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Publishers Weekly Features

Having Faith in Jesus
Lauren F. Winner -- 8/14/00
According to publishers and booksellers, interest in
His times and influence is still on the rise

In this Feature:

For readers who have seen one too many historical Jesus books, there is good news and bad news. The bad news for weary readers is good news for publishers--the historical Jesus trend has not peaked. Publishers and booksellers say that backlist historical Jesus books are strong sellers, and new books are all but guaranteed to do well. Debra Farrington, marketing director at Morehouse, said there is an increased interest in the historical Jesus. "Things were pretty calm in Jesus studies when I got here three years ago," she told PW, "but now the books are selling like crazy." Harper San Francisco executive editor John Loudon said, "Interest in Jesus among readers remains very strong, even if publishers and stores may tire of the subject and fear it is a saturated market. There will continue to be books on Jesus both by scholars and of a more popular nature." Char Matejovsky, v-p of Polebridge Press, the publishing arm of the Westar Institute (the organization that sponsors the controversial Jesus Seminar), said, "Our activity is up." Since the fall of 1999, Polebridge has seen more orders for books, an increased number of memberships in Westar and increased activity among that membership, which is made up of fellows--the Greek-speaking scholars with advanced degrees in religion or related disciplines--and associates, non-scholars who are simply interested in the historical Jesus. (Most tend to be mainline Protestant clergy, but there are plenty of doctors and engineers to boot.) The Jesus Seminar may not be getting much ink in Time and Newsweek these days, but it is far from moribund.
Three from Harper SF's extensive
historical Jesus list.
The good news for everyone is that new kinds of books about Jesus are on the way. In September, Yale is bringing out a new edition of Paula Fredriksen's From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus, originally published in 1988, which sang what has since become a familiar song: Mark and Luke were writing to different audiences and had different agendas, and that made their portrayals of Jesus different. But now readers can look forward to more books on extracanonical texts, more books on Paul and the first- and second-century church, and books that marry historical questions with devotional concerns.
Even the straightforward historical studies of Jesus will have a new flavor. Doubleday editor Andrew Corbin said, "We're going to have to find different ways of packaging material that may not be brand new to scholars," but might be fresh for many general readers. Corbin hopes that Doubleday's Rabbi Jesus, An Intimate Biography: The Jewish Life and Teaching that Inspired Christianity (Sept.), by Bard College's Bruce Chilton, fits the bill. Readers familiar with Chilton's academic work will not be shocked by anything he says in the book, which aims to set Jesus fully in his first-century Jewish context. "This is the first biography, in the traditional sense, that's out there in the general trade," said Corbin.

New Approaches, New Forms
Other publishers think the time is right for something even more creative than a biography. Henry Carrigan, editorial director of Trinity Press International, said, "What would be nice is if we had a few good Jesus novels--if we could have a few Kazantzakises come along and do a new Last Temptation. You'd get people to listen in a new form." Tom Rider, owner of G ring's Bookstore in Gainesville, Fla., agreed. "The same book over and over can't work for much longer," he noted. "Many of the issues in the historical Jesus controversy lend themselves to fiction." Rider said he's not looking for "the devotional type of novel," but "something that takes the issues, like
From Baker and
Jesus's Jewish identity versus his Hellenized identity, and plays with them in a new form." Bob Fryling, publisher at InterVarsity Press, believes we might see more p try and drama. Different narrative forms, Fryling said, can help offer readers "a fresh understanding of Jesus." Some publishers have already gotten into the fiction game: Baker, for example, published Memoirs of Pontius Pilate by James Mills. The novel has sold 20,000 since its February release, and Baker just sold trade paper rights to Doubleday for a planned release in January 2001.
The Bible PlusIf readers are weary of traditional studies of the Jesus of Matthew, Mark and Luke, they seem to be eager for books about the Jesus of Thomas, Mary and Peter. Studies of the Gospel of Thomas, the Gnostic Gospels and other extracanonical texts have always been big sellers, but publishers have seen a sudden and inexplicable spike in sales over the past four to six months. Morehouse's Farrington said, "Our book on the gospel of Thomas [The Fifth Gospel: The Gospel of Thomas Comes of Age by Stephen J. Patterson and James M. Robinson, 1998] had been steady but not amazing. All of a sudden in May, there was a huge upswing in interest." Trinity has reprinted the book twice since then, for a total of 7,000 copies in print. "The primary sales are happening on Amazon," said Farrington, "though Barnes & Noble has ordered a fair chunk, too." In May, the book was at 500 on Amazon's bestseller list. "It's now between 2000 and 6000--Morehouse had never broken six digits on Amazon before."

Harper San Francisco has also seen a sharp increase in sales of its The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus, translated and introduced by Marvin Meyer (1992), and attributes the spike in part to the movie Stigmata, released in the fall of 1999, in which a controversial first-century scroll, purportedly kept hidden by the Vatican, is discovered. Indeed, a quotation from the Gospel of Thomas--slightly mangled--appears in the movie. Polebridge's Matejovsky made the same point: sales of The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus by Stephen J. Patterson (Polebridge, 1993) "have skyrocketed, and that has a lot to do with Stigmata. I get two to five letters a week, sometimes more, on Thomas, and all of them say that the movie inspired them to read it."

Going to the SourceWhile this sudden surge of interest in extracanonical texts may lead to increased sales of studies of extracanonical gospels, most of the interest is in the primary sources. "People are mostly wanting to read the actual text, rather than reading books about it," said Matejovsky. TPI's Carrigan agreed: "The fascination with extracanonical materials has risen over the last three to four years, in part because of TV shows like the Jennings special [The Search for Jesus, the June ABC special that introduced thousands of viewers to the historical Jesus] and the kinds of discoveries that people have been making about other communities and other movements that were present in Jesus' day." He added that books like John Dominic Crossan's The Birth of Christianity (Harper San Francisco, 1998), Greg Riley's One Jesus, Many Christs (HSF, 1997) and Burton L. Mack's The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins (HSF, 1993) "introduced people to a world they never knew about, to books, like the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Mary, they never knew existed. People are fascinated by the fact that maybe there are other stories about people who were raised from the dead. But rather than wanting to read about those stories, they want to read them for themselves." Carrigan said this interest in extracanonical texts reflects changing religious sensibilities. He noted that even people who return to a traditional religion "cut their teeth on New Age practices," which include a syncretistic reception of texts other than the canonical Bible. Trinity is banking that the interest in extracanonical texts will continue. In January 2001, TPI will release Telling the Untold Stories: Encounters with the Resurrected Jesus by John Beverley Butcher, a narrative account of the stories of Jesus's resurrection from canonical and extracanonical sources. "That means it can focus on women and on members of Jesus' family," noted Carrigan.

Looks at the Early ChurchIf the quest for the historical Jesus has sparked a passion for extracanonical materials, it has also created interest in the history of the first- and second-century church more broadly, as evidenced by a recent outpouring of books on Paul, Judas, even Pontius Pilate. As Doubleday's Andrew Corbin notes, "One of the best things about the recent interest in the historical Jesus is that it has made the general reader more interested in the world and development of early Christianity in general. It's also enabled them to see people like Paul and Judas in whole new ways. People are now bringing the kinds of questions they've asked about the historical Jesus to other parts of the story of early Christianity as well. A whole new world is coming alive for them."

Dovetailing with the interest in Paul and Judas is an interest in early ecclesiology. Rider of G ring's Bookstore expects to see an increased number of books about the formation of church doctrine in the first and second centuries. He predicts expanded sales for books on "Paul and the first two centuries, when early church doctrine gets hammered out. There is more interest in the early church than there was 10 years ago. People want to know how the church molded its traditions."

In 1999, Westar Institute launched a seminar that aims to do for Acts what the Jesus Seminar did for the Gospels; it meets for the third time in October. The fruits of Westar's seminar on Paul will soon hit the shelves. Two volumes are currently in the editing stage: a collection of Paul's letters deemed by the Seminar to be authentic (tentatively scheduled for 2001) and, further down the road, a volume of complete letters, similar to The Complete Gospels (Polebridge, 1992, 1994; paper from Harper in 1994). The Complete Letters will include new translations of all of the early Christian letters, canonical and noncanonical.

The Once and Future ChurchFor all of the continuing interest in the historical Jesus, the next big thing, publishers told PW, is not going to be history books per se, but books that apply what we know about the first-century Jesus to Christians' 21st-century lives. As IVP's Fryling put it, "Readers want something accessible that tells them what this all means. We need to take this out of the theoretical realm and ask, 'How d s this translate into an educated person's faith?'" Interest in that question, said Fryling, partially explains the popularity of N.T. Wright, whose The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, published last November by IVP, hit #260 on Amazon after the Jennings TV special. Wright appeals to evangelical readers, said Fryling, because he integrates historical questions with questions about faith. "There is a great deal of interest in someone who has a clear and articulate faith in Jesus as the Son of God, but who also has historical stature, and can offer a deeper understanding of Jesus as a first-century Jew and as part of what first-century Jews expected," Fryling explained.

Polebridge Press's Matejovsky agreed that the next wave of work will not be about Jesus' past, but Christianity's future. In spring 2001, Westar will sponsor a conference (and Polebridge will publish the proceedings) called "The Once and Future Faith." Participants such as John Shelby Spong, Elaine Pagels and Karen Armstrong will "be more theological and look to the future of the church," she said. "The direction of the interest is shifting to the future of the faith--how is this stuff useful? Rather than just analyzing the historical Jesus, we now have to ask, how is this person useful? How do I integrate this into my daily life?" TPI's Carrigan ech d the point: "So we've got this historical Jesus research--how do we apply it? What d s it mean for our faith? That hasn't really been done." Trinity hopes its recent The Historical Jesus Through Jewish and Catholic Eyes, edited by Bryan F. Le Beau, Leonard Greenspoon and Dennis Hamm (Dec. 1999), in which Jewish and Catholic scholars discuss the significance of Jesus for their own faiths and for contemporary culture, will begin to fill the lacuna.
Faith and questions--titles from
InterVarsity and HarperCollins.
Harper San Francisco, which has driven much of the interest in the historical Jesus, has also crafted a list that reflects an interest in today's church. "For both Crossan and Marcus Borg," said Harper San Francisco marketing and publicity manager Roger Freet, "getting the history right is only the first step. If the historical Jesus is true, what d s this mean for the life of the church?" Freet predicted, "Now the focus will shift. If part one is the research that had meaning laced within it, the second part is unpacking the meaning of the research." Loudon said HSF's recent bestselling Jesus book The Four Witnesses: The Rebel, the Rabbi, the Chronicler, and the Mystic ( Apr.), heralds that shift. Author Robin Griffith-Jones "interestingly takes a spiritual tack by emphasizing that the key is not to uncover the historical Jesus hidden below the surface of the Gospels, but to appreciate the purpose and power of the four Gospels as a kind of quadraphonic conveying of a transforming religious message," Loudon said. "He combines historical research and appreciation of what the Gospels are uniquely trying to do--not to supply historical information, but to challenge and transform the reader to experience the divine in and through Jesus and a radical message of salvation."
Harper's forthcoming titles indicate that pastors and cultural critics are using the historical work in their books, while historians are increasingly paying attention to pastoral concerns. John Shelby Spong's next book, scheduled for fall 2001 and not yet titled, is "very reconstructive in nature," Freet said. "Spong makes use of Jesus Seminar insights in answering questions about what a healthy church will look like in the future." Marcus Borg's next title, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally, due out in February, asks what the Jesus of history means for the Christ of faith. At least one bookseller affirms Harper's new direction: Harrison Simons, owner of Education-Liturgy Resources in Oxford, N.C., said Borg's books--which begin to make the connections between the historical Jesus and daily Christian life--outsell the more strictly historical books. "We're doing quite a bit with Borg," Simons said, "but we haven't done much with Robert Funk's The Acts of Jesus, (HarperCollins, 1998), and even his Honest to Jesus (Harper SF, 1996) has begun to slow down in sales." What Simons said would sell well is not yet available: "What's missing is the application. We've done the searching and the questioning. The application is still not there, though we find a little in Marcus Borg." Surprisingly, the most vigorous effort to address the application question is coming from Polebridge Press, which is launching a curriculum of study guides for adults, designed to help people integrate the past decade's insights about the historical Jesus into their day-to-day faith. In January, Robert J. Miller, who edited The Complete Gospels and wrote The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics (Polebridge, 1999) will come to Westar as a scholar-in-residence to write the study guide on Jesus's birth and childhood. Guides on the passion narratives and other topics are also in the works. Said Matejovsky, "These books will be basic, small, directed curricula--they will be teaching books that help people see the implications of the historical work."
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