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Jesus Through the Centuries

Jaroslav Pelikan (Yale University Press: Nov 10, 1999), 304 pages.

Ask anyone to name the most influential person in history, and chances are the reply will be, simply, “Jesus.” Here, Yale historian Pelikan ably explores the universe of power and influence embedded in that revered five-letter name, as he surveys the role of the carpenter from Galilee in “the general history of culture.” Pelikan proceeds from the premise that the “image” of Jesus – his identity as perceived by successive epochs – is a mirror reflecting the course of Western civilization, and that tracing that image through time will reveal the “continuities and discontinuities” of the past two millennia. His project uncovers mostly discontinuities; Western culture’s christological imagery changes dramatically from age to age. Pelikan begins by looking at the early concept of Jesus as prophet and and rabbi, prevalent in the first century. Subsequent chapters cover in chronological order 17 other major representations of Jesus. These include Jesus as Logos, as “bridegroom of the soul,” as “Universal Man,” and so on. Behind these wildly divergent images, however, a rainbowlike pattern emerges: Jesus’s prestige arches steeply upwards from his humble origins as a crucified wonder-worker, reaches its apogee in his medieval elevation to alpha and omega of the cosmos, declines in modern times to his quasi-mundane role as prototypical social liberator. This man, it seems, can be all things to all people; like the Beauty he embodied for the Romantics, Jesus lies in the eyes of the beholder.

A lively writer, Pelikan salts his study with delightful ironies and oddities, such as the crucial role played by two American presidents – Jefferson and Lincoln, both believers in separation of church and state – in redefining modern attitudes towards Jesus. He also offers some tantalizing speculations: would Auschwitz have befallen the Jews if Christendom had acknowledged Jesus as Rabbi Jeshua bar-Joseph as well as Son of God? The book as a whole suggests a larger question: what might our planet be like today if Jesus had never lived? On the basis of this stimulating, scholarly, but never tedious book, the question is too large to answer; Jesus’s influence has been so pervasive that we cannot imagine the world without him. ~ Kirkus Reviews


Table of Contents

    • List of Illustrations     xi
    • Preface     xv
    • A Personal Preface to Jesus Through the Centuries for the Year 2000
    • Introduction

    The Good, the True, and the Beautiful     1

    • The nature and purpose of this book: not a life of Jesus, nor a history of Christianity, nor even a history of theological doctrines about Jesus, but a series of images portraying his place in the history of culture.

    1. The Rabbi     9

    • Jesus as teacher and prophet in the setting of first-century Judaism, the Jewishness of the New Testament in relation to the tradition of Israel.

    2. The Turning Point of History     21

    • The significance of Christ for human history; apocalypse, prophecy, and ethics in the first and second centuries; the implications of the life of Jesus for biography and historiography.

    3. The Light of the Gentiles     34

    • Pagan “anticipations” of Christ, especially Socrates and Vergil; the message of Christian missionaries and apologists to the Greco-Roman world of the second and third centuries.

    4. The King of Kings     46

    • The lordship of Caesar versus the lordship of Christ in the Roman Empire of the second and third centuries; the triumph of Constantine as Caesar and as Christian; the rise of the “Christian Empire” in the fourth century.

    5. The Cosmic Christ     57

    • Christ the Logos as the mind, reason, and word of God and as the meaning of the universe in the Christianized Platonic philosophy of the third and fourth centuries.

    6. The Son of Man     71

    • The incarnate Son of God as the revelation both of the promise of human life and of the power of evil, according to the Christian psychology and anthropology worked out above all by Augustine in the fifth century.

    7. The True Image     83

    • Christ as the inspiration for a new art and architecture in Byzantine culture; the artistic and metaphysical meaning of the icons in the eighth and ninth centuries.

    8. Christ Crucified     95

    • The cross in literature and art; the crucified Christ as “the power of God and wisdom of God” in the Middle Ages; metaphors for the saving work of Christ in the language of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

    9. The Monk Who Rules the World     109

    • The Benedictine definition of “love for Christ” as denial of the world; monastic conquest of the world and of the church; monasticism and politics in the medieval Western society of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

    10. The Bridegroom of the Soul     122

    • Christian and non-Christian sources of Christ-mysticism; sacred and profane love in the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs; the problem of the relation between secualr and sacred in mystical language and thought.

    11. The Divine and Human Model     133

    • The rediscovery of the full humanity of Jesus through Francis of Assisi, “the second Christ”; the Franciscan image of Jesus as the inspiration for demands in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that society and the institutional church be radically transformed.

    12. The Universal Man     145

    • The Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with its image of Jesus, as the rebirth of the Christian gospel; “sacred philology” and “the philosophy of Christ” in Erasmus and other humanists.

    13. The Mirror of the Eternal     157

    • Reformation images of Christ; Christ as the Mirror of the True in the new vernacular, as the Mirror of the Beautiful in Reformation art and in the literature of the Catholica Reformation in Spain, as the Mirror of the Good in the Christian politics of Calvin and the Reformed tradition.

    14. The Prince of Peace     168

    • The Reformation and the Wars of Religion; “just war” as justified by the teaching and example of jesus; Crusade as “holy war” sanctified in the name of Jesus; the resurgence of pacifism in the spirit of Christ as Prince of Peace.

    15. The Teacher of Common Sense     182

    • The quest of the historical Jesus in the scholarship and philosophy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment; the effort to go beyond (or behind) the Christ of dogma to the system of morals he represented.

    16. The Poet of the Spirit     194

    • Idealism in the philosophy of the nineteenth century and Romanticism in its art and literature: their protest against both orthodox rigidity and rationalist banality, and their portrayal of the beauty and sublimity of Jesus as the “bard of the Holy Ghost” (Emerson).

    17. The Liberator     206

    • Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Tolstoy to Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, the use of Jesus’ prophetic opposition to the economic and social injustice of his time as the dynamic for revolutionary change in the ordering of human relations, public as well as private.

    18. the Man Who Belongs to the World     220

    • The unprecedented circulation of the message of jesus, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, into Asia and Africa; the relation between Jesus and other “Teachers of the Way”; Jesus as a world figure, also beyond the borders of Christendom.
    • Notes     235
    • Index of Proper Names     259
    • Index of Biblical References     268