Who is the Messiah?
Boyarin wraps up his arguments by telling his readers that the followers of Jesus did not “invent” the idea of a divine savior, but rather that they drew this idea from the well-springs of Jewish thought that was current in their times. Boyarin argues that the Jewish concept of Messiah as it was understood in the generations preceding Jesus included, or at least allowed for, a second divine figure that is to suffer and die (TJG, pg. 160). The followers of Jesus simply applied these ancient Jewish teachings to Jesus of Nazareth, but they did not invent these teachings.
Aside from the fact that Boyarin ignores the evidence of the Christain Scriptures which clearly indicate that Jesus’ followers did NOT expect Jesus to suffer and die, this after they had positively identified him as the Messiah, Boyarin has also missed the heart and soul of the Jewish concept of Messiah. Interestingly, he did not miss it entirely, he actually included one crumb of Judaism in his description of the Messiah – but he failed to follow up on that one authentic thought that made its way into his book.
Boyarin acknowledges that the Jewish understanding of the Messiah that preceded Jesus would have the Messiah redeem Israel from the “Seleucid and then Roman oppression” (TJG, pg. 160). What happened? Did Jesus do anything of the sort? How did the followers of Jesus identify him as the Messiah without him fulfilling this basic Messianic function?
This leads us to the next question; why were the Jewish people waiting for the Messiah? Was it just so that they could be redeemed from Roman oppression? Was this simply a nationalistic aspiration that was divorced from anything spiritual?
Of-course not! The Jewish people understood that they were called by the Almighty God to testify to the truth of His Oneness by following His Law and obeying His word. They recognized that they had fallen short of their calling, but they still remained loyal to the core of their standing as a chosen nation before God – they had not committed themselves in worship to another god (Psalm 44:21).
The Messianic hope in Judaism centers on Israel’s loyalty to God. Israel looks forward to the day when all of humanity will abandon the worship of idols and serve God together with Israel (Zephaniah 3:9). God alone will be exalted on that day (Isaiah 2:11,17). All will recognize that worship of anyone but the God of Israel is wrong and futile (45:14). And Israel’s loyalty to this truth will be rewarded (49:23).
Israel is waiting to hear one phrase: “Your God has reigned” (Isaiah 40:9; 52:7). In Israel’s God centered heart, this is all that is important. Israel’s human king, like David his ancestor, is not someone who eclipses God’s sovereignty, but is someone whose own humility before God is the catalyst to bring everyone’s heart in line with the truth of God’s sovereignty.
In a certain sense, Judaism views world history as a love story that takes place between herself and her Divine lover. The exodus from Egypt which culminated with the Sinai revelation was the wedding. When the Divine presence came to dwell in Solomon’s Temple, Israel understood that God had come to dwell with His beloved bride. When foreign oppressors trampled the Jewish people underfoot, Israel understood that the relationship between themselves and God was being challenged. But Israel looked forward to the Messianic era, when her relationship with God will shine as the light of the universe (Isaiah 60:2). The Messianic promise for Israel is God’s promise that He will forever remain Israel’s husband.
The Church took this concept and turned it on its head. Instead of a time when Israel is reunited with her Divine lover, the Church taught that the Messiah introduced a deep division and estrangement between Israel and God. Instead of honoring man’s focus on the Creator of heaven and earth, the Church’s version of the Messianic age introduces a new central focus for humanity; a focus on Jesus. Instead of celebrating God’s relationship with Israel, Christianity celebrates Jesus’ relationship with those who “believe in him”. The Church ripped out the heart and soul of Israel’s messianic vision; they ripped out the words “God” and “Israel” and put in their place; “Jesus” and “Church”. The fact that they used some Jewish ideas in constructing their theology does not make their theology “Jewish”. The Jewish concept of Messiah and the Christian concept of Messiah are polar opposites.
Did this happen in the first generation of Jesus’ Jewish followers? Probably not. According to the book of Acts (Ch. 21), the Jewish following of Jesus saw the worship in the Temple as central to their communal identity, even to the degree of bringing animal offerings for the forgiveness of sin. It is entirely possible that the Jewish disciples of Jesus hoped for a day when God alone is exalted and those who believe in Him are vindicated, with Jesus merely serving as an agent of God.
In Paul’s teachings we already see the shift in focus from God to Jesus and from Israel to “believers”. Paul never claims to have acquired his ideas from the wells-springs of Jewish thought as Boyarin would have us believe. Rather, Paul tells us that his theology was the product of his own personal visions. The Christian Scriptures themselves testify that Paul’s teachings did not go unopposed. It is clear that it was the original Jewish following of Jesus who opposed Paul’s anti-Jewish theology. Ultimately, Paul’s theology won out and Christianity became what it is today.
Boyarin’s attempt to rewrite Church history and to rewrite Jewish theology ignores the available evidence. But even more serious is Boyarin’s effort to portray Judaism as if it was a hodgepodge of conflicting ideas. Judaism is not a theology, it is a relationship. It is an eternal covenantal relationship between the Creator of heaven and earth and His beloved bride; Israel.
If you found this article helpful please consider making a donation to Judaism Resources by clicking on the link below.
Judaism Resources is a recognized 501(c) 3 public charity and your donation is tax exempt.
Yisroel C. Blumenthal