February 20, 2010
“To See Ourselves as God or an Angel Does”
David Rosenberg is among the most audacious and compelling of the public intellectuals at work today. A former editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society, he is a Bible scholar and translator, a biographer and essayist, and, perhaps most importantly, a poet. He is best known for his co-authorship (with Harold Bloom) of “The Book of J,” but he deserves even more attention and praise for “A Poet’s Bible” and “A Literary Bible,” his masterpieces of biblical interpretation for the contemporary reader.
Rosenberg’s latest book is “An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus” (Counterpoint: $26). In the opening pages of the book, Rosenberg sets himself the goal of excavating some of the innermost meanings of the Bible, both its Jewish and Christian versions, and he admits that the whole enterprise may seem to be at odds with the zeitgeist of our age, which values the 140-character Tweet above the classic texts.
“Those meanings, as we find them in the Bible, are often poorly described as the pillars of civilization,” writes Rosenberg. “Who wants pillars, in an age of fluid information and seemingly endless possibility?”
But Rosenberg offers us a way out of the apparent contradiction and, at the same time, a way into the Bible: “Judeo-Christian civilization must be defined as a cosmic journey, driven toward negotiating and enacting a sublime Covenant,” he explains. “Without it, an educated man can be as large as his library and yet, bereft of this essential compass, he is lost in an unknowable cosmos.”
The cardinal points on the compass include both Moses and Jesus, and Rosenberg is especially interested in the “creative tension” between these two foundational figures and the religious traditions that they symbolize. “Moses could not have existed without that compass of the Covenant,” he insists, “and Jesus could not have existed without Moses as his teacher.”
Thus does Rosenberg present us with what he calls a “dual biography,” although the line between biography and mythology must be very loosely drawn when it comes to personages who are revered as prophets and even, in the case of Jesus, as a deity. After all, any biographer whose principal source is the Bible must also be a working theologian: “In order to read the books of Moses properly, we must become believers in the supernatural — that is, while we read,” warns Rosenberg. “We should be prepared to see ourselves as God or an angel does: two-legged creatures who must die.”
Rosenberg himself readily concedes that he is treading atop a faultline between two tectonic plates: “[T]he border between natural and supernatural must be diligently probed,” he writes. “Not a defensive border but rather a meeting place — where each can probe the other in fresh cultural terms. And when Moses and Jesus took up the Covenant in their times, they represented such probing, educated men.”
The linkages between Moses and Jesus are fundamental to Christian theology, which insists that Christianity offers the fulfillment of a promise that God makes in the Hebrew Bible. In that sense, Jesus replaces Moses in the Christian reading of the Bible. But Rosenberg suggests that the historical Jesus revered the texts that were attributed to Moses and patterned himself after “the original prophet.” Like Moses, Jesus aspired to be a “reinterpreter of history” but not the founder of a new religion.
“Neither the word nor the significance of the term Christian was ever known to Jesus,” writes Rosenberg. “He saw for the Jews what Moses had first seen: a way to continue the trek out of slavery, mental and physical, in order to bring the new light of Jewish thought to the world.”
Fatefully, it was the authors of the Christian Scriptures, rather than Jesus himself, who willfully cut the chord that links Jesus to Moses and Christianity to Judaism. “We might say he was the last Jewish writer of the Covenant in the line of Moses, except that the Gospel writers were not as devoted as was Jesus to the written authority of Moses,” Rosenberg concludes. “[T]he Gospels prefer a Jesus who is no longer a reader or a writer in any sense.”
Exactly here we see Rosenberg’s real genius as a Bible scholar. He has mastered the texts, and he has a ready command of the accumulated scholarship of twenty centuries. He is both willing and able to plumb the theological depths of the Scriptures. And yet Rosenberg always looks for and finds the human fingerprints on the page, the evidence of flesh-and-blood authors whose work has made and changed history — what they knew, what they felt, what they feared and what they hoped for.
Jonathan Kirsch, author of “Moses, A Life,” is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.