The author looks at the gospels with an historian's eye, in search of the authentic Jesus. He seeks to separate those portions of the gospels that refer to the true career and teachings of Jesus, from the subsequent additions or inventions by the evangelists. The gospels are studied in the same way as other ancient historical sources, endeavouring to reconstruct what really happened and to uncover the truth of the historical Jesus. The picture of Jesus that emerges is in some respects unfamiliar.
It had amazing and insightful high points but when there were low points they were very, very low. Unfortunately for my review, this boils down and averages out to mediocre.
Michael Grant spends much of the book simultaneously chastising his fellow historians for creating a "Jesus" of their own making, painting him whichever way most happens to appeal to each personally, all while doing so himself. (I don't want to spoil the book for anyone, but to summarize: Michael Grant's "Jesus" seems to be an obsessive with some very strange personality quirks.)
My final take: the insights can be found elsewhere, while the low points are Grant's own babies; skip this book.
Grant is a historian and he uses those skills to explain the milieu in which Jesus' ministry occurred, but that ministry occurred in a very brief period of time in Jewish history, perhaps two years, while the entire area was wracked with conflict between the Romans, their Herodian surrogates and various Jewish groups. The Jewish historian Josephus doesn't cover the period in any detail and then there is the problem of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the incredible cache of documents that appears to be linked to the Essene settlement in Qumran. While the documents themselves don't throw any light specifically on Jesus' life, they do give historians some insight into the complex reality of Jewish politics at the time, sufficient to give anyone pause when trying to draw firm conclusions.
Grant's key conclusion is that Jesus did not see himself as the Messiah, a Jewish religious-political leader, nor the son of God, but rather as someone with a special mission to bring the Kingdom of God to earth. Unfortunately, almost no one else agreed with him, even his disciples, and his mission failed. His followers, mainly centered around his brother James in Jerusalem, kept some sort of belief alive for a few years until they were snuffed out in the Jewish revolts against the Romans. Paul, who never knew Jesus in person, picked up his mission and focused it on the Gentiles, breaking cleanly with Jewish leaders, but even Paul died without a lot of success.
But then, inexorably over several centuries, the fledgling religion grew until under the emperor Constantine, it became Rome's official religion.
Grant is clearest in outlining how Jesus' mission failed. He began preaching in synagogues, but then, Grant believes, was forced to resort to doing so on his own, in the open, by opposition from traditional Jewish leaders. The execution of John the Baptist convinces him to move farther afield to his homeland of Galilee, but when the Sadducees start to move against him there, he decides to confront them directly, in Jerusalem. That decision, Grant argues, was based on Jesus' identification with Jewish martyrs and his belief that he was destined to die in order to bring on the Kingdom of God on earth. Clearing the money-changers from the temple was a direct assault on the Sadducees' authority and guaranteed they would move to get rid of him, which they did.
Grant explains the difficulties of deciding which alleged facts to accept from the Gospel stories, assuming that many were added in later centuries by church apologists. His assumption is that facts that are difficult for the church to explain are more likely to be true since authorities would have gotten rid of them unless they were so widely believed to be true to make that impossible. But that means that any facts that align with later doctrine are suspicious, an obvious major problem.
Further muddying the waters, Grant believes that Jesus consciously emulated certain Jewish prophets in order to explain his ministry as the fulfillment of their prophecies. But then later Christian writers also added facts to make Jesus' acts correspond with the predictions of other prophets, a tangle that is difficult to parse.
What I appreciated most about Grant's book is his overall outline of Jesus work. Other than the birth stories, little is known of his life until he was around 30 years old. From that point forward, Grant stitches together a believable chronology of the next two years, weaving information primarily from Mark, considered by experts to be the oldest Gospel, Luke and Matthew, with a few additions from John, which Grant considers the least useful. Given the jumbled chronologies of the four Gospels, that in itself is a useful effort.
Beyond that, there is a lot of speculation. Was Jesus a carpenter or does the Hebrew word also connote something broader, a builder perhaps? Did Jesus clearly see a difference between the long-expected Jewish Messiah, the later Christian belief that he was the Son of God, the existing Jewish belief in a "Son of Man", and Grant's insistence that he saw himself as something different from all of those, as someone with a mission to bring the Kingdom of God into existence on earth? Given the complete lack of any mention of outreach toward the Gentiles in the Gospels, how did the Christian church end up being so anti-Jewish?
If you're interested in Bible history, Grant's work is knowledgeable and his conclusions interesting if not always convincing. Given the paucity of facts any attempt at a Life of Jesus faces, that is about the best one can say of any similar book.