By Susannah Heschel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. xii, 317 pages.
This book is the engaging story of a Jewish scholar who came to challenge the institutionalized anti-Judaism rampant in the German church establishment in the last half of the nineteenth century.
Abraham Geiger was born in Germany in 1810. In addition to a traditional Jewish and German education, his parents had him learn the classics, Latin, and Greek. This was the age of the Enlightenment in Europe, a time when many Jews were beginning to discover the realm that lay beyond the confines of traditional Judaism. Geiger was no exception to this. However, Germany (and the rest of Europe) was another question: the world of mid-nineteenth century Germany was one where anti-Judaism flourished, even in the most “enlightened” Christian academic circles—as young Geiger would soon discover. Contrary to his parents’ wishes, he went to a German university where despite some setbacks, he soon excelled as a Semitic scholar.
Geiger began his scholarly career with a ground-breaking study of the Talmudic origins of the Koran. He further applied this “Judaic origins” line of thinking to the New Testament and developed the then-controversial theory that Jesus had Pharisaic origins. In truth, this laid the groundwork for the modern scholarly position which places Jesus within the milieu of Second Temple Judaism. In addition, Geiger is considered to have founded modern Samaritan and Karaite studies.
Geiger had correspondence and scholarly debates with a cast of people which reads like a Who’s Who of nineteenth-century German theologians. Such names as the T?bingen School will sound foreign to those not familiar with the German theological scene of the time. In one interesting episode, Franz Delitzsch and Geiger have a theological exchange over Geiger’s views on the Pharisaic beginnings of Jesus. Delitzsch was arguably the most important individual involved in Jewish missions at the time. He had enough reservations about Geiger’s ideas to write a book by way of response entitled, “Jesus und Hillel” (1866). Furthermore, in 1894, the Messianic Jewish sage, Yechiel Tsvi Lichtenstein (brother-in-law to Joseph Rabinowitz), and a co-worker of Delitzsch, translated the book into Hebrew in order to reach the larger European Jewish audience, most of whom did not speak German.
Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus has won multiple awards. Despite the best efforts of Geiger and people like him, nothing could turn the tide in Germany of the anti-Judaism which permeated the Protestant theological establishment. German scholars like Friedrich Delitzsch (who, ironically, was Franz Delitzsch’s son) and subsequently Gerhard Kittel only helped lay the theological groundwork for institutionalized anti-Judaism that Geiger tried so hard to combat all of his life—and which the Nazis used to horrific effect. Recommended reading for anyone who seeks to understand the precursors to Holocaust-era Germany’s anti-Semitism.