Book review: Rabbi Jesus, An Intimate Biography

by Bruce Chilton


Definitely one of my favorite authors. I believe he’s the one who called my most-studied scripture, Revelation, a “perfectly rancid book.” But I forgive him; I think that quote sets the tone for his book about the practical, historical Jesus in 180-degree contrast to the bloody warrior image some Jews & Christians wished of their Messiah.

Chilton is a great story-teller, and his writing immerses us in the world of Jesus. Temple procedures and the Roman Empire come alive. Chilton knows his stuff. Do be aware, however, that he makes up his own caricature of Jesus–a caricature that more closely resembles the popular Buddha in looks and practices than the popular Jesus. It’s a fill-in-the-gaps series of best guesses. I’m sure Chilton would be the first to admit he has flavored the image of Jesus somewhat for our reading pleasure. For example, Jesus grows fat because he’s known to enjoy a good meal.

Chilton’s Jesus is a bitter-but-lovable dreamer who begins to believe his ambitions are God-ordained. Though he ultimately fails in his reformation of the Temple and transformative vision for Judaism, he does accomplish a splinter movement which grew rapidly in the second century, and his legend lives on and continues to inspire, adding meaning to our lives two millennia later.

If Chilton does have a spiritual agenda in writing, it’s a commendable one. The Epilogue states,

“The rabbi from Nazareth never claimed he was unique. His Abba was the Abba of all. His teaching, purifying, exorcism, healing, prayers, signs, meals, and sacrifices were not for himself alone, nor were they intended to demonstrate his personal power or bring him adulation for his attributes or accomplishments. All his work was undertaken to open the gate of heaven so that Israel might enter before the Throne of God.

Far too much theology has been preoccupied with closing that gate. By exalting Jesus as the only human being to sit on the right hand of God, many theologians have denied heaven to others. They remind me of Jesus’ complaint about some Pharisees, who used the key of knowledge to shut God’s Kingdom to those of lesser learning.”

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