Who Was Jesus? – Excerpt from “Covenant Nation” – a critique of D. Boyarin’s “Borderlines”

Who was Jesus?
Boyarin presents us with an analysis of the hand-washing incident described in the seventh chapter of the book of Mark (TJG; pgs. 106-127). Boyarin concludes that, contrary to popular Christian opinion, this incident does not teach that Jesus abolished the dietary laws altogether. Rather, Jesus was opposed to the specific rabbinical enactment of hand-washing, which stands apart from the general dietary laws.

I find myself in agreement with Boyarin on this point. Reading the book of Mark with an understanding of Jewish law one recognizes that there is a distinction between the purity laws, which Jesus was contesting, and the general dietary laws, which Jesus does not mention. Boyarin however does not stop there. Boyarin goes on to argue that Jesus stood against all Pharisaic innovations and additions to the Law. This position is not supported by the Christian Scriptures, the only source we have for Jesus and his teachings.

Boyarin has ignored a significant piece of evidence in this discussion. The Talmud records that there was an inner-Pharisaic conflict concerning the hand-washing enactment, and that this conflict was still unresolved in the generation of Jesus (Shabbat 14b). In other words by taking a stance against the hand-washing enactment, Jesus is not standing outside of the Pharisaic community. Instead he was taking part in an inter-Pharisaic debate.

This is corroborated by Jesus’ teaching as recorded by Matthew: “the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.” (23:2,3). Although Jesus goes on to malign the Pharisees for hypocritical behavior, but he does not take issue with their authority or their interpretation of the Law. In fact some of the laws he mentions and upholds in his subsequent diatribe (such as the tithing of spices) are of rabbinic origin.

Jesus is described as observing the Passover Seder according to rabbinic tradition (Luke 22:18-20). When Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath law, an accusation that only makes sense according to the Pharisaic understanding of the Law, he never exonerates himself by arguing against the Pharisaic definition of the Law. Jesus’ defense always assumes that the Pharisaic definition of the Law is correct, it is only the application of the Law in those particular instances (i.e. for the purpose of healing) that Jesus takes issue with.

Many of Jesus’ followers considered themselves Pharisees long after Jesus had died (Acts 15:5). These people were prominent figures in the community of Jesus followers and their opinion was taken seriously. A comparison between the debate described in Acts 15 and Paul’s dispute with Peter recorded in Galatians 2:14 shows that Peter, the prime disciple of Jesus, was of the “Pharisee party”. Paul accuses Peter of “compelling the Gentiles to live as do the Jews”. This was the opinion of the Pharisaic segment of the early Christian community as recorded in Acts 15 and Paul attributes this outlook to Peter. A straightforward reading gives us to understand that Peter himself belonged to this group.

If, as Boyarin claims, Jesus took a clear stance against the Pharisee approach to the Law, why would his followers accept this very approach that he discredited? It is clear that Jesus did not reject the Pharisee approach to the Law as a whole it was only some details of the Pharisaic application, details that were being disputed within the Pharisee community itself that Jesus was rejecting.

In the book of Mark (7:8-13) we do indeed find Jesus striking out at the general concept of the traditions. He rebukes the “Pharisees and all the Jews” (Mark 7:3) for using the traditions to make the Law of God null and void. However, the example that Jesus uses to demonstrate how the Jews were using the traditions to nullify the Law of God, is perplexing. Mark’s Jesus accuses the Jews of using the law of taking vows as a method of avoiding honoring their parents. The technical aspects of this accusation are confusing enough (the laws of taking vows are Biblical in nature (Numbers 30:3) and not a part of the traditions as Mark’s Jesus seems to believe). But what is really difficult to understand is that in all of the rabbinic writings, there is not one statement that can be taken as an encouragement to avoid honoring one’s parents. The consistent position of Pharisaic Judaism, according to every historical record, places the honor of parents on the highest pedestal. In sharp contrast, the Gospels leave us with several statements that seem to go against the spirit of the Fifth Commandment (Matthew 10:37; 12:48; 19:29; Mark 3:33; Luke 14:26). The targets of Jesus’ invective left us a literature that is far more extensive than the 4 books of the Gospels, yet nothing equivalent is to be found in their writings.

This would lead us to one of two conclusion; either the group that Jesus was castigating was a fringe sect that never left their mark on mainstream Judaism, or we can conclude that the redactors of the Gospels put this anti-Pharisaic tirade into their book long after Jesus died and were not familiar with the ways of the Jews. Either way, Boyarin’s conclusion that Jesus was anti-Pharisaic cannot be substantiated from this enigmatic passage, especially in light of the totality of the available evidence.

It is interesting to note, that Boyarin does not hesitate to slice up the Hebrew Bible and attribute various sentences in the same narrative to different authors who subscribed to conflicting theologies (TJG, pg. 43). He does this without any explicit evidence for the existence of the conflict that he assumes as the root of this editing procedure in the text of the Hebrew Bible. Yet he takes the Christian Scriptures at face value despite the fact that the same Christian Bible admits that there was deep discord in the early Church between Paul and a faction of “super-apostles” who opposed him. Had Boyarin taken the same irreverent attitude towards the Gospels as he does towards the Jewish Bible, he would have realized that the most probable explanation for the pro and anti-Pharisaic tendencies in the Gospels reflects the tendencies of two conflicting communities in the early Church. The Christian Bible itself acknowledges this rift in the early Church, there is no reason to assume that this controversy left no mark on the editing process of the books produced by these conflicting communities.

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20 Responses to Who Was Jesus? – Excerpt from “Covenant Nation” – a critique of D. Boyarin’s “Borderlines”

  1. Charles says:

    You claim Peter himself belonged to this (Pharisee) group.
    This despite the fact that he is recorded even by Paul as initially transgressing Phraisaic norms, then only under pressure & influence of reaffirming them unwisely (Gal. 2. 11-14) and by Luke, surely of Paul’s ‘party’, of being the chief architect and defender of the suspension of Kashrut as a parable of Jew-Gentile separation in Acts 10,11 and 15, in great detail.
    Your descriptions (Boyarin too at least in his YouTube summary, https://youtu.be/2U-CbbHgras) of the Messiah’s handling of Torah is similarly muddled.
    My main question though is where is the authoritative documentation of contemporary second Temple rabbinic theology, given the seismic transformation it endured with the Temple’s destruction and the necessary cessation of priestly function? Is it not upon documents many years later?

    • Charles Peter is also accused by Paul of wanting to have gentiles keep the Law (Galatians 2:14) And what makes you say that there was a change in theology with the destruction of the Temple? There were changes in practice but why changes in theology?

      1000 Verses – a project of Judaism Resources wrote: >

      • Charles says:

        Peter wobbled.

        There is confirmation in the New Testament that even the Sadducees, as well as the Pharisees, took Daniel’s description of the Son of Man as identical the unique Son of God described in Prov. 30.4 and Ps. 2.7, along with other Messianic passages. (Dan. 7.13-14, Ezek. 1.26, Mark 14.61-2, Matt. 26.63-4, Lk. 22.69-70).
        Given the clarity of the texts, who can blame them? Can you prove that it was otherwise from contemporary texts, before the Temple was brought down?

        Maimonides of course articulated the later rabbinic rejection of this notion, though it clearly predated him and Islam by some centuries. The Messiah described this change as a seizure of a rightful inheritance (Mark 12.7). Is not this Hellenism one of the idols to be purged at the coming reviving (Ezek. 36.23, 25, Zech. 13.1-2)?

        If Stephen erred in describing Yehoshua as the Son of man (Acts 7.56), the appropriate response would have been reproof or ridicule, would it not? Instead no better response could be found than to silence him.

        • Charles Daniel himself identifies the son of man and his definition does not conform with the definition provided by the Christian Scriptures 1000 Verses – a project of Judaism Resources wrote: >

        • Bible819 says:


          1. The natural man does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God. For they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

          2. Or if the scroll is given to one who is not able to read, he will say, “I cannot read.”

          3. .And even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

          • Charles says:

            Well written, ‘there is none so blind as my servant’.
            Enemies of the Gospel, yet still beloved for the Fathers’ sakes.

            Is not Daniel’s Son of Man worthy to receive the everlasting honour and glory of all kingdoms, no more, their worship and obeisance (7v.14 יִפְלְחוּן). How is this consistent with Isa. 2.17-22, unless this Son of Man be the same One identified in Ezek. 1.26-28,as the Similitude ( דְּמוּת כְּבוֹד־יהוה)?

          • Charles
            You are arguing with the Scripture’s own interpretation of Scripture – Daniel 7:27 explains Daniel 7:14 – as does Isaiah 60:12

          • Concerned Reader says:

            Bible819, you make Christianity look absurd when Rabbi B points out your fallacies, and you just retort with calling him blind.

            This is no different than a Muslim not dealing with Jewish or Christian texts because he believes they were corrupted. Clear sign of a man out of his depth.

            BTW it is not rabbi B’s job to prove a negative, (when you said, “prove they didn’t believe X”) it is your job to substantiate your claim, without relying on your own scripture to do it.

            If you rely on the New Testament to prove the New Testament, you are using circular reasoning.

            At leasr make the effort to use the right sources to justify your claim.

          • Bible819 says:

            Concerned Reader,

            Daniel 7:13 The clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him = Zechariah 14:5 (Then the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with Him) = Zechariah 14:7 It will be a unique day—a day known only to the Lord—with no distinction between day and night. When evening comes, there will be light = Matthew 24 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, f but only the Father. 37As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

            Ancient of Days = Father
            Son of Man = Yeshua (rejected jew)

            Israel will need deliverance from Satan

            And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha

            Praise Yeshua the Chief Cornerstone

          • Bible 819 There are very few places in Scripture where Scripture openly interprets itself – Daniel 7:1-14 is one of those places. In Daniel 7:15,16 wee read how Daniel asked an angel to explain the vision to him and the explanation of the angel is given in 7:17-28.

            Bible 819, read the explanation of the angel and you will understand the vision. 1000 Verses – a project of Judaism Resources wrote: >

          • Bible819 says:


            Thats what Charles and I have explained to you through Scripture.

            Zech agrees with Daniel. The Lord will come to save Israel.

            Praise to the Eternal King Yeshua.

          • Bible 819 I guess the angel’s explanation doesn’t fit your agenda so he must also be blind. 1000 Verses – a project of Judaism Resources wrote: >

          • Bible819 says:

            But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

          • Dina says:

            So you have to believe in Jesus in order to understand Scripture. And that’s not circular reasoning!

          • Bible819 says:

            Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”

          • Bible 819 And if the prophet tells you to worship God alone? – Wash and be cleansed!

            1000 Verses – a project of Judaism Resources wrote: >

          • Bible819 says:


            I did!

            Here are the Steps:

            Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

            As Moses Said:

            Are you jealous on my account? I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would place His Spirit on them!”

            As in: They Didn’t have the Spirit.

  2. Eliyah says:

    True Christianity is found in the Orthodox Church not in the many sects. I want you to correctly quote Tehilim 147:19 : “He tells His words to Jacob, His statutes and His judgments to Israel.”
    not what you distorted: ‘God gave the Torah to the Jewish people and to them alone’ – (Psalm 147:19)
    He talks about Israel not Yehudah. There is 2 Houses: House Yehudah (Jewish people) & House Israel (Children of Israel not Jewish). In the End both Houses will be one like Ezekiel prophesied in 37:16-28 :”And you, son of man, take for yourself one stick and write upon it, ‘For Judah and for the children of Israel his companions’; and take one stick and write upon it, ‘For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and all the house of Israel, his companions.’ And bring them close, one to the other into one stick, and they shall be one in your hand”… “And I will make them into one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel, and one king shall be to them all as a king; and they shall no longer be two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms anymore.”…
    “And My servant David shall be king over them, and one shepherd shall be for them all, and they shall walk in My ordinances and observe My statutes and perform them.”

    The Messiah of Israel did not come for the tsadik but for the lost sheep of Israel dispersed away. You clearly did not understand the Purpose nor realize the necessity of the Orthodox Church who like in the Ark in the Flood is protecting all humanity including the House of Israel against the waters of Destruction. Working to the reunification of both Houses is a work of the Holy One. Dividing people and making get out of the Ark is a work of impiety which will cost you in the other world…


  3. Dina says:


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