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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.