Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Hidden in Plain Sight: Moses Mendelssohn’s Rhetorical Use of Jesus

By Alan T. Levenson
Schusterman/Josey Professor of Jewish Intellectual History
Judaic Studies, University of Oklahoma
December 2011

In his own lifetime Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) won acclaim as the patron saint of German Jewry. He symbolized the acquisition of German language, mastery of European culture, improved Jewish-Christian relations, and notwith-
standing the above, continued fidelity to Judaism. Yet, as historian David Sorkin and others have argued, Mendelssohn’s Hebrew legacy – above all, his epochal translation and commentary of the Pentateuch and Psalms, got short-shrift in comparison to his German-language works.1 Not only were his German philosophical and aesthetic essays more accessible to a reading audience increasingly at home in European languages only, but these works fit the master narrative of successful Jewish acculturation less awkwardly than did the Mendelssohn Bible. While the Mendelssohn’s Bible opened the floodgates for what Naomi Seidman has aptly named the “translation culture” of modern German Jewry,2 early biographers tended to simply note this accomplishment and move on. As Sorkin noted, even Altmann’s exhaustive Moses Mendelssohn. A Life, did not analyze the Bible project in detail, though Altmann was surely competent to do so.3 A partial explanation for this overall neglect lies with the Mendelssohn Bible itself. The translation into High German, initially written in Hebrew characters, was quickly rendered into Latin letters and detached from the commentary. Mendelssohn’s commentary, in addition to being written in difficult Enlightenment-style Hebrew, maintained a dogged adherence to the perfection of the Masoretic text, relied largely on traditional Jewish exegetes, and completely rejected the emerging approach of Higher Criticism, exemplified in his misguided dismissal of J.G. Eichhorn:

I do not know in fact when we will get to the end of this audacity. In the meantime, so long as the fashion has the charm of novelty, one must allow it to take its course. In time people will lose their tastes for it; and then it will be time to redirect them to the path of healthy reason.4

Needless to say, “the path of healthy reason,” if we are indeed on that path at all, turned out to be a different one than Mendelssohn expected.

Although the second scholarly edition of Mendelssohn’s collected works (Jubiläumsausgabe; 1929-1938; 1971) made his Hebrew texts available to modern scholars, only now, thanks to Micah Gottlieb and others, have Mendelssohn’s Hebrew writings become available in English (and thus stand some chance of being introduced to students at American universities).5 Anyone interested in Jewish contributions to modern Bible exegesis or to modern Jewish reflections about the Bible in general will welcome these translations.6 From what has been said above, it will come as no surprise that there is scant reference to Jesus or to the New Testament in the Mendelssohn Bible – translation or commentary. The Jewish encounter with Christianity has come full circle from medieval polemics to works such as Marc Brettler’s The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Brandeis University Press, 2011) and Zev Garber’s The Jewish Jesus. Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation (Purdue: Indiana University Press, 2011). But in Mendelssohn’s day, the idea of Christian scripture being part of a Jewish commentary was out of the question.7 Nevertheless, Mendelssohn had much to say about both Jesus and the New Testament, and concluded his most extended discussion of the modern Jewish condition with an extended reference to both.8 The following two snippets from Jerusalem (1783) give a pretty good sense of Mendelssohn’s deployment:

But let us follow history through all sorts of vicissitudes and changes, through many periods good and bad…. Down to that sad period in which the founder of the Christian religion gave this cautious advice: ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.’ Manifold opposition, a collision of duties! ...Give to Caesar and give to God too! To each his own since the unity of interests is now destroyed.

Even if one of us converts to the Christian religion, I fail to see how it is possible for him to believe that he thereby frees his conscience and rids himself of the yoke of the law. Jesus of Nazareth himself observed not only the Law of Moses but also the ordinances of the rabbis…9

Mendelssohn deduced the following from Jesus’s experience:


If Mendelssohn leans backwards to tradition in his Bible commentary, his attitude toward Jesus and the New Testament in Jerusalem (1783) leans forward to modernity. Of course, Mendelssohn’s new attitude had predecessors. As Jacob Katz explained, there had been a notable uptick in the attitude toward Jesus and Christianity among such traditional Jewish figures as Rabbis Jacob Emden and Yair Bacharach in the period immediately preceding Mendelssohn’s.10 Like Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza before him, Mendelssohn found it possible to admire Jesus personally, but reject any miraculous claims. Both Spinoza and Mendelssohn argued the case of complete internal and external religious tolerance.11 A few other details date Mendelssohn’s treatment – for instance, he termed Jesus as the “founder” of Christian faith despite his claim that Jesus was an observant Jew. Mendelssohn was never much of a historian: he overlooked the fact that Christians continued to be persecuted on and off until Constantine seized control of the Empire, and then turned to suppressing pagans and Jews by the end of the 4th century CE -- hardly encouraging examples to contemporary Jews. Nevertheless, Mendelssohn helped open the door to a reappraisal of Jesus and New Testament on the part of Jewish scholars, which, by now, constitutes a long and distinguished list that includes, to mention only scholars active in recent decades and today: Herbert Basser, Michael J. Cook, Harvey Falk, David Flusser, Paula Fredriksen, Julie Galambush, Amy-Jill Levine, Alan Segal, Philip Sigal, and Geza Vermes. While the real-world impact of this development is not nearly as consequential as the Christian scholarly re-appraisal of Judaism, it is not unconnected, and deserves narration. But that is a task for a different author… and a different season.


1 David Sorkin, “The Mendelssohn Myth and its Method,” New German Critique 77 (1999): 7-28. See also: Edward Breuer, The Limits of Enlightenment. Jews, Germans and the Eighteenth-Century Study of Scripture (Harvard University Press, 1996); Abigail Gillman, “Between Religion and Culture: Mendelssohn, Buber, Rosenzweig and the Enterprise of Biblical Translation,” Studies And Texts in Jewish History and Culture (Bethesda: University of Maryland, 2002), 93-114.

2 Naomi Seidman, Faithful Renderings (University of Chicago Press, 2006).

3 Alexander Altmann’s, Moses Mendelssohn. A Life (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1973).

4 From Mendelssohn’s Pentateuch introduction “Light for the Path” (Or L’Netivah) cited in Sorkin, Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 81.

5 Micah Gottlieb, ed., Moses Mendelssohn. Writings on Judaism, Christianity and the Bible (Brandeis University Press, 2011). Sorkin and Breuer are also at work on a volume of translations of Mendelssohn’s Hebrew writings into English.

6 Alan T. Levenson, The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible: How Scholars in Germany, Israel and America Transformed an Ancient Text. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011).

7 The story of the reclamation of a Jewish Jesus and of the New Testament as a Jewish text deserves a comprehensive study. For an ideal template limited to one thinker, I recommend Susannah Heschel’s Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (University of Chicago Press, 1996).

8 I am surprised that discussions of Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem do not address his references to Jesus and Christianity at greater length. I am probably missing something. The one striking exception that I am aware of is Yaakov Fleischmann, The Christian Problem in Jewish Thought From Mendelssohn to Rosenzweig (Jerusalem, 1964).

9 Both citations are from the definitive translation by Allan Arkush, ed., Moses Mendelssohn. Jerusalem. Or On Religious Power and Judaism (Brandeis University Press, 1983), 132-137.

10 Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance. Studies in Jewish –Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times (NY: Behrman House, 1961), 156-168.

11 Allan Arkush, ed., Moses Mendelssohn. Jerusalem, 236-238.