Without a doubt, The Crucifixion is the easiest “hard” read anyone is likely to encounter when dealing with the subject of Jewish-Christian relations, anti-Semitism, and ancient Jewish history. Written in a straightforward style and virtually jargon free, the book is easily accessible to both experts and casual readers alike and is appropriate for readers from high-school-age to adult. That said, this is a difficult book to digest — its essence is one of the longest and saddest stories in history — and in many ways is impossible to categorize.
At the core of the book is a provocative new look at the question of Jewish involvement in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. David Birnbaum, whose previous books include God and Evil and God and Good, seeks to understand the origins of Christian anti-Judaism in the mythology surrounding the allegations that the Jews, then and forever, bore the onus of deicide. While the book officially ends with 1300, Birnbaum actually appends a brief look at the long-term result of Christian anti-Semitism — specifically as a cause of the Holocaust.
Crucifixion Book I: The work is organized into three timelines, covering Jewish and general history from 480 BCE to 1300 CE. The first timeline (480 to 300 BCE) covers the parallel developments in Greece and Judea (and elsewhere) prior to the establishment of Greek hegemony in the Near East under Alexander the Great. The second timeline continues from the Hellenistic period to (roughly) the birth of Jesus (i.e., 300 BCE to 1 BCE) and focuses on the increasing replacement of Greek hegemony with that of Rome. The final timeline covers the period from Jesus’ birth through the early Crusades (1300 CE). Each timeline is carefully crafted and fully integrated; that is to say that events in the Jewish world and in the world at large are explored in parallel or in tandem. Birnbaum’s perspective is truly global: the chronologies don’t only focus on Europe, but include key political and intellectual events in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, as well.
Crucifixion Book II: Focus: The First Century: The book’s piece de resistance is a well organized and well argued examination of primary and secondary sources covering the First century. In more than 200 pages, Birnbaum examines the Jews’ involvement — as alleged – and as appears plausible — in the early history of Christianity, in the crucifixion and in the persecution of Christians up to the year 100 CE. By that year, Birnbaum argues, Christians (who wanted to be considered the heirs to Judaism) made their final and irrevocable break with Judaism and formulated a new theology based, in part, on the rejection of Jews combined with the arrogation of Jewish texts.
Birnbaum has clearly done his homework — in addition to key primary sources he has read and absorbed the ideas of a wide range of scholars in the field of ancient Jewish history and Jewish-Christian relations. These include the “classical” scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (such as Julius Wellhausen and Joseph Klausner), scholars of the post-World War II era reevaluation of the basic texts (Rosemary Reuther, for example) and the current generation of researchers who are still actively grappling with many of the questions raised by the book (e.g., Lawrence Schiffman).
Frankly, my only critique of the book is the limited nature of the bibliography — “only” 39 items. I would have liked to have seen either more works cited or, perhaps, annotations to explain why these specific sources were chosen. Almost needless to say, scholars will understand Birnbaum’s choices almost immediately, but a wider collection of sources would have been useful for non-experts and especially for high school and college students interested in further research.
The Crucifixion is designed as part of a larger opus, detailing the relations between the Church and the Jews from the period covered here until contemporary times. If the book at hand is any indication of Birnbaum’s direction and the quality of his work, he may well provide the authoritative account of anti-Semitism over the last 2,000 years.