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).
In short, Boyarin thinks that in first century Palestine, many Jews believed in two Gods! This is a radical claim. The thing that’s supposed to make Judaism distinct, the thing that is supposedly Judaism’s primary “contribution” to western culture, is belief in one God. Consider the Shema prayer, perhaps the closest thing to a creedal statement in the Jewish liturgy, a prayer that is as ancient as Deuteronomy: “Hear Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Or consider the second (or the first, depending on how you count) of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods but me.”
From our sources, it appears that first century Jews thought of themselves as monotheists. Philo of Alexandria, a first century Jewish philosopher, referred to “the most sacred of all commandments, to think that there is but one God, the most highest, and to honour him alone; and let not the polytheistical doctrine ever even touch the ears of any man who is accustomed to seek for the truth.” (Decalogue 65) It also appears that non-Jews perceived Jews as monotheists – the Roman historian Tacitus referred to Judaism as “purely spiritural monotheism,” and Juvenal wrote in Satire 14 that the Jews “worship nothing but the clouds.”
So, what support does Boyarin bring in The Jewish Gospels for the idea that some first century Jews believed in two Gods? Boyarin bases his claim primarily on chapter 7, verses 9-10 and 13-14 of the biblical Book of Daniel: (p. 38)
(9) As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. (10) A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened … (13) As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man [human being] with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. (14) To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
This is a breathtaking narrative, one where God (the “Ancient One”) sits on one throne and a second figure – the “son of man” – sits on an adjoining throne. In this narrative, the “son of man” has the appearance of a god: he comes “with the clouds of heaven”, he is given an “everlasting” kingdom, and the people of earth are required to “serve” (worship?) him. Given that the gospels clearly identify Jesus as the “son of man” (see pp. 57-58), Boyarin concludes that “many” first Century Jews “were already expecting that the Messiah/Christ would be a god-man.” (p. 56)
But there’s at least one problem with Boyarin’s conclusion: it is not the conclusion set forth in the Book of Daniel. At the end of Daniel 7, Daniel reportedly “approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth” concerning his “night visions”, and the attendant (evidently an angel) explained that the “son of man” is “the people of the holy ones of the Most High”. In other words, the “son of man” in Daniel 7 is not a god, but the people of Israel.
Boyarin duly notes the explanation of the attendant (p. 39), but Boyarin has a ready explanation:
Daniel’s vision itself seems to require that we understand “the one like a son of man” as a second divine figure. The angelic decoding of the vision in the end of the chapter seems equally as clearly to interpret “the one like a son of man” as a collective earthly figure, Israel or the righteous of Israel … The answer to this conundrum is that the author of the Book of Daniel, who had Daniel’s vision itself before him, wanted to suppress the ancient testimony of a more-than-singular God, using allegory to do so. In this sense, the theological controversy … was already an intra-Jewish controversy long before Jesus. (p. 43)
This is classic Boyarin. Boyarin doesn’t like religious borders, but he loves religious pluralism and diversity, and he loves uncovering historic “suppression” of heterodox religious ideas. But in the case of the Book of Daniel, I am compelled to push back: I see no “suppression” in Daniel 7, and no interjection of allegory intended to blunt some binitarian vision of the historical Daniel. My point of view is evident, I think, once we see Daniel 7 in a broader context: Daniel 7 purports to record a dream of Daniel’s, and the Book of Daniel is full of dreams and visions, followed in every case by an authoritative interpretation.
Daniel 2 recounts a dream of King Nebuchadnezzar, one that Daniel must both describe and interpret correctly in order to survive. Daniel 4 reports a second dream of King Nebuchadnezzar, which Daniel also interprets to the King’s satisfaction. Daniel 5 tells the story of the “handwriting on the wall” of the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar’s son, King Belshazzar – and once again, Daniel is called in to provide the correct interpretation. By chapter 7, the Book of Daniel shifts focus: from here to the end of the book it is Daniel having dreams and visions, and a heavenly figure (most often the angel Gabriel) providing the required interpretation.
I disagree with Boyarin that Daniel contains allegorical readings of dreams and visions that might otherwise have been understood literally. Instead, these dreams and visions are literally fantastic, containing (as they do) images of giant statues, mountains filling the whole earth, trees reaching to heaven, and in the case of Daniel 7, great multi-horned beasts. These dreams and visions beg for interpretation; they make no sense in the absence of interpretation, and they are chock-full of symbols requiring interpretation. This is not just my reading of the Book of Daniel; the repeated motif of the book is of people seeking authoritative interpretation of dreams and visions that they cannot otherwise understand. In this context, it makes no sense for Boyarin to discount the angelic identification of the “son of man” as the people of Israel, and instead to insist on a literal reading of the son of man as a god. A person determined to read Daniel 7 literally would have to anticipate not only a god-like son of man, but also a ten-horned beast that was about to “devour the whole earth”. We have no evidence that first century Jews were preparing to confront such an animal.
Boyarin’s argument for Jewish binitarianism thus runs into the problem associated with any literal reading of apocalyptic texts. (The Book of Daniel is an apocalypse, as are the two other non-canonical books – First Enoch and Fourth Ezra – that Boyarin uses to argue his point about the “son of man”.) It’s difficult enough for any reader to understand these texts, and it’s probably impossible for any scholar to divine the thinking of ancient readers of these books. To go further than this, to argue against the strong evidence of early Jewish monotheism based on an imagined widespread Jewish reaction to passages in a few apocalyptic texts – well, that’s a project that strikes me as reckless.
This is precisely where reading Boyarin can be such a frustrating experience – because while Boyarin fails to convince me that “many” Jews expected a man-god messiah, his arguments do support valuable conclusions that Boyarin himself declines to reach. For example: while first century Jews were monotheists, this is not to say that these Jews were monotheists in a modern sense. As Larry Hurtado has argued (persuasively, in my view), monotheism comes in many varieties, and the early Jewish variety “always made ample room for other heavenly beings.” So instead of arguing for Jewish binitarianism, Boyarin might instead have shown how the son of man fits into the greater picture of Jewish monotheism, or even (and this is more in Boyarin’s wheelhouse) that the son of man points to diversity within the Jewish concept of monotheism.
Boyarin also missed the opportunity to convincingly do what he does so well, which is to destabilize religious boundaries. Perhaps it is possible for us to seize this opportunity and imagine a reconstruction of Boyarin’s discussion of Daniel 7, one that recognizes the Jewish origin of the “son of man” without jumping to conclusions about Jews believing in two gods. I think Boyarin does prove that the concept of the “son of man” was nascent in first century Jewish circles even if it was not a part of normative Jewish thought. We might then conclude that this concept was not fully realized until Jesus and his followers embraced the “son of man” to help explain Jesus’ messiahship. Such a picture of early Christology, as neither thoroughly Jewish nor thoroughly foreign to Judaism, strikes a good balance. It preserves the Jewish variety of monotheism, while giving Christianity a proper claim to originality and creativity. It also has the advantage of being a great deal more plausible than imagining first century Jewish binitarianism.