E.P. Sanders famously said the problem with Judaism for contemporaries of Paul was that it was not Christianity. Sanders was a lightning rod and at the same time a lighthouse for scholars in the late 70s and 80s, and his legacy — usually called the “new perspective” (language used by Tom Wright and Jimmy Dunn) — has been that while there is a clear difference between “Judaism” and “Christianity,” that relationship in the 1st Century — and perhaps a lot longer — was not so much two kinds of religion but varieties within one religion, namely Judaism.
So the debate is often Do we call “it” Christian Judaism (a Christian form of Judaism) or Jewish Christianity? And what are the consequences of seeing Christianity — the 1st Century kind — as a kind of Judaism?
Daniel Boyarin, in his new and (for the first time for Boyarin) accessible book, The Jewish Gospels, proposes his way of understanding the relationship of Jesus-following Jews in the context of non-Jesus-following (or is that Jesus-non-following?) Jews. His book deserves a wide reading, even if I think there a chunks of chunks of issues not covered and crying out for some explanation. Boyarin is one of my favorite Jewish scholars who interprets earliest Christianity, though I have to admit that his writing is often very difficult to comprehend. His first work, The Radical Jew (about Paul) and then his Border Lines are important contributions to understanding the original relation of the two groups — Jesus followers and those Jews who did not follow Jesus.
I make the following observations from his book:
First, for Boyarin the key or secret to comprehending earliest christology — how Jesus became a “part” of God (his word, an odd one to be sure) — is Daniel 7. Over and over he takes the reader back to Daniel 7 to explain how Jesus understood himself and his mission in his Jewish world.
Second, Boyarin belongs in a history of religions school that contends ancient Israel combined El with YHWH, and at least one main version was that El was the older god and YHWH the younger one, though eventually YHWH takes over El. This version of how God developed among Israelites finds a similar version in the relation of the Ancient of Days with the “one like a Son of Man” in Daniel 7, and he makes the thoroughly acceptable suggestion that the Son of Man is “part” of God — sometimes he says a “second God” — because the only one who rides on the clouds of heaven in the Old Testament is God. That makes Son of Man divine.
Third, there is good Jewish evidence supporting this kind of christology at work in Judaism well before Jesus, so when Jesus called himself Son of Man, and with that meant divinity and messianic vocation, there was nothing offensive or non-Jewish about his claim. Boyarin points to 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, and he’s right here — if it can be proven that these texts are pre-Jesus.
Fourth, Jesus lived an entirely kosher life. Mark 7: 19’s famous statement is not about making all foods clean — so that he was saying you can eat bacon and eggs with milk and still be kosher — but about saying that foods are not sources of purity but instead morals are. Bodily fluids make one unclean; food doesn’t. Food is kosher but this is not the same as purity. Jesus was contesting the addition to the Torah — making foods purity/impurity — by the Pharisees. (Foods are either permitted or not permitted; foods are not clean/unclean or pure/impure.)
Fifth, suffering was an element of the messianic vision in the Jewish world — and here he sketches stuff in Isaiah 53, how Jews read Isaiah 53, how messianic Jews today are keen on this connection (he says this is a bit embarrassing to some orthodox Jews), how Isa 43 was messianic for Jews … etc..
The result for Boyarin: it was the 4th Century and 5th Century that split Judaism into two religions, Christianity and Judaism. The heresiologists of those days said one had to believe one version of the Jewish vision of Jesus (Trinitarian version) or they were not Christian; and Jewish scholars then pronounced such views heresy. And we have two religions.
There are problems in his theory, not the least of which is the relationship of Jews and (non-Jewish) Christians already in the 2d Century — Justin Martyr et al — but the big vision is right: Christianity was part of Judaism and everything about Jesus was within the Jewish story.