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The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ Paperback – August 6, 2013
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—Karen L. King, Harvard Divinity School
"Raises profound questions . . . this provocative book will change the way we think of the Gospels in their Jewish context."
—John J. Collins, Yale Divinity School
"It’s certainly noteworthy when one of the world’s leading Jewish scholars publishes a book about Jesus . . . extremely stimulating."
—Daniel C. Peterson, The Deseret News
"[A] fascinating recasting of the story of Jesus."
—Elliot Wolfson, New York University
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Think about this - the conventional view of pre-Christian Judaism is that it was rigorously monotheist, and, yet, by the middle to end of the First Christian Century, we see the formula of "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" is being used as the baptismal formula in Matthew. I often think that it is strange that Jews - who only knew of one God - accepting two other divine characters without wondering where they came from and why God hadn't bothered to mention them previously.
Boyarin's answer is simple, straightforward and logical; the Jewish tradition included a germ or type of the incarnation and "trinitarianism" long before the First Century C.E., and, in a way, the answer is obvious to anyone who is familiar with the Bible.
Boyarin argues that there was a "binitarian" tradition in ancient Judaism that can be found in Daniel 7, notwithstanding the effort of the author to obscure its binitarian implications, which introduces the "Son of man" and the "Ancient of Days." Under Boyarin's guidance, it seems clear that Daniel 7 can be understood as introducing two divine beings, an older divine being who invests the younger with suzerainty over the world. Boyarin explains that there were several ways in which Israel's messiah was understood. One tradition was that the Messiah who was to be an heir of David who would institute a reign under which all nations would bow to Israel and Israel's God. This tradition - the very traditional contemporary understanding of "messiah" - was fused with that of Daniel, in which the person to whom all nations would bow was a divine being who had the form of a human being.
There was another tradition, moreover, in which a real human being became "exalted" to divine status. Boyarin points to the books of Enoch, which treat the mysterious biblical patriarch Enoch, who it was said was taken by God and was no more. Boyarin uses the books of Enoch, which are part of the Ethiopian canon, to good effect in showing that there was a Judaism that didn't hermetically seal off the spheres of humanity and the divine.
The conclusion of this slim and accessible book is that the Christian idea of the Incarnation and the Trinity was gestured at, or foreshadowed, or contained in germ form, in the Jewish writings and therefore were available for development as Jewish concepts within a Jewish framework. This conclusion answers my question; Jewish followers of Jesus accepted his incarnational and "Trinitarian" - perhaps only "binitarian" - claims because they were within the permissible options of orthodox First Century Judaism.
This insight neatly resolves other conundrums. For example, although there is tendency among most people to view the development of Christian theology from a "low Christology" to a "high Christology," there is the conundrum of the Kenosis Hymn of Philippians, which, as A Hymn of Christ: Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation & in the Setting of Early Christian Worship documents in rigorous detail, is indisputably early, and is equally indisputably a "high Christology." A lot of scholars, such as Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, seem eager to ignore or explain away the Kenosis Hymn because they think that the idea that Jesus was divine has to be a "myth" or post hoc belief that could only develop over an extended period. Yet, if Boyarin is right, then the idea of the incarnation was already a part of the intellectual background of the followers of Jesus, and, so, it is not surprising that a High Christology is an early development.
Boyarin's insight is consistent with that of other authors who agree that the idea of the Incarnation is not a pagan idea, no matter how many times mythicists, the History Channel or Bart Ehrman say it is. Oscar Skarsaune's excellent In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity also supports the argument that whereas pagans found the idea of a god becoming human "disgusting," Jewish Wisdom literature long carried a germ of an incarnational theology.
Boyarin also tackles the issue of whether Jesus kept kosher. This question is used as an opportunity to examine the issue Jesus' dialogue with the Pharisees about keeping purity regulations from the perspective of Jews which existed prior to the destruction of the Temple. More important, than the particular resolution of this issue, I think the real value of Boyarin's approach is that it illustrates how essential it is to read the New Testament as if it was written by Jews and for Jews, rather than as treating the New Testament as a kind of intentional rupture with Judaism.
In Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, Donald H. Akenson makes the point that the destruction of the Temple put an end to the wild diversity that existed in Israel. Boyarin's book indicates how wildly diverse Judaism could have been prior to the destruction of the Temple, in that it could have accommodated a Trinitarian and incarnational strain that would have been as Jewish as the rabbinical Judaism we are familiar with today.
This is a slim book. It really only tackles a few cases. I think it is worth reading as one brick in the wall of our knowledge. At this point, though, I am interested in N.T. Wright's writings, including , which I understand treat Christian themes as "mutations" which did not exist within Judaism.
I'd also point out that Boyarin's book is a challenge to Michael O. Wise's The First Messiah, who argues that the idea of "messiah" didn't exist until the late First Century B.C.E. Boyarin's book, in contrast, shows a development of several strains of idea of "messiah" over the Second and Third centuries B.C.E.