Cover image for Rabbi Jesus : an intimate biography
Rabbi Jesus : an intimate biography
Chilton, Bruce.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, [2000]

Physical Description:
xxii, 330 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
General Note:
"A peekamoose book."
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BT590.J8 C45 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Interpretations of the life of Jesus have flourished for nearly two millennia--from the Gospels to scholarly investigations by theologians and historians, to fictional portraits by novelists like Nikos Kazantzakis and Norman Mailer. Despite this long history, a clear and coherent picture of Jesus as a man and a teacher has remained elusive. Now, Bruce Chilton puts the pieces of the puzzle together in an extraordinary biography that sweeps readers into first-century Palestine and re-creates the world as Jesus knew it. Chilton draws on recent archaeological findings to paint a vivid portrait of the social customs, political forces, and religious beliefs and practices of the period. Examining new translations and interpretations of ancient texts against this fresh, historically accurate background, he offers a revolutionary look at Jesus' early life and the philosophical and psychological foundations of the ideas he promulgated as a young man. Chilton provides evidence that contradicts long-held beliefs about Jesus and the movement he led. He shows, for example, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Galilee, not Nazareth or Bethlehem of Judea, and that the High Priest Caiaphas, not Pontius Pilate, played the central role in Jesus' execution. It is his description of Jesus' role as a rabbi, or "master," of Jewish oral traditions, a teacher of the Kabbalah, and a practitioner of a Galilean form of Judaism that emphasized direct communication with God, however, that casts an entirely new light on the origins of Christianity. By placing Jesus within the context of his times, Chilton uncovers truths lost to history and reveals a new Jesus for the new millennium.

Author Notes

Bruce Chilton is Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson and priest at the Free church of Saint John the Evangelist in Barrytown, New York. He is the author of many scholarly articles and books, including Jewish-Christian Debates and A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Chilton, a professor of religion, claims that this volume is the first comprehensive, critical biography of Jesus to date. (That statement would surprise a host of other authors, including John Dominic Crossan, author of The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant [1991].) Chilton's goal is to reconstruct the life of Jesus with emphasis on the early years--years for which little source material is available. Consequently, what emerges is a collection of suppositions that build upon one another. Chilton gives us a short, skinny Jesus who was a student of Kaballah, who was a renegade disciple of John the Baptist, and whose death was caused more by Caiphas than Pilate. This sort of rampant historical speculation is certainly provocative and is sure to be controversial. Chilton effectively uses recent archaeological findings to set the scene, but too often he launches into something very close to psychobiography, moving inside Jesus' head to tell us what he's thinking. That makes for entertaining reading, to be sure, but more in the manner of historical fiction than the "comprehensive" biography Chilton claims to have written. Expect this one to be much talked about among everyone interested in the historical Jesus. --Ilene Cooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

Chilton claims to have produced "the first comprehensive, critical biography of Jesus" in an effort to "find the core" from which Christian faith arose. Unfortunately, he falls short of these noble goals. According to Chilton (Anglican priest and Bard College's Bell Professor of Religion), the hurt Jesus experienced as a social outcast and spiritual misfitÄon account of his uncertain paternityÄwas the crucible in which his religious development was fostered. Chilton writes that Jesus' enduring legacy, as witnessed in his long-suffering life and agonizing death, is precisely that which "pain teaches": that a shattered sense of self can blossom into a mystical, visionary awareness of the image of God within. For Chilton, Jesus' central religious insight is an exemplary one, as it may be for many readers. As a historical work, however, this is often irresponsible; Chilton engages in dubious biblical exegesis and otherwise eschews the rigors of research and documentation. At times, this biography reads like a work of psycho-historical fiction, which imagines those years of Jesus' life for which evidence is lacking. ("All he [Jesus] knew was that he wanted to stay near the Temple.... He couldn't face going back to Nazareth, to the look of judgment and distaste... in the eyes of the village elders.") Such tactics will likely both strain the credulity and tax the goodwill of Chilton's readers. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Chilton (Bell professor of religion, Bard Coll.) offers a bold and fascinating biography of Jesus. It is bold because ever since the publication of Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus, liberal scholars have avoided any attempt at a life of Jesus; the sources (i.e., the Gospels) were thought too colored by theology to support such a project. It is fascinating because Chilton goes further than anyone in dealing with the implications of Jesus's Jewish heritage. Among the primary resources used by Chilton because he considers them the key to understanding what Jesus believed and taught are passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and especially the Targums, those oral, Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible. His heavy emphasis on Jesus as a mamzer, or one whose parentage was suspect and who was therefore an outcast, and his vivid description of Jesus's circumcision as an eight-day-old Jewish male are sure to provoke controversy. Focusing on such matters, however, would be to overlook a wonderfully fresh presentation of the implications of Jesus's being a Jewish male living in the context of first-century Judaism. Highly recommended.DDavid Bourquin, California State Univ., San Bernardino (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Chilton (Bard College) aims to reconstruct the life of Jesus in light of his Jewish environment and orientation. Indeed, he offers the book as "the first comprehensive, critical biography of Jesus to date." In doing so, he seeks to read "behind" the texts of the New Testament to discern what Jesus actually said and how he acted. He thereby seeks to identify the historical core from which the Christian faith emerged. His reconstruction is at many points grounded in careful historical research but at other points is speculative. For instance, he takes Jesus' famous confrontation with a Syro-Phoenician woman to show that he had "ingrained prejudice and xenophobia" toward non-Jews and that he needed to repent of such "rude and phobic" attitudes. In addition, he proposes that "the rabbi from Nazareth never claimed he was unique," but he does not attend at all to such salient contrary evidence as Matthew 11:27 and Luke 10:22. This is a significant deficiency in a biography of Jesus. Overall, however, the book is lucid and accessible, even engaging. It overlooks some crucial New Testament evidence, but it paints an imaginative portrait of Jesus nonetheless. General readers and all student levels. P. K. Moser; Loyola University of Chicago



A Mamzer from Nazareth Jesus' life in Judaism opened with his berith, the ritual of circumcision mandated by the Torah for every male child of Israel. As required in the book of Genesis (17:9-14), he was eight days old when the foreskin of his penis was cut. In the small, poor village where Jesus was born, communal rituals often occurred in the open village center, near the wine press, olive vats, and pottery kiln. Circumcision, however, especially during cold weather, required shelter to help ward off the infant's shock, which is why I think Jesus' berith would have taken place in his family's courtyard. Guests gathered for the ceremony, probably in the early morning, when blood clots more easily. "Shelama!" they greeted each other. Shelama is the Aramaic equivalent of shalom, "peace," in Hebrew. Aramaic, not Hebrew, was the language most commonly used by the Jews of Galilee, Judea, and Syria at the dawn of the Common Era. Standing in relation to Hebrew something like Italian does to French, Aramaic is a Semitic tongue, one of the world's oldest continuously spoken languages. Once as widespread in the Near East as Arabic is today, it is now nearly extinct, except as kept alive by a few native speakers in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. The shelama greeting in the Galileans' own tongue celebrated Jewish survival in a land under foreign dominance by reminding Jews of God's enduring covenant with Abraham--the very covenant put into practice in Jesus' circumcision. Even his name in Aramaic, Yeshua, conjured up the memory of Joshua, the heroic successor of Moses. Those gathered in the little village must have been keenly aware that they were a tiny, powerless group in an occupied province of the Roman Empire whose Jewish identity was under siege. Galilean Jews were indentured but not defeated. They burned with pride in a living memory of themselves as the people called Israel, descended from the patriarch Jacob, grandson of Abraham. They had tilled this soil and called this land theirs for more than a thousand years, fighting war after war, enduring defeat, genocide, and exile at the hands of foreigners, later suffering the prejudice and dominance of the wealthier Jews of Judea to the south. Their identity as Jews was bound up in the land and the covenant that made the land theirs. The covenant was their last defense against Rome, a cultural fortress that stood long after the political and military institutions of Israel had failed. Their understanding of the covenant came not from the written Torah and Prophets in Hebrew, which few could read, but from their oral targum (Aramaic for "translation"). A targum was more than a verbatim translation of the Hebrew text: whole paragraphs were added and long sections loosely paraphrased by the meturgeman, a "translator" who handed on the local tradition of rendering Scripture. (Just as a local rabbi designed ethical norms for living the Torah, a meturgeman memorized and recited the oral Scripture). These renderings vivified the Torah and the Prophets in a visionary language detailing Israel's coming supremacy over other nations and emphasizing the promises God had made to an oppressed, indentured people. One day, these Scriptural renderings promised, God's Kingdom (Malkhuta) would supersede every other form of rule. That was the fervent hope of the Galilean Jews who filled the courtyard to witness Jesus' circumcision; the cutting of the infant's foreskin brought them one small step closer to the Kingdom where God would rule, not Rome. God himself would reestablish the glory of Israel and vindicate the chosen people. Mary and Joseph were seeking their own vindication as they held the infant ready to have the covenant with Israel marked in his flesh. Jesus had been conceived before they were married, and doubts about his paternity were the result: "His mother Miriam was contracted in marriage to Yosef; before they were together she was found pregnant from holy spirit" (Matthew 1:18, in my own translation). His parents must have hoped the circumcision would reduce the stigma of his birth. Controversy about whether God, Joseph, or some other man impregnated Mary has been intense and long-standing. Churches have viewed departure from established doctrine in these matters as heresy, and the penalties for such heresy have sometimes been extreme and violent. Even today, there are instances of Catholic and Protestant clergy being silenced or excommunicated for denying Mary's virginity, even in the Anglican church of which I am a priest. Perhaps that is why scholarship has shied away from resolving crucial questions of fact about the nativity. Although we can never recover all the details of Jesus' birth, I do think it is possible to construct a credible overall picture. The charge that he was illicitly conceived plagued Jesus all his life. Even far from his home, during disputes in Jerusalem after he had become a famous teacher, Jesus was mocked for being born as the result of "fornication" (John 8:41). The people of his own village called him "Mary's son," not Joseph's (Mark 6:3). Scholarship should explain both why Jesus was insulted for his illegedly irregular birth and why the legend developed that he was born of a virgin. By examining the ancient Jewish commitment to the maintenance of family lineage--which was the cultural context of Jesus' birth--we can explain the charge of illicit conception and discover one of the most profound influences on Jesus' personal development. Miriam, Mary as we now know her, was some thirteen years old--the age Jewish maidens of that time married--when Jesus' father, the widower Joseph, came to her village of Nazareth, in all likelihood to repair the house of her parents. Joseph was a journeyman from nearby Bethlehem, a roofer, stonemason, and rough carpenter. It makes sense that he  met Mary in the early spring. Although heavy rains made travel difficult then, he could ply his trade before he was needed at home to tend his fields of wheat and barley. Legend--bowing to the imperial Roman feast of Sol Invictus, the invincible sun, which was widely celebrated during the third century c.e.--has Jesus born on December 25. But reckoned from his parents' likely time of meeting, his birth was earlier, probably in the late autumn. The attraction between Joseph and Mary must have been immediate; they broke with custom and slept together soon after meeting and well before their marriage was publicly recognized. Mary's family had agreed to a contract of marriage with Joseph, but the couple was not yet living together when her pregnancy became obvious. The wording of the New Testament itself, although written many years after the events and richly laced with legends concerning Jesus' birth, attests to this simple fact in Matthew 1:18: before they resided together Mary was obviously pregnant. Excerpted from Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography; the Jewish Life and Teaching That Inspired Christianity by Bruce Chilton All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.