Monday, September 10, 2012

To Serve the Son of Man

Back to Daniel Boyarin's The Jewish Gospels.  His second main claim is that Jesus kept kosher, "which is to say that he saw himself not as abrogating the Torah but as defending 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" (103).  The core of his argument is a passage in the gospel of Mark, where Jesus enters into a dispute with some Pharisees over ritual handwashing before meals.  (I say "ritual" because the cleansing wasn't a hygienic practice.)  I think Boyarin makes a strong case that Jesus' declaration in Mark 7 wasn't meant to overturn the dietary commandments of the Torah, and that the passage has widely been misinterpreted.

The only reason this matters is that the early churches disagreed sharply about believers' obligations under the Law of Moses. The scholarly quest for the historical Jesus consistently runs up against the barrier of Jesus' death and his followers' claim that he was raised from the dead.  Even according to the gospels, his followers didn't understand who he was or what he was teaching them until after his death and resurrection, and his ministry had to be reinterpreted in light of it; some of the resurrection stories make this explicit by having the risen Jesus explain how the Bible had required that everything happen as it did.  Some of his more inconvenient teachings have been explained away by saying that he they only applied to the days of his ministry and weren't meant to carry over to the new dispensation; but if so, it's hard to understand why the gospels preserve them in the first place.  But more often it appears that it's the other way around, and the earthly Jesus was talking past his audiences to believers a generation later, when the gospels were written.  (Why the gospels came to be written at all is a knotty problem in New Testament studies.)

The earliest surviving Christian writings are the letters of the apostle Paul, who was often at odds with Jesus' original disciples, as can be seen especially in his letter to the Galatians.  The gospels and the book of Acts also conflict with Paul in important ways: which is a problem because Paul is a character in Acts, and the narrator presents himself as Paul's follower, yet its portrait of Paul doesn't fit well with what we can learn about Paul from his own letters.  Acts presents Paul as a devout Jew even after he was called; indeed, Boyarin's definition of Kosher Jesus fits the Paul of Acts just as well: not abrogating the Law but defending it.  Since we know from Paul's letters that this doesn't describe his teaching or practice, it becomes legitimate to wonder if the gospels and Acts may have cleaned up Jesus' act as well.

Boyarin doesn't seem to recognize the problem.  He writes breezily of the diversity of early Christian belief:
... some [Christians] kept much of the Jewish law (or all of it), some kept some rules but dropped others (e.g., the apostolic rule of Acts), and still others believed that the entire also needed to be overturned and discarded by Christians (even those born Jews) [11].
This is a fair summary, but what did Jesus do?  Boyarin seems to think that the gospel of Mark represents Jesus' teaching fairly transparently, which isn't likely.  On the dietary commandments, Paul's letter to the Galatians makes it clear that Paul exempted not only Gentile Christians from Torah observance, but Jewish Christians too.  Paul claims:
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 13 The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?"
"Cephas" -- from the Aramaic for "rock" -- is Simon Peter.  James is the brother of Jesus, not the gospels' son of Zebedee; at some point James not only joined his late brother's sect but became a major player in its leadership.  According to Acts 10, Peter had a vision which gave him permission to ignore kosher and eat with Gentiles, so that he could baptize a Roman centurion named Cornelius.  According to Paul's (polemical) account, though, Peter backed down in Antioch, intimidated by representatives of James' faction.  Paul taught that all baptized believers were free of the Torah, because baptism united them with Jesus, whose death had freed him from the obligation to keep kosher.  Even if this was only Paul's doctrine, it's worth pointing out that Peter went along with it until it led to conflict with Jerusalem.  (Boyarin hardly mentions Paul in The Jewish Gospels, but he has written a book about Paul, which I had better read soon.)  No one knows where Paul got his doctrines; he claimed he got them directly from Jesus when he was called to be an apostle (Galatians 1).  Christian scholars have pooh-poohed this, reasonably enough, and claimed that he got them from Peter and James during a two-week stay in Jerusalem three years after his call (Galatians 1:18-19).  Even if that's true, it would mean that Paul got the doctrine of Christian freedom from the Mosaic Law from Peter and James, only a few years after Jesus' death.  Where did they get it from?

Boyarin also discusses gospel stories about observance of the Sabbath, and here again his discussion undermines his case.  He cites various rabbis who ruled that the Sabbath can be broken to save a life, agreeing with Jesus' reported dictum (Mark 2:27) that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  But Boyarin has to make this fit with Jesus' reported claim (Mark 2:28) that as the Son of Man and therefore the Messiah, he was lord of the Sabbath.  According to the Jewish background Boyarin adduces, there was no need to invoke the Messiah to override the Sabbath for humanitarian reasons -- that was already widely accepted within Judaism.

Finally, Boyarin devotes a chapter to arguing that belief in a suffering Messiah was already widespread in Judaism before Jesus came along.  His argument is based on passages like the Servant passages in Isaiah, which he claims were interpreted within pre-Christian Judaism to refer to the Messiah.  If this is so, however, we can reasonably wonder why Jesus' own disciples reportedly reacted so negatively when Jesus taught them that the Son of Man must suffer (Mark 8:31ff).  Maybe the Messiah could suffer, but not the Son of Man?  (This is dubious because Daniel's "one like a son of man" is persecuted by the beasts in Daniel's visions.)

"I submit," Boyarin writes,
that it is possible to understand the Gospel only if both Jesus and the Jews around him held to a high Christology whereby the claim to Messiahship was also a claim to being a divine man.  Were it not the case, we would be very hard-pressed to understand the extremely hostile reaction to Jesus on the part of Jewish leaders who did not accept his claim.  Controversy among Jews was hardly a new thing; for a controversy to lead to a crucifixion, it must have been a doozy.  A Jew claiming that he was God, that he was the divine Son of Man whom the Jews had been expecting and, moreover, not being laughed out of the village for this claim, would have been such a doozy [55-6].
If the Jews were expecting a divine Messiah, how could claiming to be the Messiah lead to this kind of hostility, or even to being laughed out of the village?  How could conforming to standard expectations be a "doozy"?  This question has been asked many times before, and Boyarin's answer is the standard Christian answer, the same answer his book is dedicated to rejecting: because he claimed to be God.  (It's related to another standard Christian answer: the Jews were expecting a conquering military Messiah, so of course they violently rejected Jesus for claiming to be a meek, loving, nonviolent Messiah.  This one belongs to the history of Christian anti-Judaism, of course.)

It's also hard to see how a controversy among Jews could "lead to a crucifixion."  Crucifixion was not a Jewish punishment but a Roman one, and there's not really any doubt that Jesus was executed by the Romans.  Why would the Romans intervene in such a controversy?  The gospels' accounts are not plausible for a number of reasons, and many scholars have tried to make sense of them with little success.  The usual Christian answer is that the Romans mistook Jesus for a nationalistic military Messiah when in fact he was totally peaceful, and tragically let themselves be pushed by the Jews into killing him.  (The real Christian answer would be that Jesus had to die, because it was foretold in the scriptures, and the Romans and the Jewish leadership were just pawns in Yahweh's game of eleven-dimensional chess with Satan.  But while this answer often underlies the usual Christian answers, it usually isn't acknowledged explicitly.)

While The Jewish Gospels is a good reminder for many people, Jewish and Christian, of the Jewishness of Jesus, of the New Testament, and of Christianity itself, it doesn't add much to what was known already.  As I wrote in my previous post, it fits into a familiar genre that has been with us for a long time, and is more about showing interfaith goodwill (a valid project, to be sure) than about getting at historical truth.  That Daniel Boyarin's arguments lead to the kinds of contradictions I've pointed out here indicates that The Jewish Gospels is more a work of apologetics than of scholarship.

Some might wonder why I'm bothering to read such a book or to write about it, being an atheist and all.  First, I find the history of Christian origins fascinating for its own sake, because the beginnings of a cultural force that's so all-pervading, even today, is relevant today.  Second, you might be surprised at how often ordinary laypeople talk about stuff like this, and I like to be better-informed than they are.  And not just Christian laypeople: the relationship between Jesus' teaching and Paul's teaching is often brought up by atheists.  Even a lot of infidels want to see Jesus as the good guy and Paul as the bad guy.  Finally, what to do about the "Old Testament" comes up often in disputes about homosexuality and religion: a number of gay and pro-gay Christians have stressed the doctrine that the Torah isn't binding on Christians, for example, while others have stressed the difference between Jesus and Paul while ignoring the fact that on sexual matters, Jesus was not very liberal.

For all these reasons, then, The Jewish Gospels seemed like something I ought to read.  That a smart, knowledgeable guy like Daniel Boyarin got tangled up in his own argument is worth knowing too, don't you think?