Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Most of the bitter criticism that Asch encountered came from fellow Jews. He was the first Yiddish writer to gain international, worldwide fame. His deviations from literary traditions, including his sympathetic treatment of Jesus, antagonized some of his contemporaries, especially those in competition with him for public acclaim. Every Yiddish newspaper but one closed its pages to Asch. Liberals considered the novel too orthodox and the orthodox thought it too imaginative. Two million Americans, however, read The Nazarene in its first two years.

Christians, too, had problems with Asch’s ideas. Many found the novel intriguing and the many cultural insights fascinating, but they realized that Asch looked upon Jesus as superhuman, perhaps the greatest leader in history, but still less than a deity. A few realized that Asch’s theology, if logically pursued, would reduce Christianity to merely a sect within Judaism. In theological terms, then, Asch was a Judaizer.

Historians in general paid little attention to the novel, but the ones who did saw that Asch sought to be historically accurate as well as culturally correct. Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue was a composite, and Asch rearranged the chronological sequence of events, but so did the New Testament writers; after all, the New Testament accounts give glimpses into only some 150 days in the thirty-three years of Jesus’ life.