Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture by Jaroslav Pelikan is not a devotional work, it is an insightful and valuable slice of intellectual history. Jaroslav Pelikan’s 1985 overview of Christianity’s founding figure, Jesus Christ, as seen through the centuries after His birth and death is a remarkable, readable account of just how varied the face of Christ has been depending on those doing the viewing.
In the first century, working from at least second-hand accounts, the writers of the Gospels portrayed a parable-slinging, question-asking rabbi very much in the Jewish tradition. A few centuries later, after Christianity conquered the Romans, Christ became “the Victor and King”. Greek scholars saw in Him a Logos, a unifying cosmic principle under which the world operated, and by which it could be understood in turn. And so on.
In 18 chapters that read like a delicately-connected essays, Pelikan charts how Christ was viewed, seeing not only a reflection of varied cultures but an evolution to a truly universal figure, one in the end reaching and connecting even to those who don’t believe in Him. It’s a brave and majestic aim, one I don’t think Pelikan quite achieves.
What’s remarkable about Christ is how elastic His story becomes without losing its integrity. Even as He recedes from the foreground of culture in the face of Marxist and Darwinian challenge (Pelikan doesn’t get into either movement by name, though their impact can be felt), the notion of Christ as Prince of Peace, as Liberator of the oppressed, and even (to Francis of Assisi) unifier of Nature captures the imaginations of many, from Luther through to Dostoevsky, speaking to each in a voice that seems tailored to their particular ear.
Pelikan avoids making any explicit statement regarding the truth of Christ’s revelation, even to the extent of avoiding “B.C.” and “A.D.” when naming years. Yet this impressive collection of scholarly essays offers at least some grounds for hope that a power beyond mere suggestion and wishful thinking lies behind “the greatest story ever told.”
A deserved classic, and a wonderful way to look at history. Highly recommended.