Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Chief Rabbi Who Became A Catholic and His Book on Jesus

L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, has just run a review praising a new edition of a book that is often overlooked. The book is Il Nazareno and it was written more than seventy years ago by Israel Zoller, the former chief rabbi of Rome who shocked the world by becoming Catholic in 1945. Significantly, the book was written before the rabbi's controversial conversion.

Incidentally, Zoller was baptized with the name "Eugenio". Eugenio, of course, was the name of Pope Pius XII. Zoller took the name to express his admiration for the pope.

The book by Zoller is reviewed by Anna Foa, a Jewish scholar, who is professor of history at the University of Rome "La Sapienza." The review is largely positive.

For more, go here.

It's nice to see this book getting republished. I always enjoy reading the works of Jewish scholars about Jesus. In fact, one of the clear shifts in emphasis in recent historical Jesus scholarship has been the attempt to understand Jesus within the historical context of Second Temple Judaism.[1]

In light of this it is sort of ironic that the works of many important Jewish scholars of the past are often overlooked. Among them all I must highlight the scholarship of Zionist scholar Joseph Klausner, whose work offers some insightful observations[2]. Other important Jewish scholars include Hans-Joachim Schoeps,[3] and David Flusser.[4] While such works were exceptional in their day,[5] Craig Evans is right in assessing the present state of scholarship: “The fruitful progress of the rediscovery of the Judaic character and setting of Jesus is now everywhere seen.”[6] Of course, the major difference between older scholarship and more recent research is that older scholars were a bit less critical in their use of the later rabbinic traditions in reconstructing the Judaism of the first century.

Of course, Israel Zoller's work stands out as unique among these works: none of the other Jewish scholars mentioned here ended up converting to Catholicism.

[1] Colin Brown, “Historical Jesus, Quest of,” 337: “If there is a common theme [of "Third Quest" Jesus scholarship], it lies in the belief that Jesus was not the Jesus of liberal Protestantism or of the New Quest, but a historical figure whose life and actions were rooted in first-century Judaism with its particular religious, social, economic and political conditions.” This emphasis in recent scholarship has been noted by numerous other scholars (see, e.g., Tom Holmén, “The Jewishness of Jesus in the ‘Third Quest,’” in Jesus, Mark and Q: The Teaching of Jesus and its Earliest Records (eds. M. Labahn and A. Schmidt; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 149–50. Indeed, this is part of a larger trend in New Testament scholarship, which emphasizes greater continuity between early Christianity and Judaism. Thus, for example, in Pauline studies the Jewish backdrop of Paul’s letters is increasingly coming into focus. See, to name only a few, E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977); Mark Nanos, The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul's Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996); Chris VanLandingham, Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul (Peabody: Hendricksen, 2006).
[2] Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times and Teaching (trans. H. Danby; New York: Macmillan Co., 1925; repr., New York: Bloch, 1989), trans. of Yeshu ha-Notzri (Jerusalem: Stybel, 1922). Particularly useful is Klausner’s survey of the history of Jewish scholarship. For our purposes here it is worth mentioning that Klausner highlights the work of a number of Jewish scholars largely ignored by contemporary writers. For example, Klausner discusses the way Albert Schweitzer’s seminal survey of the history of Jesus research pays hardly any notice to the work of Joseph Salvador, Jésus Christ et sa doctrine: histoire de la naissance de l’église, de son organisation et de ses progrès pendant le premier siecle (2 vols.; 2d. ed.; Paris: M. Lévy Frères, 1864–65). As Klausner observes, that this work was overlooked cannot simply be chalked up to the fact that the work was originally written in French since Salvador’s work had been translated into German by the time of Schweitzer’s writing. Strikingly, not only is Salvador’s work badly mischaracterized and mentioned only in passing, but Schweitzer even misspells his name (“Salvator”)! See Schweitzer, Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, 161. See also Craig A. Evans, “Assessing Progress in the Third Quest of the Historical Jesus,” JSHJ (2006): 36 n. 3.
[3] See Hans Joachim Schoeps, Das Leben Jesu: Versuch einer historischen Darstellung (Frankfurt: Eremiten, 1954). Schoeps own work on Jesus followed his own comprehensive study of ancient Judaism. See Hans-Joachim Schoeps, Jüdisch-christliches Religionsgespräch in 19. Jahrhunderten; Geschichte einer theologischen Auseinandersetzung (Berlin: Vortrupp, 1937).
[4] David Flusser, Jesus in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Rowohlts monographien; Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1968). With the current climate of scholarship warming towards such approaches, Eerdmans recently republished two of Flusser’s works into English. See David Flusser, Judaism of the Second Temple Period: Qumran and Apocalypticsm (vol. 1; trans. A. Yadin with D. Bivin; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007); trans. of Yahadut Bayit Sheni: Qumran ve Apocalyptica (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press and Yad Ishax Ben-Zvi Press, 2002); and The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius (trans. R. S. Notley, with J. H. Charlesworth; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007); trans. of Jesus in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1968). For a fuller survey of Jewish scholarship see Donald A. Hagner, The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus: An Analysis and Critique of Modern Jewish Study of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984). Another scholar who was clearly ahead of his time in calling for an approach that rooted Jesus in first-century Judaism was Joachim Jeremias (e.g., Neutestamentliche Theologie: I. Die Verkündigung Jesu [Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1971] and other works cited above).
[5] For a fuller treatment of the neglect and retrieval of the Jewishness of Jesus in the history of research see Keck, Who is Jesus, 22–47.
[6] Evans, “Assessing Progress in the Third Quest of the Historical Jesus,” 39. Scot McKnight (“Jesus of Nazareth,” in The Face of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research [eds. S. McKnight and G. R. Osborne; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 170], citing words spoken by John Dominic Crossan in public settings, describes how “modern scholarship is in a contest to see who can find the most Jewish Jesus.”

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