The search for the "historical Jesus"—the real man behind the gospels—spanned the 19th and 20th centuries and culminated in the controversial work of the Jesus Seminar. Now the focus of historical reconstruction has moved on to former Pharisee and Christian-persecutor Paul, whose missionary letters, many argue, are the real foundation of the Church. For In Search Of Paul, prominent historical-Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan teamed with archaeologist and New Testament historian Jonathan L. Reed to address the nature of Paul's message in its Roman context. While the cult of the emperor Augustus explicitly promoted a theology of peace through war and victory, Crossan and Reed claim that Paul deliberately proposed an alternative theology of peace through justice and nonviolence. This may sound like a timely dialectic for the emerging American empire, and Crossan and Reed fully intend the implication.

It's difficult for contemporary readers to see Paul through the haze of Sunday-school lessons and doctrinal systems that smooth out his prickly claims, harmonize his first-person statements with the third-person history found in the book of Acts, and spread a gauzy veil of mystery over his less-successful theological arguments. Crossan and Reed show that the author of Acts (called "Luke" for convenience, since he is also the author of that gospel) changed Paul's character and biography in three ways. Paul becomes a faithful ally of Peter, James, and the Jerusalem church, keeping a pledge to take the gospel to the Jews first in every region he visits. His enemies are always Jews, who plot and stir the Roman authorities against him. And his message highlights themes that fit a Judaism in exile, after the destruction of the Temple, when Acts was written. By contrast, Paul's own writings reveal the bitter struggle within Christianity about the role of Jewish practices and Jewish converts. He argues with Jerusalem leaders about how Gentile Christians should practice their faith, and claims a mandate directly from Jesus Christ, rather than a commission from the 12 disciples. When he talks about his imprisonments and escapes, it's the government that opposes him, not the Jews. And of course, writing in the mid-first century, he knows nothing of the Temple's imminent destruction and the changed relationship among Romans, Jews, and Christians that would ensue.

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A popular book that combines a detailed "reading" of Roman monuments and architecture with a linguistic analysis of Greek texts requires a few experimental methods. Crossan and Reed succeed in creating a transparent structure and clear, repeated, and incrementally developed themes. The second-person tourist-guide introduction to each chapter doesn't play as well; it seems frivolous to linger over such appetizers when the main course is so compelling. In Search Of Paul serves as a vibrant guide to scholarship that, at its best, clears away two millennia of religious debris and allows first-century questions and answers to emerge. Princes and presidents may co-opt Paul to support their causes: slavery, patriarchy, or militarism. But Paul, radical critic of civilizing ideologies that he was, would appreciate the tools his biographers provide to help people see him anew.