Beware the Bar-Kochba Jesus

Shmuley Boteach's 'Kosher Jesus' is essentially the Orthodox Jewish side of a classic medieval disputation on Jesus’s Messianic credentials.

Kosher Jesus_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kosher Jesus_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Kosher Jesus is the latest work by prominent American Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the author, columnist and relationship guru to Hollywood stars who is currently being touted as the next chief rabbi of the UK. Among his 27 previous books is the bestseller Kosher Sex, which catapulted Boteach into the public spotlight.
Although he admits to growing up with a typical Jewish “chip” against Jesus, Boteach says he became curious as a teenager about the central figure of the New Testament, and Kosher Jesus is the result of his life-long search for the real story of the man from Galilee. He unflinchingly promises the reader that “in these pages… you will discover the authentic story of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Yet Kosher Jesus fails to deliver the goods. Instead, it is essentially the Orthodox Jewish side of a classic medieval disputation on Jesus’s Messianic credentials, of the sort usually thrust upon Jews but this time initiated by a rabbi. The resulting book is both overconfident in tone and underwhelming in its marshaling of credible scholarship to back the author’s positions.
Boteach opens well enough by lamenting the long, sad history of Christian anti-Semitism, which he hopes the book will remedy by encouraging Christians to recapture the Jewishness of Jesus. In addition, he hopes Jewish readers will be piqued to learn more about the maligned Jesus so they, too, will discover his core teachings were not hostile to Jews but squarely within mainstream Judaism for his day. In this way, Boteach seeks “to correct this injustice at long last” and create a “bridge” between the two faiths.
These are all noble goals, which this Christian reviewer wholeheartedly shares. But the fact is that both Jews and Christians have been building bridges toward each other and exploring the Jewishness of Jesus for several decades now, long before Boteach saw the need to set us all straight.
Indeed, a widening spectrum of Christians have been exploring the Hebraic roots of our faith for more than two generations, with scholars like those associated with the Jerusalem School of the Synoptic Gospels regularly turning out fascinating insights into the Jewishness of Jesus that engender both philo-Semitism and Zionism in Christians. An increasing number of Jews have also been taking an honest look at Jesus as one of their own.
In all frankness, Boteach’s book is not a very positive contribution to these worthwhile efforts. He does provide some good examples of Jesus as an archetypal Pharisaic rabbi, but these are mainly borrowed from much better and far less contaminated sources to be found elsewhere.
By the time Boteach embraces Jesus, he has been radically reduced to just another patriotic Jewish agitator against Roman oppression, an ultranationalist rabbi cruelly slain by the enemies of his nation and only later deified by a misguided pseudo-Jew named Paul. Yet this crafting of a Bar- Kochba Jesus is no less distorted than the Aryan Jesus, Black Jesus or Palestinian Jesus. Such drastic cosmetic makeovers may be vogue in Hollywood, but they simply do not work with the eminent historic figure of Jesus.
Boteach admits to being primarily influenced by the controversial Jewish historian Hyam Maccoby, who caused him to ask the central question, “Where are the evil Romans in the Gospels?” That is, the Romans were brutal overlords, yet they seem to get whitewashed in the New Testament, especially the figure of Pontius Pilate, who was notorious for his sadistic behavior. In the Gospels, Pilate comes across as easily pliable and even sympathetic to Jesus when the Jewish crowd pleads for him to be crucified and Barabbas freed.
So Boteach concludes that later editors tampered with the Gospel accounts so as not to antagonize the Romans. Relying on Maccoby and a novel theory of “Christology” developed by certain liberal German theologians, Boteach blames Paul for spearheading a deliberate effort to rewrite Christian Scriptures in order to sanitize the Roman occupation and thereby make these sacred texts more palatable to potential converts from Greco-Roman culture. Paul is also identified as the one who, to make the new faith even more appealing, turned Jesus into a god-man akin to other deities in Hellenism’s pantheon of gods.
Boteach’s assault on the integrity of the New Testament is not the disciplined science of textual criticism, where ancient parchments are carefully dated, translated and studied for lingual differences. Rather, this is a wholesale shredding of the New Testament, based on pure conjecture and an agendadriven imagination. Shockingly, even John 3:16 is deemed Pauline embellishment. Consider this withering passage from Kosher Jesus:
“In one of the great ironies and tragedies of history, the editors of the New Testament took a Jewish sage and lover of his people, put a white hood on his head and a swastika on his arm, and sent him out spewing vitriol against his people. The result is a Jesus so altered that he was no longer recognizable as a prince of peace.”
First of all, if one does not want to take the Gospels at face value when they maintain that Jesus himself claimed divine union with God, there is solid, widely accepted Jewish scholarship available today which has concluded that his brother James was head of a Messianic Jewish movement in Jerusalem which worshiped Jesus as God long before Paul appeared on the scene.
As for whitewashing the Romans of their cruelty, the Gospels give vivid accounts of Roman tyranny, such as the soldiers slaughtering all the Jewish infants in Bethlehem. Jesus himself refers to Romans as “dogs” and mentions at one point how Pilate slaughtered a group of Galilean Jews and mixed their blood with sacrifices. Boteach concedes these passages exist, but insists they must have somehow missed the editors’ pen.
The late Prof. David Flusser of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, considered the leading Orthodox Jewish expert on the Second Temple era and Early Christianity, also admitted to struggling with the argument that Pilate appears too benevolent in the Gospel narratives of the trial of Jesus. But after honest scholarly inquiry into the life and teachings of Jesus, he came to a completely different conclusion than Boteach.
In his book entitled simply Jesus (Magnus Press, 1998), Flusser notes that the historian Josephus describes an incident in which Pilate had Roman symbols of idolatry placed on military standards one night in Jerusalem. A shocked Jewish crowd gathered outside his palace the next day and pleaded for the offensive emblems to be removed. Pilate refused at first, as they were symbols of Caesar’s divinity, but eventually relented to the daily protests. Flusser states that this developed into a routine “game” between Pilate and the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem, especially the Sadducees. The trial of Jesus fits this pattern, Flusser concludes, thus lending credibility to the Gospel accounts.
These examples just begin to touch on the deep flaws in Boteach’s book. Rather than a sincere, dispassionate look at Jesus, it is a frenzied polemic aimed at burying his Messianic claims. Jewish readers in particular should be aware that Kosher Jesus is literary treif.
Instead, I would strongly recommend the much more respectful and measured approach of Flusser – a winner of the Israel Prize in Literature and the leading Orthodox Jewish scholar in his field.
Based on his many years of meticulous, objective study of all the ancient Jewish sources, Flusser considered the Gospels to be reliable historical accounts that remain among the most important Jewish documents from antiquity.
Flusser said he even saw no reason to question the New Testament accounts of the resurrected Jesus, as belief in such miracles was well within the mainstream Judaism of that day.
Flusser said he also viewed Jesus as his favorite rabbi, since he preached such a beautiful brand of ethical monotheistic Judaism. Flusser just said that as a faithful Orthodox Jew, he simply could not take that additional step of faith and believe the New Testament’s claims that Jesus was divine.
Flusser’s approach has already proven to be a much better bridge for encouraging dialogue between Christians and Jews and a fairer guide for those seeking to “discover the authentic story of Jesus of Nazareth.”
The reviewer is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem;