In the current issue of the New Republic, Princeton Professor and leading authority on early Judaisms Peter Schafer has a critique of Boyarin’s new book. But rather than a discussion of method by two senior scholars, we get Schafer himself acidly writing about Boyarin. “As the younger Talmud professor in the acclaimed Israeli movie Footnote says to his hapless student, “There are many correct and new aspects in your paper—only what is new isn’t correct and what is correct isn’t new.”
Schafer acknowledges that the quest for Jesus as Jew and his Jewish context is the topic of our decade. Long gone are the Lutheran inspired dichotomies of The Rabbis and Jesus. Rather, Christians are eager for these new Jewish insights. “That the historical Jesus was a Jew, that his followers were Jews, and that the Gospels as well as the letters written by the apostle Paul are Jewish writings, firmly embedded in first century C.E. Judaism—all this has become almost commonplace.” Boyarin is part of this larger trend that includes many other authors, both clerical and academic. Schafer himself just released a volume on the topic The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other (Princeton University Press).and this seems like academic rivalry. It seems he agree in the basic thesis but thinks his approach is the better way. I will comment on Schafer’s book when I receive a copy.
Schafer grants that “the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction, with scholars outdoing each other in proving the Jewishness of Jesus and the New Testament, and arguing that there is nothing in Jesus’s message as reflected in the New Testament that oversteps the boundaries of what might be expected from the Judaism of his day.” So let’s have a discussion, acknowledging in advance that German scholars and Jewish scholars differ many time due to different methodological considerations.
Instead, Schafer condemns the book with four objections. First, it is not original. Second, he rejects the connection of Boyarin’s Jewish bi-theism with the Trinity, a rejection already made without the cattiness by Moshe Idel. Third, bar-nash of the book of Daniel may actually be hypostatic of the Trinity or at least bi-theism and is not messianic redeemer as Boyarin thought. And finally, the book of Daniel may refer in its lower manifestation to the angelic or heavenly hosts and it may have political elements. Daniel does not just refer to two powers in heaven.
The latter two could have been dealt with as a minor repair as a fellow scholar, with near similar conclusions, amends Boyarin. Boyarin argues his understanding of Daniel based on the role of figures who ride on clouds as well as the Canaanite background to the text. Schafer considers neither strong enough.
The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ By Daniel Boyarin
The most recent voice in this chorus is Daniel Boyarin… announced with great fanfare, that the evolving Christology of the New Testament and the early Church—that is, the idea of Jesus being essentially divine and human, the divine-human Messiah and Son of his Father in heaven—is deeply engrained in the Jewish tradition that preceded the New Testament. Theologians would call this idea “binitarianism,” that is, the notion of two divine figures of equal substance and power, mostly an older and a younger God (or Father and Son).
But for Boyarin this extraordinary claim is not enough. He lets himself be gladly carried away by the assertion that even what theologians call the Trinity (the notion of three divine figures, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) was present among the Jews well before Jesus made his appearance. It is worth quoting this even more audacious claim:
Fortunately, Boyarin forgets about the Holy Spirit and the Trinitarian claim, and focuses instead on the binitarian idea of two divine powers as part and parcel of the pre-Christian Jewish tradition. It must be said at the start that for the reader familiar with the scholarship this notion does not come as a shattering innovation.
Jonathan Z. Smith, who published an English translation of the Prayer, aptly summarized its theological importance: “Rather than the Jews imitating Christological titles, it would appear that the Christians borrowed already existing Jewish terminology.”
Crucial for this claim is his first chapter, which reveals the major assumption on which his book is built—that, paradoxically, the appellation “Son of God” refers to the Messiah as a human king, whereas the appellation “Son of Man,” contrary to what most Christians believe, refers to the divine redeemer, that is, the divine origin of the Messiah.
Yet with a stroke of his pen Boyarin erases all the pre-Christian Jewish traditions in which the Son of God means much more than just a human king, not to mention the New Testament passages—in particular in Paul’s letters, which predate the Gospels—that speak of Jesus as the divine Son of God.
All the relevant pre-Christian Jewish sources as well as the New Testament sources have been exemplarily presented and analyzed by Martin Hengel in his seminal book, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion, published in many editions, of which Boyarin seems unaware.
AS TO THE Son of Man as a divine figure, Boyarin’s main evidence is the famous vision, in the biblical Book of Daniel, of the Ancient of Days and the one like a human being (“Son of Man”) to whom is given dominion, glory, and kingship forever. This vision forms the core of Boyarin’s argument,
Since Daniel tells us that, although “thrones [in the plural] were set in place,” only the Ancient of Days (that is,
God) took his seat, we must conclude, according to Boyarin, that the second throne was reserved for the Son of Man as a second divine figure (in human form)—a younger God enthroned in heaven next to the Ancient of Days as the older God. Having summarized Daniel in such a way, Boyarin arrives at his desired thesis that Daniel’s Son of Man is the Jewish forerunner of Jesus Christ, long before Jesus was born, the divine-human Messiah, “a simile, a God who looks like a human being.” Ultimately, Boyarin assures us, these two divinities “would end up being the first two persons of the Trinity.”
The most likely candidate for those being seated on these thrones, in addition to the Ancient of Days, is the heavenly court that sits in judgment, explicitly referred to in the Daniel text. Moreover, and more importantly, Boyarin cannot avoid noticing that the interpretation of Daniel’s vision given by an angel in the Book of Daniel itself does not go well with his exegesis.
This interpretation by the angel provides the historical background of the vision: the court’s judgment results in the dominion being taken away from the ruthless Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes and given as an everlasting kingdom to the people of Israel (the “holy ones of the Most High”). So what is at stake here in Daniel 7 is the concrete historical situation after 175 B.C.E., with the Seleucid oppression of the Jews and the Maccabean revolt against it, and the question of who is the Son of Man needs to be answered against this historical background.
The Church Fathers would have loved this exegesis, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it can be found somewhere in their voluminous works. But the evidence that Boyarin provides for his peculiar reading of Daniel 7—flatly against the grain of the Biblical text itself—is rather dubious.
In order to prove the divine nature of the Son of Man, he first points to the fact that clouds in the Hebrew Bible are common attributes of divine appearances (theophanies), and that accordingly the Son of Man’s coming on the clouds of heaven elevates him to a divine being.
Boyarin also invokes the Canaanite gods El and Ba‘al, the former being the ancient sky god and the latter his younger associate, whom the Bible tried—not always successfully—to merge into one God in order to accomplish its idea of a strict monotheism. The notion of a duality within God, he argues, is present in the Hebrew Bible itself. Fair enough—nobody would want to disagree with him here: that duality was a condition that the Bible sought not to affirm but to overcome.
Schafer does accept the new understanding of Jesus and the Law but says Boyarin was derivative. On the other hand, Boyarin is to be faulted for not including the Christian influence on Pesiqta Rabbati, the topic of Schafer latest volume.
No serious New Testament scholar would doubt the former part of this argument (Jesus did not want to do away with the laws of kashrut); and the latter part (Jesus quarreled with the Pharisaic concept of ritual purity) is heavily indebted to the work of the young Israeli scholar Yair Furstenberg.
Worse, Boyarin completely ignores the most important evidence of the vicarious suffering of the Messiah Ephraim in rabbinic Judaism, in the midrash Pesiqta Rabbati, where the notion of the Messiah’s vicarious expiatory suffering returns to the Jewish tradition. These texts have been thoroughly discussed in recent scholarship, and it has been argued that they most likely belong to the first half of the seventh century C.E. and may well be a rather late response to the Christian usurpation of the Messiah Jesus’s vicarious suffering. If this interpretation is correct, then there is clearly not a single unbroken line of tradition leading from Isaiah 53 through of all places Daniel 7—to the New Testament and the subsequent rabbinic literature. Instead what we encounter here is the rabbinic re-appropriation of a theme that is firmly embedded in the Hebrew Bible, was usurped by the New Testament Jesus and therefore largely ignored or better suppressed by most rabbis, only to make its way back later into certain strands of rabbinic Judaism.
Finally, Schafer acknowledges the broad discipline area that they agree about. They include: importance of Second temple Judaism, the slow process of the separation of the ways and the creation of a language of Orthodoxy. From my perspective Schafer lacks the transitional theological language of the 3rd and 4th centuries when many Christians were still monarchists, Arians, Sabellians and Subordinationalists. He does not want to essentialize but many Trinitarian positions had much in common with bi-theism. I found on the Amazon site a review of his work that makes the new Schafer volume almost entirely agree with Boyarin’s thesis, except in the above mentioned small points.
Schäfer showcases the binitarian concept, New Testament Christianity, which basically was binitarian (with the Holy Spirit not yet admitted to full partnership). Thus Judaism was not strictly monotheistic, nor was Christianity always trinitarian. Schäfer holds that binitarianism found an important support in the imperial concept, developed by Diocletian at the end of the third century CE, of the Augustus (or chief emperor) assisted by the Caesar (or junior emperor).
And methodologically, he is willing to acknowledge that many of these Second Temple ideas close to Christianity reemerged in kabblalah, yet in a medievalists eyes they were already there in the rabbinic texts. And how he can claim Pesikta as Christian influenced but Kabbalah as authentic Second temple is not sound. Each passage in both collections needs its own genealogy. I await reading his new volume The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other (Princeton University Press).
First and foremost among them is the recognition that Second Temple Judaism offers a much more complex and multifaceted fabric of ideas and thoughts than many Christians and Jews today are prepared to acknowledge. The various Jewish sources and schools (some of them mislabeled as “sects”)—represented by the late books of the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, and indeed the New Testament—are overlapping, often competing, but always legitimate parts of this teeming spiritual culture.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., moreover, a process was set in motion that was geared toward taking stock and distilling some kind of “normative Judaism,” aimed at defining what is “in” and what is “out,” and thus eliminating trends and directions that were regarded as unwelcome or dangerous
A CONCLUSION strongly suggests itself: if we wish to evaluate “Judaism” and “Christianity” in the first centuries C.E. from a historian’s point of view, we need to stay away from the dogmatic notion of two firmly established religions, the one defined by its ultimate triumph over Judaism after it became the religion of the Christian state—with all its horrible consequences for the Jews—and the other defined by the victory of the rabbis over their enemies from within and from without. In doing so, we will discover that there is no single line or single point in the first centuries of the Christian era that distinguished Judaism and Christianity once and forever. There are several lines and several points.
The binitarian idea of two divine powers does not constitute a definite line of demarcation between the faiths—but the Trinitarian idea of three divine powers does.
The vicarious suffering of the Messiah, or even his death, does not constitute an impassable boundary—but the scandal of his death on the cross, so much emphasized by Paul, does.
And we must not forget a later complication, or irony: some of these “heretical” ideas, suppressed by Talmudic Judaism, would return to Judaism ever more vigorously in what is commonly called Kabbalah.
Read the entire review