JESUS THROUGH THE CENTURIES: His Place in the History of Culture by Jaroslav Pelikan

JESUS THROUGH THE CENTURIES: His Place in the History of Culture

Email this review


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 Cod? 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.

Pub Date: Oct. 16th, 1985
ISBN: 0300079877
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press