An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus
384 pp., 26.00
Moses and Jesus
If you don't already know the lives of Moses and Jesus from reading the Bible, you might want to begin David Rosenberg's new book, An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus, from the beginning. If you do, you might want to begin at the end with Rosenberg's letter to Pope Benedict. In that letter, which constitutes most of Chapter 7, "A Community of Readers," Rosenberg makes clear that he is one writer in dialogue with other writers about the historical Jesus and his education as a Jew in the first century. With that framing in mind, you can loop back to the first chapter.
Although Rosenberg initially appears to be writing to a secular reader with a decent college education but little biblical knowledge, this last chapter clearly reveals that he is participating in a larger conversation. Rosenberg is specifically responding to Pope Benedict's biography Jesus of Nazareth (2007), which pays particular attention to the Jewishness of Jesus. His perspective on Jesus differs from that of the pope (whom he calls "my dear Benedict"): from Rosenberg's point of view, Jesus cannot be the "greater Moses" who supercedes the original; it is Jesus who is indebted to Moses, whose Torah he studied, taught, and quoted in his role as a 1st-century rabbi. When the pope writes, "Jesus was God," Rosenberg responds, "You claim something almost ahistorical."
Knowing who Rosenberg is—a student of the Great Books of Western literature; a former professor; an accomplished poet; a non-literal, poetic translator of the Bible (and many other works, including those of the esteemed poet Yehuda Amichai); and a believing Jew who wants to retain a historical approach to the Bible without reducing it to the record of a mythic journey devoid of sacred qualities—helps readers to appreciate the contributions his new dual biography makes to building a bridge of understanding between Jews and Christians.
Rosenberg suggests that readers must be willing to suspend disbelief when they read the Bible just as they are when they watch Shakespeare's Hamlet. Whether they still believe after they close the book—or leave the theater—is up to their own discerning minds. From this premise, he goes on to argue that Moses and Jesus are both writers, even while he accepts the JEPD authorship of the first five books of the Bible and the diverse authorship of the Gospels. He emphasizes that Moses was a writer who transformed the knowledge he obtained from his Egyptian education while Jesus was a writer who was thoroughly dependent upon the learning he obtained from Moses through his rabbinical studies.
As I read Rosenberg's dual biography, I was reminded of Bruce Metzger's book The New Testament: Its Background, Growth and Content, specifically the sixth chapter on aspects of the teaching of Jesus. Like Rosenberg, Metzger notes that Jesus adopted current Jewish sayings and traditional teachings, but he points out that Jesus gave them a different emphasis focused on inward motivation rather than on outward prescription. Metzger notes that "what is important concerning the originality of Jesus' teaching is not the amount of new material, whether great or small, which he brought; it is the way in which he linked this teaching with a new religious conception and a new religious experience. The end of all ethical teaching is not knowledge but action."
Rosenberg does not list any of Metzger's works in his bibliography, but he does make very affirming use of some evangelical biblical scholarship, including G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson's Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (2007) and Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy's The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (2007). He expresses admiration for the way that these Christian scholars value the Hebrew Bible while incorporating their own faith into their historical analyses—a quality he finds missing in literary or historical treatment of the Bible by some Jewish scholars.
For Rosenberg, the Bible is a numinous text, the border between the natural and supernatural, wherein the voice of the invisible God, the Creator, can be heard with a transforming impact on the cosmic stage. Rosenberg's awesome sense of this comes through his work clearly as something he wishes to convey to those lacking a similarly awakened heart and alert mind. He writes often of "YHWH's desire" expressed in the Covenant and of the way in which human beings co-author the realization of the Covenant in their lived experience.
Admittedly, there are aspects of his argument that will make both conservative Jewish and Christian scholars hesitate, cringe, or perhaps even recoil. For instance, it may be plausible that Moses could have known of Pharaoh Akhenaten's monotheistic leanings a generation before Moses would have received his Egyptian education in the palace, but it still might not be the case that Moses transformed his knowledge to facilitate and bear witness, through the Torah, to "the Jewish discovery of God." This claim may attribute to Moses more primacy, agency, and control than he actually had.
Likewise, I think it quite possible that Jesus left his family to study with Pharisaic rabbis in Sepphoris, but I wouldn't assert this as if it were a proven fact in his biography, since it is really an educated guess that we cannot confirm at present without further documentary evidence. Interestingly, while Rosenberg accepts the possibility of the miracles of Moses, he says the miracles of Jesus were given a "mythic dimension … to heighten the drama" by the gospel writers when really it was Jesus' interpretive powers in expounding the Torah that were most important. Furthermore, Rosenberg asserts that the trial of Jesus in the temple before his crucifixion "is unlikely to be historically true."
At some moments in the book, I wondered if the author were revealing the historical Moses and Jesus—or himself. As a poet and scholar, I know that my interpretations of what I read are shaped by my experience. So when I read Rosenberg stating, "YHWH must have understood that he needed the strong education of Moses to accomplish the mission," I wondered: who can understand the mind of YHWH? When he translates Psalm 137 non-literally, changing the rendering "happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks" to blessed is he "who holds up your crying babies as if to stun them against solid rock"—claiming the poet has an implied "as if" behind his words, which he then interpolates into the translation—I doubted Rosenberg's understanding. I too would like the poet to mean something different from what he wrote, but did he? Our present gentleness may not be the mood of the writer of the psalm in the moment he wrote it. The honest desire for revenge that the psalmist expresses is an emotion many of us have felt but rarely dared to express in such a murderous way. Should we censor the psalmist to assuage our own conscience? It seems a disservice to the original writer, even though I think we ought to consider Rosenberg's interpretation as a genuine possibility.
That said, the structure of the book works well. Rosenberg begins with the literal understanding of words and the historical sense in the first four chapters. In the "Prologue," he introduces the concept of the educated man in the past as compared to the present day. The second chapter, "Words," goes over key vocabulary, defining crucial terms: chosen people, cosmic theater, covenant, Torah, Hebrew Bible, YHWH, midrash, and Talmud. The third chapter, "The Life of Moses," and the fourth chapter, "The Life of Jesus," both present a general historical overview of the lives of the two men under consideration.
The fifth chapter, "The Dual Biography," is the longest at 134 pages and the heart of the book. Here Rosenberg delves into typological correspondences between the two lives. While traditional Christian typology and liturgical practice links, for example, the Flood with Christ's baptism or the sacrifice of Isaac with the Crucifixion, Rosenberg discovers other parallels—including, first and foremost, how Moses transformed the use of his Egyptian education and Jesus did his rabbinical one.
In the sixth chapter, "Judeo-Christianity and an Educated Man Today," Rosenberg looks at the implications of the dual biography for educated people today, while the final chapter is the letter to Pope Benedict. Rosenberg's self-expression in this letter is mysterious at times and full, I think, of deeper, hidden meaning. It takes a while to decode.
Perhaps the most striking imagery Rosenberg considers in the course of his argument concerns mummies and their impact on Moses' perception of life, death, and the afterlife. He returns to the imagery of mummification like the haunting refrain of a song many times throughout the book. When he writes, "The Egyptian afterlife of the body became voice and memory in Moses' scrolls … the Torah scroll was an eternal mummy brought perpetually to life. It is not accident, therefore, that Jesus would come to equate his own body with the word of God," I discover a vivid new way of imagining the continuity between Moses and Jesus. For this intuitive poetic insight, and many other reasons, I recommend Rosenberg's book to anyone interested in the lives of Moses and Jesus and the ongoing conversation between Jewish and Christian scholars about the Bible.
1. Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content, enlarged ed. (Abingdon, 1983), p. 166.
Jane Beal taught English Literature at Wheaton College for five years. Now she works as a full-time writer. To learn more, visit sanctuarypoet.net.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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