The Human Life of Jesus

By John Erskine
THE ordinary reader of this book will be divided between boredom and bewilderment. The student of the life of Jesus will find it not only provocative but provoking. The author evidently knows something about New Testament criticism — a full-time job in itself. Why then does he not apply the canons of criticism to his choice of material? He accepts all four Gospels as of equal value. He even admits the Apocryphal legends as respectable evidence, Why does he spend so much time on the disciples? In striving to know Jesus, conjecture is not only permissible but necessary, but it must be well supported and reasonable.
Instead of submitting Christ’s words to a process of rationalization so subtle and devious that “the simplicity that is in Christ” entirely disappears, why does not the author keep his promise and give us a portrait of the human being, Jesus of Nazareth — his mysticism, his passion of sympathy, his humor, his righteous wrath, his insight, his capacity for the inward radiance of a conscience obeyed and for the tragic decision to which that conscience led him? How can Dr. Erskine read the sixteenth chapter of Matthew, from verse thirteen on, and entirely miss the point? Or if he does not miss it, how can he talk about anything else? The book is provoking because it represents such a gorgeous opportunity lost.
True, our authentic knowledge of Jesus is so scanty that the concept “Christ” for most people is like one of Portia’s caskets, beautiful but empty; containing only a promise that whatever of truest idealism and loftiest aspiration the disciple puts into it will receive the sanctification of Christlikeness. In other words, “Christ" is a signed blank check for each disciple to fill in with his own fairest vision of manhood. That is all very nice. But there is still left to us enough of the stubbornly objective reality to enable us to recapture a good working notion of the truest, bravest, straightest-thinking, happiest, most God-loving, most enviable, and most poignantly significant man who ever graced this earth.
In one respect Dr. Erskine has earned our gratitude: he sees the need of doing it, and he tries to recapture that human Jesus. Like the small boy on Christmas morning who is so delighted at finding a parcel in his stocking that he hugs it to his breast unopened and shouts with glee. Christianity beginning with Paul has been so enraptured by this gift of Christ the Saviour that it has spent most of the last nineteen centuries in transports of evangelical joy. It is high time to open the package and see what it contains. Dr. Erskine has whetted our appetite without satisfying it. If we hope he will try again, our hope is not so much a criticism of his attempt as a tribute to the bright possibilities of the task he has assayed.