If you only read one book on the historical Jesus this should be it. Although I think that Fredriksen oversteps in her analysis in a few cases, overall her analysis and conclusions are right on the money. She is one of the best New Testament scholars working in the field and her careful presentation of the evidence and support for her conclusions is strong and reliable. Her reasoning is exceptionally careful and for the most part simply allows the text to speak for itself with exceptional clarity.
Fredriksen first lays out the world of the New Testament. A brief introduction on the nature of the documents and the challenges that they present begins her discussion. For those who have done a careful reading of the gospels it is apparent that there are minor as well as significant differences between them. Far from being slight changes to previous copies, they represent different understandings of who Jesus was. In many cases they represent vastly different conceptions of theology, and the future for the followers of the risen Jesus. One must delve deep into the documents with an understanding of their history and transmission in order to gain a clear perspective on this. She has done this precisely and the reader is the one who benefits from her work. Extremely helpful for understanding this is a comprehension of the Hellenistic world that Jesus was born into, the enduring legacy of Alexander's conquests that we ourselves live in the shadow of to this day. History often turns on a dime and vast changes for posterity sometimes depend on the smallest of events: the birth and rise of Alexander of Macedon is one such event.
Fredriksen moves backward in time, beginning with the highly developed esoteric Christology in the gospel of John at the turn of the century back to the very Jewish, earthy, eschatological Mark, written between 65 and 75 AD. Carefully laying out the evidence of the texts, Fredriksen incisively reasons a very likely history of the development of the ideas of Jesus and takes us back to the most probable reconstruction of who the man of history truly was. She then evaluates Paul, who represents a sort of anomaly compared to the gospel development and demonstrates that the theological development wasn't necessarily as smooth a trajectory as one would presume.
In order to gain a proper understanding of the context all this takes place in and why indeed it even occurs one must have a modicum of knowledge about the history of Israel, and the development of messianism that began with the experience of the Babylonian Exile and the subsequent influence of Persian religious ideas on historical Judaism. Indeed it was this time, from the sixth century through the second, that proved formative to Jewish ideas, which when mixed with Hellenism produced the Christian religion that we know today, which subsequently greatly influenced Islam. (What an amazing time in history!) This book describes that process. For a more complete analysis of the particularities, I recommend Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come by Norman Cohn.
Fredriksen then proceeds to the development of the Christian faith and its process of evolving away from Judaism that occurred as a result of the experience of the resurrection (whatever that was). This experience and an exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures led the first followers to make some dramatic conclusions about what had really happened and what Jesus' mission was. Also significant in this process was the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, which had a profound effect on the subsequent development of the tradition. Fredriksen lays this out for the reader concisely and thoroughly. She then summarizes by building a smooth trajectory from what we know about Jesus, the earliest gospels, to what the tradition came to be at the beginning of the second century.
Do not let its 200 pages fool. This work is thorough and packed with information and analysis. It deserves two readings.