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The edgy, adult Jesus you’ve never seen

By Bruce Chilton
Doubleday, 300 pages, $25


Open this book and see Jesus as you’ve never seen him. In modern terms, as the illiterate runaway laboring under the serious social stigma (for the times) that he was conceived before his parents were married. And the entire small town knew it.

If other critics report this is Jesus as he never was, ignore them. Author Bruce Chilton, an authority on Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, has a take on Jesus that keeps one reading this book as if it were the scriptures. You’ll find yourself stopping and pondering, marveling at what this incident or that conveys and means to you personally.

In a way, this reaction, reading as if the book were scripture, isn’t surprising. Chilton’s starting point is the Aramaic version of the scriptures -- which were oral, not written. Learning the scriptures 2,000 and 3,000 years ago required prodigious feats of memory. There’s no proof Jesus could read or write -- he didn’t need to if everything was committed to memory and most of his followers were illiterate, too.

Chilton fashions Rabbi Jesus from his time using the building blocks of those scriptures and the archeological revelations gleaned from excavations where Jesus lived and died.

Chilton has Jesus, a searching and tougher-than-you’d-think teenage kid, hanging around the temple because he senses there’s something there for him. Next Jesus is moving deeper into the search, hanging around John the Baptist who is purifying people in a new way. He joins up with John, but breaks painfully with him -- in Chilton’s reading of the scriptures -- in order to purify not simply with water, but with the spirit.

To make some of his case, Chilton has to downplay Luke’s gospel. The author also has to take a chance on the reader’s willingness to suspend suspicion long enough to see how the story line shapes up.

Some of Chilton’s images of the wild and scruffy and hungry teen linger and linger. Chilton’s version of the edgy adult Jesus challenges and ultimately makes sense. The whole package is enthralling.

Take a chance. This is one heck of a good read. And it left me feeling better than ever about the Jesus we try to serve and follow.

Of course, maybe I’m just a sucker for a good scene setter -- not Tom Clancy, but Graham Greene.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor-at-large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 5, 2001