Boyarin: The Gospels are Jewish

Today we are interviewing Daniel Boyarin, whose new book, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, was published by New Press this April. In The Jewish Gospels, Daniel presents an astonishing argument that the concept of the Trinity was not original to Christianity at all but came out ideas that were commonplace in the Jewish tradition long before the birth of Jesus. Daniel is one of the world’s most renowned, original, and admired scholars of ancient Judaism. He is the Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture in the departments of Rhetoric and of Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley. Daniel is not shy of taking provocative and controversial positions. His work was recently alluded to in the Oscar-nominated Israeli film, Footnote, where it was the subject of an argument. He has described himself as a Trotskyist, anti-Zionist Orthodox Jew, a set of positions and commitments that has excited both exaggerated interest in his work as well as scurrilous public attacks (mostly by pro-Zionist Jewish professors). Let’s hope today’s interview will engender both.

Andy: Daniel, everybody knows that Jesus was a Jew. But in The Jewish Gospels you are saying something quite different and original, even revolutionary. Can you explain your argument?

Boyarin: When people say that Jesus was a Jew, they usually mean that he came out of a Jewish milieu. Some think he completely revolutionized that environment, while others think it was the Gospels that produced that overturn, making a Jewish teacher into a god. I am arguing that the portrait of Jesus we find in the Gospels (especially in Mark) is one that could completely fit into the context of Second-Temple Judaism in which a Messiah who would be divine and human at the same time is not a foreign notion. I argue, moreover, that there is nothing in Mark or Matthew (or probably in Luke as well –  but this is a harder argument to make) that suggests that Jesus was setting aside or abrogating the law of the Torah. So it’s not only Jesus who was a Jew but the Christ (and Christ is not Jesus’ last name but his title!)

Andy: So let me get this straight. In the early years of Christianity there was no real distinction between Jews and Christians. There just happened to be some Jews who thought that a particular guy, Jesus, was the messiah. And these Jesus Jews weren’t really all that distinctive within the world of Jews at the time. Is that correct?

Boyarin: Yes. Fairly frequently I’m asked by Christian folk why the Jews “rejected” Jesus. I answer this (as Jews stereotypically are wont to) with another question: Who do you think accepted Jesus, the Zulus; the Goths? Jews were expecting a Messiah—this is one of the central arguments of the book—and many of them, moreover, had come to expect him to be a divine being in human form or even embodied in a human. Some Jews who came to know Jesus were so impressed with him that they accepted the claim (if he made it) or made the claim themselves that this Jew from Nazareth was the one that they and all of the Jews were expecting. Not altogether surprisingly a fair number, probably most, of the Jews around at the time were more skeptical. Today we call the first group of Jews Christians, the second Jews, but then and for a long time, they were all Jews.

Andy: When I studied The New Testament, I was always taught that St. Paul was the person who really made Christianity distinct from Judaism. And that happened early on. Apparently you see it differently. When did Christianity have its irrevocable break with Judaism? And why?

Boyarin: In some ways it was Paul who effected the revolution with respect to the Torah that we don’t find in the Gospels. But it needs to be remembered that Paul was an embattled figure, marginalized and considered a heretic by most followers of Jesus for decades if not  longer. I would tentatively suggest that it was the entry of myriads of Gentiles into the Jesus movement, folks who had no interest in or attraction toward the traditional ways of the Jews that ultimately precipitated a gradual and finally total separation of the communities. One of the important arguments of the book is that the Gospels are misread as portraying Jesus as rejecting the Torah and Jewish religious practice; it was Paul who did that, and even with Paul, a plausible argument could be made that he intended this rejection only for the “believers” from the Nations (the so-called Gentiles) and not the Jewish followers of Christ. Jesus, I argue, defended the Torah against the reforms and traditions of the Pharisees whom he saw as substituting their own traditions for what was clearly written by Moses!

Andy: A lot of your book is a close look at the language of the Gospels, particularly The Gospel of Mark. I always thought that the Gospels tried to distinguish Jesus’ ideas from the Jewish thinkers of his time, particularly the Pharisees.

Boyarin: Yes, but precisely the argument is that the Pharisees were not “the Jewish thinkers of the time;” they were some Jewish thinkers of the time. Jesus, I argue, was much more conservative in his approach to Torah than the Pharisees who were descended from Jews who had returned from the Babylonian Exile with some quite new ideas about the way the Torah ought to be practiced, especially their notion of a “Tradition of the Fathers”—later on called Oral Torah—that dictated some practices that certainly seemed different from the literal meaning of the Torah itself. So Jesus was portrayed as being in conflict with those Pharisees but that hardly marked him off as in any way not Jewish in his religious thought, any more than the attacks on the Pharisees in the Dead Sea Scrolls make those texts not Jewish or less Jewish than the Talmud!

Andy: When you think about this, it seems pretty provocative. How do you think Jewish and Christian theologians are going to respond to it?



"The search for our beginning could lead to our end." or so goes the tagline for the new Ridley Scott film, Prometheus, opening tomorrow. What was originally billed as an ALIEN prequel, is now apparently a standalone work, and in prime position to do very well at the box office. Summer is upon us and school is out. Throngs of wide-eyed youth will soon flood the theaters to see Prometheus for themselves, and it seems to have every ingredient necessary to achieve summer blockbuster status. While it certainly looks thrilling and promises amazing effects, I don't believe Prometheus will attract hundreds of thousands of viewers simply because Ridley Scott directed it, nor because Damon Lindelof co-wrote it. I believe the Prometheus audience will flock to see this film because it taps into that submerged but stirring question in the collective mind of society today.

For centuries, people have pondered "Is there a G-d?", and they, in turn, were followed by multiple generations asking "Why am I here?". In more postmodern times, though, these types of questions have shifted to "Are we alone?" and "Are our governments lying to us?" And for good reason, too. Many inexplicable mysteries have unfolded during our time on the planet, and some of the most intriguing are the ancient ones on which this film will capitalize. With the meteoric rise of internet research and many other advances in information technology, we've been able to avail ourselves of all sorts of data concerning long-forgotten civilizations that we wouldn't have been able to view just a decade ago. There are entire worlds of information out there to discover. I believe there is even more deception, though. The question at the heart of Prometheus' allure, the current inquiry in the minds of many people young and old alike, as strange as it may sound, is "Did an advanced race of alien beings create us?" And if so, "Are they coming back?"

The concept of Exogenesis, or the origins of human life having evolved, or having been created elsewhere, is not a new one - nor is it uncommonly held. When evidence supporting the theory of evolution can't be found on earth, it must be in the stars, right? A related theory, Panspermia, the notion that life on earth may have been seeded from a distant, cosmic source, is also a favorite among an increasing number of contemporary scientists. Those wishing to kick the abiogenesis can down the road will seemingly accept any explanation, no matter how irrational, as long as it doesn't include a G-d of moral absolutes and judgment. For many astonishing examples of this, you'll want to watch the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The entire film is excellent, but very near its end you'll witness the truly insane lengths to which a celebrated thinker will go to denounce G-d in his attempt to explain the origins of life on earth. In this case, the intellectual being interviewed is none other than Richard Dawkins, accomplished author and proud Atheist. I can assure you, the many interviews with various "experts" are worth whatever you might pay to own Expelled - and you should. But if you'd prefer a free preview of Dawkins' greatness, you can watch those few ridiculously "scientific" minutes here. Intelligent design by aliens? Highly plausible and intellectual! Intelligent design by G-d? Unthinkable, primitive and idiotic!

The idea that our creator(s) could have been alien is well-trodden territory in various creative disciplines - and as we'll see, it goes all the way back to the very dawn of human civilization. In the coming months, I'll discuss some of the people that have explored these concepts, and we'll look at many of the otherworldly beliefs and understandings found in ancient cultures. I'll also offer a scriptural assessment of the alien phenomenon - including how it may even relate to future events. If you're wondering how on earth Tanakh could possibly intersect with space invaders, I hope you'll join me. There is so much to discuss.