Brother Jesus: The Nazarene through Jewish Eyes

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Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Brother Jesus: The Nazarene through Jewish Eyes

  1. Review

    The author of this book was one of a group of Jewish scholars, which included Claude Montefiore, Joseph Klausner, Samuel Sandmel, and David Daube, who in the first half of the twentieth century, sought to understand and appreciate the historical Jesus. In his Forward to this English language edition of his book, written before his death in May 1999, Ben-Chorin tells us that in 1934, as a young man living in his native city of Munich he wrote a poem-cycle about the rabbi from Nazareth. When he had completed the cycle he added the following appendage: "gradually dawn is breaking into Jewish consciousness, and Jesus is beginning to take the place that is due him in the pantheon of the people of Israel." One year later he left Germany and immigrated to Israel where he lived the remainder of his life. He writes that of all the some thirty books he has written on Jewish historical and cultural themes, this book, published in Germany in 1967 and printed in eighteen editions, "lies closest to my heart."

    The translators, who characterize the author’s writing as a "conversation with the reader" point out that this book is unique in that it is written primarily for Christians. It is their belief that the quest for "the historical Jesus," which is a major thrust of contemporary scholarship, is "not destined to reach its goal so long as it remains the sole province of Christian scholars." The contribution of Jewish scholars who have "drunk in the milieu of belief and doctrine in which Jesus lived" is essential for the task. Ben-Chorin contributes significantly to the search by looking behind the overlay of kerygmatic tradition in the Christian Testament to focus exclusively on the life and mission of Jesus the man in the context of Jewish history and tradition. He uses as his sources not only the Hebrew Bible but also the Mishna, Midrash and Talmud which often preserve beliefs known and traditions practiced in the time of Jesus. In this complex of sources he finds the Jesus he calls "a human brother and a Jewish brother who, through his existence, his teaching, and his behavior, can be an example for us."

    Ben-Chorin is well aware of the difficulties of "discovering" the historical Jesus, of distinguishing between the "Jesus of history" and "the Christ of faith" or to use Marcus Borg’s terms, the "pre-Easter-Jesus" and "the post-Easter Jesus." He takes for himself a "middle ground" between what he calls "an unverifiable historical position, on the one hand, and theological-literary fantasy, on the other." He describes his position as "interpretative intuition" which "grows out of a lifelong familiarity with the text" and issues in "a deep kindred empathy with Jesus within the Jewish world, in which he lived, taught and suffered." Each of the thirteen chapters of the book is devoted to a major event or dimension of the life and mission of Jesus. A sample of the chapter titles point to the scope of the author’s inquiry: "The Figure of Jesus," "Physician and Teacher," "The Parables." Teach Us To Pray," "Jesus and Women," "Who Am I?" and of course the story of the Passion which includes chapters "Seder Night in Jerusalem," "The Longest Short Trial," and "INRI, or The Curse of the Crucified."

    In the light of the contemporary quest for the "historical Jesus" which began around 1980, this classic work is inevitably somewhat dated. In the late twentieth century, the quest of the historical Jesus was enriched by social scientific criticism, which is concerned with the political-economic-cultural world in which Jesus lived, and is essential to understanding the social dynamics presupposed and reflected, by biblical texts. Nevertheless, the book is a treasure of careful exegesis and illuminating exposition of texts. The author makes clear that for Jews and Christians, "the belief of Jesus unites us, but the belief in Jesus divides us." It is unfortunate the book is so expensive, and "our price" at Amazon.com is the same.

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