The problem with
‘The Jewish Gospels’
By Jacob Shamsian
Jesus, of course, was a Jew. This idea isn’t revelatory, but in The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, Daniel Boyarin positioned Jesus and not only a Jew who was called the messiah, but as someone whose messiahship was firmly predictable according to the interpretation of Jewish scripture in the Second Temple period. That is to say, that the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament can be correct on Jewish terms. According to conventional wisdom, a rift formed between mainstream Judaism and Jesus’ followers, but Boyarin sought to neutralize those differences. Jesus was not only a Jew, but he was a messiah that some Jews saw coming.
Boyarin first tries to help the reader understand the mind of religious adherents in the Second Temple period. He says religious allegiance didn’t exist then in the way it does today. Some people believed Jesus was prophesied, some didn’t. All were Jewish. There was no “checklist,” to use Boyarin’s term, of a set of features that made one a Jew. Judaism was actually a shared set of practices, beliefs, values, history, and political loyalties that constituted a people, but not quite what we understand today as a religion. Because of that different definition, Jews of different practices understood each other to still be Jewish, even if they didn’t think others were practicing the “correct” kind of Judaism. Aside from the Jews who worshipped at the Temple and the Rabbis, the most famous of these sects now are probably the Essenes, who housed the Dead Sea Scrolls. Jesus, the central figure in Boyarin’s book, was of a movement that would later be understood as the Rabbinic sect.
Boyarin then dissects the messianic idea itself. The Hebrew word for “messiah,” moshiach, translates to “the anointed one,” referring to the members of the Davidic dynasty who are anointed kings of Israel. But nowhere in canonical scripture is kingship connected to divinity. Regardless, through his interpretation of non-canonical texts — an interpretation he believes Second Temple period Jews shared — Boyarin says that some Jews believed that the messiah and the returning Davidic king would be one and the same. Other Jews believed that the messiah would be the savior and the Davidic king would be another person who would rule the Jewish people in the land of Israel.
The Gospels refer to Jesus more often as “Son of Man” rather than “Son of G-d,” and Boyarin says the “Son of Man” description alludes to a figure described as “like a human being” in chapter 7 in Daniel. The description also matches well enough with a figure described as “Son of Man” in The Book of Enoch dated to around 300 BCE. Indeed, when Enoch asks an angel who the Son of Man is and why he’s with “the Head of Days” (presumably G-d), the angel’s lengthy descriptions, in Enoch 46:3–51:5, is indisputably one of a messiah. In the gospels, particularly in Mark, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, which he equates with the messiah. Mark 14:61–62 illustrates this point well:
⁶¹ But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah,a the Son of the Blessed One?” ⁶² Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’”
Boyarin believes that details in the above passage allude to 4 Ezra, a text be believes is in the same eschatological tradition as Daniel and Enoch. But he makes no effort to demonstrate that Second Temple period Jews understood the text in the same way.
Boyarin then places Jesus, as a man, firmly in Rabbinic tradition of Jewry (really proto-Rabbinic), marginalized by the Pharisees. This in itself isn’t new, but Boyarin also posits that Jesus wasn’t a heretical Rabbi, as some other scholars hold him, but as one who espoused ideas and rulings later endorsed by the Talmud. He was not against Judaism, but for the right kind of Judaism. In holding Jesus as part of the Rabbinic tradition, Boyarin refutes the prevailing reading that Mark 7 is a “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity. In that passage, Jesus was actually disputing the Pharisee invention of washing hands before eating, a purity law, not kashrut. Boyarin also reads that, in discussing Jewish law, Jesus seems to be above it, just as David was.
The prevailing view is that, in Christianity, the messiah came; in Judaism, the messiah is yet to come. According to Christianity, the suffering and death of the messiah is to atone for the sins of others. Boyarin says that the messiah’s suffering and humiliation fits within the framework of Judaism at the time. If we accept that when Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, he is referring to Daniel, then he must suffer, according to the text in Daniel. Boyarin also says that Isiah 53:3, discussing a suffering figure, refers to the messiah.
Overall, Boyarin’s book challenges the view that Christians offer a distorted interpretation of the Old Testament for their own purposes. As a book of the Second Temple Era, The New Testament offers an interpretation of the Old Testament from that period, and that would have been considered legitimate in that period. According to Boyarin, the Jews would have expected the type of messiah that Jesus was.
In his discussion of sects and Jesus being in the Rabbinic one, Boyarin does a poor job of establishing the Rabbis’ place in Judaism at large and how sects functioned in general. We know that in the first century AD, the number of Jews in the Christian movement probably never exceeded 1,000 at any single time, indicating its relative insignificance at the time, even though the Christian population is today massive. By not giving population figures, Boyarin does not help the reader understand how the Pharisees power worked. We know they were in charge of Temple Judaism, but we don’t know why that necessarily means that other types of Judaism, like Rabbinic Judaism, were at the fringes. More context on Jewish sectarianism would have been helpful. For his thesis, Boyarin needs to prove only that some Jews might have seen Jesus’ alleged fulfillment of messianic prophecy as legitimate, but the importance of the argument is lost if we do not understand the importance of the sect that accepts that understanding.
The Rabbis’ conclusions in the Talmud do indeed seem to corroborate with Jesus’ teachings, based on the examples (Sabbath and allegedly purity laws) cited by Boyarin. But Boyarin’s conclusions suffer from little evidence and ample time. The Talmudic discussions came several centuries after Jesus gave those speeches, and we don’t have much evidence of other Rabbis of that period, who may have come by contrary teachings. In any case, Boyarin informs us of no other Rabbinic teachings from the period. The teachings that Jesus came up may just so happen to be the ones the Talmudic Rabbis came up with. It could be a historical accident, it could not, but we cannot know certainly. Boyarin should not take insufficient evidence as license for speculation.
Boyarin also holds up Isiah 53:3 specifically, and Isiah 52–53 more generally, as referring to the messiah as a figure who must suffer, even though other scholars don’t seem to agree that the passages refer to the messiah at all. He then says, “Aside from one very important — but absolutely unique — notice in Origen’s Contra Celsum, there is no evidence at all that any late ancient Jews read Isaiah 52–53 as referring to anyone but the Messiah.” He then goes on to point out that later Rabbis hundreds years later might have connected the Isiah passage to the messiah, if you squint. If we’re taking about Jews in the Second Temple period, it makes little sense to guess that some Rabbis may have interpreted a particular passage in a way that may have been similar to the way Jesus’ followers may have understood that passage, and that the Rabbis and Jesus may have agreed on some points in general. That type of connection seems to exist only if one hopes it does.
It’s true that, in the books of Prophets, the idea of the messiah and the Davidic line remain two separate ideas. Boyarin, then, turns to non-canonical texts, but neglects an important one. In Psalms of Solomon 17, written in the second half of the first century BCE and discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the messiah is understood as Davidic.
In a review of Daniel Boyarin’s book in The New Republic, Peter Schäfer quotes Joseph Cedar’s Footnote to relay his thoughts: “There are many correct and new aspects in your paper — only what is new isn’t correct and what is correct isn’t new.” In the introduction to The Jewish Gospels, Jack Miles describes the book as “the user-friendliest book that Daniel has ever written, and perhaps the user-friendliest that he will ever write.” The book, also, was not published at a University Press, so perhaps Boyarin intended to gather a wide readership rather than a cutting-edge academic one. Nonetheless, Schäfer’s criticism for Boyarin’s “wildly speculative” views are worth considering here.
Part of Boyarin’s claim is that “Son of G-d” refers to messiah as a human king, while “Son of Man” refers to messiah as a divine king. But Schäfer points to several sources, ignored by Boyarin, that refer to the Son of G-d as divine. For example, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes, “the gospel concerning his [God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Schäfer also spends much of his review attacking Boyarin’s reading of Daniel. Boyarin says that, because there were multiple heavenly thrones in Daniel’s vision, the Son of Man sat alongside G-d. But it’s ambiguous. Schäfer’s reading is more convincing — that the “court,” also mentioned in the passage, sat. The text in Daniel says that there were multiple seats, not that there was just one for G-d and one for Son of Man. Furthermore, scholarly consensus is that the vision refers to the Maccabean revolt against Selucid oppressors. The “Son of Man” is irrelevant to that narrative, and Boyarin makes no effort to fit him into it. Nowhere in Boyarin’s book does the word “Selucid” even appear. More likely, the Son of Man is the angel Michael, as other readings have concluded.
The Book of Enoch is an apocryphal text in Jewish and mainstream Christian tradition now, as Boyarin notes, but he makes no argument that it was in the canon then, either, except that it draws from the same tradition as Daniel. Enoch is key to Boyarin’s argument because it asserts that Jews in year zero conflated the human messiah, son of David, with the divine messiah, Son of Man. If Enoch indeed came from the same tradition as Daniel, and yet Daniel was canonized while Enoch wasn’t, it’s logical to discard any conjecture in Enoch rather than keep it. Boyarin’s speculative reading of Daniel isn’t particularly convincing, either, if we accept Schäfer’s criticism. Then, we have only to rest on Psalms of Solomon 17, which Boyarin omits from his book. And even if we do accept that some Jews did read Daniel in Boyarin’s way, and did accept Enoch and Psalms of Solomon 17, then we are dealing with a very specific group of Jews, not Jewry as a whole. Boyarin’s conception of Jesus — someone who was the divine descendent of King David, a single messiah — as fitting well into the narrative of Jewish belief, is unconvincing. When the beginning of The Book of Matthew gives a genealogical account tracing David to Jesus, it is a radical statement, not a normal one within the boundaries of Judaism.