Standard views of the messianic idea in Judaism have long held that ancient Jews expected a triumphant hero to liberate them from their enemies. Students of early Christianity have even suggested that Jesus' predictions of his own death must have been inserted into the Gospel accounts after his crucifixion, because, they say, no such ideas existed in Judaism; the Gospel writers were trying to salvage their faith following his obvious defeat.
In 2008, though, news began to appear of an ancient Hebrew tablet, 3 feet tall, found somewhere near the Dead Sea, that described a messiah who would be killed and then, three days later, rise from the dead. Dated to no later than the first century before Christ, it seemed to be pre-Christian. Jewish. But its interpretation continues to be debated.
One of the other problems posed by the earliest Christian movement is how it was that presumably monotheistic Jews could have come to believe in a divine Father and a divine Son. Historically, some have argued that this could only have happened when Gentiles began to enter Christianity, bringing with them pagan notions of earthly demigods like Hercules. The clear implication is that Jesus himself wasn't, and didn't claim to be, divine.
Daniel Boyarin, however, argues that conventional understandings of Jesus and of the origins of Christianity are wrong.
Since 1990, Boyarin has been a professor of Talmudic culture in the departments of Near Eastern studies and of rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.
The coming of the Messiah, he says, was fully imagined, in detail, in ancient Jewish texts. Many Jews accepted Jesus as Messiah, according to Boyarin (who expressly includes Jesus among those who did), because his self-description and eventually his biography tallied exactly with expectations that they already held as Jews, and his core teachings were consistent with a particular strand of Jewish beliefs and doctrines. Jesus and his followers, Boyarin shows, were simply Jewish. The neat distinction between Judaism and Christianity, he contends, came centuries after Christ, at Nicea.
He also rejects the common academic division of "the Jesus of history" from "the Christ of faith." "I suggest," he writes, "that Jesus and Christ were one from the very beginning. It won't be possible any longer to think of some ethical religious teacher who was later promoted to divinity under the influence of alien Greek notions, with his so-called original message being distorted and lost; the idea of Jesus as divine-human Messiah goes back to the very beginning of the Christian movement, to Jesus himself, and even before that."
Drawing heavily on the Hebrew biblical book of Daniel, which he dates to around 161 B.C., but in which he sees earlier "revelations" that sometimes troubled even the book's relatively late Jewish author, Boyarin argues for a pre-Christian, Jewish, expectation of a figure called "the Son of Man." This is scarcely the simple Jewish monotheism that we've always been told about:
"He is divine," says Boyarin. "He is in human form. He may very well be portrayed as a younger-looking divinity than the Ancient of Days. He will be enthroned on high. He is given power and dominion, even sovereignty on earth." And, Boyarin explains, this notion of a "younger" deity and an "older" one "is among the earliest ideas about God in the religion of the Israelites."
Moreover, "The notion of a humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus' advent. … Jews, it seems, had no difficulty whatever with understanding a Messiah who would vicariously suffer to redeem the world."
The Book of Mormon prophet Nephi foresaw in a vision that "many plain and precious things" would be "taken away" from "the record of the Jews." (See 1 Nephi 13.) With that prediction in mind, listen to Professor Boyarin:
"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."
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It's certainly noteworthy when one of the world's leading Jewish scholars publishes a book about Jesus. And Daniel Boyarin's "The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ" (The New Press, 2012) doesn't disappoint. It's extremely stimulating, and Latter-day Saints who have enjoyed the work of the British Methodist scholar Margaret Barker will find parts of it especially intriguing.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of Mormon ScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com.