What was truly innovative about the beliefs of the early Jewish believers in Jesus?
Daniel Boyarin’s provocative thesis in the second chapter of his new book The Jewish Gospels suggests only that they claimed “this Jesus” to be the Messiah (Acts 2:36; 17:3).
Jews at the time of Jesus had been waiting for a Messiah who was both human and divine and who was the Son of Man, an idea they derived from the passage from Daniel 7. Almost the entire story of the Christ–with important variations to be sure–is found well in the religious ideas of some Jews who didn’t even know about Jesus. Jesus for his followers fulfilled the idea of the Christ; the Christ was not invented to explain Jesus’ life and death. Versions of this narrative, the Son of Man story (the story that is later named Christology), were widespread among Jews before the advent of Jesus; Jesus entered into a role that existed prior to his birth, and this is why so many Jews were prepared to accept him as Christ, as the Messiah, Son of Man . . . The job description–Required: one Christ, will be divine, will be called Son of Man, will be sovereign and savior of the Jews and the world–was already and Jesus fit (or did not according to other Jews) the bill. The job description was not a put-up job tailored to fit Jesus! (72-73)
All of the ideas about Christ are old; the new is Jesus. There is nothing in the doctrine of the Christ that is new save the declaration of this man [Jesus of Nazareth] as the Son of Man (101).
The best evidence for this thesis, according to Boyarin, are found in the books The Similitudes of Enoch, one of the five documents that make up what is known today as 1 Enoch and Fourth Ezra.
Boyarin’s claim, which seems to have merit, flies in the face of New Testament scholarship, of all theological stripes – liberal and conservative. Boyarin’s thesis stands as a critique even of the views of folks like Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham who have been pushing against the scholarly consensus recently by showing that a high Christology in Christianity is very early.
If Boyarin is close to being right at least in general (if we might quibble in the details of the argument), then Bauckham’s conclusion is mistaken: “early Christians said about Jesus what no other Jews had wished to say about the Messiah . . .” (“The Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus”).