When Jesus Came to Harvard by Harvey Cox. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Adam Hilkemann | Spring 2006


In When Jesus Came to Harvard, Harvey Cox, currently a Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School, seeks to explain who Jesus is, and more importantly, His significance in the world today. In a surprising collision of faith and elite higher education, Cox asks what it would look like if students at Harvard followed the teachings of this man who lived 2,000 years ago. However, it is the subtitle, standing firm on the brick pillars of Johnston Gate pictured on the cover, which sums up the book best: “Making Moral Choices Today.” Cox frames his exploration into the life of Jesus by relating anecdotes from his very popular “Jesus and the Moral Life” course at Harvard College. In his course, Cox asked students of all faiths how they discerned right from wrong and to look to Jesus for one example for moral living in a post-modern world. Cox moves forward through events in Jesus’ life using descriptions of his evolving teaching methods and the subject matter of his course to mirror changes in his own life.

Jesus is freshly presented in his Jewish context as a rabbi, who, like other rabbis, taught through stories. For Cox, stories provide us with the inspiration to do what we know we should, and allow Jesus the rabbi to continue to speak to our hearts. With great ingenuity and literary talent, Cox describes most major events in Jesus’ life by showing the reader how Jesus was consciously acting and teaching within a pre-established Jewish tradition. This, Cox argues, is the only way Jesus can be truly understood. As Cox then fleshes out this Jewish tradition, he, like many others before him, develops a method of looking at the Bible as a collection of powerful but largely fictional stories that are based on true principles. Following these principles, says Cox, is a way to stop from falling into moral relativism.

Despite the benefits that can be derived from this approach, Cox leaves the unique, messianic Jesus behind. “Christ,” “the Anointed One,” becomes subordinate to a larger Jewish tradition. More specifically, Cox, following the lessons of various rabbis throughout history whom he praises, attempts to extend his version of God’s covenant with the Jews to all of the Gentiles. Jesus is simply another rabbi, albeit perhaps an especially radical and creative one. No serious reference to Jesus as God or the Son of God coming to earth to die for sinners is ever made. Christ’s crucifixion is not even mentioned until well into the book, and when it is finally mentioned in detail, Cox uses it as only an opportunity for meditation. His resurrection from the dead is left by Cox as relatively unimportant, possibly only another helpful story. His unique teachings of salvation are almost completely ignored, and Pelagianism, the idea that man can make himself right with God through works alone, is preached in order that the renewal of creation through moral action might be effected. Cox even seems to support an “easy” Pelagianism: “It [the kingdom of God] was for ‘sinners,’ for those who – mostly – tried their best to do the right thing...” (pg. 258).

In doing so Cox creates a Jesus who is empty and deceitful. Jesus claims, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Even by looking at this as part of a fictionalized story, such a claim leaves little doubt in the reader’s mind as to the “true principles behind the story.” Jesus leaves no other option for his identity. Either he was who he said he was as recorded by all four Gospel writers, or he was not. If Jesus was not, then he was a liar or crazy at best—not exactly a moral example for the ages. If he was telling the truth, it demands a response. That the very Son of God would love humanity enough to come and die a humiliating death, even death on a cross, is scarcely conceivable let alone inconsequential. It is more than just a “moral” example. It offers hope and demands a faith unlike any other.

At one point where Cox does carefully look at what Jesus was actually saying, he examines the now famous “Sermon on the Mount.” Cox starts with what have come to be called the “Beatitudes,” a series of blessings for the righteous, which call for people to follow an extremely difficult moral path to live life. One might even say impossible. Taking a somewhat Kantian approach, Cox maintains that because we should do what is set forth in these statements, we can.

Quite interestingly, Cox completely skips the next part of Jesus’ testimony, where Jesus explains his relation to “the Law” and “the Prophets.” He says, “I have not come to abolish them [the Law and the Prophets] but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). One might think then that Cox would find this essential to interpreting a Jesus working consciously within the Jewish tradition. However, it is this claim— Jesus as the Messiah foretold in the covenant with Abraham— which Cox repeatedly denies. Cox does this fairly explicitly in a conversation he describes with a friend of his who is a distinguished Jewish scholar and rabbi. His clever twists of wording and meaning in this passage render it inconvenient for citation here, but, with some minor qualifications, Cox agrees with his Jewish colleague in calling Jesus a “failed” Messiah and denies Jesus as Savior (on pages 218-19).

It is admirable that Professor Cox was able to draw moral lessons from Jesus for the inquisitive students in his many discussion sections. Nevertheless, in turning almost to universalism, Cox fails to address the source of morality, and more importantly, the role of the wholly undeserved grace of God in salvation.The reader, like the many students Cox himself describes, is left with more questions than answers and a Jesus who brings plenty of beautiful moral prescriptions, but frighteningly little hope. This “moral” Jesus is not the Son of God, did not die for our sins on the cross, and therefore cannot save us from ourselves. As St. Paul wrote, “… if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless, … [and] we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:14-19).


Adam Hilkemann ‘07 is a History concentrator in Dunster House.