Jesus the Traditionalist Jew

However, the Jewish background of the ideas of the Jesus movement is only one piece of the new picture I’m sketching here. Much of the most compelling evidence for the Jewishness of the early Jesus communities comes from the Gospels themselves. The Gospels, of course, are almost always understood as a marker for a very great break from Judaism. Over and over, we find within the interpretations of them (whether pious or scholarly) statements of what a radical break is constituted by Jesus’ teaching with respect to the “Judaism” of his day.

Even among those who recognize that Jesus himself may very well have been a pious Jew – a special teacher, to be sure, but not one instituting a consequential break with Judaism – the Gospels, and especially Mark, are taken as the sign of the rupture of Christianity, of its near-total overturn, of the forms of traditional (Jewish) piety.

-Daniel Boyarin
Chapter 3: “Jesus Kept Kosher”
The Jewish Gospels

I’ve been slowly, very slowly reading Daniel Boyarin’s excellent book The Jewish Gospels and have written regarding my responses to his text in two previous blog posts: The Unmixing Bowl and The Son of Man – The Son of God. Daniel Boyarin is a noteworthy Talmudic scholar and Professor of Talmudic Culture in the Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, so I’d have to say that, at least from my point of view, he knows his stuff. The book I’m reading contains an examination of the “stuff” about the ancient perceptions of Jesus and how it may not have been unusual at all for many Jews in the late Second Temple period to see Jesus as Rabbi, Messiah, Prophet, and indeed, Divine Son of God.

In the third chapter of his book, Boyarin examines the “Jewishness of Jesus”.

For anyone involved in the Messianic or Hebrew Roots movements, the fact that Jesus was (and is) Jewish and that he led a completely normative Jewish lifestyle as recorded in the Gospels is no surprise, but it may have been to Boyarin when he first encountered the “good news” of the Master. I still think that Boyarin isn’t personally convinced that Jesus is Messiah King or Son of God, but he does seem to be strongly suggesting that it is no mystery why Jews in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago (and even more recently in many parts of the world?) would believe that he was.

The portion of Boyarin I quoted above aptly defines how most modern Jews and Christians see the role of the Gospels: as defining a sharp break from Jews and Judaism in the teachings of Jesus and the establishment of the very “unJewish” Christian religion. But as we already know, this was hardly the case.

Counter to most views of the matter, according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus kept kosher, which is to say that he saw himself not as abrogating the Torah but as defining it. There was controversy with some other Jewish leaders as to how best to observe the Law, but none, I will argue, about whether to observe it. According to Mark (and Matthew even more so), far from abandoning the laws and practices of the Torah, Jesus was a staunch defender of the Torah against what he perceived to be threats to it from the Pharisees.

Boyarin characterises the Pharisees as “a kind of reform movement…that was centered on Jerusalem and Judaea (and who) sought to convert other Jews to their way of thinking about God and the Torah.” It’s interesting (since I’ve never heard this interpretation before) that Boyarin characterizes the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees as one of interpretation of halakah. According to Boyarin, the Pharisees may have represented the establishment of religious practices that were formed during the Babylonian exile “while the Jews who remained in the land continued their ancient practices.” Jesus, Boyarin asserts, supported the more ancient Jewish practices and was actually a Torah conservative and traditionalist compared to the “radical innovations in the Law stemming from the Pharisees and Scribes of Jerusalem.”

We usually see Jesus (at least those of us to perceive him as a wholly Jewish man and teacher living a life consistent with the covenant of Sinai) as interpreting the “true” Torah in opposition to the “leaven of the Pharisees” who made up all kinds of stuff and were totally hypocritical. Boyarin suggests that the struggle between the two “Judaisms” may have been one of traditional halakah (Jesus) vs. reform interpretation (Pharisees and Scribes).

Far from being a marginal Jew, Jesus was a leader of one type of Judaism that was being marginalized by another group, the Pharisees, and he was fighting against them as dangerous innovators. This view of Christianity as but a variation within Judaism, and even a highly conservative and traditionalist one, goes to the heart of our description of the relations in the second, third, and fourth centuries between so-called Jewish Christianity and its early rival, the so-called Gentile Christianity that was eventually (after some centuries) to win the day.

I realize that Boyarin’s opinion is a minority view among both Jews and Christians, but it is compelling to consider that the “original” Jesus Christ was not only a Jew who never broke the Laws of Moses or taught others to break them, but was a teacher who was strongly advocating for a return to a very conservative and traditionalist interpretation of Torah relative to the normative Judaism of those times.


Imagine what that might mean to 21st century Christianity and Judaism. Imagine what that might mean to the movement we call “Messianic Judaism,” which is struggling tremendously to establish its own Jewish identity and connection to the other Judaisms of our modern era. Jesus the Jewish traditionalist. Jesus the teacher of conservative halakah.

Like I said. Wow.

Apparently, Boyarin isn’t the only Talmud scholar who holds this opinion of the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees.

Yair Furstenberg, a young Talmud scholar at the Hebrew University, has recently provided a convincing explanation of the basic controversy between Jesus and those Pharisees. Furstenberg writes that Jesus’ statement (see Mark 7:14-23) needs to be read literally that the body is made impure not through ingesting impure foods but only through various substances that come out of the body…

…This is a debate between Jews about the correct way to keep Torah, not an attack on the Torah. Furstenberg has brilliantly argued that in its original sense, Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees here is literal; they have changed the rules of the Torah…

Really. Consider this. The argument that most Christians interpret about whether or not Jesus made all foods clean had nothing to do with abrogating the kosher laws. It was an argument between different factions of Jews on what made a person impure, which was not eating food but coming into contact with certain objects and substances such as a dead body or certain bodily fluids (you’ll have to read the whole chapter to get the details since Boyarin’s analysis is lengthy). He even presents a different view of Pharisees as “hypocrites” which doesn’t quite fit with what most Christians believe:

We should remember, however, that “in general, in ancient Jewish and Christian contexts a ‘hypocrite’ is a person whose interpretation of the Law differs from one’s own,” as Joel Marcus has so sharply put it.

That statement recasts the Pharisees in the role, not as liars and frauds, but as Jews who had a (sometimes) radically different perspective on halakah from the more conservative interpretation of Jesus.

Of course, the vast, vast majority of people in the church and probably in the Christian colleges and seminaries won’t agree with this. Boyarin suggests a corrective solution, but I don’t know how many believers, scholarly or otherwise, would be willing to try it out:

When put into its historic context, the chapter is perfectly clear. Mark was a Jew and his Jesus kept kosher. At least in its attitude toward the embodied practices of the Torah, Mark’s Gospel does not in any way constitute even a baby step in the direction of the invention of Christianity as a new religion or as a departure from Judaism at all.

Mark is best read as a Jewish text, even in its most radical Christological moments. Nothing that Mark’s Jesus proposes or argues for or enacts would have been inappropriate for a thoroughly Jewish Messiah, the Son of Man, and what would later be called Christianity is a brilliantly successful – the most brilliantly successful – Jewish apocalyptic and messianic movement.

Those of you who have read more than a few of my blog posts know I’m no Biblical scholar. I don’t have the “chops” to adequately evaluate Boyarin’s perspectives relative to other learned texts and teachers and to determine how much evidence there is to support his assertions. However, in general, what he presents to his readers is quite consistent with what is believed by modern “Messianic Jews” and those Gentiles who are called to follow that path of faith.

Jesus was and is a Jew. This “Jewishness” is written all over the Gospels. Jesus never attempted to depart from normative Jewish practice in even the slightest manner and as we see, he may very well have been advocating for a return to the more conservative and traditional understanding and practice of ancient halakah.

Imagine what this will mean for Christians and Jews everywhere when the Son of Man returns in glory. Imagine what it will mean, and what it should mean, to all of us right now.

Worshiping the God of Israel and giving great and very high honor to the Jewish Messiah King within a completely normative Jewish context is not dead. In fact, when he comes back to us and establishes his throne, it’ll all just be getting started.

4 thoughts on “Jesus the Traditionalist Jew”

  1. James,

    I too have read Boyarin’s work, he is certainly engaging to say the least. Though, as you said, some of his material might not be in the mainstream view, I really think he is on to something with much of what he has to say.

    I was considerably persuaded by his interpretation of the Mark 7:14-23 passage. So much so, in fact, I almost feel as though I haven’t read a better treatment of the subject before, or since, having read Boyarin.

    Anywho, glad to see you are enjoying the book, it’s definitely a keeper.

    In Yeshua,


  2. Yes, I am enjoying it, but it does have a few weak points, such as stating the obvious (at least for some of us) and being a tad weak on its supporting research in other areas, which is kind of surprising given Boyarin’s background.

  3. True, I suppose I took some of what he had to say on authority, given his background, but more references would have been nice.


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