The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity by Jon Levenson. Admittedly, this is a less-than-obvious choice for a course on Jesus. There are literally thousands of books about Jesus and some of these books are really quite good. So why require a book that is primarily about the evolution of the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) in Jewish and Christian thought? This was the question posed to me by a student of mine a couple days ago.
I was very impressed with my answer to this student so I thought I would share it with you, oh beloved blog reader. In all honesty, I gave him three short reasons and I'm giving you three longer reasons. This only goes to show that I continue to impress myself with myself.
So why require this book for my Portraits of Jesus class?
1. If you want to understand Jesus, you have to understand something (really, many things) about ancient Judaism. Sad but true: I cannot assume that my students will come into my classes knowing anything about ancient Judaism. Worse, most classes on Jesus attempt to provide some instruction of Judaism (normally Second Temple Judaism) and this is done by viewing Judaism trough the lens of Christian literature. This is like introducing one's children to Star Wars by first exposing them to Spaceballs. Levenson's book is sensitive to the Hebrew Bible as sacred text and is also sensitive to the history(ies) from which the Bible emerged. One could hardly think of a better topical entry point into modern biblical theology than Levenson's longitudinal study of the Akedah.
2. My class is titled "Portraits of Jesus". I teach it with three key foci (that's the fancy plural form of "focus" #grammarsuperstar). In this class we study biblical portraits of Jesus; we study several historical reconstructions of Jesus; we study the various Jesuses of popular imagination. On every level, the most entrenched and recognizable portrait of Jesus concerns the legacy of the cross. It is almost impossible to say anything about Jesus that will overcome people's deceptively familiar images of the crucifixion. That said, Levenson's treatment of Golgotha in connection to the harrowing problems related to the Akedah comes close.
3. I think that every university-level class ought to invite students to read a classic or two. There is no better cure for cultural amnesia (we have an epidemic of this disease in North America) than exposure to great literature. So my students are required to read the Synoptics, John, Thomas, etc. Of course, it would be idiotic to equate any modern academic book with biblical literature. But it is no understatement to call Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son a classic. A few days ago I told a Hebrew Bible scholar friend of mine that I had assigned this book. He replied, "It may well be the best book in biblical studies ever written."
If you have not read this book, treat yourself. I can not offer a higher recommendation... and I'm speaking as someone who has read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.