Saturday, September 8, 2012

You're Not Going To Have The Son Of Man To Kick Around Anymore

I just finished reading Daniel Boyarin's The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New Press, 2012), which I picked up at the library after reading about it on Amazon.  The book description referred to the discovery, in 2008, "of an ancient Hebrew tablet, dating from before the birth of Jesus, which predicted a Messiah who would rise from the dead after three days."  Apparently Boyarin contributed a soundbyte to a front-page New York Times story, but The Jewish Gospels didn't mention this find except in a noncommittal endnote on the very last page of the book.  (And with good reason: it seems to be dubious.)

Boyarin is a very distinguished Talmudic scholar, whose Unheroic Conduct (California, 1997) I found very interesting.  But I found The Jewish Gospels frustratingly uneven.  His general thesis is that Jesus was Jewish (and kept kosher), that Christianity didn't separate definitively from Judaism for several centuries, and that the New Testament (especially the gospels) is a "thoroughly Jewish text [with] cultural origins among the Jewish communities of Palestine in the first century" (157).  He's right to stress this, though the letters of Paul, at least, are products of the Jewish diaspora outside of Palestine.  About the origins of the gospels we know nothing, so scholars are constantly trying to read backward through the texts, which leads to doubtful results.

Although Boyarin clearly did his homework, he tends to overstate the novelty of his thesis.  The Jewishness of Jesus and the New Testament is a theme that comes and goes, like the tide, and those who advance it have an agenda no less than those who reject it.  When I was doing my own research on Christian origins in the 1980s I read a number of works which tried to situate Jesus in Palestinian Judaism, often though not always by Christian scholars, among them Geza Vermes' Jesus the Jew (Macmillan, 1973), Ellis Rivkin's A Hidden Revolution (Abingdon, 1978) and What Crucified Jesus? (Abingdon, 1984), Pinchas Lapide's Israelis, Jews and Jesus (Doubleday, 1979) and The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Augsburg, 1983), and William E. Phipps's Was Jesus Married? (Harper, 1970).  (Phipps argued that Jesus was a good observant Jew, so of course he was married.)

There were also efforts to situate the Jesus / gospel tradition within Jewish tradition, notably Birger Gerhardsson's Memory and Manuscript (1961) and Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (1964), which were recently reissued.  But the same period saw attempts to establish a sharper dividing line between first-century Judaism and neighboring cultures, for example Thorleif Boman's influential Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (SCM Press, 1960).  Even the language Jesus spoke has been a bone of contention: Hebrew?  Aramaic?  Greek?

Especially in the wake of Vatican II, many books appeared condemning Christian anti-Judaism, stressing Jesus' Jewishness and the Jewish roots of Christianity.  From the early 20th century many Christian scholars began to study the Judaism of Jesus' time more seriously than before, and a few Jewish scholars began to study the New Testament. This (along with archaeological work and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls) led to a more complex picture of Judaism, as well as of early Christianity.  But the trend had been there since the rise of historical Jesus studies in the late 1800s, though it was ambivalent: Christian scholars still wanted to see Judaism as the forerunner of Christianity, and they tended to sentimentalize or idealize the rabbis.  So most scholars of early Christianity pay lip service to the Jewishness of Jesus and of early Christianity; the disagreement is on specific issues.

Boyarin begins with Jesus as Son of God and/or Son of Man.  Reversing what he says is the usual reading, he argues that "'Son of God' referred to the king of Israel, the earthly king of David's seat, while 'Son of Man' referred to a heavenly figure and not a human being at all" (26).  He claims too that "the term 'Son of God' is not often used to refer to Jesus in the New Testament ... In the Gospels, Jesus is more likely to be referred to (or actually to refer to himself) by the title 'Son of Man'" (25). Like most scholars, Boyarin traces "Son of Man" to the apocalyptic book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible.  In this book, Daniel is a young Israelite exiled in Babylon from his homeland.  He has many adventures (the lion's den, the fiery furnace, and so on) and is granted visions of the future.  In one of these visions, after a series of several monstrous creatures, thrones are set up, and one is taken by an "Ancient of Days" (a really old man, that is) attended by millions.  One of the beasts is slain, and the others are deprived of their "dominion," though they are allowed to live on for a time.  And then:
13 “I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
14 “And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.
Baffled, Daniel asks "one of those standing by" the meaning of what he has seen.  The bystander explains:
17 ‘These great beasts, which are four in number, are four kings who will arise from the earth. 18 But the saints of the Highest One will receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, for all ages to come.
Evidently, then, "the one like a Son of Man" in Daniel symbolizes the holy ones of the Most High, usually understood to be the faithful and obedient Israelites who endured persecution by the beasts/kings.  This makes sense, because no one assumes that the kings in the vision appeared in real life as chimerical beasts which resembled lions with the wings of eagles, let alone as horns on the head of another beast.  The visions of Daniel are believed by most scholars to refer to various kings who kept Israel down after the end of the Babylonian Exile, culminating in Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who ruled from 175 to 164 BCE.  Antiochus was ambitious and eccentric, even unstable.  He tried to outlaw Jewish religious observances and to put a statue of himself as Zeus in the Temple at Jerusalem, replacing the worship of Yahweh.  This led to what is known as the Maccabean revolt, aided by an outside attack from Parthia, which was resolved when Antiochus died of disease in 164 BCE.  Because of his attempt to profane the Temple with his image, he is widely regarded as the "little horn" referred to in Daniel 8:9 who set up the "abomination of desolation" in the Temple, which is referred to in numerous biblical and extra-biblical books, including the gospels of Mark (13:14) and Matthew (24:15).  Jesus not only refers to himself frequently as the Son of Man, he speaks at times of the Son of Man coming on clouds, just like in the Book of Daniel.  This is the basis for the connection between the gospels' "son of man" and the book of Daniel.

Boyarin claims that the Son of Man was widely regarded as the Messiah, and not just as a symbol for the faithful remnant in Israel.  He shows that in other writings from around the time of Jesus, the Son of Man was treated not as a symbol but as an individual, and a godlike one at that -- though still subordinate to the Most High Yahweh.  He argues that when Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man in the gospels, his fellow Jews see him as claiming divine prerogatives, like the authority to forgive sins, and therefore as claiming to be the Messiah.  I don't find this argument fully convincing.  First, Jesus uses the term differently at different times, and sometimes he doesn't seem to be making any exalted claims for himself, as in Matthew 8:20, "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head."  The scholar Geza Vermes showed that Aramaic speakers like Jesus might refer to themselves in the third person as "that man" or "that son of man," and argued that when Jesus referred to himself as the Son of man, he was not claiming a title but simply referring obliquely to himself.  This view never caught on among scholars, and Boyarin doesn't address it.  I think it's a possibility, though, for reasons that are relevant to Boyarin's argument.

The gospels show Jesus being asked about his claims and status, or Jesus asking others who they think he is.  No one ever asks him if he's the Son of Man, or accuses him of claiming to be.  At his trial before the Sanhedrin, for example, the High Priest asks Jesus point blank, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?" (Mark 14.61).  According to Mark, Jesus replied, "I am, and you shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven."  This forthright declaration was softened in Matthew 26:64 and Luke 22:71: Jesus answers "You say it" (that is, "You said it, I didn't"); Matthew keeps the part about the Son of Man, Luke omits it completely.  (John's version of Jesus' questioning by the Jewish leadership is completely different.)  When Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, Peter replies, "You are the Messiah" in Mark (8:29), "God's Messiah" in Luke (9:20), and "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God" in Matthew (16:16).  No one ever tells Jesus that he is the Son of Man, or asks him if he is.

What follows Peter's declaration is also significant: Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone about him.  (Jesus also silenced demons who addressed him as "the Holy One of God," and told several people he'd healed to tell no one about it.  Such secrecy is a recurring theme in the gospels, and scholars are still debating what it means.)  Yet according to all four gospels, Jesus went around referring to himself as the Son of Man, in disputes with his Jewish critics and in public preaching, as in private teaching with his disciples.  According to Boyarin, this was tantamount to a public declaration that he was the Messiah, but no one seems to take it as such.  Boyarin is correct that no one asks what Jesus means by the Son of Man (except a couple of times in the gospel of John, 9:35ff and 12:34ff), but I think he's wrong as to why.

As Boyarin says, Paul occasionally refers to Jesus as the Messiah / Christ and the Son of God, but more often as "Lord."  But Paul never refers to Jesus as the Son of Man, nor do other New Testament writers.  (In Acts 7 and Revelation 1 and 14, there are allusions to Daniel's Son of Man, but the phrase is never used as a title for Jesus comparable to Christ. The New Testament writers are explicitly concerned to prove that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, not that he is the Son of Man.  This is a problem for Boyarin's case: if Jesus was so open and consistent about calling himself the Son of Man, why didn't the early churches follow his lead?

I still have to go over the rest of Boyarin's argument; I'll return to it soon.