Review: Jesus by Leith Anderson

This year, I received Jesus as a free gift—but it’s too late for you to receive Jesus unless you are willing to pay the full price for yourself.

No, this is not blasphemy. I’m not talking about Jesus the Savior but Jesus: An Intimate Portrait of the Man, His Land, and His People by Leith Anderson. Stacy Harp at Mind and Media kindly provided this book to me free of charge in exchange for my agreement to read it and review it here. Stacy has more free books to review and is looking for more reviews, but all the copies of Jesus are long gone. . .

The back cover of Jesus sums up the purpose of the book,

Come explore the life of Jesus in this new biography that harmonizes and integrates the four Gospels from the Bible into chronological order. In vivid detail, it weaves in the first-century setting—historical, societal, and political perspectives of the time with contemporary readability.

There is much to appreciate about the book. It is laid out in a pleasant way, with a map of the Roman Empire inside the front cover and maps of Palestine and Jerusalem inside the back cover. Although the book itself is long (363 pages), the text is approachable. The font is not too small and the sentences and chapters are not too long. Throughout the book are numerous sidebars and boxes which briefly explain history and customs that are necessary to understand the text.

The boxes contain background information that is broadly applicable to understanding the narrative. For example, a box explaining the Jewish temple appears on page 43,

“The first temple was built by Israel’s third monarch, King Solomon, and completed in 957 BC. It became one of the wonders of ancient architecture, drawing tourists as well as worshippers to see its grandeur. But the Babylonians destroyed it in 586 BC. When Jewish refugees returned to Jerusalem in 538 BC, they started to rebuild the temple and finally completed it in 515 BC, although not to the grandeur of the original. That temple was desecrated by the Syrians in 167 BC (a pig was sacrificed on the altar to humiliate and enrage the Jews) and plundered by the Roman general Crassus in 54 BC. King Herod the Great embarked on a major rebuilding and expansion that lasted most of his reign and beyond—forty-six years. The good news was that the temple was in the best condition it had seen in a millennium.

The sidebars contain shorter bites on information that are necessary for understanding a particular incident. For example, the region of Gadara is explained on page 111,

Gadara was one of ten Greek-culture communities called the Decapolis (“Ten Towns”). It was the kind of place many Jews preferred to avoid. The actual city was about six miles southeast of Galilee Lake, but the shoreline was still part of the district.

For those who are not already familiar with such details, the reference material would be very helpful. But I have several reservations about the text.

First, I am uncomfortable with harmonies of the four gospels. As I’ve deepened my knowledge of New Testament studies, I’m become more convinced that each gospel is a literary unit that stands to itself. I’m not saying that that four gospel can’t be harmonized—though doing so is difficult and no two harmonies are quite the same. What I’m saying is that each of the four gospels has a unique flavor and force. When combined, it seems that the force of each one is lost. A harmony can be helpful, but it is bland, rather like melting together four different flavors of ice cream.

Second, the prose itself wasn’t compelling to me. Depending on how you see it, Jesus is either refreshingly simple or overly simplified. My opinion leads toward the latter. It may be appropriate, however, for a person who wants a simple text to read and isn’t bothered by a slightly monotonous style. When I finish this review, I am think of giving it to a non-Christian friend whose first language isn’t English.

In summary, I can’t give this book a wholehearted recommendation, but neither can I warn against it. Even with its flaws, it may be just the thing for certain people. The book isn’t bad. It is doctrinally sound and the references are fairly accurate and helpful.

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