David Herrle reviews A Jewish Novel About Jesus by Rolf Gompertz
published by iUniverse
200 Pages, $15.95
buy the book
was a terrorist
from a song by Jello Biafra
The Jesus fad comes and goes. Currently, partly due to the impact, controversy, and success of Mel Gibson's PASSION, questions about Jesus have returned to the film and television screens, exploded in speculative books, and even around work water coolers. Despite my interest and my personal faith on the matter of Christ, I've been easily bothered by the ado, primarily due to some of the half-baked, convoluted, silly renditions of Jesus' historical context and Christianity's origin. From Martin Scorsese's goofy choice of Willem Defoe as Christ a while back to Dan Brown's fantasy-ridden DAVINCI CODE, I've cringed and chalked such up to the remarkable ripple the unlikely Nazarene has had on human history.
I'm on record as appreciating Gibson's artful PASSION. I argued against its alleged anti-Semitic bent and praised its technical/creative aspects. However, I also excused the favorable Pontius Pilate depiction, mainly due to the character's charm. So I had "bought" an inaccurate rendition. The Romans, indeed, held the force over the Jews, and Rome's say was final in matters of government and punitive measures. Therefore, Jesus' crucifixion is more complicated than jealous clerics demanding his doom. Again and again, Jesus' execution is tied with Roman power, dispelling the Jews as "Christ-killers" charge.
This concern is one of the many addressed in Gompertz's A JEWISH NOVEL ABOUT JESUS (formerly entitled MY JEWISH BROTHER JESUS). From detailed descriptions of Jewish spiritual tradition to the political configuration between High Priest Caiaphas and Procurator Pilate, Gompertz's scholarship is both clear and instructive. Three major points are presented throughout the book: Jesus' teaching in relation to his Jewish heritage, the kinship established between Jews and Christians to this day, and how people can compromise goodness for ulterior motives and/or under duress (the Jewish system under imperial rule, primarily).
For instance, Gompertz introduces the Sadducees and the Pharisees, their leadership roles, their differences, their approaches to the Torah, and so on. He clearly explains the culture's religious mores and structure. But most importantly, Gompertz specifies how these mores and structure were forcibly changed under the Roman occupation. The Jews were primarily a religious people. Politics were secondary, subject to spiritual authority. When Rome became ruler, however, this authority weakened. Therefore, a political Sanhedrin rose aside from the religious Sanhedrin. This political cabinet was headed by Caiaphas, who was, as Gompertz asserts, "a pawn of Rome". In order to maintain his power as High Priest he had to appease Pontius Pilate. (Even the holy vestments for Passover, Pentecost, and The Feast of Booths were in Pilate's control, requiring request by the Priest.)
Contrary to popular telling of the Pilate/Caiaphas story, AJNAJ takes care to present them as they probably were: powerful governor dominating conflicted High Priest, both using each other to maintain order and control in some manner. Gompertz minces no words about Pilate, though he also admits Caiaphas' faults. Both loved power. Pilate's job was to sustain the territory. The once-esteemed office Caiaphas clung to had diminished considerably, losing the right by heredity, based on Roman appointment only: "It was for sale!"
distinctions like these support Gompertz's exclamation that the
crucifixion of Jesus was ultimately done by Rome's hand. Pilate saw
the Messianic stirring as potential rabble-rousing (defying Caesar's
almighty rule) and his commission to Tiberius Caesar was to keep order
around his assigned outpost. A telling scene shows Pilate raging
against Caiaphas' fond regard for Passover's purpose, commemorating the
Jews' liberation from Egypt. Pilate equates such respect with
possible breach of allegiance to the Emperor. Caiaphas redirects
Pilate's anger, reminding him of the Jews' appreciation for being
permitted religious freedom (provided it did not counter Caesar).
The Sadduccee High Priest reluctantly complies for both order and power
security. But Gompertz speaks against the runaway crucifixion blame
on the Jewish people.
Why, readers may be now wondering, haven't I yet mentioned the book's treatment of Jesus himself? After all, he's the star. I postponed such attention thus far because I found AJNAJ to be more than a book about Jesus. After reading I felt more acquainted with a broader context, a historical as well as spiritual relevance. Despite the book's straightforward title, I didn't feel as if I'd read a "Jesus book". I'm more impressed with Gompertz's scholarship, his modern synthesis of an ancient story, his energetic narrative, and noble intention behind the writing.
However, the book does not lack focus on Jesus. Many passages are quite familiar to the gospels, some are more inventive. Braver readers may appreciate the literary liberty Gompertz took in some of the inventive passages, such as Jesus' prayer in Gethsemene before his arrest. The lengthy prayer reads less as Jesus' thoughts and more as the author's inquisitive projection about God's purpose, about faith's call to duty, about Truth. Further reading presents a Jesus somewhat confused, shaken, unsure of his own accuracy. Such a theme repeats throughout AJNAJ: Was Jesus truly the foretold Messiah or a Jew with so much love for God that he personally took on the role, even to its bloody conclusion.
The book's back cover plainly describes the author's concept of Jesus. It says, "Jesus, who was born, lived, and died as a Jew; who drew on his Jewish tradition; who taught the love of man and God; and who saw himself as the Messiah" (italics added for emphasis). Gompertz is a practicing, conservative Jew. Though he doesn't consider Jesus the Messiah, he "leaves that question where it belongs, with each faith community". So AJNAJ is not a book debating Jesus' divinity or non-divinity; rather, it is a modern retelling of the factual man in a smart, historical context, "allowing each reader to follow the dictates of conscience and faith".
The question lives in the book, however. Caiaphas, Rabbi Gamaliel, Mary Magdalene, the disciples, etc., cannot evaluate Jesus aside from that question. Some choose to accept him as Messiah, some do not. Judas, depicted more sympathetically than the Biblical account, believes in spite of his doubts. His desire for God's love is powerful, hence his folly in betraying his dear friend is all the more painful. Caiaphas uses the messianic controversy as leverage for prosecution. Pilate sees the question as a potential threat to the Pax Romana.
Because Gompertz bravely composed a fictional retelling the story is much richer. The characters' language is relaxed, contemporarily recognizable. At first I found this bothersome, but I soon acclimated to the author's clever intention to free this book from King James, rendering it more broadly palatable and widening the scope. Gompertz extrapolates (often through interior monologues) about Mary Magdalene, Judas, Matthew the tax collector, the clergy, Jesus' memories, and even Barabbas. Popularly infamous for undeservedly receiving Pilate's pardon instead of Jesus, speculation about who Barabbas really was is relatively slight. AJNAJ builds on his Zealot membership. Zealots stood for violent revolt against the Empire. AJNAJ depicts Barabbas as recruiting a somewhat aimless Judas into the Movement. (This is a quite different Barabbas than the typically slimy goon many of us are used to. In Gibson's PASSION, for instance, I disliked the choice to show Barabbas as a grunting, apelike oaf -- though it was a useful device for contrast.) Pilate later pardons Barabbas because he sees the move as strategic in squelching both Jesus' and Barabbas' influence on rebellion, at least for the time being. Furthermore, Judas courts Mary Magdalene until she chooses to pursue discipleship for Jesus rather than mortal love.
Done by a lesser thinker, these expansions could have gone haywire. But Gompertz maintains a sober yet creative - and sometimes humorous - approach. My only complaint is the rather sudden ending. But I understand the choice, leaving the questions directly after Jesus' death, the pivot where Jews' regard ends and Christians' regard intensifies.
My three favorite subjects in AJNAJ are the history of the Temple (from Moses' tabernacle to the Maccabees' restoration after Epiphanes), Jesus' showdown with the Pharisees (when he calls them "blind guides"), and the Passover procedure (the Seder, Jesus sitting in the cup of Elijah's stead, etc.). These passages stand out as Gompertz's knack for historical/religious tradition and the ideological conflicts of the times.
Interestingly, the author attributes this book as his "answer to Hitler...as an affirmation of what he tried to destroy...an affirmation of faith and belief in the triumph of the spirit over persecution and oppression - whether in the form of pagan Rome or Nazi Germany". This compounds the contextual scope even more. Though built upon the existence of Jesus, believed to be the Messiah or not, Gompertz's book is also a clever affirmation of Judaism's and Christianity's kinship. He sought to illustrate Christianity's Jewish bases and Jesus' importance to Jews, without undermining any of the two or fostering conversion in either way.
One unifying motif that can be appreciated is the Passover celebration. A male lamb is sacrificed and freedom from bondage is rejoiced. For both Jews and Christians this is echoed in Jesus' life and physical ordeal. For others, at least, lessons can be learned about goodness shining among evil. Gompertz's Pontius Pilate says it best to Caiaphas: "Dreamers and schemers - that's what the world is made of, Priest." And, as AJNAJ's Epilogue states: "Death could be overcome and turned into life; suffering could lead to salvation."
- review by David Herrle 4/2004
read the Tea Interview with Rolf Gompertz
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