Reviewed by Steven T. OSTOVICH, College of St. Scholastica, DULUTH, MN 55811
Susannah Heschel's well-researched study of the work of Abraham Geiger constitutes a challenge to the usual interpretations of the history of modern biblical criticism. The book opens and closes with references to the reception of Edouard Manet's painting, Olympia, as illustrating the challenge of Geiger's work: Manet's painting of a nude woman reclining disturbed viewers not because of the subject matter but because Manet dared to portray her as examining the viewer, that is, he "reversed the gaze" of the painting's subject and the viewer. Geiger accomplished a similar reversal in writing about Jesus and historical criticism. "Geiger, writing as a Jew about Jesus, reversed the position of the observer, from Christians writing about Judaism to a Jew writing about Christianity" (242).
After an introductory methodological chapter, Heschel provides an overview of Geiger's career that allows the reader to see the connections between Geiger's work as a rabbi and his scholarship and between the reform of Judaism with which his name usually is associated and his historical criticism. Plotting the tensions between Pharisees and Sadducees in the second temple era, for example, helped Geiger make a case for reforming nineteenth century European Judaism according to a Pharisaic model.
The bulk of the book is Heschel's very close reading of Geiger's work in the context of the Protestant biblical criticism of his day (there is not much on Roman Catholic biblical criticism for obvious reasons). Geiger's project actually begins with a comparison of Judaism and Islam in which Geiger shows that most of the central ideas of the Qu'ran derive from Judaism. Geiger's work on Jesus as a Jew extends this work into Christianity with the consequent portrayal of Judaism as central to Western civilization rather than as superceded by its daughter religions.
Heschel characterizes Geiger's writing as "counter-history," a concept from postcolonial theory indicating the practice of colonized peoples inverting (rather than rejecting) the methods and terms of their colonizers in a subversive manner. In Geiger's case this took the form of his use of the historical critical method of the Tuebingen School and F. C. Baur, among others, to rewrite the history of Jesus as a Jew. While Jewish scholars typically resisted Christians equating Judaism with Pharisaism (as a code word for hypocrisy), Geiger accepted this connection and then showed how Jesus was a Pharisee in what Heschel labels a "subaltern act of resistance" (128).
Geiger and others were so successful in establishing Jesus as a Jew that the problem became how to account for the success of Christianity as other than Judaism. Geiger resorted to a variety of explanations from the influence of Sadduceeism on a Christian movement that began among the Pharisees, to the impact of Pauline theologizing, to paganization, before settling on the success of Christianity being an "accident of history." Ultimately this was all in defense of Pharisaism as providing the model for reforming Judaism. Heschel acknowledges that this work is ideologically driven, so that "there are problems in the use of historical method" (160) by Geiger.
Geiger's work did not seem to influence his Christian colleagues. This is why the concept "counter-history" is so important. With regard to Jesus, the story of biblical criticism usually is told as a failure to find adequate grounds for reconstructing his life. Attention is therefore turned to the faith of Christ (and later the Christ of faith). Writing the biography of the Jew, Jesus, is impossible. Heschel resurrects the shade of Geiger to haunt this history. The issues are not simply methodological or even political but religious: at any cost, the Jewishness of Jesus must be hidden. And, as Heschel points out, this remains the case even in the New Quest for the historical Jesus with its reliance on the criterion of dissimilarity as a means to separate Jesus from his Jewishness.
Heschel acknowledges that, "The dispute over Jesus' religious identity that was set in motion by Geiger's identification of him as a Pharisee has never been resolved. Jews dress him as a Jew, Christians dress him as a Christian, making him a figure on the boundary of the two religions" (239). Heschel turns to poststructuralist critical theory (including categories of transvestitism and horror film images) as useful for responding to this situation, but her comments are so brief as to be at most suggestive. More work also needs to be done on Paul as another boundary figure between Judaism and Christianity, especially because recent scholarship on Paul (to which Heschel refers) establishes that Paul never left off living as a Jew.
Biblical critics, historians, and anyone who uses the Bible must take the issues raised in this book into account.