Here Comes the New Wave
The Latest Generation of Jewish Scholars Gives Us Its Take on Jesus
The past several years have seen a “new wave” of Jewish publications about Jesus and the New Testament.
In 2011, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (JANT) was published, the first time the entire New Testament has been presented to Jews and Christians by a group of mainstream Jewish scholars. Under the editorship of Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, some 50 top-tier Jewish contributors wrote notes to the New Testament in the style of a study Bible. They added essays and introductions. The editors explained the rationale behind JANT:
Many Jews are unfamiliar with, or even afraid of reading, the New Testament. Its content and genres are foreign, and they need notes to guide their reading. Other Jews may think that the New Testament writings are irrelevant to their lives, or that any annotated New Testament is aimed at persuasion, if not conversion. This volume, edited and written by Jewish scholars, should not raise that suspicion. Our intention is not to convert … Rather, this book is designed to allow all readers to understand what the texts of the New Testament meant within their own social, historical, and religious context …1
In 2012, Daniel Boyarin, Professor of Talmudic Culture at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ
The idea of a human-divine Messiah, Boyarin says, is not a later pagan addition but was part of the early Jewish Jesus-movement. Boyarin also maintains that the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 is not a later Christian distortion of its true meaning.
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. The fascinating (and to some, no doubt, uncomfortable) fact is that this tradition was well documented by modern Messianic Jews, who are concerned to demonstrate that their belief in Jesus does not make them un-Jewish… .2
Also in 2012, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach published Kosher Jesus. Boteach says it’s time for Jews to reclaim Jesus [some prominent Jewish leaders denounced the book as heretical]. But the Jesus Boteach wants us to reclaim is not recognizable from the Gospels. Boteach says that Jesus’ goal was to fight Rome, and he stayed that course till the bitter end, a kind of Jesus Maccabee! But Boteach does not accept him as divine nor as Messiah.
In response to Boteach’s book, Michael L. Brown, a Jewish believer in Jesus with a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University, wrote The Real Kosher Jesus: Revealing the Mysteries of the Hidden Messiah. Brown writes, “by reclaiming Yeshua [Jesus] as a fellow Jew and rabbi, Shmuley has taken a very major and truly wonderful step in the right direction.”3 Brown quickly adds, however, that Boteach “has taken some very serious missteps, ultimately creating a fictional Jesus who cannot save or transform or bring redemption to the world, revising much of the New Testament in the process.”4
Brown notes that Boteach has to deal with the fact that Jesus is called “Christ” (the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word “Messiah”) more than five hundred times in the New Testament. Boteach claims that Jesus can be the Messiah for Gentiles but not for the Jews. Brown counters, “If he is not the Messiah of Israel, we should throw out the New Testament and not bother either Jews or Gentiles with its message.”5
Our postmodern society does not comfortably address issues of truth, preferring to see the Jewish and Christian communities as each possessed of its own truth. If modern Jewish scholars are affirming the Jewishness of Jesus, then we can hope that the discussion about him will ultimately move from “Is it Jewish?” to “Is it true?”
Note: All books mentioned in this article can be found at amazon.com. The Real Kosher Jesus by Michael L. Brown can also be found at store.jewsforjesus.org. Read an interview with Amy-Jill Lenine at http://j4j.co/ajl.
1 Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler, editors, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) p. xii.
2 Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012) pp. 132–133.
3 Michael L. Brown, The Real Kosher Jesus: Revealing the Mysteries of the Hidden Messiah (Lake Mary, FL: FrontLine, 2012) p. xvii.
5 Brown, op. cit., p. 186.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.