Almost a century ago, the scholar-turned-medical-missionary Albert Schweitzer published a little bombshell of a book with the bland title of The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906; reissued this year in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press). Schweitzer reviewed the history of critical studies of the life of Jesus, starting with the early eighteenth-century skeptic Hermann von Reimarus and concluding with the late nineteenth-century liberal theologian William Wrede. The central argument of Schweitzer's book at the opening of the twentieth century is startlingly appropriate also at its end.

Scholar after scholar, Schweitzer contended, had looked for Jesus down the deep well of history and had seen instead the scholar's own reflection. Some writers on Jesus marshaled impressive intellectual tools, from archaeological research to literary analysis, from comparative studies of Near Eastern religions to examination of talmudic materials. Others relied on personal intuition, perhaps a journey or two to the Holy Land, and vivid imagination to construct their own "lives of Jesus." But in almost every case, Schweitzer concluded, two centuries of supposedly rigorous investigation had produced a wide range of portraits of Jesus, each of which bore a suspicious resemblance to the artist and none of which was conclusive.

Charlotte Allen has come to the same conclusion after almost another century of biblical scholarship. In her new book, The Human Christ: The Misguided Search for the Historical Jesus (Free Press), she begins by surveying early Christian understandings of Jesus, and then takes up her story proper with eighteenth-century Enlightenment inquiries into the "human" Jesus—that is, the "real" Jesus stripped of ...

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