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From sect to church

In Search of Paul: How Jesus's Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire With God's Kingdom
By John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed
HarperSanFrancisco, 447 pp., illustrated, $29.95

From Jesus to Christianity: How Four Generations of Visionaries and Storytellers Created the New Testament and Christian Faith
By L. Michael White
Harper SanFrancisco, 508 pp., illustrated, $24.95

Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History
By David Klinghoffer
Doubleday, 247 pp., $24.95

Sometime in the 1960s the Chinese statesman Chou En-lai was asked his opinion of the French Revolution. ''It's too early to say," he replied. It may also be too early to know what to say about Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ by his 2 billion followers and acknowledged as a holy man by another billion Muslims. There is now a solid scholarly consensus that he existed, but none about so fundamental a matter as whether or not he intended to found a new religion. The three books reviewed here, for example, offer three opinions on the latter question: Yes, no, and we'll never know.

It has always been known, of course, that Jesus was a Jew. But until the 20th century, this fact did not figure very prominently in most Christians' understanding of him. The Jews discovered monotheism and had a special covenant with the one true God, enshrined in divinely inspired scriptures that also foretold the coming of a Messiah who would extend God's rule over the whole earth. Jesus' coming fulfilled all the messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, but he insisted that he had come to redeem all of humanity. The Jews could not accept this, and so, in one of history's supreme ironies, they were left behind. Tragically, they could not -- unlike Jesus -- get beyond Judaism. This was, for 19 centuries, more or less the Christian story.

Two things have changed that story: the dating of the books that make up the New Testament, with all this tells us about their likely sources and purposes; and a vast increase in knowledge among non-Jewish scholars about Judaism in Jesus' time. Armed with all this new knowledge, many of them have concluded that Jesus, too, did not get beyond Judaism.

People who are of this opinion usually regard the apostle Paul as the founder of Christianity. John Dominic Crossan, a prolific New Testament exegete, and Jonathan Reed, a classical archeologist, believe that Jesus founded Christianity but nonetheless consider Paul a spiritual innovator of genius. The message -- the gospel -- is Jesus' (or as Paul would say, is Jesus), but it was Paul who elaborated the message into a full-scale challenge to what was then the spiritual framework of global civilization: Roman imperial theology. Paul opposed ''the gospel of the divine Caesar" with ''that of the divine Christ."

If, like me, you had scarcely an inkling of ''the gospel of the divine Caesar," then ''In Search of Paul" will prove quite a revelation. From watching ''I, Claudius" we knew that Roman emperors had themselves deified; but wasn't that just a mad lark? No, indeed; they took it very seriously, and so did the rest of the ancient world. With impressive erudition and expository skill, abundant well-chosen illustrations, and vivid prose, Crossan and Reed conduct us on a book-length field trip through the highways, temples, forums, brothels, and bathhouses of the ancient Mediterranean. They explain statuary, describe mosaics, examine coins, decipher inscriptions, and in general bring life in the Roman Empire during the Age of Augustus into remarkably clear and deep focus. Everywhere, it seems, we find visual evidence of an ideology legitimating Roman rule. Crossan and Reed call it ''peace through victory." Unpacked a little, this becomes: The manifest benefits of modern development and civilization rest upon the peace guaranteed by Roman military hegemony, which in turn derives from the societal vigor produced by faithful adherence to traditional morality and values, which dictate a hierarchical social structure with a strong chief executive whom it is disloyal for citizens to challenge.

Sound familiar? Yes, Roman imperial theology, in Crossan and Reed's brilliant reconstruction, bears an uncanny and dismaying resemblance to contemporary American imperial theology. In counterpoint, the authors weave an ingenious interpretation of Paul's writings, which they claim opposed Roman ideology on all essential points. Paul's formula was ''peace through justice." Against military force he sets grace; against the Roman vision of ''hierarchy within the scenario of global victory" he develops a vision of ''equality within [the scenario] of global justice." Crossan and Reed argue that Paul's views on slavery and patriarchy were far more egalitarian than those prevailing in his time; and they convincingly show that apparent examples to the contrary, which account for Paul's equivocal reputation, are nearly all found in epistles mistakenly attributed to him.

''From Jesus to Christianity," by L. Michael White, is a far more cautious and less colorful book than ''In Search of Paul." Informative almost to a fault (the text sometimes disappears behind a panoply of visual aids), it is all background and scarcely any argument. (It does take a firm position on one matter, though: ''Jesus did not appear as the founder of a new religion. [He] was a Jew, and the Jesus movement originated as a Jewish sect . . . strictly within the framework of Palestinian Judaism.") Still, White's balanced walk through the sources and scholarly controversies may come as a relief after Crossan and Reed's audacious synthesis.

David Klinghoffer, though extremely well informed, is not a scholar but a columnist and best-selling author. After two rather bad millennia, Jewish-Christian relations are at last good enough, at least in the United States, to permit a little plain speaking, Klinghoffer thinks. ''You seem like such a nice person," his Christian friends are always telling him. ''You know your Bible. How could it be that you don't see the need for Christ in your life?" ''Why the Jews Rejected Jesus" is Klinghoffer's reply. His Christian friends may be sorry they asked.

The main thrust of the book is a comprehensive demonstration that the Old Testament's messianic prophecies do not fit Jesus. Some cases are obscure, necessitating recourse to interpretative traditions, which Jews call ''oral Torah." Some are not obscure at all, like the mistranslation that he says gave rise to the concept of the virgin birth. In nearly all cases, Klinghoffer presents a strong brief against the Christian position. He certainly knows his Bible.

He is less persuasive, to my mind, arguing the thesis contained in his subtitle. Klinghoffer believes -- or wants his crestfallen Christian friends to believe -- that it was a lucky thing the Jews rejected Jesus. If they hadn't, Christianity would have remained a marginal Jewish sect, the Roman Empire would not have become Christian, Western civilization would not have occurred, Islam would have conquered Europe, and worst of all, the United States would not have attained its present glorious form.

All historical counterfactuals are dubious, and this one strikes me as more dubious than most. But if it will help keep Christians from further murderous harassment of Jews, I'm willing to suspend disbelief.

George Scialabba is a regular contributor to the Globe Books section.

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