The Jewish Gospels
By Daniel Boyarin
The New Press, 224 pages, $21.95
The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other
By Peter Schäfer
Princeton University Press, 370 pages, $35
As someone who writes in the academic world and the worlds of journalism, activism and the popular press, I’ve been painfully aware of some differences among them. Good scholarship complicates, good activism simplifies. Good academic work is generally specific and obscure, but good popular work requires the general, the relatable.
These tensions are all at play in the recent bumper crop of books on Jesus and Judaism (this is the Forward’s fourth review of such books in this calendar year). Some have been scholarly and dense, others popular and outright ridiculous in the claims they have made.
And some, like Daniel Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels” and Peter Schäfer’s “The Jewish Jesus,” seem caught in between. Both books are by esteemed scholars whose work is deservedly well known, and whom I myself have studied for 20 years (Boyarin, in fact, was my master’s advisor at Hebrew University many years ago). Yet both appear to make a misguided case for a wider readership. Their provocative titles are ultimately misleading: Boyarin’s book barely touches on the Gospels, and Schäfer’s is not about Jesus. Furthermore, while their introductions purport to appeal to a large audience, the body of each book is actually standard academic fare: detailed, attentive, a bit dry and highly intellectual. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The two scholars are also locked in the kind of intellectual death match that goes on all the time in the academy but probably looks like a catfight from the outside. In a scalding takedown of Boyarin’s book in The New Republic, Schäfer wrote that “Boyarin’s book leaves the reader irritated and sad. It has very little that is new to offer — and what appears to be new is wildly speculative and highly idiosyncratic.”
Ouch! As if that weren’t enough, Schäfer goes on to accuse Boyarin of the cardinal sin of academe: not being aware of prior scholarship. Boyarin, Schäfer says, “does not even bother to mention the relevant literature. Instead he pretends to have invented this wheel.” Certainly, there is no graver transgression; the scholar is either a dupe (stupidly not reading the books on the syllabus) or a knave (taking credit for other people’s ideas). I’m not sure which is worse.
Okay, well, underneath all the sniping, what are these books, and this controversy, really about?