Watching What We Say About Christmas: Coming to Terms

December 24, 2013

I'll take good blog material anywhere I can find it!  Just the other day I picked some up at a local church.

I visited a great place this past Sunday, a church where I have always received a warm welcome and where i have taught from time to time. I have some dear friends there whom I wanted to see, and I wanted to network with the new pastor, quite a capable man and just the right height--mine. And as a bonus, in the sermon and in the hymn/carol singing, these people were kind enough to inadvertently give me grist for my blog mill to share with you as we continue considering Daniel Boyarin's game-changer The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ.  As was the case with my previous blog, I want to look with you at some terminological confusion that clings to Christmas like tinsel to the tree.

During the singing of Charles Wesley's "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus," we sang, "Israel's strength and consolation, hope of all the earth Thou art; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart."  I wonder who many Christians think this "Israel" is in this verse?  Many think that Israel is another name for the church. But as Mr. Ed used to say, "Nay!  Nay!" I protest.  Israel is not just the name of a country, although it is that, it is fundamentally the name of a people descended from Jacob, grandson of Abraham, whom God gave the name "Israel." Ever since childhood, when my entire theology could have been written with a large crayon on an index card, I sensed that when Christians sang at Christmas, "born is the King of Israel," they weren't thinking of the same Israel we Jews talk about. And they weren't singing about the same Israel God talks about either!  My point?  When we say that Jesus is the King of Israel, we are saying that he is the King of the Jews! And yes, besides that, he is, as Wesley reminds us, the "hope of all the earth . . . and the dear desire of every nation," whether they know it or not.  But let's not forget to remember what God, Mary and Joseph, and those shepherds in the field all understood, as well as the heavenly host that addressed them: "Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people [singular, that is, the people of Israel]; Unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior who is Messiah, the Lord!" This is foundationally who the Christmas Jesus is: the newborn King of the Jews, the Son of David.

My new Pastor friend himself uttered another common Christmas glitch, which I am tempted to call, "another glitch that stole Christmas," but I am much too classy to even think that!  He spoke of Jesus' birth as the Immaculate Conception. Sorry Pastor, not exactly, but this is a common misconception about the Messiah's conception! The term Immaculate Conception is not and never was nor should it ever be considered a synonym for the virgin birth of the Messiah. It was actually a term coined by the Roman Catholic Church to postulate that in order for Jesus to be born sinless, Mary herself had to have been conceived immaculate,  free from original sin. That she was so conceived was declared a Roman Catholic dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

I don't want to be nit-picky here, but I do want to underscore a point. Here it is: It is common, even in matters of faith, to get careless with terminology, and to misuse even good terms in bad ways.

Which brings us to the term Son of Man, used especially in the Gospel of Mark. Believe it or not, when we refer to Yeshua as the Son of Man, we are NOT referring to his humanity, bur rather to his Deity.  I will wait while you go grab your Maalox before I continue with my explanation, which is really my read on Boyarin's reminders. If you have taken your Maalox, we can now continue.

We need to understand the background of the term, "Son of Man."  Boyarin directs us to a pivotal chapter in the Old Testament, Daniel Chapter 7, which is the foundation and reference point for all that the Gospel of Mark says, and that Jesus says there, about the Son of Man.

In Daniel chapter 7, we read of two divine figures; the Ancient of Days, like an Old Man,  and one who is younger, termed “one like a Son of Man.” Here is the context:

“I saw in the night visions,

and behold, with 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.

And to him was given dominion

and glory and a kingdom,

that all peoples, nations, and languages

should serve him;

his dominion is an everlasting dominion,

which shall not pass away,

and his kingdom one

that shall not be destroyed."

Boyarin highlights five characteristics of this Son of Man:

  1. He is divine;
  2. He is in human form;
  3. He may very well be portrayed as a younger appearing divinity than the Ancient of Days;
  4. He will be enthroned on high;
  5. He is given power and dominion, even sovereignty on earth.

Unknown-4Few of us will be happy all that Boyarin says and with all his reasoning in this book. For example, he spends quite a bit of time the first chapter of the book arguing that these two figures in Daniel chapter seven are vestiges of an ancient theology of two gods that goes far back in the Ancient Near East and is reflected in the roots of the religion of the Hebrews. This will be interesting to most, convincing to some, upsetting to many. Even so, whether we find that viewpoint unacceptable or not, all of us will find that there are some aspects of his argument and his insights that are startling for their brilliance and textually convincing.

For example, he convincingly shows us that throughout the Gospel of Mark, Yeshua and his listeners interpreted his behavior against the background of Messianic expectations rooted in Daniel, chapter seven. This especially holds true for the prophet's according to this divine figure power and dominion,  sovereignty on earth.

Look for at this familiar passage in Mark, chapter two:

1 And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. 3 And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4 And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. 5 And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

Speaking of Yeshua's claim to have authority on earth to forgive sins, Boyarin says this:

This claim is derived from Daniel 7:14, in which we read that the one like a son of man has been given "authority, glory, kingship"--indeed, "an authority that is eternal that will not pass away. . . . What Jesus is claiming for the Son of Man is exactly what has been granted to one like a son of man in Daniel. Jesus rests s claim on the ancient text quite directly. . . . The objection of the Scribes, calling Jesus act of forgiveness "blasphemy," is predicated on their assumption that Jesus is claiming divinity through his action, ; hence their emphasis that only the one God may forgive sins, top which Jesus answers in kind: the second divine figure of Daniel 7, the one like a son of man, is authorized to act as and for God.

Later in the first chapter of his book, Boyarin discusses how in Mark, Jesus claims authority to extend the Jewish exception of breaking the sabbath [here by picking grain] or of healing on the sabbath as being legitimate for helping other Jews, to his being the Son of Man who can extend this exception to healing anyone . Here is part of what Boyarin says:

The Son of Man, according to Daniel,m was indeed given jurisdiction over all of the nations, sand I would suggest gingerly that this explains the extension of the Sabbath [and thus Sabbath healing] to them. Here in Mark, we find a Jesus who is fulfilling the Torah, not abrogating it.

All of this is probably affecting some of us feel a bit like Winnie the Pooh, who is reported to have said, "“Something feels funny. I must be thinking too hard.” But the point to take away is this.  By claiming the title "Son of Man," Jesus was not claiming to be "just one of the guys." In this connection, Boyarin helps us again when he quotes from the great 20th century rabbi Leo Baeck, who wrote, "Whenever in later works 'that Son of Man,' 'this Son of Man,' or 'the Son of Man' is mentioned, it is a quotation from Daniel that is speaking."

Yeshua is claiming to be One coming on the clouds of heaven, the enthroned one, to whom "was given dominion, and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should worship him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed" (Daniel 7:14). And, since terms have meanings linked not merely to their origins, but also to how they are used, Boyarin is entirely right and helpful when he reminds us that in Christian usage,

[the term] Son of Man became the Son of God, and "Son of God" became the name for Jesus' divine nature--and all without any break with ancient Jewish tradition.

If you find this surprising, or astounding, it is time to go out and buy yourself a book as a Christmas present to yourself: Boyarin's The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ.  On second thought, pick up two books. Buy a Bible too. Maybe Boyarin has helped you see that you didn't know what you thought you knew.



*Remember this: Rabbi Dr. Daniel Boyarin, whose excellent book we are examining lately, is not a believer in Yeshua/Jesus as Messiah. Don't anyone reading these blogs imagine that we are stating or insinuating otherwise.  He is just a very fair and provocative world class Jewish scholar.



2 comments on “Watching What We Say About Christmas: Coming to Terms”

  1. Good corrective note about the "Immaculate Conception"....this is a common error not only in Protestant Christianity but in the historic Jewish community....and when one tires of "theology" one can visit Youtube and view the "Immaculate Reception", one of the most "miraculous" catches in all of football history.

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