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Jesus Before Christianity

Review by Kirk Bane

Since its initial publication in 1976, Albert Nolan’s Jesus Before Christianity has rightly received great acclaim.  Library Journal described it as “a convincing, eloquent, moving message for a distressed world.”  Helen Prejean (author of Dead Man Walking) deemed Nolan’s work “the most compelling book about Jesus that I have ever read.”  And Harvard theologian Harvey Cox called it “the most accurate and balanced short reconstruction of the life of the historical Jesus.”  Thirty-five years on, Jesus Before Christianity still demands our attention.

Nolan divides his study into four sections:  Catastrophe, Praxis, Good News, and Confrontation.  “My interest is in the man as he was before he became the object of Christian faith,” Nolan observes.  “We must put aside all our images of Jesus, conservative and progressive, devotional and academic, so that we may listen to him with an open mind.”

Nolan paints a vivid, persuasive picture of the Galilean.  Jesus, he contends, was thoroughly humane, courageous, sapient, sensitive, and “in complete harmony with” his Heavenly Father, Abba.  “God’s feeling of compassion…possessed him.”  Jesus particularly reached out to the marginalized:  lepers, lunatics, women, children, beggars, “sinners,” and other despised outcasts.  To the despondent, he brought a much-needed message of hope and love.  Likewise, Christians should emulate Jesus and show “compassion for the starving millions, for those who are humiliated and rejected, and for the billions of the future who will suffer because of the way we live today.  It is only when, like the good Samaritan, we discover our common humanity, that we shall begin to experience what Jesus experienced.”

Jesus, moreover, feared the impending destruction of Jerusalem by its Roman overlords.  The only way to avert this calamity, he believed, was to engender a revolution in people’s lives.  To that end, Jesus embarked on “an urgent preaching campaign.  There was no time to be lost because…the only way to prevent Israel from plunging headlong into a catastrophe was to bring about a radical change of heart, a change radical enough to enable the ‘kingdom’ [of God] to come instead of the catastrophe…The immediate urgency was to prevent this tragedy by encouraging all the people” to orient “their lives towards God’s ‘kingdom.’”

Nolan asserts that the Nazarene was a man of profound faith.  God’s goodness, Jesus felt, would eventually “triumph over all evil.”  As followers of the Galilean, we should adopt this essential conviction.  “To believe in Jesus,” Nolan avers, “is to believe that goodness can and will triumph over evil.  Despite the system, despite the magnitude, complexity and apparent insolubility of our problems today, humanity can be, and in the end will be, liberated.  Every form of evil—sin and all the consequences of sin:  sickness, suffering, misery, frustration, fear, oppression and injustice—can be overcome.  And the only power that can achieve this is the power of a faith that believes this.  For faith is…the power of goodness and truth, the power of God.”

Jesus Before Christianity is an exceptionally well-researched book.  Nolan consulted the works of such eminent biblical scholars as Joachim Jeremias, Edward Schillebeeckx, Etienne Trocme, Geza Vermes, and Gerhard Von Rad.  Additionally, Nolan’s study is lucidly written, insightful, touching, and thought-provoking.  In short, Jesus Before Christianity enriches your head and your heart.

Review & Commentary