Book Review | They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore

By | Mar 05, 2012

By Pamela Eisenbaum

Daniel Boyarin, professor of Talmudic Culture at the University of California Berkeley, may be the most influential scholar of ancient Judaism today. He also has wide-ranging interests—theology, religion, cultural studies, literary theory—and because Boyarin’s work is interdisciplinary and he writes in an engaging and entertaining style—a talent commonly denigrated as “popularization” among many academics—his work is more accessible to those outside the esoteric world of rabbinic scholarship. But he has not published a book specifically for the general public—until now.

Boyarin has written nine books in English (and a couple in Hebrew), several of which deal with the relationship between Judaism and early Christianity from the second to fifth centuries. The Jewish Gospels, by contrast, mines an earlier stratum of Jewish literature for older evidence that explains the origins of belief in Jesus. Put briefly, his thesis is that the concept of a divine messiah is not some sort of weird mutation in the history of Judaism; it was a commonly held idea among Jews at the time of Jesus and even earlier—a radical claim, to be sure.

The traditional view holds that Jews never had any expectation that the Messiah would be God—never mind that he would suffer, die and be resurrected. Instead, they imagined the future Messiah as a descendant of King David, who would restore the glory and religious influence of the Jewish people on peoples everywhere and reign over a perfected world, where the lion would lie down with the lamb and we would beat our swords into plowshares. The Messiah who was forecast by the prophets and pondered over by the rabbis was unambiguously human. Although he could be understood as an agent of God, he was most certainly not God.

As contemporary scholars agree, the first followers of Jesus were Jews, virtually all the writers of the New Testament were Jews, and conflicting views about acceptable levels of Jewish observance (for example, whether Gentile followers of Jesus had to be circumcised) indicate that they remained within the Jewish fold. Boyarin’s work is part of a larger trend in scholarship that sees the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity as happening much later and taking much longer than was once thought. The separation is now seen to have been a long process that took three or four centuries, not a definitive moment captured by the gospel writers a generation or two after Jesus.

Although everyone also agrees that the gospel narratives represent a brand of Judaism, most scholars think that they document significant deviations from Judaism, such as the idea that Jesus is God. Because Jewish theology is monotheistic and because the Torah forbids the representation of God in any form, it is easy to imagine the claim that Jesus was God would constitute a breaking point for “mainstream” Jews.

The reason early Jewish followers of Jesus developed these theological deviations is a much-debated subject, but essentially it comes down to two issues: (1) the disciples had some sort of semi-mystical experience of the resurrected Jesus and thus changed how they viewed him—Jesus went from being a prophet and teacher to a divine being; and/or (2) various Greek ideas were affecting Judaism at the time of Jesus (such as legends about semi-divine beings like Hercules, who had a divine father and human mother), and, in the case of Jesus, these ideas receptive to the divinity of Jesus broke the bounds of what could properly be defined as Judaism.

Boyarin argues strongly to the contrary: The concept of the divine Messiah was not a deviation or even an innovation, he says. It was a prominent and long-standing Jewish idea that preceded the crucifixion of Jesus. He writes, “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.”

Boyarin’s central argument rests on a mythical figure: the “Son of Man.” Originally a common expression in the psalms, in which the phrase is a way of speaking about oneself that connotes humility and human frailty, it became a title for a savior or redeemer. According to some scholars, the first instance of the usage occurs in the Book of Daniel (7:13), in which a figure is described as “one like the Son of Man.” Jesus frequently refers to himself as “Son of Man” in the gospels.

It also appears in a non-canonical book ascribed to Enoch, a figure mentioned in Genesis who reappears in later writings as having become a visionary on whom God bestowed spectacular revelations.

Enoch has a vision of the Son of Man based on the vision in the Book of Daniel but more elaborately developed. The Son of Man is an agent of redemption who is both human and divine and is explicitly called mashiach(messiah). Building on the similarities between Enoch and the gospels, Boyarin makes a compelling case, that long before Jesus lived, Jews sometimes imagined God as a double Godhead; the rabbis would later declare this view a heresy which they called “two powers in heaven, one divine and the other a divine-human mixture.”

If Boyarin is right, the consequences go beyond making a few adjustments to our understanding of the past. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jack Miles writes in his foreword to The Jewish Gospels, Jews and Christians will have to radically rethink their identities and relationship to each other.

At the core of Christianity is the idea that Jesus was the human incarnation of God. The centuries-long assumption of Christians and Jews has been that this is the distinguishing feature of Christianity, the one thing that makes it not Judaism. That is why the Jewish religious community does not recognize “messianic Jews” (e.g., Jews for Jesus) as Jews, even those who may legitimately claim Jewish parentage. Once you claim belief in Jesus, you are no longer Jewish.

Judaism and Christianity are either/or modes of belief, even if Jews and Christians worship the same God (mostly) and share a lot of scripture in common. Jews and Christians have depended on a particular construct of the other to define themselves. So if we deconstruct the image of the other, we potentially deconstruct ourselves—this is why some people will be upset by Boyarin’s book. But human beings cannot live in deconstructed space for very long; inevitably they reconstruct it, and inevitably some things shift to different places.

An analogy by Boyarin suggests that perhaps Jews and Christians can think of the relationship between their respective religions more like the relationship between Protestantism and Catholicism and less like, well, Judaism and Christianity as traditionally conceived. Who knows if that is possible, or even if it is a good idea, but in this increasingly complex religious world, the opportunity to acknowledge overlap and resonance with another faith once conceived in diametrical opposition would not be a bad thing.

Pamela Eisenbaum teaches at Iliff School of Theology in Denver and is the author of Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle.

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