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Two alternative trinity books

March 7, 2012

In the ongoing flood of Amazon deliveries arriving at the Theophrastus bunker, there arrived not one, but two alternative trinities this week.

One is Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels:  The Story of the Jewish Christ – which appears to be a popularization of his earlier Border Lines:  The Partitioning of Judaeo-Christianity.  Boyarin’s basic thesis is that the basic tenets of Christianity:  a man-God, the messiah as a divine entity, the trinity, universalism, etc., are all Jewish.  (Disclaimer:  I know Boyarin personally.)  Boyarin’s work is always interesting to read, although I disagree with most of his conclusions.  It is all too easy to find antecedents to almost any philosophical or religious world view in any diverse community.  (Thus, neo-Platonists can find Plato in Christianity [or in Judaism]; Gnostics can find Zoroastrianism in the Christianity;  Marcus Borg, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other can find Buddha in Christianity; etc.)  Boyarin at times mixes his different historical strains of Judaism, and fails to consider alternative hypotheses that could explain the parallels he finds.  Further, Boyarin is willing to accept, seemingly without question, heterodox Jewish thinkers as representatives of Judaism in general.

Boyarin is willing to toss off statements (this really is a random example — I found this just now rather arbitrarily looking at page 138 – which I chose because I looked up Philo in the index) such as “According to the Mishna, Sanhedrin 7:5, it is mentioning the name of God that constitutes blasphemy.  Both Josephus and the Community Rule of Qumran precede the Mishna in this determination.”  Now, strictly speaking, it is true that Josephus and the Community Rule precede the final redaction of the Mishnah, but of course, the Mishnah is clearly based on an oral tradition that predates Josephus and the Community Rule, as Boyarin elsewhere seems to acknowledge.  This sort of casual treatment of facts reflects a disturbing lack of care.

The best part of Boyarin’s book is his analysis of Mark, but here he is largely indebted to previous scholars, particularly the amazing Adela Yarbo Collins and her spectacular commentary on Mark.  (He mentions Collins six times in the index, her husband an additional five times, and calls both of them out as helping “enormously” in his acknowledgement.)  The book is slim and has large print, so it is really an extended essay.

The second book actually has “alternative Trinity” in its title:  A. D. Nuttall’s The Alternative Trinity:  Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton, and Blake.  This book has one of the most impressive put downs I have seen as a back cover blurb – from the late Frank Kermode writing in the London Review of Books:

full of intellectual energy and novelty . . . Much of the pleasure offered by this agreeably argumentative and learned study derives from the author’s own power of scholarly fantasy.

It also features a damnation by faint praise quote – a review from Choice:

offers some engaging expositions of familiar material and some useful citations of less familiar lore

Someone at Oxford University Press must have simply hated Nuttall.  (Nuttall wrote one of the most entertaining scholarly books I have read:  Dead from the Waist Down:  Scholars and Scholarship in Literature and the Popular Imagination – studying how scholarship was transformed from being sexy and dangerous in the 16th century [think Faust] to being ossified and dull by the 19th century [think Mr. Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.])

Nuttall’s alternative trinity features the Serpent in the Adam and Eve story as Christlike character.  While it is commonplace to read Blake as a gnostic, it is much more shocking to find Milton cast in that role.  Nuttall’s analysis of Milton is almost certainly wrong (although Nuttall has lots of fun with Blake’s view of Milton as reflected by Blake’s poem eponymously named after the subject Milton) but the fun comes from finding where Nuttall’s analysis fails.

(Hmm, although I have not read Kermode’s review of Nuttall, this blog post sounds more and more like Kermode’s book blurb on Nuttall’s book.)

For me, one of the most surprising things about the Christian Apocrypha is that Plato is among its authors:  among the manuscripts found at Nag Hammadi was an excerpt from The Republic.  To me this suggests a broad view of apocrypha that potentially encompasses the entirety of ancient literature.  To the degree that Nuttall thesis has merit, we may perhaps add the works of Marlowe, Milton, and Blake to the gnostic apocrypha.

To begin to grasp the scope of Nuttall’s scholarly sources, one may simply begin to recite from his index:

  • Abanus, Petrus de
  • Accommodation, Theory of
  • Acheson, Arthur
  • Ackroyd, Peter
  • Acts of Peter and Paul
  • Adam
  • Adamas
  • Adamites
  • Adamson, J. H.
  • Addison, Joseph
  • Adoration of the Lamb
  • adversarial Trinity
  • Aeschylus
  • aetiological myth

and that only carries us through “ae….”  Altogether, a stunning work.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2012 12:27 pm

    I wonder if the Nuttall book is reworking some of his Overheard by God: Fiction and. Prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante and St. John (Metheun 1980). Obviously, Milton reappears, but if I recall the bit with St. John gets into trinitarian questions at least as it has God listening in on how much like him the gospel writer makes his Jesus.

    On Boyarin, you say: “It is all too easy to find antecedents to almost any philosophical or religious world view in any diverse community.” No doubt, this is true generally. But I wonder if you’re being too hard on him. In Border Lines, doesn’t he start off in his introduction (pages 25-26) with this very problem?

    Let us imagine that Jew and Christian are both categories with gradation of membership…. This [potential overlap of membership or sharing of categorical features] is a very common case: and the dangers are obvious when we search for something ‘identical’ in all of them! The net result will be that there might indeed be people who are prototypes of Jew but are also Christian (say a Pharisee who observes all of the Pharisaic laws and rules but believes that Jesus is the Messiah), and, moreover, that the “best example” of Jew and Christian would almost definitely be both a politically charged and diachronically varying category. Further, while there would be Jews who would not recognize certain other Jews as such, there might be ones whom they would recognize as Jews who would recognize in turn those others as Jews, setting up the possibility of chained communion or communication. This would then be an example of a family resemblance with the additional element of agency among members of the family itself. An example of this phenomenon (from the other side) would be Justin who recognizes as Christians precisely those Jewish Christians to whom Jerome, much later of course, would deny the name Christian, but Jerome would certainly recognize Justin as Christian. Those so-called Jewish Christians surely thought of themselves as both Jews and Christians, and some non-Christian Jews may have recognized them as Jews as well.

    The quotation floated publicly by Boyarin’s press for his new book (, does seem to continue this, with a bit of a focus on the question of Jesus’ Jewishness:

    Jesus, when he came, came in a form that many Jews were expecting, a second divine figure incarnated in a human. The argument was not: Is a divine Messiah coming, but only: Is this carpenter from Nazareth the One we are expecting? Some Jews said yes and some—not surprisingly—said no. We, today, call the first group Christians and the second group Jews, but it was not like that then, not at all.

  2. March 7, 2012 12:45 pm

    I’m not familiar with Overheard by God.

    Your quotes from Boyarin do accurately summarize his theses, as I understand them. He feels that Judaism and Christianity were closely related in the first decades of the Jesus movement, which is fairly uncontroversial. He goes further, though, in suggesting that doctrines codified at Nicea (or by the time of Nicea) are also Jewish. To support his thesis he sifts through Jewish writings and legends to find analogous ideas. It is in this latter step that I critique him — I think he is being selective in using material that supports his theses. (Boyarin is similarly selective in treating the New Testament and other early Christian material.)

  3. Michael T permalink
    March 12, 2012 11:34 am

    Your claim that D B is casual in treatment of the facts is bizarre. “Both Josephus and the Community Rule of Qumran precede the Mishna in this determination” is of course a literally true statement. That the Mishna attempts to record older traditions is the only reason why it mentioned in proof of a claim about how Jesus’s (first century) response (in Mark) to the question “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?” would likely have been heard by a high priest. The way in which one should reason from later rabbinical documents to first century facts is discussed extensively in the book and notes and doesn’t seem unconventional or surprising.

  4. March 12, 2012 1:02 pm

    Michael, thanks so much for your comments. However, I stand by my statements.

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