Notes on Gerd Theissen, The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form

The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form Book Cover The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form
Gerd Theissen (translated by John Bowden)
Fortress Press
2007, updated edition (German original, 1986)

By Robert P. Menzies –

The Shadow of the Galilean is a creative attempt to illustrate the historical and social conditions of Jesus’ setting through an imaginative narrative.  Each chapter also interacts with a fictional scholar, Dr. Kratzinger, in the form of a letter.  These letters seek to explain Theissen’s assumptions and goals.  Theissen is certainly doing “Christology from below,” and thus the value of his portrayal of Jesus is quite limited.  However, the book is an interesting read and describes various aspects of first-century Palestinian society in a memorable way.  It also offers some interesting but speculative theories on aspects of Jesus’ life. 

The major problem I have with the book is that, like many liberal projects, it highlights the significance of the horizontal dimension of Jesus’ life and message at the expense of the vertical.  In other words, Theissen constantly presents Jesus and his message as primarily concerned about human relationships and human society, and largely ignores what I would argue is the central and foundational aspect of Jesus and his message: restoration of our relationship with God.  Everything else (the horizontal) hangs on this (the vertical).  This horizontal emphasis is clearly expressed in the final chapter (Ch. 18: “The Man: A Dream”) with Andreas’ conversation with the former zealot, Baruch, who is now a follower of Christ.  For example, Andreas, the central character of the book, in the midst of his soul-searching observes, “Wasn’t there deep within me the intimation of a life that could not attain fulfillment by being against others but only being alongside them?” (p. 174-5).  What about relationship with God?  Note also his thought that, even after death, “wouldn’t [his life] live on in all those who rebelled against the idea that life is possible only at the expense of another life?” (p. 174).  Is this really what the gospel is all about?  It would appear that Theissen has a radically truncated view of Jesus, his mission and his message. 

This conclusion is confirmed by two aspects of Theissen’s story.  First, the story ends with Andreas’ apocalyptic dream (a very loose revision of Daniel 7; p. 175-9).  The dream, which centers on the ultimate victory of a man (identified loosely with Jesus) over the injustice that characterizes our world, enables Andreas to overcome despair and live with hope.  This apocalyptic dream, however, is strikingly different from what we find in the Book of Revelation.  In Andreas’ dream, there is no reference to worship.  Again, human society rather than worship around the divine throne is the central focus. 

Finally, my judgment is explicitly affirmed by Theissen himself in the “Afterword.”  Theissen notes that his story is rooted in two presuppositions: Jesus must be understood in light of the Judaism of his day (so far so good); and Jesus can only be understood in light of the social tensions of his day.  This later assumption must be questioned since Theissen appears to understand this to mean that Jesus’ message and ministry were primarily  about horizontal relationships.  Indeed, Theissen states that Jesus “offers a paradigm of communal living that political structures cannot procure” and his message contains “ways of dealing with conflict that to his day bear great promise” (p. 182).  This may be true in part, but it does not take us to the heart of Jesus’ ministry or his message.  It does not explain Jesus’ miracles or exorcisms, nor does it adequately account for Jesus’ declaration that he brings the Kingdom of God (Lk 11:20; cf. Acts 2:22).  The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray begins, “Father, hallowed be your name, Your kingdom come…” (Luke 11:2).  The petitions for daily bread and righteous relationships with our neighbors (as we forgive…) follow after and flow from this unique beginning, not vice versa.  The Shadow of the Galilean offers a brief and fleeting glimpse of Jesus, for it focuses on the shadows and misses his dazzling glory (Hebrews 1:1-4).

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