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Luigi Cascioli, The Fable of Christ: Book of Accusation. www.luigicascioli.com. 2006?

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

This lively and interesting volume briefly claimed public notice through recent news reports of a lawsuit Luigi Cascioli brought against the Roman Catholic Church (actually, a local priest, as synecdoche for the whole Church), accusing them of perpetrating fraud. Cascioli took Catholicism to task for imposture in their use of a mythical figure, one Jesus Christ, to support their claims, bamboozling the faithful with a theological boogeyman who had never really existed. The case did not seem to Italian courts to possess much merit, but a European Union Humanities court announced they would consider whether or not to take the case. I do not know where things stand at the time of this writing. I can only say that the case appears to me to be frivolous, in that, even if one could prove (as Mr. Cascioli seeks to do) that Jesus Christ never existed, there is no reason whatever to believe the leaders of the Catholic Church share that opinion or see themselves as bilking the faithful. But our business here is to address the “irrefutable proof” this book claims to offer for its hypothesis that Jesus as such never existed, though he was closely modeled upon a nearly forgotten historical individual, John of Gamala, firstborn son and heir to the revolutionary Zealot Judas of Galilee. Indeed, one might hope that Mr. Cascioli’s suit does make it a bit farther into the courts if only to prompt wider public discussion on the Christ-Myth theory, of which he propounds a new variation. 

Luigi Cascioli is quite literally a “village atheist,” and his book is laced with the vitriol one might expect from such a local gadfly. His tone of sarcastic disgust with the whole biblical tradition and its admirers does not offend me, as I am something of a connoisseur of florid invective as an antique form of rhetoric. I reckon that, if one can stand the smothering piety of the tone of many overtly Christian works on the Bible and yet find them worth reading, one ought to find the anti-Christian counterpart no more daunting. But the “village atheist” character of the book and its polemic also makes one fear for the quality of scholarship therein. It is quite common for self-educated scholars, even when they are deeply self-educated, to suffer from idiosyncrasies and blind spots, and especially, the inability to tell historical reconstruction from wild speculation. And these fears are realized in the case of The Fable of Christ.

The learned Cascioli spends many chapters getting a running start, arguing that the Old Testament history is largely fictive and is designed to further the theocratic, nationalistic imperialistic aims of Jews, for whom he seems to bear no love. For him, the Bible is something like The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a mythic manifesto of nationalistic megalomania. (Not that it is inherently unlikely for there to be such world-beating cabals of dangerous lunatics, as witness today’s Islamo-Fascists. It’s just that Jews never did it.) He is very interested in the Hasmonean campaign against the Seleucids and the revolutionary trajectory Judas Maccabeus and his brothers began. He considers there to have been a uniquely Messianic period datable between 6 BCE, with the tax revolt of Judas of Galilee, and 70 CE, the Jewish War with Rome, though he quickly extends it to 136 CE, the defeat of Simon bar Kochba. Problems not only of interpretation but even of factual assertion begin to crop up even here. Cascioli confused Herod Antipas with Herod Agrippa at one point, not that it matters much in the context. Worse, he asserts that the Hasmoneans were direct descendents of the Davidic dynasty. But of course the Hasmoneans labored under the handicap of being Levites, not Davidic Judeans.

Cascioli tantalizes and frustrates with a whole series of assertions about the ancient Mystery Religions and their rather exact analogies to Christian Passion and resurrection mythologies. Was Marduk arrested, Mithras crucified on a pole? Had Mithras given his own Sermon on the Mount? Cascioli offers not one bit of documentation for any of this. One may be forgiven for wondering if he is recycling hackneyed myths from previous pseudo-scholarly Christ-Myth polemicists. He is either impatient with or oblivious of the distinction between Mithraism and its evolutionary ancestor, Zoroastrianism, making the latter the official religion of Rome in early Christian times. And, while there was no doubt very significant Zoroastrian-to-Jewish influence, Cascioli indulges in sheer speculation when it comes to Christian-era Jewish borrowing from what we should recognize as Mithraism. For Cascioli, all Mystery Religions offered mythic Soters (saviors) who had preached a doctrine and then been persecuted and martyred for it, only to rise again.

The Christian Jesus Christ, he says, was an intentional fabrication in the mid-second century CE by revolutionary Essenes. The Essenes were not pacifists, but only pretended to be in order to evade Roman persecution, though the Qumran War Scroll tells us their true feelings. That is possible, and there is renewed controversy over who the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls were. But it is a bit odd to interpret the chief, public tenets of a sect as a mere smokescreen by people who believed the opposite. That is a peculiar way to read evidence, it seems to me.

Anyway, the Essenes realized they needed, not only the hope of a coming Messiah who had never been on earth, but the figurehead, albeit artificial, of a returning savior who had already won men to his cause, died, and risen. But they knew, did these Madison Avenue Savior designers, that no one would fall for a Christ of pure fancy and imagination. They had to hang him on an appropriate figure of the recent past, one moreover, from their own violent, nationalistic tradition. They fastened upon John of Gamala, son if Judas the Galilean/Gaulonite. Why? He was a revolutionist in good standing, and, unlike the rest, he had been a preacher, too. (Why not his father? Wasn’t he, too, a rabbi?). To this hypothetical Jesus-like John, Cascioli ascribes various gospel sayings, sometimes with a twist of rewording. John-Jesus even did “miracles,” tricks learned from Indian fakirs, including apparent resurrections. So Cascioli is going a good deal farther than he first seemed to do; he is contending that “Jesus” was actually a glorification of John of Gamala, not just a handy peg on which to hang the messianic halo. The name “John” survives in the tradition, applied instead to the Son of Zebedee, whose name was originally Lazarus, whom Jesus loved, therefore the Beloved Disciple (as many hold).

Cascioli posits a schism among his Essenes. Those who had converted, as many did, from pagan Mystery Religions, believed that their new Christ had to have been incarnated, like the other Mystery Soters. Other Essenes preferred Docetism. Still others believed that, though Jesus had manifested himself, he had never come to earth as a man. Such a view, Cascioli says, underlies Galatians 1:1, where Paul says he had learned his doctrine from no man—which therefore must have included Jesus, a purely heavenly being! Jezebel and the Nicolaitans must have upheld a fleshly, incarnate Jesus. Huh? Mr. Cascioli says he is presenting “irrefutable evidence” for all this, but I’d be satisfied with any evidence at all.

Cascioli does not merely fill the space between bricks of evidence with the cement of speculation; he makes bricks without the straw of evidence at all. The heart of the theory is the speculative part. The whole thing seems completely arbitrary. It is not that the resultant scenario is inherently silly or absurd. But what reason is there to think it happened? He is essentially positing a cult of John of Gamala as a slain messiah destined to return in glory. That is nothing unparalleled, but why believe it happened in this case?

Cascioli’s own inerrancy is again debunked when he gets to Marcion. He imagines that Marcion himself penned the Book of Acts, an absolute impossibility, given the plainly anti-Marcionite tenor and raison detre of the writing. Marcion, Cascioli says, bribed the Roman church into accepting his docetic doctrine with his gift of 200, 000 sesterces—uh, doesn’t Cascioli know that the church returned the money and sent Marcion packing? Was Irenaeus one of the authors of the Gospel of John? Interesting speculation, but that’s about it. Is it true that “the gospels we have now are the revised and corrected versions which came out in the sixth century” (p. 157)? The sixth century? Cascioli seems to think the Veronica’s Veil episode belongs to the gospels (p. 162). He quotes what one would have to call “apocryphal apocryphal gospels” I’ve never heard of: Hebrew Gospels 8:57 (“How can you know these things if you are not fifty years old yet?”—of course he means John’s gospel.). The “Pseudogospel of John” says: “Christ had begun his activity at the age of 46” (p. 160). And there is more, and worse.

Cascioli offers a number or arresting ideas, conjectures, and new interpretations of familiar passages. The book is worth reading, certainly. But it is an interesting failure. If he gets to court with this case, expect Mark Garagos to represent him.   



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