An absorbing, if conventional, look at the latest "Quest for the Historical Jesus" through the letters of the apostle Paul.
Akenson (Surpassing Wonder, 1998) concentrates on the Jesus tradition as it first shows itself in the letters of Paul, the oldest portion of the New Testament and the only part of it that predates the destruction of Herod's Temple by the Romans in 70 a.d. The events of that year brought the rich and diverse traditions of Judaism to an end, leaving only two survivors, Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, and the documents that were written after those events reflect a radically different world than that in which Jesus lived. The first three chapters set Paul and Jesus in their first-century context, amid the "Judahisms" that flourished inside and outside the Land of Israel in the first centuries of Christianity. Two chapters critically and amusingly examine the methods and presuppositions of the latest Jesus-quest, with particularly trenchant attention to the work of Helmut Koester and his followers in the Jesus Seminar. Six chapters then look at Paul, his life and letters, his missionary career, the Jesus who emerges from his letters, the relation of Paul's Jesus to the Jesus of the gospels, and the place of Jesus in the spirituality of Saul. Appendices cast a cold eye on the methodology of the Jesus Seminar and the ongoing reconstruction of the hypothetical "sayings gospel" (known as Q). Much of the material here, although argued in greater detail, will be familiar to the readers of Akenson's earlier book. His learning in a field outside his academic specialty is immense, his style (terminological eccentricities and the occasional joke aside) is lively and inviting, and he has a great regard for Paul as a literary and religious genius. But he exaggerates the novelty of his enterprise, and the historical facts that emerge here are not much different from those that other liberal Jesus-questors have found.
Although told with great panache, this is a story that we have heard before.