity at meals. The author suggests that a bipolar tendency becomes evident in Jesus' personality during this time, evident in his swings between "dramatic public display...and periods of silence and isolation" (104).
By this point, an unusual picture of Jesus the man is clearly emerging which confronts the imagination with neuralgic possibilities. Instead of a cerebral, philosophical rabbi, the reader encounters an earthy "carousing drunkard" (313), a man "shorter than the norm, overweight, and tending to baldness" (138). And what about Jesus' sex life? "There is no evidence that Jesus did or did not enjoy sexual contact during his life...I would caution against the sanguine assumption that Jesus was celibate" (145).
Chapters Ten through Fourteen detail the well-known events leading up to the final times of Jesus' life. Rather than a compact series of happenings taking place within a few days, the author suggests that they occurred over a period of several years. Jesus becomes an unfortunate victim of political intrigues he barely comprehends. He did not have as much advance knowledge about the specifics of his death as the Gospels indicate. The resurrection sightings were a group visionary experience of what the apostles and other followers finally came to understand as the true meaning of who Jesus was. This is not high Christology. There is little or no divine overlay. The miracles are understood in the light if natural or psychological phenomena. He was a man who directly challenged the established ritual practice of sacrifice in Israel, and paid for it with his life.
Chapters Ten and Eleven are of particular interest and value for the job they do sketching out the political situation between Rome and Jerusalem, as well as discussing the figure of Caiphas and the role of high priest as frameworks for understanding Jesus' eventual end. The book would be a worthwhile addition to a personal professional library. It may be of use as a supplemental text for a course on Christology on the graduate, but not on the undergraduate, level.