The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ
By Daniel Boyarin
New York: The New Press, 2012
Reviewed by Alan M. Shore
Beginning in the early 19th century, Jewish scholars began to write the history of the Jewish people as modern historians. When they considered the first century CE, they viewed Jesus not as the Christian Redeemer, but as a Jewish man in a Jewish world whose teaching could be weighed alongside his contemporaries and those who came before him. Using the tools of emerging biblical criticism and modern historiography, plus their considerable knowledge of ancient Judaism, they painted a portrait of a Jewish Jesus that was detached from Christian doctrinal confession.
Among the most prominent of the early Jewish historians was Abraham Geiger, one of the early leaders of Reform Judaism. Over the next decades, other Jewish historians and theologians such as Heinrich Graetz, C.J. Montefiore and Joseph Klausner followed in Geiger’s steps. Two common threads bind the work of these scholars. One is the unambiguous assertion that the life of Jesus and the genesis of Christianity must be viewed in the context of first-century Judaism. The other is that the most authentic and worthwhile teachings of Jesus could already be found in Judaism.
Another prominent feature of their teaching, which has persisted to this day, is that Jesus of Nazareth and the Christian Savior are not the same person. That is, the belief that the Christological claims about Jesus made by his followers, mainly through the activity of Paul, gained a foothold only later and as a result of an impure mixture with non-Jewish influences. Jesus himself, therefore, though perhaps an admirable yet tragic figure, was not responsible for the doctrines of Christianity that followed him, for they were not to be found in the Jewish world he inhabited.
Now, Daniel Boyarin has set out in his most recent book, The Jewish Gospels, to make the case that these shibboleths of earlier Jewish scholarship — and some from the Christian world as well — must be discarded.
His case for the Jewish Jesus is far from new, but what is truly original in the realm of Jewish scholarship is his approach to Jesus as an authentic candidate for Messiah based on criteria derived from the already-existing Jewish world. As Boyarin puts it,
While by now almost everyone, Christian and non-Christian, is happy enough to refer to Jesus, the human, as a Jew, I want to go a step beyond that. I wish us to see that Christ too — the divine Messiah — is a Jew. Christology, or the early ideas about Christ, is also a Jewish discourse and not — until much later — an anti-Jewish discourse at all… Thus the basic underlying thoughts from which both the Trinity and the incarnation grew are there in the very world into which Jesus was born and in which he was first written about in the Gospels of Mark and John (pp.5-6).
In other words, the Messianic role that Jesus fit was not, as many would have it, constructed after the fact by Christians who sought to portray him as such. Rather, it was an already-existing Jewish expectation that Jesus sought to fulfill. Working with in-depth analysis of texts such as Daniel 7, First Enoch and Fourth Ezra, Boyarin builds a case for a Messianic-divine “Son of Man” already deeply embedded in Jewish thought and expectation.
Boyarin does not only challenge the assumptions of Jewish scholarship. In his chapter, “Jesus Kept Kosher,” he questions the prevailing Christian interpretation of Mark 7 as the abrogation of the laws of kashrut in a nuanced exploration of the differing categories of “kosher” and “clean and unclean,” which have been conflated by interpreters. The controversy, as Boyarin puts it, is not whether to follow the Torah, but how.
Here Boyarin positions Jesus as the conservative Galilean Torah keeper who is opposed to Pharisaic innovations not in the area of what is kosher, upon which they presumably agree, but under what circumstances kosher food would be considered unfit for consumption.
Perhaps the most hot-button issue Boyarin addresses is the question of the validity of the Suffering Messiah in Jewish thought, particularly in that most controversial of passages, Isaiah 53. In response to commentators who assert that a Messianic connection with that passage is an entirely Christian interpretation, tailor-made to accommodate the suffering and humiliation of Jesus, Boyarin demonstrates that a Suffering Messiah is part and parcel of Jewish tradition, both before and after Jesus. In his treatment of this issue, Boyarin observes,
The fascinating (and to some, no doubt, uncomfortable) fact is that this tradition was well documented by modern Messianic Jews, who are concerned to demonstrate that their belief in Jesus does not make them non-Jewish. Whether or not one accepts their theology, it remains the case that they have a very strong textual base for the view that the Suffering Messiah is based in deeply rooted Jewish texts early and late (pp.132-133).
In many instances in his academic career, Daniel Boyarin has challenged existing assumptions and stirred the pot. In The Jewish Gospels, he has succeeded in doing so again. Although it is too early to say whether his assertions will gain purchase in the Jewish world, his is a voice emanating from the academy that is not easily ignored.