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A book that will turn your ideas upside down

Clay crucifixion figurines. Credit: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty

Clay crucifixion figurines. Credit: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty

July 27, 2018   3 mins

If you want your ideas about early Christianity turned upside down (in a good way), I suggest you take Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ on holiday with you. Readable, non-technical, short and thoroughly brilliant. After reading his work, I no longer see the world in the same way. Could there be any better reason for picking a book up?

I stumbled across Daniel Boyarin on the internet, on one of those idle rhizomatic meanderings through the digital pond. The way I go through ideas on the web, it can feel a little bit like speed dating – often deeply unsatisfying (actually, I have never been speed dating, but I imagine that’s what it’s like). And I know, you should probably give people and ideas more of a chance – but hey, life is short. So you return again and again to a game of intellectual trawling in the faint hope that one day an idea will leap out of the ether and grab you by the imagination. And so it was with Boyarin. Looking back, it was love at first sight.

If Boyarin is right – and I think he probably is – everything you may have presumed about the Gospels could be wrong

And I remember precisely the idea that made my pupils dilate. Discussing St Paul’s universalism, Boyarin claimed that the universalism of Christianity was both the best thing about it and the worst thing about it. Just as the particularism of Judaism was both its strength and its failing.

Christian universalism means a concern for everyone, irrespective of race or colour or culture, but it is also the root of its desire to impose itself on other cultures and beliefs. The best thing about Judaism is that it doesn’t seek to impose itself on other cultures. It is respectful of difference, which is good. It cannot be so easily appropriated by cultural imperialism. But this comes with a cost of not always caring enough about those who are different.

In other words, the universalism of Christianity and the particularism of Judaism are both the source of their moral advantages and the source of their moral failures. Now that’s really an idea worth contending with, I thought.

Boyarin is something of a marmite figure. Often criticised by the Right for his strident opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, it is nonetheless his theological radicalism that tends to upset people the most. I mentioned him to the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks the other month and it was like a dark cloud had suddenly appeared over his head.

Boyarin’s big idea is to chip away at all the things that we have tended to assume separate Christianity and Judaism. For instance, Christianity has the Trinity, Judaism insists upon a strict monotheism. Think again, Boyarin challenges. The Hebrew scriptures contain quite a few references to quasi-divine figures that disrupt the neat assumptions of strict Jewish monotheism, such as the Son of Man passage in Daniel 7. Were these, perhaps the origins of the Christian trinity?

Throughout the 20th century, theologians such as the great Geza Vermes have been describing a Jesus who is more and more Jewish, clearing away those centuries of cultural appropriation that created a blond-haired blue-eyed Christ. Boyarin goes much much further and challenges Christians (and Jews) with a reading of the Gospels in which they appear more as Old Testament literature than New:

“Christianity hijacked not only the Old Testament but the New Testament as well by turning a thoroughly Jewish text away from its cultural origins among the Jewish communities of Palestine in the first century and making it an attack on the traditions of the Jews.”

If Boyarin is right – and I think he probably is – everything you may have presumed about the Gospels could be wrong. Now that is certainly worth a ponder as you sun yourself on the beach.

And if you want to go a bit deeper, you might also try Boyarin’s Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism where he argues that Christianity is just a little bit older that Judaism. Confused? No spoilers from me, just read the book. It’s thoroughly brilliant bracing stuff from a Talmudic master.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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