Boyarin, Isaiah 53 and Interfaith Dialog Done Badly (Part 3 – Boyarin)

This is the third and final post in my series on Isaiah 53. In part 1 of this series, I compared the Christian and Jewish interpretations of this verse: Christians view Isaiah 53 as prophecy concerning Jesus Christ, and Jews hold multiple views, with the predominant view being that Isaiah 53 is prophecy concerning the people of Israel. In part 2 I examined the clash between Christian missionaries and Jewish counter-missionaries over the correct interpretation of Isaiah 53. With this background in place, I can finally turn to what Daniel Boyarin has to say about Isaiah 53 in his book The Jewish Gospels.

Boyarin sets forth his purpose from the outset: he wants to overthrow the commonly accepted notion that Jews were not expecting a Messiah like Jesus. It is often stated that, during the time of Jesus, Jews were looking for (or at least hoping for) a Messiah-king that would restore Israel’s independence and usher in a time of justice and peace. Obviously, Jesus did not fit this conventional description. So according to many scholars, Jesus’ earliest followers explained Jesus’ messiahship by developing a new idea, one never before imagined by the Jews of that time:  that the Messiah was supposed to suffer and die to redeem humans from sin.

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Boyarin, Isaiah 53 and Interfaith Dialog Done Badly (Part 1 – Interpretation)

This is the last in a series of posts here on Daniel Boyarin’s book “The Jewish Gospels“. In this post (actually, I’ll need two three posts), I will examine the final chapter of his book, where Boyarin provides a controversial interpretation of the “suffering servant” passage found in the Biblical book of Isaiah, chapter 53.

But before we can get to Boyarin, we have a lot of background to cover – so much background, in fact, that I’ll need to devote this post just to the background. In this first post, I’ll look at the way Judaism and Christianity have viewed Isaiah 53. My second post will look at Boyarin’s analysis in the context of the Jewish-Christian dispute over the meaning of this passage.

One caveat: entire books have been written about Isaiah 53, and seemingly none of them agree. Below is my effort to provide a brief but fair summary of Isaiah 53, but it’s probably not as fair as I might wish, and I know it’s not brief!

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Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels”: Were Second Temple Jews Binitarian?

To inaugurate my blog, I am taking a close look at The Jewish Gospels, Daniel Boyarin’s latest book on the intersection of early Christianity with the Judaism of the first few centuries CE. As I noted in my first post, I like Boyarin. He distrusts religious borders. He likes to mix things up. He’s controversial.

He also drives me crazy. Boyarin is a terrific scholar and an original thinker who (in my view) tends to take his scholarship and thinking to places beyond what the available evidence will support.

For an example, let’s examine his argument in The Jewish Gospels that “[m]any Israelites at the time of Jesus were expecting a Messiah who would be divine and come to earth in the form of a human.” (p. 6) By “divine”, Boyarin goes beyond the conventional idea that the Jewish Messiah would be a human “begotten” son of God, like the king of Zion in Psalms 2 (p. 28). No, by “divine” Boyarin means that in Jesus’ time some Jews were expecting the Messiah to be a “divinity”, “a God who looks like a human being” (p. 33), part of a “doubled godhead” (p. 34), the second person in a kind of “Jewish binitarianism” (p. 51).

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Reconceiving Borders

How might I best launch this blog, a blog devoted in part to understanding the formation of a border line between Christianity and Judaism[1], a blog that I hope will inspire participation by people otherwise separated by present-day religious borders?

The best way I can think to get started is with a discussion of U.C. Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin. Boyarin’s most recent book is The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, and I plan to discuss this book in upcoming posts, but first I’d like to approach Boyarin’s work here in general and personal terms. I find Boyarin the ideal place of beginning for this blog because, to put it in simple terms, Boyarin dislikes borders.