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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2004
Number 61
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Our Brother Jesus

Brother Jesus: The Nazarene Through Jewish Eyes by Sohalom Ben-Chorin, translated by Jared S. Klein and Max Reinhart
Athens: University of Georgia Press
Jesus Through Jewish Eyes edited by Beatrice Bruteau
New York: Maryknoll/Orbis Books

A Review Essay by Frank E. Eakin Jr.

Both Brother Jesus and Jesus Through Jewish Eyes are excellent examples of recent attempts to recover the Jewish roots of Jesus. This is not simply a continuation of the movement variously designated but covered in the “historical Jesus” movement pursued by Christian scholars. To the contrary, this is an attempt to recover Jesus, the Jew of the first century from Nazareth. There is nothing pejorative about the presentation of Jesus in either volume. To the contrary, Christians whose traditions have so covered over the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith can enrich their understanding of Jesus immensely by sitting at the feet of these Jewish scholars.

Beginning with a chapter on “The Figure of Jesus,” Ben-Chorin selects various aspects of the mission and message of Jesus, culminating with a chapter titled “IINRI,” or “The Curse of the Crucified.” He seeks, in each case, to focus the words of Jesus and the events in the ministry of Jesus within a Jewish context, and the reader is struck by the breadth of his knowledge as he incorporates diverse historical data, linguistic and philological skills, legal connotation, sociological and psychological nuances, and so on. His awareness of the New Testament and Christian traditions is remarkable, and he is able to utilize these Christian materials along with additional diverse data and thereby set Jesus in his first-century contest. For example, “The Wedding in Cana” does not seek to clarify a “miracle,” which is a Hellenistic rather that a Hebraic phenomenon regardless. He interprets this even aetiologically; i.e., the event points ahead to the Last Supper and is built on a post-Jesus kerygmatic development. He interpreted the various aspects of Jesus’ ministry in this fashion, never straying far from his emphasis on my brother Jesus, a Jewish man of first-century Palestine. He quotes (p. 5) from Martin Buber’s Two Types of Faith wherein Buber stated: “From my youth onwards I have found in Jesus my great brother … My own fraternally open relationship to him has grown ever stronger and clearer … ” Ben-Chorin responds: “Buber’s confession defines my own position. Jesus is for me an eternal brother — not only my human brother but my Jewish brother” (p. 5).

Buber’s famous quotation and Ben-Chorin’s embracing of the same both defines approach and characterizes position in Brother Jesus. This is a well-written, intelligently presented work that enables the Jesus of history to come alive in a fashion precluded by the Gospels because they built more on the Christ of faith understanding.

Beatrice Bruteau drew together diverse Jewish commentators drawn from academics, the congregational rabbinate and individuals particularly attuned to Jewish-Christian issues by virtue of their existential situations. They are asked to share their reflections about Jesus. Jesus Through Jewish Eyes is divided into four self-explanatory sections: Historical and Theological Views, Appraisals and Interpretations, Personal Views and The Conversation Continues. These presentations are radically different, beginning with Michael J. Cook’s “Evolving Jewish Views of Jesus” to the final chapter by Rami M. Shapiro, “Listening to Jesus With an Ear for God.” Roughly twothirds into the book is a moving and compelling essay by Lawrence Kushner, “My Lunch With Jesus,” which focuses on his relationship with an Episcopal priest.

While Christians deal with Jesus, they carry historical baggage that precludes absolute objectivity. It is recognized that Jewish writers also carry interpretative baggage based on historical experiences. Whereas this baggage might be totally dissimilar to that borne by Christians, contributors were nonetheless enjoined to minimize the way that baggage impacted their chapters. What results are numerous contributions that portray the intensely spiritual side of modern Jewish faith.

Because it is impossible to deal with the contributions of the individual writers, and these are well-written and thoughful materials, it is perhaps more helpful in a review essay of this type to note what motivated the editor to bring these essays together. She notes three primary motivations (pp. vii-ix): (1) to portray the faith practiced by Jesus rather than focusing on the Christian representations of the religion/faith of Jesus; (2) to help Jewish people better understand Jesus and to recognize that the historical problems Jews encountered are the responsibility of the Church and not of Jesus; and (3) to share with Christians what Jews think of Jesus and thereby to enrich the Christian understanding of Jesus. Each of these chapters in helpful fashion develops one or more of these motivations for book development as expressed by the editor.

These two books, one written by a Jewish scholar and the other made up of chapters contributed by Jewish writers, demonstrate a sincere desire on the part of Jews to know better the person of Jesus as a Jew. Lest this be understood only as a Jewish concern, the trilogy of books by John P. Meier, a Roman Catholic priest, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, is an excellent contribution toward understanding Jesus in his Jewish context.

Thus, gradually with the assistance of both Jewish and Christian scholars, we begin to develop a sense of who Jesus was in the first century, not what the Jesus of history became in the cloak of the Christ of faith. We begin in a very elementary way to understand Jesus of Nazareth. As we gather insight regarding the person of the human Jesus, we take the first and most important step toward repairing the breaches in Jewish and Christian relations. Perhaps as Jews and Christians, we will come to understand better what Schalom Ben-Chorin’s great teacher, Martin Buber, meant when he referred to Jesus as “my great brother.” To make that affirmation with meaning anad understanding is a meeting ground for Jews and Christians; moreover, it is perhaps one of the most significant affirmations one can make, be the individual Christian or Jewish.

Frank E. Eakin Jr. is the Weinstein-Rosenthal Professor of Jewish and Christian Studies, Department of Religion, University of Richmond, and a contributing editor.

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