One of the most controversial areas for ancient historians is determining the true character, worldview and biography of the historical Jesus. While fundamentalist Christians believe that the depiction of Jesus in the New Testament is, so to speak, gospel truth, judicious New Testament scholars generally admit that they have little certain knowledge about the historical Jesus. They contend that the four gospels were written many years after Jesus died by authors who had vested interests and who actually never knew Jesus. Furthermore, there are serious discrepancies between the four gospels.
A new book on this subject is causing a stir: Kosher Jesus, by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, known to some as “America’s rabbi,” author of the controversial best-seller Kosher Sex, and rumoured candidate both for chief rabbi of England and the Republican nomination for a U.S. Congress seat in New Jersey. Were it not for the fame of the author, there is little reason to think that the book would be drawing attention. It contributes nothing new to the historical Jesus debate. Rabbi Boteach is not a New Testament scholar, yet he paints a non-standard picture of Jesus about which he expresses no doubts. It is based almost entirely on the scholarship of the late Prof. Hyam Maccoby, an academic whose views do not reflect the scholarly consensus.
Rabbi Boteach is certain that Jesus observed all the mitzvot of the Torah like any pious first-century Jew; that Jesus was never opposed by the contemporary rabbinic leadership, since he was one of them; that Jesus was a proud Jew who got into trouble with and was crucified by the Romans because he encouraged Jews to reject Roman culture and oppose the Roman occupation; that the New Testament “slanders a good man” when it claims that Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s”; that the New Testament character Judas never existed; that Pontius Pilate was a ruthless tyrant, not the sensitive man of the gospels; that Jesus would never have allowed himself to be called the son of God and would never have claimed to have been born of a virgin; that Matthew’s interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 is “ridiculous”; that Jesus wanted to deliver the Jews from Rome, but Paul wanted to deliver them from Judaism, and that “the editors of the New Testament took a Jewish sage and lover of his people and put a white hood on his head and a swastika on his arm, and sent him out spewing vitriol against his people.”
The book is, to be blunt, sloppy. To cite just two trivial examples, Rabbi Boteach writes that the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 BCE (p. 169) – it was 70 CE. At another point, he writes that in the gospel of John, the trial of Jesus took place on the second night of Passover (p. 91). Actually in that gospel, Jesus was, significantly, killed on the eve of Passover (see John 19:31), and his trial took place before his execution.
As a student of Jewish history, I consider Rabbi Boteach’s speculative reconstruction of the historical Jesus possible. But it is hardly provable, and it fails the test of a good scientific hypothesis, as it is not falsifiable: Rabbi Boteach dismisses any evidence that might be cited against his theory as the opinions of New Testament editors who were allegedly embarrassed by the true story of pious Rabbi Jesus.
Another problem I have with the book is that I have always felt that it is impolite and possibly imprudent for Jews, and perhaps particularly for rabbis, to turn to practitioners of another religion and tell them they don’t really understand their own religion correctly, and if they just listened to us Jews, they would understand it better.
The reaction to this book has been telling. Many fundamentalist Christians seem delighted by it, even though it rejects and sometimes scorns standard Christian beliefs about Jesus and about important theological issues, such as how people improve or “save” themselves. And many Jews are upset by it, even though it portrays Jesus essentially as a proud Orthodox rabbi. One Toronto Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi J. Immanuel Shochet, has suggested that it should be banned as heretical.
Perhaps the same principle explains both the positive evangelical and the negative Jewish reactions. Rabbi Boteach makes it perfectly clear that he hopes that this book will bring Jews and Christians together as they all agree to esteem pious Rabbi Jesus. Those Christians who would like to see Jews accept the “true messiah” can’t help smile when they see an Orthodox rabbi admiring Jesus. They presumably realize that Rabbi Boteach is not advocating Christianity, but they feel that he has taken a bold step closer. As Dr. Kenneth Beshore, founder and president of the World Bible Society (and one of many evangelicals who is on a first-name basis with Rabbi Boteach) writes on the book’s dust-jacket, “Few evangelical Christians can really understand how difficult it is to do what Rabbi Shmuley has done. I pray his journey continues.”
Prudent religious Jews who realize that we are a tiny minority in North America in a predominantly Christian society can’t help wonder what is accomplished by trying to bring Jews and Christians even closer together around a supposedly shared theological truth. I squirmed as I read Rabbi Boteach referring to the American Dr. Michael Brown (no connection to any Torontonian of that name), as my “dear friend… I love Mike.” Brown, an apostate Jew, dedicates his life to converting more Jews to Christianity, not an undertaking that generally wins rabbis’ love.
Even if we grant that there is little fear that a new conception of Jesus will lead American Jews to Christianity, the idea that Jews and Christians might come together around Rabbi Boteach’s postulated historical Jesus is absurd. At one point in the book (p. 136), Rabbi Boteach admits, “The two Jesuses [his and the New Testament’s] are irreconcilable.” On the very next page he writes, “The images may seem inherently contradictory. But then again, it’s not so strange to hold two simultaneous and seemingly contradictory views of Jesus.”
Sorry, Rabbi Boteach, but it is.