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Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  552 ratings  ·  49 reviews
“A rich and expansive description of Jesus’ impact on the general history of culture. . . . Believers and skeptics alike will find it a sweeping visual and conceptual panorama.”—John Koenig, front page, New York Times Book Review

Called "a book of uncommon brilliance" by Commonweal, Jesus Through the Centuries is an original and compelling study of the impact of Jesus on c
Paperback, 270 pages
Published November 10th 1999 by Yale University Press (first published 1985)
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Aug 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This is not a book of devotions or inspiration (and I imply no condescension towards those genres, having read many myself)but an intellectual history of theology, culture and the arts. Pelikan's command of the scholarship is superb, even, at the risk of gushing, awe-inspiring. I found myself making marginal notes all over the place to look up innumerable authors and texts whose work he cites, some famous and some I'd never heard of. Each chapter, roughly 12-15 pgs, covers a different image or c ...more
Erik Graff
Apr 27, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Pelikan fans
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: biography
Picked this up in a San Francisco resale shop. There were three hardcover copies, all with different prices, making this purchase a satisfying one.

Pelikan has impressed me with his scholarship in the past. This, however, is more an impressionistic piece about different facets of the Jesus figure as they reflect back on the historical periods which focused on them. It is as much about Pelikan's sense of Western European history and culture as it is about Jesus-as-archetype.

I suppose such a study
The other John
Oct 20, 2008 rated it really liked it
Yet another treasure snapped up at the Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale. This book is a brief look at the perception of Jesus through the centuries by the "Christian" culture. While Jesus Himself has not changed over the centuries, the way His followers perceive Him has. Pelikan breaks the book up into 18 different roles that have at one point in history been the dominant perception of Jesus of Nazareth. In each chapter, Pelikan explains the concept, showcases those who held it an ...more
Mar 10, 2008 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating account of how the image of Jesus shifts over time and place. I especially enjoyed the chapters on St. Francis of Assisi, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Thomas Jefferson.
Todd Stockslager
Sep 12, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Review title: Picturing Jesus

Pelikan, best known for his multiple-volume history of Christian creeds, here has written a short study of how Jesus has been displayed, interpreted, and most importantly perceived by cultures since his appearance on earth. Chapter by chapter, Pelikan moves chronologically through the 2.000 years of history and geographically through the spread of Christianity. Culture, specifically the way people have responded to Jesus, is expressed in many ways: art, literature, r
Freya Magnusson
Nov 26, 2019 rated it liked it
This was a selected book for a Bible study group I joined at Grace Cathedral in SF and though I enjoyed it, I found it was very heady and challenging to read without a solid, clear, intricate knowledge of historical religious events--much can be lost on the reader. Yet there are gems within this book and especially at the end where it tells of the revival of the idea of Jesus the Jew as a result of the holocaust by the Vatican and even German Christians shortly after the Holocaust in Easter Euro ...more
Mar 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: church-history, jesus
Based on the title, I expected to read more about Jesus, but this volume is a look at church history as seen through the lens of how the church viewed Jesus at different time periods. Despite being only peripherally about Jesus, it is a unique view of church history that adds much to one's understanding of how the church has viewed, and changed its view of, Jesus through the ages. Mr. Pelikan shows how in response to this view of Jesus people have responded in action, started movements, undertak ...more
Feb 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Jaroslav Pelikan was a brilliant theological historian who wrote and taught extensively during the twentieth century. Though he worked as a scholar at the highest level during his life, his insight wit and intellectual breath are accessible to almost anyone in this survey of the understanding of Jesus throughout the centuries. Pelikan documents how the person and work of Jesus has influenced successive generations since his crucifixion during the days of the Roman Empire. What a generation honor ...more
Mar 24, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
3.5 Not sure I have the kind of historians training needed to appreciate the full depth and breadth of Pelikan's research, but this was still an interesting, illuminating, and formative work. Gave me new appreciation for various historical figures and political/social movements throughout history.

There were a few chapters that were largely so meandering that they were almost nonsensical, but that's probably because, again, I'm not a historian, and Pelikan got deep into the weeds at times. Bigges
Sep 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Took a long time to read but well worth it. What I like about Pelikan's book is that you cannot pin him down to any particular theological viewpoint because his breadth of understanding and knowledge is so vast. It was written over 40 years ago so it would be interesting to know his interpretations given the accelerated developments of our modern ->post modern eras. For this reason I have just ordered "Dominion" by Tom Holland.
In spite of the many varied interpretations over the centuries of th
Jun 23, 2018 rated it did not like it
Shelves: biblical-studies
I’ve read a lot of history text books. I enjoy many of them. This one, however, is one of the worst I’ve ever read. The author never makes his intention or purpose of writing clear. It is filled with uncredited presumptuous statements, and quotes that seem to be included to highlight the author’s intelligence rather than to help emphasize a point. I will say there is nothing wrong with the content of the book, but he sure has made the subjects of art, history and theology boring.

Jul 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
“The later chapters of this book show that as respect for the organized church has declined, reverence for Jesus has grown. For the unity and variety of the portraits of ‘Jesus through the generations’ has demonstrated that there is more in him than is dreamt of in the philosophy and Christology of the theologians. Within the church, but also far beyond its walls, his person and and message are, in the phrase of Augustine, a ‘beauty ever ancient, ever new’ and now he belongs to the world.”
Joseph Sverker
Jan 23, 2018 rated it liked it
A really quite unique introduction to christology and Christ through history. Pelikan is so obviously exceedingly learned that the amount of references can be a little overwhelming. I am not completely sure how easy this is to read as an introduction, but it is very impressive how Pelikan manages to link theological themes with cultural expressions throughout history.
Dan Glover
This is not a history of Christology but a history of Christ as perceived by various cultures and eras of history as seen in the art, politics and images of those cultures. Very interesting and very well written.
Daniel Supimpa
Sep 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
An interesting approach to the history of Christology, and the element of its "mirroring" of the culture in which Christianity is interpreted. I had a hard time getting through this book for Regent College, because the relationship between the book and the course assignments was quite forceful.
Joe Henry
Nov 11, 2018 rated it liked it
I feel a bit odd giving this work by such a renown scholar only a 3-star, but it's about how it was for me. I just didn't get too excited about it. I read it along with a men's discussion group, and it seemed we all had to work at it to get through it--just not my favorite.
Sep 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I learned so much from this book. It really helped me understand the New Testament and the Church theology and creeds that developed over the years. I plan on reading another of his books --- the one about Mary.
Jan 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Good reference for how views of Jesus changed through the centuries.
Melody Schwarting
Sep 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: r-2019, r-nf-history
A fascinating look at Jesus in western cultural history, particularly within the church. There's a lot of Dostoevsky, and many great connections about Jesus' Jewish identity.
Jun 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I recently finished Jesus Through the Centuries. It’s definitely unlike anything I’ve read before. Having been introduced to the name Jaroslav Pelikan in the pages of Christian History magazine, I cannot be grateful enough for the experience of finally reading one of his works.

Pelikan gives us a bird’s eye view of how the subject of Jesus has been treated by a variety of individuals over time. One will gain a greater appreciation for the early church fathers, particularly Augustine, as well as t
Aug 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: theology
A magisterial analysis of the different emphases regarding Jesus of Nazareth's life and character throughout the ages and how cultures have been shaped by Jesus from the first century until now.

The author highlights Jesus in context, the meeting of Jesus and Greek philosophy, Constantinian and Augustinian views of Jesus, the development of the monastic life, renewal in the late Middle Ages, views of Jesus during the Renaissance, Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism, and Jesus as a Lib
Dec 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Not sure at all how to put into words how deeply thoughtful and meaningful this book is. A friend of mine describes Pelikan as a "polymath," but I think that may be an understatement. Jesus and Mary Through the Centuries (companion texts) is at once a history of the world, specifically but not only the western world, a study of the beneficial and not so beneficial relationships between faith and culture, a demonstration of how the world has sought to understand and communicate the impacts (perso ...more
Feb 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-for-class
I really can't say enough about this book. I know from talking to classmates that it's not for everyone, but I loved it. Pelikan does a exceptionally difficult task--looking at cultural history over a long period of time--so well that he makes it look easy. This isn't going to be the book for you if you're looking for highly technical discussions of theology or philosophy, or if you want in depth coverage of a particular time period, but if you're interested in a deftly interpreted overview of h ...more
Paul Patterson
Aug 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
Comprehensive yet succinct overview of Jesus images. Depending on the tradition the reader comes from these images will be attractive or repelling. My prejudice is to see Jesus in human, historical and ethical terms and as an exemplar of normative humanity and yet a mirror of God. These images and much more are found within the book. I was not drawn to either the scholastic images or the Platonic or mystic that seem more dependent onthe Perrenial Tradition than the Scriptural texts or Jewish con ...more
Michael Laminack
Mar 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is such a fascinating read. Pelikan walks through different artistic depictions of Jesus throughout history, describing for each the biblical, philosophical, and cultural roots of each image. The unique contribution of the book is that the reader is provided an image to study and the knowledge to recognize theological implications of the image within its historical context. It's rare for an academic work to so successfully integrate visual and verbal illustration as this book accomplishes.
Roger Burk
Dispassionate account of the various ways Jesus has been regarded, from the first century to the twentieth. Not much to be learned, except that there's not much to be learned. Each century looks through the same Gospels, decides what to ignore in order to get a picture of Jesus that seems plausible to them, and comes up with a totally different idea of the character of Jesus. You can believe one of them, or you can believe the evangelists who either were or talked to eye-witnesses.
Mar 31, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is a fantastic book that deals with how different eras/cultures have pictured the figure of Jesus. This is a must-read for every Christian who is interested in exploring perspectives other than their own on "who Jesus is," and in wrestling with some huge questions regarding his significance for various fields of inquiry. It is, however, written in particularly academic prose, and assumes some general knowledge about church history.
Lindsey Reyes
Oct 10, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: students of religious history
I read this for a class, but would probably have read it in my downtime just as easily. Pelikan takes the reader through eras in western history and analyzes the popular view of Jesus in that specific time and place. He also works in paralells with art, saints, etc.
Oct 20, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Do you think Jesus has always been the person whom christian profess to have a "deep, personal relationship" with? Think again! This book outlines how the person of Jesus has been viewed throughout history and how it has changed over time to meet the needs of the contemporary culture in every case.
Feb 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
Very interesting to see how each culture has interpreted and emphasized different aspects of Jesus. To the Jew, Jesus becomes a Messianic Jew. To the Greek, he has more Grecian/Mediterranean features with more emphasis on his divinity. Etc.
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Jaroslav Jan Pelikan was born in Akron, Ohio, to a Slovak father and mother, Jaroslav Jan Pelikan Sr. and Anna Buzekova Pelikan. His father was pastor of Trinity Slovak Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois, and his paternal grandfather a bishop of the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches then known as the Slovak Lutheran Church in America.

According to family members, Pelikan's mother taught him

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You know the saying: There's no time like the present...unless you're looking for a distraction from the current moment. In that case, we can't...
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“One example is the familiar parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), which in some ways might be better called the parable of the elder brother. For the point of the parable as a whole - a point frequently overlooked by Christian interpreters, in their eagerness to stress the uniqueness and particularity of the church as the prodigal younger son who has been restored to the father's favor - is in the closing words of the father to the elder brother, who stands for the people of Israel: 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.' The historic covenant between God and Israel was permanent, and it was into this covenant that other peoples too, were now being introduced. This parable of Jesus affirmed both the tradition of God's continuing relation with Israel and the innovation of God's new relation with the church - a twofold covenant.” 2 likes
“The apostle Paul often appears in Christian thought as the one chiefly responsible for the de-Judaization of the gospel and even for the transmutation of the person of Jesus from a rabbi in the Jewish sense to a divine being in the Greek sense. Such an interpretation of Paul became almost canonical in certain schools of biblical criticism during the nineteenth century, especially that of Ferdinand Christian Baur, who saw the controversy between Paul and Peter as a conflict between the party of Peter, with its 'Judaizing' distortion of the gospel into a new law, and the party of Paul, with its universal vision of the gospel as a message about Jesus for all humanity. Very often, of course, this description of the opposition between Peter and Paul and between law and gospel was cast in the language of the opposition between Roman Catholicism (which traced its succession to Peter as the first pope) and Protestantism (which arose from Luther's interpretation of the epistles of Paul). Luther's favorite among those epistles, the letter to the Romans, became the charter for this supposed declaration of independence from Judaism.” 2 likes
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