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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What I’m Reading: Kosher Jesus

I spent a good portion of today reading from two books that are similar themed – but very different in their trajectories.  One of the books I’m reading is the 2nd volume of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew series, the other is Kosher Jesus by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach[i]. One of these books is a measured and critical attempt to determine what it is possible to know about the historical Jesus, the other is a wild tale dressed in some of the language of historical Jesus studies but has very little actual substance.

I wanted to like Rabbi Boteach’s book.  I believe that it’s not really possible to understand the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, his life, or his death and resurrection – without understanding him as a Jew and understanding his Jewish context.  So I came to this book wanting to like it.  But, perhaps I should have been clued in by the illustration on the cover that this wasn’t going to be an altogether accurate portrayal of Jesus – either the historical Jesus or of the theological Jesus of the gospels.  The cover photograph is of a crucified man’s hand – with the nail print being in the fleshy palm of his hand, an altogether unlikely depiction.  The same can be said of the Jesus Rabbi Boteach describes; he is altogether unlikely.[ii]

Jews can’t accept Jesus as divine (that would be an abomination), nor can they accept him as the Messiah (because he died without fulfilling the necessary prophecies) but they can (and should) accept him as a hero and champion of the Jewish people. (xvii)  And in this, Boteach’s description of Jesus is very similar to that found in Reza Aslan’s recent book Zealot.  Jesus was, according to Boteach, “a wise and learned rabbi who despised the Romans for their cruelty to his Israelite brethren, who fought the Romans courageously and was ultimately murdered for trying to throw off the Roman yoke of oppression.  He was a man who worked to rekindle Jewish ritual observance of every aspect of the Torah and to counter the brutal Roman occupation of his people’s land (xvii).” 

And just how do we know that Jesus of Nazareth was a fiery and violent revolutionary ready to die a martyr’s death in his fight against the Roman Empire?  According to Boteach we can know this because all trace of this story has been expunged from the gospel stories. For Rabbi Boteach the very fact that there is no evidence that Jesus was an armed revolutionary fighting the Romans is, in itself, proof that he was in fact an armed revolutionary fighting the Romans.  “An examination of the evidence suggests that after Jesus’ death, editors removed his political diatribes against Rome from his life story (49).

He describes Galilee as a hotbed of anti-Roman subversives (3) despite the fact that during the lifetime of Jesus, Galilee was ruled by Herod Antipas, who used his own (Jewish) soldiers for peacekeeping. Rome was content to remain at a distance.  There were few recorded dustups between the Jews and the Romans during Jesus’ time. 

In discussing Jesus’ teaching and miracles, Boteach goes to great length to show that these are similar in many ways to the teaching and miracles of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and of the rabbis in the Talmud.  And I have no problem with this – except to say that it is dishonest to discredit the gospels as being untrustworthy since they were written with an agenda and written so long after the events being described, without making the same qualifications for the stories and teaching recorded in the Talmud.  Boteach seems to accept the Talmud without any of the critical questions he would demand of the gospels.

He includes at several points in his book, arguments drawn from the non-canonical Gospel of Peter -and says that it was written by Peter himself! (68- 69)  He says that Jesus couldn’t have been the Messiah because he failed to meet the qualifications of the Messiah set forth by Maimonides who lived 1135 – 1204 B.C.E. (97 – 101).  But I fail to see how the interpretation of Messianic promises held by a Spanish Jew in the 12th century should determine what first century Jews living in Israel would have expected of the Messiah.

The book is filled with wild and unsubstantiated claims.  Boteach says that the historical Jesus – who was a violent Anti-Rome revolutionary - was supplanted by Paul of Tarsus – who was neither a Pharisee, nor a student of Gamliel – and who probably wasn’t even Jewish! (116 – 118)  He describes Peter as a liar and a coward who blamed the Jews for killing Jesus in order to hide his failure to protect his leader and teacher. (70) He describes Pontius Pilate as a Roman Hitler who casually and routinely murdered thousands. (82)

In making contemporary application of this idiosyncratic Jesus’ teachings, Boteach says that Jesus told us to love our enemies – “But Jesus does not tell us to love God’s enemies.  It is one thing to love an irritating colleague, a very different thing to love the murderous Ahmadinejad or Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the abominable head of Hezbollah (140).”  Added to this list of people it’s apparently okay not to love would be the Romans, whom he continually characterizes as crude, violent, morally ambiguous, lustful and proud (14). 

At the same time he writes condemningly throughout the book of the fierce anti-Semitism that has historically been present within Christianity.  He is right to condemn Christian anti-Semitism, but I think he’s missed his own failure to love his enemies.  It’s okay not to love them – it’s okay to hate them – if they’re God’s enemies, right? Right? No.  But if that doesn’t work for Christian anti-Semitism (and it doesn’t!) then it shouldn’t work for any other hatred of our enemies.

So it should be apparent that I really didn’t care for this book very much.  It’s sloppy in its exegesis of New Testament texts. He plays fast and loose with “history.”   But there is this one thing buried within Boteach’s book that I liked very much indeed:

“I have written elsewhere, in both columns and books, encouraging every person to aspire to be the messiah. Okay, if not the actual, big-cheese messiah, then little messiahs, who redeem their small corner of the world.  We should all strive to bring about a state of redemption.  We should all work for peace, harmony, and healing.  Curing disease, ending human suffering, bringing peace to our surroundings – all part of the messiah’s mission – are the sorts of activities we should all engage in vigorously, often, and everywhere (96 – 97).”

[i]Boteach, Shmuley Kosher Jesus, Geffen Publishing House, Ltd., Jerusalem, Israel, 2012 / 5772.
[ii] I could also have noticed if I had taken the time, that the book was endorsed by the likes of Pat Boone and Glenn Beck.  There may be some merit in judging a book by its cover, after all… 

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