Words made fresh
A look at the real Jesus, Judas, and how religion has shaped history
THE FINAL DAYS OF JESUS:
The Archaeological Evidence
By Shimon Gibson
HarperOne, 272 pp., illustrated, $27.99
JUDAS: A Biography
By Susan Gubar
Norton, 453 pp., illustrated, $27.95
The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous,
and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read
Every Single Word of the Bible
By David Plotz
Harper, 336 pp., $26.99
THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN EUROPE
By G.R. Evans
Lion, 224 pp., $34.95.
Perhaps you're celebrating the Resurrection in church this morning. Or you may be catching "Meet the Press" and scoffing at those sitting in their pews. Either way, it's clear that the trial and crucifixion of the historical Jesus mark one of the pivotal moments in humanity's stay on the planet. Scholars - atheists and believers alike - doggedly hunt for what really happened during that last week in Jerusalem.
"The Final Days of Jesus" is the latest entry in the literature of the historical Easter story. Archaeologist Shimon Gibson says his field has been overlooked for what it can reveal about the real Jesus. (A book that slides into a discussion of bathroom plumbing in ancient Jerusalem may be a little too real for your tastes, but Gibson makes it work.) He offers what he calls fresh evidence about the precise location of Jesus's trial, execution, and tomb, and the reasons Rome charged him with sedition.
Gibson also borrows from other disciplines in reconstructing these events. Those nonarchaeological sections will be more interesting to readers seeking the script and plot of the Easter drama, the "what happened?" Gibson's archaeological insights, on the other hand, will appeal to those curious about the stage design, the physical environment in which the story unfolded. Each camp will find the book half a good read.
Students of history might be tempted to read Susan Gubar's book on one of the Easter story's villains, Judas Iscariot. They should be forewarned: Her title, "Judas: A Biography," is somewhat false advertising. Gubar, an English professor at Indiana University, admits up front that an account of the life of history's most famous turncoat is impossible because we know virtually nothing about him, except that the most famous thing we know - his betrayal of Jesus - probably did happen.
Rather, this is a biography of the biographies, of the disparate ways Judas has been portrayed over time. Double-crossing viper is only one. More sympathetic takes date back to antiquity, as Gubar reminds us by citing the 2006 discovery of part of the Gospel of Judas. Its fourth century author considered Judas Jesus's prized disciple, the engine of the savior's plan for redeeming humanity. This is a fair and fascinating challenge to the view of the 12th apostle as villain, but Gubar's long book, covering centuries of literature, painting, and theology, will tax all but devoted English and art history majors.
If reading the Bible as literature rather than history is your passion, a more enjoyable survey is available from a Jewish writer. Christians, of course, also accept as scripture the Hebrew Bible, and allusions to it are littered throughout the Gospels and the Passion story in particular. In "Good Book," David Plotz, editor of Slate and a self-confessed biblical ignoramus, admirably does what so few do: He reads the entire Old Testament, encountering the lesser-known stories you don't get in church or synagogue and ladling his layman's commentary onto the scriptural stew. It's a poignant effort to ponder, particularly with Passover just behind us.
A strength of his book is that he says what many people think: He's appalled by the lessons (many morally troubling) in the Bible, which believers consider divinely inspired. Not only the patriarchs but God Himself can behave abominably. Plotz actually thinks about his faith to a degree that many Bible-thumpers don't. He occasionally - too occasionally - provides insights from scholars. (Apropos of the Easter story, he notes that Judas's betrayal fee of 30 pieces of silver echoes the price for which Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery. Scholars would say Judas's price actually derives from the Books of Zechariah and Exodus.) In the end, "Good Book" lives up to Plotz's promise of a "rapid (and entertaining, if not necessarily theologically sound) biblical education."
Those interested in what we know of actual events that followed the first Easter should try "The History of Christian Europe." Written by an emeritus professor from the University of Cambridge, it's essentially a textbook, but that's a good thing, as G.R. Evans writes in clear, accessible prose, which can't be said for every academic author. If there's a flaw, it's the short shrift she gives to the historic elephant in the room, modern Europe's lurch into secularism, which receives just a few pages at the end of the book (though an earlier sidebar hints at the challenge to Christian explanations of human nature raised by secular psychologists such as Freud and Carl Jung).
Evans taught medieval theology and intellectual history, and her appreciation for Christianity and its historic role shows. "The challenge posed by modern conceptions of secularism," she concludes, "is what is to be done with the inveterate tendency of people to look beyond this life and wonder what will happen to them next." If you doubt that tendency, peek this morning inside your nearest church, filled with people who on other Sundays would be home, like secularists, watching "Meet the Press."
Rich Barlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.