Schafer’s Review of Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels”
One of my newly-finished PhD students alerted me to the recent review of a new book by Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New Press, 2012), the review by the eminent scholar, Peter Schafer, in The New Republic 18 May.
Schafer’s review seems to me very well informed, and his rather devastating critique of Boyarin’s book “dead on”. Indeed, his criticisms match those that I formed in reading some of Boyarin’s previous publications. On the one hand, he seems strangely unaware that much of what is valid in them has been around, and articulated more fully and accurately, in previous publications. On the other hand, he rather boldly (Schafer uses the term “wildly”) posits claims that are not only idiosyncratic but are rather easily rebutted.
In a book published originally way back in 1988, I reviewed in depth the evidence of the richness and diversity of ancient Jewish traditions about “principal agent” figures, such as the archangel Michael, and biblical figures such as Moses and Enoch, and also the rich personification of “Wisdom” and Philo’s intriguing development of the “Logos”. What I’ve read of Boyarin’s treatment of these matters seems to me, I am bound to judge, either derivative (with insufficient acknowledgement of this) or . . . well, plainly wrong. Lest someone think that this judgement reflects some sort of confessional bias (coming from me), Schafer’s extended review shows instead that it is simply what the great majority of informed scholars would say.
As Schafer observes, historical analysis of Roman-era Jewish tradition has corrected in important ways some earlier simplistic views. For example, it is clear that interest in these “principal agent” figures, which could include descriptions of them as in some ways sharing in some divine attributes, provided what we may regard as resources on which earliest Jewish Christians drew in framing their understanding of Jesus’ exalted place vis-a-vis God. And at its earliest stages what became “Christianity” was a striking movement within the diversity of the Jewish religious matrix in which it appeared.
But, as Schafer also judges, there were innovations as well that marked out the Jewish-Christian movement from that Matrix, or at least distinguished it. It doesn’t help to downplay or ignore them in the interest of emphasizing (rightly) the very Jewish character of earliest Christianity. In my view, the most notable innovation (to judge from the evidence of the Jewish tradition of the time) was the inclusion of the figure of the exalted/resurrected Jesus in the devotional life of believers, especially notably in their corporate worship, as a rightful recipient of devotion along with God. I first discussed this in that 1988 book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (2nd ed; T&T Clark, 1998), and returned to make the case further in several subsequent publications: e.g., At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion (1999); How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (2005).