Friday, August 31, 2012


Lately, I've decided to occasionally review a book.  A few months back, I put my review of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, on Amazon and I posted it here (a couple of posts down).  Now I've reviewed Daniel Boyarin's The Jewish Gospels. It's on Amazon and this is it:

I was going to begin this way:  This book is good as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. Now that I've digested it, I cannot even say that.  Boyarin trivializes ancient Jewish culture and subjects it to Christian categories. I say that even if he is right on all his major points. I will explain.

This very short book covers only two issues: Messianic ideas in Jewish apocalyptic literature (the bulk of the book) and one chapter on Jesus keeping kosher (I agree that he did). Ordinarily, I don't believe it is right to criticize an author or artist for failing to do something he or she had no intention of doing. If Boyarin wants to write a book on Messianism in ancient Judaism, that is his prerogative. But he chose to add another chapter on kashrut. Why that? Of all the immensely important and fascinating things about Jewish culture and Jesus' Jewishness, why pick that?

The introduction is the only place where Boyarin even attempts to discuss variety in ancient Jewish culture. He brings up observing Shabbat, eating kosher, and circumcision (8, 10) and the Temple which he refers to as at one time "the core of Jewish identity" (12). That's about it. This is his version of "the varieties of Jewish religious experience" (20). He has done what Christian theology has always done. He has reduced Jewish culture to rituals and Messianic speculations, which he later calls "the fulfillment of the highest and most powerful aspirations of the Jewish people" (94). What a distortion.

Boyarin continues what every other scholar, whether Christian or Jewish, in NT studies or historical Jesus scholarship does. He has assembled some of the most trivial items of ancient Jewish culture and called that Judaism, while erasing its more important features. Even assuming that Boyarin is right in his interpretations of Jewish Messianic literature (and I think he overinterprets some of this evidence), he is still wrong to eliminate more important aspects of Jewish culture (some examples below). Boyarin has chosen categories that Christian theology has long dictated for Judaism. He subjects Jewish history to a Christian understanding instead of letting ancient Jewish voices speak for themselves and their culture. That is a terrible shame. I don't know any ancient Jew who would reduce his culture to these categories.

The main reason why most Jews will never take an interest in scholarship on the Gospels or the historical Jesus is that every such book, including Boyarin's, leaves you with a negative or at least a cheap impression of ancient Jewish identity. No Jew will feel proud of their historical culture after reading any of these books because none of them give us accurate historical truth.

Here are a few better ideas. Why not discuss the Pharisaic and rabbinic fight for constitutional government? We are not ruled by men — not by kings, priests, or even a Messiah — but by the Constitution or Torah. God gave us a Constitution so that we can rule ourselves and find the truth through debate. For Pharisees and rabbis, the main principle was not "May the best man (or Messiah) win", but "May the best argument win." Even God has told us that he acquiesces to discovery through rational argument. You can see this Jewishness too in Jesus in the Gospels and it is far more important than anything else scholars discuss.

For Pharisees and rabbis, the big questions were not what are the qualities of the Messiah and does Jesus fit the bill (which seems to be what Boyarin thinks) but who cares. It does not matter who the Messiah is because no one is above the Constitution and if the Messiah makes constitutional errors, we will dispute him.

Or why not delve into the Pharisaic and rabbinic dedication to justice and peace? This tells us a lot more about who ancient Jews were than the rules of kashrut. Or why not discuss Jesus' devotion to oral Torah? Or his teachings like that of other rabbis that chutzpah (a good Aramaic word) towards God is a valuable way to approach him. All these things will give us more insight into Jesus' Jewishness than anything in Boyarin's book.

Jesus' followers made the Messiah more important than the Constitution. That was the real dividing line. Boyarin misses that. These followers found another legitimate way to be religious, but they badly misjudged the Jews who remained devoted to the Constitution. Boyarin does not help to reconcile the two religions. He just continues the misrepresentations of Jewish culture. He even mistranslates Torah as law, even though he knows legalism is a misunderstanding of Judaism.

Boyarin is an expert on rabbinic lit, yet he does an effective job of erasing some of the most vital aspects of ancient Jewish culture. Then again, maybe it takes an expert to do that. He offers us Jewish history through the lens of Christian theology. Until Jewish scholars break away from this and look at the evidence through fresh eyes, we will never achieve truth or reconciliation.

If you believe that any ancient Jewish voices which contradict scholarly ideology should be silenced, then this book is for you. If you believe that ancient Jews should be allowed to speak for themselves, then look elsewhere.

© Leon Zitzer 2012

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