Russell Shorto brings a journalist's eye and ear to what some have called "the Jesus Wars," but what might more properly be termed street fighting in the ruins of traditional Christianity. His assignment is the messy and ill-defined fire zones of this peculiar cultural battle, which involves academics (and the clergy who love them) using new ways of doing history with the ancient sources in order to construct a Jesus who is purportedly more "historical" than the one in the Gospels, and other academics who protest such efforts in the name of either science or faith (and the clergy who would love them if they read them).
Like a good correspondent from the front, Shorto is a quick study. The reader senses that he has done enough research to describe the disputed territory accurately. He has a good sense of local color. His account is much more vivid when he has been able to observe a meeting firsthand, or interview one of the subjects, or visit an ancient site or contemporary church. And he observes the journalist's code of fairness. The bulk of the book is given to the Jesus Seminar and other questers, but he gives generous space to the critics, and himself raises some hard questions. The good journalist's trick of knowing only what the sources tell him enables Shorto to combine intellectual sympathy, deadpan description, and right-on-the-money incredulity, as when he observes just how modern and nonhistorical John Dominic Crossan's Jesus appears.
His account begins with a sketch of the Jesus Seminar and its controversial founder, RobertFunk, in order to makeclear that, despite its media-courting ways, the Seminar is part of a much larger intellectual enterprise that goes back to Reimarus and includes such mainstream, noncontroversial scholars as John Meier. What generates the negative response to the Seminar, Shorto suggests, is not simply its showmanship but the cultural agenda set by Funk, for whom historical Jesus work "...is also the first volley in a war to redefine the basic tenets of Christian faith: to demote Jesus from Christ to Prophet, from the bringer of truth to a bringer of truth."
The subsequent chapters move through aspects of the Gospel story, beginning with the accounts of Jesus' birth, then recounting the new discoveries that have altered perceptions of first-century Greco-Roman and Jewish culture, then spending a chapter each on Jesus' teachings, miracles, execution, and resurrection. Each chapter identifies the work of prominent scholars, details the hypotheses, and, inevitably, shows that the new theories are fed as much by speculation as by new information.
A good example is the discussion of Sepphoris, the hellenistic city located only some four miles from Nazareth that has so fired the imagination of those hoping to craft the image of Jesus along the lines of a Cynic philosopher. It is intriguing to see how Shorto's sentences are suddenly studded with would have's and could have's and might have's, as he reports on the "surmises" and "speculates" of those who think it "logical" that the young man Jesus would massively have been influenced by such contiguity. But for possibility to become historical probability, evidence is required, and none is available connecting Jesus to Sepphoris or any cultural influence emanating from it.
Shorto himself is fond of another form of speculation, namely imagining Jesus' psychological profile. Like Stephen Mitchell (author of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS), he finds in Jesus' illegitimacy the clue to his message of "radical egalitarianism." For readers today, such psychologizing has a surface plausibility and attractiveness. But like speculations concerning what sort of Jew Jesus "must have been," its charm is deceptive to the degree that it substitutes fantasy for fact.
Shorto is fascinated and attracted by the intellectual debate but is no gee-whiz apologist for the revisionist position. In his view, the most important contribution of the entire quest has been to demystify the role of Jews in the death of Jesus. On other points, he is less enthusiastic. As he notes in his preface, he seeks to allow another perspective to emerge in the course of his exposition, one that "...has to do with the realization that scientific truth test-tube truth, literal truth occupies only one slender band of the spectrum of human reality: There is such a thing as truth beyond verbal expression. Spirituality is concerned with that kind of truth."
This alternative perspective emerges through Shorto's critical questions concerning the circularity of the questers' methods and the fairly banal character of their results. His questioning is most pointed in the chapter called "New Gospels." He shows that by abandoning the resurrection perspective of traditional Christianity, historical Jesus research becomes a kind of autobiographical exercise, with each searcher rearranging the pieces of the story into a personally satisfying pattern. What history most desires, strict historical method cannot reach, namely the character of Jesus. Once the character shaped by the canonical Gospels is abandoned, therefore, each quester must invent that character anew; small wonder that Jesus ends up looking like the searcher's own ideal self-image.
The last three chapters are especially worth reading. In "The Historical Jesus Goes to Church," Shorto shows some of the ways in which this academic debate is influencing pulpit and pew, and in the process suggests the deep confusion concerning identity at the heart of American mainstream Christianity. In "The Case Against," he focuses on two versions of conservative reaction to the Jesus questers: the media-savvy, sound-bite strategy of William Craig, and the subtle scholarship of N. T. Wright. Despite differences in degree of sophistication, both Craig and Wright continue to dance to the tune whistled by the questers. Rather than use history to savage the Jesus of the Gospels, they try to use history to salvage the Jesus of the Gospels, but they do not question the most problematic premise of all, namely that history is the only tune that counts.
Shorto's last chapter, "Open Spaces," sounds a distinctly elegaic note after all the journalistic verve. The intellectual excitement generated by Jesus research has succeeded mainly in reducing the figure of Jesus from a compelling mystery to a set of mundane and not terribly interesting problems. Shorto is sensitive to the loss: "And that is why, having come to the end of a piece-by-piece dismantling of this set of first-century stories, the wisest next step might be to put them together or rather to let them flow back together, like atoms of a molecule that have artificially been pulled apart. We may play with facts like children with building blocks, but we tamper with story at our peril. Or perhaps the trick is to figure out a way to do two things at once, digging into history with one hand while tolling the beads of the story with the other."