A Faithful Guide: A review of Jesus: A Pilgrimage by Fr. James Martin, SJ

“I think he said to follow the stones…painted purple?” After several fruitless inquiries, Fr. Jim Martin, SJ, and fellow pilgrim, Fr. George Williams, SJ, finally had their first promising lead on how to find the so-called “Bay of Parables,” a site on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is supposed to have taught the crowds (see Mk 4:1-9). Following directions scribbled out by a monk in a nearby gift shop, the duo walked through the blistering heat and dry grass until the ground suddenly dropped away, and there they were. Staring down at a naturally occurring amphitheater sloping toward the sparkling water, Martin thought to himself in amazement, “Jesus was here!” After another moment of scanning the scene, his astonishment heightened as he noticed the terrain: rocky ground, fertile soil, and even a thorn bush. They had walked straight into the middle of one of Jesus’ parables.

Through this memorable scene and many others like it, Fr. Martin leads his readers deep into the world and life of Jesus of Nazareth in his new book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. The book represents Martin’s attempt to answer the question that Jesus posed to his apostles all those years ago and that the world has been struggling to answer ever since: “Who do you say I am?” (Mk 8:29) The answer Martin offers is distinctive in its synthesis of Biblical exegesis, historical Jesus scholarship, theology, and his personal experiences of prayer, spiritual direction, and pilgrimage. In Martin’s words, “It is a look at Jesus, as he appears in the Gospels, through the lens of my education, experience, prayer, and most recently a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And through the lens of faith.”

The entertaining narrative of Martin’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land carries the reader through the significant places and events of Jesus’ life. Though the author’s personal anecdotes lend a satisfying narrative arc and a healthy dose of humor, readers who are more interested in an encounter with Jesus than with the urbane Jesuit will be pleased that the book proceeds according the chronology of Jesus’ life rather than that of Martin’s itinerary. Each chapter focuses on a passage (or two) from the Gospels. The author describes the event as recorded in Scripture, drawing the reader in through first-hand accounts of the sites where Jesus walked, taught, and healed, through scholarship on Jesus’ world, and through reflection on the event’s spiritual significance. Martin helpfully includes the Gospel passage at the end of each chapter, inviting the reader into the Scripture itself.

A chapter on Nazareth begins with Martin sitting in the Basilica of the Annunciation. Following along with Mass, he is struck by the similarity of the Arabic words he is hearing to those Jesus would have spoken in his native Aramaic. He closes his eyes and imagines how Jesus’ voice would have sounded. These musings lead into the story of Jesus being lost and found in the Temple, the Gospels’ sole account of Jesus’ words and actions during the mysterious years of his youth. Delving into current research, Martin fills out some of the details of Jesus’ “Hidden Life”—the sort of simple stone house he lived in; the diet of grains, vegetables, and fruits he ate; the clothing he wore; his work as a tektŌn (woodworker); the economic and political hardship of living as a marginal Jew under Roman rule. Martin revels in these quotidian details, pointing out that it was in these realities of daily life that Jesus was most like us. Thus immersing his readers in this bounty of particularities, the author makes tangible not only the life of the man many would come to revere as “Lord and God” but also the sanctity of one’s own everyday living.

In a later chapter, Martin leads the reader across the Sea of Galilee to Kursi, where Jesus is said to have healed the man possessed by a “legion” of demons (Mk 5:1-20). His description of the scene sends a tingle down one’s spine: a quiet town in the shadow of hills pockmarked with the tombs in which the demoniac is said to have dwelled and, just a few hundred yards away, the sea into which the herd of swine plunged to their death following Jesus’ expulsion of the demons. Reading Martin’s words, one can almost hear the howling of the possessed man and feel the fear that must have gripped the disciples when the demoniac came charging down the hillside toward them. Capitalizing upon the gravitas of the scene he has described, Martin challenges readers to look for the humanity in the possessed man, as Jesus did, and to face down the demons warring within themselves.

In the final chapter, the author writes, “This book has been an invitation for you to meet the Jesus I have studied, the Jesus I follow, and the Jesus I met in the Holy Land.” As the above excerpts are meant to suggest, Martin succeeds spectacularly in his aim. Jesus is impressive not only for the careful research that clearly went into it, but even more so for the way in which the author puts it to use. His allusions to conversations with Fr. Dan Harrington, SJ, (may he rest in peace) and frequent references to John Meier, Gerhard Lohfink, and other eminent scholars serve a greater purpose than merely establishing the book’s credibility. Martin relates what he has learned from his studies for the sake of enabling readers to make a more intimate acquaintance with Jesus than they are likely to achieve by engaging the Gospels’ compact accounts alone. Whether newcomers to the genre or longtime students of theology, readers will not only learn a great deal from this book but also encounter an invitation to relate to the One they read about on a deeper, more personal level.

In this lies Martin’s greatest contribution. Jesus enthusiasts have been gratified by a recent spate of fine scholarship. However, no other author (at least that this reviewer has encountered) has been so successful as Martin in bringing readers face-to-face with the person Christians profess as Teacher, Savior, and God. This success is due in great part to his willingness to share out of his own relationship with Christ. In reading this book, not only was I touched by Martin’s forthcomingness about personal failings and struggles in his spiritual life; I was also challenged and inspired to reflect on my own. A book such as this could only be written by someone who has prayed with these Scripture passages for years and meditated upon them in the deliberate, imaginative manner that characterizes Ignatian contemplation. Spreading the fruit of that prayer and spiritual exertion across these pages, Martin goes beyond telling his readers about the person of Jesus to model how one enters into and sustains a relationship with him.

Lest this review read like a book jacket, it must be acknowledged that Martin’s book (inevitably) falls short of the perfection of its subject matter. In numerous places the author repeats himself in such a way that reflects the difficulty of editing a lengthy manuscript rather than didactic intent. However, such minor oversights hardly detract from an otherwise captivating and edifying book. A less gifted writer might not have been able to sustain readers’ attention for 510 pages, but the combination of Martin’s engaging writing style, the wealth of entertaining anecdotes and fascinating historical tidbits, and the frequent profundity of the author’s reflections makes Jesus a rewarding read from start to finish.

If repeated quests for the historical Jesus have shown us anything, it is that such inquiries are severely limited in their ability to help us know the Jesus who transformed the lives of those he encountered. Today, just as in the days of the early Church, we depend first and foremost on the witness of others in coming to know Christ. That being the case, Fr. Martin’s book and in particular the personal witness he gives therein will surely be the occasion for many to grow in knowledge and love of the person around whom he has built his life.