Yeshua in Context » Answering Objections, Background to Gospels, Book Reviews, Divinity of Yeshua, Identity of Yeshua, Judaism Today & Yeshua, Messiah, Paradox, Spectacular Commentary » REVIEW: The Jewish Gospels by Daniel Boyarin
Daniel Boyarin is Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. In the foreword by Jack Miles, he is called “one of two or three greatest rabbinic scholars in the world.” I’m not qualified to assign numbers to who is or isn’t the world’s greatest Talmud scholar, but it is easy to say that Boyarin knows his Talmud better than any but maybe a few dozen people in the world.
So, it might surprise you to know that Boyarin thinks Judaism and Christianity are compatible. His goal, stated on pages 6-7 is to help Christians and Jews to stop vilifying each other. He doesn’t follow Jesus and isn’t asking fellow Jews to do so. But he demolishes all ideas that Christian devotion to Jesus is contrary to Judaism or that Christianity is anything other than a Judaism to which mostly non-Jews have been drawn. Jews in the time of Jesus were looking, he says, for a divine messiah. And Jesus’ earliest followers were kosher Jews. The sad separation and enmity of Judaism and Christianity is something to get beyond, not something to perpetuate.
Among the themes of the book are some startling claims which deep six the status quo that Judaism and Christianity are separate and incompatible ideas about God and faith:
- Jews in the time of Jesus were expecting a divine-man Messiah figure.
- Many Jews already believed in something very much like what Christians call the Son and Father.
- Some accepted Jesus as divine-man and some did not; both groups were Jews; one of these groups we now call Christianity and the other Judaism.
- Christianity is a Judaism.
- It is not just that Jesus is a Jew, but Christ, the exalted and divine figure, is also a Jew.
- The doctrinal police represented by some rabbis and church fathers are the ones who sought to make Judaism and Christianity incompatible (he gives the specific example of Jerome who rejected people with orthodox faith who wished to remain Jews, saying they had to renounce Jewishness to be true Christians).
- Early Messianic Jews (Christian Jews) called Nazarenes must have been a sizable group even in the fourth century.
- The false boundary between Judaism and Christianity needs to be blurred.
- “Son of God” originally meant the human Davidic ruler; “Son of Man” originally was a divine figure equal with God though submitted to him.
- The roots of the All-Transcendent God [Father] and the Immanent Agent God [Son] go back even to pre-Israelite days as Canaanites sought to understand deity as both.
- The Similitudes of Enoch (part of the book called 1 Enoch) give the lie to the notion that Judaism rejected a divine redeemer who is a God-man.
- The Similitudes, written about the same time as Mark, parallel the ideas of a divine man almost identically to Mark, but neither text was aware of the other.
- Yeshua (Jesus) and his early followers were kosher (he documents how Mark 7 and the “all foods clean” passage have been misunderstood).
- There was a history of faith in a suffering Messiah (Isaiah 53 style) before Jesus and the usual debate about whether Isaiah 53 concerns Israel or Messiah is a moot argument.
- The liberal Christian notion that the church developed the suffering Messiah idea by misinterpreting the Hebrew Bible is false.
- The Gospels are a conservative return to an earlier idea of a Second Divine Figure, who represents the Immanent Aspect of God.
- Jesus, or Mark, knew his way around a halakhic argument.
Boyarin also gives many intriguing solutions to long-held puzzles about Christology, the theology of the divinity of Jesus and his humanity, and how the Gospel texts are using the Hebrew scriptures and dealing with the seeming paradoxes of Yeshua (Jesus):
- The debate about “Son of Man” as “human one” or “divine redeemer” can be resolved if we understand “Son of Man” as a simile: one who is divine but it is like he is human.
- Contrary to much Christian scholarship, Yeshua (Jesus) saw himself as Son of Man from the beginning, not just at the Second Coming.
- Daniel 7 has two ideas in tension: Son of Man is divine redeemer but also Son of Man is Israel.
- The root of Jesus’ saying “the Son of Man” must suffer is Dan 7:25-27 where Son of Man is Israel and must suffer a time, times, and half a time. Jesus midrashically reads this as the Son of Man (himself) suffering for Israel as Ideal Israel.
- Christianity long ago deemed adoptionism a heresy (Jesus became divine at his baptism when filled with Spirit). This idea is called apotheosis (a man becomes divine by indwelling divine spirit). Yet the gospels contain this theme, especially Mark, argues Boyarin (though he becomes God at his ascension, not his baptism). However, see the next bullet point.
- The opposite of adoptionism (apotheosis) is theophany (incarnation, God becomes man) and the divine man is shown to have pre-existed and been divine before birth as a human. This theme is also in the Gospels and is emphasized over the apotheosis theme.
- Boyarin sees both theophany (God became man) and apotheosis (a man became God, Jesus became God as his ascension) in the Gospels. Are these two incompatible streams? See my thought below.
What about Boyarin’s notion that the Gospels have both apotheosis (Jesus becomes God at the ascension) and theophany (Jesus was already God who became man at his birth)? As he shows extensively, the same thing happens in the Similitudes of Enoch, which Enoch chapters 70-71 seemingly contradicting what had been said earlier about Enoch. While earlier it seems Enoch became the Son of Man when, as it says in Genesis, he “walked with God and was not,” in truth, he was already Son of Man before he was born, according to chapters 70-71. Are these ideas really a contradiction? Perhaps they are relative to whether Enoch is viewed from the earthy viewpoint or the divine. This is a way to take Boyarin’s notion that in the Gospels Yeshua (Jesus) both becomes God and already was God. In reality, he already was God, but in appearance his divinity was revealed at his ascension. This way of reading it is compatible with the creeds of Christianity and the strong divinity statements in Paul, Hebrews, and Johannine writings.
The Jewish Gospels is a short, approachable book. Even people who don’t read academic literature can enjoy it and understand most of it. Boyarin gos out of his way to define terms in simple language. The body of the book is only 160 pages.
I can’t honestly think of a sound reason to criticize the book, although it seems my review may be weak for lack of finding fault. I found the entire book engaging and finished it in about three hours. In my opinion, this is a great step forward in Jewish-Christian relations and is a mind-opener worthy of being read by many thoughtful Jewish and Christian thinkers.