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Book Review: Jesus: A Biography from a Believer by Paul Johnson

Posted By Ed Voves On April 7, 2010 @ 2:03 pm In Biography,Non-Fiction Reviews,Religion | 3 Comments

Jesus: A Biography from a Believer
by Paul Johnson
Viking Adult, 256 pp.
CLR Rating:

Revelation and Revolution

Jesus of Nazareth started to preach and heal the sick when he “was beginning about the age of thirty years,” according to St. Luke’s Gospel. Of his early life during the first decades of the 1st Century, almost nothing is known. His ministry to the poor and troubled inhabitants of Galilee, Samaria and Judea lasted a mere three years. Then, after arousing the suspicion and anger of the ruling elite, he was crucified, died and was buried.

In one of the strangest twists of human history, what should have been the end of the story was just the start. This new beginning, the Resurrection of Jesus, is an event which surpasses, indeed confounds, rational explanation. Believing that Jesus rose from the dead is an act of faith. The Resurrection is a theological litmus test, separating those who believe that Jesus, fully human and fully divine, triumphed over death – from those who do not so believe.

Paul Johnson believes. His new life of Jesus is aptly subtitled “A Biography from a Believer.” It can only be properly evaluated if Johnson’s devout acceptance of the sacred mysteries of Christianity is acknowledged. You need not believe that Jesus was the son of God or could work miracles. But to properly appreciate Johnson’s book, you will need to believe that he believes.

Appreciating Paul Johnson is not always the easiest of tasks. In fact, it is often a matter of “giving the devil his due.” Ever since his first major work of religious history, A History of Christianity, published back in 1977, Johnson has shown a commendable willingness to take on important themes. A brilliant researcher, Johnson has a flair for evaluating huge masses of data, setting forth the insights he has derived in vigorous and cogently argued prose. But often the provocative nature of his conclusions veers into polemics and Johnson’s private passions sometimes get the better of his judgment.

Arguments and agendas have little place, happily, in Johnson’s Jesus. This “brief life” is a model of clarity and restraint. Johnson closely follows the scriptural accounts of Jesus’ ministry, but always adheres to the spirit of the texts. Even when commenting on the message of Jesus, Johnson refrains from building elaborate systems of theological interpretation. Nor does he get sidetracked in the labyrinths of biblical scholarship. First and last, this is a book about Jesus.

What has Johnson to say about Jesus that needs to be emphasized in our time? Johnson depicts Jesus as a quiet revolutionary whose goal was to bring humanity to a special kinship with God. Johnson writes that the essence of the teaching of Jesus was that “the entire human race was the ‘children of God.'” Born a Jew, Jesus lived and died as a Jew, but he constantly reached beyond the Torah, the body of laws that insured the survival of Judaism in a very hostile world. By extending the special relationship that existed between the Jews and God to include Gentiles, Jesus sought to open the gates of the Kingdom of God to all who believed, to all whose faith had saved them.

Jesus’ special vision for all humanity was founded upon the special vision he had of himself, as the “son of God.” At some point early in his childhood, Jesus experienced a vision, epiphany, moment of spiritual awareness, call it what you will, that convinced him that he was called to do the work of his “heavenly Father.” This is quite clear in the story of his childhood visit to the Temple in Jerusalem that can be found in the Gospel of St. Luke. Not only is this the only story of his early days, beyond the familiar infancy narratives, to come down to us in the scriptures, but it also has the hallmarks of actually having occurred in the way it is described. Therefore, it is worth considering at some length.

As recounted in the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus, aged 12, accompanied his parents, Mary and Joseph, on a Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the return trip, each parent thought Jesus was in the company of the other. After frantic searching, they found to their relief that Jesus was still in the Temple “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.”

So far, this is an endearing tale of a family holiday mix-up and a precocious boy on the brink of manhood. Jesus’ response to Mary’s exasperated demand that he explain his thoughtless behavior, however, is a startling manifestation of his spiritual self-awareness. He replied to his mother’s question with one of his own, asking her why she did not understand “that I must be about my Father’s business.”

Johnson’s gloss on this fascinating event cuts straight to the heart of the matter: “It is striking that these first recorded words of Jesus are of a piece with his entire life and mission: he must be about God’s business. And though Mary, by courtesy, refers to Joseph as his father, Jesus already knows and believes his Father is God…”

There is a further element to this episode. Among the “doctors” or theologians who taught in the Temple about the time that Jesus and his family visited there, was the great Rabbi Hillel. Born in Babylon, rather than Judea, Hillel was a religious moderate, whose interpretation of the Torah was rooted in an empathetic appreciation of the daily lives and spiritual needs of the great mass of the Jewish faithful. To the teaching of Hillel, may be traced the Golden Rule. “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor,” Hillel proclaimed. “That is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary – go and study it.”

Was Hillel teaching in the Temple with the boy Jesus in attendance? In his earlier book, A History of the Jews, (1987) Johnson treated the life of Hillel in considerable detail and speculated that Jesus “may have sat under him, for Hillel had many pupils.” Surprisingly, he does not include further reflection on this issue in his biography of Jesus. The relationship of Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders that began with the Temple incident was certainly “of a piece with his entire life and mission.” Much of Jesus’ teaching reflects that of Hillel. Furthermore, the opposition to Hillel’s tolerant, pragmatic approach to the Torah by another religious leader, Shammai, who preached a rigorous adherence to all the rules of the Torah, reveals that a divisive rivalry, much like that of Jesus and the “Scribes and Pharisees,” actually predated him.

Why did Johnson not comment upon these important themes in his biography of Jesus? There are dangers in trying to find “human” explanations from the contemporary word of Jesus “the man” to solve the mysteries of Jesus the “son of God.” Something beyond the norms of human experience happened during Jesus’ three year ministry. Something happened that cannot be reduced to a list of incidents and outside influences. This is particularly true when considering Jesus as a worker of miracles.

In 1925, the American writer Bruce Barton published a best-seller about Jesus, The Man Nobody Knows, which proclaimed Jesus to be the “The Founder of Modern Business.” Whatever the merits of that thesis, Jesus never aspired to be a master of public relations. Indeed, one of the most important themes of St. Mark’s Gospel is the “Messianic Secret.”

Jesus cured the sick and healed the minds of the tormented, but always with the injunction to tell no one. The miracles of Jesus, according to Johnson, were reluctant acts, performed for a specific purpose – to aid a fellow child of God. Creating a sensation to promote mass conversions was the last thing that Jesus intended. Miracles were dangerous acts, not only because they could be termed as acts of blasphemy by Jewish religious leaders or political subversion by the Roman political overseers. Miracles, if seen as anything but infusions of spiritual grace to suffering individuals, could become stumbling blocks on the road to salvation, blinding rather than opening the eyes of the faithful to their own relationship with God.

So what happened or what enabled Jesus to perform miracles is less important than that acts of tremendous spiritual vitality did occur as Jesus and his twelve Apostles preached the word of God’s love. In a key passage, Johnson reflects upon the heart of the mission of Jesus.

“The essence of Jesus’ teaching is the search for oneness. What matters is not the world, a mere episode in time and space, but the people in it: their sojourn in the world is temporary, and their object is to emerge from it and become one with God. About to depart the world, Jesus prayed to God for his faithful followers: ‘And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.” (John 17:11)

Jesus directed the hearts and minds of the faithful toward the “Kingdom Not of this World.” The rulers of this world were listening too. But they did not believe a word of it. The Holy Land was wholly under the sway of the Roman Empire, which ruled the area though a system of clients and collaborators, much as the Nazis did in Occupied Europe during World War II.

The story of the arrest and execution of Jesus is one of the most inspiring events of history, but it is also a source of passionate interpretations, which in some cases have heaped suffering and sorrow upon the human race, especially the Jews. In his History of the Jews, Johnson wrote sensitively about the long and tormented past of the Chosen People. In his biography of Jesus, he is likewise thoughtful and caring in his appraisal of who was to blame for the death of Jesus. There was plenty to go around and Johnson is unsparing in his portrayals of the leaders, Jews and Roman alike, who figured in the travesty of justice that led to the crucifixion.

Jesus was crucified because he threatened the status quo of the Holy Land in the 1st Century. His message is a danger to the political status quo of our times, as well. It is one thing to advise the faithful to “render to Caesar” in the coin of the realm at tax time, but the words of Jesus bidding us to give what is due to God are a revolutionary creed, perhaps the greatest of all time.

No less an authority than Adolf Hitler deduced the threat of Christ’s mission to the maintenance of earthly power. “Pure Christianity, the Christianity of the catacombs, is concerned with translating the Christian doctrine into fact,” Hitler declared in 1941.”It leads simply to the annihilation of mankind. It is merely wholehearted Bolshevism under a tissue of metaphysics.”

“The annihilation of mankind,” as Hitler termed it, was his plan, of course, not the aim of Christ. Jesus directed the attention of humanity away from hypnotic and bogus promises of earthly paradises and thousand year Reichs to individual communion with God. This is the message of the gospels. This is the theme of Johnson’s biography of Jesus.

The word gospel, it should be noted, derives from the Old English “god spell” or “good news.” Johnson’s elegant and unpretentious narrative lets the beauty of basic Anglo Saxon words convey the joy, the hope and the promise of salvation that Jesus preached. After reading Johnson’s book, you will be no closer to comprehending the mystery of the Resurrection. But you will, I think, begin to grasp why the spiritual message of Jesus is still very much alive.


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