Tag Archives: Daniel Boyarin

The God and Dying Messiah Debate Preceded Christianity

In my last post I finished off with some reservations about Boyarin’s interpretation of the two heavenly figures in Daniel 7 as two deities. This post lets Boyarin explain a little more what he thinks is going on here.

We have on the one hand the two figures, one like a son of man and the other an Ancient of Days, in heaven. Thrones are set for both. The Ancient of Days is clearly God; yet the one like a son of man enters upon the clouds — an evident sign that he is also a divinity.

Against this view stands the continuation of the story in Daniel 7. The one like the son of man appears in the train of four symbolic beasts that represent gentile kingdoms. The vision ends — after the appearance of the one like the son of man — with the downfall of those kingdoms and the rise of a kingdom of the holy people. From this perspective it seems clear that the one like the son of man must be symbolic after all.

Daniel 7:15-28 (NIV)

15 “I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. 16 I approached one of those standing there and asked him the meaning of all this.

“So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: 17 ‘The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth. 18 But the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever.’

19 “Then I wanted to know the meaning of the fourth beast, which was different from all the others and most terrifying, with its iron teeth and bronze claws—the beast that crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. 20 I also wanted to know about the ten horns on its head and about the other horn that came up, before which three of them fell—the horn that looked more imposing than the others and that had eyes and a mouth that spoke boastfully. 21 As I watched, this horn was waging war against the holy people and defeating them, 22 until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the holy people of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom.

23 “He gave me this explanation: ‘The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it. 24 The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings. 25 He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and half a time.

26 “‘But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. 27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’

28 “This is the end of the matter. I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.”

Boyarin continues with the imaginary argument between Aphrahat (see previous post) and his Jewish opponents:

Those Jews who were Apharat’s opponents could clearly have retorted, then: “Is a heavenly being or junior God subject to oppression by a Seleucid king who forces him to abandon his Holy Days and his Law for three and a half years? Absurd! The Son of Man must be a symbol for the children of Israel! (p. 43, my bolding, as always)

So we have a quandary. Boyarin arbitrates:

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Room for Two Gods in the Book of Daniel

jewishgospelsHere is an argument for interpreting Daniel 7’s scenario of “one like a son of man/Son of Man” coming on clouds to the Ancient of Days as a reference to two divinities. It’s from Daniel Boyarin’s small book, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (2012). But be warned. I suspect many New Testament scholars would not agree with Boyarin. So who is this Boyarin? Jack Miles introduces him in the Foreword. (We met Jack Miles in an earlier post on gospel genre and narrative here in Vridar.)

“Daniel Boyarin,” a prominent conservative rabbi confided to me not long ago, “is one of the two or three greatest rabbinic scholars in the world,” and — dropping his voice a notch — “possibly even the greatest.” The observation was given in confidence because, quite clearly, it troubled the rabbi to think that someone with Boyarin’s views might have truly learned Talmudic grounds for them. As a Christian, let me confide that his views can be equally troubling for Christians who appreciate the equally grounded originality of his reading of our New Testament. . . . .

His achievement is . . . a bold rereading of the rabbis and the evangelists alike, the results of which are so startling that once you — you, Jew, or you, Christian — get what he is up to, you suddenly read even the most familiar passages of your home scripture in a new light. (p. ix)

Let’s begin with the passage in question, Daniel 7:9-14 (NIV)

9 “As I looked,

“thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze.

10 A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
and the books were opened.

. . . . . 

13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man [a human being] coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

So we have two figures here: an old one and another with the appearance of a young human being.

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The Pre-Christian Jewish Logos

Probably most people with more than a casual knowledge of Christianity recognise the following words as quintessentially Christian yet are completely unaware that when first penned these words were Jewish to the core:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Daniel Boyarin explains in Border Lines how these words came to be formulated through a Jewish literary process he calls “midrash” and how they are embedded in a first and second century CE Jewish religious culture that had room in which perhaps most Jews assumed a belief in what we might loosely call a second God or a Logos theology. This second God was variously known as Logos (Greek for “Word”), Memra (Aramaic for “Word”), Sophia (“Wisdom”), Metatron or Yahoel. Not that all these names are equivalent. They aren’t. They are a mix of genders for a start. But Daniel Boyarin conflates them all for purposes of his argument because he believes they are “genetically, as well as typologically, related.” (p. 275, and see also the previous post on the wave theory model of religious ideas.)

I’ll try to explain in a future post the actual midrashic process by which the author of the Gospel of John appears to have woven together passages from Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8 (and why he did this) to produce the above opening verses.

Where did the Logos come from?

Erwin Goodenough gave a definitive answer to that question in his 1968 book The Theology of Justin Martyr: An Investigation into the Conceptions of Early Christian Literature and Its Hellenistic and Judaistic Influences:

The Logos then in all circles but the Stoic . . . was a link of some kind which connected a transcendent Absolute with the world and humanity. The Logos came into general popularity because of the wide-spread desire to conceive of God as transcendent and yet immanent at the same time. The term Logos in philosophy was not usually used as a title or a unique attributed of God, but rather as the most important single name among many applicable to the effulgent Power of God which reasonably had shaped and now governs the world. (pp. 140-1)

Boyarin goes a step further and stresses

how thoroughly first-century Judaism had absorbed (and even co-produced) these central “Middle Platonic” theological notions. . . . The idea that the Logos or Sophia (Wisdom, and other variants as well) is the site of God’s presence in the world — indeed, the notion of God’s Word or Wisdom as a mediator figure — was a very widespread one in the world of first- and even second- century Judaic thought. (p. 112, my bolding)

Here is where Boyarin (and a good many other scholars of early Jewish thought) parts company with many scholars of the New Testament. (It seems to me that the latter have a tendency to find ways to dismiss the relevance of Jewish ideas if and where they rob early Christianity of its distinctiveness.) Yet the evidence for first century Jews being familiar with

  • the notion of a great being alongside God himself and acting as God’s vice-regent,
  • or with the idea that such a figure was actually a hypostasis or alternative manifestation of God,
  • or with earthly notables like Adam, Israel, Enoch, Moses and others having pre-existing spiritual forms with especially exalted status in heaven and to which their earthly counterparts returned at death,

is very strong. These sorts of ideas were apparently common in first century Judaism.

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Why Christians and Jews were for so long indistinguishable — even after the flight to Pella

Cover of "Border Lines: The Partition of ...

Cover via Amazon

Warning. Dr Larry Hurtado and others embracing a similar perspective disagree strongly with the views of the scholar to be discussed in this post. I will address some of Hurtado’s criticisms of Dr Daniel Boyarin at a later date. But now you know that what I am covering here is not a consensus view. But it offers ideas that deserve exploring and thinking through, whatever position arrive at in the end.

I am sure I am not alone in having wondered at some time how it can be that Roman authorities, as we are told, could not easily tell Christians apart from Jews in the early days. One group was dominated by those who worshiped Jesus and did not keep the Jewish customs and the other by those who cursed Jesus and did keep the Jewish customs. So when in Acts we read of authorities being prepared to dismiss complaints of either party because they thought the issue was merely over legalistic quibbles, something does not sound quite right — or “coherent”, as a scholar interested in criteria of authenticity might say. Something’s missing from this equation.

The Long Good-Bye

Recently I finished reading Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword. He makes the point Christianity and Judaism as we understand them did not really come into their own, that is, separate as truly distinct religions until the fourth century. (He cites scholarly works, of course.) What led to that clear demarcation between the two as opposing religions was the work of the heresiologists on both sides. There arose a situation where it became necessary for Christians who had achieved some political power and status to draw clear boundaries to define who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Jewish authorities were correspondingly obliged to do the same.

I am in the early stages of reading Daniel Boyarin’s Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. Fate must have led me to this book just after reading Tom Holland’s because Boyarin expresses the very same view of the late definitive separation between the two religions. (I don’t really believe in Fate, by the way.) As would be expected given the different themes of the two books, Boyarin goes into more detail than Holland to make his case. He addresses the long-established conservative view that the final break between the two happened after the first Jewish War, or certainly no later than the second in the 130s.

Pella, Jordan 2000

Pella, Jordan 2000 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The real meaning of the Pella legend?

One of his interesting points is made in relation to the legend of the early Church fleeing to Pella. That has often been interpreted as the final breach between Christianity and Judaism. The Jerusalem Church fled the city to escape the imminent conquest of the city by the Romans. Eusebius even links this with a heavenly voice heard in the Temple saying “Let us remove hence!” (Quaint translation of “Armaggedon outta here”.) Later Ebion was believed to have arisen from among these Christians and founded the “Ebionites” — Jewish Christians who had truly separated themselves from Judaism.

Boyarin puts a fly in the ointment of the legend that this event might be interpreted as the final rift between Judaism and Christianity. read more »

So some Jews did expect a suffering Messiah?

English: "A symbol that Messianic Jews be...

“A symbol that Messianic Jews believe was used to identify the first Messianic congregation, led by Yeshua (Jesus)’s brother Jacob in Jerusalem” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before continuing with the second part of my previous post I’ll post here something unexpected that I read last night. Daniel Boyarin is Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture and rhetoric at the University of California whose views on Christian origins are not unanimously welcomed by Christian theologians. I don’t know at this stage what to make of his ideas since I haven’t read them closely enough yet. (I’ve only read criticisms of them so far.) But I quote here a section from his book The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, because it is surely interesting that a Jewish scholar should arrive at such a view:

Boyarin sums up the conventional view of how a crucified Jesus came to be thought of as the Messiah by his followers, and how it was that eventually Isaiah 53’s declaration of the Suffering Servant came to be viewed as a prophecy of the sufferings of Jesus:

To sum up this generally held view: The theology of the suffering of the Messiah was an after-the-fact apologetic response to explain the suffering and ignominy Jesus suffered, since he was deemed by “Christians” to be the Messiah. Christianity, on this view, was initiated by the fact of the crucifixion, which is seen as setting into motion the new religion. Moreover, many who hold this view hold also that Isaiah 53 was distorted by the Christians from its allegedly original meaning, in which it referred to the sufferings of the People of Israel, to explain and account for the shocking fact that the Messiah had been crucified. (p. 132)

The professor pulls no punches in telling readers what he thinks of all this.

This commonplace view has to be rejected completely. The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future following that — indeed, well into the early modern period.

At this point he refers readers to an endnote: read more »