Peter Schäfer slams Daniel Boyarin–scholarly brawl
Peter Schäfer, a Christian expert on Judaism (Princeton, where he is the Perelman Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of Princeton’s Program in Judaic Studies) is just furious at Daniel Boyarin, (UC Berkeley, where he is the Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture). Disclaimer, I know both of them, although I know Boyarin rather better.
When Schäfer is mad, he doesn’t hold back. Schäfer lets it fly in the pages of the New Republic. Here is a sampling of his prose:
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. Even judged by its commendable intentions—to win over dogmatic defenders of the perfect uniqueness of Christianity or Judaism—it is disappointing. As the younger Talmud professor in the acclaimed Israeli movie Footnote says to his hapless student, “There are many correct and new aspects in your paper—only what is new isn’t correct and what is correct isn’t new.”
Now, let’s step back for a moment. I watched the movie Footnote, and that scene was supposed to be a parody of academic life and scholars behaving inappropriately. For a senior scholar to fail to recognize this as a parody, and instead adopt it as his motto for smearing an equally senior colleague is over the top. (And particularly unfair since Boyarin already was mocked a little bit in that movie).
Schäfer continues his vicious attack, using phrases like “questionable thesis” and “dubious” and “completely ignores the most important evidence” and “frustrating.”
Boyarin’s essentially explores Jewish origins in aspects of Christianity, arguing (somewhat tendentiously) for a Jewish notion of a human-god messiah. Boyarin draws on the “Ancient of Days” vision in Daniel 7, although Boyarin largely builds on a traditional exegesis given by Akiva in the Babylonian Talmud.
Schäfer complains that Boyarin is merely repeating well-known scholarly theories, e.g.
Then there is the chapter called “Jesus Kept Kosher,” which offers a new interpretation of the controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees about eating with defiled hands. Boyarin argues that Mark is not referring to kashrut, but to laws of purity that the Pharisees tried to impose on their fellow Jews; and that Jesus railed not against keeping kosher as such but against these Pharisaic innovations. No serious New Testament scholar would doubt the former part of this argument (Jesus did not want to do away with the laws of kashrut); and the latter part (Jesus quarreled with the Pharisaic concept of ritual purity) is heavily indebted to the work of the young Israeli scholar Yair Furstenberg.
or that he is reading things so generally that he can read anything into anything
Boyarin also invokes the Canaanite gods El and Ba‘al, the former being the ancient sky god and the latter his younger associate, whom the Bible tried—not always successfully—to merge into one God in order to accomplish its idea of a strict monotheism. The notion of a duality within God, he argues, is present in the Hebrew Bible itself. Fair enough—nobody would want to disagree with him here: that duality was a condition that the Bible sought not to affirm but to overcome. Yet with such a broad perspective on origins, almost anything that later emerges in Christianity could be traced back to the Hebrew Bible.
For Schäfer, trinitarianism and the scandal of Jesus’s death on the cross is the dividing line – the unique contribution that Christianity brought to the table:
The binitarian idea of two divine powers does not constitute a definite line of demarcation between the faiths—but the Trinitarian idea of three divine powers does. The vicarious suffering of the Messiah, or even his death, does not constitute an impassable boundary—but the scandal of his death on the cross, so much emphasized by Paul, does. As for the dead redeemer’s resurrection: Boyarin is confident that it also belongs to the pre-Christian, Jewish storehouse of traditions, but he provides no evidence to support his view. Instead he resorts to the murky statement that “Perhaps his [Jesus’s] followers saw him arisen, but surely this must be because they had a narrative that led them to expect such appearances, and not that the appearances gave rise to the narrative.”
Finally, Schäfer has a speculative thesis of his own – the major developments in post-Second Temple Judaism were really drawn from Christianity!
It turns out, for example, that the old binitarian idea of two divine figures, presaged in Second Temple Judaism and adopted by the New Testament, lived on in certain circles in rabbinic Judaism, despite its ever more sophisticated formulation in Christian theology with its climax in the doctrine of Trinity. The most prominent example of rabbinic Judaism’s ongoing preoccupation with—and its struggle against—binitarian ideas within its own fold is the elevation of the prediluvian patriarch Enoch to the highest angel Metatron, enthroned in heaven next to God and granted the title “Lesser God.” This is a concept that seems to come directly out of the New Testament playbook.
Scholars have long tried to dismiss such ideas as the products of some crazy heretics, or at least to relegate them to the fringes of normative Judaism—but it has become ever more apparent in current research that they were taken seriously by certain rabbis, and all the more fervently attacked by those who would come to form mainstream Judaism. Yet the incontrovertible fact remains that they were discussed within rabbinic Judaism.[…] And we must not forget a later complication, or irony: some of these “heretical” ideas, suppressed by Talmudic Judaism, would return to Judaism ever more vigorously in what is commonly called Kabbalah.
And sometimes Schäfer just seems confused:
Worse, Boyarin completely ignores the most important evidence of the vicarious suffering of the Messiah Ephraim in rabbinic Judaism, in the midrash Pesiqta Rabbati, where the notion of the Messiah’s vicarious expiatory suffering returns to the Jewish tradition. These texts have been thoroughly discussed in recent scholarship, and it has been argued that they most likely belong to the first half of the seventh century C.E. and may well be a rather late response to the Christian usurpation of the Messiah Jesus’s vicarious suffering. If this interpretation is correct, then there is clearly not a single unbroken line of tradition leading from Isaiah 53 through of all places Daniel 7—to the New Testament and the subsequent rabbinic literature. Instead what we encounter here is the rabbinic re-appropriation of a theme that is firmly embedded in the Hebrew Bible, was usurped by the New Testament Jesus and therefore largely ignored or better suppressed by most rabbis, only to make its way back later into certain strands of rabbinic Judaism.
So Schäfer attempts to turn the old claim on its head – if a few Jews claim that Christianity was merely derivative of Judaism, then Schäfer is there to say that Judaism is derivative of Christianity. What’s really going on here is that Schäfer has his own popular book out, The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other which argues some themes very similar to Boyarin’s book. But Schäfer’s book has been a bust (#107,387 on Amazon) while Boyarin’s book has been relatively successful (#7,102 overall, and #1 in Judaism-Theology, #4 Judaism-History of Religion, and #24 in books on Jesus). Sour grapes.
My own opinion is that Boyarin and Schäfer are reaching here. Certainly, the way both religions defined themselves distinctly differently shortly after the growth of Christianity. I think that Schäfer has a valid point with his argument that with “a broad perspective on origins, almost anything that later emerges in Christianity could be traced back to the Hebrew Bible.” And yet his attempts to tie Judaism as derivative from Christianity would seem to subject to the same criticism, for example, as Alan Brill writes (regarding this same review in the New Republic):
Methodologically, [Schäfer] is willing to acknowledge that many of these Second Temple ideas close to Christianity reemerged in kabblalah, yet in a medievalists eyes they were already there in the rabbinic texts. And how he can claim Pesikta as Christian influenced but Kabbalah as authentic Second temple is not sound. Each passage in both collections needs its own genealogy.
In fact, I think that despite some ancient references that may be interpreted as binitarian, mainstream Judaism throughout most of its written history, at least, has clung firmly to a unitarian, monotheistic idea of God, while Christianity has always distinguished itself with its view of a trinitarian vision of God. Despite Boyarin’s references, I do not think Judaism could accept the idea of human-god figure or a divine messiah.
Nonetheless, I do think Schäfer went well over the line with his invective and kvetching against Boyarin – Schäfer walks a thin line between valid scholarly criticism and ad hominem attacks. To again quote Brill (whose own comments are well worth reading): “Rather than a discussion of method by two senior scholars, we get Schafer himself acidly writing about Boyarin.”