It has become popular in some circles to disparage Jesus the Christ by James E. Talmage because it’s too simplistic when it comes to its gospel harmonization approach, and the scholarship is very out of date. These things may be true, but it still holds up in ways that matter. Synthesizing the devotional with the intellectual can be difficult, and I do feel like a lot of the material in the Latter-day Saint market lands either on the side of being purely devotional or primarily intellectual with a patina of devotion. This isn’t surprising, as the latter are written by people who have received training in being objective academic writers, and all of sudden they have to get into touch with their internal seminary teacher. Consequently, it feels like a lot of the more academic Latter-day Saint biblical commentary that gets published isn’t that different from standard biblical commentary, but with a few Book of Mormon references thrown in for good measure. (One relatively unknown gem of an exception I have enjoyed, at the risk of being syncopathic, is President Holland’s book on the Psalms).
Of course there is a place for both of these genres. None of this is to say that I’m opposed to reading non-devotional scholarship like Bart Ehrman or Alter. We love them; we have their books at our house. Still, before my children deconstruct scriptures I want them to read them with commentary that breathes fire into their spiritual components, and not just put them to the side while they solve this or that puzzle about Markan priority.
The fact is that if the intellectual puzzles was all there was to Jesus I would not care about educating my children about Him. (That indeed is the great paradox underlying much of non-believing scriptural scholarship; for their field to matter much they need the very beliefs that they are problematizing). Jesus the Christ draws on the golden age of devotional, believing biblical scholarship of people like Farrar. While some scholars today get testy when people inquire as to what they actually believe, Talmage’s beliefs are naturally interwoven throughout his writings, but he provides enough intellectual scaffolding to systematically organize his thoughts. There are some believing, more contemporary devotionalist intellectuals today like N.T. Wright and Pope Benedict, but for the most part they are no Ehrman in terms of readability. Of course, there may be some popular spiritual writer in another tradition that I am not aware of, but as far as our own faith there are few other resources that provide the same intellectual/devotional, 30,000 foot view on the life of the Savior as Talmage’s work. Not intellectual/devotional in the sense that they run side by side, but are rather interwoven with each other.