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Spring Books

Search for 'real' Jesus opens door to divine

The Latest Research and Discoveries

By Ian Wilson
HarperSanFrancisco, 206 pages, cloth, $27.50

By Tom Wright
William B. Eerdmans, 160 pages, cloth, $20


"Just who was Jesus? And to what extent was he, is he God's son? ... These questions were potent enough causes of squabbling among the Nicea delegates back in the year 325 AD. But they remain every bit as difficult and controversial to this very day" (Wilson).

"Just who was Jesus?" is the question grounding two brand new books -- Jesus: The Evidence by Ian Wilson and The Original Jesus by Tom Wright.

Interest in the historical Jesus is currently high, from the Jesus Seminar, making news from time to time about what Jesus apparently did or did not actually say, to recent cover stories in major periodicals. Still, questions abound. As Wright says, "Just what should anyone believe about Jesus?" and "How can the death of a man 2,000 years ago, in another culture and another place, be relevant for me at this end of the 20th century?"

Wilson's book, which addresses these questions and many more, is a revision of his 1984 bestseller by the same title. Wright's volume grew out of a collaboration with the BBC on a recent sequence of programs on Jesus. Wilson employs painstaking scholarship, offering data and reasoned analysis in writing his fascinating and eminently readable Jesus: The Evidence. Even so, sometimes the answers that come up are simply, "We don't know for sure."

Wright's The Original Jesus, equally well-written, is more a cultural analysis of some of the stories by and about Jesus that sheds new light on the familiar tales. Wright is more willing to be definitive in some of his conclusions, his position being: Yes, we do know, but for the sake of this volume, you'll have to take my word for it. He acknowledges in his preface the need to "explain things in more detail," and to this end directs us to some other works of his as well as an abundance of additional sources.

Both writers readily acknowledge their Christian faith, but Wilson writes principally as a historian, not sidestepping messy questions and answers, whereas Wright speaks more as the pastor that he is as dean of Lichfield Cathedral in Staffordshire, England. Both books are gorgeously presented, richly illustrated and visually pleasing as well as intellectually stimulating.

Both writers employ archaeological, cultural and supporting evidence, not the least of which is the Jewish historian and contemporary of Jesus, Josephus, whose Antiquities confirms nothing less than the actual existence of Jesus and the small "cult" of followers that bore his name.

And how did this "cult" develop? What was it that caused people to believe in him, to follow him and eventually to even die for him? Both writers conclude that at the very least Jesus must have been on some political fringe to explain certain events, one of which was the triumphal ride into Jerusalem. The Jews, under Roman occupation at this time, were desperate for a public hero. Nothing short of a political rally would have explained those crowds and adulation that day. Wright gives the political theory more play than Wilson and supposes that because Jesus spent so much time in the hills around Galilee, known hangouts for guerrillas in the Jewish warfare against the Romans, that he wanted, intended even, to be identified with these leftists. He goes on to unpack several parables in this light to suggest that Jesus used political rabble-rousing as a metaphor for the spiritual anarchy he was about to unleash -- nothing short of a new and radically different way of thinking about and living one's life.

While acknowledging the political potential in Jesus' public life, Wilson leans more to the miracles to explain his notoriety. But what about those healings? "Hypnosis!" Wilson suggests, might go a long way to explain what was happening, and he examines several "miracles" from this hypothesis even to the extent of suggesting that Jesus had such charisma and power of persuasion that he could make a crowd of inebriates believe they were drinking fine wine. If this is true, you have to admire Jesus' chutzpah in pulling this one off.

So, if the miracles can be extenuated as hypnosis, what about that most highly charged aspect of Jesus' personhood, his divinity?

When asked the question, "Can you, as a historian, say Jesus is God?" Tom Wright (he's the churchman, remember) responds that it is a good question, but just not the right question. It assumes, he says, "that we know who God is, and we don't." But, he is quick to add, "We can discover God by looking at Jesus. At the heart of the Christian faith is the view not that Jesus is more or less like God, but that that being we refer to as 'God' was and is fully present and fully discoverable in and as Jesus of Nazareth."

On the same God question, Wilson, typically of the style of his entire book, takes us down a path littered with all the reasons Jesus was probably not God, even including Jesus' own disclaimers, but then gradually Wilson bends that road and reasoning so that we effectively travel Wilson's own path from agnosticism to belief. He sums it up this way: "In a way still beyond human understanding, two thousand years ago some of God was made flesh in (Jesus) and shone through him and spoke through him ... and because he was such a perfect vessel of God, on death, he did not die as other humankind, but passed through that so illusory barrier to become the open door to the divine and to the eternal values of truth and love."

Of all the questions swirling around Jesus -- the virginity of his mother, possible siblings, environment of his upbringing, his sense of mission, political methodologies and his rising from the dead -- one fact remains incontrovertible: that however much or little can be pieced together, however many questions remain unanswerable, Jesus, after 2,000 years, is still the most "influential individual there has ever been in all history." And to the ever-present question from the gospels to Wilson and Wright, "Who do you say that I am?" -- speaking for myself, I say, after reading these two wonderful books, that Jesus must have been one fascinating guy, one whom I wish I had known in the flesh.

Judith Bromberg is a frequent contributor of book reviews in NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 1997