In Elijah Prophet of Carmel, Jane Ackerman surveys the biblical prophet Elijah in Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions and examines Elijah in Carmelite thought. While the first part of the book is a good catalogue of how diverse communities interpreted the Elijan narratives, Ackerman makes a valuable contributions in her detailed attention to the meaning of Elijah for Carmelite life and spirituality.
This book is divided into five chapters with two appendices. In chapter one, Ackerman explores Elijah's representation in I and II Kings. Here she focuses on the distinctive narrative of Elijah and how it captured the imagination of many, in contrast with other biblical prophets for whom little narrative exists.
Chapter two deals with the representations of Elijah in later narratives foundational for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Here emphasis is on the multi-valence of the meanings of Elijah, particularly in his role as an eschatological agent. While this chapter is an interesting compendium, it and the one following it, suffer from a lack of focus inherent in an effort to summarize a common figure found in three related but different traditions.
Chapter three examines the spiritual communities in Judaism, Islam and Christianity where Elijah served as a model for attaining a direct encounter with the divine. Ackerman provides an especially strong treatment of Elijah in early Christian asceticism. With Elijah located in desert and wilderness settings in the biblical text, he becomes one of the founders of Christian monasticism in late antique Christian sources. In this ascetic movement, Elijah is a sign of the willing acceptance of the ascetic life. Further, Elijah's encounter with God on Mt. Horeb becomes a model for reflection and preparation for individual experiences of God.
The analysis of Elijah in early Carmelite documents in chapter four is the centerpiece of this book. The Carmelite order, established around 1200 CE on Mt. Carmel by Frankish hermits added new dimensions to traditions about Elijah. Although many early Carmelite documents do not refer to Elijah, the preamble, or Rubrica prima, to eight surviving medieval constitutions mentions him. This preamble makes two significant alterations to the Elijan narrative. First is the assertion that there was a continuous contemplative community living on Mt. Carmel, of which the Carmelite order is the successor. Second is an emphasis on the common life. These claims served as a bulwark to counter claims of competing orders regarding the legitimacy of the Carmelite order. With the move of Carmelites to Europe in the mid-13th century, the order embraced the apostolic life of mendicancy and preaching. As a strategy for validating this shift, 14th century Carmelite leaders "retold Carmel's Elijan legend in ways that promoted both solitary prayer and evangelical service" through additions to the Rubrica prima and the composition of other works. For example, John of Cheminot depicts the conversion of Jewish inhabitants on Carmel to Christianity, in turn dedicating themselves to preaching the gospel and establishing the church. These additions conjoin "the story of life shared with Elijah on Mt. Carmel . . . to the first-century story line of Acts in the New Testament." Thus the Carmelites validated the turn to the apostolic life by the deeds of their spiritual ancestors. In this way there developed an emphasis on the primacy of the contemplative life balanced with an active life of preaching, poverty, and care for poor as found in the Carmelite founder Elijah.
Chapter five is a survey of Elijah during the periods of Carmelite renewal from the 15th to 19th centuries. Ackerman characterizes the spirit of this period with reference to the three main figures of devotion in the order, Jesus Christ, Mary, and Elijah. Accompanying this devotion is a "transhistorical" view of the role of both Mary and Elijah where these figures are transformed and re-imaged as necessary. Ackerman observes four sets of associations with Elijah: solitude, founder, model for purity of heart, zeal, keystone during periods of renewal and change.
Elijah Prophet of Carmel provides a useful survey of the formative legends of this prophet. That it pays attention to the Elijan traditions in Islam as well as Judaism and Christianity is a positive move that hopefully others will replicate in similar studies. With the focus on the place of Elijah in the early Carmelite order, there is a rich and nuanced exploration of one particular mode in which one discrete community appropriated and transformed Elijah. This exploration provides an avenue for questions concerning how communities validate origins and use founding myths. In keeping with the comparative focus of this book, one is further prompted to ask how this particular Christian appropriation of this Israelite prophet reflects broader medieval and early modern views of the Jewish heritage of Christianity.