Disturbing history

The Jesus Mystery
By Lena Einhorn.
Lyons Press. 
Pages 279. $24.95.

Reviewed by B. L. Chakoo

THERE were always historians who said it could not be done because of historical problems. There were always theologians who said it should not be done because of theological objections. And there were always scholars who said the former when they meant the latter."

This is what a deeply religious non-believer, John Dominic Crossan, wrote in his well-known book The Historical Jesus (1991). However, his search for the historical Jesus was neither a new nor an unknown phenomenon. In fact, the first academic who seriously applied himself to the search for the historical truth behind the story of Jesus was the German theologian and orientalist Hermann Samuel Reimarus in Humburg in the mid-18th century. Influenced by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, Reimarus sought to "describe a Jesus free from religious dogma". According to him, Jesus was primarily "a Jewish revolutionary who tried to seize power in Jerusalem, but failed in this attempt and was executed". He advocated that it was "not until after Jesus' death that his disciples created the myth of the resurrection and the picture of Jesus that forms the foundation for Christianity".

In The Jesus Mystery, Lena Einhorn, who holds an MD and a PhD and is an award-winning writer and one of Sweden's most prominent filmmakers, presents a similar kind of "wave of research" into the historical Jesus, and is scrupulously honest in not claiming to compete with the many theologians and historians who for centuries have devoted themselves to finding the real person Jesus "behind the biblical stories". Rebelliously provocative almost in every chapter of the book (which is a mixture of thriller-theology, ancient legends, traditions, imperatives and folk beliefs), Einhorn provides, in an unusually coherent manner, known and unknown facts about Jesus the facts that make the book inevitably as a disturbing history. In fact, her quest for the historical Jesus is a particularly fascinating subject for an inquiry into the mechanisms of the tyranny of dogma.

Thus reading Chapter I "Prologue", one has little doubt that one is in for a quite memorable historical course on Jesus, and that one had better be thinking of the appropriate ways of celebrating a researcher of insight and originality. Believing in her scientific skills, Einhorn looks here from a great distance to find an enduring truth that a necessary condition if one is to examine the historical figure of Jesus is that one "ignores religious faith and possibly too the idea of Jesus as divine". But at the same time she does not undervalue the idea of reverence for what Jesus achieved and "for the religious experience associated with a belief in him".

Significantly important, the second chapter "Did Jesus Ever Exist" attempts to provide a comprehensive answer to a decidedly not easy question whether Jesus ever existed as a person of flesh and blood. The first part of this chapter focuses its attention on the "authorised" description of a person presented in the New Testament. The four Gospels which form the most important part of the Testament are intriguingly examined here, leading us to question the role of the gospels as "eyewitness descriptions" of the life and work of Jesus. The second part considerably analyses Josephus's works War of the Jews and Antiquities of the Jews. The analysis is exhaustive, neglecting no argument, positive or negative, of any importance. It is fresh and bold. This boldness, together with the astonishing breadth of the writer's historical-biblical knowledge, allows her to embarrass the Jesus scholars by the argument that "the historical sources seem to lack conclusive evidence" for the existence of "this person Jesus".

The other interesting chapters, namely "Birth and Childhood," "Entering Jerusalem," "The Trial," "On Whether Jesus Died on the Cross" and the concluding chapter, "A Hypothesis," present not only a wide-ranging and objectively critical view of the gospels but also the whole history of the Bible and its development of religious and political practice up until its own time. What are worth-noticing things about these chapters are their intellectuality, and also some and perhaps many of the new ideas particularly in regard to Jesus' birth, his trail and crucifixion. Einhorn moves into and out of other historians' arguments without losing the sense of her own "voice and argument". However, something goes wrong here, the writer's hand, to borrow Frank Kermode's words, "elegantly opened, stays open, the fist is never made, and the material dribbles away".

In short, here is a book on a subject of obvious theological significance; written throughout in a lucid and unaffected prose, its intellectual energy and engagement are sure to inspire a spiritual discussion.