What do you put into a short book on the life and legacy of Jesus of Nazareth? And, perhaps more importantly, what do you leave out?
Around 18 months ago I was approached by SPCK publishers to write Jesus: A Very Brief History. My book would be one of the first of a new series of short guides to historical subjects (each around 20,000 words). Other books were signed up at the same time, including one on Thomas Moore (by John Guy), Julian of Norwich (by Janina Ramirez), and St Paul (by John Barclay).
Writing the first part – What do we know about Jesus? – was easy enough, though the lack of space meant that I constantly felt I was skating over important points. And the lack of footnotes meant that I couldn’t engage in discussion with others as much as I’d have liked. Rather than start with ‘sources,’ I decided to start with the more controversial question of whether Jesus existed. Scholars tend to be rather sniffy about this very basic question, and to assume to mythicist views are only held by a handful of internet conspiracy theorists. But recent polls have suggested that many people have their doubts about the existence of Jesus (up to 40% of young people, according to one poll), so it seemed good to start here. And a discussion of our earliest evidence – Josephus, Tacitus, St Paul – provides a good way in to the first century context that’s so crucial for understanding Jesus and his message.
Writing the second part – Jesus’ legacy – was much more difficult. I wanted it to focus on Jesus and how he has been understood by different times and cultures rather than simply to give a history of the Church. I decided to put the resurrection into this half, as the seismic event which created Jesus’ enduring legacy and which differentiated Jesus from other contemporary figures such as John the Baptist. This naturally led on to a consideration of the earliest Christian documents and how they imagined the figure at the centre of their faith, the formation of the NT, and the factors at play in the various creeds. I included a section on Jesus in art: the gospels of course say nothing about what Jesus looked like, but followers quite quickly began to present images of him at Dura Europos, on sarcophagi and in the catacombs. It was also interesting to plot the emergence of the crucifixion scene as it became the dominant representation of Jesus. Mediaeval times presented many rich resources for Jesus-devotion in the form of passion plays and holy relics – not only the Turin shroud, but articles associated with the crucifixion (the cross, crown of thorns, and holy spear), and most bizarrely of all the foreskin of Jesus (around 18 seem to have been in existence at one point!).
The more you think about it, the more it becomes almost impossible to avoid the legacy of Jesus, at least in the western world. Hymns, stories, basic plot devices (even in secular culture) all reflect the Christian story, and of course time itself has been divided in two (BC/AD) by the life of Jesus. My final chapter considered not only the Christian church and ‘cultural Christianity’ but also the figure of Jesus as he is seen by other faiths, specifically Jews and Muslims. Whatever we make of the historical figure of Jesus, it’s clear that without him modern life would be very different.
Purchase: Jesus: A Very Brief History