THE HUMAN CHRIST by Charlotte Allen


The Misguided Search for the Historical Jesus
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An ambitious but unsatisfying intellectual history of the quest for the historical Jesus by a contributing editor to Lingua Franca. Despite the subtitle, Allen’s point is actually that this quest reveals far more about those who engage in it than it does about a distant man from Galilee. Rejecting, for instance, theories that Jesus was black or a feminist, she writes, —the search for the ‘historical— Jesus in the end has yielded a figure who is not historical at all, and to whom historical reality is irrelevant.— She attempts to document the —historical quest— impulse in nearly all its incarnations in Western culture in the past 2,000 years, skipping from Roman emperors to German Romantics to contemporary iconoclasts like John Dominic Crossan. Along the way, we make some interesting incidental discoveries but get lost in the sheer weight of this undertaking. The author also neglects the larger question of why different philosophers, from wildly divergent cultural contexts, have resorted to the same demythologizing impulse again and again. There is surely a significant parallel, for example, in Thomas Jefferson’s careful trimming of all miracles out of his New Testament and the contemporary Jesus Seminar’s relentless pursuit of his authentic sayings. That said, some of her jagged chapters contain fruitful insights. Particularly intriguing is her discussion of Joseph Ernest Renan’s —cinematic Jesus,— a feminized, sensual creature whose portrayal benefited from Renan’s friendship with the lascivious Gustave Flaubert. Throughout, though, Allen’s tone is too harsh for her subjects, especially those still living. Elisabeth SchÅssler Fiorenza is ridiculed for presenting Jesus as —an androgynous personage of feminist leanings,— while other feminists —have re-constructed a re-imagined historical Jesus on the cross as a woman suffering from menstrual cramps.— There are some perceptive moments here, but the vast scope of the project and its occasional biases overshadow Allen’s obvious erudition.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-684-82725-5
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998