Today we are interviewing Daniel Boyarin, whose new book, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, was published by New Press this April. In The Jewish Gospels, Daniel presents an astonishing argument that the concept of the Trinity was not original to Christianity at all but came out ideas that were commonplace in the Jewish tradition long before the birth of Jesus. Daniel is one of the world’s most renowned, original, and admired scholars of ancient Judaism. He is the Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture in the departments of Rhetoric and of Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley. Daniel is not shy of taking provocative and controversial positions. His work was recently alluded to in the Oscar-nominated Israeli film, Footnote, where it was the subject of an argument. He has described himself as a Trotskyist, anti-Zionist Orthodox Jew, a set of positions and commitments that has excited both exaggerated interest in his work as well as scurrilous public attacks (mostly by pro-Zionist Jewish professors). Let’s hope today’s interview will engender both.
Andy: Daniel, everybody knows that Jesus was a Jew. But in The Jewish Gospels you are saying something quite different and original, even revolutionary. Can you explain your argument?
Boyarin: When people say that Jesus was a Jew, they usually mean that he came out of a Jewish milieu. Some think he completely revolutionized that environment, while others think it was the Gospels that produced that overturn, making a Jewish teacher into a god. I am arguing that the portrait of Jesus we find in the Gospels (especially in Mark) is one that could completely fit into the context of Second-Temple Judaism in which a Messiah who would be divine and human at the same time is not a foreign notion. I argue, moreover, that there is nothing in Mark or Matthew (or probably in Luke as well – but this is a harder argument to make) that suggests that Jesus was setting aside or abrogating the law of the Torah. So it’s not only Jesus who was a Jew but the Christ (and Christ is not Jesus’s last name but his title!)
Andy: So let me get this straight. In the early years of Christianity there was no real distinction between Jews and Christians. There just happened to be some Jews who thought that a particular guy, Jesus, was the messiah. And these Jesus Jews weren’t really all that distinctive within the world of Jews at the time. Is that correct?
Boyarin: Yes. Fairly frequently I’m asked by Christian folk why the Jews “rejected” Jesus. I answer this (as Jews stereotypically are wont to) with another question: Who do you think accepted Jesus, the Zulus; the Goths? Jews were expecting a Messiah—this is one of the central arguments of the book—and many of them, moreover, had come to expect him to be a divine being in human form or even embodied in a human. Some Jews who came to know Jesus were so impressed with him that they accepted the claim (if he made it) or made the claim themselves that this Jew from Nazareth was the one that they and all of the Jews were expecting. Not altogether surprisingly a fair number, probably most, of the Jews around at the time were more skeptical. Today we call the first group of Jews Christians, the second Jews, but then and for a long time, they were all Jews.
Andy: When I studied The New Testament, I was always taught that St. Paul was the person who really made Christianity distinct from Judaism. And that happened early on. Apparently you see it differently. When did Christianity have its irrevocable break with Judaism? And why?
Boyarin: In some ways it was Paul who effected the revolution with respect to the Torah that we don’t find in the Gospels. But it needs to be remembered that Paul was an embattled figure, marginalized and considered a heretic by most followers of Jesus for decades if not longer. I would tentatively suggest that it was the entry of myriads of Gentiles into the Jesus movement, folks who had no interest in or attraction toward the traditional ways of the Jews that ultimately precipitated a gradual and finally total separation of the communities. One of the important arguments of the book is that the Gospels are misread as portraying Jesus as rejecting the Torah and Jewish religious practice; it was Paul who did that, and even with Paul, a plausible argument could be made that he intended this rejection only for the “believers” from the Nations (the so-called Gentiles) and not the Jewish followers of Christ. Jesus, I argue, defended the Torah against the reforms and traditions of the Pharisees whom he saw as substituting their own traditions for what was clearly written by Moses!
Andy: A lot of your book is a close look at the language of the Gospels, particularly The Gospel of Mark. I always thought that the Gospels tried to distinguish Jesus’ ideas from the Jewish thinkers of his time, particularly the Pharisees.
Boyarin: Yes, but precisely the argument is that the Pharisees were not “the Jewish thinkers of the time;” they were some Jewish thinkers of the time. Jesus, I argue, was much more conservative in his approach to Torah than the Pharisees who were descended from Jews who had returned from the Babylonian Exile with some quite new ideas about the way the Torah ought to be practiced, especially their notion of a “Tradition of the Fathers”—later on called Oral Torah—that dictated some practices that certainly seemed different from the literal meaning of the Torah itself. So Jesus was portrayed as being in conflict with those Pharisees but that hardly marked him off as in any way not Jewish in his religious thought, any more than the attacks on the Pharisees in the Dead Sea Scrolls make those texts not Jewish or less Jewish than the Talmud!
Andy: When you think about this, it seems pretty provocative. How do you think Jewish and Christian theologians are going to respond to it?
Boyarin: Don’t have a clue. I mean that literally. One never knows the effect of one’s work in advance. I’m not even sure what effect I’d like it to have on theologians. I hope to have helped promote for folks a livelier sense of the ways that Jewish history took place in the first century and how contingent historically the invention of Christianity was, how unpredictable from the Gospels and the evidence that they provide. I sometimes like to relate the following counter-historical parable. Constantine, instead of adopting Christianity as the religion of the Empire, chose Mithraism which became in its further evolved form the religion of most of the world. The last persecuted followers of Jesus, sometime in the fifth century, running for their lives, carefully packed their holy books, the Four Gospels and the Letters of Paul into clay jars and buried them in the desert of Judea where they and the very existence of the sect were forgotten by time. Some time around 1948, a Bedouin shepherd discovered these clay tables by accident and an unknown Jewish sect was revealed to history. In Jerusalem there was built a Shrine of the Book and the manuscript, the only one, of the Gospel called Mark is displayed proudly there while hundreds of Jewish and Mithraist scholars all over the world devote themselves to the study of these ancient, exciting, wonderful documents of Jewish religious imagination and spiritually that had been lost and were now found.
Andy: I remember reading in The New York Times last year of a discovery of a tablet predating the birth of Christ which said that a Messiah would rise from the grave after 3 days. You were quoted in that article. Do you see this as an archeological confirmation of your ideas?
Boyarin: I would if I were more convinced of the accuracy of that reconstruction of the tablet. The tablet is, indeed, no forgery, but it is broken and hard to read and other reconstructions of its text are at least as plausible as that one, so I can’t rely on it much as I would love to.