The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, by Daniel Boyarin (New York: New Press, 2012, ISBN 978-1-59558-4687) 223 pp. Hardcover, $21.95.
Author Daniel Boyarin’s approach in The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ seems akin to one that believers in Mother Goose and Santa Claus might take. Instead of focusing on the doctrines that separate them, they look for points in common so that they can present a united front to critics who review the evidence and conclude, “a plague on both your delusions.” Likewise, a book that tries to harmonize Mosesism with Jesusism is comparable with a book that tries to harmonize flat-earth geography with hollow-earth geography, without attempting to rebut the evidence of round-earth geographers.
Whether Boyarin, a believer in Judaism, is able to get through to Christians is irrelevant, because he does not even attempt to evaluate the evidence compiled by nontheists that gods are as much a product of the human imagination as Mother Goose and Santa Claus. Is he conceding that that is an argument he cannot win and settling for finding common ground with persons whose Manchurian candidate-izing is different but equal to his own? That would explain why he makes no mention of his Bible’s fourteen endorsements of a flat earth, perhaps in the hope that if he ignores them they will go away.
Boyarin devotes 160 pages to defending conclusions that could only have been reached by someone who started from the assumption that Jesus exists outside of the human imagination. For example, he devotes page after page to various theologians’ interpretations of “son of man,” in apparent ignorance that it was a Greek mistranslation of a Hebrew term that meant “descendant of Adam,” a title Jesus applied to himself because (1) he saw himself as the second Adam, destined to rectify the screw-up of the first Adam, and (2) because he needed an alternative title to “descendant of David,” since he acknowledged (Mark 12:37) that David was not his ancestor.
rather than catalogue Boyarin’s myriad of mistakes in biblical criticism, an area in which he has as much expertise as I have in Etruscan (which no one has ever deciphered), I will give one example that exposes his incompetence. He writes (14): “At the time of Jesus, all who followed Jesus—and even those who believed that he was God—were Jews!” During Jesus’s lifetime, nobody believed that he was God. The pretense that he claimed to be a god was invented by the author of the fourth Gospel a full century after Jesus’s death. The only beliefs Jesus shared with Christians, ancient or modern, were those that Christians continue to share with Jews, including the paramount delusion that God is more real than the Tooth Fairy.
I can see no defensible reason why a Jewish author would reject the scientifically neutral dating system, Common Era (CE), widely used even by liberal Christians, and instead persistently (e.g., pp. 4, 12, 15, 22) use the offensively Christian Anno Domini (AD), which tells his Jewish readers that they are living in the Year of the Master. His use of Christ as a synonym for Jesus (10) is similarly indefensible. Is Boyarin so morally depraved that he is willing to resort to whatever falsehoods he thinks his audience wants to hear?
Consider his allegation (6) that “Many ancient Jews simply accepted Jesus as God, and they did so because their beliefs and expectations had led them there.” If that is a sample of his competence as a historian, he should leave documentary analysis to persons who do not start from predetermined conclusions and distort the evidence to make it fit. And his urging (ibid) that “Jews will have to stop vilifying Christian ideas about God as simply . . . pagan” is comparable with urging Christians to stop viewing Hinduism as polytheistic. News flash: Despite its Jewish origins, Christianity is essentially paganism with the names of the gods changed.
What Boyarin does get right is his recognition that Jesus was a sectarian Jew whose preaching and behavior were entirely consistent with what all members of his Ebionite sect, “the poor ones,” preached. unfortunately he has zero ability to distinguish between Gospel passages that reflect what Jesus really preached (sell everything you own and give the proceeds to the poor ones) and speeches put into his mouth in the Gospels to give the impression that Jesus believed the same things the Gospel authors believed.
Boyarin is described on the book’s dust jacket as a professor of Talmudic culture. The difference between Talmudic culture and Shakespearean culture is that Shakespearean scholars are fully aware that the literature from which their conclusions are derived is fiction. Boyarin’s inability to recognize his Tanakh and Talmud as works of fiction disqualifies any claim he makes to scholastic legitimacy. He is a theologian, a designation H. L. Mencken described as “a blind man in a dark room searching for a black cat that is not there— and finding it.” His defense of the God delusion can be taken as seriously as a defense of the Scientology fantasy by the cult’s most brainwashed shill, Tom Cruise.
William Harwood is the author of more than eight hundred articles published in skeptical and freethought journals in ten countries. He is a contributing editor of the American Rationalist. The newest of his fifty books is Disinformation: Bullshit the Media Encourage You to Believe (World Audience, Inc., 2012).