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A Critical Review of Professor Daniel Boyarin's: "The Jewish Gospels"
on June 6, 2012
Jack Miles opens The Jewish Gospels by quoting an anonymous Conservative rabbi to the effect that Boyarin is "perhaps the greatest" Talmud scholar in the world. I would guess that this anonymous Conservative rabbi didn't read Boyarin's previous work: Borderlines. If he would have read that book he would have found that Boyarin's grasp of the Talmud leaves much to be desired.
A central pillar of Boyarin's thesis in the book "Borderlines" is the postulate that the religious leaders of Judaism cared only about the extent of their authority and that they were not motivated by a desire to preserve the teachings with which they were entrusted.
In order to substantiate this judgment against the religious leadership of Israel, Boyarin misrepresents the Talmud. In order to appreciate the magnitude of Boyarin's mistake we need to study some Talmud from the tractate Nidda which deals with the impurity spoken of in Leviticus 15:19-30. The Bible divides the ritual impurity of a menstruating woman into two distinct categories. In the one category (described in verses 19 thru 24), the woman needs to count 7 days from when she begins menstruating, including, of-course the days that she is menstruating, and at the end of the 7 day count -- she can purify herself (assuming that she stopped menstruating by then). In the second category (described in verses 25 thru 30), the procedure for purification is much stricter. The woman needs to wait until the flow of blood has completely ceased, and she then counts 7 clean days. Only after she has experienced 7 days without any flow of blood can she purify herself.
In the context of the first category of impurity, the Talmud comments that the Sadducee women cannot be counted as properly purified. This decision is based on the idea that the Sadducee women would begin counting the 7 days too soon, thus bringing their count to a premature conclusion. Their purification rite would then be performed after the fifth or sixth day as opposed to the Biblically mandated seventh day.
In a different context, the Talmud records a custom in which women from the rabbinic community took upon themselves to count 7 clean days regardless of which category of impurity they experienced and regardless of the degree of the flow of blood. The Talmud praises this custom which prevents confusion and inadvertent violation of Biblical law.
Boyarin claims that the custom of the Sadducee women (of beginning their count too soon) and the custom of the women from the rabbinic community are practically the same. In his words these two customs "produce precisely the same results" (Borderlines; Pg. 63). Boyarin sees no reason why the one custom (that of the Sadducee women) should be castigated and the other praised, instead he concludes that: "the issue is authority".
If Boyarin's reading of the Talmud would be accurate, this would represent an accusation not only against the redactors of the Talmud, but against all who have studied the Talmud since then. How could people revere a book that is so blatantly hypocritical? Boyarin's criticism would be directed at all who follow the custom of the women from the rabbinic community -- as do all Orthodox Jews from that time until today. How could these people follow a teaching that is so thoroughly corrupt?
But Boyarin's reading of the Talmud is so obviously flawed that it is hard to imagine any serious reader of the Talmud, even a novice, making such a terrible mistake. Boyarin has confused the two categories of impurity which form the heart of this tractate. In the case of the Sadducee women, they were counting the days of the menstruation as part of the 7 days. In that situation, it is important to determine the point in time from which it is appropriate to begin counting. If the counting begins too early, the entire purification process will be done on the wrong day. In sharp contrast, the women from the rabbinic community only began counting the 7 days after the menstruation had completely ceased. In this case, the purification process will never be performed too early. The two customs are as almost as far apart from each other as the Nicene creed is from the Shema.
For Boyarin to confuse these two concepts is inexcusable. For Miles to claim that Boyarin is a top Talmud scholar with such a glaring error on his record is an insult to the intended readership of "The Jewish Gospels".
In "The Jewish Gospels", Boyarin tries his hand at some Scriptural interpretation. He attempts to "prove" that the concept of a divine Messiah is present in the Jewish Scriptures long before Jesus was born.
According to Boyarin, when Jesus is called the "Son of Man", it refers to his alleged divinity (The Jewish Gospels, pg. 26). Boyarin bases this on his reading of Daniel 7:13 and 14 where one like the "Son of Man" comes with the clouds towards the Ancient of Days and is granted dominion and glory. Boyarin contends that this passage in Daniel is referring to a youthful god who will be worshiped by all of mankind. The obvious problem with Boyarin's rendition is that the Book of Daniel itself offers a different interpretation. According to the Book of Daniel (7:18,22,27), the one like the "son of man" is a symbol of the people of Israel who will dominate the earth as predicted by Isaiah (60:12).
Boyarin deals with this "weakness" in his interpretation by positing that this passage in the Book of Daniel was written by two different authors. Verses 13 and 14 were part of an ancient (Canaanite) tradition, while the rest of the chapter was written by an Israelite who sought to adhere to a purer monotheism (The Jewish Gospels, pg. 43).
The "solution" that Boyarin has proposed undermines his entire position. Did Jesus believe that the Book of Daniel was written by two authors? Did Jesus' Galilean audience study Bible-criticism in the liberal universities so that when Jesus quoted this passage they immediately "knew" that he was taking the side of the "Canaanite author" of verses 13 and 14? If we will apply the modern approach to the Jewish Scripture to the mind-set of first century Jews, we might as well attribute the variations in the four Gospels to the different texting habits of those listening to Jesus' sermons.
The entire basis of Boyarin's argument is riddled with errors. Boyarin claims that the term "son" (as in "Son of Man") is a reference to youth (The Jewish Gospels, pg. 33). But the term "son of" in the Aramaic language has nothing to do with youth. It is merely identifying the species of the entity described. In contrast with the first four figures, which are depicted as various beasts, the fifth figure is identified as a human. The term "son of" is no indication of the age of the figure it is merely an indication of his nature.
Boyarin quotes Emerton''s argument which posits that aside from God no one else is portrayed in the Jewish Scriptures as "riding on the clouds" (The Jewish Gospels, pg. 40). The conclusion Boyarin attempts to arrive at is that the "son of man", who rides on the clouds in Daniel 7:13, must be divine. The obvious problem with this argument is that the son of man is not riding on the clouds in Daniel''s vision; he is coming with the clouds (not on the clouds). The association with the clouds is a metaphor that the Scriptures use to speak of armies of Gentile kings (Jeremiah 4:13; Ezekiel 38:9,16), hardly "divine beings".
Furthermore, the entire content of the passage indicates that this figure represents, not a man, but a nation. The figure like the son of man is preceded by four beasts, each representing a different nation. The obvious follow-up would have a fifth nation arriving on to the scene. Why would the prophet switch his focus from national entities to a single individual without any textual indication that this shift in focus is taking place? The parallel passage (Daniel 2:31-45) also presents a vision about five kingdoms (note the wording on verse 44, with the emphasis on "kingdom", "nation" and the female pronoun "she" -- all obviously referring to a nation and not to an individual). There is no reason to see these two verses as standing apart from the rest of the flow of the chapter and apart from the rest of the book.
As if this weren't incredible enough, Boyarin takes his argument one step further. In his analysis of Isaiah 53 Boyarin takes the position that the suffering of the servant described in Isaiah is parallel to the suffering of the "saintly exalted ones" described in Daniel 7:25 (The Jewish Gospels, pg. 144). At first this would seem to undercut his entire hypothesis which attempts to posit that the Isaiah servant is the individual Messiah and not the nation, while Daniel clearly refers to the suffering of the nation. Boyarin postulates that the passage in Daniel was read as a reference to an individual despite the plural terminology that the prophet uses. This faulty argument in and of itself is enough to discredit Boyarin's position, but there is more to it. The prophet actually describes the suffering as an attempt by the enemies of the holy exalted ones to "alter the seasons and the law" -- a fitting description of the religious persecution of the Jewish people which attempted to abolish observance of the appointed holy days. These metaphors can in no way be read as a description of Jesus' suffering. Boyarin does not bother to explain how the details of Daniel's prophecy harmonize with his interpretation.
Of all of the ancient texts that Boyarin deals with in his book, it is the Christian Scripture that he treats with the most respect. He doesn't attribute malicious motives to its authors as he does to the authors of the Talmud, and in contrast to his analysis of the Jewish Bible, he doesn't find any evidence for conflict in the editing process of the gospels. Still and all, his approach to this text is no less frivolous than his approach to the texts revered by the Jewish people.
Boyarin presents us with an analysis of the hand-washing incident described in the seventh chapter of the book of Mark (The Jewish Gospels, pgs. 106-127). Boyarin concludes that, contrary to popular Christian opinion, this incident does not teach that Jesus abolished the dietary laws altogether. Rather, Jesus was opposed to the specific rabbinical enactment of hand-washing, which stands apart from the general dietary laws.
I find myself in agreement with Boyarin on this point. Reading the book of Mark with an understanding of Jewish law one recognizes that there is a distinction between the purity laws, which Jesus was contesting, and the general dietary laws, which Jesus does not mention. Boyarin however does not stop there. Boyarin goes on to argue that Jesus stood against all Pharisaic innovations and additions to the Law. This position is not supported by the Christian Scriptures, the only source we have for Jesus and his teachings.
Boyarin has ignored a significant piece of evidence in this discussion. The Talmud records that there was an inner-Pharisaic conflict concerning the hand-washing enactment, and that this conflict was still unresolved in the generation of Jesus (Shabbat 14b). In other words by taking a stance against the hand-washing enactment, Jesus is not standing outside of the Pharisaic community. Instead he was taking part in an inter-Pharisaic debate.
This is corroborated by Jesus' teaching as recorded by Matthew: "the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you." (23:2,3). Although Jesus goes on to malign the Pharisees for hypocritical behavior, but he does not take issue with their authority or their interpretation of the Law. In fact some of the laws he mentions and upholds in his subsequent diatribe (such as the tithing of spices) are of rabbinic origin.
Jesus is described as observing the Passover Seder according to rabbinic tradition (Luke 22:18-20). When Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath law, an accusation that only makes sense according to the Pharisaic understanding of the Law, he never exonerates himself by arguing against the Pharisaic definition of the Law. Jesus' defense always assumes that the Pharisaic definition of the Law is correct, it is only the application of the Law in those particular instances (i.e. for the purpose of healing) that Jesus takes issue with.
Many of Jesus' followers considered themselves Pharisees long after Jesus had died (Acts 15:5). These people were prominent figures in the community of Jesus followers and their opinion was taken seriously. A comparison between the debate described in Acts 15 and Paul''s dispute with Peter recorded in Galatians 2:14 shows that Peter, the prime disciple of Jesus, was of the "Pharisee party". Paul accuses Peter of "compelling the Gentiles to live as do the Jews". This was the opinion of the Pharisaic segment of the early Christian community as recorded in Acts 15 and Paul attributes this outlook to Peter. A straightforward reading gives us to understand that Peter himself belonged to this group.
If, as Boyarin claims, Jesus took a clear stance against the Pharisee approach to the Law, why would his followers accept this very approach that he discredited? It is clear that Jesus did not reject the Pharisee approach to the Law as a whole it was only certain details of the Pharisaic application, details that were being disputed within the Pharisee community itself, that Jesus was rejecting.
In the book of Mark (7:8-13) we do indeed find Jesus striking out at the general concept of the traditions. He rebukes the "Pharisees and all the Jews" (Mark 7:3) for using the traditions to make the Law of God null and void. However, the example that Jesus uses to demonstrate how the Jews were using the traditions to nullify the Law of God, is perplexing. Mark's Jesus accuses the Jews of using the law of taking vows as a method of avoiding honoring their parents. The technical aspects of this accusation are confusing enough (the laws of taking vows are Biblical in nature (Numbers 30:3) and not a part of the traditions as Mark's Jesus seems to believe). But what is really difficult to understand is that in all of the rabbinic writings, there is not one statement that can be taken as an encouragement to avoid honoring one's parents. The consistent position of Pharisaic Judaism, according to every historical record, places the honor of parents on the highest pedestal. In sharp contrast, the Gospels leave us with several statements that seem to go against the spirit of the Fifth Commandment (Matthew 10:37; 12:48; 19:29; Mark 3:33; Luke 14:26). The targets of Jesus' invective left us a literature that is far more extensive than the 4 books of the Gospels, yet nothing equivalent is to be found in their writings.
This would lead us to one of two conclusion; either the group that Jesus was castigating was a fringe sect that never left their mark on mainstream Judaism, or we can conclude that the redactors of the Gospels put this anti-Pharisaic tirade into their book long after Jesus died and were not familiar with the ways of the Jews. Either way, Boyarin's conclusion that Jesus was anti-Pharisaic cannot be substantiated from this enigmatic passage, especially in light of the totality of the available evidence.
Straw in the Water
It is hard to see any positive contribution to the pool of human knowledge emerge from a book so riddled with errors. The author's approach to the ancient texts is so frivolous and irresponsible that it is hard to take anything he says seriously.
The Messianic community seems to sharply disagree with my analysis of "The Jewish Gospels", hailing it as a brilliant contribution to the study of the origins of Christianity. I cannot imagine that these Messianic Jews failed to notice that Boyarin believes that the authors of the Jewish Bible picked up their ideas about God from the ancient Canaanite culture. These Messianics must have realized that Boyarin does not hesitate to slice up a chapter in the Bible and attribute different verses to authors who subscribed to two conflicting theologies. These "methods" of Scriptural interpretation would never be accepted by this Bible-believing community had the conclusions not concurred with their agenda.
The fact that the Messianic community grasps so excitedly at this straw extended to them by the liberal academic society could mean only one thing. They have found nothing else to grab hold of.
This review was prepared by Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal