Jesus Through the Centuries

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture is neither a biography of Jesus nor a detailed cultural history. The book is based on a series of lectures delivered to a lay audience at Yale University, and in its eighteen chapters it presents a group of striking images of Jesus of Nazareth that have influenced Western culture far beyond theological circles. “Culture” is broadly defined as the life of society, and the author’s illustrations are drawn from Giotto, Thomas Jefferson, Fyodor Dostoevski, and many others. These images reveal less about the historical Jesus than the eras that produced them. Jaroslav Pelikan’s thesis is that a key to the understanding of an age or an epoch is how it has depicted the Man from Galilee. Is he the incarnate Son of God of Augustine’s fifth century? Or is he the Great Teacher of the eighteenth century Enlightenment?

Pelikan seems more at home in the earlier chapters of the book as he elucidates the struggles of the early Church to clarify or define the nature of Jesus, or as he sketches the rise of the Christian Empire in the fourth century, its power nascent within the description of Jesus as “Lord of lords and King of kings” (Revelation 17:14). Publication of the present volume came with the author’s completion of the fourth of his projected five-volume history, The Christian Tradition, and it is evident he delights in describing the theological and philosophical interplay of the old Greek and Latin Church with the wider culture. As a Lutheran, Pelikan writes with obvious sympathies for the Orthodox and Catholic traditions.

Later chapters, as he admits in his introduction, seem more diffuse, given over more to a selection of cultural trends than an attempt to define the modern age by its response to Jesus of Nazareth. Yet Pelikan sees this as a positive development: As the Church has waned in cultural influence, the world has had more freedom to appropriate Jesus for its own purposes. Jesus becomes the Latin American revolutionary; the greatest businessman of all time; the icon of the American civil rights movement—in short, the Man for everyone. Jesus is no longer the captive of theologues, who had forced him to serve as captain of their holy wars even as his name was being used to justify splitting doctrinal hairs.

Pelikan’s insistence on the historicity of Jesus, that it is still possible for historians to recover at least some of the life of Jesus from the New Testament texts, leaves him with little patience, however, for those modern movements that would create a Jesus only tangentially related to the historical figure. Pelikan gives no attention to the Jesus of the Fundamentalists or the radical feminists, and he dismisses the tenets of liberation theology in a paragraph. What captures the author’s interest are more universal and appealing images: Jesus is the one who sets the captives free, he is the Prince of Peace who overthrows nations, he is the healer who came to seek and save those from afar. If slaves are freed, if nonviolence and civil disobedience usher in a new era of civil rights, and if those in cultures far removed from the Christian West are touched with compassionate healing of body and mind—these reflect the spirit of Jesus.

What if the words of the Sermon on the Mount were taken literally? Leo Tolstoy, late in the nineteenth century, was so gripped by the simplicity of the words that in them he found a person’s sole duty in life. For Tolstoy, Matthew 5:39 must be literally obeyed: “Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Though Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church for his radical views, others found in him a new prophet. Shortly before his death, Tolstoy wrote to one of his followers in South Africa, explaining that his philosophy of nonresistance “is essentially nothing other than the teachings of love undistorted by false interpretations.This law has been proclaimed by all the world’s sages, Indian, Chinese, Jewish, Greek and Roman. I think it has been expressed most clearly of all by Christ.” The recipient of this letter was Mohandas K. Gandhi, martyred in 1948, whose spirit of nonviolence passed to Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States, dead of an assassin’s bullet only twenty years later. Of those who have claimed to follow the true spirit of Jesus, Pelikan holds in highest regard those who have suffered for righteousness’ sake.

If the historical Jesus embodied the spirit of peace and reconciliation, the historian must also contend with the relationship of Jesus with his Jewish brethren, and the Church with the Synagogue. The centuries run red with the blood of Jews spilled in the name of Jesus the Jew—or, rather, in the name of Jesus the Christ, the Anointed One. It is Pelikan’s contention that the fulminations...

(The entire section is 2006 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LII, September 15, 1985, p. 94.

Caferro, William, and Duncan Fisher, eds. The Unbounded Community: Papers in Christian Ecumenism in Honor of Jaroslav Pelikan. New York: Garland, 1996. These papers celebrate Pelikan’s contributions to Christ-centered ecumenism.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVII, October 16, 1985, p. 21.

Commonweal. CXII, October 4, 1985, p. 537.

Flusser, David, Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, and Justin Lang. Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986. Examines representations of Mary in art, music, and literature.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, August 1, 1985, p. 785.

Library Journal. CX, October 1, 1985, p. 105.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, December 22, 1985, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXI, November 18, 1985, p. 174.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (1971-1989). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Traces the meaning of Jesus and his deeds for the development of church doctrine.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, September 8, 1985, p. 60.

Tillich, Paul. A History of Christian Thought. New York: Harper, 1968. Traces development of religious ideas from “natural thought,” through methodical formulation, attempts to combat distortions of belief, and finally acceptance of doctrine as religious (and often political) law.

Times Literary Supplement. December 20, 1985, p. 1443.