St. Athanasius rolls around in grave

Before it’s too late, I have to take a look at this piece that appeared in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month. Reporter Mitchell Landsberg tells us about Orthodox Jewish rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s new book “Kosher Jesus.” We’re reminded that Boteach has written books on “Kosher Sex,” “Dating Secrets of the 10 Commandments” and his relationship with the late pop star Michael Jackson. But that his latest book has led to accusations of heresy:

The book focuses on the Christian savior’s Jewishness, portraying him as a hero who stood up to Roman rule of Palestine and paid with his life. In keeping with Jewish theology, it does not accept his resurrection or his divinity. And it emphasizes Boteach’s belief that the New Testament intentionally deflected blame for the crucifixion from the ruling Romans and redirected it — unfairly, Boteach believes — on the shoulders of the Jews.

Given all that, one might expect Christians to take exception. But Boteach’s Jewish critics were way ahead of the curve.

“Boteach’s latest book is apikorsus and must be treated as such,” Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf of Chicago said on an Orthodox news site Jan. 10, using a Hebrew word that roughly translates as heresy. Wolf said he had “utter contempt” for the book — or, at least, for the title.

Another rabbi, from Canada, has forbidden the book to be read or discussed. We’re told that they’re both affiliated with Chabad. Boteach says he expected criticism from Christians but not from Jews. Then we get all sorts of messaging about how Jesus can bridge the two faiths.

Christians, [Boteach] said, can benefit from a new understanding of Jesus’ humanity. “Embracing Jesus’ Jewishness begins to elucidate his story, his life, his passionate beliefs,” he writes in the book.

That’s fine, said Darrell Bock, a professor of New Testament studies at the Dallas Theological Seminary and a leading authority on the life of Jesus. But, he said, Boteach is wrong in some of his details and not likely to convince Christians, who will be turned off by the presumption that Jesus was fully human.

“The book is a mixed bag,” Bock said. “There are some points that he’s making about the Jewish roots of Jesus … that are certainly the case. But there are other points he is making about Jesus’ mission and the way the Jewish leadership handled him that are probably not an accurate reflection of what took place.”

I do not know Bock but something tells me this summary misstated what he said. Christians of course believe that Jesus is fully human. Believing that Jesus is both God and man, fully divine and fully human, is one of the most important points of doctrine shared by Christians. Did Bock really say that Christians don’t believe in Jesus’ humanity? If so, he wouldn’t be the right source for a story of this nature. Did Bock say, on the other hand, that Christians believe Jesus isn’t only human? That’s different and should be summarized more accurately.

You can read the ancient ecumenical creeds for a quick primer on what Christians believe about Jesus and the Trinity. This Catholic article on the incarnation of Christ might also be helpful (be sure to check out the portions on the hypostatic union). And if you want to dig deeper, be sure to check out monophysitism, renounced some 1500 years ago as heresy. But fresh and back again in the Los Angeles Times!

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  • sari

    Mollie,
    It’s important to note that Boteach is a Chabadnik (this week, at least; that could change), which makes the accusations of heresy internal to Chabad-Lubavich. It probably also helps to know that Jesus’ existence, divine or otherwise, is not a topic for discussion among the Orthodox, Hasidische or not; reading the New Testament and other sacred Christian writings is strongly discouraged and may even be (I’m not sure) formally forbidden.

    The only way to determine what Darryl Bock did or didn’t say would be to contact him directly and ask. His answer could precipitate a whole ‘nother article.

  • Trent Sebits

    I hope Bock was misstated, however, I recently heard a seemingly well versed Baptist say to me, “Well, Jesus was just enough man”. What goes around comes around I guess so just maybe monophysitism is making an official comeback after it was renounced at Chalcedon.

    I would caution you at promoting the idea that the the so called 3 ecumenical creeds are indeed ecumenical. At the time of the Reformation, they may have been ecumenical in the West, but outside of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the other two were and are unknown in the East. Also, in order to qualify as truly ecumenical, a Council would have needed to either write it or give it a stamp of approval, neither of which can be said about the Apostles or the so called Athanasian.

  • Will

    Presumably the reporter meant “merely human”.

  • Matt

    Bock is a well-known seminary professor. He certainly holds an orthodox view of the Trinity, and either he was misquoted or he misspoke.

  • Hector

    Re: Also, in order to qualify as truly ecumenical, a Council would have needed to either write it or give it a stamp of approval, neither of which can be said about the Apostles or the so called Athanasian.

    I’m curious, are there, actually, any points of doctrine in the Athanasian Creed with which the Orthodox disagree (besides, of course, the Filioque bit)? I like the Athanasian Creed a lot, and I wish we used it more.

    I also wonder if the Chalcedon Statement (which I’ve heard called the Chalcedonian Creed). I wonder if it was ever used liturgically or as a confessional statement.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Re: Hector

    I’m not sure about individual bits, but the whole structure of it feels more “Western” than “Eastern”. For people like Athanasius and the Cappadocians (and the Nicene and Chalcedon ‘creeds’) the begetting and proceeding from the Father is central to the descriptions of the Son and the Spirit. In that way of speaking they are equal to the Father and one with the Father because they are begotten/proceed from the Father. The deity and attributes they have is the Father’s.

    In the Athanasian creed, the equality and unity is explained first and is not really Father-centric. All three are the same in a more abstract way. There’s no sense offered in which the divine qualities are particularly the Father’s. Once that more abstract equality and unity has been established, then begetting and spiration are introduced to distinguish each person. This gives the sense that the Son’s and Spirit’s equality and unity is not grounded in their origination from the Father, merely their differentiation from him.

    If I’ve understood things right, while none of the sentences would be a problem (except for the filoque bit as you say, and one I’ll flag next), the overall structure that puts the relationships of origin towards the end, and so seems to imply a reduced significance of them, would be a problem.

    Depending on where Orthodoxy is at, the statement that:

    . But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.

    Could be problematic. As one of the Cappadocians said, there aren’t three ‘persons’ but one and one and one. If all three have something in common (like ‘personhood’) then that thing held in common is not one of their hypostatic qualities, but is part of the divine nature. And it that is the case, then it can’t be used to describe them as a set of ‘divine persons’. Father, Son, and Spirit aren’t the names of three items in a category of ‘divine persons’, they are three different categories each with only one item in it.

    Not sure how clear all that is, but my impression is that the Athanasian Creed wouldn’t be as immediately kosher to a well-grounded Orthodox as it would to one steeped in the Western tradition.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    RE: #6 -

    Ok, you professional journalists: turn that into a newspaper article! :-)

  • Hector

    Mark Baddeley,

    Thanks for your interesting discussion.

    The Athanasian Creed has become much less popular in the Western Churches over the last half-century, I think. Partly for ecumenical reasons, possibly (the Orthodox don’t accept it) but also because it contains some clauses where it says in effect ‘whoever does not believe thus shall without doubt perish utterly’, which make a lot of peple uncomfortable. (I don’t think that argument has merit, personally, since you can argue that the ‘damnatory clauses’ are really bookends, not part of the actual creed, and don’t have the same authority). Traditionalist Episcopalians/Anglicans and (I’m told) conservative Lutherans use it once a year on Trinity Sunday, and it’s used by some churches in the rite of exorcism, but I think it doesn’t get much public use outside of those contexts.

  • Dave

    I don’t see where the press failed to get religion.

  • Will

    Per my comment above, I suspect the press failed to get English.

    The U.S. Book of Common Prayer has the Athanasian Creed and “The Definition of Chalcedon” in the section “Historical Documents of the Church”.

  • Mason Beecroft

    I studied at DTS and Dr. Bock was one of my teachers and mentors. He certainly holds an orthodox Christology. His academic work in Luke-Acts, Synoptic Gospels, Life of Jesus, etc. is widely respected. And he is a defender of the Christian Church’s view of Christ. I would suspect that he was misquoted, or maybe used sloppy language, which is easy for evangelicals who often do not know the language of the creeds. I would think the former, however.
    +Mason

  • Trent Sebits

    Hector, I think Mark Baddeley is correct. Its not that Orthodox would find the Athanasian Creed wrong per se (excluding filioque), its a matter of lessening the Monarchy of the Father which we think can lead to trouble (see filioque).

    If you are interested in this topic, find a copy of V. Lossky “Mystical Theology of the E.Church” or Meyendorff’s Byzantine Theology…they both explain this different starting point vis-à-vis the Trinity. Both these authors are a difficult read, but their chapter on the Trinity lays out the Greek/Cappadocian Fathers vs. Latin Fathers approach well.

  • Marie

    This may be off topic, but what about Christians who are not creedal Christians? In other words those who do not recognize the doctrinal authority of any of the various ecumenical creeds.


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