Reading Charlotte Allen’s study, The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus, I was reminded of King of Kings, the Technicolor treatment of the New Testament I saw with some friends when it opened in 1961. On screen, Jesus turned out to be blue-eyed, square-jawed, and indisputably Californian. This was worth a smile. But it got better. When this poster-boy savior was finally stretched for the nailing, he displayed armpits remarkably innocent of hair. We were quite moved, as I recall. In fact, the balcony so shook with our laughter that people in the orchestra felt obliged to hiss our reckless impiety. I cannot blame them: It was a time when good citizens still wanted to trust popular culture.

Why do I mention this? Because in its small way it confirms Allen’s thesis: Images of Jesus all too often say more about the people making them than about the Savior. This is not exactly revelation, of course. What makes Allen’s book worth attention is her demonstration that this theological narcissism afflicts not only Hollywood vulgarians but serious intellectuals and scholars as well. She argues persuasively and, I might add, very amusingly that many of those who most pride themselves on being rigorously scientific in their pursuit of the historical Jesus are nothing of the sort. They too have shorn His underarms, albeit in the cause of ideological purity rather than wide-screen hygiene. “The deists,” Allen contends, “found a deist, the Romantics a Romantic, the existentialists an existentialist, and the liberationists a Jesus of class struggle.”

Although Allen says her purpose is to trace “the way in which the image of Jesus has functioned as a vehicle for some of the best and worst ideas of Western civilization over the last 2000 years,” her focus is primarily on the past 300. She quickly—perhaps a little too quickly for the uninitiated—surveys the period from first-century Palestine to the reign of Constantine, touching on the theological wrangles over Jesus’s nature—divine, human, or some sort of amalgam. Heresy was in the air as bishops freely hurled anathemas (and worse) at one another. As orthodoxy battled orthodoxy, the less scholarly faithful were no doubt happy to cling to the hope that a Galilean carpenter had somehow built them an escape hatch from history’s nightmare.

It is not until Allen reaches the 18th century, however, that she settles down to her real business. This is when the deists began to debunk the Jesus of organized religion. What interests her about these debunkers is how many sought to rescue what they conceived to be the real Jesus from the distortions of institutional Christianity. Rousseau, Kant, and Jefferson, among other Enlightenment thinkers, wanted to “make Jesus presentable to the modern age.” They thought they could do this “by clothing him in philosophical garments.” Jefferson came up with a simple expedient. He edited the New Testament, tearing out all its offensive supernatural claims. The result, according to Allen, was a pale version of his own democratic wishfulness.

Then, in the 19th century, the demythologizers went to work. Applying sophisticated textual analysis to the Bible, German scholars also sought to rescue Jesus, turning Him into “a moral hero . . . who preached a noble 19th-century ethic.” Taking this formula a step further, Hegel argued that Christ was not an individual man at all but rather “the symbolic embodiment of a moment in history in which mankind was made conscious of its unity with God.” When it comes to the abstract, you cannot do better than German philosophy.

In France, of course, the search for the historical Jesus turned from the ethereal to the carnal. In his Life of Jesus (1864), Ernest Renan, an erstwhile seminarian, projected his own erotic longings onto his subject. Fastening on Mary Magdalene’s few fleeting appearances in the Gospels, he gave Jesus’s story all the urgency of unrequited passion that was to prove irresistible to filmmakers. In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 The King of Kings, Magdalene becomes a first-century groupie desperate to seduce an aloof matinee idol who goes by the name of Jesus. Allen argues that Renan’s Christ led not only to DeMille’s vulgarity but also to many other embarrassments, such as Oscar Wilde’s identification of Christ with his own aestheticism. (“Those whom he saved from their sins are saved simply for beautiful moments in their lives,” he wrote hopefully in De Profundis.) Finally, 20th-century theologian Rudolf Bultmann had had enough, declaring in 1941 that it was quite impossible to use electricity and believe in the supernatural. (I find this reasoning odd, having always thought of electricity as one of the clearer indications of the supernatural.) It followed that any attempt to reconcile the historical with the divine Jesus was quite pointless; instead, we must commit ourselves to the Christ of faith alone, a bloodless, fleshless ideal that would somehow make us better people.

Today, fashionable theologians continue to appropriate Jesus to their own uses. For some, He is a sandalled 60’s hippie; for others, a Marxist revolutionary. An African-American theologian has concluded that “Christ is black because he is oppressed, and oppressed because he is black.” A feminist theologian of some distinction has dismissed the Crucifixion on “the anti-patriarchal grounds that the doctrine of atonement amounts to divine child abuse.” Another feminist is willing to grant the Crucifixion its place in history as long as she can re-imagine Jesus on the Cross as “a woman suffering from menstrual cramps.”

In all these permutations, Allen detects the same need: We want a Christ we can be comfortable with. She points out that 19th-century European scholars who scoured the Holy Land for traces of the historical Jesus were appalled by its crowds, dirt, noise, and smell. Its residents seemed hopelessly uncouth and unwashed. No doubt the hair under their arms was plentiful and, at times, rank. How could this comport with their image of Jesus? So the hygienic Europeans set about rescuing their Savior from the grime and stench of people improvident enough not to retain servants to draw their baths, and, in the process, scrubbed away Jesus’s Levantine identity.

Allen finds another kind of sanitizing taking place in our own time. Many of the more fashionable American theologians, especially those of the popular Jesus Seminar, have carefully cleansed all miraculous references from their image of Christ. Why? Allen speculates that some may be embarrassed by their fundamentalist roots. Having left the Bible Belt behind, they now associate “eschatology with snake-handling and polyester blends.” Furthermore, they fear that placing “apocalyptic sayings into Jesus’s mouth supports the political goals of the Christian Coalition.” So they have created a secular Jesus congenial with their feel-good liberal agenda, one who carefully avoids facing inconvenient questions about abortion, euthanasia. Heaven, and Hell.

Allen’s chiding of the Jesus-questers is, on the whole, gentle. Yes, people get it wrong. But is this surprising? Jesus—if we are permitted to believe the words He is given in the Gospels—said so Himself I, for one, cannot help imagining Him amused by our attempt to pin Him down. Whether it is a televangelist presuming to speak in His name or a secularist confidently putting Him in some historical nook. He calmly remains Himself quite in touch with us, however out of touch we are with Him. And, certainly, in touch with the ineffable mystery of our existence. This is how I interpret Allen’s insistence on Jesus’s otherness. She applauds recent efforts by Jewish and Christian scholars to recover the man who was a first-century Palestinian Jew growing up in a polyglot region that was at once fully Hebraic and Hellenic and profoundly different from our own. Clearly, Allen wants to smash the Jesus vanity mirror. But she walks carefully here. Rather than force the issue, she allows us to draw our own conclusions.

The greatest value of her book is the question it leaves eloquently unspoken. In the full etymological sense of the word, it is a crucial one; Are we here to find Jesus in ourselves, or to find ourselves in Jesus? The first choice leads to a warm, cozy self-approval. The second risks shattering all we know of earthly comfort to serve a Truth that transcends history.


[The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus, by Charlotte Allen (New York: The Free Press) 383 pp., $26.00]