Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ

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In July 2008 a front-page story in the New York Times reported on the discovery of an ancient Hebrew tablet, dating from before the birth of Jesus, which predicted a Messiah who would rise from the dead after three days. Commenting on this startling discovery at the time, noted Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin argued that “some Christians will find it shocking—a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology.”

Guiding us through a rich tapestry of new discoveries and ancient scriptures, The Jewish Gospels makes the powerful case that our conventional understandings of Jesus and of the origins of Christianity are wrong. In Boyarin’s scrupulously illustrated account, the coming of the Messiah was fully imagined in the ancient Jewish texts. Jesus, moreover, was embraced by many Jews as this person, and his core teachings were not at all a break from Jewish beliefs and teachings. Jesus and his followers, Boyarin shows, were simply Jewish. What came to be known as Christianity came much later, as religious and political leaders sought to impose a new religious orthodoxy that was not present at the time of Jesus’s life.

In the vein of Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels, here is a brilliant new work that will break open some of our culture’s most cherished assumptions.

Boyarin is a scholar of Talmud at University of California, Berkeley; Boteach is a media personality and popular author whose website identifies him as “America’s Rabbi.” The intellectual muscle mass of the two works corresponds accordingly. Their common goal seems to be to take what, as a Christian datum, seems very strange and foreign to Jews, and then to prove that this datum is in fact profoundly and/or originally Jewish.

For Boyarin, that datum is Christian theology about the divinity of Jesus. In his book’s four chapters he brings together an assemblage of (canonical and non-canonical) ancient Jewish texts well known to scholars and juxtaposes these to aspects of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. (A much briefer sample of his technique is available in his essay on Logos/memra and the Gospel of John in The Jewish Annotated New Testament.)

Boyarin’s premise and conclusion is that ideas of radically divine mediation figure prominently in all of these late Second Temple texts, not just the “Christian” ones. The authors of the gospels—and maybe Jesus himself, though Boyarin proposes this rather than argues it—were thinking with these ideas when they framed their teachings. The Jewish Gospels concludes by inviting the reader to place gospel traditions of Jesus’ divinity “within the Jewish textual and intertextual world, the echo chamber of a Jewish soundscape of the 1st century.” [Source]

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