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!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • 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.