Jews, Christians, and Jesus
I’ve just finished a scholarly book whose conclusion left me head-spinningly dumbfounded. Since I’m supposed to be a philosophe by profession, I’m pretty used to scholarly books, bring some acquired insulation to the reading of them, and they don’t usually leave me in that condition.
The book is The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ by Daniel Boyarin. The Forward by Jack Miles, author of the well-regarded God: A Biography, cites a “prominent conservative rabbi” who declared privately that Boyarin “is one of the two or three greatest rabbinic scholars in the world … possibly even the greatest.”
Here’s what, if asked, I would have said I believed about Jesus before Boyarin’s book left me speechless. I took no publicly declared position on Jesus … though I’d always felt a muffled attraction. This attraction stayed muffled because of the history of Christianity vis a vis its Jewish origin – the long record of vilification and persecution whose last realization was the Holocaust. At least, one would have hoped that was the last of it – save that, since then, this ancient fratricide seems to have rediscovered its voices, updated rationales and lethal weapons.
There was another reason for my discourse about Jesus remaining a guarded one. I did not want to offend friends who were believing Christians. Like many who are recognized scholars, I too had drawn a distinction between “the historical Jesus” and the Jesus of Christian doctrine, whose attributes were officially approved in 381 A.D. at the Council of Nicea. I assumed that Christianity’s key doctrines, the Nicene Creed, were superadded to the Jesus story although he himself would not have held them. (That Council also ruled that the Jewish followers of Jesus were to be excommunicated if they kept up with any of their Jewish observances.)
So what were the major doctrines adopted at Nicea?
- Jesus was divine as well as human.
- The people of Israel expected a messiah who would be both human and divine.
- The suffering and death of Jesus on the cross expiated the sins of his people and human sin generally.
I assumed that none of these doctrines were part of the belief system of mainstream Israelites, whether at the time of Jesus or later. The split with the Jesus movement I attributed to the above three doctrines – but also to the refusal of the Jesus followers to join Bar Kochba’s last rebellion against Rome in 135 A.D. They refused, as I thought, because of Bar Kochba’s messianic pretensions. After his revolt failed catastrophically, those who had doubted its leader were of course vindicated, but the whole episode must have left hard feelings in its wake.
What does Boyarin offer to shake my earlier convictions?
Re doctrines #1 and #2: Boyarin writes that the assumption about the messiah as a divine being in human form was widely and popularly shared in Jesus’s time. When Jesus calls himself “the Son of Man,” he is referencing the verses in Daniel 7 on which this commonly held view was based.
Re doctrine # 3: according to Boyarin, the verses in Isaiah 53 that refer to a Suffering Servant who “poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors … bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” were also folded into the messianic expectations of Jesus’s time — widely shared and also referenced by Jesus in the gospels.
I won’t cite more scholarly buttressing. If it interests you, the book isn’t long and it’s an easy read. Boyarin is a very good writer.
There’s one more point he brings out and it may be the most important one. Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., which was followed by the Second Exile, the people of Israel didn’t agree as a body to interpret their covenant with God by means of a single, coherent set of concepts. They weren’t yet what is called a “religion.” They were certainly a people, with a roughly shared array of memories – of a dramatic history of interaction with God — with many darks and lights, in the land their God had promised them, where most of that story had been lived and recorded.
The competing views and interpretations of their shared history spanned a wide spectrum. Rabbinic Judaism won out in the competition, probably because the study-based form developed during the Babylonian First Exile turned out the most portable after the Second Exile.
I have nothing against Rabbinic Judaism and in fact think it the best of the choices then available. It kept memory continuous, kept the ancient language readable and revivable, and kept intellectual and spiritual energy alive. From what I’ve read, in philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and other creative Jewish thinkers, that tradition remains an important source of Jewish identity plus moral and spiritual insight.
That the compressed intensities of Rabbinic Judaism could see daylight again as updated Hebrew, colloquial and literary, and could animate the recovery of the land (when life in exile had really failed) is witness to the vitality and truth of the vehicle.
My grandfather, Rav Tsair, who, as I’ve written here, was a Talmudist of stature — and to me an almost legendary figure — worked to demonstrate the purposive continuities that stretched from Biblical Israel to the Israel reborn after World War II. His name is on a street in Jerusalem.
But where does all this leave me – leave us – today?
Can the long, fratricidal history be overcome?
Can we ever find the roots of reconcilement?
To be continued … .