Book Title: Kosher Jesus
Author: Shmuley Boteach
Date Published: February 2, 2012
Publisher: Gefen Publishing House; First Edition (US) First Printing edition
Genre: 1. Theology
2. Jewish Life
3. Biographies
ISBN: 978-9652295782
Reviewer: Rich Robinson
Review Date: February 2, 2012

#1 Jesus Maccabee?

I’ve begun reading Shmuley Boteach’s Kosher Jesus, having received my review copy a few days ago. In this series of posts, I’ll interact with the book chapter by chapter as I make my way through it. Boteach’s idea that Jews should reclaim Jesus—that the Jewish Jesus is indeed kosher for Jews—has already made waves, and enemies, in the Jewish community. So let’s see what all the uproar is over. We’ll begin with the Introduction.

Boteach starts with exactly the right question: “Who was Jesus of Nazareth?” His answer, as he explains, will rely on scholar Hyam Maccoby as a “foundation” and “pillar” for the rest of what follows. Good question, though we’ll explore just how earthquake-proof the foundation really is.

Boteach points out that times have changed, and the history of Christian anti-Semitism has given way to improved relations with the Jewish people. Christians have begun to recover the Jewishness of their faith, and now it’s time for Jews to reclaim Jesus as well. Both these themes are briefly explored in sections of the introduction: “Supplanting Judaism” highlights Augustine and “Progress” invokes three exemplary popes (John XXIII, John Paul II, and the underrated Benedict XVI) along with modern theologian Krister Stendahl, the late Jerry Falwell, and the American Evangelical community. So far so good.

Then Boteach tips his hand to what he will develop: Jesus’ goal was fighting against Rome, and he stayed that course till the bitter end. One phrase came to mind as I pondered this: Jesus Maccabee. The Maccabees, of course, were the heroes of the Hanukkah story, valiantly fighting the Greek-Syrian armies until they reclaimed the defiled Temple some 165 years before Jesus. Boteach’s Jesus will apparently be portrayed in the same vein, although unlike the Maccabees, Jesus ended up going to his death. As a patriot, Jesus is “a champion of the Jewish people.” He is … um . . . Jesus Maccabee.

And how to bring about a reclamation of Jesus the Patriot among Jews? Jews cannot accept him as divine nor as Messiah. But by stripping his story of “paganism and the supernatural,” we can be left with the reclaimable Jesus who was a teacher of ethics (apparently alongside his soldierly pursuits). As to how paganism, the supernatural, and Jesus’ divinity entered the picture, Boteach presents the apostle Paul, the man who defined Christianity in opposition to Judaism. The original Jesus, Jesus Maccabee, would never have stood for Paul’s new, improved version.

Three summary points round out the introduction. One, the misrepresentation of the essential Jewish Jesus throughout history is “one of the greatest acts of character assassination in all of human history.” Two, once we get rid of the new, improved Jesus (my phrasing, not Boteach’s), we can re-embrace him as one of us. And three, if we can accomplish point two, we can usher in a new era of positive Jewish-Christian relations.

From his mouth to God’s ears.

The question is, can good-guy Jesus and bad-guy Paul accomplish this lofty goal? It should be noted that nothing in all of this is new. Jesus has been envisioned as an anti-Roman freedom fighter before. Paul—pre- and post-Maccoby—has frequently been depicted as the villain of the piece. Any number of interpreters have tried to dress the post-Jesus Christian faith in pagan clothing (more on that to come). Is Boteach’s version of Jesus and Paul “good for the Jews”—and the Christians?

I’ll be commenting further in subsequent posts. Will Jesus Maccabee emerge as the hero of the story? And contra Boteach, will the light of a “kosher Paul” unexpectedly greet us at the end of the tunnel? Stay tuned.

Next: Chapter 1, ‘The Rabbi and the Stranger’ (coming soon).