Monday, July 16, 2007

The History and Conversion of the Jewish Boy

Elizabeth Sandham first published The History and Conversion of the Jewish Boy in 1822. The story describes the travails of a boy named Benjamin, living in the middle of the 18th century, along with his mother Miriam, and his grandfather Rabbi Abraham, who is being unjustly persecuted.

"The God of Israel, who has formerly shewn his people so many favours, would not have forsaken them if they had not deserved it." (p. 16) [says Benjamin]. Strange to hear the "they deserved it" interpretation of Jewish history coming from a loyal Jew, but not so strange when it's a fictional Jew coming from the pen of a Christian writer.

"The Jewish boy could scarcely suppress an expression which was arising to his lips, of the superiority of the Hebrew nation over all others" (p. 17). The Christian perception of "Jewish arrogance" was widespread in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, and exists in some quarters to the present day. This led Mordechai Kaplan in the mid 20th century to expurgate the idea of chosenness from the Jewish prayerbook, thinking that the chosen people idea was one of the sources of anti-semitism.

Abraham calls Jesus "an impostor and a blasphemer in making himself equal with God," and in so "doing this he merited a severe punishment." "Yet," said his antagonist [Mr. Williamson, who is letting the Jewish family stay with him during their time of distress], "does not that blessed book which I see there," pointing to the Hebrew Scriptures that lay upon the table, "speak of him as such? or what mean the words, 'Awake, O sword, against my Shepherd, and against the man which is my fellow, said the Lord of hosts, in the prophecy of Zechariah, which I suppose you admit into your Scriptures" (p. 58)

Mr. Williamson continues to preach to Rabbi Abraham, bringing up messianic prophecies from the Scriptures especially from Isaiah (7:14; 9:6; chapter 53) and from the Psalms (pp. 60-65). Benjamin, the rabbi's grandson, hears this conversation. Later, Mr. Williamson speaks with Benjamin: "Since our religion is but a farther developement of yours; a fulfilment of the types and shadows, the promises and the prophecies which yours contain" (p. 74). They continue to study the New Testament (especially the book of Hebrews) and the Hebrew Scriptures together.

Finally Benjamin becomes a Christian. "I have only read the arguments of his apostles for his being the Messiah," said Benjamin, "but these have convinced me that Christ was he of whom the prophets have spoken. -- His own words cannot do more to convince me of this" (p. 95).

Benjamin is afraid to tell his grandfather, because "The persecutions which I should receive from my brethren the Jews, would be a thousand times worse than those I formerly experienced from others" (p. 107). He does indeed suffer hardship because of his beliefs, both from Jews and from anti-semitic Gentiles. The book ends with Benjamin suffering but still hopeful that the future will bring a better life.

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