Books In Review

The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 86 (October 1998): 60-63.

Have You Found Jesus?

The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus. By Charlotte Allen. Free Press. 359 pp. $26.

Reviewed by Luke Timothy Johnson

When journalists take on intellectual history, the results are sometimes frightful and sometimes delightful. In the present case, reading gives more pleasure than pain. Charlotte Allen—a contributing editor to Lingua Franca—is a journalist who has made several earlier forays into the world of academic religionists, most notably in her piece devoted to the Jesus Seminar, "Away With the Manger" (Lingua Franca, February 1995), and in essays on the quest for Q and the political fissures within religious studies departments in American universities. Her short essays have always combined analysis of thought and personalities of thinkers; her deadpan observations on the presence of Hollywood director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers) at the Jesus Seminar were priceless. Now she has undertaken, with impressive success, a full-length study of that peculiar intellectual adventure story known as the quest for the historical Jesus.

Her project could not be more timely, for the "Jesus Wars" (in Peter Steinfels’ phrase) have been raging now for over a decade in publications, press releases, and lecture halls as an intense side-conflict in the wider culture wars within which the study of religion finds itself enmeshed. Given the amnesiac condition of religious consciousness generally, many observers (and apparently some participants) think that the battle over the humanity of Jesus is an altogether novel phenomenon. Others (especially participants) accept Albert Schweitzer’s remarkable study, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) as both exhaustive and authoritative. A more general account that is more comprehensive than Schweitzer as well as more accessible to nonexperts has long been needed. Allen’s book, while scarcely perfect, goes some way toward meeting that need.

Allen is not herself an academic and she brings to her research a certain calculated naivete. She has no particular awe of the giants buried in the old books and is willing to stumble about in the world of ideas, assuming that ideas are always connected to people and therefore always to culture as well. As a result, her perceptions have a freshness and clarity that are rarely found in guild productions. Although her account is thick with name and incident, she develops three major themes. The first is that the significance of Jesus’ humanity goes back to the beginning of Christianity and the specific desire for a non-supernatural Jesus has roots earlier than Schweitzer suggested. The second is that the debate over Jesus’ identity has always been caught up in larger intellectual and cultural contexts. The third is that the first and greatest loss was Jesus’ Jewishness and that the greatest gain in some recent historical work is its restoration.

Grasping Allen’s concern for Jesus’ Jewishness makes intelligible an arrangement of chapters that otherwise appears odd. She begins with "Jesus’ Jewish World," but apart from the opening paragraphs, leaves Jesus out of her sketch of Jewish life in Palestine under the empire. Only in the last chapter, "The Return," does she show how one stream of current research—sometimes called "The Third Quest" in distinction from the "New Quest" associated with the Jesus Seminar and its allies—places Jesus back into that context. The larger point of all her nine intervening chapters, then, is that all other forms of the search for the human Jesus were a form of intellectual detour, or, to use her implied metaphor, exile.

In contrast to her bemused detachment in reciting earlier excursions, Allen’s concluding paragraph offers a positive endorsement of this third quest: "With its emphasis on the continuity between the Jewish worlds of Jesus and the Judaism-infused theology of a crucified Messiah, the Third Quest seems to promise some results of lasting value—perhaps because it represents a full-circle return. Jews and Christians will probably never reach a consensus on who Jesus was, but the importance placed by the third questers on the ancient prophetic tradition offers a way in which Jews and Christians might reach a consensus on what Jesus was like."

Allen also argues that the debate over the humanity of Jesus is both older than Schweitzer let on and more culturally diffuse. In "The Quarrels of the Ancients," she demonstrates how the significance of Jesus’ humanity was at the heart of early Christianty’s Christological debates: if it was emphasized too much, one committed the heresy of Nestorianism; if it was slighted by his divinity, one committed the heresy of Monophysitism. Allen recognizes, however, that more than logomachy or even ecclesiastical positioning was involved: "For Gregory [of Nyssa] and others of his era, defining Jesus’ identity was of the utmost importance inasmuch as they believed that their own salvation depended on their imitating his blameless life." And she recognizes that the Chalcedonian formula ("two natures, one person") forged under the influence of Leo the Great in 451, while expressing the conviction of faith that in the human Jesus God was somehow truly encountered, also tended to perpetuate the tendency to focus on one side of the equation or the other. For much of the history of Christianity, the divinity was celebrated with such fervor that the humanity could sometimes seem only an abstract concession to dogma.

Allen’s third chapter is aptly named "The Paradigm Shift," for the pendulum swing away from the divinity of Jesus to his humanity— including a focus on his words and deeds rather than upon his character—was part of a larger intellectual shift that involved the perception of the Gospels (and all of Scripture) less as divine revelation and more as historically conditioned, human compositions. She agrees with Schweitzer that the development of historical criticism of the New Testament and the quest for the historical Jesus have gone together from the eighteenth century to the present. Schweitzer, however, began with Herman Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) and regarded the quest as one of the intellectual glories of German scholarship. He paid only meager attention to French or British writers, and only when—as with Ernest Renan (1823-1892)—failure to do so would have been obvious.

Allen, in contrast, properly acknowledges the fundamental contribution of the French Catholic Richard Simon (1638-1712) to the development of biblical criticism, and the pioneering importance of the English Deists to the search for a thoroughly de-supernaturalized Jesus. Indeed, she credits Thomas Chubb (1679-1747) with originating the quest, anticipating by several decades the work of Reimarus. Chubb’s True Gospel, she asserts, "has served as the template for nearly every subsequent reconstruction of the historical Jesus, from Reimarus’ seventh Fragment of the 1760s to the Jesus Seminars of the 1980s and 1990s": Jesus was a plain-speaking prophet whose life was embroidered in a series of increasingly unreliable Gospels; and it was Paul of Tarsus who invented Christianity.

Allen’s final theme occupies her middle seven chapters, from "The Talk of the Coffee Houses" to "Avant-Garde Fashions." The titles are revealing: the progression of biblical criticism is connected not only to the explicit intellectual influences exercised by thinkers from Locke to Heidegger but also to the personal quirks of the critics and questers themselves. Allen is fascinated by David Strauss’ The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835), but she is even more intrigued by the way a young Englishwoman named Mary Ann Evans translated Strauss, Spinoza, Comte, and Feuerbach for the enlightenment of the British populace before turning her hand to the novel, and becoming George Eliot. She is pleased to note the relatively short distance separating such American academics as Shailer Matthews or Shirley Case Jackson and such popular novelists as Lew Wallace (Ben-Hur) and Lloyd C. Douglas (The Robe). She has the journalist’s instinct for good gossip, and her relish at finding the small biographical links between the espousers of ideas is obvious.

Nowhere is this more the case than in her chapter "Sex and Death for the Cinema." Beginning with a detailed account of Ernest Renan and his Vie de Jesus (1863), she traces the lurid trail of romantic, orientalizing, and antiquarian literary treatments of Jesus like those of Gustave Flaubert (Herodias), Oscar Wilde (Salome, De Profundis), and Henryk Sienkiewicz (Quo Vadis), leading in more recent times to Nikos Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ and to film treatments ranging from Cecil B. DeMille to Martin Scorsese.

Albert Schweitzer described the quest for the historical Jesus as a history of ideas, as though the world of books were all that mattered. Charlotte Allen describes the quest as an intellectual history in which ideas are embedded in the lives of real people and real cultural contexts. She shows how the search for the human Jesus has always been a very human search.

Luke Timothy Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.