Norstedts, 2009. ISBN: 9789113019604
Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2009:2
Audiobook (11.5 hours) available, ISBN 9789173135627
Jonas Gardell’s latest project, Om Jesus (Of Jesus), is a very personal foray into Christianity; and thus, as he concedes, the title may be a misnomer. Although he tries to be objective and base his ideas on the New Testament text, it is difficult to be objective about what was demonstrably set down with so much didacticism. Those expecting a biography of Jesus Christ will therefore be disappointed. Not enough is known about the actual historical figure who preached in Palestine two thousand years ago. All we have left are the words, most of which were never even uttered by him. Non-Christians wanting to inform themselves will probably learn a good deal by reading Gardell’s book – they may also at times find his passionate declarations of faith a little less riveting.
In the introduction, Gardell explains that he does not want to throw his hat into the ring and slug it out with ‘the Jesus experts’. Every assumption one can make about Jesus of Nazareth has – at one time or another – been explored, scrutinised, researched or violently rejected by detractors. Jesus is ‘a minefield’ and in this book one gets a good idea of precisely why this is so.
As a member of a free church congregation, the author seems typically addicted to a close textual scrutiny of the Gospels – that is, the first four books of the New Testament by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. None of these four men ever actually met Jesus Christ. The book of Mark, considered the oldest of the Gospels, was written over a hundred years after Jesus’s death. Gardell suggests it may not even be desirable to try to know ‘who Jesus was’. The New Testament is contradictory as a rule, and historical gaps are plugged with borrowings from Old Testament sources. Gardell declares: ‘We cannot only be surface; we must also be depth… each of us must ask the questions and provide the answers...’ This is precisely his own approach here.
Take, for instance, the idea of the virgin conception. Gardell suggests that the whole idea may first have arisen because of inaccurate translation – an interesting idea (see below). He also brings up the possibility (based on vague source material) that Jesus was illegitimate, following the rape of his mother (Miriam, in the Jewish tongue) by a Roman soldier. Although wildly speculative, this would certainly explain the way Jesus embraced society’s outcasts – as an illegitimate he would himself have been an outcast. Isaiah first prophesied that the Messiah would be fathered directly by God, but he does not in fact refer to a ‘virgin’ but a ‘young woman’ – in Hebrew there was no real distinction between the two words, as a young or unmarried woman was assumed to be a virgin. In the Book of Matthew, Mary is said to have conceived divinely, thus fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. However, Matthew was a Jew who believed in the prophetic elements of the Hebraic Bible – it suited his purposes to see Jesus as the fulfilment of prophecy. Luke too refers to the divine conception. It is never mentioned again in the Gospels.
Matthew and Luke agree on a few points: Mary was betrothed to Joseph; Mary conceived divinely; and Jesus was born in Bethlehem – a traditional belief although it is commonly accepted that Jesus actually came from Nazareth. Other details vary wildly. Luke, for instance, explains their presence in Bethlehem by stating that they had gone there for a census – although we now know no such census occurred in King Herod’s reign. Matthew suggests that Mary and Joseph were on the run from Herod’s slaughter of his country’s newborn sons, but it seems likely that Matthew took this from the story of Moses, placed in the reeds to escape a similar campaign of extermination in Egypt. In Luke, there is no Star of Bethlehem, and no magi, manger or stable. There are, however, shepherds and angels rejoicing at Christ’s birth much as they did when King David as born – once again, in the Old Testament.
Gardell’s view of such textual variegation is that Christians must look for ‘mythological, not historical truth… the truth of mythology lies on another plane.’ He also believes that early Christians understood very well they were reading interpretative accounts, not historical facts – hence no attempts were ever made to edit conflicting information.
Gardell explains some of the contradictions in the light of the Apostles’ own aims and preoccupations, adapted to the needs of their congregations – whether Roman, Greek, or Jewish. (And, he goes on, this process of adaptation is still continuing in the modern era.) The mildness of Pontius Pilate and his reluctance to crucify Jesus, for instance, has more to do with the lobbying activities of the Christian church in Rome, than with any verifiable historical truth. (As governor of Judaea, Pilates would surely not have hesitated to crucify a potential trouble-maker.) Gardell’s findings and conclusions are not in any sense new. He confirms what all theological historians accept: that Christianity first grew and developed as an organised religion outside of Palestine. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to have been an eschatological prophet in a Judaic tradition whose preoccupations were not with this world but with the one to come. The first congregations of the new church were made up of Christianised or Hellenised Jews on the Mediterranean rim. The split between Judaism and Christianity was not clearly established until about 400 A.D.
So who was Jesus? Can we actually know anything about him at all? The whole notion of God must either be a mechanical creation in the mind, hence the existence of religion among people all over the world; or, as Gardell goes on to suggest, religion exists because ‘something is calling us.’ Rather than describing Jesus directly on the basis of descriptions from the New Testament, the literal credibility of which he challenges convincingly, Gardell sets out here to define ‘a possible Jesus’, and this seems a realistic and sensible proposition. He combines a finely balanced scepticism based on textual interpretation with a deeper, personal faith in the Christian God. All in all he succeeds – although this is a book of spiritual reflection that will be read mostly by other Christians.