Book Review: Jesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan, O.P.

Jesus Before Christianity (1976, 2001) by Albert Nolan, O.P. is a book which removes the lens of Christianity from looking at the historical Jesus, and provides the context for the times in which Jesus lived, walked the Earth, and taught His people. Interestingly, Nolan minimizes Jesus’ supernatural acts and even his divinity, but in a way that more greatly emphasizes the radicalness of the Way He taught. Thus our faith in Jesus as son of God is increased by knowing Him as Jesus the human being. Nolan points how that Jesus never proclaimed his authority nor stated that he was divine and did not even defend himself in his trial, all of which teach us something important about the nature of Jesus.

Nolan pictures Jesus as a prophet for a coming of calamity (conquest by the Romans that would come around 70 AD), who wanted not to lead a military revolt but to protect Israel by having the people change themselves. He showed care for the poor and oppressed at a time when they were though to be beyond saving, and taught healing and forgiveness. The “Kingdom” (a word that in the original Greek refers to both a domain and to the quality of royal power and is not gender specific) of God is discussed thoroughly over several chapters, outlining a very real vision Jesus had for His people on this Earth. Nolan also dissects the confrontation that Christ had with the Jewish and Roman leaders that lead to His execution.

I found this a very interesting and enlightening study of the life of the historical Jesus. It’s a short but dense book, which probably is worth reading again.  Hopefully the passages below will illustrate the quality of this book better than my summary above:

Miracles are often thought of, both by those who believe in them and by those who do not, as events, or purported events, that contradict the laws of nature and that therefore cannot be explained by science or reason. But this is not at all what the Bible means by a miracle, as any biblical scholar will tell you. “The laws of nature” is a modern scientific concept. The Bible knows nothing of about nature, let alone the laws of nature. The world is God’s creation and whatever happens in the world ordinary or extraordinary, is part of God’s providence. The Bible does not divide events into natural or supernatural. God is on one way or another behind all events.

A miracle in the Bible is an unusual event which has been understood as an unusual act of God, a mighty work. Certain acts of God are called miracles or wonders because of their ability to astonish and surprise us. Thus creation is a miracle, grace is a miracle, the growth of an enormous mustard tree from a tiny seed is a miracle, the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, the kingdom of God will be a miracle. The world is full of miracles for those who have eyes to see them. If we are no longer able to wonder and marvel except when the so-called laws of nature are broken, then we must be in a sorry state. — p. 41

Jesus’ love for the poor and the oppressed was not an exclusive love; it was an indication of the fact that what he valued was humanity not status and prestige. The poor and oppressed had nothing to reccomend them except their humanity and sufferings. Jesus was also concerned about the middle and upper classes — not because they were especially important but because they too were people. He wanted them to strip themselves of their false values, of their wealth and prestige, in order to become real people. Jesus wished to replace the “worldly” value of prestige by the “godly” value of people as people. — p. 70

The leaders and scholars of Jesus’ time had first enslaved themselves to the law. This not only enhanced their prestige in society, it also gave them a sense of security. We fear the responsibility of being free. It is often easier to let others make the decisions or to rely upon the letter of the law. Some people want to be slaves.

After enslaving themselves tot the letter of the law, such people always go on to deny freedom to others. They will not rest until they have imposed the same oppressive burdens upon everyone (Mt 23:4, 15). It is always the poor and the oppressed who suffer most when the law is used in this manner.

Jesus wanted to liberate everyone from the law — from all laws. But this could not be achieved by abolishing or changing the law. He had to dethrone the law. He had to ensure that the law would be our servant and not our master (Mk 2:27-28). We must therefore take responsibility for our servant, the law, and use it to serve the needs of humankind. This is quite different from licentiousness or lawlessness or irresponsible permissiveness. Jesus relativized the law so that its true purpose might be achieved. — p. 87-88

To believe in God is to believe that goodness is more powerful than evil and truth is stronger than falsehood. To believe in God is to believe than in the end goodness and truth will triumph over evil and falsehood and that God will conquer Satan. Anyone who thinks that evil will have the last word or that good and evil have a fifty-fifty chance is an atheist. There is a power for good in the world, a power that manifests itself in the deepest drives and forces in people and in nature, a power that in the last analysis is irresistible. If Jesus had not believed that, he would have nothing at all to say. – p. 102-103

To save one’s life means to hold onto it, to love it and be attached to it and therefore to fear death. To lose one’s life is to let go of it, to be detached from it and therefore to be willing to die. The paradox is that the person who fears death is already dead, whereas the person who has ceased to fear death has at that moment begun to live. A life that is genuine and worthwhile is only possible once one is willing to die. — p. 139

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Jesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan, O.P.

  1. another great book in that line is “When Jesus Became God” by Richard E. Rubenstein. it does not take up the issue of the man himself, but when Christianity had the conflict (Nicea) that finally declared him divine. before that point he was viewed as a man that taught great things (as you say above) after that point he was an untouchable god. i have always maintained that christianity did far more damage in removing christ’s humanity that thomas jefferson did in removing his divinity…..


  2. Could Mr Albert Nolan please comment on the role of the Holy Spirit in the context of liberation of new testament people from the law.


  3. really nolan has brought the purpose of jesus comming to the world.But unfortunately his liberative ministry was verymuch neglected and he is too much divinified by the people who are very conservative in their thinking and acting.i appreciate the courage of nolan who tried to show the ohter face of jesus to the church.


  4. I am trying to get “jésus before Christianity” with great difficulty and more importantly. the French Translation “Jésus avant le Christianisme” (Albert Nolan) If anyone could help me know an adress, I am most grateful
    Sr Claire-Marie Jeannotat


  5. I have been reading Fr Albert Nolan’s book recently – not yet finished. I find it quite interesting – it is important to see Jesus as a human being – he often referred to himself as the Son of Man – so clearly he shares our humanity – but Jesus is also divine and there is the need to balance the two aspects of his person. At times in seeking to establish Jesus’ credentials as a human being – that he is fully human – Fr. Albert tends to obscure his divinity. If Jesus were merely human, then our faith in him, in terms of inheriting eternal life owing to his redemptive dying on the cross would not be viable.

    There are so many ‘images’ of Jesus created over the two millienia since his birth from the Gospels, so it is hard to have any one complete image of this highly complex personality.

    Books on Christology, per se, refer to a ‘top down approach’ – beginning with his being part of the Godhead, the Holy Trinity, the Logos which being ‘incarnated’ in Mary assumes a human personality, or the ‘bottom up approach’ which begins with Jesus the Man achieving divinity through his atoning death, ratified by his resurrection.

    All sort of ideas are associated with Jesus, for example, ‘the first socialist’, another would refer to Jesus’s life story as being another ‘Herculean Myth’, the divine father siring a demi-god son.

    St. Paul. a close contemporary of Jesus, however, examines the life of Jesus most exactingly, and has provided the Church with the most reliable Christology.


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