A Critical Review of Professor Daniel Boyarin’s: “Borderlines” and “The Jewish Gospels”
By: Yisroel Chaim Blumenthal
The Jewish people stand in a covenantal relationship with God. Not only as individuals, but also and primarily as a national entity. The nation that consists of individual Jews from all geographical locations and from all generations stands together as one party of a covenant in which the other partner is the Creator of heaven and earth. Members of this covenant nation recognize that this relationship with God requires a certain commitment. Our commitment to the covenant requires that we obey those precepts that our nation accepted as our part of the deal between God and ourselves. Our commitment to the covenant also requires that we cultivate appreciation of the covenant in our own hearts and in the hearts of our fellow members of this covenant. It is in this spirit that this review is written.
The concept of a covenant implies that there are or that there will be factors that threaten the relationship between the two parties. A covenant is the solemn promise that both parties in a relationship pledge towards each other that they will maintain their loyalty to the relationship despite the various factors that might otherwise work to weaken or to break the relationship. God promises the Jewish people that no matter how much they sin and stray from His truth, He will maintain His side of the covenantal relationship (Jeremiah 31:36). The people of Israel face many forces that attempt to break their standing as a covenant nation before God. The human proclivity to self-centered pleasure seeking and desire for power threatens to create a barrier between themselves and their Divine partner. Those who wish to maintain their covenantal relationship with God encourage themselves and their fellow Jews to keep sight of this holy relationship and overcome the temptation to get lost in the sea of self-centered materialism.
The most direct assault on Israel’s relationship with God is the sin of idolatry. The Jewish Bible compares idolatry to spiritual adultery. The prophets saw Israel’s relationship with God as a marriage. There is an ideal marriage in which both partners think of nothing but of their love to each other and of their responsibilities towards each other. A marriage in which one of the partners moves into the realm of self-centeredness and forgets their responsibility towards his or her partner is certainly less than ideal, but the marriage has not been violated. It is when one of the partners enters into a marriage-like relationship with someone other than their spouse that the marriage has been directly violated. When a Jew forgets his or her covenantal responsibilities, the relationship between themselves and God has moved away from the ideal, but it has not been directly violated. It is when the Jew enters into a relationship with an entity other than God that the covenant with God has been broken.
In light of their standing as a covenant nation before God, the Jewish people as a community have resisted the Church’s missionary campaign that would have them direct their hearts towards Jesus. The Jewish community views devotion to Jesus as idolatrous; the most direct violation of their covenant relationship with God, and Israel views its own resistance to the Church message as an expression of loyalty to the covenant it shares with God. In the eyes of the Jewish community, being a Jew means at the bare minimum, not entering into a devotional relationship with Jesus (or with any other idol).
Several decades ago, some Churchmen developed a strategy to overcome this basic Jewish resistance to the missionary message. These Christians recast Christianity as an expression of Judaism. They substituted Temple for Church, Saturday for Sunday and Moshiach for Christ. They hoped that Jews will then see a commitment to Jesus, not as a rebellion against the God of their fathers but rather as an expression of faith in the God of their fathers.
The strategy succeeded, perhaps not to the measure that its originators hoped for, but it managed to confuse many Jews. What started as a deliberate tactic to persuade Jews came to be believed by the second and third generation of Messianic Jews (as these Christian Jews came to be called) as “gospel truth”. These Messianics look at the Jewish roots of Christianity and see themselves as a revival of the original Jewish followers of Jesus.
The Jewish community has resisted this repackaging of Christianity in a Jewish wrapping. The larger Jewish community points out that the theological underpinnings of “Messianic Judaism” are Christian and not Jewish, and that devotion to Jesus is still idolatry, even if his name has been changed to “Yeshua”.
Messianic apologists defend their Christian beliefs with an assault on Judaism. These apologists contend that Judaism as it is known today does not represent ancient Judaism. According to these Christians, Second Temple Judaism believed in (- or at least allowed for belief in) Christian theology, and it is only the “rabbis” who moved Judaism away from these “ancient doctrines” and replaced them with the doctrines of modern Judaism.
In order to support this preposterous theory, the Messianics have combed through the vast body of rabbinic literature and have discovered some texts that can be misconstrued to read as if they were supportive of one Christian doctrine or another. Wrenching these texts out of their general context (and often enough, mistranslating them and wrenching them out of their local context as well), these “Christian sounding texts” are presented as the “authentic” strand of thought that is buried under a pile of rabbinic “forgeries” and that has now been “rediscovered” by these “disinterested” apologists.
The world of academia has also provided the Messianic apologist with ammunition for their campaign against Judaism. Any hypothesis that is proposed by the academic community that may support the Messianic argument is touted as “brilliant scholarship”, while the fact that the preponderance of modern scholarship actually weighs in on the opposite side of the argument is brushed aside and ignored. Academic studies that postulate that the Christian community shifted its theology from monotheistic Judaism to Trinitarian Christianity are dismissed by these apologists as the work of “liberal Bible critics”, while those theories that contend that it was Judaism that changed its theology are promoted as “gospel truth”.
The works of Professor Daniel Boyarin, have played right into the hands of the Messianic apologists. This professor does not limit his theory to the sensational argument that Christianity represents the more “conservative” Jewish approach to the doctrine of God than does Judaism (Borderlines – henceforth “Bl”, pg. 92). Boyarin puts forth the argument that the rabbis deliberately erected artificial theological “borders” around Judaism in a deliberate attempt to redefine Judaism over and against Christianity. And Boyarin quotes the same Scriptural proof-texts that have been used by the missionaries in their campaign to turn the soul of the Jew to Jesus.
To be sure, Boyarin is not a Messianic Jew. His approach to Scripture and to the faith of Scripture stands outside of the parameters of the debate between traditional Judaism and Christianity. While disagreeing over the interpretation of Scripture, both Jews and Christians acknowledge that the Jewish Bible is divinely inspired and that it presents a harmonious theology. In sharp contrast, Boyarin sees Canaanite roots in Scripture’s ideas about God and he sees theological conflict in the editing of Scripture (The Jewish Gospels – henceforth “TJG”, pg. 45).
Furthermore, Boyarin’s political leanings would make most traditional Jews as well as many Messianic Jews quite uncomfortable. Boyarin identifies Ariel Sharon’s military reaction to the spate of suicide bombings in 2001 as “ethnic cleansing” and he refers to the State of Israel as an “apartheid state” (Bl, xiii, xiv). Boyarin does not purport to belong to one camp or the other in the debate between the Church and the Synagogue. However, some of the arguments that he presents go straight to the heart of this age-old debate.
In this brief critique I aim to analyze some of the flaws that are apparent in the two books that bear directly on the argument between the missionary and the Jew; “Borderlines” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) and “The Jewish Gospels” (The New Press, 2012). I will be presenting a portrait of Jewish self-identity in pre-Christian times that differs from the depiction that Boyarin has advanced. I will expose an astounding misreading of the Talmud in Boyarin’s presentation that unjustly maligns the image of the religious leadership of the Jewish people. And I will dispute Boyarin’s interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures that he quotes to substantiate his arguments.
Who was a Jew?
The central pillar of Boyarin’s argument is that the self-identity of the Jewish people as we know it today has shifted from what it was in pre-Christian times. According to Boyarin, Jews did not identify themselves as a distinct group so much on the basis of sharing a set of “beliefs”; it was more a sense of community. Second Temple Jewish self-identity is described by Boyarin as: “the complex of rituals and other practices, beliefs and values, history and political loyalties that constituted allegiance to the People of Israel” (TJG, pg. 22). Boyarin acknowledges that there was perhaps one feature that united all members of the Judeo-Christian “family” and that is “appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures as revelation” (Bl, pg. 22; TJG, pg. 21), but otherwise, all sorts of beliefs were tolerated under the general umbrella of Jewish self-identity.
Boyarin tells us that the theological boundaries on Jewish self-identity that exclude belief in the trinity and the incarnation were imposed by the “rabbis” of the late second early third centuries. The foisting of these artificial borderlines was the rabbinic reaction to the “challenge, or identity question, raised by Justin Martyr and company” (Bl, pg. 55). In the end (fifth century), however, the “rabbis” went back to the original model of seeing Judaism as a common community rather than as a shared set of beliefs and they declared “an Israelite, even if he sins remains an Israelite” (Bl, pg. 10).
In short, Boyarin’s model for the history of Jewish self-identity runs as follows. In pre-Christian times Jewish self-identity was not associated with adherence to a specific creed or set of beliefs (except perhaps in a very loose sense). At some point in the development of Christianity, when the Church began defining its own self-identity according to creeds and acceptance of specific dogmas, the religious leadership of Judaism underwent a similar process of attempting to define itself according to acceptance of creed. Ultimately the religious leadership of the Jewish people reverted to the original model of self-identity, but the ramification of the “heresy hunting” days is still felt in the exclusion of certain religious beliefs from the community of Israel.
I find Boyarin’s historical model untenable for several reasons. 1) I believe that the pre-Christian Jewish self-identity, while not built on a narrow creed, still expected belief in certain concepts that already excluded Christian theology. 2) When we focus on the motivational roots of the Christian rendition of these Jewish teachings we will discover that these interpretations cannot be considered responsible scholarship, let alone “Jewish”. 3) I feel that Boyarin exaggerates the challenge that Christianity posed to the religious leaders of Judaism. 4) I believe that Boyarin’s comparison of the identity challenge that the Church leaders faced in relation to Judaism to the challenge faced by the “rabbis” in relation to Christianity is invalid both from the sense of timing (they were not simultaneous evenets) and from the sense of significance (it was a far more important issue to the Church than it was to the Synagogue).
Relationship versus Theology
In his description of the sense of Jewish self-identity that preceded Christianity, Boyarin has forgotten a key element in that sense of self-identity. The Jewish people did not just see themselves merely as a community; they saw themselves as a community that stands in a special relationship with God. Obviously, some Jews took this relationship more seriously than did others, but being a Jew meant being tied up with God. This central feature of Jewish self-identity was shared by every man woman and child who saw themselves as part of the larger Jewish community.
A prerequisite for sharing a relationship with somebody is an ability to identify that somebody. If it is a group of people that share a relationship with somebody, as in the situation of Israel sharing a collective relationship with God, then the nation will need to be able to identify God on a national level. This would require a uniform definition of God that is shared by the nation. This definition would have to be clear and simple. If the Jewish people are going to relate to God as a nation, each Jew needs to be confident that whichever group of Jews he or she stands with, they worship the same God. It is not enough that they call God by the same name because you don’t have a relationship with a name and you don’t worship a name. We need to find the common Jewish understanding of the One that they were having a relationship with.
This understanding of God shared by the Jewish people will not be a theological formula or creed, because you don’t have a relationship with a mathematical equation. It needs to be something concrete that everyone could relate to on the level of the heart.
So what was it? How did the Jewish people perceive God in the pre-Christian world? How did the Jewish people understand the One that they were tied to in covenantal relationship?
If we search the Jewish Bible for an answer to this question, we will not find a creed or a mathematical formula. The Bible opens with the words: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth”. The God of Israel is above and beyond heaven and earth and all that exists in heaven and earth are His creations. The Jewish concept of God shapes the Jew’s view, not only of God Himself, but also of all existence. God is the One Creator and every detail of existence is viewed as His subject. The One that the Jewish people related to was the One that is outside of the confines of heaven and earth and the Jew saw heaven and earth and of all their inhabitants as subjects of this One God. The Jew stood apart from all of the pagan nations that surrounded Israel because they all found themselves in a relationship with some feature of finite existence; be it the sun, the moon, or any other force of nature. The Jew saw all of these as fellow subjects of the One who created them all.
This is the concept of God that is shared by all Jews from the time of the exodus onward. It is this Being who is identified by the fact that He is outside of existence as we know it that Israel shares her covenantal relationship with.
Yes, there were many teachings floating around, and there still are many teachings floating around that address questions such as; how does an infinite God appear to the prophets? How does an infinite God interact with a finite world? But whatever answers are given to these questions, they do not affect the basic relationship with God. God always remains outside of the existence that we see and comprehend.
Pointing to any inhabitant of heaven and earth, be it a human, an angel, a star or an animal and encouraging a devotional relationship with that entity is the most serious violation of Israel’s relationship with the God who is above and beyond heaven and earth.
This then was the constant. When a Jew joined his or her fellow Jews in worship, they may not have been confident that their fellow Jews subscribed to the same teachings that explain how God appeared to the prophets. But of this they were sure; that their fellow Jews were NOT worshiping an inhabitant of heaven or earth but that their hearts were directed to the One who stands outside of the confines of heaven and earth.
When the Church encouraged devotion to Jesus as a deity (regardless of when this devotion surfaced in Church history), the Church was encouraging a different relationship than the relationship of Israel with her God. The Church was pointing to an inhabitant of this earth and demanding that human hearts direct their devotion towards that entity. The Churchmen may have used the Jewish teachings that explain God’s interaction with this world to justify the relationship that they were encouraging, but they were encouraging a different relationship. The fact that the Logos theology of the Church is similar to some of the Jewish teachings on God does not make Christianity Jewish. The teachings may be similar, but the relationships that they are encouraging are diametrically opposed to each other. In Judaism these teachings are used to explain a relationship with an entity that stands outside of the confines of nature, while in Christianity these same teachings are being used to justify a relationship with an entity that is inside the confines of nature.
Whenever it was that the Church introduced the idea that the hearts of human-kind ought to relate to Jesus as their supreme master they had crossed the line and moved out of the range of Jewish self-identity – according to every understanding of Jewish self-identity that ever existed.
How did this happen? How did the Jewish followers of Jesus come to adopt a belief that is the antithesis of the self-identity of the Jew?
There are several possible answers to this question; it is possible that the Jewish followers of Jesus were not the ones who introduced this non-Jewish belief into the Christian community but that this belief was a later, Gentile, development. It is possible that the Jewish followers of Jesus were so taken in by their devotion to Jesus that they elevated him to the status of divine without consciously realizing that they had violated the core of their standing as Jews before God.
Many theories can be proposed to explain the phenomena of Christianity’s move towards the deification of Jesus. But the one theory that is impossible is that the original Jewish belief system allowed for the deification of a human. Such a theory violates every understanding of Jewish self-identity that the historical record has bequeathed to us. Such a theory takes the covenant that stands at the heart of the Jewish Bible and renders it meaningless.
What Makes a Teaching “Jewish”?
There is no comparison between the relationship that the Church encouraged between the Christian and Jesus on the one hand to the relationship that the Jewish people shared with God on the other hand. One is encouraging the human heart to reach beyond the confines of heaven and earth while the other directs the human heart towards an inhabitant of heaven and earth. What we can discuss are the teachings that are used to justify and explain these opposing relationships. Can the Christian teaching on the Logos be compared to the Jewish teaching of Torah as the blueprint of creation? Can the Christian teaching on the exaltation of Jesus be compared to the Jewish teaching on the exaltation of the Messiah?
There is no question that there are certain parallels between the Jewish and Christian teachings on these matters and it is only natural that the Church would have appealed to these Jewish teachings in order to justify the new relationship that they were encouraging. The question that we can ask is, was the Church understanding these teachings correctly or were they misusing them? This question begs another question; is there such a thing as a “correct” understanding versus a “misuse” of these teachings or is there an absolute truth? And if there is an absolute truth, who gets to determine what it is?
There are several possible templates that a given community can follow in relation to faith and belief. You can have a community which sets a narrow creed as the absolute truth and any deviation is not tolerated and any who do not toe the line of the narrow creed find themselves outside of the confines of the community. Boyarin’s contends that this template was not the template of pre-Christian Judaism.
I don’t think that Boyarin is proposing that Judaism stood at the opposite extreme as an absolute democracy, where every imaginable belief is happily included and accepted in the hearts of the community. Such a template would render any belief system utterly meaningless. A community that adheres to such a template cannot consider itself a community of faith in any way shape or form.
Another possible template would be one in which a given belief is accepted if it can be demonstrated that it adheres to a previously accepted standard. In the case of the pre-Christian Jewish community, one can argue that the standard was the Hebrew Bible, and that any belief that can arguably be based on the Bible can rightfully call itself Jewish. The problems with this template are manifold. Is any interpretation tolerated? Are there no limits whatsoever to the range of beliefs? The historical record has proven that the human mind is capable of building the most diametrically opposed theories on the basis of a text, especially a text that is as complicated as the Hebrew Bible. Are all beliefs that claim to be rooted in the Hebrew Bible to be tolerated – all the way from Mormonism to Christian Science to Reconstructionist Judaism to Catholicism etc. – all of which look up to the Hebrew Bible in one way or another?
The very premise actually contradicts itself because there had to be a standard in place that precedes the Hebrew Bible or else there would be no reason to accept the Hebrew Bible as a standard. The Jewish community existed before the books of the Bible were written. There had to be a standard which stands outside of the Bible that allowed the community to determine if a given book should or should not be accepted into the corpus of the Jewish Bible.
According to the Bible itself, the standard by which a claim to prophecy ought to be measured is the Jewish understanding of God (Deuteronomy 13:2-6). The relationship that was established between God and the Jewish people at the time of the exodus is the constant, and claim for further revelation is to be measured against this standard. The Bible itself refers to the collective memory of the nation’s encounter with God as the gauge by which to separate truth from falsehood (Deuteronomy 13:6). Christianity, which encourages a relationship that was not introduced to Israel at Sinai, has by definition written itself out of the community of Israel.
We can approach this matter from another angle. Even if we were to accept a very liberal template for the Jewish faith, a template that would allow for a very broad spectrum of beliefs, there would still be something that we would not tolerate and that would be intellectual dishonesty. This idea stands at the root of Boyarin’s argument against post-Christian Judaism. Boyarin’s thesis is that the “rabbis” expunged certain beliefs from the hearts and minds of the Jewish community, not on the basis of disinterested scholarship, but for the unhealthy need to define Judaism over and against Christianity, or for their petty desire to establish their own authority. If these indeed were the motives behind the rabbinic rejection of Christian dogma, then it would follow that such a rejection is illegitimate. But is this what the “rabbis” did? Let us examine the evidence that Boyarin presents to substantiate this accusation against the religious leaders of Judaism.
The first of the two teachings that Boyarin discusses is the teaching that God uses various agents such as “wisdom”, His “word” or “voice”, the “Angel of His Face” and other such heavenly beings to accomplish His purposes and to interact with the prophets. The second teaching to which Boyarin draws our attention is the teaching that God exalts the Messiah or the Davidic king to a status which would seem inappropriate for a mere human. Both of these teachings can be found in the Talmud and in the writings of the later rabbis (a list of Talmudic references to these and similar concepts would include: Berachot 6a, 7a; Shabbat 55b; Megilla 29a; Yevamot 16b; Nedarim 39b; Bava Batra 58a, 75b, Sanhedrin 38b, 94a, 95b; Chulin 60a).
Boyarin does not attempt to deny that certain “watered-down” parallels to the pre-Christian teachings “survived” the “heresy hunting” days of those “rabbis” to whom he attributes the establishment of the artificial borders between Judaism and Christianity. Instead Boyarin attempts to demonstrate; a) that the “rabbis” expunged certain specific versions of these teachings that were clearly extant in pre-Christian times, (an example for this would be the alleged “suppression” of the term “Memra” to refer to God’s “word” accomplishing the Divine purpose on earth) and b) that in pre-Christian times, certain practical ramifications of the teachings were manifest but subsequently disappeared (such as binitarian worship). If this were true, this would demonstrate that the “rabbis” tampered with the Judaism that they had inherited. But these arguments are unfounded.
In order to create an illusion of rabbinic “suppression” of the “Memra” concept, Boyarin quotes Macho’s observation that “It is no mere coincidence that in the more rabbinized of the Targums (Onkelos and Pseudo-Jonathan) and rabbinic literature itself noticeably suppress the term Memra. Indeed in rabbinic literature it disappears entirely.” (Bl pg. 131).
The fact is that the term “Memra” appears hundreds of times in each of the two “rabbinized” Targums – hardly a “suppression”. Furthermore, the Talmud encourages the Targumic readings in the synagogue, where the rabbis certainly knew that the populace will encounter the “Memra” concept. The Talmud actually takes this a step further. Not only were the public readings encouraged, but every individual is also encouraged to recite the Targum of the Torah together with the community readings (B. Berachot 8a), a practice that is still widely observed today. If the rabbis were “fearful” of the term “Memra”, they didn’t show it.
Boyarin finds evidence in ancient Judaism, not only to “binitarian” theology, but even to “binitarian” worship. He quotes the prayer that addresses the “Master of all” and the “Creator of Bere’shit” which he interprets as an appeal to two distinct persons. Even according to his misunderstanding of the terms, Boyarin should have realized that there is something amiss with his hypothesis. The fact that these prayers are still extant in rabbinic circles, after binatrian beliefs were expunged from those same circles according to Boyarin’s own historical model, should have warned Boyarin that he has perhaps misunderstood the terminology.
Let us examine the term “Creator of Bere’shit” that Boyarin sees as an appeal to the second person in a binitarian “god-head”. The Hebrew words, “Yotzer bere’shit”, are translated by Boyarin as “Creator of Bere’shit” – which represents the entity that created the world. According to Boyarin, this would be a heavenly agent that God used to create the world and not God Himself. This interpretation is demonstrably erroneous. The rabbinic rendition of the concept that God used a heavenly agent in the creation of the world focuses on the first verse in Genesis. The word “Bere’shit” – “in the beginning” is rendered as “with wisdom” (Jerusalem/Palestinian Targum). The point of this reading is that God used the agency of “wisdom” in the creation of the world. The basis for this interpretation is that the word “reshit” is a common reference to the theme of wisdom and the prefix “be” is understood as “with” instead of as “when”. Once this is clear, we can then see how the words “Yotzer bere’shit” would address, not to the “reshit” – the “wisdom”, but rather these words address the One who exercised the wisdom in creation of the world. Instead of addressing the heavenly agent, this prayer explicitly addresses the One God who is the Master of this agent.
But let us put rabbinic “suppression” of certain teachings aside for a moment. As much as Boyarin would like to portray the rabbis as down-playing and minimizing these teachings, Boyarin cannot deny that these teachings were exaggerated and magnified by the followers of Jesus in a radical way. Boyarin attempts to ascribe this to a parallel phenomenon in which the followers of Jesus were trying to define themselves over and against Judaism (TJG pg.14-19).
But Boyarin has ignored one of the most powerful forces that could possibly affect the world-view of a given community; namely, adoration of a beloved leader. It has happened more than once in Jewish history that a group of followers coalesced around a charismatic figure who demanded all of their devotion. These followers searched for ways to exalt their leader, thus justifying their extreme devotion, through the use the texts and traditions of their own culture; Judaism. The process follows a similar trajectory in each of the historical examples. First the leader is a wise teacher, then he becomes the wisest teacher, then he becomes the Messiah and in some instances, the teachings of God’s heavenly agents and the exaltation of the righteous or of Messiah are drawn upon to deify the object of devotion. Anyone standing outside of this process cannot help but see that it is the devotion to the leader that produces the interpretation of the teaching and it is not disinterested scholarship that brought these people to their conclusions. In the case of Christianity (as well as in some of the other cases) the motivational process is more than obvious.
It is not easy to determine if someone arrived at their conclusion on the basis of intellectual searching or if the conclusions were generated by some external factor and it is not always ethical to attempt to make these judgments. But when the group in question readily switches their beliefs from end to end simply in order to maintain their conclusion in the face of changing facts, it is naive and even irresponsible to take them seriously. Allow the followers of Jesus to illustrate.
According to the Christian Scriptures the followers of Jesus identified Jesus as the Messiah. This means, in the best case scenario, that the followers of Jesus had carefully and thoroughly built in their minds a comprehensive portrait of the Messiah as predicted by the Jewish prophets. These men felt that their portrait of the Messiah was so solidly grounded in Scripture that they were willing to take upon themselves the weighty responsibility of positively identifying the Messiah with all of its cosmic ramifications. But after all of their Scriptural research they still did not expect Jesus to die (Luke 24:21) and they actually saw his death as a contradiction and a refutation to his Messianic claims. The portrait that they had developed did not include suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection. They had read Isaiah 53, Daniel 7, Psalm 22 and all of the missionary proof-texts without it occurring to them that the Messiah is supposed to suffer and die.
But after Jesus died and after they believed that he was resurrected, their portrait of the Messiah underwent a radical change – now the Messiah MUST suffer, he MUST die and if you deny these Biblical “truths” than you MUST be spiritually blinded.
If the Biblical interpretation could turn around on a dime just so that it can keep up with the devotion, there is no reason to grant it any credibility. It is not a matter of being judgmental; it is a matter of being responsible and faithful to the truths with which we were entrusted.
How Did the Rabbis View Christianity?
In order to establish a basis for his hypothesis that assumes that the rabbis erected artificial boundaries in an effort to write the Jewish-Christian community out of the faith, Boyarin contends that the rabbis viewed Christianity as a factor of paramount importance on their theological horizon. Boyarin quotes a Talmudic passage that refers to the Sadducees and he offers the following commentary: “My hypothesis is that, while not immediately directed at Christians, these boundary-making activities were, at least in part, incited by the need to inscribe border lines around Judaism, to define what is and what is not orthodox, in order to exclude Christianity from those borders” (Bl, pg. 63). In other words a discussion in the rabbinic writings about the Sadducees is influenced by a need to “redefine” Judaism as distinct from Christianity. In Boyarin’s historical model, the rabbis were more concerned about the Christians then they were about the Sadducees. This theory is refuted by the facts.
The conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees predates Christianity as is obvious from many historical records, including the writings revered by Christianity. The friction between these two camps is often described as a struggle between two communities, both of which possessed a significant number of adherents. The disputes between the Sadducees and the Pharisees seem to have been frequent and intense. The portrait that the rabbinic writings give us of the friction between Christians and Jews is almost never portrayed as a struggle between communities, the Christian is almost always represented by individuals. In contrast to the Sadducee-Pharisee conflict which is always portrayed as an intra-Jewish conflict, the Jewish-Christian conflict is often portrayed as a debate between Jews and those who don’t identify themselves as Jews at all. An example for this can be found when the Talmud has the Christian presenting an argument in favor of replacement theology, (that posits that the Jewish people have been replaced by the Church as God’s chosen nation), which was never a part of Jewish self-identity even amongst Christianized Jews. (Examples from the Babylonian Talmud of debates with Christians that stand outside of the pale of Jewish self-identity would include: Berachot 10a; Shabbat 88a; Pesachim 87b; Yoma 56b; Chagiga 5b; Yevamot 102b; Sanhedrin 37a, 39a. While it cannot be determined with certainty that the heretics mentioned in these texts were all Christians but it is certainly the most plausible explanation.)
In the rabbinic writings we find discussions concerning the concept of “sh’tei reshu’yot”. Boyarin translates this term as “two powers” and interprets these rabbinic texts as a polemic against a binitarian theology that sees duality within God. According to this interpretation, it would seem that the rabbis were quite busy contending with Christian theology and doctrine. But the term “sh’tei reshu’yot” is more correctly translated as “two authorities”, which indicates conflict, not within God, but against God. The theology that the rabbis were contending with was not Christian but rather Zoroastrian, a belief that clearly has its roots outside of Judaism. As such, the rabbis were not combating an “authentic Jewish belief” as Boyarin would have it, but rather they were combating a pagan concept that had taken a hold amongst some Jews.
The fact that some of the debates about “two powers/authorities” have the proponents of the ideology advocating a plurality without explicitly positing two conflicting authorities does not mean that they were not advocating two conflicting authorities. They were simply challenging the rabbis on one point of their theology without attempting to prove every last detail of their belief. Moreover, even if we were to accept that some of those whom the rabbis opposed advocated a binitarian belief that is similar to Christainity this would not make the opinion Jewish. Since it is clear that the “two authority” concept had taken hold amongst Jews, with no one arguing for a Jewish origin of this pagan notion, there is no reason to conclude that the binitarian belief had a more credible “Jewish” pedigree.
Boyarin points to the conversation recorded in the Talmud between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yose concerning the plurality of thrones mentioned in Daniel 7:9 (Bl, pg. 140; TJG, pg. 40). Rabbi Akiva explains that one throne is for God while the second is for David, which can be understood as a reference to the Davidic Messiah. Rabbi Yose rebukes Rabbi Akiva and offers a different interpretation. Boyarin sees in this conversation evidence to Rabbi Akiva’s alleged subscription to a binitarian world-view and that this world-view is rejected in the Talmud’s retelling of the story by giving Rabbi Yose the upper hand in the dispute over this verse.
There are two problems with Boyarin’s interpretation of this Talmudic passage. First, it is in place to note that the Talmud does not reject Rabbi Akiva’s view. The strong language used in the conversation and the structure of having a scholar retract his own opinion is found elsewhere in the Talmud and rabbinic writings concerning matters that have no theological ramifications and where the opinion that is rejected in strong terms in one passage is accepted in another. In this very same passage, the redactor of the Talmud first presents the opinion of Rabbi Akiva anonymously as the correct explanation of the verse. This is not the Talmud’s style of discrediting a heretical opinion.
Furthermore, the problem that Rabbi Yose had with Rabbi Akiva’s explanation was not that David was being exalted to a status that is considered too high for a mere human, which if true, would perhaps lead us in the direction of binitarism, but rather Rabbi Yose’s argument was that Rabbi Akiva’s proposed explanation brought the manifestation of God too low. In other words, the limits on how high a human being can be exalted were agreed upon by both parties in the debate, the question was if the Divine presence could be manifest in the same context as a mortal human. This would be a debate about the limits of anthropomorphism rather than about binitarianism.
The rabbinic perspective on Christianity is expressed in the Babylonian Talmud Sabbath 116, in the only piece of rabbinic literature (from the times of the Talmud or before) that actually quotes the Christian Scriptures. Interestingly, the attitude reflected in the Talmudic discussion is comparable to the general Jewish stance towards Christianity in the years since the sealing of the Talmud and that has been maintained until our own times.
On the one hand, the Talmud sees Christianity as attempting to drive a wedge between Israel and her heavenly Father. The Talmud describes the Christian influence on the Jewish people as “placing jealousy, hatred and friction between Israel and their Father in heaven.” The rabbis clearly saw the struggle between the Jewish people and the Christian Church, not so much as a struggle about particular theological formulations, but as a struggle about relationship. They saw the Church’s proselytizing efforts as an attack on Israel’s relationship with God.
On the other hand, the rabbis present a story that highlights some of the elemental weaknesses in Christianity that are blatantly obvious from the Jewish stand-point. The Talmud relates that a certain judge (described as a “philosopher”) had a reputation for honesty; it was said of him that he would not take bribes. Rabbi Gamliel and his sister; Imma Shalom plotted to expose his hypocrisy. The two of them presented their dispute to this judge, with Rabbi Gamliel arguing that as a son he is entitled to the full inheritance of their father (according to Numbers 27:8), while Imma Shalom demanded her share in the inheritance. At first Imma Shalom bribed the judge, so his initial ruling went in her favor. The Talmud quotes the judge as saying: “from the day you have been exiled from your land, the Torah of Moses has been removed and a different book has been given in which it states that a son and a daughter inherit together.” Later, Rabbi Gamliel offered a counter-bribe so the judge rescinded his decision, and the Talmud quotes the judge’s ruling: “I have looked further in the book and it is written in it – “I have not come to take away from the Torah of Moses and not to add to it”. In other words, the judge is quoting Jesus’ saying that he did not come to abolish the Law as a justification to render a judgment in accordance with the Law of Moses.
It is clear that the latter quotation of the judge is a quotation from the book of Matthew, the only such quotation in the Talmud. This tells us, that if this judge was not a Christian himself he was certainly sympathetic to their views. The key elements of the judge’s character in this story represent the classical Jewish perspective on Christianity. The Talmud is highlighting the fact that the doctrines of Christianity are self-contradictory. Two conflicting rulings can both be based on the same belief system. Furthermore, the Talmud is pin-pointing the root of the contradiction. It starts with Christianity’s struggle to hang on to the Jewish Bible while at the same time attempting to supersede it.
This then has been the Jewish argument against Christianity from day one. How can you claim to be the culmination of a prophecy that doesn’t allow for your theology? How can you present a new teaching and, at the same time, claim the respect and the credibility of the old?
The redactors of the Talmud were not preoccupied with Christianity. By the time they were doing their work on the Talmud, the Church had long since shifted to replacement theology; not only a replacement of Israel with the Church, but a replacement of the Law of Moses with something different. Once these concepts (- replacement of Israel and replacement of the Torah) became associated with Christianity, there would be no need for the rabbis to erect further borderlines between themselves and the Church. By adopting the doctrine of replacement theology, the Church had completely moved itself outside of the range of Jewish self-identity according to anyone’s definition – if they hadn’t done so already.
Who were the Rabbis?
A central pillar of Boyarin’s thesis is the postulate that the religious leaders of Judaism cared only about the extent of their authority and that they were not motivated by a desire to preserve the teachings with which they were entrusted. Interestingly, the same malicious view of the religious leadership of the Jewish people advanced by Boyarin, serves as the undercurrent of the Gospel narrative. Boyarin joins the authors of the Gospels in portraying the rabbis as a bunch of small-minded petty people whose only concern was the preservation of their status and who would stop at nothing to advance their selfish goals.
In order to substantiate this judgment against the religious leadership of Israel, Boyarin misrepresents the Talmud. In order to appreciate the magnitude of Boyarin’s mistake we need to study some Talmud from the tractate Nidda which deals with the impurity spoken of in Leviticus 15:19-30. The Bible divides the ritual impurity of a menstruating woman into two distinct categories. In the one category (described in verses 19 thru 24), the woman needs to count 7 days from when she begins menstruating, including, of-course the days that she is menstruating, and at the end of the 7 day count – she can purify herself (assuming that she stopped menstruating by then). In the second category (described in verses 25 thru 30), the procedure for purification is much stricter. The woman needs to wait until the flow of blood has completely ceased, and she then counts 7 clean days. Only after she has experienced 7 days without any flow of blood can she purify herself.
In the context of the first category of impurity, the Talmud comments that the Sadducee women cannot be counted as properly purified. This decision is based on the idea that the Sadducee women would begin counting the 7 days too soon, thus bringing their count to a premature conclusion. Their purification rite would then be performed after the fifth or sixth day as opposed to the Biblically mandated seventh day.
In a different context, the Talmud records a custom in which women from the rabbinic community took upon themselves to count 7 clean days regardless of which category of impurity they experienced and regardless of the degree of the flow of blood. The Talmud praises this custom which prevents confusion and inadvertent violation of Biblical law.
Boyarin claims that the custom of the Sadducee women (of beginning their count too soon) and the custom of the women from the rabbinic community are practically the same. In his words these two customs “produce precisely the same results” (Bl; Pg. 63). Boyarin sees no reason why the one custom (that of the Sadducee women) should be castigated and the other praised, instead he concludes that: “the issue is authority”.
If Boyarin’s reading of the Talmud would be accurate, this would represent an accusation not only against the redactors of the Talmud, but against all who have studied the Talmud since then. How could people revere a book that is so blatantly hypocritical? Boyarin’s criticism would be directed at all who follow the custom of the women from the rabbinic community – as do all Orthodox Jews from that time until today. How could these people follow a teaching that is so thoroughly corrupt?
But Boyarin’s reading of the Talmud is so obviously flawed that it is hard to imagine any serious reader of the Talmud, even a novice, making such a terrible mistake. Boyarin has confused the two categories of impurity which form the heart of this tractate. In the case of the Sadducee women, they were counting the days of the menstruation as part of the 7 days. In that situation, it is important to determine the point in time from which it is appropriate to begin counting. If the counting begins too early, the entire purification process will be done on the wrong day. In sharp contrast, the women from the rabbinic community only began counting the 7 days after the menstruation had completely ceased. In this case, the purification process will never be performed too early. The two customs are as almost as far apart from each other as the Nicene creed is from the Shema.
I will not go down the path of judging Boyarin’s scholarship or his motives on the basis of this incredible error. I will however point out that in light of this error, it would be more than irresponsible to accept Boyarin’s “findings” on blind faith.
The Creation of Borderlines – Parallels and Timing
A thread which runs throughout Boyarin’s historical model is the illusion of a parallel process taking place in both the Christian and Jewish communities. According to Boyarin things were “just fine” in both communities up until the second century (or later). A wide range of beliefs was tolerated under the respective umbrellas of Judaism and Christianity. In the second century, the religious leaders of both groups moved to upset the status quo and proceeded to “write people out” of their respective communities.
There are two major flaws with this aspect of Boyarin’s thesis. These are; his assumption that the question of self-identity preoccupied the leaders of Judaism to the same degree that it affected the leaders of Christianity is completely unfounded. And that his proposed time-line ignores some of the primary evidence that we have from the early Christian community.
The Christian community found itself in a serious conflict over the “orthodox” belief almost from its inception. In the letters of Paul we already find friction between what Paul considers “true” Christianity and what Paul considers “false” Christianity. It is evident from Paul’s words that this conflict involved significant numbers and powerful people on both sides of this inner Christian conflict. In sharp contrast, there is no evidence from any rabbinic source that the Christian Jewish community ever posed a threat to the general Jewish community; not in the sense of the number of adherents and not in the sense of the social weight of the people involved. The rabbinic encounters with Jewish Christians are always in the context of an encounter with an insignificant individual.
In his letter to the Galatians (1:6), Paul speaks against those who preach “another gospel”. These people who preached the alternative gospel clearly weighed heavily in the minds and hearts of Paul’s intended audience. There would be no need for a two chapter diatribe to discount a teaching that was already considered marginal by his listeners. In his second letter to the Corinthians (11:5), Paul refers to his theological opponents as “super-apostles”. Those who were preaching a “different Jesus” than the one Paul was promoting seem to have stood higher on the social ladder of the Christian community than Paul himself. In the book of Acts (21:20-26) we see how the Jewish followers of Jesus were highly suspicious of Paul’s theological leanings. The Christian Scriptures themselves testify to the deep conflict that existed in the early Church, a conflict which already involved the process of writing one’s opponents out of the community.
There is nothing parallel to this in Jewish literature in relation to Christian theology. We have evidence of a Sadducee-Pharisee conflict that was deep and serious. But no such evidence surfaces concerning the counter-Christian conflict that Boyarin is proposing.
The fact that the inner Christian conflict is clearly present in the writings of Paul tells us that the religious leaders of the Christian community (i.e Paul) were already defining “orthodoxy” and erecting borderlines on the basis of theology within 50 years of Jesus’ death. This was clearly not an invention of Justin Martyr or Jerome as Boyarin would have us believe (Bl, chapter 2, TJG, pgs. 14-16).
Who was Jesus?
Boyarin presents us with an analysis of the hand-washing incident described in the seventh chapter of the book of Mark (TJG; pgs. 106-127). Boyarin concludes that, contrary to popular Christian opinion, this incident does not teach that Jesus abolished the dietary laws altogether. Rather, Jesus was opposed to the specific rabbinical enactment of hand-washing, which stands apart from the general dietary laws.
I find myself in agreement with Boyarin on this point. Reading the book of Mark with an understanding of Jewish law one recognizes that there is a distinction between the purity laws, which Jesus was contesting, and the general dietary laws, which Jesus does not mention. Boyarin however does not stop there. Boyarin goes on to argue that Jesus stood against all Pharisaic innovations and additions to the Law. This position is not supported by the Christian Scriptures, the only source we have for Jesus and his teachings.
Boyarin has ignored a significant piece of evidence in this discussion. The Talmud records that there was an inner-Pharisaic conflict concerning the hand-washing enactment, and that this conflict was still unresolved in the generation of Jesus (Shabbat 14b). In other words by taking a stance against the hand-washing enactment, Jesus is not standing outside of the Pharisaic community. Instead he was taking part in an inter-Pharisaic debate.
This is corroborated by Jesus’ teaching as recorded by Matthew: “the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.” (23:2,3). Although Jesus goes on to malign the Pharisees for hypocritical behavior, but he does not take issue with their authority or their interpretation of the Law. In fact some of the laws he mentions and upholds in his subsequent diatribe (such as the tithing of spices) are of rabbinic origin.
Jesus is described as observing the Passover Seder according to rabbinic tradition (Luke 22:18-20). When Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath law, an accusation that only makes sense according to the Pharisaic understanding of the Law, he never exonerates himself by arguing against the Pharisaic definition of the Law. Jesus’ defense always assumes that the Pharisaic definition of the Law is correct, it is only the application of the Law in those particular instances (i.e. for the purpose of healing) that Jesus takes issue with.
Many of Jesus’ followers considered themselves Pharisees long after Jesus had died (Acts 15:5). These people were prominent figures in the community of Jesus followers and their opinion was taken seriously. A comparison between the debate described in Acts 15 and Paul’s dispute with Peter recorded in Galatians 2:14 shows that Peter, the prime disciple of Jesus, was of the “Pharisee party”. Paul accuses Peter of “compelling the Gentiles to live as do the Jews”. This was the opinion of the Pharisaic segment of the early Christian community as recorded in Acts 15 and Paul attributes this outlook to Peter. A straightforward reading gives us to understand that Peter himself belonged to this group.
If, as Boyarin claims, Jesus took a clear stance against the Pharisee approach to the Law, why would his followers accept this very approach that he discredited? It is clear that Jesus did not reject the Pharisee approach to the Law as a whole it was only some details of the Pharisaic application, details that were being disputed within the Pharisee community itself that Jesus was rejecting.
In the book of Mark (7:8-13) we do indeed find Jesus striking out at the general concept of the traditions. He rebukes the “Pharisees and all the Jews” (Mark 7:3) for using the traditions to make the Law of God null and void. However, the example that Jesus uses to demonstrate how the Jews were using the traditions to nullify the Law of God, is perplexing. Mark’s Jesus accuses the Jews of using the law of taking vows as a method of avoiding honoring their parents. The technical aspects of this accusation are confusing enough (the laws of taking vows are Biblical in nature (Numbers 30:3) and not a part of the traditions as Mark’s Jesus seems to believe). But what is really difficult to understand is that in all of the rabbinic writings, there is not one statement that can be taken as an encouragement to avoid honoring one’s parents. The consistent position of Pharisaic Judaism, according to every historical record, places the honor of parents on the highest pedestal. In sharp contrast, the Gospels leave us with several statements that seem to go against the spirit of the Fifth Commandment (Matthew 10:37; 12:48; 19:29; Mark 3:33; Luke 14:26). The targets of Jesus’ invective left us a literature that is far more extensive than the 4 books of the Gospels, yet nothing equivalent is to be found in their writings.
This would lead us to one of two conclusion; either the group that Jesus was castigating was a fringe sect that never left their mark on mainstream Judaism, or we can conclude that the redactors of the Gospels put this anti-Pharisaic tirade into their book long after Jesus died and were not familiar with the ways of the Jews. Either way, Boyarin’s conclusion that Jesus was anti-Pharisaic cannot be substantiated from this enigmatic passage, especially in light of the totality of the available evidence.
It is interesting to note, that Boyarin does not hesitate to slice up the Hebrew Bible and attribute various sentences in the same narrative to different authors who subscribed to conflicting theologies (TJG, pg. 43). He does this without any explicit evidence for the existence of the conflict that he assumes as the root of this editing procedure in the text of the Hebrew Bible. Yet he takes the Christian Scriptures at face value despite the fact that the same Christian Bible admits that there was deep discord in the early Church between Paul and a faction of “super-apostles” who opposed him. Had Boyarin taken the same irreverent attitude towards the Gospels as he does towards the Jewish Bible, he would have realized that the most probable explanation for the pro and anti-Pharisaic tendencies in the Gospels reflects the tendencies of two conflicting communities in the early Church. The Christian Bible itself acknowledges this rift in the early Church, there is no reason to assume that this controversy left no mark on the editing process of the books produced by these conflicting communities.
Daniel 7:13 and Isaiah 53
In his book: “The Jewish Gospels”, Boyarin tries his hand at some old-fashioned missionary Scripture misquotations. Using two of the texts traditionally wielded by the missionaries in their campaign for the Jewish soul, Boyarin presents his own attack on the Jew’s relationship with the God of Israel.
According to Boyarin, when Jesus is called the “Son of Man”, it refers to his alleged divinity (TJG, pg. 26). Boyarin bases this on his reading of Daniel 7:13 and 14 where one like the “Son of Man” comes with the clouds towards the Ancient of Days and is granted dominion and glory. Boyarin contends that this passage in Daniel is referring to a youthful god who will be worshiped by all of mankind. The obvious problem with Boyarin’s rendition is that the Book of Daniel itself offers a different interpretation. According to the Book of Daniel (7:18,22,27), the one like the “son of man” is a symbol of the people of Israel who will dominate the earth as predicted by Isaiah (60:12).
Boyarin deals with this “weakness” in his interpretation by positing that this passage in the Book of Daniel was written by two different authors. Verses 13 and 14 were part of an ancient (Canaanite) tradition, while the rest of the chapter was written by an Israelite who sought to adhere to a purer monotheism (TJG, pg. 43).
The “solution” that Boyarin has proposed undermines his entire position. Did Jesus believe that the Book of Daniel was written by two authors? Did Jesus’ Galilean audience study Bible-criticism in the liberal universities so that when Jesus quoted this passage they immediately “knew” that he was taking the side of the “Canaanite author” of verses 13 and 14? If we will apply the modern approach to the Jewish Scripture to the mind-set of first century Jews, we might as well attribute the variations in the four Gospels to the different texting habits of those listening to Jesus’ sermons.
The entire basis of Boyarin’s argument is riddled with errors. Boyarin claims that the term “son” (as in “Son of Man”) is a reference to youth (TJG, pg. 33). But the term “son of” in the Aramaic language has nothing to do with youth. It is merely identifying the species of the entity described. In contrast with the first four figures, which are depicted as various beasts, the fifth figure is identified as a human. The term “son of” is no indication of the age of the figure it is merely an indication of his nature.
Boyarin quotes Emerton’s argument which posits that aside from God no one else is portrayed in the Jewish Scriptures as “riding on the clouds” (TJG, pg. 40). The conclusion Boyarin attempts to arrive at is that the “son of man”, who rides on the clouds in Daniel 7:13, must be divine. The obvious problem with this argument is that the son of man is not riding on the clouds in Daniel’s vision, he is coming with the clouds (not on the clouds). The association with the clouds is a metaphor that the Scriptures use to speak of armies of Gentile kings (Jeremiah 4:13; Ezekiel 38:9,16), hardly “divine beings”.
Furthermore, the entire text of the passage indicates that this figure represents, not a man, but a nation. The figure like the son of man is preceded by four beasts, each representing a different nation, the obvious follow-up would have a fifth nation arriving on to the scene. Why would the prophet switch his focus from national entities to a single individual without any textual indication that this shift in focus is taking place? The parallel passage (Daniel 2:31-45) also presents a vision about five kingdoms (note the wording on verse 44, with the emphasis on “kingdom”, “nation” and the female pronoun “she” – all obviously referring to a nation and not to an individual). There is no reason to see these two verses as standing apart from the rest of the flow of the chapter and apart from the rest of the book.
In his analysis of Isaiah 53 Boyarin takes the opposite approach than the one he applied to Daniel 7:13. In his analysis of the passage in the book of Daniel, Boyarin ignored the interpretation of the passage that the text itself offers. Instead he seeks to discover the “true” meaning of the passage by searching through Scripture and the ancient texts. In his approach to Isaiah 53 Boyarin insists on sticking to a clumsy version of the “ancient Jewish interpretation” in complete disregard for the textual and historical evidence.
Boyarin attempts to set the stage for his interpretation of Isaiah 53 by presenting his readers with a sketch of the debate between the Christian missionaries and the Jewish community surrounding this passage. The problem with Boyarin’s depiction is that it is inaccurate, simplistic and crude; it presents the matter as a case of “either or” with no appreciation for the nuances involved.
First Boyarin posits that the Jewish community believes that the Messianic interpretation for Isaiah 53 was merely a product of the failure of Jesus’ mission. In other words, the idea that this passage is referring to the Messiah only arose as a Christian apologetic to explain Jesus’ death. Boyarin then counters with the “revelation” that Jewish interpreters have explained this text as Messianic “well into the early modern period”.
What Boyarin fails to tell his readers is that the Messianic interpretation is still alive and well in the teachings of Jewish rabbis who live today. No one is attempting to “suppress” the Messianic interpretation and the Messianic interpretation does not contradict the national interpretation. The debate between Jews and Christian missionaries does not center on the question as to whether the passage is Messianic or national. The question is; does this passage ONLY speak of a suffering Messiah? Is there no other way to read the passage? And furthermore, even if this passage IS speaking of a suffering Messiah; can it be referring to Jesus with all of the theological implications that the Church has appended to this belief? The answer to these two questions, as we shall see, is a resounding “NO”, but first let us gets back to the details of Boyarin’s presentation.
Boyarin finds “no evidence at all that any late ancient Jews read this passage as referring to anyone but the Messiah” (TJG, pg. 152). Boyarin has missed one of the most crucial pieces of evidence in this case. The Christian Scriptures themselves testify that the disciples of Jesus had already identified him as the Messiah, yet they did not expect him to suffer and die. The Gospels tell us that the disciples were completely shocked by Jesus’ death. This would certainly indicate that if anyone read Isaiah 53 as a teaching about the Messiah before Jesus’ times, the teaching was unknown to Jesus’ disciples.
Boyarin argues that the suffering of the servant described in Isaiah is parallel to the suffering of the “saintly exalted ones” described in Daniel 7:25 (TJG, pg. 144). At first this would seem to undercut his entire position which attempts to posit that the Isaiah servant is the individual Messiah and not the nation, while Daniel clearly refers to the suffering of the nation. Boyarin postulates that the passage in Daniel was read as a reference to an individual despite the plural terminology that the prophet uses. This faulty argument in and of itself is enough to discredit Boyarin’s position, but there is more to it. The prophet actually describes the suffering as an attempt by the enemies of the holy exalted ones to “alter the seasons and the law” – a fitting description of the religious persecution of the Jewish people which attempted to abolish observance of the appointed holy days. These metaphors can in no way be read as a description of Jesus’ suffering. Boyarin does not bother to explain how the details of Daniel’s prophecy harmonize with his interpretation.
The key difference between the Jewish and Christian interpretations of this passage has completely escaped Boyarin. Isaiah 53 is all about vindication. God’s servant, who suffered grievously, will one day be vindicated to the eyes of those who despised him. This is the primary thrust of the passage.
The missionary interpretation insists that it is Jesus who is going to be vindicated and ONLY Jesus who will be vindicated. According to the Church, the servant’s role can only be fulfilled by one who stands apart from all of humanity by virtue of his alleged divinity – no one can share in the servant’s accomplishment. The key element of the Church position is that the servant must be Jesus to the absolute exclusion of anyone else.
Judaism, on the other hand, asserts that the primary thrust of the passage is the vindication of those who accomplished God’s purpose on earth. Israel is God’s agent here on earth and it is through this nation that God’s purpose is fulfilled. Some individuals from within the nation, such as the prophet, the Messiah or the righteous may play a more prominent role in fulfilling God’s purpose, but they do so as part of the collective Israel. It is not by virtue of their being apart from Israel that they fulfill their role but because they are the heart of the nation that they achieve God’s purpose. If the passage is primarily speaking of Messiah, the prophet or the righteous remnant, it is not to the exclusion of the nation but that the nation’s role is concentrated in these individuals with the nation fulfilling the same role in a general sense. The vindication of the Messiah, the prophet or the righteous remnant is not something that stands apart from the vindication of Israel, but is part and parcel of the general vindication of the nation.
The concept of God’s purpose being fulfilled both by the nation and by an individual or an entity within the nation is a theme that is open and evident in the later chapters of Isaiah. In these chapters (40-66) the prophet refers to the nation as God’s servant (41:8; 43:10; 44:1; 44:21; 48:20) and he refers to an entity within the nation as God’s servant (42:1; 44:26; 49:3). Yet the prophet uses the same imagery and language to describe both the nation and this entity within the nation. The collective nation and the specific entity within the nation are both called from the womb (44:2,24; 49:2,5), are supported by God (41:10; 42:1), are chosen by God (41:8; 42:1), have God’s spirit placed upon them (44:3; 59:21; 42:1), are sheltered in the shade of God’s hand (51:16; 49:2), are called upon to establish the earth (51:16; 49:8), will bring the desolate ruins to life (61:4; 49:8), will be honored by kings (49:23; 49:7), will have ministers bow to them (45:14; 49:7), will serve as a light to the nations (60:3; 42:6; 49:6), were humiliated by their enemies (51:7,23; 49:7), fear that they have toiled in vain (40:27; 49:4), are honored by God (43:4; 49:5), and God is glorified through them (44:23; 49:3).
The theme of Israel’s vindication is also prevalent throughout the book of Isaiah. The prophet consistently teaches that those who trust in God will not be shamed (25:9; 30:18; 40:31; 41:10,11; 44:21; 45:25; 49:23). Isaiah describes how Israel’s righteousness will be obvious to the eyes of the nations and that God will reward their labor on His behalf (26:2; 40:10; 51:7; 60:21; 62:2).
The Jewish interpretation that has God’s purpose achieved through the prophet, the Messiah and the righteous more precisely and through the nation in a general sense – is fully supported by the text. The Christian interpretation which categorically cuts the nation out of God’s plan completely ignores the words of the prophet.
The concept that Israel is God’s servant has always been an integral part of Jewish self-identity. The Jewish people understood that they were called by God to serve His purpose here on earth. It was always understood that various members or entities within the nation, such as the prophet or the Messiah, will fulfill this calling more precisely than the nation as a whole – but these individuals will always be seen as an integral part of the nation. The theological assumption that only a divine being can fulfill God’s purpose and the doctrine which completely cuts Israel out of the role as God’s servant has no basis in any version of Jewish thought.
Who is the Messiah?
Boyarin raps up his arguments by telling his readers that the followers of Jesus did not “invent” the idea of a divine savior, but rather that they drew this idea from the well-springs of Jewish thought that was current in their times. Boyarin argues that the Jewish concept of Messiah as it was understood in the generations preceding Jesus included, or at least allowed for, a second divine figure that is to suffer and die (TJG, pg. 160). The followers of Jesus simply applied these ancient Jewish teachings to Jesus of Nazareth, but they did not invent these teachings.
Aside from the fact that Boyarin ignores the evidence of the Christain Scriptures which clearly indicate that Jesus’ followers did NOT expect Jesus to suffer and die, this after they had positively identified him as the Messiah, Boyarin has also missed the heart and soul of the Jewish concept of Messiah. Interestingly, he did not miss it entirely, he actually included one crumb of Judaism in his description of the Messiah – but he failed to follow up on that one authentic thought that made its way into his book.
Boyarin acknowledges that the Jewish understanding of the Messiah that preceded Jesus would have the Messiah redeem Israel from the “Seleucid and then Roman oppression” (TJG, pg. 160). What happened? Did Jesus do anything of the sort? How did the followers of Jesus identify him as the Messiah without him fulfilling this basic Messianic function?
This leads us to the next question; why were the Jewish people waiting for the Messiah? Was it just so that they could be redeemed from Roman oppression? Was this simply a nationalistic aspiration that was divorced from anything spiritual?
Of-course not! The Jewish people understood that they were called by the Almighty God to testify to the truth of His Oneness by following His Law and obeying His word. They recognized that they had fallen short of their calling, but they still remained loyal to the core of their standing as a chosen nation before God – they had not committed themselves in worship to another god (Psalm 44:21).
The Messianic hope in Judaism centers on Israel’s loyalty to God. Israel looks forward to the day when all of humanity will abandon the worship of idols and serve God together with Israel (Zephaniah 3:9). God alone will be exalted on that day (Isaiah 2:11, 17). All will recognize that worship of anyone but the God of Israel is wrong and futile (45:14). And Israel’s loyalty to this truth will be rewarded (49:23).
Israel is waiting to hear one phrase: “Your God has reigned” (Isaiah 40:9; 52:7). In Israel’s God centered heart, this is all that is important. Israel’s human king, like David his ancestor, is not someone who eclipses God’s sovereignty, but is someone whose own humility before God is the catalyst to bring everyone’s heart in line with the truth of God’s sovereignty.
In a certain sense, Judaism views world history as a love story that takes place between herself and her Divine lover. The exodus from Egypt which culminated with the Sinai revelation was the wedding. When the Divine presence came to dwell in Solomon’s Temple, Israel understood that God had come to dwell with His beloved bride. When foreign oppressors trampled the Jewish people underfoot, Israel understood that the relationship between themselves and God was being challenged. But Israel looked forward to the Messianic era, when her relationship with God will shine as the light of the universe (Isaiah 60:2). The Messianic promise for Israel is God’s promise that He will forever remain Israel’s husband.
The Church took this concept and turned it on its head. Instead of a time when Israel is reunited with her Divine lover, the Church taught that the Messiah introduced a deep division and estrangement between Israel and God. Instead of honoring man’s focus on the Creator of heaven and earth, the Church’s version of the Messianic age introduces a new central focus for humanity; a focus on Jesus. Instead of celebrating God’s relationship with Israel, Christianity celebrates Jesus’ relationship with those who “believe in him”. The Church ripped out the heart and soul of Israel’s messianic vision; they ripped out the words “God” and “Israel” and put in their place; “Jesus” and “Church”. The fact that they used some Jewish ideas in constructing their theology does not make their theology “Jewish”. The Jewish concept of Messiah and the Christian concept of Messiah are polar opposites.
Did this happen in the first generation of Jesus’ Jewish followers? Probably not. According to the book of Acts (Ch. 21), the Jewish following of Jesus saw the worship in the Temple as central to their communal identity, even to the degree of bringing animal offerings for the forgiveness of sin. It is entirely possible that the Jewish disciples of Jesus hoped for a day when God alone is exalted and those who believe in Him are vindicated, with Jesus merely serving as an agent of God.
In Paul’s teachings we already see the shift in focus from God to Jesus and from Israel to “believers”. Paul never claims to have acquired his ideas from the wells-springs of Jewish thought as Boyarin would have us believe. Rather, Paul tells us that his theology was the product of his own personal visions. The Christian Scriptures themselves testify that Paul’s teachings did not go unopposed. It is clear that it was the original Jewish following of Jesus who opposed Paul’s anti-Jewish theology. Ultimately, Paul’s theology won out and Christianity became what it is today.
Boyarin’s attempt to rewrite Church history and to rewrite Jewish theology ignores the available evidence. But even more serious is Boyarin’s effort to portray Judaism as if it was a hodgepodge of conflicting ideas.