Nathan the Wise has been called the “Magna Carta” of Jewish emancipation in Germany. Lessing modeled the figure of Nathan on his good friend the German-Jewish Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, grandfather of the great composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. At the time that Nathan the Wise was written, it was a tremendous provocation for Lessing to make the hero of his play a Jew and the villain of his play an intolerant Christian patriarch. It was equally astounding for Lessing to make the Muslim sultan Saladin a wise and tolerant ruler. The familial relationship between the major figures in the play, revealed at the end, is a metaphor for Lessing’s vision of brotherly love and mutual understanding among the major monotheistic religions. In many ways Nathan the Wise is still a provocation, over two centuries after Lessing wrote it. Or can any of us claim that there are no figures like the intolerant, murderous patriarch alive and active today, in all three of the major monotheistic religions?
Lessing wrote Nathan the Wise because the Duke of Brunswick, his employer, had forbidden him to engage publicly in theological controversies. During the months before he wrote Nathan, Lessing—himself the son of a Protestant pastor and a former student of theology—had, in various journals of public opinion, done battle with Christian fundamentalists, particularly the chief pastor of Hamburg. While Lessing’s opponents argued that the Bible was revealed truth, and that it must be understood literally—and that any questioning of the Bible’s revealed truth was tantamount to criminal apostasy—, Lessing argued for a liberal, tolerant Christianity. Religion was not true because of what was written in the Bible, he argued; rather, it was the absolute truth of religion itself that gave written words, even in the Bible, their significance. And the truth of a religion could only be judged based on the practical, real actions of that religion’s adherents in the world. If...
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