The Historical Jesus

Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture

by Jaroslav Pelikan
Yale University Press, 270 pp., $22.50

In the thought of the Eastern Orthodox Church a distinction is made between the holy icons placed on the iconostasis—the screen separating the sanctuary from the rest of the church—and other pictures of precisely the same sacred subjects. It is as though the former are so thoroughly suffused by the divine light that they are inwardly transformed, become places where a hint of the glory that lies, ordinarily, beyond the world is manifested. Some of this thought about the interpenetration of earthly and heavenly things is carried over into Latin Christianity, as in the use of the halo or nimbus in iconography and perhaps most strikingly, for here a factual claim is made, in the phenomenon of stigmatization, the reproduction in the bodies of saints, most famously in the case of Francis of Assisi, of the wounds of the Cross. One has to add, to keep things in proportion, that for both East and West the supreme instance of the coming together and interpenetration of heaven and earth is to be found in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and here, so far as the senses go, nothing speaks directly except as a sign. That for a certain kind of devotional thinking the bare sign wasn’t enough is evidenced by the medieval legends of bleeding hosts.

Such considerations as these would not be relevant to a discussion of the place of Jesus and his image in the history of our culture if they were to be made by one for whom the question was like that of the influence of Plato or Socrates or of the Buddha or Confucius. But Professor Pelikan, one of our best ecclesiastical historians, is also, as he makes plain, a Christian believer. This is one of his qualifications for the task as he sees it. He adds to his immense learning a lively Lutheran faith which does not inhibit his deep sympathies for Catholicism and Orthodoxy. A professor belonging easily to the world of learning, he feels himself as close to the simple devout as to the learned. He writes with authority on the historical matters he has to examine as he goes about giving an account of the place of Jesus Christ “in the general history of culture”; but as a believer he assumes a further responsibility, that of interpreting what for others will be simply the data of history as instances of the irruption of the divine into human life and the material world.

Some things will be for him iconic in the strict sense. In some cases, one is tempted to say that this must be true for nonbelievers, too. The stylistic force of, say, the great mosaics at Ravenna is such that virtually everyone who beholds them must at least understand what it would be to take such images as having behind them forces that do not belong to the phenomenal world. This is true of many other instances cited by Pelikan, notably, at the beginning of the modern…

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