Daniel Boyarin on Why the Gospels Are Jewish

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.


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7 Responses to “Daniel Boyarin on Why the Gospels Are Jewish”

  1. Inion N. Mathair Says:

    I really enjoyed the interview with Mr. Boyarin, who seemed so knowledgable about the bible as well as the era and Jesus himself. I’m a Christian but I love to learn, while keeping an open mind, and if possible, hearing every side of an issue.

  2. andyrossagency Says:

    Inion, thanks for you comments. I think Daniel will stimulate a lot of thought from people of all religions.

  3. Joan Says:

    It is refreshing to learn about the beginnings of Christianity, the Gospels, and their connection to the Judaism of the time from a creative mind. Thanks, Daniel.

  4. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (Prof. Daniel Boyarin, University of California at Berkeley) | Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Official Blog Says:

    […]  Prof.Daniel Boyarin interviewed about “The Jewish Gospels” here. […]

  5. Jim Harvey Says:

    I would say to also study the research of the late professor David Flusser of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. And the work of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Studies also based in Jerusalem. The work of Dr. Roy Blizzard, Jr., Dr. Brad Young, Dr. Ron Moseley.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    I am a Christian and have no professional training in Biblical studies (though some interest for them for religious reasons as well as because of a pure curiosity). While I believe that whatever happened to Jesus’ disciples three days after the Crucifixion was not purely an illusion feeding on Jewish religious background, as Mr. Boyarin suggests – in most polite words – at the end of his book, I do not think that any scholarly discussion will ever settle this particular doubt since eventually accepting or refusing this or that explanation is a matter of faith. I find it tempting, however, without abandoning my religious position, to consider seriously a possibility that Jesus after Resurrection (and thus perhaps also Jesus whom Paul the Apostle claimed to meet) simply approached in a new, more universal way many things, including Torah and whole Jewish religious tradition, than Jesus before the Crucifixion. Many difficulties in interpreting Jewishness vs. universality of Jesus in the Gospels – which obviously were written with all benefits and dangers of hindsight and under certain agendas, not as accurate journalistic or historical documents with modern understanding of unbiased and detailed reporting – might sort of dissolve if one accepts a possibility that the evangelists met Jesus both as a religious, pious Jew of his time, though highly unusual in many ways, including his claims for being a Messiah, and as someone who has victoriously passed through the pain and death, met his heavenly Father, and came back to explain to his followers things that possibly even he did not fully understand in his earthly life before death. Difficulties in building a consistent image of Jesus, as described in Gospels, may to some extent reflect actual difficulties of the same sort that troubled Jesus’ disciples, instead of, as usually assumed in a scholarly discourse, varying points of view, agendas and historical influences – sure, those also existed and had their impact on the text of Gospels, but they may be secondary to the real cause of this inconsistency. This is not to suggest that Jesus Resurrected contradicted Jesus before death – one can view it as a fulfillment rather than cancellation.

  7. fotomaton para bodas lorca Says:

    I enjoyed the post, so keep writing. Worth reading sites like yours.

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