The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ

The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ

by Daniel Boyarin, Jack Miles

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“[A] fascinating recasting of the story of Jesus.” —Elliot Wolfson, New York University
In July 2008, a front-page story in the New York Times reported on the discovery of an ancient Hebrew tablet, dating from before the birth of Jesus, which predicted a Messiah who would rise from the dead after three days. Commenting on this startling discovery at the time, noted Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin argued that “some Christians will find it shocking—a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology.”
Guiding us through a rich tapestry of new discoveries and ancient scriptures, The Jewish Gospels makes the powerful case that our conventional understandings of Jesus and of the origins of Christianity are wrong. In Boyarin’s scrupulously illustrated account, the coming of the Messiah was fully imagined in the ancient Jewish texts. Jesus, moreover, was embraced by many Jews as this person, and his core teachings were not at all a break from Jewish beliefs and teachings. Jesus and his followers, Boyarin shows, were simply Jewish. What came to be known as Christianity came much later, as religious and political leaders sought to impose a new religious orthodoxy that was not present at the time of Jesus’s life.
In the vein of Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels, here is a brilliant new work that will break open some of our culture’s most cherished assumptions.
“A brilliant and momentous book.” —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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595587114
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 03/20/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 190,139
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Daniel Boyarin, Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. His books include A Radical Jew, Border Lines, and Socrates and the Fat Rabbis. He lives in Berkeley, California.

Read an Excerpt


From Son of God to Son of Man

WHO WAS JESUS? The conventional view, of course, is that "Son of God" is the decisive title for Jesus. It is by this title that Jesus is held to be part of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is as the Son of God that he is worshipped as divine; it is as the Son of God that he was deemed to have been given to be sacrificed in order that the world might be redeemed. But things are not quite that simple. First of all, interestingly enough, the term "Son of God" is not often used to refer to Jesus in the New Testament. In Paul, the much more common term is "Lord." In the Gospels, Jesus is more likely to be referred to (or actually to refer to himself) by the title "Son of Man." Most Christians today, if they have thought about it at all, would think that by this title, Son of Man, Jesus' human nature is being designated, while the title "Son of God" refers to his divine nature. This was indeed the interpretation of most of the Fathers of the Church. A new Bible translation called the Common English Bible has gone so far as to translate "Son of Man" as "the human one." In this chapter, I will show that almost the opposite was the case in the Gospel of Mark: "Son of God" referred to the king of Israel, the earthly king of David's seat, while "Son of Man" referred to a heavenly figure and not a human being at all.

The title "Son of Man" denoted Jesus as a part of God, while the title "Son of God" indicated his status as King Messiah. But what is the Messiah and how does it relate to the Christ? Truth be told, they were exactly the same thing, or at any rate the same word. Messiah (in Hebrew pronounced "mashiach") means "anointed one," no more or less, and Christos is simply a Greek translation of that very word, meaning also "anointed one." As the Gospel of John tells us forthrightly: "He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messias," which is, being translated, the Christ (John 1:41).*

The Messiah Son of God as Human King

The reason that the king was called the Messiah was because he was literally anointed with oil at the time of his accession to the kingdom. One of the best examples of this enthronement ceremony is to be found in the Book of Samuel:

Then Samuel took the vial of oil, and poured it upon his head, and kissed him, and said, Is it not that YHVH has anointed you to be prince over his inheritance? (1 Samuel 10:1)

Samuel pours a vial of oil over the head of Saul and then explicitly names him King of Israel. This king of Israel has been appointed by God to be the ruler of Israel, to be charismatic, and to represent Israel before God. Through the medium of the prophet Samuel, God himself has anointed Saul with oil to be the king over his inheritance, Israel. The king is therefore referred to in the Hebrew Bible as the Anointed of YHVH or the Mashiach of YHVH. Other Israelite kings who are described as having been anointed with oil on their accession to the kingship include David (1 Samuel 16:3), Solomon (1 Kings 1:34), Jehu (1 Kings 19:16), Joash (2 Kings 11:12), and Jehoahaz (2 Kings 23:30). As pointed out by the dean of Catholic biblical scholars in the United States, Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ, nowhere in the Hebrew Bible does this usage imply anything but the extraordinarily close connection between the King of Israel and the God of Israel. No awaited or future divine king is contemplated in any of these instances. The term Mashiach throughout the Hebrew Bible means a historical actually reigning human king of Israel, neither more nor less. The "prince" of 1 Samuel's Saul evolved (not without struggle) into the full-blown monarch of the dynasty of David during the period of the Kings, and the term "Anointed of YHVH" (Messiah, Christos) is one of his titles.

The point that the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible always refers to an actually ruling historical king is particularly significant when we consider the following verses:

Kings of the earth set themselves up, and rulers conspire together against YHVH and against his anointed one (his Mashiach). ... "I have installed my king on Zion, my holy hill." I will recount the decree of YHVH: He said to me, "You are my son; this day I have begotten you." (Psalms 2:2, 6–7)

The anointed, earthly king of Israel is adopted by God as his son; the son of God is thus the reigning, living king of Israel. "This day I have begotten you" means this day you have been enthroned. Militating against any literal sense in which the king was taken as son of God and divine is the "this day," which, it seems, may only mean on this the day of your accession to the throne. Another moment in the Psalms where we find the King as the Son of God is in the crucial verses of Psalm 110 (the very verses that also contribute the notion of the exalted Christ seated at the right hand of Power [Mark 14:62]). In this Psalm we read, "In sacred splendor, from the womb, from dawn, you have the dew wherewith I have begotten you." This verse is notoriously difficult, and I shan't here go into the complications of its emendations and interpretations, but one thing seems clear: God says to the king here too, "I have begotten you." The bottom line of this demonstration is that early on the term "Son of God" was used to refer to the Davidic king without any hints of incarnation of the deity in the king: "I will be to you as a father, and you will be to me as a son." The king is indeed very intimate with God and a highly sacralized person — but not God. The kingship is promised to David's seed forever.

Something rather dramatic and tragic happened, however, in the history of the People of Israel. During the sixth century B.C., the kingdom of the Lord's anointed ones in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Davidic line was lost. As the story is narrated in 2 Kings 25, following a siege in 597 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar had installed Zedekiah as tributary king of Judah. However, Zedekiah revolted against Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar responded by invading Judah and began a siege of Jerusalem in January 589 B.C. In 587 B.C., the eleventh year of Zedekiah's reign, Nebuchadnezzar broke through Jerusalem's walls, conquering the city. Zedekiah and his followers attempted to escape but were captured on the plains of Jericho and taken to Riblah. There, after seeing his sons killed, Zedekiah was blinded, bound, and taken captive to Babylon, where he remained a prisoner until his death. After the fall of Jerusalem, the Babylonian general Nebuzaraddan was sent to complete its destruction. Jerusalem was plundered and Solomon's Temple was destroyed. Most of the elite were taken into captivity in Babylon. The city was razed to the ground. Some Israelite people were permitted to remain to tend to the land.

The people — and especially its leadership — went into exile in Babylonia, and even when they were allowed to come back, less than a century later, there was no more Davidic kingdom and no glorious king ruling in Jerusalem. The people prayed for such a king to rule over them once again and for a restoration of that earthly glory. It is, however, still an earthly and actual king for whom the people pray throughout the Hebrew Bible, for a restoration of the House of David as it was before the Exile. In this prayer for an absent king, for a new king of the House of David, the seeds, however, are planted of the notion of a promised Redeemer, a new King David whom God would send at the end of days. That notion would come to fruition in the time of the Second Temple.

When Mark in the very beginning of his Gospel writes, "The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God," the Son of God means the human Messiah, using the old title for the king of the House of David. When, on the other hand, Mark refers to him in the second chapter of the Gospel as the "Son of Man," he is pointing to the divine nature of the Christ. This seems like a paradox: the name of God being used for Jesus' human nature, the name of "Man" for his divine nature. How did it come about? This chapter begins to answer the question of how Jesus was understood as God by monotheistic Jews by telling the story of the Son of Man.

The Son of Man as Divine Redeemer

While the expectation of the restoration of the Davidic king was growing, other ideas about redemption were developing in Israel as well. In the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel, written circa 161 B.C., we find a remarkable apocalyptic story. Apocalypse is a Greek-derived word that means "revelation" (the New Testament book that we call Revelation is also known as the Apocalypse). Generally in an apocalypse, the things that are revealed have to do with the end of days, with what will happen at the end of time and end of the world. The Book of Daniel is one of the earliest apocalypses that was ever written. Taking its clues from the prophet Ezekiel, it describes the heavenly visions of the prophet Daniel. The book was written sometime during the second century B.C. And became one of the most influential books for latter-day Jewry, including, perhaps even especially, in its Christian branch.

In this remarkable text, we find the prophet Daniel having a vision in which there are two divine figures, one who is depicted as an old man, an Ancient of Days, sitting on the throne. We have been told, however, that there is more than one throne there, and sure enough a second divine figure, in form "like a human being," is brought on the clouds of heaven and invested by the Ancient of Days in a ceremony very much like the passing of the torch from elder king to younger in ancient Near Eastern royal ceremonial and the passing of the torch from older gods to younger ones in their myths: "I saw in the vision of the night, and behold with the clouds of the Heaven there came one like a Son of Man and came to the Ancient of Days and stood before him and brought him close, and to him was given rulership and the glory and the kingdom, and all nations, peoples, and languages will worship him. His rulership is eternal which will not pass, and his kingship will not be destroyed."

We can begin to see here a notion about redemption that is quite different from the expectation of the restoration of a Davidic king on the throne of Jerusalem. What this text projects is a second divine figure to whom will be given eternal dominion of the entire world, of a restored entire world in which this eternal king's guidance and rule will be in accord, completely and finally, with the will of the Ancient of Days as well. Although this Redeemer figure is not called the Messiah — this name for him will have to wait for later reflections on this Danielic vision, as we shall see below — it brings us close to at least some of the crucial characteristics of the figure named later the Messiah or the Christ.

What are these characteristics?

He is divine.

He is in human form.

He may very well be portrayed as a younger-appearing divinity than the Ancient of Days.

He will be enthroned on high.

He is given power and dominion, even sovereignty on earth.

All of these are characteristic of Jesus the Christ as he will appear in the Gospels, and they appear in this text more than a century and a half before the birth of Jesus. Moreover, they have been further developed within Jewish traditions between the Book of Daniel and the Gospels. At a certain point these traditions became merged in Jewish minds with the expectation of a return of a Davidic king, and the idea of a divine-human Messiah was born. This figure was then named "Son of Man," alluding to his origins in the divine figure named "one like a Son of Man/a human being" in Daniel. In other words, a simile, a God who looks like a human being (literally Son of Man) has become the name for that God, who is now called "Son of Man," a reference to his human-appearing divinity. The only plausible explanation of the "Son of Man" is that of Leo Baeck, the great Jewish theologian and scholar of the last century, who wrote: "Whenever in later works 'that Son of Man,' 'this Son of Man, or 'the Son of Man' is mentioned, it is the quotation from Daniel that is speaking."

This dual background explains much of the complexity of the traditions about Jesus. It is no wonder, then, that when a man came who claimed and appeared in various ways to fit these characteristics, many Jews believed he was precisely the one whom they expected. (It's also no wonder that many were more skeptical.)

There are many variations of traditions about this figure in the Gospels themselves and in other early Jewish texts. Some Jews had been expecting this Redeemer to be a human exalted to the state of divinity, while others were expecting a divinity to come down to earth and take on human form; some believers in Jesus believed the Christ had been born as an ordinary human and then exalted to divine status, while others believed him to have been a divinity who came down to earth. Either way, we end up with a doubled godhead and a human-divine combination as the expected Redeemer. The connections between older pre-Jesus ideas of the Messiah/Christ and those that Jesus would claim for himself are thus very intimate indeed.

Who Is the Son of Man?

Jesus famously refers to himself by that mysterious term "The Son of Man." Oceans of ink and forests of trees have given their substance so that humans could continue to argue about where this term came from and what it means. Regarding its meaning, some say it refers to Jesus' human nature, while others say it refers to his divine nature. In the Middle Ages it was taken as a sign of Jesus' humility but later on was understood as such a potent mark of potentially blasphemous arrogance that many scholars have argued that the "Son of Man" sayings were all put into Jesus' mouth after his death. Some have argued that the term referred to a primordial heavenly man figure and was connected with Iranian religion, while others have denied entirely that there ever was such a figure at all. All this has added up to what has been called for generations now "The Son of Man Problem."

When Jesus came and walked around Galilee proclaiming himself the Son of Man, no one ever asked: "What is a Son of Man, anyway?" They knew what he was talking about whether they believed his claim or not, much as modern folks in many parts of the world would understand someone saying "I am the Messiah." But there is a puzzlement here, because the term is very odd in any of the ancient languages with which we are concerned — Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

The Christological use of the term "the Son of Man" as a name for a specific figure is unintelligible in Hebrew and Aramaic as an ordinary linguistic usage. In those Semitic languages it is an ordinary word that means "human being"; in Greek it indicates, at best, somebody's child. One would think, then, that when Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man, Aramaic-speakers would hear him just calling himself a person. But the contexts in Mark will not allow us to interpret Jesus' use of the term as meaning just a human being. It would be very difficult to interpret the verses of Mark 2 (discussed later in this chapter) as meaning that any old human has the capacity to forgive sins against God or that any person is Lord of the Sabbath.

Referring to an individual as the Son of Man therefore has to be explained historically and literarily. It only makes sense if "The Son of Man" was a known and recognized title in the world of the writer and characters in Mark. Whence came this title? All such usages must have been an allusion to the pivotal chapter in the book of Daniel.

Much New Testament scholarship has been led astray by an assumption that the term "Son of Man" referred only to the coming of Jesus on the clouds at the parousia, Jesus' expected reappearance on earth. This has led to much confusion in the literature, because on this view it seems difficult to imagine how the living, breathing Jesus, not yet the exalted-into-heaven or returning-to-earth Christ, could refer to himself as the Son of Man, as he surely seems to do in several places in Mark and the other Gospels. This problem can be solved, however, if we think of the Son of Man not as representing a particular stage in the narrative of the Christ but as referring to the protagonist of the entire story, Jesus the Christ, Messiah, Son of Man.

It has been frequently thought that the Son of Man designation refers only to the Messiah (the Christ) at the time of his exaltation and after. In Mark 14:61–62, the high priest asks of Jesus: "Are you the Messiah [Christ], the Son of the Blessed?" And Jesus said, "I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven." One could easily understand from this verse that Jesus uses the title Son of Man to refer only to the moment in which you will see him coming with the clouds of heaven. Now if the Son of Man is, the reasoning goes, the Messiah (the Christ) seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven, how could the term "Son of Man" have been used by Jesus to refer to his earthly life? The scholarship then has to go to great lengths to determine which of the Son of Man sayings Jesus could have, might have, or did say and which were added by the Early Church — the disciples or the evangelists — and put in his mouth. If, however, we understand that the designation Son of Man refers not to a single stage in the narrative of Jesus — birth, incarnation, sovereignty on earth, death, resurrection, or exaltation — but to all of these together, then these problems are entirely obviated. If Jesus (whether the "historical" Jesus or the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels) believed that he was the Son of Man, he was so from beginning to end of the story, not just at one moment within it. The Son of Man is the name of a narrative and its protagonist.


Excerpted from "The Jewish Gospels"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Daniel Boyarin.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Jack Miles,
1. From Son of God to Son of Man,
2. The Son of Man in First Enoch and Fourth Ezra: Other Jewish Messiahs of the First Century,
3. Jesus Kept Kosher,
4. The Suffering Christ as a Midrash on Daniel,
Epilogue: The Jewish Gospel,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A brilliant and momentous book."
—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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