Daniel Boyarin’s book The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ is a stimulating and accessible account of the origins of Christian faith from a scholarly Jewish perspective.
In his book Boyarin cites a number of ancient Jewish sources to support his argument that Christianity began as a branch or version of Judaism and only slowly began to develop into a separate and ultimately antagonistic rival. His documentation needs to be examined and his arguments read in full.
Below are some quotes from Boyarin’s book that suggest the outline of his arguments. Please, if you are interested in seriously engaging with his position, do not take these quotes as a substitute for reading the whole of The Jewish Gospels. It is not possible to debate Boyarin without at least some familiarity with the original source material he cites.
Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. NY: The New Press, 2012.
Foreword by Jack Miles
There is no denying, and Boyarin does not deny, that Jesus attacks the Pharisees, the forerunners if not the founders of Rabbinical Judaism, but few Christian commentators have recognized how clear a distinction Jesus draws between them and Moses and how much he is at pains to defend Moses and therewith to defend the Torah. xiv
I wish us to see that Christ too [ie. not just the Jesus of history] – the divine Messiah – is a Jew. Christology, or the early ideas about Christ, is also a Jewish discourse and not – until much later – an anti-Jewish discourse at all. Many Israelites at the time of Jesus were expecting a Messiah who would be divine and come to earth in the form of a human. 6
For centuries after Jesus’ death, there were people who believed in Jesus’ divinity as the incarnate Messiah but who also insisted that in order to be saved they must eat only kosher, keep the Sabbath as other Jews do, and circumcise their sons. 10
believers in Jesus of Nazareth and those who didn’t follow him were mixed up with each other in various ways rather than separated into two well-defined entities that we know today as Judaism and Christianity. 23
1. From Son of God to Son of Man
The Messiah-Christ existed as a Jewish idea long before the baby Jesus was born in Nazareth. 44
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. 47
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. 53
The great innovation of the Gospels is only this: to declare that the Son of Man is here already, that he walks among us. 101
There is nothing in the doctrine of Christ that is new save the declaration of this man as the Son of Man. 101
3. Jesus Kept Kosher
The Gospels… are almost always understood as the marker of a very great break from Judaism… The notions of Judaism as legalistic and rule-bound, as a grim realm of religious anxiety versus Jesus’ completely new teaching of love and faith, die very hard. 102,103
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 defending it…. far from abandoning the law’s 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. 103
Jesus’ Judaism was a conservative reaction against some radical innovations in the Law stemming from the Pharisees and Scribes of Jerusalem. 104
Jesus was… not fighting against the Jews or Judaism but with some Jews for what he considered to be the right kind of Judaism… this kind of Judaism included the idea of a second divine person who would be found on earth in human form as the Messiah. 107
[Jesus does not abrogate the Law but puts it in its place interpreting “the deep meaning of the Torah’s rules”, not setting them aside] And it is this deep interpretation of the Law that constitutes Jesus’ great contribution – not an alleged rejection of the Law at all. Not an exhortation, then, to abandon the Torah, but to practicing it and to incorporating its meanings, Jesus’ famous saying [Mark 7:15] can be seen as entirely within a Jewish spiritual world. 123, 124
When Jesus speaks of the purity or impurity of foods, he is not speaking about the kosher system at all, but about the pharisaic understanding of purity practices. Neither Jesus nor the evangelist held, suggested, or implied that the new Jesus movement constituted a step out to form a new religion. 125
4. The Suffering Christ as a Midrash on Daniel
The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future. 132
Taking even the remarkable nature of Jesus…as the historical explanation for a world-shifting revision of beliefs and practices seems to me hardly plausible. 159
the notion that some kind of experience of the risen Christ preceded and gave rise to the idea that he would rise seems to me so unlikely as to be incredible. Perhaps his followers saw him arisen, but surely this must be because they had a narrative that led them to expect such appearances, and not that the appearances gave rise to the narrative. An alternative account such as I have given here seems much more likely to make historical sense. A people had been for centuries talking about, thinking about, and reading about a new king, a son of David, who would come to redeem them from Seleucid and then Roman oppression, and they had come to think of that king as a second, younger, divine figure on the basis of the Book of Daniel’s reflection of that very ancient tradition. So they were persuaded to see in Jesus of Nazareth the one whom they had expected to come: the Messiah, the Christ. 159,160