The Unmixing Bowl

Many MKs opened their mailboxes on Monday morning and were appalled to find a New Testament inside, sent to them by a messianic organization.

The Bible Society in Israel, a messianic Judaism institution for research, publication and dissemination of holy books, sent a “Book of Testaments,” which combines the Tanach and New Testament in one, leather-bound volume, published with references in Hebrew for the first time.

While the sect incorporates elements of religious Jewish practice, it holds that Jesus is the Messiah.

MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) sent a letter of complaint to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, writing that “it cannot be that missionary materials can be distributed in the Knesset.”

“Texts that were used to persecute and harass [Jews] cannot be distributed through the front door of the State of Israel,” Hotovely fumed.

Christian Allies Caucus chairman MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu) said the mailing is “not missionary work, but an act of foolishness.”

Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev did not receive a package, but said the society had crossed the line between free speech and proselytizing.

-Lahav Harkov
“Missionaries in the Knesset?”
The Jerusalem Post

Sending a bunch of “Christian Bibles” to all the Jewish members of the Knesset was, depending on the reaction you expected, predictably a bad idea. At best (as you read in the quote from the article), it would be seen as “foolishness.” At worst, it would be taken as Christians proselytizing Jews, which is deeply offensive. Think of how many Jews were tortured and even murdered by the church in the past thousand years in attempts to force Jews to convert to Christianity. So, do you think sticking a Christian Bible under the noses of a group of Jews is a good idea?

Anything that even hints of Christian “missionary work” among the Jews is going to trigger a hostile response. Even my attempt at discussing this issue on Facebook drew several passionate responses. After all, Judaism and Christianity are completely incompatible religions and lifestyles.

Or are they?

I’ve started reading Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels, which has drawn its own “passionate responses” in the Amazon reviews section for the book. The fact that Boyarin is a Jewish educator and the Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley hasn’t helped calm the obvious emotional commentary this topic inspires from both Christians and Jews. After all, what Jew, let alone a noted and respected Talmudic scholar, would approach the Christian New Testament with anything but disdain?

I’m barely past the Introduction of the book, but while it is a short work at 224 pages, so far, it is extremely dense with content.

If there is one thing that Christians know about their religion, it is that it is not Judaism. If there is one thing that Jews know about their religion, it is that it is not Christianity. If there is one thing that both groups know about this double not, it is that Christians believe in the Trinity and the incarnation of Christ (the Greek word for Messiah) and that Jews don’t, that Jews keep kosher and Christian don’t.

If only things were this simple.

…The question was not “Is a divine Messiah coming?” but only “Is this carpenter from Nazareth the One we are expecting?” Not surprisingly, some Jews said yes and some said no. Today, we call the first group Christians and the second group Jews, but it was not like that then, not at all.

-Daniel Boyarin
from the Introduction of his book
The Jewish Gospels

Boyarin is suggesting the unthinkable to both Jewish and Christian readers. He’s suggesting that at one point, what we now call Christianity was a form of Judaism, and it was accepted among the different forms or sects of Judaism that existed in the late Second Temple period in Roman occupied “Palestine.” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach tried to reintegrate Christianity into its original Jewish framework in his recent book Kosher Jesus, but it wasn’t well received, either by Jewish audiences (and particularly the Chabad) or by Christians. In my opinion, not having even started Chapter 1 in Boyarin’s book yet, I think he does a much better job than Rabbi Boteach. Although Boyarin is hardly accepting of Jesus as the Messiah, he seems to be able to communicate that a non-trivial number of first century Jews could see that the son of a carpenter from Nazareth might possibly be the Moshiach. Many groups of Jews were divided on this issue in those days, but that’s not particularly unusual according to Boyarin.

Some believed that in order to be a kosher Jew you had to believe in a single divine figure and any other belief was simply idol worship. Others believed that God had a divine deputy or emissary or even a son, exalted above all the angels, who functioned as an intermediary between God and the world in creation, revelation, and redemption. Many Jews believed that redemption was going to be effected by a human being, an actual hidden scion of the house of David–an Anastasia–who at a certain point would take up the scepter and the sword, defeat Israel’s enemies, and return her to her former glory. Others believed that the redemption was going to be effected by that same second divine figure mentioned above and not a human being at all. And still others believed that these two were one and the same, that the Messiah of David would be the divine Redeemer. As I said, a complicated affair.

I would love to see Boyarin’s research from exclusively Jewish sources that supports his understanding of these different factions of Jews, some of whom held beliefs that so mirrored a Christian’s vision of Jesus as divine and as God’s son. You don’t typically hear that sort of viewpoint from Jewish scholars and sages, particularly in modern times.

In other parts of the book’s introduction, Boyarin indicates that he sees the final crystallization of Christ occurring in the church in the late 4th century, specifically at the Council of Nicaea, where the last few nails were driven into the coffin of “Jewish Christianity.” Prior to this, Boyarin believes there were groups of Jews who continued to honor Jesus as the Messiah and the sent one of the God of Jacob; that faith in Jesus was not inconsistent with being a halakhic Jew. In fact, quoting a letter of St. Jerome (347-420 CE) written to St. Augustine of Hippo, Boyarin thinks there where a few small “Christian Jewish” sects that survived into the early 5th century.

In our own day there exists a sect among the Jews throughout all the synagogues of the East, which is called the sect of the Minei, and is even now condemned by the Pharisees. The adherents to this sect are known commonly as Nazarenes; they believe in Christ the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary; and they say that He who suffered under Pontius Pilate and rose again, is the same as the one in whom we believe. But while they desire to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither one nor the other.

Boyarin points out that sadly, Jerome was unable to reconcile Christianity and Judaism, even at this early stage in the history of the church, and yet these “minim” (sectarians) and “Notzrim” (Nazarenes) were Jewish people who lived halachically Jewish lives, keeping kosher, observing the Shabbat, and performing the other mitzvot according to the Torah of Moses…and lifting up this carpenter from Nazareth as the Messiah, who came once and will come again.

Anyone familiar with Christianity’s history and how it is intertwined (rather tragically) with the history of post-Second Temple Judaism, knows something of how the schism between Gentile Christians and diaspora Jews was formed, widened, and eventually ruptured across the pages of the Bible and the Talmud in a bloody, awful mess.

My wife and daughter (sometimes with the “help” of my three-year old grandson Landon) are avid bakers. They have their specialized tools and devices to assist them in their craft, much as an expert carpenter has his coveted power tools. A great deal is made of the mixing bowl and the various mechanisms and peripheral elements that stir delicious substances together, this way and that, in order to produce the correct result that is fit for baking (but first, fit for sampling, at least if it’s cookie dough, by the small “helper” in the kitchen…and occasionally by grandpa).

History has provided for us the converse; an “unmixing bowl” of something that was once an acceptable and perhaps even integral ingredient in the “dough” of ancient Judaism. The portions of that “dough” which eventually became Christianity are now as popular among the descendants of Jacob as a bowl of flour on the kitchen table of a Jewish home during Passover week.

And so, when a “Christian Bible” was sent to each of the Jewish MKs in Jerusalem a few days ago, all the wheels fell off the cart, so to speak, and the stories and letters telling the tales of the man who many Jews once believed was the Messiah is now treated as an object of scorn and insult.

And ultimately trashed.

But there are a few, very few Jews who are re-examining the mixing bowl to see if there is anything left over at the bottom or clinging to the rim, that may serve as a reminder of the “Maggid of Natzaret;” the one who may have been much more than a small town carpenter turned itinerant teacher, or a failed revolutionary who came to a bad end. What if the story of Jesus Christ is really a Jewish story? Could such a thing be possible? Can a modern Jewish Talmudic scholar breach the separating wall between Christianity and Judaism and find this man, or more than a man, waiting in the shadows?

That’s what I’m going to find out as I continue to read Boyarin’s book.

For in discovering the Jewish story of the Jewish Jesus, we may all find out who we really are as people created in His image. And by finding our own face in the mirror, we can find his face, and we can take ownership of the reality of the Lord, Savior, and Messiah, who was sent not just for Israel, but for the entire world.

You need to take ownership of those things important in life—the charity you give, the kind deeds you do, the Torah you learn and teach.

You can’t just say, “This is G‑d’s business, He has to take care of it.” It has to hurt when it doesn’t work out; you have to dance with joy when it does.

That is why G‑d created the “I”—so that we would do these things as owners, not just as workers.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“My Thing”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson


2 thoughts on “The Unmixing Bowl”

  1. While I appreciate the work of Boyarin and others on Second Century ideas that appear in the New Testament, it generally lacks serious interaction with the work of Larry Hurtado and others on early devotion to Jesus.There is merit to the suggestion that it was not so much theology as the the high level of personal devotion to Jesus as Messiah, God’s son, etc., that contributed heavily to the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity.

  2. I doubt that I’ll ever understand all of the complexities involved in early Christianity (if I can use such a term in this context) particularly at a scholastic level, but it’s still a compelling topic, especially as we’re all trying to figure out what’s going to happen to Christians when the Jewish King returns…well, I’m trying to figure it out anyway. I imagine everyone else is convinced about their theories on the outcome.

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