Wouldn’t I have heard David L. Dusenbury during a lecture in Antwerp, I would never have accepted to review this book. In the end of this review I will reveal the reason why. The lecture was organised by IJS (the Institute of Jewish Studies at the University of Antwerp) and took place at the Hof van Liere in Antwerp on February the 20th. The topic: ‘The Strangeness of Jesus: Benedict de Spinoza and the Gospels’. Taking his starting point in the observation that even for Friedrich Nietzsche Jesus remained ‘eine fremde Gestalt’ (in Der Antichrist), Dusenbury lead us via Leon Modena (who recognized Jesus as a Pharisee) to Baruch de Spinoza who praised Christ as the perfect incarnation of Gods salvific decrees, which were revealed to him not by words or visions, but directly. The lecture culminated in the phrase: “If Moses spoke with God face to face as a man with his friend (that is through the mediation of two bodies), Christ communicated with God from mind to mind.” (‘mente ad mentem’, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus). The reader might already know this, but for me this was new, and I was so impressed that I even took a picture of the slide with this quote.
So, when asked by the editor of this journal, Chris Vonck, to review the book in question, I didn’t hesitate for one moment. And I was not disappointed. In seven parts, each divided in three chapters (sacred numbers indeed) the author does the same as in his lecture: he takes the reader on an intellectual journey through time and space, in a quest for Jesus. He tries to achieve his goal by reading the gospels. Closely, carefully, contextually. Of course Dusenbury is fully aware he is not the first to do this. In a short survey of the origins and results of the quest for the historical Jesus (Reimarus, Lessing c.s.), he concludes that after twenty centuries ‘das Messiasgeheimnis’ still stands. And instead of a historical-critical (often reductionist, because in reality unhistorical) approach, he opts for a philosophical approach, inspired by – who else – Spinoza, but also Immanuel Kant, and Nietzsche. Jesus was a philosopher (Spinoza), a thoroughly ethical person (Kant). The book is too rich to summarize (and one has to join the journey, in order to experience something of its outcome) , so I confine myself to sketching the roadmap of the journey Dusenbury takes us on. After having compared sayings from and about Greek philosophers and Judaean prophets, he claims that ‘Graeco-Roman philosophy belongs to the reception horizon not only of the gospels (certainly of Luke and John), but also of most first-century Judaean literature.’ That some of them also share a similar fate (condemned to death ‘because of their justice’ – Socrates and Jesus) only makes Jesus philosophically more intriguing. Epictetus, Seneca, but also Lucianus offer interesting intertext, when reading the gospels. In the second part, ‘Questions about the Crucified’,Dusenbury carefully reads both the synoptic gospels and John, looking for an indication of how Jesus might have viewed his own death. Dusenbury is not naïve. Of course, there is no ‘hors- texte’. But this not only makes us humble (and cautious) when reading texts, it also gives hope: Perhaps the text will yield some insights about our life, we didn’t have before. Here we read intriguing pages over Jesus ‘willing to die, but not wanting it’, about the horror of death and about the presentiment of death (as testified in the oldest layers of the gospel stories). In the next chapters Dusenbury sketches the milieus in which Jesus’ trial unfolds: He who judges no-one, is judged. These chapters are very illuminating, also for professional biblical exegetes. Dusenbury stresses that both Rome and Judaea were ‘temple-states’, each with their own jurisdiction, laws. Both were sacred, both were providing a political order of life. Calling the Sanhedrin’s a religious court and Pilate’s judgment secular is erroneous. The division religious-secular is anachronistic. The subtitle of this book ‘A political life of Jesus’ should not be understood as a reduction of scope, but simply as the consequence of this state of affairs: By living the way he did, Jesus challenged (and questioned the legitimacy of) both institutions. So his life became political. Once the stage set, Dusenbury begins to reconstruct Jesus’ life in light of his trials. more precisely, as he writes at the end of part three: ‘in light of the confusion of his judges.’ This is an important word: confusion, and a Leitmotiv of the Quest. A fascinating story unfolds: We see a man, who on the one hand asserts that he has the right to judge (John 5:30) but renounces a will to judge (John 8:15 where Jesus refuses to judge the adulteress, although she is guilty (ch. 11: ‘Jesus among the lawbreakers’)). But he not only refuses to be a judge, he also refuses to be a rebel (distancing himself from the Zealots – a very nice essay on the role of ‘Currency’, coins, the Mammon and Jesus as a Realpolitiker, ch. 12). The climax is reached when he also refuses to be a ruler, a king, although he asserts a mystical right to reign (the Kingdom of God/heavens, the question of Pilate). This makes him into the ‘man who doesn’t fit in at all’, not in the temple-state of Judaea, not in the temple-state of Rome. He is rejected by the former, crucified by the latter (ch. 19, ‘Blasphemy and Majesty’). Both tribunals regarded themselves as vested with a (semi-)divine authority. It is Jesus who by simply standing there, being who he is, exposes that their authority is merely human. This is why – in the end – he stops speaking. What’s the use, if the words you speak, can not be understood. If I were a French philosopher, I would say: there is a Différend.Here I stop my survey. In the last section of the book (‘Part seven’) Dusenbury, enters into the dialectics of darkness and light, delving deep into the four ‘Passions’, with special attention for real dissonances in them (so often ‘harmonized’ away in the past). He believes that differences – if one really listens – can become revelatory of a deep narrative structure, a life-saving story. This – of course – is for the reader to judge, at the end of the road.
Why then, did I say in the beginning that I would never have read this book, if I had not heard the author performing live first? The answer lies in the physical appearance of the book. On the cover we see the head of Jesus (long wavy hair, parting in the middle, beard) with some kind of aura around it. It makes a bigoted impression on me: Madame Blavatsky is my association. I wouldn’t even have picked it up in the bookshop to leaf through. And, if someone had pointed out to me that that image is not kitsch but Art (an engraving by Odilo Redon “… Et dans le disque même du soleil rayonne la face de Jésus-Christ” from “La Tentation de Saint-Antoine”, 1888), it wouldn’t change anything. Art or kitsch, tacky remains tacky. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. A second impression , which the book deserves, also deserves a new cover.
Antwerp, Dick Wursten
David Lloyd Dusenbury, I judge no one. A political life of Jesus. Hurst Publishers, London 2022. ISBN 978-1787388055, 312 p.
[review for Ars Comparanda september 2023]