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Peter Schäfer slams Daniel Boyarin–scholarly brawl

May 31, 2012

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. 

The catalyst for Schäfer’s anger is Boyarin’s new popular book, The Jewish Gospels (which we discussed on BLT here and here.)

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.” 

26 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2012 2:49 pm

    My own opinion is that Boyarin and Schäfer are reaching here.

    Fascinating post. Have you read Kosher Jesus by Shmuley Boteach? I know Boteach is not the academic that the other two are, but how would you compare his approach? (And what difference might it make that Schäfer is “a Christian expert on Judaism”?)

  2. May 31, 2012 3:08 pm

    I bought a copy of Boteach’s book (I met him once, by the way), but only skimmed it. But I remember reading a comparative review by Alan Brill here, who says “Boyarin is not all like the the ill-informed gibberish of Boteach who lacked any research skill[s].” I’m afraid Boteach’s book has not been well received in the circles I travel in.

    Thanks for noticing my mention of Schäfer’s religion. Well, I didn’t want to make the point too explicit, but don’t you find it interesting that the Jewish scholar thinks that all Christianity is derivative from Judaism and the Christian scholar thinks that all Judaism is derivative from Christianity? (Of course, I am engaging in hyperbole here with my use of the word “all”; both of their positions are more nuanced. Nonetheless, I do notice a certain trend.)

  3. May 31, 2012 8:19 pm

    Well, well – a scintillating post. I am sorry I missed a recent visit to Victoria by Boyarin – too many things to do at once. His son Shama is a professor at Uvic and one who has encouraged me re my analysis over the past 6 months at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society. And Daniel’s brother also recently gave an auto-ethnographic talk a month or so ago.

    But binitarian? I think the spell checker is correct to dis this word. What’s wrong with dual or binary?

    I must admit to asking many similar types of question with respect to psalms. Searching for a reunification of ‘Jewish’ and ‘Christian’ thinking is part of my rationale. I have to put both these monikers in scare quotes. How is it possible for me to ‘have faith’ and to speak rationally about its foundation? I know where I have been (exiled like all of us) and I know who has given me teaching. It is the same spirit, the same anointing that I find in the Psalms and the other Writings I have read closely. I am not speaking from a theoretical or confessional stance (or a scholarly one). If I had not known I could not have seen this. If I had not known I would not have done this. If I had done this without knowledge, I might well have seen nothing.

  4. May 31, 2012 8:34 pm

    Thanks as always for your excellent comments. Let me for the moment skip over your substantive point (I hope to come back to it soon) and move instead to the spelling issue.

    Believe it or not, “binatarian” is the correct spelling of the word — it even has a Wikipedia entry (well, strictly speaking, “binitarian” points “binitarianism.”) It also has an OED entry, with the first mentioned usage coming in 1910 (in William Sanday’s Christologies:

    The same alternation of Trinitarian and Binitarian language (the conjunction of Father, Son, and Spirit by the side of Father and Son).

    In this context it refers to Father-Son models of the Godhead, as opposed to Father-Son-Ghost (trinitarian) or single person models (unitarian).

    Why not “binary” or “dual”? Well, why do we use “trinitarian” instead “ternary” or “triple”? Why do we use “unitarian” instead of “unary” or “single”?

  5. May 31, 2012 8:46 pm

    I am delighted to have now been introduced to binitarism – thank you. But I hope I never use the word in conversation! (I had seen it in books by Dunn and Bauckham – but I preferred to forget it).

  6. May 31, 2012 11:09 pm

    I’ve used the word “binitarian” in discussions of the gradual evolution of Christian thought about the nature of God, and about certain approaches to pneumatology that seem to evaporate the personhood of the Holy Spirit leaving us with a binitarian, not trinitarian, God. I think Augustine, for example, shows binitarian tendencies when he describes the Trinity in terms of the Father as lover, the Son as beloved, and the Spirit as the love between them. I don’t think Augustine himself was binitarian — I think there were nuances in persona and hypostasis that are lost to us today — but I think it’s easy for contemporary scholars to read him that way.

    Binitarian was instantly recognizable to me as meaning “a two-person version of the Trinity.” It does not mean simply binary or dual, because the Christian understanding of Trinity does not mean simply ternary or triple: it means Tri-une, Three-in-One, three divine consubstantial Persons.

  7. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 1, 2012 10:36 am

    Mike Heiser, academic advisor for Logos software, has had an extended interaction with Boyarin’s binitarianism. I had a rousing debate with him a few years ago on this. Here is a clip,

    His discussion starts around 5:40, the intro is advertising for the software.

  8. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 1, 2012 10:42 am

    Here is one of Mike’s comments to me at the time,

    “In my dissertation, I argued that there was a godhead in Israelite religion. The Old testament is the place from which the later (orthodox until the second century AD) Jewish doctrine of two powers in heaven springs. The binitarian godhead figure in the Old Testament was clearly subordinate to the invisible Yahweh (the “Father” in NT parlance). I don’t expect you to follow this; it is merely to say that I think of the whole godhead issue in a way different from any standard articulatuon. I think of it in Old Testament terms. As a result, I do think the Son was subordinate, because the second power motifs of the Old Testament are deliberately applied to.”

  9. June 1, 2012 11:58 am

    I can’t say that I’ve read Mike Heiser’s writings carefully, but as Schäfer points out, there are all sorts of claims made by some scholars for a binitarian godhead. I’m not sure, though, that what Heiser is proposing is really comparable with Boyarin’s theories. It seems that they are using similar vocabulary, but saying different things.

    In any case, I’m a skeptic about these theories. Looking back earlier than rabbinic Judaism is to some extent an exercise in projection — the writings in the Hebrew Bible are so diverse that one might try to read almost anything into them. Almost certainly, some folk religion had all sorts of polytheistic ideas that the religious mainstream attempted to correct — this is a basic narrative in the Pentateuch and the Prophets. It seems to me that the establishment of the shema as the most basic prayer in Judaism (which happened at an early date) is fairly strong evidence that polytheism was not tolerated.

    Now, I understand that trinitarianism and binitarianism is not understood as polytheism; but I think that Schäfer’s point is that was a later development, and one particularly closely associated with Christianity.

    That is a funny quote. I would hope that Heiser wrote it in the heat of the moment, and he actually would prefer to express himself differently.

  10. June 1, 2012 12:12 pm

    Here is Larry Hurtado’s response to Schäfer’s review:

  11. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 1, 2012 12:52 pm

    Interesting that Hurtado reiterates the resurrection as a Christians distinctive. And yet, we know that notions of a resurrection appeared in second temple Judaism in Maccabees, for example. We saw this also in a recent post on the Greek of Psalm 1.

  12. June 1, 2012 12:56 pm

    Actually, I think that Hurtado is not claiming the idea of resurrection as a Christian innovation (it clearly is not) but rather the idea of worship to the resurrected Jesus.

    the most notable innovation (to judge from the evidence of the Jewish tradition of the time) was the inclusion of the figure of the exalted/resurrected Jesus in the devotional life of believers, especially notably in their corporate worship, as a rightful recipient of devotion along with God.

  13. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 1, 2012 1:06 pm

    True, but it could be viewed as movement along a spectrum.

  14. June 1, 2012 1:18 pm

    Your comment was so brief that I’m not sure whether you are talking about resurrection or worship.

    You are right, with regard to resurrection, there was clearly a broad spectrum of beliefs in the Second Temple period (as there are today in Judaism — ranging from full bodily resurrection to purely spiritual resurrection to reincarnation to abstract notions of resurrection [e.g., Levinas’s “facets” of Torah]).

    But I do think Hurtado is right in the sentence fragment I just quoted — we have no evidence of any public Jewish worship services when anyone other than “God” was worshiped. Even if some sort of binitarian belief was widespread, in worship, only “God” was mentioned.

    In contrast, early Christian worship clearly involved worship both to Jesus “as a rightful recipient of devotion along with God.” I think that was something new in Christianity.

  15. June 1, 2012 2:12 pm

    I did a little meandering on trinity here. The post is almost off the rails.

  16. June 2, 2012 9:51 am

    I think you’re coming down too heavily on Schafer’s tone here – if you’ve read his other books, you’ll see that he is just as sharply critical of other scholars with whom he disagrees (for example in his book The Origins of Jewish Mysticism). He doesn’t usually quote from popular culture like the movie “Footnote,” but he can be just as sharp.

  17. June 3, 2012 2:41 pm

    You do make clear that there is no scientific research going on here among these scholars when you say, “My own opinion is that Boyarin and Schäfer are reaching here.” Your implication is that your opinion is now added to the mix of those of DB and PS. And when individuals give out personal views of their imagined characteristics of God, then is not anything fair game? Recall that “Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back” is the # 1 non-fiction best seller on amazon in the category of “Religion and Spirituality.” Since the definition of “non-fiction” is so elastic these days, we can comfortably classify DB’s book and PS’s review as “non-fiction scholarship”. Perhaps, these whole matters of theology can be settled by consulting Colton Burpo on what he overheard when he was in heaven. I have a bit more on the review here

  18. June 3, 2012 3:14 pm

    Tzvee, that’s a bit unfair — true the sentence you quoted was a conclusory opinion, but I followed it immediately with an outline of the reasons for that opinion. But thanks for the link to your blog post. (I’m a big fan of your blog, as you know.) Did you read Boyarin’s book?

    Rebecca, I’m also a big fan of your Mystical Politics blog. I do think Schäfer went to far with the Footnote reference, and after reading the review, I have to wonder if there is not a personal fight between Schäfer and Boyarin going on in the background here.

  19. June 3, 2012 9:56 pm

    Be assured that I am not criticizing your opinion. As I read the review it seems to fit within the parameters of a negative academic review in the humanities. I find no indication in it of a brawl or of a personal fight. Boyarin and Schäfer have strong opinions about certain bodies of evidence and they disagree.

  20. June 4, 2012 11:31 am

    A brawl? A personal fight? A “Christian” v. “Talmudic cultural” disagreement in public? A slam of the one by the other?

    I somewhat took the Theophrastus title for this post as a bit of reader-enticing hyperbole. I did, that is, until I clicked on the link to read for myself what Schäfer wrote (and how he wrote it). The New Republic is no academic forum, I would observe (as if this is just my humble opinion). And the title of the article — if some editor, and not the writer himself, is adding it for dramatic effect — does shock: “The Jew Who Would Be God”! Nonetheless, what is most striking to this would-be casual reader is Schäfer’s fighting words (or at the very least his words that suggest polemics as much as cool headed academic dialectic). Here are some, worth repeating here since the question has been raised about this writer’s tone, near the start (emphases added):

    After long and bitter battles, this fact now has a foothold not only among historians of ancient Judaism but even among the most dedicated Christian theologians and the old influential school of New Testament scholars who tried to relegate the new message of the New Testament to a less Jewish, more Hellenistic background. Indeed, the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction, with scholars outdoing each other in proving the Jewishness of Jesus and the New Testament, and arguing that there is nothing in Jesus’s message as reflected in the New Testament that oversteps the boundaries of what might be expected from the Judaism of his day.

    The most recent voice in this chorus is Daniel Boyarin’s. His new book has a somewhat misleading title, The Jewish Gospels, because nobody doubts that the Gospels are Jewish. But it is his subtitle, The Story of the Jewish Christ, which makes clear what actually is at stake: nothing less than the claim, announced with great fanfare [like a trumpet in war], that the evolving Christology of the New Testament and the early Church—that is, the idea of Jesus being essentially divine and human, the divine-human Messiah and Son of his Father in heaven—is deeply engrained in the Jewish tradition that preceded the New Testament.

  21. Daniel Boyarin permalink
    October 19, 2012 9:19 am

    Just a brief intervention here. The book is a book written for a popular audience. As such, it is not expected to communicate only new research. It’s a statement of my opinion and arguments for that opinion. Take them or leave them. I tried to indicate where I was drawing on accepted scholarly opinion and where not but could not give in that context the full kind of documentation and discussion of earlier work for which I am (in)famous. As for Larry Hurtado, I’ve read his work and disagreed with it openly (I think there is non Christian evidence for worship of the Son of Man). He may be right and I may be totally wrong, but it is wrong for him to imply that I’ve ignored him. We’ve even been in conversation on these matters and continue to disagree. As for the notion that anything can be found in the OT; I don’t think so. On the other hand, in a long paper published in the Harvard Theological Review, I tried to make the case that there were tensions that remained in the religious world of the Bible that resulted from the merger of El and J, as they were two quite different types of God, far heavenly God of justice on the one hand and young war God on the other, so that biblical henolatry was always under a certain kind of tension which shows up, inter alia, in such texts as Daniel and thence in first-century Jewish apocalypses and the Gospels.

  22. Way-Truth-Life Seeker permalink
    July 2, 2014 9:16 am

    Doing some research on possibility of purchasing Boyarin’s book and found this blog post.

    Very interesting discussion, but…

    It is obvious that modern Christianity had its roots in Judaism. What is incredulous to me is that anyone is making the claim that Judaism has its roots in Christianity.

    Timeline, folks.

  23. Robert permalink
    April 15, 2018 1:33 pm

    “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.”

    This is unfair to Schäfer. He does not see Judaism as derivative of Christianity. He even rejects the simplistic model of Christian influence on Judaism and instead tries to elucidate how both traditions interacted with each other in developing ideas that were already part of the rich heritage of Jewish theolgoies. See, for example, The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other (Kindle Location 4053):

    “If we do not wish to see “Judaism” and “Christianity” as static entities forever confronting each other but rather as vital, dynamic forces in constant exchange with each other, then such demarcations and harmonizations become superfluous. It is true, as Michael Fishbane has noted, that the simplistic model of Christian “influence” on Judaism “impoverishes the Jewish theological tradition”;143 but in appealing to the inexhaustible trove of Jewish theology, we must not forget that Judaism also developed and changed together with an emerging Christianity.”


  1. Thoughts on Daniel Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels” and Christology? « Euangelion Kata Markon
  2. A Bible Translator’s Greeky Wordplay: Before Hosea Became a “Christian” or a “New Testament” Spokesman « BLT
  3. The Art of Finding Anything in the OT: Christianity and Mormonism « BLT

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