The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form
The Shadow of the Galilean is written by author Gerd Theissen. This is an imaginative story that follows Andreas, a Jewish grain tradesman. Andreas happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Roman soldiers hiding among some insurrectionists stop a potential riot. Andreas is imprisoned as one of them and is released on the condition that he complies with the orders of Pilate. This involves some spying for Intel on potential threats against the stability the Roman Empire is trying to accomplish. Against his wishes, Andreas is blackmailed into a series of short journeys in which he gathers information about certain groups of Jewish people, and then reports back to one of Pilate’s men who is fascinated and skeptical about Jewish religion and culture. These journeys and conversations are meant to be especially informative in regards to Jewish history and the religious sects of the time. Several events happen, and after learning of the execution of John the Baptist, Andreas’ new mission is given- find out who Jesus of Nazareth is and what his particular mission is. The rest of the story follows Andreas’ trailing Jesus’ movements though never really making direct confrontation. Almost everything learned is second hand, creating a Mark-like enigma around the man from Galilee. At the end of each chapter, there is a short letter in response to one of Theissen’s somewhat skeptic readers that addresses questions in regard to the historicity and artistic license of the book as a whole that is almost comical. There is much to learn in this book and the information is given in a way that helps to convey it all in a creative manner.
The story begins with Andreas the grain tradesman. He awakes a bit disoriented and upon getting up starts to recall fragments of what has happened to him. He remembers being in a crowd of people yelling, followed by some sort of surprise attack by Roman officials. Before he could get to his friend Barabbas, who he happened to see by chance, the soldiers appeared from within the crowd and began their attack. There was much violence and bloodshed and then his memory becomes a bit hazy. Bitterness wells up as he remembers how easily he was apprehended, and Andreas begins to contemplate how long he might be in the cold dark cell, or perhaps how long he has to live. After some time, Roman officials take Andreas out of his cell and bring him before an interrogator. We learn from this conversation that Andreas is a grain tradesman who happened to be nearby when he saw his old friend Barabbas in a crowd. He had nothing to do with the riot that was happening but has a hard time convincing the interrogator that he happened to be there by chance. Andreas actively avoids bringing Barabbas into the conversation to keep him out of trouble but also to hide the fact that he had a history with the instigator. The interrogation continues and after revealing some of the history of Jewish uprisings, Andreas is thrown back in his cell.
The Shadow of the Galilean
Beginning His Mission
Some time passes before Andreas is brought out again, but this time before the prefect named Pilate. Pilate is seen as arrogant and maintains control of the conversation without losing composure. Pilate blackmails Andreas into a special mission. Andreas is to be released on the condition that he is to infiltrate different Jewish sects that are under scrutiny by the Roman government and report back to Metilius about whether or not there are any signs of revolts, terrorist attacks, or general signs of discontent with the Roman government. Andreas is very much against the thought of betraying his people, but Pilate manages to convince him to comply. Andreas tells himself he can play Pilate at his own game and revise the information he gathers as he sees fit. Andreas is then released and a few days later he is contacted about the start of his first mission. He then reports to Metilius.
Metilius first inquires about the Essenes. This is a group that lives separately in the wilderness so as to avoid the unclean people who do not strictly adhere to Jewish law. They are expecting something to happen where they are based on an Old Testament prophecy about the voice crying in the wilderness. Andreas begins his first journey into the wilderness and encounters a man who is weak and malnourished. Evidently, this person is an Essene who was excommunicated for causing disunity within the group over the possibility of a hidden treasure. They gain his trust and offer him food even though he was hesitant at first. Andreas gains enough information about the Essenes to confidently make a report back to Metilius.
The report goes over fairly well, though Andreas still has to do some convincing. Metilius believes that those who hide out in the wilderness do so in order to conspire against the Romans. Apparently this has been done before, and groups with these connections and similarities tend to be opposed to Roman rule. Andreas emphasizes that although the Essenses are waiting for a new world order, they feel that is will be brought about without their need for making it happen. It is also recalled that Barabbas along with other terrorists has had dealings in Sepphoris. This puts Andreas on edge, considering that Andreas is also involved in Sepphoris and also the fact that He and Barabbas spent time as ascetics in the wilderness. He recalls that they both came to different conclusions about how the future is going to play out as well as whether or not they were to bring about the change. Metilius reminds Andreas that Rome wishes to make allies out of their subjects to establish peace. He questions Andreas about how it is that the Jews are supposed to have the truth yet close themselves off from the rest of the world. The conversation turns to the nature of God and what place images have in their nation.
Andreas goes to meet some friends who are a bit more liberal in their law observing called Sadducees, and they discuss rumors surrounding Herod Antipas and the royal court. There are conspiracies, revolts and an inheritance that keeps getting switched around from person to person. They recently imprisoned a man named John the Baptist. During their discussion they talk about the methods he uses to preach to others and how he attacked some of the religious leaders for their actions. Andreas was requested to gain insight into his movement, and he does not believe John the Baptist plans on causing any uprisings based partly on the teachings he had learned from him about bearing fruit in keeping with repentance. A while later, they learn that John the Baptist had been executed. Rumors surround how it happened but the main story is that Herod wouldn’t kill John because he feared he was a prophet but when he made an oath to grant a wish to his daughter who requested John the Baptist’s head on a plate. Andreas reports to Metilius and they have another discussion about the temple. He is questioned about why it is so important and how their god is invisible. The conversation switches to John the Baptist. He says John referred to another person who was gaining a lot of followers and was related to him. This person was becoming too popular among certain crowds and Andreas was ordered to look into this person. His name is Jesus of Nazareth and as a Galilean he comes from a place where there have been past issues with Roman government.
In Search of Answers
Andreas sets out to Nazareth to gather information on this new person of interest, Jesus. He meets with a couple with a sad story. Apparently they had sons that had all left them. Two of them were compelled to enter the mountain groups. Many people did this because of debt and even take their whole families with them. One of the sons, however, went and left to follow Jesus. This causes Andreas to continue searching for Jesus, but along the way is kidnaped by zealots. He is told to write a ransom note that his family has to pay. Andreas is able to demonstrate to the zealots that he was part of the uprising with Barabbas and gains their favor when talking about how the Jews are being unjustly taxed. Andreas makes it to Capernaum and meets Matthias who is waiting for Jesus to come heal is sick daughter. Later, he meets the replacement tax collector for Levi. This man also left his position to follow Jesus. Many poor people in the community have begun to follow Jesus on his journey. Andreas runs into Chuza the Sadducee and tells him that his wife Joanna left to follow Jesus. She had even been helping out for a while before then. After everything that he encountered, Andreas is overwhelmed by how much of an effect this one person has had on the community and people that he personally knows. Again, he heads back to file his report.
In his report to Metilius, he revises some of his information so as not to give away anything that might make Jesus seem like a threat. It appears that Jesus has also made an impact on Andreas, and he chooses to give the information in a way that will satisfy Metilius without giving him cause to believe Jesus is someone that will be trouble for them. Andreas first depicts him as a philosopher who cares for the wellbeing of others. He equates him with a Greek philosopher like Socrates. He also describes Jesus as a storyteller. This is in reference to the many parables Jesus tells to his followers. Andreas’ revision of his information begins where Jesus’ warnings begin. Talk about judging the whole world and overthrowing the current system seemed like a major political threat, even if it felt a little different than just a political regime. He also left out how he condemned the world for evil and would replace it with his own kingdom. During this exchange, Metilius reveals that three people were arrested including Barabbas. This shocks and panics Andreas, but he suggests ways to extinguish the revolts without using force. He mentions the debts the zealots had complained about and how forgiving them could bring some peace. After continuing to try and come up with ideas, Andreas is once again brought before Pilate. Andreas is frustrated but Pilate manages to come up with a plan. For Passover he agreed to let one prisoner go free so as to avoid major conflict. Barabbas is chosen and Jesus is crucified along with the two robbers. Metilius and Andreas recap everything that had happened and how Jesus ended up dying. In the end Metilius, who was very interested in the Jewish religion, becomes a follower of Jesus. Andreas also recounts all the things that have happened since his mission to find out who Jesus was.
This book was fun to read when considering how Andreas runs into so many well-known historical people. It seemed like Forrest Gump where he meets famous people and is part of so many events people are aware of. This helped give insight into how someone from the outside might have learned bout Jesus before these events were recorded. The whole time there is a certain mystery about the events surrounding Jesus especially since we never actually get to see him. This was useful in getting perspective from all kinds of different groups regarding what they thought about him. I also appreciated how much there was historical analysis in the book so it helped in learning more about each group in a creative way. One thing that might have bothered me is that in blending fiction into actual events it is possible to take what might be conjecture or revised history for artistic license, and mistakenly consider that to be truth. For example, I believe Andreas’ last conversation with Pilate makes the release of one prisoner appear to be Pilate’s way of compromising with Andreas when it is actually recorded as a Passover custom. People who are reading this are most likely aware of any major twists in the book that might distort history, though I don’t think there were very many. I think overall that choosing a first person narrative for a sort of history book was creative. I would recommend bible scholars to read it as a way to learn more about that era in an entertaining way. I would have preferred to read it without the interruptions for those letters after each chapter. There was no real need to have those in the book, as it disrupted the flow and the author’s decision in my opinion most likely backfired. I feel this way because people usually read books without (unfortunately) really questioning what is in them. I think Theissen put them in there to answer questions of a skeptic of the nature of the book. I think this did more to raise suspicion among readers than it did to dispel it. If someone is actually putting up a chapter-by-chapter defense in the story, then that more than anything is going to stop and make people wonder if the source is credible. If he had not included it there probably wouldn’t be much fuss, but instead he chose to put what was probably a private conversation in public without the chance for the other person to show his side. It seemed immature of an author to do that. Perhaps the book was actually very controversial and there was a higher purpose to that I didn’t know about. As for the actual book, I think it was clever and informative, and would still recommend it just without the letters.
© 2018 Chase Chartier