Boyarin argues that when Jesus claimed to be a divine being as well as the anointed king, he was saying something other Jews would understand and find normal. From Boyarin's perspective, the difference between Jesus' followers and other Jews was not that he claimed to be the unique Son of God but that most Jews didn't think he was that guy.
not a biblical scholar. I'm a Jew, immersed in the Judaism of the 21st
century CE. So, the challenge for me reading this book was to try to
imagine myself in the 1st century, before most of what I know as Judaism
had taken firm shape.
Unlike some of the other reviewers, I had
no problem with the idea that Jesus kept kosher (the title of chapter
three). It even made sense to me that he might have been aghast at the
new ways of keeping kosher that the P'rushim (later called Pharisees by
people who couldn't read Hebrew) introduced. These forerunners of the
rabbinic movement had the radical idea that all Jews could live in a
state of ritual purity--not just the priests--and that ordinary
activities like cooking and eating could be made holy. On Boyarin's
reading, Jesus was a conservative, saying "Don't add new rules to what
the Torah already prescribes." I can't verify his reasons for saying
that, but it seems plausible to me, perhaps because to my mind it makes
the rabbis look as revolutionary as I think they were.
that there were a lot of different ways of being Jewish at the time, and
that Christianity was just one of them for centuries, also makes sense
with what history I know.
Given that, there may even
have been Jews who think what Boyarin thinks they thought: that the
Messiah, son of David, would also be a divine figure. Boyarin uses
ingenious readings of Jewish texts that are minor (Daniel) or totally
obscure (First Enoch, Fourth Ezra) today, to back up this point.
to his reading of these texts, "Son of Man" (ben adam, in the Hebrew)
actually means a figure shaped like a man who sits on a throne at the
right of God and then descends in the clouds to earth, to rule. "Son of
God" actually means the divinely chosen ruler, who is a son of God the
same way a bar mitzvah is literally a son of the commandment: he's under
God's authority. (That is my comparison, not Boyarin's.) At some point,
the two became identified.
Boyarin argues that these texts set
up the expectation of a divine Messiah, that Jesus said he was that
person, and that the Jews who rejected him understood what he was
saying--it wasn't an innovation to them--but denied his claim to be The
This is completely intriguing, but I am dubious, for several reasons.
1. Boyarin cherry-picks the verses that support his argument.
When he comes across verses that seem to contradict his thesis, he
writes them off as an editor trying to bring an unruly original text
back into line. You can do anything with a text that way!
3. That picture of an orthodox editor implies that the view that the Messiah was NOT a divine figure was always the dominant one.
The Christological idea that Boyarin says is "Jewish" may always have
been as strange to most Jews as "Jews for Jesus" are to most Jews today.
Boyarin gives no evidence that Daniel (which was eventually included in
the Jewish canon, or Tanach, but has no role in the liturgy) was widely
read at the time. (A stray part of me wonders if Boyarin wants "Daniel"
to be important because it's his first name.) Some of the other books
he cites are only extant in the literature of the Ethiopian Jews. It may
be just my ignorance, but I have no way of knowing whether those books
were circulating in first-century Palestine or not--and Boyarin doesn't
tell me. So is he making an argument that people in that time and place
would find recognizable?
Finally, let's say for the sake of
argument that Boyarin is right in every respect. I can understand why
that would be important to a historian. But why in the world would it be
important to the rest of us?
Judaism and Christianity may have
parted ways later and over different issues than we used to think--but
they did part. They have been separate religions for at least 1800 years
now. Since the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, Jews have been persecuted
in the name of Christianity. (I hasten to say that there have also been
individual Christians who were great friends of Jews, even putting
themselves at risk to do so.)
Harking back to a time when
followers of Jesus were a recognized but minor Jewish sect does nothing
to bring us closer together. Understanding where we are and how we
differ today is a more productive path for Jews, Christians, and (I
would add) the other children of Abraham, the Muslims, too.