(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Nazarene is an attempt to capture the drama and meaning of the life of Christ in its historical and cultural context from several perspectives. Jesus is particularly viewed from the vantage points of a high-ranking Roman officer, Judas Iscariot, and a devout student of the Rabbi Nicodemon. Many other perspectives are depicted as well. Jesus is seen differently by the ruling Sanhedrin; by his mother, Mary; by Mary Magdalene; by Rufus, a young student who will eventually join the “Messianist” sect; and by the masses of devout Jews in Jerusalem.

As a unifying device and to show the historical significance of his subject matter, Sholem Asch uses the concept of reincarnation to bring three of his first century characters to twentieth century Poland. Their discussions and lengthy narratives then provide the vehicle to tell the story. Asch also uses the device of a “recently-discovered manuscript” to relate the events of the Gospels from the perspective of Judas Iscariot.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first part is a rather convoluted effort to depict a twentieth century scholar, an expert on the ancient Near East, Pan Viadomsky, as the reincarnation of the Roman officer Cornelius, who arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. His arrogance and pragmatic ruthlessness are portrayed convincingly in both roles. Asch uses the Roman soldier as a means of describing for his readers the cultural setting of ancient...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

The Nazarene Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Pan Viadomsky had a peculiar reputation in Warsaw. He was generally accounted a great classical scholar—and a trickster. He earlier had been a frequent contributor to the journals of Latin and Greek, and often he settled controversial matters with a curiously minute and cunning knowledge of the ancients. After several years, however, he went too far: he talked and wrote of hidden or obscure events with a maddening air of superiority. He announced the discovery of ancient manuscripts, but he would allow no competent scholar to examine the documents.

On an expedition to Mediterranean lands, Pan Viadomsky pretended that he had found old documents of great worth. Some of his colleagues, however, found him in the company of a notorious forger. The learned world then began to discount Pan’s scholarship, and gradually many people thought of him as a simple trickster.

Still, Jochanan the Jew was glad to work with Pan, even though he was a vindictive anti-Semite, after Jochanan had heard of Pan’s Hebrew manuscript and of his desire for a Hebrew scholar to read it with him. Jochanan became well acquainted with the famous Pan, even indispensable to him and his efforts, and little by little a strange friendship grew between them. On his side, Pan sneered at all Jews, but he sometimes made an exception for Jochanan; on his side, Jochanan was awestruck by Pan’s detailed knowledge of Jewish history, particularly of the time of Christ.

One day, almost against his will, Pan told part of his secret, the source of his detailed and exact knowledge. He announced that he was in reality the reincarnation of the Hegemon of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate’s right-hand man. At first, Jochanan took the story for an old man’s babbling, but he listened to the tale with increasing belief.

Pontius Pilate had been a great soldier of Rome, one of the best lieutenants of Germanicus. In Rome, however, Pilate discredited his former commander, and doughty Germanicus retired from official life as a ruined man. Then Pilate cast covetous eyes on Judea, a poor place, but a land where he could get rich through bribery. He sought and won the hand of Claudia, the debauched daughter of Tiberius Caesar. After the marriage, Pilate was appointed Procurator of Judea. He took with him his friend, a young soldier, as Hegemon of Jerusalem.

Once in Jerusalem, Pilate ordered the Hegemon to display the hated Roman eagle in the sacred temple of the Jews. The pious Jews were astounded and aroused, for by law, Roman authority did not extend to religious matters. Yet Pilate was firm, and the Hegemon cruelly beat back the attempts of the Jews to storm his fortress. At last, the Jews gave in, and the crafty High Priest of the Temple paid an enormous bribe to Pilate.

Afterward, the...

(The entire section is 1143 words.)