“Kosher Jesus” – A Book Review

In his new, highly controversial book, Kosher Jesus, Shmuley Boteach sets the stage by describing the strong overtures of Christian love towards Israel and the Jewish people.  Boteach views this development as a positive step in the Jewish – Christian relationship; however, Boteach points out, there is still a sticking point between Jews and Christians, and that is Jesus. [1]

Boteach’s book presents a solution [2] that he believes will allow both Jews and Christians to overcome the barrier that stands between them. [3]  Boteach proposes that instead of Jesus being the issue that divides us[4], we should allow him to serve as a bridge that unites us in the common interest of promoting Judeo – Christian values.[5]

Setting the bar in his introduction, Boteach boldly claims to know the “authentic story” of Jesus of Nazareth[6].  Virtually all historians and scholars agree that when trying to reconstruct the life of the “Historical Jesus” one is crippled by the lack of surviving evidence outside of the Gospels (records which Boteach himself disqualifies.)[7] This leads the reader to wonder how Boteach is going to make his case convincing.

Basing himself on the works of Hyam Maccoby, Boteach insists that although the Gospels cannot be accepted as authentic or reliable, they have nevertheless retained traces of a Jewish Jesus who did not teach against the observance of the Torah[8] and who never claimed to be God.  Boteach sees Jesus as a patriot who fought against the occupying Romans; a struggle which cost him his life.

Boteach recognizes that Maccoby’s works alone – which argue that the real Jewish Jesus was radically different than the “Christian” Jesus – have not convinced Jews (or Christians, for that matter) to re-evaluate their deeply ingrained vision of Jesus. Boteach is intent on presenting a more persuasive case with “historical underpinnings”.

In order to vindicate his view of Jesus, Boteach questions the reliability of the Jewish and Christian sources about Jesus, asserting that the truth has been obscured on both sides.  In this book, he puts forth the fruit of his “twenty years of in-depth study of Christianity and the New Testament”.[9]

According to Boteach, Jesus is actually an impressive scholar and a visionary[10]  who never claimed to be divine.  He is someone with whom the rabbis “have no problem whatsoever”.[11] [12] Boteach’s Jesus rebels against the Romans and is crucified by the Romans. End of story.  Boteach hopes that by presenting Jesus as a Jewish freedom-fighter and sage, Jews will now embrace the impressive scholar and visionary he sees in Jesus.[13]

Boteach urges his Christian readers to focus on the humanity of Jesus.[14] In Boteach’s view, Christians, who are staunch supporters of Israel and the Jewish people should be able to get past the Jewish rejection of the “Christian Jesus” and expand their view of Jesus to include a Jewish Jesus, who fought for his country and was killed by the Romans.

Boteach’s retelling of the Church’s infancy offers little new information except for his views about Peter[15] who he claims is the author of an anti-Semitic document.[16]  The resurrection claims of Jesus’ early followers are conspicuously missing in “Kosher Jesus”[17], an omission that would raise the eyebrows of his Christian readers.[18]

When turning to Paul, Boteach emphasizes that Paul distorted what the real Jesus stood for.[19]  In a chapter entitled “Paul the Convert”, Boteach asserts that Paul’s claim of being a Pharisee is highly suspect. “The belief that Paul was a convert to Judaism dates back to the time immediately following Jesus’ death. The Ebionites, the remnants of the Jerusalem Church under the leadership of James (whom the New Testament and Josephus say was Jesus’ own brother), insisted that Paul was a non-Jew who had converted to Judaism”.[20]  In reality, however, this is a theory that Maccoby himself (Boteach’s only source for this) admits is not a historical fact but rather something based on a single questionable fourth-century document.[21]

Boteach is understandably upset with Paul for distorting the message of Jesus.  But in his zeal to discredit Paul he shoots himself in the foot.[22]   Boteach mistakenly combines two of Paul’s teachings[23] in order to accuse Paul of misquoting and giving fraudulent meaning to a verse from Deuteronomy 21:23. [24]

Boteach also exposes the Gospel writers for their ineptitude in stitching together the data.[25]  For example, he calls out the Gospel of John for being inconsistent with the synoptic Gospels by placing Jesus’ crucifixion on the second day of Passover instead of the first.  Boteach found this mistake ironic since in temple times there was only one day on which the Pesach sacrifice was offered and eaten.[26]

Unfortunately, Boteach will find himself guilty on the same charge he brings against the author of the Gospel of John.  In John, Jesus is not crucified on the second day of Passover; he is reportedly crucified on the day before Passover, at the precise time that the Paschal Lamb would have been brought to the Temple in accordance with Jewish Law. [27]

In trying to help his readers understand why Jews must reject Christian doctrines such as: original sin, the virgin birth, the messiahship of Jesus and the deity of the messiah, Boteach refutes these doctrines, appealing to logic as well as the Jewish scriptures.[28]  He apologizes to Christians for doing so[29] making it clear to his audience that he has no problem with Christians believing these things[30], but for Jews he says, these doctrines are not acceptable.[31]

Bible-believing Christians may view this as hypocrisy, since Boteach’s assurance is that “Jews want Christians to observe Christianity”.[32]  But then in a fiery response to his Jewish critics, he writes that he is trying to spread the Noachide covenant as per the wishes of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. [33]  Surely Boteach is aware that according to the view of Maimonides[34] and the Lubavitcher Rebbe[35], a Christianity that worships a man as God (a practice Boteach strongly rejects[36]), has no place in the Noachide covenant.

At the same time, Jews will also have problems with Boteach’s propositions.[37] Judaism will never view Jesus as a prophet[38] and a holy man.[39]   Does Boteach honestly expect the Jewish community to re-examine and learn the teachings of Jesus? [40]  This suggestion contravenes rabbinic enactments against the study of non-Jewish sacred texts including the Christian Scriptures.[41] [42] Jews have never been, nor will they ever be quick to buy into anything that is associated with Jesus or with the Christian Scriptures.  Since Boteach acknowledges that the teachings of the Christian Scriptures in their current form are unacceptable, his proposal to Jews is all the more perplexing.

In summation, despite Boteach’s good intentions, this book is a poor stab at presenting a scholarly view on Jesus.  Boteach’s recommendations are an affront to Jews and Christians and will only appeal to those who are uninformed in matters of religion and history.

This review was prepared by Rabbi Eli Cohen of Jews for Judaism Australia.  

 


[1] Others have tried to ignore this “600 pound gorilla” for the sake of fostering mutual love and respect between the two parties. This approach has been highly controversial and has attracted criticism from members of both faiths.  Jewish critics are strongly suspicious of this new friendship, warning that the sincere and much appreciated support of these groups notwithstanding, the evangelical embrace may be a Trojan horse.  On the other side, Christian critics are upset with some of the Christian groups involved in this new friendship for withholding a more overt Gospel message from Jews who they believe need to accept and embrace it.  To read more on this issue please see The Double-Edged Evangelical Embrace by Rabbi Michael Skobac http://jewsforjudaism.org.au/resources/articles/the-double-edged-evangelical-embrace/

[2] This suggestion is not new. Professor Amy-Jill Levine, has been promoting this idea for years, most notably in her book The Misunderstood Jew. “Once the differences between church and synagogue are acknowledged, Christians and Jews are in a better position to determine how far their mutual relations can go.” The Misunderstood Jew p.210.  See also The Christian and the Pharisee by David Rosen and R. T Kendall.  “I do also hope that the readers will be impressed by the fact that notwithstanding our profound differences, it is possible to discuss even these respectfully without pulling any punches; that it is possible to hear and say tough things and still remain (indeed even grow as) loving friends.” The Christian and the Pharisee p.151.

[3] Kosher Jesus p.209.

[4] “If we are to move past millennia of anti-Semitism and use the personage of Jesus as a bridge rather than a wedge between Christians and Jews, we must address the meaning of Jesus from all angles and to all observers, Jewish and Christian alike.” Kosher Jesus p.150.

[5] “Christianity and Judaism remain separate faiths. But by finding their common ground through a discovery of the Jewish Jesus, we strengthen America’s Judeo-Christian values. And that is, in the end, the essence of what I seek to accomplish.” Kosher Jesus p.213.

[6] “ …everything I present has scriptural and historical underpinnings making a case I believe will be persuasive” p. xx  Kosher Jesus.  Perhaps Boteach should have warned his readers that the ideas presented here about Jesus are speculative, rather than calling them “the truth” Kosher Jesus p.198.

[7] Kosher Jesus p.91 and p.93.

[8] This argument is also found in the Talmud Tractate Shabbat p.116 a and has been used in many Judeo – Christian polemical debates. It may be possible to suggest that this should not be used as historical evidence.  The Talmud, in quoting the Gospels, may be using a method often used in the Talmud – “Le’didach” meaning “In accordance with YOUR view” thereby demonstrating why Christianity should not encourage the abrogation of Torah.

[9] Kosher Jesus p.xi.

[10] “The rabbis respect the teacher’s achievements and view him as an impressive scholar and visionary” p.7 Kosher Jesus

[11] “The rabbis had no problem whatsoever with Jesus. Indeed, they rightly thought of him as one of their own, one who espoused core teachings with which they all fundamentally agreed.”  Kosher Jesus p.110.  This decisive statement has no source or footnote which leaves us wondering where Boteach is getting this information from.

[12] In tractate Sanhedrin 93 b the Talmud relates that Bar Kochba was put to death by the Rabbis after hailing himself as the messiah.  This is at odds with Boteach’s statement “Of the Jewish historical figures who claimed to be the messiah – each treated either as an eccentric or a serious candidate, depending on his righteousness, actions, and accomplishments – not one faced execution.”  Kosher Jesus p.96.   For the sake of accuracy and scholarship Boteach’s failure to address this source is problematic.

[13] Joseph Klausner, Géza Vermes,  Harvey Falk,  Hyam Maccoby and others have put forth a similar position.  Where Boteach differs though, is in his failure to cite dissenting opinions to his position leaving no room whatsoever for speculation.

[14] “Christians would do well to pay renewed attention to Jesus, his humanity, and the values he held dear.” Kosher Jesus p.211.

[15] Boteach, being upset with Peter for saying that the Jews Killed Jesus portrays Peter as being weak, “Paul, ever the manipulator, bullies Peter into accepting the Pauline liberalism.” Kosher Jesus p.124 and as abandoning the Torah “Peter abandons Jesus’ strict commitment to kosher food and the Law of Moses and begins to live like a gentile.” Kosher Jesus p.125.  Maccoby however, writes that “the evidence is that Peter probably never renounced adherence to the Torah” Paul the Mythmaker p. 149 (see also Jesus The Pharisee p. 166-169 for Maccoby’s explanation of the incident in Antioch.)

[16] Ascribing the apocryphal Gospel of Peter to the apostle Peter, Boteach writes “A profoundly anti-Semitic document, this Gospel was written by the same Peter who denied knowing Jesus three times when confronted by the Romans. Amazingly, Peter claims it was the Jews who crucified Christ – the Jews not only handed Jesus over to the Romans, they actually carried out the crucifixion.” Kosher Jesus p.69.  The sources of the Gospel of Peter is a matter of considerable debate. See Ron Cameron’s The other Gospels p.77

[17] Besides a picture of the risen Jesus on the book cover, and one fleeting mention of the alleged ascension on p.153.

[18] To quote Charles Guinebert (1867-1939) professor of the history of Christianity in the Sorbonne “There would have been no Christianity if the belief in the resurrection had not been founded and systemized.  Wellhausen is therefore right in saying that Jesus would have left no mark on history had it not been for his death.”   Jesus p.536.  In summary, failing to mention the early belief in the resurrection of Jesus without an explanation is shocking.

[19]  This may be true to an extent and has been argued before (see The Da Vinci Code: A Jewish Perspective by Rabbi Michael Skobac), however, some examples Boteach puts forth as evidence for this are rather weak.  One such example “Paul transformed Jesus’ mission into one that actively excluded the Jews, restricting him almost exclusively to the gentiles.”  Kosher Jesus p. 119. Paul’s epistles (Romans 1:16 “to the Jew first” comes to mind immediately) or the book of Acts “Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” Acts 18:4.   These kind of passages mitigates Boteach’s argument.

[20] Kosher Jesus p.118.

[21] Hyam Maccoby in his book Paul the Mythmaker p.182 writes, “This account, of course, is not history.  It is what Epiphanius declares the Ebionites were saying in the fourth century and is colored both by Epiphnius’ hostility to the Ebionites and by the Ebionites’ hostility to Paul.”  Maccoby makes sure that the reader understands that this is inconclusive and not a historical fact.  This is a far cry from Boteach’s bold claim that “The belief that Paul was a convert to Judaism dates back to the time immediately following Jesus’ death. The Ebionites, the remnants of the Jerusalem Church under the leadership of James (whom the New Testament and Josephus say was Jesus’ own brother), insisted that Paul was a non-Jew who had converted to Judaism”. Kosher Jesus p.118.

[22] In an attempt to demonstrate how Paul did not know Hebrew,  Boteach writes “No disciple of Gamliel would have thought to read the Bible in translation; there would have been no need. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians offer excellent examples of the resulting inaccuracies. Paul quotes Hosea 13:14, saying, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”  This is the version found in the Greek Septuagint.”  But the Hebrew original reads: “Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?” Kosher Jesus p.112.

This, of course, would be like saying that Shmuley Boteach is not a Pharisee since he used the NIV’s translation of Hosea 13:14 instead of going to the Hebrew and the Jewish Biblical commentaries on the verse (i.e Targum, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Metzudoth, Malbim etc.) or at least glancing at the Artscroll Tanach’ translation which reads “ I will be your words of death; I will be the One Who decrees the grave upon you;”.

[23] In Galatians 3:10-11 Paul gives his own interpretation of Deuteronomy 27:26 and then in Galatians 3:13-14 he presents his understanding of Deuteronomy 21:23.

[24] “However, Paul misrepresents the verse utterly.  He says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.’”  Paul misquotes the Bible utterly and gives it a fraudulent meaning. He explains that the pole refers to the Torah, the Law of Moses. If you hang on this pole – that is, if you are dependent on the law for salvation rather than the blood of Christ – you are cursed.” Kosher Jesus p.113.

Incidentally Boteach repeats this error in a presentation at Limmud UK http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNQa81C8NUM  at 29:00 – 31:30 in the clip, and in an interview with the Washington Post  “Q: You’ve got a beef with the Apostle Paul, who is widely considered the founder of Christian theology. A: He claims to be a disciple of one of the greatest Torah scholars of the ancient world, yet it seems certain that he could not read Hebrew.  In Deuteronomy, the Bible says it’s a curse to God to leave a man hanging on a tree. Paul interprets the tree to be the tree of the Torah. In that mistranslation, he relegates Judaism to a subservient status. It’s “replacement theology” and a wildly inaccurate translation.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/10-minutes-with–rabbi-shmuleyboteach/2012/01/13/gIQAttLOwP_story.html   This link is where the article first appeared but no longer exists, however,  the article can be found here http://wilmingtonfavs.com/2012/01/13/10-minutes-with-rabbi-shmuley-boteach/

[25]  Boteach himself let obvious mistakes slip into his book.  For example when he confuses the Christian’s observance of their belief in the resurrection on Sunday, stating that it is the  crucifixion they are celebrating.  “I put this question to my friend Dr. Michael Brown in one our public debates. How is it, I asked him, that the Bible makes it clear God rested on Saturday, yet Christians now honor Sunday, a day of explosive creation, as the Sabbath. He said it had to do with Jesus being crucified on a Sunday. But what is the connection? We do not keep the seven-day week because Jesus was murdered but because of the biblical account of creation.” Kosher Jesus. p.127  (Italics added)

[26] “Other inconsistencies abound. According to the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the trial of Jesus took place the first night of Passover at the seder. The Last Supper must therefore have been a seder meal. If so, Jesus must have eaten matzo and wine, the principal foods of the seder table. Yet the Gospel of John contradicts this, saying the trial of Jesus took place not on the first night of Passover but the second.  This is quite a discrepancy. In Jesus’ time the first night of Passover was the only night a seder was held. It was also the only evening where the paschal lamb was brought to the Temple and eaten.” Kosher Jesus p.91.

[27] The contradiction between the synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John is indeed a serious discrepancy.  Christian apologists have a very difficult time answering this discrepancy as Mike Licona, a Conservative Christian apologist and author conceded in a debate with professor Bart Ehrman “Can historians prove Jesus rose from the dead?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBxCAexOTRU  at 13:10 into the clip

[28] From a counter missionary perspective, the treatment of these central issues needs to be improved upon. It’s disappointing that Boteach does not provide his reader with serious works such as “The Jew and the Christian Missionary” By Gerald Sigal, “Contra Brown” by Rabbi Yisroel Blumethal or websites such as www.jewsforjudaism.org for further reading.

[29] “My intention in this section where I spell out why Jews reject the Christian Jesus is not to disparage Christianity but to encourage an understanding of why a man worshipped as deity, or belief in a messiah who did not fulfil the messianic prophecies, is anathema to us Jews, a fact that will never change.” Kosher Jesus p.150.

“The New Testament authors thought Isaiah foretold the birth of a child from a virgin and applied his prophecy to Jesus. Thus, a cardinal principle of Christianity is derived from a Greek already suspect rending of the Hebrew Bible.

I caution again, this is not to denigrate or deny Christian doctrine.” Kosher Jesus p.160.

[30] “While we believe Judaism is the true and right religion for us, we want Christians to observe Christianity” Kosher Jesus p.197.

[31] For example after quoting 1Samuel 15:29 he writes “God is not a man. He is not human. For Jews, this verse alone ends the debate. Case closed.”

[32] Without quoting any source Boteach writes “While we believe Judaism is the true and right religion for us, we want Christians to observe Christianity” Kosher Jesus p.197.  In contrast to candidness of Jacob Neusner who writes “G-d’s Torah is the way (not only our way, but the way) to love and serve the one God, creator of heaven and earth, who called us to serve and sanctify God’s Name. My point is simple. By the Truth of Torah, much that Jesus said is wrong.” A Rabbi Talks With Jesus p.5.

[33] “It is also time, although Rabbi Wolf does not seem to much care, that the Rebbe’s vision for spreading the Noachide Covenant be realized by Christians discovering the humanity and Jewishness of Jesus rather than emphasizing his divinity.” Shmuley Boteach

[34] While this may not be the view of all medieval rabbis , Maimonides opinion on Christianity (Maimonadies on Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:3, Mishneh Torah,  Hilchos Avodas Kochavim  9:4) was the view accepted by the Lubaticher Rebbe.  See Likkutei Sichos Vol. 37 p.198

[35] See the note above.

36 See note 31.

[37] Hopefully Boteach will take notice and follow the steps of the Chief Rabbi of the UK, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, who,  amid sharp criticism from his contemporaries, felt the need to amend statements in his book The Dignity of Difference. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1408406/Chief-Rabbi-to-amend-heresy.html

[38]  “Similarly, when Jesus speaks in the first-person singular in God’s name, it is not a declaration of his own divinity. Moses does the same in Deuteronomy, when he tells the Jews that if they obey the word of God, “I,” Moses, will give them material wealth.” Kosher Jesus p.47, and   “For the past six years I have been working on a book, to be published shortly, on a new understanding of Jesus as prophet rather than deity”  http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=195506

[39] “He was by all accounts a holy and wholesome man”. Kosher Jesus p.49.

[40] “Nearly all his authentic lessons were restatements of classical Torah wisdom; his ethical teachings still have the power to speak to us today.” Kosher Jesus p.x.

[41] Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 2:2

[42] In a letter to the Rabbinical Council of America in November 1964 (re-affirmed by the RCA on May 18, 2006 http://www.rabbis.org/news/article.cfm?id=100771 ) Rav Soloveitchik OBM, Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York City also regarded as a seminal figure by Modern Orthodox Judaism, wrote, “…We are, therefore, opposed to any public debate, dialogue or symposium concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of our faith vis a vis “similar” aspects of another faith community. We believe in and are committed to our Maker in a specific manner and we will not question, defend, offer apologies, analyze or rationalize our faith in dialogues centered about these “private” topics which express our personal relationship to the God of Israel. We assume that members of other faith communities will feel similarly about their individual religious commitment.”  He further states that “There cannot be mutual understanding concerning these topics, for Jews and Christians will employ different categories and move within incommensurate frames of reference and evaluation.” Community, Covenant and Commitment p. 260.