The Nazarene

by Sholem Asch
[Putnam, $2.75]
THE long-awaited novel by Sholem Asch based on the life of Jesus is at last here. Whether it lives up to the expectations of Mr. Asch’s admirers wholly depends upon the individual reader’s point of view. All the good people who took umbrage at my own article, ‘An Epistle to the Jews,’ in the Atlantic of December 1937, will be sure to be annoyed, and for the same reason. Those who fell in with its views will welcome the book. Not that the novelist sets out to make ‘propaganda.’ His attitude is implicit in the objectivity of his portrayal. Can anyone, after reading the 700 absorbing pages, for an instant doubt that Mr. Asch thinks Jesus was the finest Jew that ever lived, one worthy of acceptance by the Jews as the crowning figure of their culture and history?
Judged purely as a novel, The Nazarene is a superb achievement. Even on the factual side, a work such as Papini’s Life is thin beside it. This is because Mr. Asch has taken an infinite amount of trouble to build up an historical background against which the figure of Jesus may move authentically, with that sense of reality which we should expect of fiction as of life. It is perhaps inevitable that in a work of this kind the minor characters should appear even more real than Jesus, who gains substance from the reactions He creates in them.
Thus we have the story of Jesus told from three points of view: that of Hegemon Cornelius, Pontius Pilate’s right-hand man. who arrested Jesus; of Judas Iscariot; and of Joseph, a disciple of Rabbi Nicodemon, the most learned and sympathetic of the Pharisees. It was surely a brilliant device of the novelist to create in one section the Gospel according to Judas Iscariot, a character almost as enigmatic as Jesus Himself. Who was Judas? Why did he join the little band of mystical Galileans? Why did he betray Jesus? And why, having betrayed Jesus, should he have repented? Incidentally, why the thirty pieces of silver? As treasurer of the band, he might have had several times that sum, without suffering the ignominy of a traitor. Here is a problem for a novelist, and Mr. Asch provides a solution which is as plausible as it is ingenious.
Touchingly human are the portraits of the women, particularly of Jesus’ mother and of Mary Magdalen. Indeed, considering the transcendental nature of the theme, the sheer humanness of Mr. Asch’s novel is admirable, and by humanness I mean that quality in the novelist’s work which not merely translates an historical epoch into living drama but also endows the leading rôles with an everydayness that impresses with its detail. If Jesus alone is somewhat elusive, this must remain so in the nature of things. Mr. Asch goes as far as one can go without becoming too deeply involved in questions of theology which have been agitating the world for nearly two thousand years, with no possible solution sufficiently adequate to satisfy all.
It is enough to say that Mr. Asch’s Jesus is first and foremost a Jew, a ‘ Rabbi ‘ with the traditional sidelocks of the devout Jew, so much at variance with the conventional portrait of the religious painter. But superimposed on this Jewishness is a superhumanness whose very excess is, as it were, that divinity impossible for the finite human mind to define. The novelist treats his subject with tenderness and reverence; one would have to be a carping bigot to complain.