(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Thomas Sheehan is a professor of religious studies at Stanford University and the author of books on Martin Heidegger and Karl Rahner. In The First Coming, Sheehan explores the origins of Christianity, focusing on discrepancies between early Christian understandings of Jesus and Jesus’ understanding of himself. As Sheehan demonstrates, Christianity (understood as “mainline” Christian beliefs about Jesus’ person and message) is just one interpretation of Jesus and not necessarily the best one.

The First Coming offers a new interpretation of Jesus, an interpretation consistent not only with the historical Jesus described in nineteenth and twentieth century biblical scholarship but also, and more important, with Jesus’ self-understanding (insofar as it can be discerned). In Sheehan’s view, Jesus, far from being the divine Son of God, consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit, was a special but very human prophet, a man who, although gifted in important ways, was a lesser figure than most Christians believe. The novelty of Sheehan’s Jesus arises from his being both human and gifted: If his humanity distinguishes him from the Jesus of mainline Christianity, his prophetic gifts separate him from the Jesus of nineteenth and twentieth century biblical scholarship.

At the heart of Sheehan’s book is analysis of how and why the first Christians came to misunderstand Jesus. In answering these related questions, Sheehan draws on two centuries of biblical scholarship aimed at distinguishing the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith.” As Sheehan explains, since 1800, scholars have treated the New Testament as a mixture of history and theology, reading the Scriptures as texts wherein authentic records of Jesus’ life coexist with spurious claims advanced by Christian dogmatists. The scholar’s task, it is argued, is to separate the authentic from the spurious, thereby recovering the “real” Jesus, typically presented as a man not a god, albeit a man of unusual wisdom and compassion. Such scholarship...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996. Takes issue with the “quest for the historical Jesus” while arguing that the “Christ of faith” is in fact the “real” Jesus. A useful balance to Sheehan’s book.

Kazmierski, Carl. Review of The First Coming. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 50 (1988). Unfavorable review that indignantly presents Sheehan as an amateur trespassing on a field (biblical exegesis) best left to professionals.

Quirk, Michael J. “Jesus and Interpretation: Sheehan’s Hermeneutic Radicalism.” Modern Theology 6, no. 2 (January, 1990). The most comprehensive discussion to date of The First Coming. Begins well with a balanced summary of Sheehan’s interpretation of Jesus before devolving into polemic as aspects of Sheehan’s methodology are dismissed as “incoherent.”

Rochelle, Jay C. Review of The First Coming. Currents in Theology and Mission 17, no. 4 (August, 1990). A favorable review of Sheehan’s book that locates it in ongoing debates about Jesus’ message and status.

Spong, John Shelby. Resurrection: Myth or Reality? San Francisco: Harper, 1994. Attempts by close reading of scriptural texts to recover the historical events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion, finally concluding that “resurrection” had a metaphoric meaning for early Christians.

Zahl, Paul F. M. The First Christian: Universal Truth in the Teachings of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 2003. Explores the relationship between early Christianity and the Judaism from which it emerged, arguing that Christianity represented a genuinely new faith.