“The Shadow of the Galilean:” A Book Review

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The Shadow of the Galilean, by Gerd Theissen,[1] is the narrative account of a fictional Jewish merchant searching for information about a group of people known as Essenes, a one John the Baptist, and, as the subtitle suggests, Jesus of Nazareth. Arrested for allegedly taking part in a riot in Jerusalem against Rome, Andreas is blackmailed by Pilate into working for him as spy, or “research,” as Pilate calls it (14). He considers Andreas as “an adviser in religious affairs” (14). Andreas is granted freedom by Pilate in exchange for gathering information about certain Jewish people perceived as a threat against Rome. After mulling over the offer, Andreas reasons himself into accepting the offer without damaging his own reputation among the Jews.

The Roman officer assigned to overseeing Andreas’ case is a man by the name of Metilius. Metilius is opened-minded about philosophical ideas and particularly curious about the Jewish religion. In his briefings to Andreas, he respectfully debates and questions the logic of the Jewish faith, “[The Essenes] make a point of not taking part in Temple worship” (62).

In this historical fiction novel, Andreas is given two separate tasks. The first task to start is to gather information about a strange group of Jewish people, the Essenes, living in the wilderness, removed, through choice, from all facets of “normal life” (29). Andreas is to gather as much information about them—why they do what they do—so as to know whether this community poses a political risk to Pilate and the Roman government in the area. In addition to this task, Andreas is asked to collect as much information as possible on a man called John the Baptist.

The execution of John the Baptist (44) prompts him to visit Metilius in hopes of being done with the job so he can get on with his life. But upon meeting his handler, he is given a new task.

This second task, to gather information about a Galilean named Jesus of Nazareth, comprises most of the book Throughout the rest of the story, Andreas never meets Jesus (114), but through talking with other people who have heard of him, he hears stories and learns almost as much about Jesus as if he were to have met and interviewed him in person.

Eventually, Andreas proposes a radical way to bring about peace in the region, an idea Pilate is fond of (138). But Andreas’ ideas don’t come without consequences and lead to the release of Barabbas and the execution of Jesus (153), after which Andreas is left wondering if Jesus was actually guilty of the crimes he was accused of.

Theissen’s narrative account of a fictional character searching to find out who Jesus was and what he was all about provided a unique look at the life of Jesus through the eyes of a fictional Jewish man in the first century AD. Repeatedly throughout the book, information about the stories and the culture were added to help the reader understand. And despite the awkwardness of these explanations, the information usually proved quite helpful. One particular example was near the beginning when Andreas is receiving his commission. Although he is probably fully aware of what Metilius is telling him, making it seem rather redundant, the information Metilius shares about the Essenes was quite helpful (29).

Another, rather interesting aspect to the book, was that most of the description as to who Jesus was came from the Scripture—the parables and sayings of Jesus told by the different characters. It is said that a person can learn a lot about someone by the words they speak, and it is certainly true of Jesus. Theissen’s commentary was by no means absent from the book. However, he did a decent job of leaving it open for the reader to think about the meanings of Jesus’ words.  In this way, Theissen leads the reader through the same journey as Andreas’ in the search for the real Jesus, not the preconceived Jesus.

My two main complaints about this book, though, are: (1) given the short length of the book, for a narrative there was too much exposition for it to be really entertaining, . The read was rather dry. (2) (and my bigger complaint) is that in telling this story in the way he did, the depiction of Jesus was, for the most part, devoid of the deity side of him. I understand Theissen’s intent was to find the historical Jesus, but in my opinion, the historicity of Jesus cannot be separated from his deity. He was only depicted in this book as human and no connection was really made between him and God. Of course, there were times in which his deity was hinted at, for example, when Andreas is in Capernaum delivering a message to Matthias, Matthias’s daughter refers to Jesus as the Messiah (93).

Although I appreciate Gerd Theissen’s idea of a narrative explaining how first century Jews saw Jesus, I think he could have done a better job of explaining this in a form other than a narrative. Nevertheless, it does provide some good insight into the first century Jewish culture. For lay Christians especially, it is a good book to preface for a Bible study on the Gospels.  It provides a unique perspective on the humanity of Christ.

When studying the Gospels, it is easy focus more on the divine aspect of Christ and less on his human aspect. Gerd Theissen’s book did a good job of not only stretching and challenging my view of Jesus, but at some instances almost to the point of being a little uncomfortable, making me a little more aware of his humanity. In fact, it is this human side of Christ I relate to more. It makes verses like Hebrews 4:15-16 a little more real, giving me more hope and strength as I seek to become more and more like that Galilean from Nazareth Andreas was searching for.


[1] Gerd Theissen, The Shadow of the Galilean: the quest for the historical Jesus in narrative form (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007).

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