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  • By Post or by Ghost:Ruminations on Visions and Epistolary Archives
  • Brian Collins

I have no doubt that this letter will reach you, either by post or by ghost.

Georges Dumézil, The Riddle of Nostradamus: A Critical Dialogue

At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.

Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"


Who was Robert Eisler? He was, among other things, a tragically hilarious pedant, raconteur, dubious polymath, armchair anthropologist, destitute aristocrat, concentration camp prisoner, war hero, gadfly, and buffoon who serves as a background figure in the stories of such celebrated scholars as Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Aby Warburg, and Moses Gaster.

His name is likely to be familiar to readers of JQR (particularly the centenarian ones) because of the war of words he waged with Solomon Zeitlin in its pages between 1927 and 1931 over the so-called Slavonic Jesus manuscript tradition. In what follows, I will examine a few of Eisler's public and private letters to trace the development of his controversial reconstruction of the writings of Josephus—based on the Slavonic (or technically "Old Russian") tradition—and his theory about what that reconstructed tradition might tell us about the historical Jesus. The picture that emerges from these letters is surprisingly vivid and human. Intellectual history is full of insights about the roles played by politics and personality in shaping scholarship, but the material presented here makes visible the countervailing winds of anxiety, contingency, and misunderstanding. The missive takes center stage in this essay. We will see letters to newspapers, meant to be published and read by the public; [End Page 397]

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Figure 1.

Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 21, no. 1/2 (1930).

[End Page 398] secretive correspondence that we might classify as "back channel"; carbon copies of letters sent to another but also saved for future reference; and the coded letters from the unconscious that are called dreams.


On April 17, 1926, The Times published a response Eisler had written to a recent article profiling the work of Dr. Vacher Burch. The article was titled "A Remarkable Discovery Concerning Jesus Christ" and had appeared in the inaugural issue of The Liverpool Diocesan Review.1 Eisler's primary purpose in writing his response, beyond supplying "fuller and more correct information on the subject," was, apparently, to establish the priority of his work to that of Burch, who, according to the piece, was also working on the so-called Slavonic manuscripts of Josephus's The Jewish War. Eisler's letter disputes what he saw as Burch's strong implication that the texts were a new discovery, asserting that they have long been available to Russian scholars and arguing that Burch's reference to them as "Slavonic" rather than "Old Russian" (Old East Slavic) demonstrates that he does not really know them. Of Burch's ignorance Eisler claims to have additional personal knowledge: "Only a few weeks ago," he writes, "[Burch] contacted me . . . for the address of Professor [Vassilij N.] Istrin in Leningrad, who has been preparing—for years—a critical edition of the whole Russian Josephus, and has most kindly supplied me with manuscript copies of all the most crucial passages that I needed for my analysis."2 Not only, it was suggested, was Burch ignorant of the history of the manuscripts; what little he did know had been found out through the good offices of Eisler himself, and that only in the last few weeks! Eisler, on the other hand, gave the impression that he was already deep into his translation.

At the same time he wrote to The Times Eisler must have also contacted the Liverpool diocese itself, appealing to the authority of the bishop and asking for his intervention, because on April 27, Albert David, the bishop of Liverpool, wrote a reply explaining that

[Burch] never meant to claim it as his own, and when I first discussed it with him he explained to me your part in it. All he wanted was to call attention to a new fact well known to a group of scholars but not sufficiently appreciated...


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