David Klinghoffer likes his book subjects towering and risky. He swung far out on a limb with "The Discovery of God," his 2003 biography...
David Klinghoffer likes his book subjects towering and risky. He swung far out on a limb with “The Discovery of God,” his 2003 biography of the biblical Abraham, about whom very little can be verified. Now he’s taken up a spot on an even higher and longer branch, with “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday, 247 pp., $24.95).
As he describes the relationship of Jews to Jesus throughout history, the Mercer Island writer (a contributor to the Jewish Forward, among other newspapers) demonstrates again that he is an original thinker, deliberately provocative, and conversant in beliefs that oppose his self-described political conservatism and Orthodox Judaism.
This new work also shares the drawbacks of his Abrahamic biography. Klinghoffer’s sourcing and style isn’t scholarly, so gauging the extent of his research is difficult. Nor is he always clear enough for a lay reader who lacks historical and scriptural context.
David Klinghoffer will read from “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History,” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com). Also, 7 p.m. March 30, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com), and 1 p.m. April 10, Barnes & Noble, 626 106th Ave. N.E., Bellevue (425-451-8463).
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Klinghoffer plunges into exploring the role Jews played in Jesus’ death, not a subject for the faint of heart, given 2,000 years of murderous, anti-Semitic tension over the question. “Jews have long acknowledged the role played by a few prominent ancestors in the events leading to the Crucifixion,” he writes early in the book. He cites Jewish sages who were opposed to Jesus, found in the Talmud and writings by 12th-century philosopher Maimonides. Such references were later censored by Jews fearful of Gentile outcry over them, he says. “What Jews have in fact disputed with Jesus’ followers from the very beginning is not the circumstances of his death, but the question of his messiahship.”
Less intelligent is Klinghoffer’s splashy claim that it was flatly wrong, even hypocritical, for Jewish groups and others to call Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” anti-Semitic because it depicts Jews participating in events leading to the execution of Jesus. In fact, lucid critics of the film didn’t insist that the Jewish population was isolated from Jesus’ crucifixion. Their opposition was more complex, reacting to the film’s limited historical context, its incendiary depiction of the torture-death of Jesus and to the reasonable fear of anti-Semitic responses to it.
The central assertion of the book is valid, and vital to understanding Judaism and Christianity: Without the Apostle Paul’s aggressive drive to move away from Jewish law, the author shows us, the early church would have remained a smaller Jewish sect, and the Judeo-Christian foundation of Western civilization would not have evolved.
The most rewarding portions of the book are found where Klinghoffer takes on the questions of Jesus as Messiah, and as divine figure. In these debates, the author considers scriptural language, secular history and the human character of the rabbi Jesus. This questioning approach will infuriate some, but should also galvanize readers of various faiths to consider the differences and bonds between Jewish, Christian and other traditions. Amen to that.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.