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Book Review - The Nazarene

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Before describing the classic work The Nazarene, by Eugenio Zolli, we should say something about the author.

Eugenio Zolli, Semitic scholar, was the chief Rabbi of Rome and convert to Catholicism. Born in Brody, Austrian Galicia in 1881, he died in Rome in 1956. His original name was Israel Zoller. After graduating from the University of Florence and the Rabbinical College of that city, he became chief rabbi of Trieste in 1914, where he changed his name to Zolli. From 1930 to 1938 he taught Hebrew at the University of Padua and in 1940 advanced to the post of chief rabbi of Rome. When the German army occupied Rome in September 1943, Zolli in vain advised the Jewish community to disperse. Not sharing the optimism of other leaders and under pressure from friends, he himself went into hiding, where he remained effectively active, satisfying, with financial assistance from the Vatican, the ransom that the Germans demanded from the Roman Jews. On February 13, 1945, after Italy had been liberated, Zolli entered the Catholic Church. His conversion attracted international interest, and some of his former co-religionists attributed it to base motives. Zolli’s baptism, however, was clearly an ultimate result of his ardent interest in Jesus Christ. The charity of Pope Pius XII, whose baptismal name he chose, contributed much to his conversion. From 1945 almost until his death he taught Semitics at the University of Rome and the Pontifical Biblical Institute. Best known among Zolli’s numerous writings are The Nazarene, and Before the Dawn: Autobiographical Reflections.

Zolli’s book, The Nazarene, was written shortly after his conversion to the Catholic Church. It is an unusual book, especially because it concentrates on the one word “Nazarene.” Its author’s purpose is to concentrate on the title Nazarene.

This is highly significant because Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament. St. Luke identifies Nazareth as the home of Mary and Joseph, as the scene of the Annunciation, and where Jesus grew to maturity. The quotation from the prophets in Matthew, “He shall be called a Nazarene,” is not found in the Old Testament.

But that does not deter Zolli from devoting a whole chapter of almost sixty pages to just analyzing the significance of the title Nazarene, as applied to Jesus. He concludes, “The name that really was His and distinguished Him from all others, and which most probably sprang up spontaneously from the living speech of the time, was ‘Nazarene,’ because His own real province was declamatory preaching, the flaming word delivered in a loud, resounding voice, rhythmically cadenced, reaching the hearts of His hearers.”

The second major theme of Eugenio Zolli is Messianism. In one long declarative sentence, he states:

The greatness of a people is not measured by the greatness of their conquests, by the number of the nations they have subjected to their rule, by the vastness of the land they have occupied, the number of enemies they have slain and the people they have exterminated, but by the greatness of the sufferings they have themselves endured and by the spiritual gain born of suffering. From this point of view Israel is a great people. The greatness of their sufferings shines in the majesty of their Messianism.

In the mind of the author, the Jewish people are destined to bring the knowledge of the Messiah to the whole world. It is not only something which took place two millennia ago. The words of the ancient prophets are a “perpetual source of wisdom and are all—and those that are not today shall be tomorrow—itinerant carriers of that great light that the Lord has lit in the souls of the seers of Israel.”

Eugenio Zolli is at pains to bring out how the teaching of Christ surpasses that of the Old Testament. Speaking of judging other people, “The Rabbinic world regarded judging and being judged as necessary….The Gospel teaching, on the contrary, comes to the conclusion that we should not judge at all.”

This is one of the main themes of The Nazarene. Christ elevated the morality of the Old Law in a way that only a learned rabbi who became a Christian would understand. Zolli synthesizes this principle in one sentence: “The wonderful Sermon on the Mount, one of the fairest jewels of the Holy Gospels, is at the present time occupying the scientific interest of scholars.” No wonder. The Beatitudes are a summary of Christ’s elevation of Jewish ethics to a height never before known to the human race. This, for the best of reasons, because the Son of God not only preached the Beatitudes, but lived them as a model of how we are to follow His example.

The former chief rabbi of Rome is especially clear in relating prayer and penitence. He tells us that, “The Christ who silently gave Himself to prayer and meditation in a remote corner of Palestine, was sensitive to the echo of the penitential preaching of John the Baptist. Penitence and purification are two allied concepts....Only one who feels the weight of the world’s sins can appreciate the imperative need of purification. Penitence is purification in practice.” That is why God became man, in order to expiate the sins of the human race by His own suffering and death.

Eugenio Zolli could not be clearer on what Jesus did at the Last Supper. From the New Testament accounts of Christ’s institution of the Eucharist, “we learn that Jesus, taking bread and giving it to the disciples, pronounced the words: ‘This is my body,’ and handing them the chalice, said: ‘This is my blood.’ The bread and wine which had been changed into His flesh and His blood, serve also to indicate the fellowship between Jesus and His disciples.” In fact, Holy Communion not only indicates this fellowship. Without the Eucharist, there would not be a fellowship between Jesus Christ and His followers.

The whole of Eugenio Zolli’s The Nazarene is a masterpiece of contrast between pre-Christian Judaism and Christianity. He closes the book by contrasting the prophet Job with Jesus Christ. His closing paragraph deserves to be memorized. “Job,” he says, “does not wish to suffer; he suffers because he cannot escape his sufferings. He is a victim by necessity. The Servant of God, who is Jesus Christ, suffers because He wishes to suffer, in order to blot out the sins of others. Job submits to a destiny. The Servant of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, undertakes the act of a voluntary, expiatory sacrifice. And in Him, it is God who offers Himself and suffers.”

This book deserves to be read and reread. It teaches us that the man whom His contemporaries called “the Nazarene,” is our Creator, who is teaching us how we His creatures can return to the God from whom we came.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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