Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Nazarene, by Sholem Asch


This is one of the most moving novels I have read in a long time. Written originally in Yiddish by a faithful Jew, the book contains unusual first-person fictionalized accounts by three of Jesus' contemporaries: a Roman soldier, Judas Iscariot, and a young rabbinical student of the Pharisee Nicodemus. Here is a summary from Nextbook, A New Read on Jewish Culture:

Sholem Asch (translated by Maurice Samuel)
The Nazarene
Carroll & Graf, $15.95

This epic 1939 novel tells the story of Yeshua ben Joseph—also known as Jesus of Nazareth—through the dubious but compelling recollections of three of his alleged contemporaries. First, a notoriously fraudulent and anti-Semitic Polish historian relates his past life as one of Pontius Pilate's henchmen. He then shares a manuscript that he claims is the work of the infamous disciple Judah Ish-Kiriot. Finally, the historian's Jewish assistant records his own memories of a prior life on the fringes of Jesus' circle of believers.

The three accounts paint a vivid, anthropologically detailed picture of life in the Holy Land during Jesus' day, illuminating his most enigmatic sermons and contextualizing his controversial ministry to the poor and uneducated, whose ignorance of Judaism's complex purity laws prevented them from practicing their faith. Published at the height of Asch's fame, the novel won raves from the English-language press, but alienated his base of Yiddish readers.
In the end, the novel's only flaw, that it requires the reader to suspend disbelief in the transmigration of souls -- and in the process, misleads the reader into thinking that this might be a novel about unreliable narrators, which it isn't -- makes very little difference to the wealth of historical detail, the depth of religious insight that creates context and raises interesting questions about the motives of the various gospel figures, and the sheer beauty of the story.

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."