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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Jesus among the Jews: Representation and Thought, edited by Neta Stahl.  New York: Routledge, 2012.  234 pp.  $135.00.

Recently, there has been a proliferation of books that investigate the Jewishness of Jesus as well as examing Christian texts from a Jewish perspective, for example Zev Garber (ed.), The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation, 2011, Herbert W. Basser, The Mind behind the Gospels: A Commentary to Matthew 1–14, 2009, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler (eds.), The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2011. The book under review is part of this renewed academic effort by Jews to engage with Christianity. The book endeavors to explore the effect of representations of Jesus upon Judaism in the past two millennia in fourteen very dissimilar essays. Among the highlights of this collection are chapters that approach Jesus from a philosophical perspective and those that explore Israeli approaches to Jesus.

              Moshe Idel, “Abraham Abulafia: A Kabbalist ‘Son of God’ on Jesus and Christianity,” presents a crystal clear formulation of Abulafia’s thought concerning the integration of Christianity into his work. Idel states that Abulafia believed that he lived close to the time of redemption and was convinced that he would have a pivotal role in it. Abulafia defined himself as a son of God, as a Messiah, in his prophetic book Sefer ha-Hayim. Idel convincingly argues that “son of the king” stands for the human intellect and that “the king” represents the Agent Intellect. Jesus may stand for “death” and the Messiah for “life.” The human body is both dead and alive in medieval thought. If Jesus represents the body and the Messiah the intellect, there would be a mid-term life between body and intellect. A compelling question relating to this would be: Did Abulafia fulfill both the role of the Christ and the antichrist? Idel cautions the reader that in our scholarly engagement with Christianity one has to be aware of “complex situations” and the “complex significance of the medieval texts.” In this reviewer’s opinion these observations also apply to the comparative and critical discussions of the Jewish Jesus as attempted in the book.

              Pawel Maciejko, “Jabob Frank and Jesus Christ,” states in his essay that in his writings Nathan of Gaza, the prophet of Sabbatai Tsevi, introduced Christological themes to Sabbatian discourse. In opposition to most rabbinic sources, Nathan of Gaza raises the importance of the coming of the Messiah in regard to redemption. Redemption brought to the world by Sabbatai  Tsevi would involve restoring holiness to Jesus, who was deemed to be a false Messiah. After his conversion to Catholicism Jacob Frank utilized copies of the New Testament in which the name of Jesus was replaced by “Jacob.” Furthermore, in a nocturnal vision Frank eclipsed Jesus. Frank coincidentally had twelve disciples. Nevertheless, Frank rejected Jesus, arguing that since Jesus was killed by Jews he could not have been the Messiah (p. 127). Maciejko alerts the reader to a manuscript concerning unsuccessful attempts to bring about “eternal life.” He concludes that Frank displayed a fusion of kabbalistic, Gnostic, and Catholic ideas. Sabbatians displayed deep interest in Christianity and they claimed that the true Messiah, Sabbatai Tsevi, would save the failed Messiah Jesus.

              Spinoza had a sincere sympathy for Jesus, as explained in the thought-provoking contribution by Yitzhak Y. Melamed, “‘Christus secundum spiritum’: Spinoza, Jesus and the Infinite Intellect.” However, according to Spinoza, Christianity as expressed in the New Testament did not necessarily possess the Spirit of Christ. Spinoza viewed the crucifixion of Jesus, his resurrection and his expected second coming as merely narratives that contained educational values. Spinoza indentified the assumed Spirit of Christ with the Infinite Intellect and rejected the belief in incarnation as contradictory nonsense.

              Glenda Abramson, “The Crucified Brother: Uri Zvi Greenberg and Jesus,” focuses upon the author Uri Zvi Greenberg, who construed Jesus as a metaphor for Europe after World War I. Furthermore, for Greenberg Jesus and his arrival in Jerusalem served as a comparison to his own arrival, although the poet immediately distanced himself from the Passion. The figure of Jesus represented the poet’s own ideological struggle with the Labor establishment in pre-state Israel. Greenberg believed that the prophecies by Jesus of doom were fulfilled in the massacre of Jews by Arabs in Hebron in 1929. The difficult poetry of Greenberg is rendered into lucid English, and the interpretations by Abramson are similarly elucidating.

              The insightful essay by Amitai Mendelsohn, “Jesus of the Sabra Thorns: The Figure of Jesus in Israeli Art,” presents artistic representations of Jesus in art from Israel and the pre-state yishuv. Mendelsohn states that since the Enlightenment many Jews viewed Jesus as a figure representing ethical Judaism. Jesus in their understanding never abandoned Judaism and thus could be called upon in the struggle against antisemitism. This latter theme is expressed in the paintings of Maurycy Gottlieb, as well as Mark Antokolksky who depicted Jesus in stereotypical Jewish garb. The artist Reuven Rubin approached Jesus from a Zionist perspective, while living in both Europe and the Land of Israel.  Rubin painted Jesus as a “symbol of hope and resurrection” (p. 204) to represent Zionism and its goals. Perceived problems of the young State of Israel were addressed by Igael Tumarkin and Motti Mizrachi in their use of Jesus in art. Tumarkin’s work even reflects midrashic strategies by employing a Hebrew homophone “mitah” (bed/death) concerning an inscribed wooden cross that represents broken ideals. Artists (e.g.,  Adi Nes) also employed transformations of Christian art such as the Last Supper.

              Other contributors to the book:  Daniel Boyarin on Mark, Michael D. Swartz on magic, Avigdor Shinan on Jonah and Jesus, Adam Gregerman on Celsus, Elchanan Reiner on Galilean heroes, Matt Goldish on Jewish Messiahs, Warren Zev Harvey on H. A. Wolfson, Leora Batnitzky on modern Jewish thought, and the editor on Hebrew poets. A word of criticism:  When Jesus is mentioned as apocalyptic or as royal, the critical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and his opus should have been referenced. The book under review contains illustrations, a bibliography, an index and an introduction.

Rivka Ulmer

Bucknell University