The Guardian (U.K. newspaper) is running series on “books that changed your life,” usually a paragraph on a something that was formative at a particular point for the writers. I wrote about The Trial and Death of Socrates, which I first read at about 14 – about the same time my next-door-but-one neighbour, an Anglican priest, showed me one of his books in Ancient Greek. I would certainly have been more employable and richer had I not succumbed to my instant desire to study Greek as well as Latin. I was positively envious of a student of mine later who went to Uni and studied Ugaritic… And of one who learned Hebrew and Arabic while at Uni in Jerusalem…
The book I have just finished is not about Socrates: it is about Jesus. So why did I not claim The Christian Scriptures as my life changing book? I did consider the idea for several days.
Jesus through the Centuries, by Jaroslav Pelikan, is certainly one of the best books of this year if not a lifetime best book (let the glow fade, Kathleen.) So why not? Why Socrates? Why not Jesus?
The answer for me is that Jesus is not a book. The Christian Scriptures are about Jesus as the Apology is Plato’s book about Socrates, but the experience of Jesus to a christian is not only the book. The experience of Jesus is, among other things, the experience of a community in continuing relationship with each other (in all centuries) and with the Christ, in liturgy and sacrament, in life rituals, hymns and celebrations, in ethics and worldview, and the response to the words and life of Jesus and the prophets before and since. As well as Scripture we rely (as my Methodist husband frequently points out) on tradition, reason and experience.
Pelikan lays out some of the different ways Christians have seen Jesus throughout the centuries. Moderns would mostly I think, use words like role model, teacher, friend.The two century long quest for the historical Jesus tries to find a concrete factual biography. The US evangelical words are “personal saviour.” So I found the richness of Pelikan’s many chapters really thought provoking. The list of the chapters alone can make us stretch our minds: I include them even though the list began to look like the ninety nine names of Allah-
The Good, the True and the Beautiful.
The Turning Point of History
The Light of the Gentiles
The King of Kings
The Cosmic Christ
The Son of Man
The True Image
The Monk Who Rules the World
The Bridegroom of the Soul
The Divine and Human Model
The Universal Man
The Mirror of the Eternal
The Prince of Peace
The Teacher of Common Sense
The Poet of the Spirit
The Man Who belongs to the World.
(That sounds like an old fashioned Catholic Litany!)
Each chapter includes the history of the era, its art, biblical references, and analysis of thinkers of that time. Common Sense, it will not surprise you to know is the era of the Enlightenment, the 17th and 18th centuries, and of well known writers, includes Jefferson’s scissor wielding approach to the historicity of the New Testament, to leave it a moral treatise by a great human figure.
I grew up heavily inculturated with fairly early and medieval images- the Son of Man, the True Image and Christ Crucified, and then in my convent years the Bridegroom of the Soul. These are not, however, exclusive views to fight over, but facets relevant to a particular Sitz im Leben (there must be an English word for that.) In some ways I wish (especially since reading 381A.D. by Charles Freeman last year) that the church had not ended the controversies about the nature and humanity/divinity of Christ with an imposed theological formula: I wish Christians were more like Jews in having ongoing interplay between text, commentators from the past centuries and present ways of expressing things. Neither creed nor historical Jesus studies is comprehensive or challenging enough. Important to me now is the Christ the Liberator image of modern Liberation Theology, and the teaching of Marcus Borg and John Dom Crossan about Jesus’ opposition to Empire.
And I find it encouraging rather than threatening that my experience and views have changed in my 70+ years. I wonder what I will think in another 10 years? (If I am still here to think, inshallah, rather than experiencing whatever of Reality I can experience after this life.) I’m enjoying the pilgrimage.