The Nazarene – An Inspirational and Enlightening Book Review

The Nazarene is a historical novel about Jesus of Nazareth written by Sholem Asch, a Polish-Jewish novelist, dramatist, and essayist. Sholem wrote the novel in 1939, three years after he escaped Nazi prosecution by immigrating to the USA.

In the Nazarene, Sholem sheds a Jewish light on the Christian savior. This is a neglected subject. Jesus was not a Christian, in fact, not even Jewish. He was Galilean. If you want to know the differences, this book will take you deep into the grey zones.

As important is the question of how Jesus perceived himself. Jesus didn’t call himself Son of God, he called himself Son of Man which means Son of Adam, which means Son of Human (gender-less).

Three men tell the story of the Nazarene. In Part 1, the story is told by Cornelius, an officer in the Roman garrison of Jerusalem in the first century A.D. He offers a fictitious Roman perspective on Jesus Nazareth. In Part 2, the point of view shifts to Judas Iscariot (the traitor). In Part 3, Yohanan tells the tale, a student of Rabbi Nicodemus, the latter a Pharisee who sympathized with Jesus and who is mentioned in the gospel. 

Having said that, the story of Cornelius and Yohanan is actually narrated by two fictional characters who recall their previous incarnations as Cornelius and Yohanan, a man called Pan Viadomsky and an unnamed, young Jewish student who is also the main narrator of the book. 

You heard correctly, incarnations. Here are the first words of the book: Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition of our existence. If the lore of the transmigration of souls is a true one, then these, between their exchange of bodies, must pass through the sea of forgetfulness. According to the Jewish view we make the transition under the overlordship of the Angel of Forgetfulness. But it sometimes happens that the Angel of Forgetfulness himself forgets to remove from our memories the records of the former world; and then our senses are haunted by fragmentary recollections of another life. They drift like torn clouds above the hills and valleys of the mind, and weave themselves into the incidents of our current existence.

Google reincarnation and Judaism and you will find that Orthodox Judaism rejects the notion of the transmigration of souls, while Qabalists (the custodians of Israel’s prophetic tradition) embrace it without reservation. The Hebrew term for reincarnation is gilgul, literal rolling (rolling souls). Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon (882/892 – 942) made the oldest recorded comment on reincarnation but the gospels convey indications of the antiquity of this belief. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries believed that the Messiah would be a reincarnation of the prophet Elija or a second coming if you so will. Both Yohanan the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth were candidates for this reincarnation. You will find this elaborated in the Nazarene.

The narrative device employed in the second part is a fictional Judas Gospel discovered by the fictional character Pan Viadomsky. It tells Jesus’ life from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, the so-called traitor. At that time, the real Judas Gospel was not yet discovered. It was first seen during the 1970s and first translated in 2006 by the National Geographic Society. The real Judas Gospel indicates that Judas was one of Jesus’ favorite disciples and his betrayal was an intentional setup and personal ordeal for Judas. Sholem pictured Judas as a traitor but offered deep emotional insides into his motives.

The outstanding value of the Nazarene is the immediacy of the storytelling – great historical fiction no doubt. Sholem fills the gaping voids between the gospel’s sparse lines. Sholem does not only summon the Jewish and Galilean way of life at Jesus’ time, but he also dives into the depths of the Jewish and Galilean soul. He takes the reader through the intricate and fragile mansion of Jewish thinking and feeling Jesus barged into – as the great renovator but also like a bull in a china shop.

Jesus made it clear that he didn’t come to change the law (Torah) but only amended it, with the lost, eleventh commandment – the power of love. The famous Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you stems from the rabbi Hillel the Elder, a venerated rabbi at Jesus’ time. According to Sholem, Jesus stood in the tradition of the House of Hillel. I beg to differ. Jesus was an Essene, the custodians of the secret prophetic tradition, the Merkhavah, which, centuries later, resurfaced as the Qabalah.

The core conflicts between old-school Judaism and Jesus arose around the anticipation of how the Messiah would appear. Many believed that he would be a (magical) warlord who would free Israel from the tyranny of Rome and the Sadducees. Jesus, on the other hand, clarified that the Messiah would not wage war (that’s religious), rather lead people to the Kingdom of Heaven – enlightenment that is. 

And this brings us to the ambivalence of religion and enlightenment. Like many other religions, Judaism was a great romance with God, a zealous faith but was (and is?) also shackled by pedantic rule-making. Jesus commented on the latter as follows, “You damn rule-makers, academics, and better-than-thous. You lost the key to the kingdom of heaven [enlightenment] and all you are doing now is preventing people from finding it.” – Matthew 23.13 

Jesus’ (mysterious) remark in Mat 23.30-31 indicates how ancient the conflict between religion and enlightenment, Jesus and the Pharisees, was: If we had been in the days of our forefathers, we would not have partaken in shedding the blood of the prophets. Therefore, bear witnesses unto yourselves, that you are the children of those who killed the prophets. 

I did not succeed in finding historical records of the killing of prophets by scribes (from which the Pharisees descended). If you know something, please drop me an email. If you like to know more about the ancient war between religion and enlightenment you can find information in this post about the Axial Age.

It seems that Christianity inherited both from Judaism – dogmatic pedantry and zeal. At that time, religious zeal was unfamiliar to the rest of the world. Religion was a means to an end, business with the gods or God – bribing to be precise. In Israel, the Sadducees monopolized that business in Jerusalem’s Temple.

Religious zeal and the readiness to die for their God must have scared the shit out of the Romans, who failed to integrate Israel into the Roman Empire. Judaism did not sell out. This may have been the main reason for the diaspora. Logically, the Romans feared the zeal of the early Christians too. Well, Christianity did sell out.

The Nazarene is a heavy read, heavier than the gospel, but it is rewarding if you have the stomach and endurance. I confess to having skipped paragraphs now and then. 😉 

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