Brief review: Alfred Edersheim by Marianna Edwards Richardson

Alfred Edersheim (1825 – 1889) was a Jewish convert to Christianity and a Biblical scholar. He is best known for his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883).

As part of a new series by Cedar Fort — “Spiritual Context-LDS Perspectives” — Marianna Edwards Richardson’s book, Alfred Edersheim: a Jewish Scholar for the Mormon Prophets, discusses the impact of Edersheim’s work on Mormon writers such as Roberts, Talmage, Fielding Smith, and McConkie.

The attraction of Edersheim to Christian writers has been his knowledge of Jewish customs, language, and beliefs, all of which he used to support the Christology of the Old Testament and the Jewish background to the New Testament. Richardson suggests that The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah was brought to Utah Mormonism by B.H. Roberts. Thus began an important and influential Mormon encounter with Edersheim.

The main benefit of Richardson’s book is to show how Edersheim’s conservative biblical exegesis has been used by Mormon theologians. For example, the appendix lists 23 instances in which Talmage used Edersheim as an “authority on Jewish life and customs.” Edersheim is still used today: Richardson finds examples in the work of Parry, Fielding McConkie, Millet, and others. (It is worth noting that he is not consistently mentioned by name in Mormon writings — McConkie often calls him “our learned friend,” for example.)

Richardson has written a useful history of Edersheim from an LDS perspective. It is an uncritical, devotional work — critcism of Edersheim and his conservative brand of biblical scholarship is kept to a minimum — but it will be useful for students of Mormonism’s encounter with the Bible.

From an LDS historical perspective, Edersheim’s writings have been inextricably mixed with our writings. It is important to acknowledge his work and his influence on LDS authors and General Authorities. Edersheim’s view of Jewish prophecy fulfilled in Christ has placed an indelible mark on LDS thought.


  1. Interesting. Thanks for the notice.

  2. Very interesting. Thanks.

    As a Church member interested in finding out a little more about “the Christology of the Old Testament and the Jewish background to the New Testament,” would you recommend starting with Richardson’s book? Would you recommend Edersheim’s?

  3. Hunter,
    For an orthodox LDS perspective on the New Testament world, try Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Eric D. Huntsman,
    and Thomas A. Wayment. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    See also Malcolm R. Thorp, “James E. Talmage and the Tradition of the Victorian Lives of Jesus,” Sunstone 12/1, Issue 63 (January 1988): 8-13, which you may read here. This article looks at the scholarly sources underlying Jesus the Christ, including Edersheim.

  5. I was thinking that in On the Road with Joseph Smith, Richard Bushman said that before he started Rough Stone Rolling he received a blessing from Elder Packer. In that meeting Elder Packer gave Bushman a copy of The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah as an example of the kind of history he should aspire to. Upon checking though, I was mistaken. It was the introduction to Frederic Farrar’s (another nineteenth-century writer) Life of Christ. I don’t know anything Farrar.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Farrar was indeed another source for Talmage, so it would be the same sort of thing.

  7. In the article Kevin links to, Farrar’s book is described as “safe, orthodox opinion.” It scrupulously avoids the new German textual criticism of the age. Mainstream LDS engagement with the Bible is still rooted in the Farrar/Edersheim school. I’ll leave readers to formulate their own opinion about that.

    None of this is really of interest to Richardson, whose book is an unoffensive narration of Edersheim among the Mormons. Thorp probably tells you all you need to know; Richardson would be for any Edersheim completists out there.

  8. Farrar was an Anglican, a theological liberal but in a somewhat genteel Victorian sort of way. He was a fan of the higher criticism insofar as it aided him in interpreting the Bible as a story of progressively widening revelation that culminated in Christ, and tended to (like other Victorian liberals, such as Henry van Dyke of ‘The Other Wise Man’ fame) approach the Bible as a collection of aesthetically powerful narratives that contained spiritual power rather than a set of propositional doctrines. His Life of Christ is somewhat hagiographic, but his views on scriptural authorship would probably put him somewhere to the left of most Mormons. His book on the Bible is here.

  9. Big words aside, I have decided that if I ever leave the church, I’m going to become a “Jew for Jesus.”

  10. Matt,
    If Farrar is to the left of most Mormons, then we are indeed off-the-chart biblical literalists!

    It’s worth re-emphasising how influential this stuff has been. The Bible Institute manuals channel Edersheim far more than they do any other subsequent non-Mormon writer.

  11. A thousand thanks, Kevin Barney and Ronan, for the reading ideas and recommendations.

  12. Ronan – In the book I linked to Farrar argues that Job, Daniel, Jonah, and Esther are all “wisdom” fiction; that the Bible contains uneven and contradictory teachings on morality; that any sort of “spiritual diction” theory of scripture is implausible and silly and tends toward disaster; and that that Genesis 1 must be read in the context of the truths taught by genealogy. He’s not David Strauss, but he’s not one of the people in my Sunday school classes either.

  13. Heh. For ‘genealogy’ read ‘geology.’

  14. Blimey. A heretic then.

%d bloggers like this: