Monday, August 13, 2007

Adonijah, a tale of the Jewish dispersion

In 1856, Jane Margaret Strickland wrote Adonijah, a tale of the Jewish dispersion, a work of historical fiction that describes various Jewish characters who convert to (early) Christianity. Now normally I don't write much about historical fiction, because it seems to me that there is a difference between evangelical Christians writing about 1st century Jews converting to Christianity and evangelical Christians writing about 19th century (or 20th or 21st century) Jews converting to Christianity. There is a consensus today among scholars that sees early Christianity as one of many sects of ancient Judaism. The same cannot be said about modern day Christianity and modern day Judaism. While still related, today they are more like distant cousins.

So as I was saying, I normally avoid the historical fiction stuff because, well, what's the point of me commenting on it? If early Christianity was just one of many Jewish sects, why should I worry about novelists from whatever time period writing about a 1st century Jew slightly changing course? What's interesting about some novels, however, is that they treat a 1st century Jew believing in Jesus in the same way that they would treat a modern day Jew converting to Christianity. So that's one reason that I occasionally look at historical fiction and muse about it out loud.

Strickland's book is not nearly as bad as a novel that I wrote about last month, Thomas Vowler Short's Sadoc and Miriam. But Strickland does have the distinction of drawing the ire of George Eliot in a rather famous tirade. Eliot, in an article for the Westminister Review ("Silly Novels by Lady Novelists"), calls this novel "heavy imbecility" and states that it "is simply the feeblest kind of love story, supposed to be instructive, we presume, because the hero is a Jewish captive, and the heroine a Roman vestal; because they and their friends are converted to Christianity after the shortest and easiest method approved by the "Society for Promoting the Conversion of the Jews;" and because, instead of being written in plain language, it is adorned with that peculiar style of grandiloquence which is held by some lady novelists to give an antique colouring."

Interestingly enough, George Eliot later wrote Daniel Deronda (1876), which presents the Victorian English Jew in a positive light and has no agenda of conversion. Indeed, there is sort of a reverse conversion in that the title character (who believes he is simply an Englishman and who is raised, apparently, as a Protestant), eventually learns that he is Jewish and embraces the religion and nationality of the Jewish people. Daniel Deronda also marries a Jewish woman, Mirah Lapidoth, and he becomes a Zionist. Eliot may have had an agenda but she was clearly no evangelical conversionist.

But back to Adonijah. Here are a few key excerpts of editorial commentary:

"The destruction of Jerusalem was stupendous, not only an act of divine wrath, but as being the proximate cause of the dispersion of a whole nation, upon which a long series of sorrow, spoliation, and oppression lighted, in consequence of the curse the Jews had invoked, when in reply to the remonstrances of Pilate they had cried out, "His blood be upon us and our children" (p. iii).

"But happier times seem dawning on the dispersed of Judea. Our own days have seen the foundations of a Jewish Christian church laid in Jerusalem." (p. iv).

"The final restoration of the Jews to their own land after their conversion to Christianity is foretold in many parts of Scripture, particularly in the ... prophet Isaiah." (p. 287).

Other evangelical historical fiction written in the 19th century where Jews convert to Christianity include the following:

Naomi; or the Last Days of Jerusalem, by Mrs. J.B. Webb-Peploe (1860). In this book, our old conversionary novelist friend Mrs. Webb-Peploe gives us a Christian view of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Obviously there are going to be many Jews that populate this novel, and more than a few (including the title character) become adherents of nascent Christianity, with a Victorian flavor.

Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, by General Lew Wallace (1880). We all know the story, and I hate to put it in the same company as Adonijah, but I must. All I can say is, at least no one died in the writing of the chariot race.

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