Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Romans 13:1 NASB
Governing authorities – Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has written a lot of books. Two in particular are blockbusters: Kosher Sex and Kosher Jesus. I can’t say much about the first since I haven’t read it, but the second, Kosher Jesus, is a great piece of fiction. Of course, it was meant to be a serious study, even a scholarly one. But it contains so many mistakes in exegesis, such a lack of understanding of the New Testament text and ethos, and such a tangible polemic against Paul that it is hard to think of it in any other terms than a work of imagination. Boteach goes to great lengths to “demonstrate” that the authors of the New Testament documents edited and altered the true story of Jesus, a Jewish political rebel. He sets himself up as the correct interpreter of the documents, telling the reader again and again what pieces of the gospels are true and what pieces have been “heavily edited.” Of course, how he determines the difference remains unexplained, except for the fact that the “edited” portions are the ones that don’t portray Jesus as the political rebel Boteach wants him to be.
But the most egregious reconstruction of the New Testament comes in his treatment of Paul. Boteach is willing to accept Jesus as a misguided political zealot but still a hero of first century Judaism. But Paul? No, he was a traitor to Judaism, a convert to a new religion and ultimately responsible for accommodating Jesus’ teaching to Gentile ears. Paul, according to Boteach, made Jesus palatable to Rome!
One of the arguments Boteach uses is Paul’s remark about submitting to authorities. It doesn’t surprise me that Boteach uses this passage. He is historically correct when he recognizes that the Christian Church has used Paul’s words to endorse submission to the most vile and corrupt leaders (including, as he notes, men like Hitler). Boteach draws the conclusion that such advice cannot possibly be in line with the ethics of Jesus and must, therefore, have been constructed by Paul in order to make Paul’s new religion acceptable to the brutal powers of the Roman Empire. Boteach would be correct – if his exegesis weren’t so flawed. His history is right. The Church did and does use this verse to assert control over its followers. But Boteach didn’t read Nanos (and probably doesn’t even know about him). Mark Nanos clearly shows that the letter to the Romans is not about pagan politics or governments. Paul’s remarks must be read in the context of his audience, and that audience is the Gentile-Jewish members within the synagogue. Nanos demonstrates that Paul is calling for submission to synagogue leaders. These are the only ones put into position by God and they are the only ones who “will have praise” for righteous behavior. Boteach understands correctly what the Church has taught. He just doesn’t understand Paul (and neither does the Church).
Why should we care about a book that contains such blatant inaccuracies and deliberate misunderstandings? We should care because a lot of people read Boteach as if he were the gospel. This only leads to further schism. Was Jesus Jewish? Of course! Was he a political zealot who mistakenly thought of himself as the Messiah? Boteach says so, but his basis for saying this is the most tenuous re-reading of the text. Was Paul to blame for Christian pogroms against Jews? Boteach says “Yes.” But Bo doesn’t know Paul. (I wonder if he even read Paul’s work). He certainly knows what the Church says about Paul, but he stops well short of real scholarship. Unfortunately, his efforts only contribute to greater antagonism between Christians and Jews. And his claim that all faiths lead ultimately to God makes me wonder if he actually represents Judaism accurately. He does sell a lot of books.
Nevertheless, Boteach’s big mistake grants us a learning opportunity. We must correct the exegetical nonsense about submitting to political authorities! We must read Romans in context! We must stop the terrible proclamation that God endorses whomever happens to be in power in the government. God desires righteousness and when the government does not display righteousness, it is wrong, sinful and destructive! God is not on the side of the king, the prime minister or the president (although they would like us to think so). Boteach shows us just how ridiculous and immoral it is to offer a blanket endorsement of political entities. It’s time to bring Paul’s context back into play. It’s time to say “No,” to unrighteousness no matter where it is found.
We do not submit to evil authorities and Paul never suggests that we should.
Topical Index: governing authorities, submit, Boteach, Kosher Jesus, Romans 13:1