Most persons now living can expect to witness the turning from the second to the third millennium of the Christian era. The year 2000 anno Domini looms as a seeming tower in time, commanding our attentive awe as we approach it. But in our age there is something oddly jarring about “the year of our Lord,” that signal event in history from which centuries and millennia are counted. How is it that the very reckoning of time by a materialistic modern world remains bound to the advent of a historical figure whose explanation was spiritual?

For a secular time these questions pose a disconcerting anomaly and irony. Now a scholarly new study by the eminent Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan has deepened the inquiry by reminding us that Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost 20 centuries. “If it were possible with some sort of super-magnet to pull up out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name,” Pelikan asks, “how much would be left?”

Jesus Through the Centuries offers a richly developed cultural study of 18 different images of Jesus Christ. While Christ metaphysically is “the same yesterday and today and for ever,” in the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Pelikan has engaged the many and varied historical images encompassed in that continuity.

Among these images are Jesus as Rabbi and Teacher in the setting of first century Judaism, as King of Kings of the waning Roman world, and as the Cosmic Christ, whose profound meaning for mankind signified the turning point of history. The image of Christ as Prince of Peace and as Liberator are aspects of the divine purpose that have both transcended and encompassed the social world and that have inspired Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

One of the most interesting discussions treats the early Christian image of Christ as Logos, or the Word—that is, as the original and eternal reason and mind of the cosmos as explicated in John’s Gospel. What, then, does it mean that man is created in the “image of God”? While the text seems to suggest a physical image, the 2ndcentury Christian Clement of Alexandria instead found the “image of God” in the human mind. That is a more sublime concept of mind and word than the mind-denying formulations of writers like William Cass and John Earth, for whom the word is created by the artist, himself oracle, creator, and arbiter of reality.

A corollary of the Christian affirmation of a rational cosmos deriving from divine reason, Pelikan notes, was a rejection in early Christian thought of the arbitrariness of nature gods and astrology. “The sky hung low over the ancient world” is an historian’s adage cited by Pelikan which is amply if unwittingly illustrated in the irrational and scatological pagan world conjured up in Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer.

Pelikan especially highlights the image of Christ that emerged from St. Augustine’s profound reading of the Pauline Epistles, which emphasize the humanly irredeemable condition of man—the misery that accompanies the grandeur of humanity. It was to that Augustinian image that the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr returned in The Nature and Destiny of Man in 1939, at a time when mankind was relearning the reality of evil in human nature.

Far from a merely interesting survey of Christian doctrine, Pelikan’s well-illustrated study examines such visual representations of Christ as the mystically lighted Savior of El Greco, painted “from the eye of a faith-filled soul,” and the Christ Appearing of William Blake, uniting the risen Christ and the historical Jesus. Pelikan raises to prominence the rich Christian basis of Western culture, expressed in such manifold forms as the Lutheran chorales of Bach, the novels of the Christian Dostoevsky, and the pitiless modern mirror of the orthodox believer T.S. Eliot.

The Enlightenment of the 18th century sought another image of Christ: a Teacher of Common Sense “purified” of divinity, whose precepts the deist Thomas Jefferson neatly divided between the “true” and the “false.”

In our own day, Pelikan notes the significant emphasis in the pronouncement of the Second Vatican Council on Christ as the all-reaching “true light that enlightens every man” universally. Is he “A Man for All Ages,” as Pelikan in conclusion characterizes humanity’s central figure? Whether one accepts the Christian affirmation or not, it seems difficult in a bloody century, dominated by the gods of party, state, and limitless self, to deny the rightness of the Augustinian prognosis: Man is impotent in his misery. Even as 20th century technology probes the outer planets, the sky hangs low over a modern world that finds itself no longer able to protect an unborn child or to define pornography or condemn sodomy or name evil by name.

The 21st century, Andre Malraux has said, “will be religious, or it will not be at all.” What images of Christ will the next millennium know, so soon to be upon us? As the percentage of Christians in the total world population declines, Pelikan sees as inconceivable that the Christian Church will ever conquer the population of the world. But while respect for the organized church has declined, he believes, reverence for Jesus has grown. “Within the church, but also far beyond its walls, his person and message are, in the phrase of Augustine, a ‘beauty ever ancient, ever new.'”


[Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture, by Jaroslav Pelikan (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press) $22.50]