“This Jesus”, Early Christianity’s Innovation

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”).


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  • Deane Galbraith

    Your description of Boyarin’s view flying in the face of all scholarship – conservative and liberal – makes it sound as though it is strikingly original. But to take what he says about the title “Son of Man” as being a divine title derived from pre-Christian Jewish thought, this is not new at all. To the contrary, the view was dominant from the late 19th century to about the 1960s. More than a few still hold to a version of it (as do I), and agree with you that Bauckham is mistaken.

    If scholars such as Hurtado and Bauckham have more recently emphasised the discontinuities between earliest Christianity and other Judaisms when it comes to the role and status of divine agents, there may be strong apologetic motivations for their so doing. Frequently amongst certain Christian scholars, the particularities of the Christian tradition tend to get overemphasised, and the continuities underemphasized, so as to make out that early Christology was more distinctive than it was. For example, Larry Hurtado focuses on the worship of Jesus as the primary factor in assessing early Christology (Larry W. Hurtado, One God, one Lord: early Christian devotion and ancient Jewish monotheism (London: SCM Press, 1988), 123-24). Not only that, but he draws a firm line of discontinuity between the early worship of Jesus and paradigms of devotion and veneration inherited from Judaism during early Christianity.

    But long before Boyarin’s recent book, there have been some scholars who have raised significant criticisms of such attempts to prove that Christianity is “unaccountably” different from contemporary Judaisms. Loren Stuckenbruck, for example objects that Hurtado’s drawing of firm distinctions between Jewish and Christian forms of worship “rules out by definition a pattern of accommodation within the framework of early Jewish monotheism through which to explain the worship of Christ” (Angel Veneration and Christology: A Study in Early Judaism and in the Christology of the Apocalypse of John (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 2; Reihe, 70; Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1995), 50. The level of worship directed at Christ in early Christianity should not be overemphasised by ignoring, for example, the language of worship used of Enoch the son of man, which underscores his special mediatorial role in Sim En 48.5; 61.11; 62.9. In light of Jewish antecedents for the worship of divine intermediaries, Stuckenbruck rightly concludes, “Once such language can be used at all for a divine agent, it is not an inconceivable step to imagine how in the case of Christ, it could have found itself anchored into a cultic setting” (“Worship and Monotheism in the Ascension of Isaiah”, in Carey C. Newman, James R, Davila and Gladys S. Lewis, eds., The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism: Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on he Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus (Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism, 63; Leiden, Boston and Köln, 1999), 70-89, 89).

    Boyarin might not be treading much new ground, but at least he is challenging some doubtful views on the matter which have gained some following in certain quarters.

    • jwillitts

      Deane: Thanks for your response. I’m glad that you expanded the foundation for Boyarin’s perspective. This is very helpful indeed. I wasn’t so much saying that others hadn’t made this point before, therefore “strikingly original”, but that it is not a widely recognized position in NT scholarship and certainly not in the minds of most Christians or Jews (apparently). The latter, as Boyarin points out, generally think that it is just this idea that defines Christianity in counter-distinction from Judaism.

      • Deane Galbraith

        Yes, at a popular Christian and Jewish level, Judaism is often simply viewed as excluding belief in the divinity of other persons or something along those lines, based on a simplistic conception of the “monotheism” of emerging Judaism vis-a-vis early Christianity. As for NT scholarship, if Boyarin’s position can be generalised as supporting the evolution of Christianity from other Judaisms rather than any fundamental discontinuity, I hope that this position does become more widely recognised than it is today.