Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels

The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ
Daniel Boyarin

Daniel Boyarin is one the most interesting scholars of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity working today. He’s also, usually, an incredibly dense and academic writer. I read, and loved, his book Borderlands, but I’m also not sure I understood it.

The Jewish Gospels is Borderlands for normal people. It posits the same hypothesis – that Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity developed, at least in part, in conversation and competition. When Paul was Saul he was a student of the school of Gamaliel, after all.

The time, and subject, covered here is of deep interest to me, but much of the writing I’ve found (especially that covering the Rabbinic side), often assumes a level of learning I do not have. Very pleased to have found this accessible book to give me a toe hold in this world.

If clear thinking on the early development of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism is of interest to you, I can’t imagine a better place to start.


Daniel Boyrain

Boyrain’s Borderlands: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity

Borderlands: The Partition of Judeo-Christinaty
Daniel Boyarin

Daniel Boyarin is a genius and a personally fascinating scholar. A Talmudic scholar and an expert on rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity, he’s also versed in what is generally called “theory” and rhetoric. He’s an observant Jew, and an anti-Zionist.  He’s also, I’m afraid to say, a complex and, frankly, difficult writer.

Those who know me know I’ve long had a simmering interest in the time that produced both the rise of Christianity and the developed of so called Rabbinic Judaism (i.e. ~30-300 b.c.e). This simmering interest in starting to deepen and, I think, may be the central part of my personal intellectual life for the foreseeable future. To get a sense of this world, and especially the inter-play between Judaism and Christianity in this time, I went to Borderlands, which everyone considers to be one of the central contemporary books on the topic.

I wasn’t prepared for what I found there, for several reasons.

First, I wasn’t prepared for the introduction to be a nuanced, compelling argument against the Israeli occupation of West Bank and Gaza. I’d assumed that because Boyarin is an observant Jew, he was also at least a “soft” Zionist. He is not. Even if you care nothing about Boyarin’s scholarship, and whether or not you agree with Boyarin, this book is worth picking up for the careful and brilliant introduction alone.

After the introduction however, things get much more challenging. The central thesis, as I understand it, is that in the first hundreds years or so, C.E., as Judaism and Christianity developed, they did so in conversation and tension with each other — theology and practice was sometimes shared, and sometimes developed in stark opposition. Remember that the Judaism developed by the rabbis in this time was something new, not focused on the (now destroyed) temple in Jerusalem, but rather focused on the Torah and the Talmudic laws and commentary surrounding it. Similarly (and often in opposition, or reinterpretation of Judaism) Christianity was attempting to develop of cohesive theology out of the remembered teachings of an iterant Jewish messianic preacher, Jesus of Nazerth.

The thesis is fascinating, and to the degree I understood what Boyarin was saying, I was captivated. But the real talk is this is an academic book, and it assumes far more knowledge of Hebrew, the Talmud, and the early church fathers than I have.

For someone like me, interested in the subject, but far from an expert, it wasn’t the place to start. But even if I was lost and drowning at times, it was exciting to get a sense of what the deep end of the pool looks like. I’ll be back when I’m better able to swim.

Recommended for the (learned) enthusiast.

Daniel Boyrain

Review: Ehrman’s Triumph of Christianity

The Triumph of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept the World

Bart D. Ehrman

Ehrman is among the world’s leading authorities on Early Christianity, and without a doubt, the most popular, serious, author on the topic. If Early Christian history and theology has a rock star, its Ehrman.  The dude has written over thirty books, many of the them bestsellers, but this is the first by him I’ve read.

It’s well worth the price of admission.

In clear, accessible, language Ehrman answers the question of why (and how) did a religion based on the teachings of a Jew from the middle of nowhere come to dominate the Roman empire in the span of a few hundred years. The answer is both simple and endlessly complicated.

First is the nature of monotheism itself, and the numbers associated with it. Ehrman lays this out clearly in the book, but put simply, if you convert one person away from polytheism to monotheism, and they convert two, who then convert four, you quickly start gaining very large numbers.

Second is who was converted – Christianity at least in its early days, was willing to take in, and give positions of power, to Jews, women, and the working class, all people excluded from positions of power in the standard Roman mystery cults and religious societies.

Third was the simple, relatable, narrative of the Gospels themselves. Much of the Jewish world was waiting for a messiah, for sure, but much of the rest of the western world was also hungry for a more relatable god like figure, one not born in Olympus, and one who’s religious message resonated with their everyday lives.

There’s more, of course, (we’re talking about one of the largest most important revolutions in history after all) but this is the basics. I’m sure experts will quibble with this book. Frankly someday I hope to know enough to quibble myself. But for someone like me, dipping my toes into this world, or even for the interested lay person, this is a great introduction to one of the most important events in western society.


Bart Ehrman

Bart Ehrman

Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God

When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome

Richard E. Rubenstein

From the modern perspective it is hard to understand how amorphous the early Christian movements were. In the first few hundred years after the death of Christ, much of what we now take for granted as pillars of the Christian faith were still in dispute. Were Christians Jews? Was Christ divine? Leaders of the Christian movement argued and died over these questions. Rubenstein, the author of Aristotle’s Children, another engaging book religious history attempts to tell the complicated story of this time in an accessible way. Overall he does a bangup job.

Like Rubenstein’s other works, When Jesus Became God is a good book with a misleading title. This isn’t really about defining the nature of Christianity – such a book would have to be much longer and more detailed. It is instead a popular history of one of the great theological debates of the early church – the Arian controversy. As that, it is a great read. I should say that I am no theologian, my knowledge of the time period and of the theological questions at issue in the Arian controversy are superficial at best, but from a layman’s perspective, Rubenstein brings the goods.

Briefly, the Arian controversy was about the nature of Christ and his relationship to god the Father. Was Christ the son of god, a part of god, or simple a prophet? Was he to be worshipped and if so, how? These were the issues that brought monks and priests of the fourth century into conflict and man did they get mad. Bitter fights, violence, excommunications, this controversy had it all. When it was all over we had the dogma which has remained the center piece of the Catholic faith – the trinity and the divine nature of Jesus.

Many biblical controversies seem silly in hindsight, but not the Arian controversy. That those who backed Jesus’s divine nature and the conception of the trinity won had a massive and long lasting effect on the Church and on western society.  All of which makes the Arian controversy an important and interesting story which Rubenstein tells well. I would recommend this to those interested in an overview of the era.

– Sean