Book Review – Jesus: A Biography by a Believer, By Paul Johnson

Day 2 of week, (Mon.) 28 of Nissan (April) 5774 Jerusalem

One of the books I ordered and read while I was in the States last month was Jesus: A Biography by a Believer, by Paul Johnson.

Johnson is a historian I like and respect. I have reread his Modern Times many times. He published this book four years ago, making it one of his later books. I had read another nice short book of his some years ago, called The Quest for God, A Personal Pilgrimage. That was a good book and led me to suspect that his book on Jesus would be interesting to me. I knew it would not convince me to believe in Jesus, but I hoped it would give me insight into what the Christians think of Jesus. And this it did very well.

The book recaps the major episodes and stages of Jesus’s life that are known about. Johnson suggests that one has to read all the Gospels many times to get an idea of what Jesus was trying to convey.

Johnson provides an interesting chapter called The New Ten Commandments of Jesus. In it he summarizes what he sees as ten central messages of Jesus. The are the values which Johnson takes from Jesus’s life. I thought this was nice, and also interesting that he formulated it in the terms of “new ten commandments”, since as you know, one of us Jews’ criticisms of Christianity is that it does not prescribe “commandments” which in traditional Judaism we see as integral in helping people improve themselves and live by the values we hope to embody.

I do not share Johnson’s belief that Jesus’s life is an example of perfect living for which one should take example. I see Jesus as a charismatic young Jewish teacher, perhaps even something like the leader of a 6o’s style traveling hippie commune, being funded by wealthy Jerusalem women of his day. Forgive me if I see him as having a “messiah complex”. By the way, that is not in itself necessarily bad; I once took a psychology class from a Rabbi I respect and he said that most people secretly believe themselves to be the messiah! And indeed, we can all have “the light of the messiah” shine within us, if we are worthy and try. The problem is when you get carried away.

I recommend this book for those who feel a need to know what our Christian friends believe.

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