R. Shmuley Boteach has made the news, once again, with his book Kosher Jesus. I have not yet read the book and cannot offer an opinion on its merit. The idea, though, of a Jesus figure who is acceptable to traditional Jews is hardly new. However, any Jewish Jesus must be a non-Christian Jesus, and therefore any revisionist attempt to construct such an image will be theologically offensive to most Christians.
A “kosher” Jesus is one who would cringe at the most fundamental claims of Christianity, who would lament the very founding of the religion and his central place within it. That is why defenders of Judaism against Christian missionaries are often quick to accept such “Kosher Jesus” claims and why the Disputation literature advances variations on them. Advocating a “Kosher Jesus” is equivalent to defending Judaism and attacking Christianity.
Conceiving a Jewishly acceptable Jesus requires three steps:
- Rejecting the Gospels and subsequent literature as inaccurate but historically useful. By wiping away the authors’ biases, we can discover the historical truth underlying their writings.
- Accepting that there was a historical Jesus, and not merely a useful fiction or amalgamation of people.
- Reinterpreting Talmudic stories of Jesus as polemic or references to other people.
All of these steps have rabbinic precedent. While some Jewish scholars wishing to discredit Jesus have been happy to accept the Gospel narrative, which describes Jesus as acting ostensibly contrary to Jewish law and making claims offensive to Jewish theology, others have advocated different approaches. R. Shimon Duran (Rashbatz), for example, argues that the Gospels are riddled with errors because they were written by ignorant followers who misunderstood and misrepresented Jesus and his teachings. Rashbatz sees Jesus as an essentially traditional, if not particularly learned and occasionally sinful, Jew (Otzar Vikuchim, p. 118ff.).
R. Yechiel of Paris denied that the Jesus of the Talmud was the Jesus of the Gospels. After all, the name was (and remains) common. Others followed suit, and in a separate essay I make the same argument (link). According to this approach, the denunciations of Jesus in the Talmud have nothing to do with the Jesus of Christianity.
As we discussed two years ago when R. Shlomo Riskin stated that Jesus was a devout Jewish teacher, there is no single image of Jesus in Judaism (link). Dr. David Berger, in a sweeping essay on attitudes to Jesus in Medieval Jewish rabbinic literature (“On the Uses of History in Medieval Jewish Polemic Against Christianity: The Quest for the Historical Jesus” in his Persecution, Polemic, and Dialogue: Essays in Jewish-Christian Relations), described the varying approaches:
Whatever one thinks of the number of Jesuses in antiquity, no one can question the multiplicity of Jesuses in medieval Jewish polemic. Many Jews with no interest at all in history were forced to confront a historical/biographical question that continues to bedevil historians to our own day. Once the issue was joined, it produced a series of analyses that reflect profound differences among varying Jewish centers in different periods…
With the onset of the Rennaissance, as historians began to adopt systematic critical attitudes to history, Jewish scholars treated this and other topics with methodological skepticism. The three steps above became a given, although many rejected step 2 and assume there was no historical Jesus. Most recently, Hyam Maccoby, a Reform historian, published three books (I, II, III) in which he applied radical literary theory to the Gospels. His conclusion was that Jesus was a traditional Jew in the style of the later Bar Kokhba, a Pharisaic rebel who attempted to become a political messiah — a king of a Jewish country — but was discovered and executed by the Romans. In constructing a religion that was politically viable and socially attractive in the Roman empire, Paul rewrote Jesus’ history to incorporate Pagan mythology of salvation and divine incarnation, political passivism and release from religious laws. Maccoby wrote (The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, p. 184:
The truth, however, as we have seen, is that Jesus did not found a new religion at all, but simply sought to play an accepted role in the story of an existing religion, Judaism. It was Paul who founded Christianity, and he did so by creating a new story, one sufficiently powerful and gripping to launch a new world religion. In this new story Jesus was given a leading role, but this does not make him the creator of Christianity, any more than Hamlet wrote the plays of Shakespeare. The Jesus of Paul’s story was a fictional character, just as Shakespeare breathed new imaginative life into the bones of the historical figure of Hamlet the Dane.
This Jesus was kosher. He was a devout Jew who played a respected, if failed, role in Jewish life at the time. Like other Jews in that politically tumultuous period, Jesus tried to foment rebellion among his fellow Jews but did not succeed. He was a failed political messiah, not a successful religious Messiah.
The radical literary deconstruction Maccoby uses does not sit well with me as a methodology. The deconstruction of texts in order to discover the historical Jesus seems to me overly speculative. However, I am happy to remain agnostic over whether Jesus ever existed and whether he remained a devout Jew or founded a new religion because he is simply irrelevant to my life. Kosher or non-kosher, Jesus is not someone important to me since the religion founded on his life, whether accurately or not, is not mine.
However, he plays a central role in the religious lives of so many people that I prefer to refrain from speculating, at least publicly, in a way that they may find offensive. I gain nothing other than the alienation of millions of people across the world. R. Boteach’s book may be communally wise or not, depending on its specific message and delivery. However, I find it hard to accept that his book is somehow heretical if, as he states (link), he follows Maccoby’s approach. If his statements accurately represent his book, then he has conducted an attack on Christianity and, like the Disputants who preceded him, provided defense material for Jewish countermissionaries.