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Book News

Biographer of Jesus serves up controversial conclusions

'The Hidden Jesus: A New Life'
by Donald Spoto

St. Martin's Press, $24.95

Review by L.D. Meagher

(CNN) -- Jesus of Nazareth was not born in the Year One, and did not die at the age of 33. The description of his mother as a virgin has been deeply misunderstood. The Nativity probably did not occur in Bethlehem, and his parents probably did not spirit him out of Israel to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod. His ministry lasted only a bit more than two years and did not cause much of a stir, except among the relatively few people who personally witnessed it, and, at the very end, among the religious and secular rulers of Jerusalem.

Those are a few of the more controversial conclusions that biographer Donald Spoto draws in "The Hidden Jesus". At first glance, it may seem odd that Spoto, whose previous books have chronicled the lives of celebrities ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Princess Diana, should tackle the central character in one of the world's great religions. But he wasn't always a biographer to the stars. Indeed, he holds a doctorate in theology and was trained as a monk. He draws on his years of studying and teaching Christianity in his examination of Jesus.

The result is a reverent, if not always pious, portrait of a singular life. There's no mistaking that Spoto writes from a foundation of faith. His book is one part biography, and two parts meditation on The Meaning of It All. It is the search for meaning that propels his writing.

He examines the New Testament Gospels with an eye toward understanding what they mean, more than just what they say. He concludes that some of the most familiar passages in the Christian literature are just that -- literature. They are not meant to be taken literally. Instead, they are examples of a very human type of expression, one we all use every day. "Events and experiences, real or hypothetical, actual or fictionalized, are conveyed in little stories, to which we bring the embellishments necessary for supporting the meaning of what happens. These embellishments do not falsify, they interpret an event -- that is to say, they give to a happening its meaning for us."

The accounts attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not journalism. They are not intended to be eyewitness records of the events they describe.

In this way, he argues, the Gospel writers illuminated the life and works of Jesus for those who followed him. The accounts attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not journalism. They are not intended to be eyewitness records of the events they describe. They were all written decades after the crucifixion. In fact, Christian scholarship has determined at least one of the letters from the Apostle Paul pre-dates all of the Gospels. Spoto argues that each Gospel was written for a specific audience, a small community of Christians who wanted to preserve the oral traditions of their messiah. As such, they constitute a guide for the faithful, not a history for the disinterested.

MESSAGE BOARD: Share your thoughts about 'The Hidden Jesus: A New Life'

As Spoto sees it, the church turned down the wrong path when it focused more on the words of the Gospels than on their meaning. The language meant to inform the faith of believers has been calcified into dogma. "Religion, to many modern churches, is tantamount to a system of laws and doctrines; that is the usual thinking, but in the final analysis such an attitude bears no relation to the life of mature faith. This attitude of moral rectitude -- as if faith and morality were synonymous-is closer to a fascist police mentality than it is to the attitude of Jesus ..."

So just who was Jesus and what did his life mean? Spoto describes a man who is thoroughly human and who, through the course of his life, comes to understand his unique relationship with the divine. He was a man of strong emotions who found he could do wondrous things, among them healing the sick and raising the dead. Spoto may consider the Christmas story -- which is told only in Matthew and Luke, with many discrepancies between the two -- as a metaphor, but he accepts the stories of the miracles as factual. He suggests that since they appear in all four Gospels, there must be something to them.

For Spoto, the life of Jesus can be understood only by recognizing the significance of the crucifixion and the resurrection. In Jesus, he believes God the eternal entered the realm of the finite, or as he describes it, history. In that way God gathered up the fruits of creation. By suffering the pain and indignity of death through Jesus, God became one with humanity. Through the resurrected Jesus, God maintains that communion.

"The Hidden Jesus" is littered with observations that will inflame those who adhere to orthodoxy or fundamentalism. "It is likely that two-thousand years later, Jesus of Nazareth would be called 'a bleeding-heart liberal,' a man without realism, a man without any pity for the victims, a man who dared to defend the victimizer. Such complaints would completely miss the point, for Jesus saw everyone as a victim. But he offered no reward merely for occupying that status, nor did the victims have a claim on privilege (as they often demand today). There was, instead, a way out of the dreadful cycle of being both deceiver and deceived."

There is much more to the book than iconoclasm. Spoto offers thoughtful meditations on the role of prayer and the goal of faith. His insights may enrage some people who consider themselves devout. At the same time, they may comfort others who are trying to cling to faith.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for nearly 30 years.

Other reviews by L.D. Meagher:

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