Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Jewish Gospels, by Daniel Boyarin: a review

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.

I'm 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.

The idea 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.

According 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 One.

This is completely intriguing, but I am dubious, for several reasons.

1. Boyarin cherry-picks the verses that support his argument.

2. 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.

4. 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.


AKMA said...

I haven't read this book yet, but Daniel is a friend and colleague with whom I've had numerous convivial agreements and (as often) disagreements.

From what you say and from what I hear from other readers, I estimate that I'd think Daniel has pushed past the evidence on the main point you single out — the [intrinsic] divinity of the Messiah.

Re cherry-picking, most of what we do in reconstructing greater, more coherent wholes from the partial evidence of texts from that period involves a degree of cherry-picking (or at least "sorting") and skipping contrary evidence. The body of texts hardly points unanimously to anything — so if one wants to reach a conclusion one must put together clues and inferences, and soft-pedal contrary evidence. The warrant for these moves lies in the degree to which the result makes sense of a bigger picture, resolves more conundrums than it raises, and so on.

One reason to rehash this history involves trying to get at the relation between honest difference (on one hand) and ignorant bigotry (on the other). In order better to understand the trajectory that has led to such abhorrent developments, it's useful to go as far back as one can. I've been trying for 25 years to teach students that the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and other residents of Jesus' world are not evil conspiratorial villains, but ordinary people just as agreeable and benign as their (my students') Jewish friends. It's pretty easy to get them to realise that it's silly to project onto contemporary Judaism a caricature based on their reading of the gospels and Paul, but practically impossible to follow through the logic of that insight to the point of actually changing their assumptions and (more importantly) their imaginations. There's no need to tell you what an unreflective Christian thinks of a Pharisee. (Indeed, I have an on-going debate with a "progressive" bishop who gets mileage out of casting his opponents as "Pharisees" — as though that didn't by itself falsify his claim to inclusiveness).

Figuring out some of the roots of our family drama won't instantly make Christians better neighbours, or better readers of the Bible. And Danny's book may not further the cause much, either, if others find it unconvincing as you. But if careful readers such as Daniel (and such as I try to be) can contribute to minimising the extent of perpetuating and propagating anti-Jewish assumptions in Christian biblical interpretation, that's a good day's work to my mind.

Dennis Fischman said...

Akma, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I'm glad that after forty years since high school, we have a chance to talk again, and about things that matter.

On methodology: yes, I can see that if you're trying to figure out the contemporary meaning of texts from the first century CE, you're going to have to do a lot of reconstructive work. Since this is not my field, I don't have to reach a conclusion at all. Boyarin seems to me to be straining at gnats and swallowing camels to reach the conclusion he reaches, but that is his business.

I honor you for trying to counteract the teaching of contempt and dispel the noxious fumes of ignorance. Back in my graduate school days, I took a course in The Bible and Politics. I was the only Jew in the class. My friend Shane, these days an Episcopal priest and one of the founders of the Companions of Mary the Apostle, was in the class. She told a (Christian) friend about all the fascinating discoveries we were making by comparing perspectives.

Shane's friend innocently said, "Oh, I didn't know Jews read the Bible too!"