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Two Studies of Jesus

ISSUE:  Spring 1928

Jesus—A New Biography. By Shirley Jackson Case. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, $3.00.

JesusMan of Genius, By J. Middleton Murry. New York: Harper and Brothers, $2.50.

In the astonishing revival of interest in biography which is so marked a feature of the literary activity of our day, the Central Life of all history has hitherto been only very inadequately treated. In these new studies of Professor Case and Mr. Murry, however, two distinct and completely modern lines of approach have been marked out.

“Jesus—A New Biography” sums up, from the standpoint of one of the leaders of New Testament study in America, the contributions which modern scholarship has thus far made towards the understanding of Jesus’s life on earth. Dr. Case’s method is frankly that of “social orientation.” His primary purpose is to remove from the gospel records all “features that owe their presence to the creative impulses of the author and his Christian associates at the moment when the document was written.” From the study of other sources he essays to determine the intellectual and spiritual background against which Jesus moved. This achieved, he proceeds to accept traditions, wherever found, which seem to him to fit naturally into this background, and rejects all that do not.

That the method implies much negation, it would be futile to deny. The Virgin Birth is summarily dismissed. Jesus was born at Nazareth, not at Bethlehem. His education probably stopped before he had gained a knowledge of Hebrew. He was the disciple of John the Baptist to a larger extent than our re-cast gospels records would have us believe. The “garish display of the miraculous” was added to the authentic story of his life in order that he might compete on their own ground with the far-famed healers of the Gentile world. It is highly improbable that he ever called himself the Son of Man; if he did call himself the Son of God, it was with no intention of claiming Messianic prerogatives.

But to realize that “Jesus—A New Biography” must be an exceedingly painful book for many Christians is not to deny its value. Few of us doubt that Jesus as he lived was greater than any man’s dream of him, and no trouble is too great which can succeed in bringing him closer to us. Dr. Case makes several valuable contributions. Of more than antiquarian interest is his emphasis on the proximity of Nazareth to the city of Sepphoris. Here, in Jesus’s young manhood, extensive building operations were in progress; here Jesus may have worked as a carpenter. Here, too, suggests Dr. Case, in this cosmopolitan setting, the distinctively and exclusively Jewish training of his youth may have been modified in preparation for the tolerant liberalism later so characteristic of his teaching. The reasons for the conservative opposition to Jesus and his message are clearer in Dr. Case’s pages than they have ever seemed before: indeed I am not sure but that this is the best feature of his study.

In a way this book is not a biography of Jesus at all, for it deals largely with backgrounds. But surely it points out some of the things which the biographers of Jesus in the future must keep in mind. I do not pretend that the author has kept himself wholly free from unwarranted theorizing. Often he sets forth with extreme self-confidence conclusions which might better be only tentatively urged. For example, even the Lord’s Prayer is put forward into the period of gospel-writing, on the ground that it then answered the need of the organizing church for a community petition. Often Dr. Case takes it for granted that a certain thing happened in a certain way because that would have been the reasonable thing to expect. But unfortunately for scholars who deal in suppositions, in this world it is often the unreasonable thing which does happen. I believe Dr. Case has written an indispensable book for all who are seriously interested in the historic truth concerning Jesus of Nazareth, but I am far from convinced that the whole truth concerning him can ever be comprised within the boundaries of a critical method.

By way of illustration we may turn to Middleton Murry. “Jesus—Man of Genius” represents an intensely personal reaction to the Reality of the Nazarene, an approach to the problem from the simple standpoint of human need. “The Jesus who is presented in these pages is simply the Jesus who is real to me.” Though he is by no means ignorant of Biblical scholarship, Murry’s equipment in these matters is, of course, not for a moment to be compared with that of Dr. Case. Modestly he presents his credentials: ” . . . much of my life has been spent in the effort to understand men of genius.” And again: “My. training as a literary critic might be the equivalent of the more specialized training of the professor of divinity.” He should have mentioned also, as his special qualifications for this task, the rare and lovely sensitiveness to spiritual values which is characteristic of all his writing, and the great fact of his life, that he was for more than ten years the husband of Katherine Mansfield, that fine, heroic soul that will some day be enrolled in the calendar of the saints. Everything Murry may ever write of genius henceforth will be colored by his first-hand contact with it in her. She was the obvious key with which, a little while ago, he unlocked the soul of Keats: she is visible here again as his means of approach to Jesus. And here, as so often in the life of the spirit, intuition takes us up at the point where erudition leaves us. Fuller information might well lead Mr. Murry to a modification of his views on certain subjects. But it is hard to see how it could in any way improve the glorious vision of Jesus that he found in his own soul and that he presents in terms which the modern man can understand.

The precise terms of that interpretation need not be set forth here as I tried to set them forth for Dr. Case, for this book is literature and its value does not inhere in its information. Murry’s Jesus is the teacher who gave himself to God as no other man has ever given himself, the Lover of Men who thought of himself simply as the first-born of many brethern, the Peerless One whose challenge to the conscience of humanity has lain unaccepted now these many, centuries, and never, in any sense, the supernatural savior of the creeds. Many of his interpretations—notably with regard to the Messianic consciousness of Jesus—are daring in the extreme: the quality of his ideas apart, it is astonishing that any man should be able to suggest so many points of view that are new. Whatever may be the truth concerning those aspects of Jesus which Mr. Murry does not see, the important thing is that it is precisely the Jesus he does see who is vital for modern life. It is a great book he has written, a book bathed in the lovely light of spiritual reality, and hardly to be read without tears, one of those rare books that actually contribute to the enrichment of life.


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