Chilton (Religion/Bard Coll.) goes out hunting for that mythical Victorian beast, the “historical Jesus.”
That Jesus of Nazareth must be understood in his Jewish context is very old news to scholars, but it may still be a revelation to the popular audience whom Chilton addresses here. He begins by insisting that Jesus is best understood not as any old first-century peasant, nor as a political insurrectionist determined to overthrow the Roman empire, but as a rabbi. As a Jew, to put it plainly. Judaism is a necessary lens for any examination of Jesus—it helps us make sense of his attitude toward prayer, for example, as well as his approach to baptism. But the author sometimes pushes the Jewish angle too far, and his anachronistic insistence on referring to Jesus as a Hasid (one of the early modern followers of the mystical European rabbi the Baal Shem Tov) quickly wears thin. Chilton suggests that Jesus was rejected as a bastard by the religious community of his childhood, and that this rejection was responsible for his distaste for religious hierarchy. It’s an intriguing claim, but one which the author can’t back up with much evidence. Furthermore, his penchant for psychobiography—with its frequent speculations about how Mary and the disciples “must” have felt at different times—is irksome (and, again, unsubstantiated). Chilton writes crisp, nonacademic prose, and some of his earlier, more scholarly works (Jesus’ Prayer and Jesus’ Eucharist, not reviewed) have been riveting and insightful. Now that he’s in the hands of a publisher who can get him to larger audiences, it’s a shame he can’t come up with much worth saying.
As far as biographies of Jesus go, you’ll do better to stick with Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.