Alfred Edersheim, the 19th century’s leading authority on Judaic practices prior to and throughout the Christian era, was born March 7, 1825, in Vienna, Austria, where his parents raised him in the Jewish faith. He studied very briefly at the University of Vienna in 1841, before his father’s poor health necessitated his withdrawal from school.
Shortly thereafter, Alfred moved to Pesth, Hungary, where he met Dr. John Duncan. Duncan and several other Presbyterian clergy were in Hungary ministering to Scottish workmen who were constructing a bridge over the Danube River. Under their influence, Edersheim became a Christian, and when Duncan returned to Scotland, Edersheim accompanied him.
In 1843 he began study at New College, Edinburgh. He entered the Presbyterian ministry in 1846, and served one year as a missionary to Jews and Germans at Jassy, Romania. About this time he married Mary Broomfield, and they had seven children. Upon his return to Scotland, he settled in the northeast city of Aberdeen. From 1848 to 1860, Edersheim was affiliated with the Old Aberdeen Church. During this time he began translating German theological books into English, and wrote his History of the Jewish Nation from AD 70–312 (1857).
Edersheim accepted the position of minister of Free Church in 1849, becoming its second minister. The church, formerly known was Old Machar Free Church, was founded in 1843 in Aberdeen. The first pastor, Dr. Anderson, resigned because of a change in his views on infant baptism, and went on to found a Baptist church. Edersheim served 12 years at Free Church. In 1861 he resigned his position because of health issues, and moved to Torquay in the county of Devon, England—a noted health spa at that time.
He established a congregation and built St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Torquay in 1862. But when his health problems persisted, he resigned from St. Andrews and moved to another spa on the south coast of England in Bournemouth. While in Bournemouth, Edersheim wrote The Temple: Its Ministry and Services As They Were in the Times of Jesus Christ (1874). After becoming an Episcopalian in 1875, he was ordained deacon and priest in the Church of England, and in 1876 became vicar of Loders, Dorsetshire, where he wrote Sketches of Jewish Social Life (1876). In 1883 he resigned from Loders and moved to Oxford, where he wrote his most significant work, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883).
Edersheim’s writings provide readers with a greater understanding of the narratives of Scripture, and a more in-depth picture of their spiritual significance. His aim was to transport the reader to the land of Palestine and to experience, as it were, the events of the time of Christ. Only then, he believed, can the reader truly comprehend many New Testament expressions and allusions (Sketches of Jewish Social Life introduction).
Failing health caused Edersheim eventually to move to Menton, France, where he died on March 16, 1889, at age 64. His legacy lives on not only in his writings, but through his children as well. Alfred Edersheim, Jr. followed his father’s footsteps into the ministry, and Elise Williamina Edersheim Giles wrote The Rites and Worship of the Jews around 1899.
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