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Schafer’s Review of Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels”

June 1, 2012

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).

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  1. CJ Tan permalink

    Dear Dr Larry,

    Schafer seems to critique a direct unbroken link between the Son of Man figure in Daniel 7 to Jesus (fair enough). However, would you agree that despite the historical setting of the Seleucid and Maccabees, Jesus did seem to use Daniel 7 as part of his self understanding and vindication as postulated by others such as NT Wright and Ben Witherington (Mark 14:62)?

    CJ Tan

    • It’s hard to say with confidence what OT passages Jesus may have drawn on in framing a “self-understanding”. Dan 7 *might* have been one, but it’s also entirely plausible that Dan 7 was one of the numerous OT passages suddenly re-read in the light of the experience of Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation to heavenly glory. I’ve expressed my views on the origins of “the son of man” expression in the recent volume co-edited with Paul Owen: Hurtado, Larry W. and Paul L. Owen, eds. ‘Who Is This Son of Man?’ The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus (London: T&T Clark, 2011).

      • CJ Tan permalink

        Thanks very much Dr Larry.

        Will try to look up the book.

        It seems to me that though it is certainly plausible that the gospel writers could have read back OT passages to Jesus’ self-understanding, it is equally plausible that Jesus must have worked from a matrix of self-understanding from his own reading of scripture (i.e. nobody lives in a vacuum). Admittedly, it may be ‘easier’ to postulate the different perspectives, interests and biases of the gospel writers rather than truly understand the subject himself (since Jesus left no written legacy that we know of).

        But as an historian, one must at some level discern what Richard Hays in another context calls a ‘hermeneutic of trust’ in assessing the trustworthiness of the gospel witnesses. As you say, the impact of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation would have forced the gospel writers to re-evaluate their experience of Jesus and by the same token, perhaps we can also say they were at pains to present an honest representation of Jesus’ life and actions, including instances where Jesus used scripture. The almost impossible task for the historian is to then discern/balance ‘critical realism’ and ‘naive/a priori assumptions’ in reconstructing Jesus’ aims as the various quests have sought to do.

        CJ Tan

      • Yes, and given the difficulties involved, one does wonder why there is such a premium on determining that/whether Jesus did or did not say this or that or use this or that OT text. It’s all a valid historical question, undeniably. But one often has the sense that for scholars of various orientations there is much more at stake. Some seem to think that if they can show questions about whether Jesus said this or that, they have succeeded in questioning the validity of Christian faith. And others think that if they can argue that Jesus did say something they have defended the validity of Christian faith. It all seems a bit simplistic to me. The validity of Christian faith involves far more than whether Jesus said X or not.

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