Tag Archives: daniel boyarin

Best Viewed Through a Long Telescope

phariseesThe Jewish-Christian schism in Late Antiquity has been studied from numerous points of view. This paper will approach these events by investigating the manner in which halakhic issues (questions of Jewish law) motivated the approach of the early Rabbis to the rise of the new faith, and the manner in which Rabbinic legal enactments expressed that approach as well. The eventual conclusion of the Rabbis and the Jewish community that Christianity was a separate religion and that Christians were not Jews, was intimately bound up with the Jewish laws and traditions governing personal status in the Jewish community, both for Jews by birth and proselytes. These laws, as known today, were already in full effect by the rise of Christianity. In the eyes of the Rabbis, the evolution of Christianity from a group of Jews holding heretical beliefs into a group whose members lacked the legal status of Jewish identity and, hence, constituted a separate religious community, brought about further legal rulings which were intended to separate the Christians from the Jewish community.

-Prof. Lawrence H. Schiffman
“The Halakhic Response of the Rabbis to the Rise of Christianity”

Yahnatan Lasko at the Gathering Sparks blog sent me the link to Professor Schiffman’s brief article (and with a title like that, I was surprised it was so short) with the idea that I might want to write something in response (and I’m not the only blogger in the “Messianic space” Yahnatan notified). I emailed him back with my immediate thoughts:

Schiffman seems to be saying that prior to the destruction of the Temple, he believes that Jews who believed Yeshua was the Messiah and even Divine wouldn’t have caused any sort of rejection from the larger Jewish population or authority structures since there were multiple streams of Judaism in operation, with the general expectation that they were going to disagree with each other. The destruction of the Temple was the catalyst for many things, including Jewish dispersal, the apprehension of Gentile leadership of “the Way” for the first time, the power surge of Gentiles entering that Judaism, all resulting in the shift from Messiah worship as a Jewish religion to Christ worship as a Gentile faith. As Schiffman said, the Pharisees were the only Jewish stream to remain intact after the Temple’s fall and while “the Way” also survived, it took a divergent trajectory, leading it away from Judaism, so by default, the Pharisees became the foundation for later Rabbinic Judaism.

Schiffman is being very “gentle” in his treatment of this topic. I can see a blog post coming out of this in the semi-near future. Thanks for sending the link.

Of course, Schiffman also said that Jews who had faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah were holding “heretical beliefs,” so I guess he wasn’t all that gentle, but he still seems to be treating the topic with a lighter touch than you’d expect.

I was somewhat reminded of Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin’s treatment of “the story of Jesus Christ” in his book The Jewish Gospels (a book I extensively reviewed in The Unmixing Bowl, The Son of Man – The Son of God, and Jesus the Traditionalist Jew).

Boyarin, of course, didn’t express personal faith in Yeshua as Messiah or assign any credibility, from his perspective, that modern Judaism could consider Jesus as Moshiach, but he is another Jewish voice saying that, given the understanding of the Torah and the Prophets in the late Second Temple period, it was certainly reasonable and credible to expect that some Jews, perhaps a large number of Jews, would have accepted Yeshua’s Messianic claim and even his Divinity.

mens-service-jewish-synagogueToday, for the vast majority of Jewish people, such thoughts are outrageous and offensive, but unwinding Jewish history and the development of Rabbinic thought back nearly twenty centuries, we encounter a different set of Judaisms than we observe in the modern era. We can’t really retrofit modern Jewish perspectives into the time of Jesus, Peter, and James anymore than the modern Church can insert post-Reformation and post-modern Christian theology and doctrine backward in time and into the original intent of the Gospel and Epistle writers, particularly Paul. Both inject massive doses of anachronism into the ancient Jewish streams of life when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem.

Today, it takes a tremendous amount of courage for any Jewish person, under any set of circumstances, to say anything even mildly complementary about the ancient Jewish stream of “the Way” and that it might be reasonable to believe that in that cultural and chronological context, Jewish people, from fishermen to scribes, might see the Messiah looking at them from the eyes of Jesus.

While our sources point to general adherence to Jewish law and practice by the earliest Christians, we must also remember that some deviation from the norms of the tannaim must have occurred already at the earliest period. Indeed, the sayings attributed by the Gospels to Jesus would lead us to believe that he may have taken a view of the halakhah that was different from that of the Pharisees,. Nonetheless, from the point of view of the halakhic standards, the early Rabbis did not see the earliest Christians as constituting a separate religious community.


A number of months ago, Rabbi Dr. Carl Kinbar made a statement that I think speaks to the above-quoted comment of Professor Schiffman:

But, to complicate matters, different social groups and congregations often have their own versions of Torah that they enforce in these ways. Obviously, this situation is far from ideal.

Fortunately, God is (in my considered opinion) not a perfectionist. Even as he calls us to holiness, he understands the limitations that surround us. For the most part, then, Torah observance is essentially voluntary and variable rather than compulsory and uniform. In fact, this is exactly the situation that existed in Yeshua’s, when the vast majority of synagogues were “unaffiliated” and most Jews practiced what has been called “common Judaism.” In common Judaism, Jews kept the basics of Torah observance according to their customs but did not acknowledge the authority of the sects (including the Pharisees) to impose additional laws.

ancient-rabbi-teachingMy understanding of what Rabbi Kinbar said was that while there was a basic or core set of standards and halachah that defined Judaism as an overarching identity and practice, not only were there multiple streams of Judaism (Pharisees, Essences, and so on), but significant variations of how Torah observance was defined among “different social groups and congregations” (and I apologize to Rabbi Kinbar in advance if I’ve misunderstood anything he’s said).

What this means for us as we’re gazing into the time of the apostles, is that there were many different expressions of what we call “Judaism” back in the day, but in spite of all the distinctions, including one group who paid homage to a lowly Jewish teacher from the Galilee as the Messiah and Divine Son of God, they were all accepted as Jewish people practicing valid Judaisms.

This situation changed with the destruction of the Temple. Divisions within the people, after all, had made the orderly prosecution of the war against the Romans and the defense of the Holy City impossible. The Temple had fallen as a result. Only in unity could the people and the land be rebuilt. It was only a question of which of the sects would unify the populace.


Holding all of this diversity together in a Jewish land occupied by the Roman empire was difficult enough, and more so for Jewish communities in the diaspora, but the Temple was the common denominator (even if you lived so far away that you could only afford to make the pilgrimage rarely) that defined all Jewish people everywhere. The Temple was always the center, the resting place of the Divine Presence, the only place on earth where once a year atonement was made for all of Israel.

And then it was gone.

As Schiffman points out, with their power base destroyed, the Sadducees where scattered to the winds. It could be argued that the Way, the ancient movement of Messiah worshipers, was a Pharisaic extension. We have indications that the apostle Paul not only did not abandon Jewish practice but remained Pharisaic throughout his life. Many of Yeshua’s teachings most closely fit the theology of the Pharisees. Even my Pastor said that if we lived in ancient Israel (and we were Jewish), we’d be Pharisees, because they were the “fundamentalists” of their day, the populist movement among the common Jewish people, Am Yisrael.

But the split would inevitably occur, perhaps not so much because one splinter group among the Pharisees, the Way, believed they had identified a Divine Messiah, but because a mass movement of Gentiles was entering that particular Jewish sect and, by definition, re-writing the nature of the movement as the majority Gentile membership achieved ascendency and as the Jewish membership were forced into exile, grieving a Temple and a Jerusalem left in ruins.

Of the vast numbers of Greco-Roman non-Jews who were attracted to Christianity, only a small number ever became proselytes to Judaism. The new Christianity was primarily Gentile, for it did not require its adherents to become circumcised and convert to Judaism or to observe the Law. Yet at the same time, Christianity in the Holy Land was still strongly Jewish.

As the destruction of the Temple was nearing, the differences between Judaism and Christianity were widening. By the time the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish Christians were a minority among the total number of Christians, and it was becoming clear that the future of the new religion would be dominated by Gentile Christians. Nevertheless, the tannaim still came into contact primarily with Jewish Christians and so continued to regard the Christians as Jews who had gone astray by following the teachings of Jesus.


Long telescopeAccording to Schiffman’s commentary, as long as the “Christian” movement was largely controlled by Jews, it was a Judaism and Jewish people who believed that a Jewish Rabbi was actually the Messiah were still Jewish. In fact, in that time and place, it was probably a no-brainer. No one would have even questioned that any Jewish adherent to the Way wasn’t Jewish, anymore than any Jewish person today would question the “Jewishness” of a Chabad adherent believing their beloved Rebbe will one day be resurrected as the Messiah.

Schiffman said that other Jewish streams would have considered Jewish Yeshua-believers as misguided but Jewish, much as other Jewish streams might consider the Chabad and their attitude about the Rebbe today.

If today’s Jewish people (or for that matter, today’s Christians) could look through that long telescope back to the world of Peter, James, and Paul, they might gain a vision that would help them see what I see in today’s Messianic Jewish movement; a perspective that illuminates the “Jewishness” of those men and women who are observant Jews and who have put their hope in the Messiah, who once walked among his people Israel as a teacher from the Galilee who went about gathering disciples, and ended up revolutionizing the world.

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.

The Son of Man – The Son of God

I was watching in the night visions and behold! with the clouds of heaven one like a man came; he came up to the One of Ancient Days, and they brought him before Him. He was given dominion, honor and kingship, so that all peoples, nations and languages would serve him; his dominion would be an everlasting dominion that would never pass, and his kingship would never be destroyed.

Daniel 7:13-14 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

And immediately after the distress of those days,
the sun will turn dark,
and the moon will not shine its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the armies of heaven will be shaken.
Then the sign of the son of man will appear in heaven,
and all families of the earth will mourn,
and they will see the son of man coming
with the clouds of heaven in power and great glory.

Matthew 24:29-30 (DHE Gospels)

The theology of the Gospels, far from being a radical innovation within Israelite religious tradition, is a highly conservative return to the very most ancient moments within that tradition, moments that had been largely suppressed in the meantime – but not entirely. The identification of the rider on the clouds, with the one like a son of man in Daniel provides that name and image of the Son of Man in the Gospels as well. It follows that the ideas about God that we identify as Christian are not innovations but may be deeply connected with some of the most ancient Israelite ideas about God. These ideas at the very least, go back to an entirely plausible (and attested) reading of Daniel 7 and thus to the second century B.C. at the latest. They may even be a whole lot older than that.

-Daniel Boyarin
From Chapter 1: From Son of God to Son of Man
in his book The Jewish Gospels

I previously mentioned when discussing Boyarin’s book, that “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…” In Chapter 1, he provides a compelling connection between the visions of Daniel as the basis how some first century Jews could indeed anticipate God as the “One of Ancient Days” who gave one like the son of man” power and dominion over all the peoples and nations of the earth. I’ve always been concerned about the apparent “disconnect” between the Old Testament and Jewish vision of the Messiah and the New Testament and Christian Jesus. Now I have hope that such a disconnect does not, in fact, exist.

Without providing too many direct quotes from the chapter, Boyarin says it would have been necessary to link the “son of man” vision to the Messiah, since it was not necessarily presupposed that one would be the other. He also effectively describes how “Son of Man” could directly refer to the divine-like being standing before the throne of the Ancient One, while “Son of God” referred to this being’s humanity. Indeed, we’ve already seen in Daniel 7:13-14 how the phrase “son of man” directly applies to the divine-like being in human form who stood before the throne of the Ancient One and was given eternal authority over the earth.

But who is the “Son of God?”

The kings of the earth take their stand and the princes conspire secretly, against Hashem and against His anointed… “I Myself have anointed My King, over Zion, My holy mountain!” I am obliged to proclaim that Hashem said to me, “You are My son, I have begotten you this day.” –Psalm 2:2,6-7 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

The “anointed one” is understood as the Messiah, the Christ. Boyarin explains this passage thus:

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.

This is the traditional, modern Jewish understanding of the Messiah, a completely human being who will rise up from the ranks of his people to become King of Israel and by divine appointment (if not by divine nature), King over all the nations of the earth.


But if you put these pieces together, if you join the “Son of God” with the “Son of Man,” you come up with an entirely new being relative to how Jews today understand Messiah; you create an image that is not unlike how Christians see the Christ, the Messiah…Jesus.

You also, according to Boyarin’s argument, come up with an explanation as to how late second Temple Jewish men like Peter, Philip, and Matthew could believe that Jesus was not only the Messiah but indeed, a divine being who is “exalted at the right hand of God.” (Acts 2:33 ESV) In fact, reading the first chapter of Boyarin’s book is so riveting, I found myself asking why the Jewish author of this book isn’t convinced of what he’s actually saying here.

Here’s a clue:

Taking the two-throne vision out of context of Daniel 7 as a whole, we find several crucial elements…

What Boyarin seems to be saying is that, while he does not necessarily believe Jesus is the Messiah or the mysterious “son of man” figure we see in Daniel’s vision (and I’m reading between the lines here), he can fully understand why some Jews in the time of Jesus would totally embrace this belief. He is saying that the conception of the Messiah as divine or divine-like was a completely acceptable understanding to some Jews (but not others, since claims of Christ’s divinity resulted in other Jews trying to stone him).

If all the Jews – or even a substantial number – expected that the Messiah would be divine as well as human, then the belief in Jesus as God is not the point of departure on which some new religion came into being but simply another variant (and not a deviant one) of Judaism. As controversial a statement as this may seem, it must be first be understood in the context of a broader debate about the origins of the divinity of Jesus. The theological idea that Jesus actually was God, however refined by later niceties of trinitarian theology, is referred to as “high Christology,” in opposition to “low Christologies” according to which Jesus was essentially an inspired human being, a prophet or teacher, and not God.

My basic understanding of what Boyarin is saying in this chapter is that while the viewpoint of the nature and identity of Jesus as high Christology is perfectly reasonable within an ancient Jewish context as connected to Daniel 7, it was only one Jewish perspective that existed at the time about Jesus and may well have been, as far as Boyarin is concerned, quite wrong.

However, Boyarin doesn’t go out of his way to express his personal beliefs in this chapter and his beliefs are not the point. The point is whether or not it is reasonable to believe that many, many first century Jews (as many as “tens of thousands” according to Bible Scholar David Bivin) could have seen Jesus as both Messiah King and divine being within the normative Judaism of their day.

I would argue that this divine figure to whom authority has been delegated is a Redeemer king, as the Daniel passage clearly states. Thus he stands ripe for identification with the Davidic Messiah, as he is in the Gospel and also in non-Christian contemporary Jewish literature such as Enoch and Fourth Ezra. The usage of “Son of Man” in the Gospels joins up with the evidence of such usage from these other ancient Jewish texts to lead us to consider this term used in this way (and, more important, the concept of a second divinity implied by it) as the common coin – which I emphasize does not mean universal or uncontested – of Judaism already before Jesus.

Although it is extremely likely that Boyarin isn’t convinced of the Messianic or divine identity of Jesus, the fact that it was an accepted way for first century normative Judaism to view the Christ brings up the obvious question. What if the “Messianic Jews” of the first century were right? What if Jesus was and is the Messiah King and Daniel’s “Son of Man?”

It would mean that not only are the core Christian beliefs about Jesus correct but that they are wholly and completely Jewish in nature and origin, not fabrications of later Gentile Christianity in early church history.

It also could mean, startlingly enough, that there’s a totally and completely Jewish way to understand Jesus that exists apart from the “whitewashed,” “Gentilized,” version we are used to seeing in church, on television, in the movies, in paintings, and in many popular New Testament translations.

One of the reasons I deliberately quoted from the Stone Edition Tanakh and Vine of David’s Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels is to try to peek behind the curtain, so to speak, at this Jewish perception of the Jewish Messiah King.

I know I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s important for both Christians and Jews to have a better understanding of Jesus and his once and future role as Savior and King and to try to grasp the realization that not only is Jesus completely Jewish, both as he once lived among men and as he will return in glory, but that accepting him as such, is not an “unJewish” thing to do.

According to Boyarin, such an acceptance of Jesus as Messiah King was in fact, a completely Jewish thing to do in the first century.

The unique quality of Mashiach is that he will be humble. Though he will be the ultimate in greatness, for he will teach Torah to the Patriarchs and to Moshe Rabeinu (alav hashalom), still he will be the ultimate in humility and self-nullification, for he will also teach simple folk.

“Today’s Day”
Monday, Menachem Av 1, Rosh Chodesh, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher RebbeTranslated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

What if it’s equally acceptable for a Jew to accept Jesus as Messiah in the 21st century?

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