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Robert Eisenman's  James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Viking Penguin, 1997

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


 James the Brother of Jesus


In his recent publications The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered (with Michael Wise) and The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians Robert Eisenman of the Institute for the Study of Judeo-Christian Origins and the Institute for Higher Critical Studies has been threatening/promising to redraw the map of Christian origins and now, by God, he has done it. The breadth and detail of Eisenman's investigation are breathtaking, as are its implications. In James the Brother of Jesus he tells the long-lost tale of formative "prehistoric" Christianity as it emerged from the crucible of revolutionary Palestine and from the internecine hostilities between Pauline and Ebionite Christianities. I call it "prehistoric" because Eisenman reconstructs the events lying before and beneath our canonical histories of early Christianity. His enterprise is in this sense akin to that of Burton Mack, that other great delver into the subterrene depths of religious pre-history. Like Mack, Eisenman discovers a "Christianity" (or perhaps a proto-Christianity, or even a pre-Christianity) for which Jesus had not yet attained centrality. Only whereas Mack sees the initial germ of the new religion as a variant of Cynicism, Eisenman rejuvenates, even vindicates, Renan's old claim that Christianity began as "an Essenism."

            To anticipate the thrust of the book as a whole, let it be said that Eisenman first draws a portrait of the early community of James as a nationalistic, messianic, priestly, and xenophobic sect of ultra-legal pietism, something most of us would deem fanaticism. Eisenman shows how "Jewish Christianity" was part and parcel of the sectarian milieu which included Essenes, Zealots, Nazoreans, Nazirites, Ebionites, Elchasites, Sabeans, Mandaeans, etc., and that these categories were no more than ideal types, by no means actually segregated one from the other like exotic beasts in adjacent, well-marked cages in the theological zoo. Over against this sort of "Lubavitcher Christianity," Eisenman depicts Pauline Christianity (plus its Hellenistic cousins Johannine, Markan, Lukan, etc., Christianities) as being root and branch a compromising, assimilating, Herodianizing apostasy from Judaism. Greek Christianity gives the Torah, and Jewish identity, the bum's rush. The Pauline Christ, a spiritual redeemer with an invisible kingdom, is of a piece with the christening of Vespasian as the messiah by Josephus.

            Of course, these ideas are by no means new. Eisenman is simply filling out the picture in an exhaustive manner undreamt of by S.G.F. Brandon, Robert Eisler, and his successors. The picture of Jesus in the Greek gospels, eating with tax-collectors, lampooning the traditions of his people, welcoming sinners and ridiculing Torah piety are all expressions of Gentile anti-Judaism. Only Gentiles utterly without sympathy to Judaism could profess to see such a Jesus as a noble pioneer of a "higher righteousness." In the same way, the New Testament notion that Jerusalem fell because her people had rejected the messiah, when in fact they were fighting a messianic war against the Roman antichrist, must be judged a piece of cynical Hellenistic Jew-bashing. Christianity as it emerges in the Gentile mission is a product of cultural accomodationism, pro-Roman Quislingism, and intentional assimilation. It is a kind of paganized, syncretic, diluted Judaism not unlike the Sabazius cult.

            Armed with a hermeneutic of suspicion, Eisenman shows us how to crack the codes of theological disinformation, to listen to the long-faded echoes, to find handholds up what had seemed an insurmountable climb to a peak from which to view the hitherto unseen landscape of early Christianity. What are his climbing tools?

            First, Eisenman considers a much wider range of historical sources than most think they need to. He plumbs, as we have come to expect, the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the Clementine Recognitions and Homilies, the Apostolic Constitutions, Eusebius, the two James Apocalypses from Nag Hammadi, even the Western Text of Acts and the Slavonic Josephus. And Eisenman takes Josephus much more seriously as a source for Luke's Acts than anyone ever has before. All these our author carefully sifts, taking nothing uncritically. Where he differs from most previous scholars is in taking these materials seriously at all as new sources of information, the odd clue here or there, about James and Paul.

            Second, Eisenman has developed a keen sense for the "name game" played in the sources. Most of us have sometime scratched our heads over the tantalizing confusions latent in the strange redundancy of similar names in the New Testament accounts. How can Mary have had a sister named Mary? Is there a difference between Joseph Barsabbas Justus, Judas Barsabbas Justus, and James the Just? Whence all the Jameses and Judases? Who are Simon the Zealot and Judas the Zealot (who appears in some NT manuscripts and other early Christian documents)? Is Clopas the same as Cleophas? What's going on with Jesus ben-Ananias, Jesus Barabbas, Elymas bar-Jesus, and Jesus Justus? What does Boanerges really mean? Is Nathaniel a nickname for someone else we know of? And so on, and so on. Most of us puzzle over these oddities for a moment--and then move on. After all, how important can they be, anyway? Eisenman does not move on till he has figured it out.

            His working hypothesis is that the confusions, alterations, and obfuscations stem from an interest in covering over the importance, and therefore the identity, of the Desposyni, the Heirs of Jesus who had apparently functioned at least for Palestinian Christianity as a dynastic Caliphate similar to the Alid succession of Shi'ite Islam or the succession of Hasmonean brothers. It is a commonplace that the gospel texts treating Jesus' mother, brothers and sisters either severely (Mark and John) or delicately (Luke, c.f., the Gospel according to the Hebrews) are functions of ecclesiastical polemics over their leadership claims as opposed to Peter and the Twelve (analogous to the Companions of the Prophet in Sunni Islam) or to outsiders like Paul. It is equally well known that the Synoptic apostle lists differ between themselves and between manuscripts of each gospel. Why? Eisenman connects these phenomena with another, the confusion arising among early theologians over the siblings of Jesus as the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity became widespread. They had to be harmonized with the dogma, so brothers and sisters became cousins, step-siblings, etc. And characters became sundered. Mary suddenly had a sister named Mary because the mother of James, Joses, Simon, and Judas could no longer also be the mother of Jesus. And so on.

            The gospels give prominence to an inner circle of three: Peter, John son of Zebedee and John's brother James. And Galatians has the Three Pillars in Jerusalem: Peter, John son of Zebedee, and Jesus' brother James. What happened here? Surely the inner group of three is intended as preparatory for the Pillars, to provide a life-of-Jesus pedigree for the Pillars. But then why are there two different Jameses? Mustn't they originally have been the same? Eisenman says they were, but certain factions who wanted to play up the authority of the shadowy college of the Twelve against the earlier authority of the Heirs found it politic to drive a wedge between James the brother of Jesus and the Twelve, so James becomes James the Just on the one hand and James the brother of John on the other.

            Another attempt to distance James the Just from the Companions of Jesus would have been the cloning of James the Just as James the son of "Alphaeus," which name Papias says is interchangeable with "Cleophas," who happens to be the father of Simeon, James' successor as bishop of Jerusalem and his brother as well. And eventually James the son of Alphaeus and James son of Zebedee both replace James the Just in the circle of disciples. Meanwhile, Thomas has similarly undergone mitosis into Judas of James, Thaddaeus, Lebbaeus, and Judas Iscariot. Simon the Zealot is Simon bar Cleophas, another brother of Jesus, the successor of James as the leader of the Jerusalem Christians after James' martyrdom. He has been confused with the suimilar-sounding Simeon Cephas (Simon Peter) as well. Eisenman has worked out a complex and coherent grammar of these processes.

            Third, Eisenman brings to bear on the narratives of Acts the model of a "mix and match" redactional technique whereby Luke is seen to have composed his stories by recombining the salient features of very different stories from his sources. When Luke finishes, only bits of either the paradigmatic or syntagmic composition of the originals are left, but there is enough to recognize the one as the mutation of the other. This is the procedure used recently to great effect by a number of scholars, not least John Dominic Crossan (who shows the Passion Narrative to be built up from various Old Testament proof texts), Randel Helms (who in Gospel Fictions shows case after case of a gospel story's derivation from a similar Septuagint story), and Thomas L. Brodie (who unscrambles numerous Lukan tales into their original Deuteronomic components). Eisenman's originality at this point lies not in the technique but rather in his willingness to take seriously Luke's use of Josephus as a source. (Again, this is something no one who wants an early date for Luke or a historical basis for Acts is likely to consider seriously, but then we have a case of apologetics masquerading as criticism.) And Eisenman's redactional analyses of Luke on Josephus is unly one of the major advances of James the Brother of Jesus. It seems not too much to say that the book ushers in a new era in the study of Acts.  

            This is not to say, however, that Eisenman limits his use of the technique to Luke's use of Josephus. Far from it: he is able to distil traditions from various sources and to identify them in their new guises in Luke-Acts and elsewhere in the New Testament. I propose now to provide summaries of a few of Eisenman's reconstructions, showing in broad outline what he sees Luke (or others) having made of originally quite different traditions.

            Various early Christian sources have James being elected by the apostles as bishop of Jerusalem at the behest of Jesus (as in the Gospel of Thomas, logion 12). Luke's Hellenizing agenda has led him to retell this story not as the replacement of Jesus by James the Just, but rather the replacement of the villain Judas Iscariot by the non-entity "Matthias." James the Just has shrunk so small as to hide behind the runner-up for the position, "Joseph Barsabbas called Justus." The name Matthias was suggested, via simple word association, by Mattathias the father of another Judas, Judas Maccabeus. Thus when later we meet James the Just as the head of the Jerusalem Church we are expected to know who he is, though Luke has eliminated what would have been our introduction to him! A tell-tale sign of the story's originally having dealt with James' election is the proof-text, "his bishopric let another man take."

            As Hans-Joachim Schoeps had already surmised, the stoning of Stephen has in precisely the same way supplanted the stoning of James (actually a conflation of James' ultimate stoning at the command of Annanus and an earlier assault by Saul on the temple steps preserved as a separate incident in the Recognitions). The name Stephen has been borrowed from a Roman official beaten by Jewish insurgents whom Josephus depicts ambushing him outside the city walls. Why this name? Because of a pun: Stephen means "crown" and was suggested both by the long hair of the Nazirite (which James was, according to early church writers) and by the crown of martyrdom. To Stephen has been transferred James' declaration of the Son of Man at the right hand of God in heaven, as well as James' "Christlike" prayer for his persecutors. We read that a young man named Saul was playing coat check for the executioners of Stephen and, his taste for blood whetted, immediately began to foment persecution in Jerusalem and Damascus. This has been drawn, again from the lore of James as well as Josephus. The clothing motif was suggested by the final blow to James' head with a fuller's club, while just after his own account of James' death, Josephus tells of the rioting started by a Herodian named Saulus in Jerusalem!

            Eisenman sees various Jamesian themes floating around to link up in entirely different forms elsewhere in Christian scripture. For instance, the Transfiguration has Jesus glimpsed in heavenly glory as Stephen saw him and James proclaimed him. And of course "James" is there on the scene. The "fuller" element is repeated in the form of Jesus' shining clothes, whiter than any fuller on earth could have bleached them. Again, in the Recognitions, Saul is pursuing James and the Jerusalem saints out to Jericho (the vicinity of the Qumran "Damascus"), and somehow they are protected by the spectacle of two martyrs' tombs which miraculously whiten every year. There is the whitening element linked with Saul's persecution. Again, at the empty tomb (recalling those martyrs' tombs), we meet a "young man" (the epithet applied to Saul in Acts' stoning of Stephen) who is dressed in white and sitting at the right, this time, of Jesus' resting place.

            Peter's visit to Cornelius almost qualifies as a parody of Josephus' story of one Simon, a pious leader of his own "assembly" in Jerusalem who wanted to bar Herod Agrippa I from the temple on account of his Gentile pollutions, whereupon Agrippa invited him to inspect his home at Caesarea and then sent him away with gifts. Luke borrowed the name Cornelius from elsewhere in Josephus where Cornelius is a name of two Roman soldiers, one involved in the siege of the Temple under Pompey, the other in the siege of Jerusalem under Titus. The Roman cohort at Caesarea, where Luke stations his pious Cornelius, were among the most violence-prone in Palestine. The element of conflict between Herod Agrippa I and Simon Peter, of course, has been transferred over to Acts 12, where Herod arrests Peter but Peter escapes, the same basic outcome, but with heightened drama.

            What about the always fascinating character Simon magus? Eisenman indentifies him with a magician named Simon of whom Josephus recounts that he helped Bernice convince her sister Drusilla to dump her husband King Azizus of Emesa, who had gotten circumcized to marry her, so she could take up wth the uncircumcized Felix instead. Josephus’ magician Simon is a Cypriot, while Acts’ Simon Magus is said by later writers to hale from Gitta in Samaria, but this actually strengthens the connection, since it was natural to confuse “Gitta” with the “Kittim,” or Sea Peoples of Cyprus. Not only so, but Eisenman notes that some manuscripts of Josephus name the magician “Atomus,” which Eisenman connects with the Primal Adam doctrine he sees implied in Simon’s claim to have been the Standing One reincarnated many times. But there is a closer link still, that Eisenman chanced not to note. Anyone can see that Luke has created the episode of Saul/Paul squaring off against Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13:8 ff) as a Pauline counterpart to Peter’s contest with Simon Magus in Acts 8:9ff (in fact, Elymas’ patronymic “bar-Jesus” as likely as not reflects the claim Simon made to have recently appeared in Judea as Jesus). So Elymas is simply Simon Magus. And, what do you know?, the Western Text of Acts gives the name as Etoimas or Etomas instead of Elymas! Thus, Simon Magus = Elymas = Etomas = Atomus = Josephus’ Simon = Simon Magus.

            Where did Luke find his raw material for the prophecy of Agabus of a great famine to transpire in Claudius' reign, of Paul's trip from Antioch to deliver famine relief funds to Jerusalem, and for the earlier tale of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch? Again, from Josephus (though perhaps also from other cognate sources of information). It all stems, by hook and by crook, from the story of Helen, Queen of Adiabene, a realm contiguous and/or overlapping with Edessa, whose king Agbar/Abgarus some sources make Helen's husband. Helen and her son Izates converted to Judaism, though initially Izates refrained from circumcision on the counsel of a Jewish teacher who assured him the worship of God was more important than circumcision. His mother, too, advised against it, since his subjects might resent his embracing of such alien customs. But soon a stricter Jewish teacher from Jerusalem, one Eliezer, visited Izates, finding him poring over the Genesis passage on the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision. Eliezer asked if Izates understood the implications of what he was reading. If he did, then why did he not see the importance of being circumcised? And this the prince then agreed to do. Helen and Izates proved the sincerity of their conversion by, among other philanthropies, sending agents to Egypt and Cyrene to buy grain during the Claudius famine and to distribute it to the poor in Jerusalem.

            These events have left their mark in the New Testament as follows. Eisenman notes (as of course all commentators do) that there is no room for the famine relief visit in Galatians' itinerary of Paul's visits to Jerusalem, but he ventures to place the event during Paul's sojourn in "Arabia," which in the parlance of the time could include Edessa/Adiabene. Acts knows two Antiochs, those in Pisidia and Syria, but there were others, including Edessa! Eisenman identifies Paul as the first Jewish teacher who tells Izates he need not be circumcised if he has faith in God. (This episode also lies at the basis of the Antioch episode recounted in Galatians, when certain men from James arrived in Antioch to tell Paul's converts they must be circumcised after all.) Paul is one of Helen's agents to bring famine relief to Jerusalem, which he is said to do "from Antioch," in Acts 11.

            But we pick up the Helen story again back in chapter 8, with Philip substituted for Paul, where Philip accosts the financial officer of a foreign queen going from Jerusalem down through Egypt by way of Gaza. This is of course the Ethiopian eunuch. Why has Luke transformed Helen the Queen of Adiabene into Candace the Queen of Ethiopia? He has reverted to an Old Testament prototype, making Helen, a convert to Judaism, into a New Testament Queen of Sheba, having come to Jerusalem to hear the wisdom of Solomon. There is also a pun on the root saba, denoting baptism, a la the Essenes, Sampsaeans, Sabeans, Masbutheans, and Mandaeans, the type of Judaism Helen would have converted to (given the later Zealot involvements of her sons and her own reputed 21 years of Nazirite asceticism). Henry Cadbury pointed out long ago that Luke has fallen into the same trap as a number of literary contemporaries by taking as a personal name, Candace, the title of all the old Ethiopian queens, kandake, but Eisenman sees also a pun on the name of Helen's son Kenedaeos, who gave his life for his adopted people in the Roman War. In any case, there were no Ethiopian queens at this time.

            When the prophet Agabus predicts the famine, Luke has derived his name from that of Helen's husband Agbarus. When the eunuch invites Philip to step up into his chariot, we have an echo of Jehu welcoming Jonadab into his chariot. When Philip asks the Ethiopian if he understands what he reads, Luke has borrowed this from the story of Izates and Eliezer, where the question also presages a ritual conversion, only this time the text is Isaiah's prophecy of Jesus, and the ritual is baptism. The original circumcision survives in the form of crude parody (recalling Galatians 5:12) with the Ethiopian having been fully castrated. Even the location of the Acts episode is dictated by the Helen story, as the Ethiopian travels into Egypt via Gaza as Helen's agents must have in order to buy the grain. Luke's substituted motivation for the trip, by contrast, is absurd: a eunuch could not have gone to Jerusalem to worship since eunuchs were barred from the Temple!

            The suicide of Judas Iscariot (originally "the Sicarius") represents a mixing of elements that make more sense in their presumably earlier setting in the life of James and Jude. The suicide element (as well as the drawing of lots in the adjacent context in Acts 1) comes from the drawing of lots to begin the suicides of the Sicarii at Masada. The falling headlong comes from James' being pushed from the pinnacle of the temple, while the gushing out of his bowels reflects the dashing out of James' brains by the evil launderer. Like James, Acts' Judas is buried where he fell.

            Eisenman sees James as integrally involved in some of the episodes Josephus recounts from the same period, such as the building of a wall to cut off Herod Agrippa's dining room view overlooking the sacrificial altar of the Temple, which happened just before James' martyrdom, and the prophecy of Jesus ben-Ananias of Jerusalem's eventual doom that happened just afterward. James had been the bulwark holding off the judgment of God, and with him out of the way, the city's doom was sealed. (Origen had read a version of Josephus in which he said the people ascribed the fall of the city to punishment for the death of James the Just.) James had been executed for blasphemy on account of his functioning (as early church writers tell us) as an opposition High Priest entering the Inner Sanctum on the Day of Atonement. As an Essene (as shown by his ascetic practices, his linen dress, etc.) he would have celebrated Yom Kippur on a different day, which is how he could not collide with Annanus doing the same thing, and why he would have been executed for ritual irregularity as the Mishnah required for such an infraction.

            Eisenman shows himself willing to take seriously the Ebionite charge that Paul was never a real Jew to begin with. Eisenman adduces the evidence of Paul's Herodian background, something we really do not have to read too far between the lines to see, given his Roman citizenship, his kinship to one Herodion and to the household of Aristobulus. If this is what the Ebionites meant, that Paul was as little a Jew as Herod the Great despite his pretense, then we have a scenario more natural than that which the Ebionite charge might otherwise imply: the idea of Paul as some sort of Greek pagan entering Judaism superficially and from without. As Eisenman notes, Paul protests that he is a Hebrew, an Israelite, even a Benjaminite, but he avoids calling himself a Jew! And Eisenman suggests that, given the strange fact that "Bela" appears both as a chief clan of Benjamin and as the first Edomite king, "Benjaminite" may have been a kind of Herodian euphemism for their oblique relation to Judaism.

            Eisenman cites the Talmud’s notice that the Rechabites (=Nazirites) used to marry the daughters of the High Priests. Though he does not make the particular connection I am about to make, this Talmudic note suggests to me a new and more natural way of understanding the Ebionite slur that Paul had converted to Judaism only because he was smitten by the High Priest’s daughter and wanted to curry favor with her father to win her hand. Now think of Acts’ account of Paul’s unsuccessful ruse, feigning Nazirite allegiance by paying for the purification of four of James’ zealots (Acts 21:23-26), which backfired on him and led to rioting by (as F.C. Baur recognized) James’ “zealots for the Torah” (not some vacationing Jews from Asia Minor, as Luke would have it) over Paul’s attempt to profane the Temple (vv 27-30). As this use of money to underwrite the four men’s purification rite seems to be a variant version of the presentation, and rejection, of the Collection (Romans 15:31), we may suspect that this final rebuff of Paul as a would-be Nazirite, this decisive rejection of Paul’s attempt to curry favor with the party of James, has been figuratively rendered in later Jamesian (i.e., Ebionite) propaganda as Paul’s frustrated attempt to do what Nazirites did, to “marry the daughter of the High Priest”! Why choose this particular metaphor for Paul as a false prophet? Because of the resonances of “the suitor” as a seducer (of Israel), a deceiver and false prophet (cf., 2 Cor 11:1-5, where Paul turns precisely the same charge back on the Jerusalem “super-apostles.”).

            Whether one finds Eisenman’s portrait of James the Just convincing as a whole or not, one must be grateful for the flood of new light he sheds on many matters including the sources of Acts and their method of redaction.  



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