The Jewish Gospels

I love reading books that give me just a little novel insight into the mind of Jesus. "The Jewish Gospels," by Daniel Boyarin, is the latest. Boyarin, a Jewish scholar, argues that 1st century Judaism had a few strange and prominent threads that led directly to the world of Jesus and his disciples, and affected later Christianity in surprising ways. A reading of the book of Esdras, along with the book of Daniel, suggests a couple of things. More familiarly, Daniel gives us the figure of the Son of Man, a semi-divine figure expected at the end of days. But a close reading of Esdras amplifies the notion of the Son of Man, seeing him as a second divine figure, not a human being. This figure is younger than the Ancient of Days, an older, divine figure identified with YHWH. The younger Son of Man is given power and dominion over the Earth, and takes a throne alongside the older deity.

If this resonates with the Father-Son component of the Christian Trinity, that is precisely Boyarin's point.

Further, he goes on to argue that the Jewish Messiah was seen, at least by some, as a divine-human figure. And that this figure would take on the sins of the people. If this thesis is correct, it goes a long way to making the strangeness of Jesus's claims of messiahship and divine sonship less jarring. They fit right in with what some people thought the Messiah would be.

Boyarin's final chapters were the most interesting, from the point of view of one wanting to understand the world and mind of Jesus. Jesus, in Boyarin's view, was a religious conservative. He was defending a version of Judaism that had been temporized by groups like the Pharisees, who were adjusting the ancient texts. This conservatism is most commonly seen in Jesus's teaching on divorce. To his mind, the words of Genesis 2 ("for that reason, a man shall leave his home and cleave to his wife") were the original and unshakable understanding of God's stance toward marriage. It was the Pharisees who sought to make the teaching more lenient, allowing divorce.

Boyarin also gives a new reading to Jesus's supposed lack of interest in dietary laws. As Mark's gospel states, the Pharisees practiced the washing of hands before eating, something that the religiously conservative Jesus, and his disciples, choose not to to adopt. But behind this difference in customs lay a significant difference in the understanding of uncleanness. To Jesus, and to Torah conservatives, one was made unclean by what came out of the body -- blood, semen, discharge -- not what went into it. By washing their hands, the Pharisees were suggesting that it was also what went into one's body -- dirt, etc. -- that could make one unclean. Jesus took a conservative approach to the matter by rejecting the Pharisee's practice -- not because it was fussy, but because it was, in effect, unbiblical. Yet Jesus extended the Torah's approach (being made unclean by the products of one's body) by suggesting that one could be made unclean by the products of one's heart -- immorality, theft, murder, and the rest. Jesus rejected theological innovation, yet deepened the reach of the law in line with a conservative understanding of the Law.

I have to let the ideas of "The Jewish Gospel" sit with me for a while. But I was so impressed by its arguments that I took out my camera phone to snap images of certain pages. To those who are not afraid to imagine Jesus as a mainstream Jew of his time, albeit one whose ideas don't mesh well with ours, the book is a wonder. Boyarin has produced a thoughtful and well-argued claim for a Jesus who was fully part of his time and place. And yet, a Jesus who continues to challenge our own assumptions and practices.