Beware the Bar-Kochba Jesus

Who gives the fairest guide for those seeking to "discover the authentic story of Jesus of Nazareth".

Bible 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bible 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Kosher Jesus is the latest work by prominent American rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the author of 27 books, popular columnist and relationship guru to Hollywood stars who is currently being touted as the next chief rabbi of the UK.
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. 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. And sadly, 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 elsewhere.
By the time Boteach embraces Jesus, he has been radically reduced to just another patriotic Jewish agitator against Roman oppression, an ultra-nationalist 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.
Boteach admits to being heavily influenced by the controversial Jewish historian Hyam Maccoby, who caused him to ask the core 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. He comes across as easily pliable and even sympathetic to Jesus when the Jewish crowd pleads for him to be crucified.
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 rewriting Christian Scriptures in order to sanitize the Roman occupation, demonize the Jews and turn Jesus into a god-man, thereby making the new religion more palatable to Greco-Roman culture.
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 linguistic differences. Rather, this is a wholesale shredding of the New Testament, based on pure conjecture and an agenda-driven imagination.
First of all, if one does not want to take the Gospels at face value when they maintain that Jesus himself claimed divine “oneness” with God, there is solid, widely accepted Jewish scholarship available today that has determined 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 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 benevolent portrayal of Pilate in the Gospel narratives of the trial of Jesus. But after honest scholarly inquiry, 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 symbols of Roman idols 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, but eventually relented to the daily protests. Flusser states that this developed into a routine “game” between Pilate and the Sadducees. The trial of Jesus fits this pattern, he concludes, thus lending credibility to the Gospel accounts.
This just begins to touch on the deep flaws in Kosher Jesus. 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 close familiarity with all the ancient Jewish “sources,” Flusser considered the Gospels to be reliable historic accounts that remain among the most important Jewish documents from antiquity. 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 believe 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 much fairer guide for those seeking to “discover the authentic story of Jesus of Nazareth.”
The writer is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem ( and contributing editor for The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition.