Reference works that provide information about the geography and archeological findings related to the New Testament often do not adequately relate that material to the life of Jesus in an orderly and readable manner that brings the gospel material to life. Jesus, a Visual History seeks to fill that gap, and the work has virtues that will be appreciated by many readers, though deficiencies in the work may cause many to look for other resources.
The narrative of the book is focused around a harmonization of the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. While a typical harmony of the gospels would be more lengthy and address critical issues at length, this work provides a more cursory overview while augmenting the telling of the gospel story with a vast array of photographs, pictures, maps, charts, and explanations of archaeological findings and brief histories of areas that Jesus visited. The most compelling chapters of the book, which form a parenthesis interrupting the overview of the life of Jesus, provide a history and travel guide to Jerusalem and the temple mount, covering timeframes going back to King David through the intertestamental period to the life of Jesus and the ultimate destruction of the city by the Romans. Dr. Brake, who lived in Jerusalem while serving as President of the Jerusalem University College, as well as holding other positions, provides a helpful and quite readable overview of the history of the city that highlights various archeological findings and debates over the locations of various biblical events, especially those that occurred during the life and passion of Jesus.
Unfortunately, the work suffers from some significant defects. As an example, in the early portion of the book, Dr. Brake explains without qualification that Mary’s mother, Anna, moved from Sepphoris to family friendly Nazareth after the death of Mary’s father. One has to turn to the endnotes in the back of the book to learn that this legend is quite old, but certainly not nearly old enough to be included unquestioned in a history of the life of Jesus. Dr. Brake also persists in adding material that speculates about activities, conversations, and even thoughts of the biblical characters. Thus, Mary and Joseph were “warmly welcomed” by a relative in Bethlehem. The shepherds risked angering their father and ignored “reports of thieves on the road” in order to come see the newborn. Joseph and Mary “felt humbled” as they listened to the shepherds but fell asleep “with the joyful thought in their minds that Jesus was their King.” This continues incessantly through the story even until the day of the resurrection, when Peter and John are said to have argued on their way to the tomb. Are these things accurate? Who knows?
No doubt, the author would say that these speculative insertions serve to humanize the story and make it come alive to modern readers. Fair enough, but the constant speculation, which sometimes degenerates into mere sentimentality, serves to undermine the credibility of the work.
Some readers will be troubled at the dispensational spin given to the story of Jesus, particularly with regard to the descriptions of Christ’s teaching on His Kingdom. Because the Jewish leaders (Dr. Brake consistently refers to them as the nation of Israel) mostly rejected Jesus as the Messiah, the author sees the Kingdom as postponed to the future. Those who share the dispensational outlook of the book will not find this troublesome, but the discussion of Jesus’ Kingdom teaching will seem deficient to those that don’t share this view.
Nonetheless, the book contains much interesting discussion and wonderful photography and other visual images to those that can overlook these shortcomings.