The Shadow of the Galilean (review)

I just finished reading Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilean. Truth be told, it is one of the finest books on Jesus that I’ve read.

Just a note, the following post is intentionally vague at points, to avoid spoiling the book.

The subtitle of the book (The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form) may lead one to believe that it is yet another fictitious account about what Jesus might have done as he roamed around Galilee. To be sure, such narratives do in fact have value, when they’re attentive to questions of historicity and when they don’t completely ignore what was probable (or even possible) in first century Palestine.

Theissen’s book, however, is of a different breed; the book itself has much to do with Jesus, but Jesus himself never appears directly on any pages of the narrative. The main character, Andreas, sees Jesus once (he tells the reader in retrospect), but throughout the book he cannot avoid constantly running into Jesus’ “shadow.” While traveling around Galilee and the surrounding areas, Andreas meets people who have been influenced by Jesus, people who are supporters of Jesus, and people who think that Jesus is a troublemaker. Through these encounters, Andreas learns of those things that Jesus did and said.

In this regard, Andreas’ task is not unlike that of the modern historian whose focus is the historical Jesus. A quote from the beginning of chapter 14 sums the matter up nicely: “I never met Jesus on my travels through Galilee. I just found traces of him everywhere: anecdotes and stories, traditions and rumours. He himself remained intangible. But everything that I heard of him [fit] together. Even quite exaggerated stories about him had a characteristic stamp. They would not have been told about anyone else in this way.”

Throughout the narrative, Theissen also introduces characters that will be immediately recognizable to those who have done work in 1st century history; Philo, Pilate, Bannus (from Josephus, Life 2, 11), Barabbas, etc. all make at least cameo appearances. Generally, when Theissen is introducing a new character who actually (or probably) existed, he will footnote them; the same is true regarding his citation of extra-canonical texts.

The book is also accented by Theissen’s side of a correspondence with a certain “Dr. Kratzinger,” who throughout the book aims to keep Theissen’s narrative grounded in some sort of historical reality.

This book can be both helpful and enjoyable to anyone interested in knowing more about 1st century Palestine. I have studied much of the material covered in the book for years, and I found myself unable to stop reading it. That is to say, this book is not simply for a common audience, although I imagine that even those not terribly familiar with the political, social and religious structures of this time period will still find the book quite enjoyable and informative.


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