The Jewish Gospels

TheJewishGospels_bookcoverThe Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ
by Daniel Boyarin
New York: The New Press, 2012
200 pp. | $17.95





In The Jewish Gospels, Daniel Boyarin, a conservative rabbi and Talmudic scholar, argues that Christianity and Judaism are not that far apart. Indeed, he says, they shared many beliefs in common in the beginnings of what became known as “Christianity.”

Daniel Boyarin is Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Other books of interest that he has authored include A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (1994) and Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (2006).

The foreword of The Jewish Gospels, written by Jack Miles, Distinguished Professor of English and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine, is worth the price of the book. He highlights the “compelling evidence for the Jewishness of the early Jesus communities” (p. xiv). In addition, he emphasizes that Jesus was a law-keeping Jew and a vigorous defender of un-hypocritical adherence to the law of Moses. Miles concludes his foreword commenting that those who read Boyarin will come to view Christianity and Judaism “as you never saw them before.” After reading The Jewish Gospels, I agree with this assessment.

It goes without saying that Judaism and Christianity are different religions. However, as Boyarin demonstrates in the introduction to this book, they didn’t start out that way. In fact, until the eighteenth or nineteenth century, only non-Jews used the term “Judaism” to describe the beliefs and traditions of the Jewish people. Boyarin points out that what is called “Judaism” is really the practices, beliefs, values and history of the people of Israel. And what is called “Christianity” was essentially a stream of messianic “Judaism” that eventually separated itself as both the Jews and Christians sought to identify themselves by what they were not. For example, Jews didn’t believe in Jesus or observe Christmas, and Christians didn’t keep kosher or observe Passover.

In chapter one, Boyarin discusses the “son of man” from Daniel 7:13, and notes that early Jewish interpretation recognized the divine nature of this messianic figure. Along these lines, he states that, “the ideas about God that we identify as Christian are not innovations but may be deeply connected with some of the most ancient of Israelite ideas about God” (p. 47).

In the second chapter, Boyarin draws from other Jewish resources (First Enoch and Fourth Ezra) to show that the messianic concept found in the Gospels is quite in keeping with other first century Jewish thought. He writes, “It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Son of Man is in face a second person, as it were, of God” (p. 81). This is a bold statement, considering that it comes from a conservative Jewish rabbi. Such a concession, however, attests to the fact that Boyarin is simply following the evidence.

Chapter three focuses on the historical and cultural background of Mark 7, arguing that Jesus as a law abiding Jew did indeed to keep kosher. The fourth chapter of this amazing book addresses the suffering of the Messiah from Daniel and Isaiah, showing that “the suffering Messiah who atones for our sins was a familiar idea throughout the history of the Jewish religion,” even long after there was a separation from Christianity.

In sum, Daniel Boyarin is a Jewish scholar who has allowed the literature of the Bible and Judaism to speak for itself, even though his conclusions are often opposed to traditional beliefs about Judaism and Christianity. The thirty pages of endnotes are an added bonus, and provide evidence of Boyarin’s careful research of this topic.

About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Discipleship: Training from the Master Disciple Maker” (2018).