By Bruce Chilton
Reviewed by John Cowan
The advantage I have in reviewing a book nineteen years old I is that I can access earlier reviews on Amazon books. Most of them are rave reviews fairly stuttering with appreciation. Why would a conservative read the book to start out with, but those who do are flatly negative. Jesus was who he was when I went to Sunday School and Chilton’s version is not that and therefore wrong. I am actually sympathetic to the position. Not for it, but understanding it for Chilton sets off some of the same bells in me. My grandma Amanda still commands some attention, affection, and allegiance. The reviewer I am most tempted by, but do not exactly agree with, says, “Great piece of fiction. Move it to the fiction shelves.”
Chilton”s reading and research are extensive so he says some things that are surprising, but at the same time, have the ring of truth. For instance, he says that there is another town of Bethlehem relatively close to Nazareth which might well be the town that Joseph brought his pregnant wife to when Caesar called for his census. That could be. Besides I have little interest in where he went since a couple of decades ago I learned that there is no record of such a census at that time in Roman history, and if there is one thing Rome did well it kept records. So no matter in which Bethlehem it occurs, or none, it’s a cute story.
Jesus was a mamser. Since no one really knew who his father was, it was uncertain that Jesus was an Israelite. Such were called mamser This meant that while as a child he could play with others, learn with them, at key moments this uncertainty required that he move to the sidelines. Hard for a child to fathom. He would not have had a bar-mitzvah, if they had had bar-mitzahs. Explain that one to the other kids.
As an adult, this was a severe limitation on his ministry. Jesus might be impure, and maybe should not be even in the group, certainly not be in leadership. This also probably influenced his crusade to see everyone as pure. When he invited the obviously impure such as prostitutes or tax collectors to dinner, he was sending a message to those who cut him out of some of his childhood and were dragging on his ministry. Everyone is pure! For Chilton this was the center of Jesus ministry. The original condition is purity.
Another idea, which might be true but is beyond surprising is that Jesus was shaped by a meditation practice he learned from John the Baptizer and that was to meditate on the Chariot of Ezekiel. That is the moveable throne of God. John himself learned this from those protecting and promoting this mystical method from the time of Ezekiel on. What a magnificent idea! And how come I never heard of it? Why does he not describe it. And why does he not spend some time proving that this happened and while he waxes ecstatic about the ecstasy, why no sources, none? Gee, I even would like it to be true and maybe it is. If true, it would explain some things about Jesus’ power.
One source of exciting reading is that Chilton takes the life history of Jesus as you and I have known it, adds some additional facts, and shazam some new things become obvious. Lets take the tipping over of some tables at the temple. What if Jesus was accompanied by hundreds of brawny Galilean men? The same ones that were in the crowd on Palm Sunday. (Although the exegetes I have read downplay the size of that crowd also.) What if this temple section used to be a dedicated silent place but now was filled with large numbers of priests preparing animals of all sizes and shapes, from doves to cattle, for the sacrifice. Lots of blood, moaning, screaming. And Jesus saw all this, got angry and led his fellow Galileans into the fray. And what if the High Priest, Caiaphas, was taking heat from the Pharisees already for creating this mess, and what if Pilate, the protector of the Roman Peace, was on shaky ground with Rome because he had lost his protector there.
Scripture scholars I have read say that the fuss over Jesus confronting the money changers was no big deal. Oh yeah? Not if Chilton has this scene correct. One begins to understand why Caiaphas wants this guy dead and why Pilate thinks whatever the issue around actual guilt he better look like the tough cop on this beat.
What I see as the genius of what Chilton has done is that he has imagined Jesus as a real man. Not John Wayne. But a man groping for his role. At the time Jesus enters the scene above he thinks that maybe he is called to engineer a military coup. Many of his disciples think that. By the time he is running from the temple for cover he knows he lacks the skill set. Why does his ministry move from place to place? He is looking for shelter from such as Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate. Success in a place where he can be found is not useful. What does God want from him? Only in the last days does he find out. Groping through life. Like I said, “A real man.” Oh and one with a hot temper. For that just read your gospels. Jesus likes to call people names. We like to forget that.
My suggestion is if you want to read this book: First, read the notes in the back. Unlike the usual design they are paragraphs of explanation. You do not have to remember them, but if you read them, you will be comfortable that as outlandish as some of these ideas are, (“outlandish” means “out of the land you and I have been living in,”) he has some solid ground on which to stand.
Second, for some reason dozens of reviewers buy Chilton hook, line and sinker. If you choose that position, stop sneering at conservatives. Hook, line, and sinker is not an adult stance. If you don’t buy that position, and I don’t, still we must ask, how can this be.
Third, get over the notion that “truth” can be shaved down to a paragraph, and then every other paragraph is “false.” That means that you will think of the exchange with the moneychangers as maybe a pushing and shoving act or maybe a bloody riot, and you are going to go through the rest of life content with that ambivalent answer.
I really felt instructed. Learned much. He will keep your mind busy absorbing new information. Rejecting some of it, I hope. Or better, setting it on the “doubtful” shelf.