Chapter 1, “The Rabbi and the Stranger”
Boteach relies foundationally, as we saw last time, on scholar Hyam Maccoby’s reconstruction of history as seen in such books as The Mythmaker, a reference to the Apostle Paul.
After reading his first chapter, I’m inclined to think that Boteach is the real mythmaker.
Hopefully the rest of his book will unpack the scenario he presents here, but let’s see what Boteach has to say. First he sets the scene: first-century Jews, especially in Galilee, hoped for deliverance from the cruel Roman oppression. This hope was particularly centered on the appearance of a military hero, the Messiah. Scholars will tell us that the messianic hopes of the first-century were far more complex and that there were many varieties of messianic expectations, not all militaristic. That is true as far as it goes. But given the history of false Messiahs and kings (Judas in 6 CE; his son Simon; a certain Athronges, whose name may be roughly translatable as “Mr. Etrog”; Bar Kochba— see Harris Lenowitz, The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights) and given the depth of popular hatred of the Roman oppression, I think it’s fair to say that the average Chaim Yankel would gravitate toward the military Messiah solution.
So far Boteach is accurate in setting the scene.
Then the mythmaking begins. I’ll address a few of the main sections in this chapter.
Part I. The Rabbi.
Boteach introduces us to Jesus, “the rabbi,” who he claims incited a “call to arms” with “fierce fighting words” in order to instill an “enthusiasm for Jewish self-rule” among his followers (pp. 4-5). Simultaneously he issues a call for people to follow Torah. Eventually he and his followers become convinced that he is the Messiah and that God will fight Rome for them. Sadly, they are mistaken and Jesus is crucified.
This is mythmaking because the New Testament contains precious little of Jesus as a military rebel. His teaching (Sermon on the Mount, parables) deal with attitudes towards God and other people and often were exactly the opposite of a call to arms. For example,
1. Jesus advised, “And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:40-41). The latter was the tactic of Roman soldiers.
Roman soldiers had the legal right to impress the labor, work animal or substance of local residents (cf. Mk 15:21). Although impressment may not have happened often in Galilee, it happened elsewhere, and the fact that it could happen would be enough to raise the eyebrows of Jesus’ hearers at this example of nonresistance and even loving service to the oppressor.1
Jesus’ words are far removed from any idea of rebellion. To the contrary,
…by A.D. 66 Jewish Palestine was caught up in a war, and by 70 the wisdom of Jesus’ course was evident: Rome won the war, and the Jewish people, led to defeat by the revolutionaries, were crushed.2
2. Matthew 26:52: ” ‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ” ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’ ” Again:
These are not the words of a violent revolutionary… End-time schemes often included a great battle between the people of light and the people of darkness, and Jesus certainly expected violence (24:1-2); but his own followers were to stay clear of it.3
In fact, Jesus goes on to say: “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:53-54) In other words, not only does Jesus disclaim violence in verse 52, but he also says that it was always intended by God in the Scriptures that Jesus would not be a victorious military rebel, but would be put to death for our sin (that detail in other verses we’ll look at later). By the way, Roman legions had 6,000 soldiers, so Jesus is saying God could have sent 72,000 angels to fight. But he didn’t. It wasn’t meant to happen that way — contra Boteach’s scenario that Jesus expected divine intervention.
3. In John 18:36, Jesus words are, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” This is similar to what we have just seen, and the exact opposite of the mentality of armed rebels.
Exactly how Boteach reconciles such words with his “Jesus Maccabee” approach is not clear, certainly in the opening chapter.
Not only Jesus’ teaching, but his actions too, as recorded in the gospels, had to do with healing and deliverance from spiritual oppression, not armed rebellion. In John 14:12: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” Jesus anticipated his followers doing what he had been doing — acts of healing and mercy, not taking up arms. That is in fact what we see in the Book of Acts, recording the events after Jesus’ death and resurrection, where we find the apostles healing and engaging in spiritual deliverance — not taking up arms.
Part II. The Stranger.
Following Jesus’ crucifixion, Boteach tells us, his followers begin to dwindle until “a mysterious stranger” comes on the scene. I’m not sure why Boteach labels Paul that way unless it’s just to lend a film noir feel to the proceedings. At any rate, Paul (who remains unnamed in this chapter) does a bit of fancy footwork:
1. He “ascribes a meaning to the rabbi’s death that the original followers never could. The rabbi did not die in vain” (p. 10).
Um, which version of the New Testament is Boteach reading? Jesus’ own words over and over again emphasized exactly that his death was foretold by Scripture, planned by God, accepted willingly, and was for the atonement of our sins (presumably the meaning the Paul “ascribes” to it). Italics are added for emphasis:
Matt. 16:21 — From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Matt. 17:22-23 — When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.
Matt. 20:18-19 — “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
Mark 8:31 — He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.
Luke 9:22 — And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Luke 18:31-33 — Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”
Luke 24:44-47 — He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins [statement of purpose of his death] will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
John 10:13-17 — The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
There are more verses that speak not only of the planning and intentionality of Jesus’ death but of its purpose as an atonement for our sins:
Matt. 20:28 — ” … just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Matt. 26:28 — “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Mark 10:45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
There is a plethora of evidence here that Jesus and his followers ascribed to his death exactly what “the mysterious stranger” did.
2. “His execution abrogated all obligations specific in the Law” (p. 10).
This is a big topic that needs its own discussion. So I’ll hold off on responding to this for now, because the point of Boteach’s first chapter really lies elsewhere.
3. “The idea of a divine man has strong appeal [to Gentiles]” (p. 11).
The idea is that since Paul’s ideas were marginalized among Jewish followers of Jesus, he set out to invent a new religion designed to appeal to Gentile Romans. The idea of Jesus’ divinity was supposed to have special appeal to the pagans of Rome.
The problem is that Paul’s Jesus is not divine in the same way the emperor was considered divine. Paul envisaged the God of Israel taking on humanity in the person of Jesus.
Let me give an extended quote from church historian Oskar Skarsaune:
Jewish scholars in antiquity, the Middle Ages and modern times have almost unanimously claimed that the idea that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God is un-Jewish, a product of Christianity’s transplantation from a Jewish milieu to a Gentile-Hellenistic milieu. Liberal Christian scholars in modern times have said much the same thing, as for example, the great historian of dogma, Adolf von Harnack. His saying has become famous: “The Christological dogma … is a product of the spirit of Hellenism on the soil of the Gospel.”
In our time, the Jewish writer Pinchas Lapide has tried to understand this “Hellenization” in Christology as a conscious cultural adaptation. He says about Paul:
He brought the message of the Jewish Messiah to the pagan world with a commitment of complete faith… . He was successful in being a Greek for the Greeks and a Jew for the Jews. He possessed courage to display religious imagination. He knew that he would be rejected if he came either to Corinth or Rome and preached about an anointed Jewish Messiah who was David’s son. They would not understand what he was talking about. But for Greek and Roman ears, he would fare extremely well talking about an incarnate Son of God and a Logos, a divine Word who had descended in order to redeem the world. On the other hand, this made no sense to Galilean fishermen and shepherds. That was why Paul appeared in Jerusalem as a devout, faithful Jew proclaiming a Jewish Messiah, while for Greeks he spoke of a Saviour who was the Son of God.
So this is the challenge we face in this chapter: Are Harnack, Lapide and a score of other experts correct in their evaluation of eastern Christology as utterly Hellenistic and un-Jewish?
Let us begin with an observation on the typical Hellenistic reaction to the dogma of the incarnate Son of God. Lapide [and Boteach] would have us believe that this was something Gentile Hellenists would really appreciate, something they craved for, something they would embrace enthusiastically. But we have several authentic reports on the Gentile Hellenistic reaction, and it does not correspond to this picture at all. The available evidence shows, on the contrary, that most Hellenists reacted with disgust and contempt at the very idea of a divine incarnation, and with charges of blasphemy when they heard that the incarnate Son of God had suffered the uttermost shame of crucifixion. [emphasis added] We will let one Gentile author speak for all. He is Celsus, a Platonist philosopher writing a polemical book against Christianity ca. a.d. 175.
God is good and beautiful and happy, and exists in the most beautiful state. If then he comes down to men, he must undergo change, a change from good to bad, from beautiful to shameful, from happiness to misfortune, and from what is best to what is most wicked. Who would choose a change like this? It is the nature only of a mortal being to undergo change and remolding, whereas it is the nature of an immortal being to remain the same without alteration. Accordingly, God could not be capable of undergoing this change… . Either God does change, as the Christians say, into a mortal body; and it has already been said that this is an impossibility. Or he does not change, but makes those who see him think that he does so, and leads them astray, and tells lies… . Dear Jews and Christians, no God or child of God has either come down or would want to come down (from heaven)!
Tertullian once made a point of this difficulty, the offensiveness of the fact of the incarnation. It is as if he were striving to express the basic intuition that the offensiveness of the christological dogma is precisely what makes it ring true. Nobody would have dreamt of inventing anything so offensive! Besides, Tertullian reminds us, Paul has warned us that in the gospel we meet the foolishness of God. But, he says to Marcion, if you eliminate the birth and the suffering of the divine Son from the gospel, there is no foolishness left.
Which is more unworthy of God, which is more likely to raise a blush of shame, that God should be borne, or that he should die? That he should bear the flesh, or the cross? be circumcised, or be crucified, be cradled or be coffined, be laid in a manger, or in a tomb?
The Son of God was crucified. I am not ashamed of it, because it seems shameful. And the Son of God dies, it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, precisely because it is impossible. (De carne Christi 5.1, 4)4
Thus, according to Tertullian, the very offensiveness of the christological confession carries the conviction of its truth. This is not something we have made up.
So Celsus and Tertullian have made us aware of the true response to the concept of incarnation in the Hellenistic world. And that means that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation can hardly be the product of a milieu—the Hellenistic—that regarded this doctrine as a philosophical and theological monstrosity. Nor can it be the brilliant idea of someone trying to speak the way Hellenists liked. [emphasis added]5
The idea that Paul invented Jesus as a God-man simply doesn’t comport with what we know about ancient pagan inclinations.
3. This new belief brought the “convenience of faith” as opposed to actions or ritual (p. 11).
The idea that following Jesus was somehow made “convenient” is something completely foreign to the New Testament, to Jesus, and to the “mysterious stranger” Paul:
Matt. 10:38 — “… and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
Matt. 16:24 — Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Mark 8:34 — Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Luke 9:23 Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Acts 9:15-16 (God to Ananias concerning Paul) — But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Rom. 8:17 (the words of Paul) — Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
It is impossible to conceive of these words as representing a nice, convenient faith that demands nothing of anybody. At any event, Judaism speaks equally of “faith” as well as actions. Boteach is giving us an old red herring that dates back to mid 20th-century polemics.
Part III. Another Revolt
In the light of the failed First Revolt Against Rome and the ensuing response from Rome, the Gentile followers of Jesus felt a need to get the Jewish albatross from around their necks, and so they took the gospels, “heavily edited” them so that they were “completely rewritten” and decided to “revise their holy texts” to make Jesus Roman-friendly and hostile to Jews. In this rewrite, Jesus is no longer a rebel against Roman but against his own people, especially the Pharisees.
Boteach is here making a move that others have done as well. Anti-Judaism is retrojected onto Jesus himself as a way to justify anti-Jewish feeling and behavior on the part of the later church. To accomplish this, the original writings get thoroughly edited so that one must look far and wide to find the “original Jesus” now barely visible in the pages of the gospels. Other scholars have used the “later editing” thesis to explain the supernatural elements in the gospels or the depiction of Jesus as divine, or for any number of other reasons. Essentially the gospels reflect the later church, not Jesus himself.
This would be the only way Boteach can read the New Testament and find the opposite of his own portrait. The original Jesus and the original gospels spoke of political rebellion against Rome; the edited New Testament (what we have in our hands today) altered all that in a radically new direction.
The bottom line of such theories is that they are conjecture. The versions of the New Testament books we have are the only one we know of. They are the only ones we have manuscript copies of. Their authenticity can be rejected only if we rule out from the beginning that Jesus did and said what the documents say he did. Only with the presupposition that Jesus did not claim that he would go to death in accordance with God’s plan as an atonement for our sins, must an alternative reality be constructed. As it is, the text we have says the opposite of what Boteach says. Judging from his first chapter, it is sheer speculation, a creative rewriting of history.
So let’s see how he justifies his rewriting of the New Testament in the next chapters.