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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Jewish Gospels: More Confessions of a Philo-Semite

-- by Tom Phillips


The Jewish Gospels:  The Story of the Jewish Christ
by Daniel Boyarin
The New Press, 2012


As a Presbyterian and a philo-Semite, I have long found myself pained by two common attitudes:  that of Christians who “don’t like” the Old Testament, and Jews who refuse even to look at the New Testament.  The first I can deal with.  It’s not hard to show people that the qualities they suppose to be lacking in the Hebrew scriptures, e.g. mercy and forgiveness, are in fact ubiquitous, all the way back to the Garden of Eden, while conversely, judgment and retribution are not at all absent from the New Testament.   

To the second attitude, I don’t know what to say.  I have sat in silence through so-called Interfaith services where the New Testament was unmentioned and apparently unmentionable.  I have composed replies, but never sent any, to the professor of creative writing who opined in a Jewish publication that the New Testament was “a barnacle on the ark of the Bible.”  But now, mercifully, comes a book by a renowned Jewish scholar, who reads the NT as a profound collection of mostly Jewish writings, written for an audience of Jews and Gentiles at a time when Jewish thought was hugely influential in the ancient world.   For +Daniel Boyarin, professor of Talmudic Culture at the U. of California, Berkeley, today’s Jews ignore the NT only at the cost of cutting themselves off from a vital portion of their own history.  

Conventional wisdom today sees Judaism and Christianity as “two different religions,” which split nearly 2000 years ago over the radical teachings and claims of Jesus, who broke the mold of traditional Judaism and laid the groundwork of a new, universal faith.   In “The Jewish Gospels,” Boyarin tells a very different story – of a Judaism which at least half-expected this very Son of Man, even his death and resurrection, and wrestled with the meaning of his story for more than three centuries.   During that time, he writes, the religious community of Jews was much wider and looser than it is today, including proselytes and philo-Semites, known as “God-fearers.”  And “believers in Jesus of Nazareth were mixed up in various ways with those who didn’t follow him, rather than separated into two well-defined entities that we know today as Judaism and Christianity.”  

As for Jesus himself, Boyarin presents him as a credible candidate for Messiah, in an age full of messianic expectation.   He answered to a complex job description that was widely though not universally accepted among Jews – a divine “Son of Man” who was created in Heaven and sent to earth, as well as an exalted human being who would suffer on earth but then ascend on high.   Christian theology, he argues, is not some heady combination of Greek and Hebrew thought, but completely rooted in Jewish prophecies.   

In his most exacting chapter, Boyarin dismantles the common notion that Jesus was a liberal preacher-teacher who rejected traditional Jewish laws, such as the dietary rules.  “Jesus kept Kosher,” he insists, and demonstrates it with a close reading of the seventh chapter of Mark, in which the Pharisees criticize Jesus and his followers for not washing their hands before eating.   Jesus responds by blasting the Pharisees as hypocrites who “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”   Boyarin says Jesus is not denying the Law at all, but defending it against new wrinkles and regulations conceived by the Pharisees.   Quoting Isaiah 29:13, he says their offense is “teaching human precepts as doctrines.”  (Mark 7:7)  

“The Jewish Gospels” focuses most on Mark, which Boyarin sees as a midrash, a characteristically Jewish form of biblical interpretation, drawing together passages from all over the Bible to derive new lessons and narratives.   Mark’s gospel can be read as an interpretation of passages from Daniel and Isaiah, which together foresee a suffering Son of Man, who will be crushed by an earthly kingdom, (Daniel 7:25) but then rise to everlasting glory.  There’s more than one way to read these passages – and indeed the book of Daniel seems to be divided against itself over whether “Son of Man” is a person or a collective metaphor.  But Boyarin’s point is that the idea of a suffering savior “is anything but an alien import into Judaism; in fact, it is its very vocation." 


Modern conventions hold that Christians and Jews have different views of the Messiah, and that Christian theology was made up after the fact to rationalize the suffering and death of one who was expected to rule.   Wrong and wrong, says Boyarin.  There is no Christian versus Jewish notion of the Messiah, “but only one complex and contested messianic idea, shared by Mark and Jesus with the full community of the Jews.”   Only later were these thoroughly Jewish texts taken out of their first-century context and used to attack the traditions of the Jews. 

Today, Christians and Jews alike wince when the gospel of John describes the disciples hiding out “for fear of the Jews,” somehow forgetting that the disciples were all Jews themselves, and their fear was of the religious authorities.  Misreading the NT story as a struggle between Jews and Gentiles, we have turned it into a prescription for religious apartheid.   Jews won’t look at the NT because they think it is anti-Jewish, while Christians avoid prolonged exposure to the OT because they think it's "un-Christian." 

Boyarin traces this back to the Fourth Century, when rulers of both church and synagogue declared that followers of Jesus could not also be Jews.   Messianic Jews still exist, of course, but only as a logical impossibility – to say you are a Jewish Christian or a Christian Jew violates the settled doctrine of “two different religions,” which insists you have to choose.   Boyarin aptly compares this to the U.S. Census forms that ask Americans to classify themselves as White, Black, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander – a grab bag of conventional categories that massively overlap.  (President Obama is at least three of the above – just as the Apostle Paul was simultaneously a Jew, a Christian,  and a Roman citizen.)  The census choices – which not that long ago were taken literally by most Americans -- are now widely scorned, and considered optional.   These crude categories are designed by humans, not the one who created us all in His image.   And so, in fact, are the categories of Jewish and Christian, and we are free to reject them -- just as Jesus railed against the Pharisees for trying to enforce human precepts as if they were divine.

Jesus said we should judge a tree by its fruits, which means to judge an idea by its results.  By that measure, segregating Christians and Jews into “two different religions” may be the worst idea in the history of the world.  Then again it may have been inevitable, given the human tendency to settle disputes by separating the parties and demonizing the “other.”  But the world is changing.  Boyarin is just one of many Jewish scholars now working to reclaim the New Testament for the Jews who were so prominent in its creation.  Also new is an Oxford Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by +Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, with notes on all 27 NT books, linking them to other contemporary Jewish writings, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Its erudite commentaries question many of the assumptions Christians hold about their own scriptures.  For example, the Book of Revelation is analyzed as a Jewish apocalypse, a sequel to Ezekiel.   Its attack on the “those who say they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev 3:9) is considered not a rejection of Jews generally, but an attack by a Jewish Christian on non-Jewish Christians.  The most likely target would be Gentile followers of Paul, who were claiming some Jewish identity while practicing a partial or hybrid form of Judaism.     

The Jewish authors of these new works do a huge mitzvah for both Christians and Jews.  For Christians, they put us back in touch with the true context of our scriptures, in first-century Judaism, and with the Jewish teachings to which these scriptures constantly refer.   For Jews, these authors show by word and example that they can read the NT without worrying about the issue of conversion.  Boyarin’s thesis is that Christianity is a form of Judaism with roots as ancient as any other – but it is just one of the many forms that Judaism has taken.

Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips