I was not long into the project of writing a novel about James, the brother of Jesus, a few years back, when someone asked me if I’d read Robert Eisenman’s massive scholarly work on the subject, James, the Brother of Jesus (which is the same title the publishing house ended up giving my novel, though it was not my working title). I hadn’t read it at the time and didn’t read it while I was researching the book, because I was specifically interested in writing about James from within the framework of the little that the New Testament said about him, and not drawing in extra-Biblical source material.
However, I have always felt a little guilty about not having read this book, and fascinated as I am by James, I decided that this would be my “big book” for Lent this year, as during my six-week fiction fast I usually try to tackle at least one book that’s long, heavy and a bit more “scholarly” than my usual reading.
Often such books present views and perspectives that are well outside the conservative-Adventist-Christian framework of Biblical interpretation that I’m familiar with. Although I frequently disagree with some of their conclusions, I always enjoy tackling big, meaty works of Biblical scholarship that challenge my ideas. I inevitably learn something and broaden my thinking even if I don’t come away agreeing with the author. Notable books of this type that I’ve read in the past include John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus and Finkelstein and Silberman’sThe Bible Unearthed.
I include this background information both to show what kind of reading experience I was expecting/hoping to have with Eisenman, and also to defend myself against the charge that “You just didn’t like it because it doesn’t fit with your orthodox beliefs.” Yes, my beliefs are pretty small-o orthodox, but I’m more than willing to read, think about and engage with non-orthodox ideas and scholarship. So my dislike of Eisenman’s James was not based on it being “too heretical” for me; it was based on it being a terrible piece of writing, full of argumentative holes through which one could drive a camel train, were one so inclined.
Disclaimer one: I’m not a scholar, just a moderately well-read layperson. These are my unprofessional, lay-reader responses.
Disclaimer two: This gets long.
First, let’s look at some of the claims Eisenman makes which are totally unremarkable and well-known even to someone like me, who has lived my whole life in a fairly conservative mileu of Biblical interpretation.
- Jesus had brothers.
- One of those brothers was James.
- James was the leader of the early church, more important in this leadership role than either Paul or Peter.
- James was known as “the Just” and highly revered in some early Christian circles, though his role has been downplayed by others.
- James’ direct family relationship to Jesus was downplayed (and he was sometimes demoted to being a cousin or stepbrother rather than a full brother) because of the Roman Catholic insistence on Mary’s perpetual virginity.
- During Paul’s ministry, he often found himself at odds with James’s leadership because of James’s insistence that Gentile converts to Christianity follow Jewish practice as well and that traditional separation (especially at the table) between Jews and Gentiles should continue within the new Christian communities.
- Early observers in the Roman world saw Christianity only as a sect of Judaism and did not clearly differentiate between Christians and Jews.
- Christianity, having become largely a Gentile religion, followed Paul’s theology rather than James’s; small groups of “Jewish Christians” who survived (and who revered the memory of James) were later viewed as heretical.
There’s nothing remotely controversial in any of this material, though Eisenman sometimes writes as though there is and he is revealing previously unimagined truths. However, don’t worry, he has plenty of revealing to do.
The most striking of Eisenman’s innovations can be summed as follows (at least, this is what I, a non-scholarly reader, got out of arguments I did my best to follow): There is almost no real historical material in the Gospels, except for the few fleeting references to Jesus’ family which come through despite the Gospel writers’ best efforts to obscure them. Rather than a travelling teacher with 12 disciples, Eisenman pictures “Jesus” as part of a Jewish revolutionary family (possibly Essense, or Sicarii, or Zealots — depending on who’s using these terms and how they’re defined), of whom the other three brothers – James, Judas and Simon – are far better attested to in extra-Biblical sources than Jesus himself, who may not even have existed. The family of Jesus was part of the same group represented in the Qumram scrolls – Jews devoted to purity, separateness, and resistance (including violent resistance) to the Roman overlords. James is the “Righteous Teacher” in the Qumram scrolls; the “Enemy” alluded to in those same texts is the same character known in the New Testament as Paul.
In Eisenman’s recreated version of early Christianity, Paul (whom he views as being the same person as “Saulus” in Josephus) is a member of the Herodian family who opposes James’s movement and promotes accommodation with the Romans (much like Josephus, upon whom Eisenman relies heavily as a source despite recognizing his biases and shortcomings). Paul reimagines James’ brother Jesus (dead by this time, one way or another) as a supernatural god-man he calls “Jesus Christ” and creates a spiritual, Hellenized mystery-religion which poses no threat to Rome and directly opposes everything James teaches. Due to the ultimate defeat of the Jewish nation under Rome, Paul’s “Christianity” is the one that has survived (Rabbinic Judaism, which also survived, is viewed by Eisenman as another religion in the same accommodating vein as Christianity, rather than a heir of the truly revolutionary Jewish nationalism). Companions and followers of Paul write or rewrite the book of Acts and the four Gospels specifically to obscure and obfuscate the real Jesus and cast Paul as the hero of early Christianity. Almost every incident in the Gospels and Acts is not only false but a deliberate and sloppy rewriting of a real incident which can be uncovered through painstaking study of the Qumram scrolls, Josephus, non-canonical gospels, and later historians (relying on allegedly earlier sources).
In other words, as the Weird Al song goes, “Everything you know is wrong.”
Why do I find these arguments so unconvincing? Eisenman and those who admire his exegesis would no doubt say it’s because I’ve been so thoroughly brainwashed by traditional Christian readings of the canonical texts, and maybe I have, but I try, as I said, to keep an open mind. It’s the arguments themselves, and the way Eisenman constructs them, which I find suspect. I’m certainly no expert on the ancient texts he’s discussing (and it’s worth noting that most people who are experts on this period consider Eisenman to be way out in left field, particularly on his dating of the Qumram documents, which he considers to be much later than most scholars date them). I’ll try to summarize my main quibbles with him in a few brief points:
1. The issue of names is absolutely key to every argument Eisenman makes, and at the root of every one of those arguments you will find the same basic premise: if two individuals have the same name, they are probably the same person.
Even if you were talking about today’s world, this would be patently ridiculous. In the ancient world, where people generally had far fewer first names to go around (the upper-class Romans had something like five first names for men, I believe, not including the ones that were just numbers like Tertius or Quintus), it’s madness. The “James” mentioned repeatedly in the gospels as the brother of John, son of Zebedee, cannot exist, Eisenman argues – he’s obviously an “overwrite” for the real James, Jesus’ brother, who pops onto the scene in Acts 12. Multiple Johns, or Simons, or Judases, or Stephens, are consistently written off as “nonsense,” as is any character who’s only mentioned once in the New Testament – it must really be someone else under a different name! The Saul/Paul of Acts must be the “Saulus” that Josephus writes about even though there are almost no similarities between the two characters. The Epaphroditus by whom Paul sends the letter to the Philippians must obviously be the same Epaphroditus who mentioned in extra-Biblical sources as Nero’s secretary – because there could only be one Epaphroditus. This identification neatly cements Eisenman’s picture of Paul as a man with high-level Roman connections – even though it’s very clear from the context of his passing mention in Philippians that Epaphroditus comes from Philippi and is returning there to his home church with Paul’s letter. Eisenman is highly contemptuous of a verse in the gospels that seems to suggest that Jesus’ mother Mary had a sister also named Mary: on this supposed “nonsense” he hinges most of his theories about the family of Jesus although, even in more recent times (think Tudor era with all those Marys, Annes and Elizabeths!) it would not be difficult for a woman to have a half-sister, step-sister or foster-sister with the same first name. Even Biblical characters with similar names, in Eisenman’s view, are very often probably the same person.
It’s almost as if, once Eisenman’s reduced the cast of characters by eliminating all those with the same or similar names, he imagines the entire Roman world with only about thirty or forty people running around in it … or, if there were more people, the rest of them were named Fred, Bruce, Lester or Tiffany.
Encountering this exegetical method so early in the book put me on the defensive, I’ll admit, because the connections Eisenman makes between people with the same or similar names are so tenuous as to be, in many cases, simply incredible. I can’t overemphasize how heavily he relies on this one tool: if you took away the connections he makes between people on no other basis than similarities of name, his entire argument would collapse like the house of cards it is.
2. The “overwriting” charge is leveled against almost every canonical text Eisenman discusses. Beneath almost every story in the Gospels and Acts (most of which he dismisses as simple-minded nonsense or malevolent parodies) lie real events, which can only be deduced by extremely tenuous parallels in other texts (texts which most scholars consider to be much later or, in the case of the Qumram scrolls, much earlier). What is so difficult to swallow about this charge is not the idea that someone could wholly fabricate major religious texts to prove their point (though the idea that such texts could be expected to be convincing to readers who lived within the lifespans of the people involved in the original texts is a bit of a stretch). The real problem is that they could have done it as badly as Eisenman pictures them doing. Virtually every real event that he considers important in this time period was “overwritten” to serve a pro-Pauline Christian agenda – by writers who he pictures as being incredibly knowledgeable, crafty and skillful – yet these writers let embarrassing gaps show through, gaps which allow Eisenman to unlock their method.
For example, if part of your agenda is to obscure the role of Jesus’ brothers in the early church, you might conceivably play around with names and identities so that three brothers are expanded into twelve fake disciples. You might even add in scenes where Jesus rejects his brothers and says that his disciples are his true family. But if your goal is to erase the family of Jesus from history – why leave them in there at all? Why not simply excise the handful of verses that mention Jesus’ brothers by name, rather than doing all that clumsy rewriting? Why not delete later references to James as “the Lord’s brother”? And if you’re trying to establish your orthodox theology, why not do a better job of it? All this rewriting and overwriting apparently took place in an early Church that already revered Peter as first Bishop of Rome, so why is Peter’s role so downplayed in Acts? Why is he never even shown as being in Rome? Eisenman points out these gaps but does not explore how they fit with his whole “overwriting” scenario. The writers and/or editors of Acts, as Eisenman pictures them, were certainly the least effective writers in the ancient world.
Also, there were numerous examples where Eisenman seemed to misread or misunderstand the canonical New Testament text as it stands. I don’t mean just that he interprets it differently: he doesn’t seem capable of reading it as it appears on the page in front of him.
3. There’s also a subtle elitism and snobbery in Eisenman’s reconstruction of the early Christian scenario which bothered me. He makes much of the fact that Paul must have had important contact in Imperial Rome because he sends greetings to and from those of Caesar’s household. But we know from other sources that early Christianity appealed largely to slaves and people of the lower classes (something Eisenman never mentions); the possibility that the Christians to and from Paul was sending greetings were slaves in Caesar’s household never seems to occur to him. Likewise, the depiction of Jesus’ disciples as fishermen, or Jesus himself as a carpenter, or a character in an extra-Biblical source as a “simple stone-cutter,” must always be a political or polemical code: it’s impossible that such key figures could be simple lower class working people. Although he makes much of the use of the term “the Poor” as used at Qumram and in Ebionite Christianity as a code-word for the in-group, he never considers the possibility that any of the references to “the poor” in, for example, James’s epistle (which shouldn’t even have made it into the canon if Eisenman’s view of a completely Paul-dominated Christianity triumphant is correct) could refer to, you know, actual poor people. And the Gospel stories about Jesus eating with tax-collectors and prostitutes are, in Eisenman’s view, Pauline propaganda to show that Christians approve of the Herodian rulers (exactly the opposite of what Eisenmann says the real Jesus and James would have done) – not, in any sense, a suggestion that the founder of Christianity might have hung out with actual marginalized, lower-class people.
4. The technique of privileging non-canonical over canonical texts is so widespread in Biblical scholarship as to be almost unremarkable (the Jesus Seminar scholars’ preference for the Gospel of Thomas is a classic example), but Eisenman does take it to new heights, especially when he so often privileges later texts, arguing that they must be based on earlier sources – not because of any textual evidence, but because they agree with his hypothesis. A typical example is when he compares scenes in Acts to scenes that he considers parallel in the Pseudoclementines. Eisenman argues that although the Pseudoclementines are generally considered later than Acts, both are based on an earlier source and that the Pseudoclementines are more faithful to that source – even though we have no idea what that source was or what it said. The Pseudoclementines are “more faithful” to an earlier source because they better fit the picture Eisenman is painting.
Because of his slavish devotion to this picture, it’s impossible for him to admit to an early date for any of the canonical New Testament texts except for Paul’s letters. He questions over and over why Acts includes no account of either James’s or Paul’s deaths (implying that they are left out because the real story would be too embarrassing to early Christianity – though why this would be a problem for a writer/editor who “overwrites” any events he doesn’t like is not explained. Why not just write better death scenes for Paul and James?). He never considers the obvious answer: that Acts was written while both Paul and James were still alive – which it seems, in the interests of intellectual honesty, should at least be considered as a hypothesis.
5. “I’ve said it four times so it must be true.” Eisenman uses this technique over and over: posits a connection between two people or events based on the most tenuous evidence (or no evidence at all), then repeats it over and over until finally he’s stating it as fact, despite having added no additional evidence. This reviewer does a good job of giving examples, so I’ll save space and just say that I, too, was irritated by this technique.
I could go on and on, but this review is already much too long for a regular book review. However, I’ve dedicated a lot of time to reading this book, and told a few people that I would read it and respond to it, and I know from experience that with this type of book I’m not going to remember the problems I had with it as sharply after a little time has passed.
There were a few good things about this book. Eisenman does give a very good overview of every reference to James in extra-Biblical literature (though it is necessary to filter out references that Eisenman believes are to James, such as the Righteous Teacher in the Qumram texts, where James is never actually named). He also suggests some intriguing links between Ebionite Christianity, Judaism in the region after the fall of Jerusalem, and the emergence of Islam. This is something I’ve always been curious about and would like to know more about.
Another thing Eisenman does well is remind the reader that the worlds of Second Temple Judaism, Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, and early Christianity, were very complex worlds with many different sects and many competing texts telling the same stories in different ways. Traditional, orthodox Christianity has privileged the texts that it considers canonical – following either the authority vested in the Church (if you take the Roman Catholic view) or the guidance of the Holy Spirit (if you take the Protestant view). Secular Biblical scholarship normally privileges the texts it believes are older or more authentic. Writers with an axe to grind privilege the texts that support their hypothesis, regardless of canonical status or textual evidence. I’m afraid I have to put Robert Eisenman firmly in the latter category.
As I found his arguments so specious, reading became tedious as the pages wore on, and finishing this massive tome took up a disproportionate amount of my reading time this month. I’m more than ready to get on with some very, very light reading in April. And I really wish that when I was taken with the urge to read a book about James, the brother of Jesus, I’d picked up John Painter’s Just James instead, as it’s better regarded by scholars and, crucially, only 320 pages long. All the same there is a feeling of accomplishment that comes with having finished this book — though I can’t say I feel any great need to pick up Volume II.