The Gospel According to Feuding Academics

No Winner in Debate About Jewish Origins of Christianity

Shalom, Rabbi: Jesus sits before Caiphas, the Roman-appointed Jewish high priest.
ERIC LESSING/ART RESOURCE, NY
Shalom, Rabbi: Jesus sits before Caiphas, the Roman-appointed Jewish high priest.

By Jay Michaelson

Published September 05, 2012, issue of September 07, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.

The Princeton Provocateur: Peter Schäfer called Boyarin’s book ‘wildly speculative and highly idiosyncratic.’
Courtesy Peter Schafer
The Princeton Provocateur: Peter Schäfer called Boyarin’s book ‘wildly speculative and highly idiosyncratic.’

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?


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.