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Robert Eisenman, The New Testament Code: The Cup of the Lord, the Damascus Covenant, and the Blood of Christ. London: Watkins. 2006.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


Readers of the present periodical will not find themselves altogether unprepared for the arguments of this massive sequel to Professor Eisenman’s great opus James the Brother of Jesus (1998). But they will still find plenty of surprises. Before we give attention to some of them, let us observe that the book is a very great challenge to read. Those who found James the Brother of Jesus too long, too redundant, too circuitous, will only find those sins magnified here. One almost feels Eisenman, like an apocalyptic scribe, wants to make his readers prove their mettle by working for the pay-off. Reading the book, despite its very fascinating revelations, must frankly be called an ordeal. One is inevitably put in mind of one’s adolescent determination to embark on reading the Bible straight through, only to get bogged down in Numbers or Deuteronomy. But you are just going to have to soldier on. It is worth the time. Whether Eisenman is correct in his apparent conviction that it is necessary to cover every relevant document, surveying all possible cross references, and doing it again every time he comes to the same item in the next document, I cannot say. But he does make his case that there is an inescapable commonality of terminology and conceptuality, sometimes used ironically or satirically, between a mass of texts which need to be placed together on a mental map if one is to grasp the shape of the religious world in which they all float as continents.

And the first achievement of The New Testament Code hard won through this methodology, is the realization that the Dead Sea Scrolls stem from the mid to late first century CE (equivocal Carbon dating results no longer even being relevant), and that they represent the sectarian baptizing Schwärmerei known variously as the Essenes, Zealots, Nasoreans, Masbotheans, Sabaeans--and Jewish Christians headed by James the Just. Endless references to the armies of the Kittim and “the kings of the Peoples” make the date clear even before we get to the catalogue of terminological and conceptual links between the Scrolls, the New Testament, and the Pseudo-Clementines. I should say that in all these comparisons Eisenman has established a system of correspondences fully as convincing, and for the same reasons, as the Preterist interpretation of the Book of Revelation by R.H. Charles and others. I just do not see any room for serious doubt any more. Teichner was right; Eisenman is right: the Scrolls are the legacy of the Jerusalem Christians led by the Heirs of Jesus: James the Just, Simeon bar Cleophas, and Judas Thomas. The Teacher of Righteous was James the Just (though Arthur E. Palumbo, Jr., The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Personages of Earliest Christianity, 2004, may be right: as per Barbara Thiering, John the Baptist may have been the first to hold that office, with James as his successor). The Spouter of Lies who “repudiated the Torah in the midst of the congregation” was Paul. It was he who “founded a congregation on lies,” namely the tragically misled “Simple of Ephraim,” converts from among the Gentile God-fearers who knew no better. The Wicked Priest was Ananus ben Ananus, whom Josephus credits with lynching James on the Day of Atonement.

Granted, Eisenman indulges in overkill, flooding the reader with so many convergences of language and basic concepts that the unsympathetic reader may dismiss him as simply documenting a common atmosphere of belief and language characteristic, not of specific sects (or factions of sects), but of the period in general. But there is a smaller set of correspondences which are sharp enough to persuade us that, e.g., 1 Corinthians 10 is using a specific portion of the Covenant of Damascus (a well-known ancient document, as its presence in the Cairo Genizah as well as Qumran suggests), namely column III, 2-7 (p. 919), or that the Habakkuk Pesher means to refute Paul’s use of the famous Habakkuk 2:4 (see pp. 903-904). These comparisons are as telling as that which persuades us that James 2:14-24 means to refute Romans 3:27-4:5ff.

Ironically, all these correspondences serve as collateral evidence for a much clearer basis for identifying early Christianity with the sect of the Scrolls. Have you ever read the truism that the Scrolls neglect to name their parent body? And yet their sect is again and again called both “the Poor” (Ebionim, Ebionites) and “the Way.” These, of course, are the earliest known self-designations of Christians, as Acts tells us, long before they were called “Christians”--by outsiders. The refusal to recognize the identity of the nomenclature, and therefore of the groups behind them, is astonishing and attests a simple unwillingness to factor the Scrolls into Christian Origins on such an integral level. Even so, Eisenman’s reading of the Scrolls tells us much about the dawn era of Christianity, certainly more than some will want to know. But with The New Testament Code we have reached a crossroads. Will we begin to take into account all this new data and move forward along the indicated lines? Or will we continue to temporize and find new excuses to isolate our conventional assumptions and play in the pool of Eusebian apologetics?

Eisenman recapitulates the basic outlines of his discoveries about James’ role as obscured by Acts. The election of Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot is a mask for the election of James the Just to replace the absent Jesus as his caliph (the root reference behind the epithets of both “James of Alphaeus” and Simeon bar-Cleophas,” both meaning the same thing). James’ name, a la Noth’s redundancy principle, remains in the text, albeit shouldered aside, in the guise of the other nominee for the job, “Joseph bar-Sabbas Justus.” (Why even retain the name, unless there is another purpose?)

James bar-Zebedee is another fictive double for James the Just, and his elimination in Acts 12:2 is merely the dropping of the mask before James the Just can appear in his own name in chapter 15.

James was a rainmaker like Elijah, Honi the Circle-maker, and Hanan the Wise. Nathanael is another mask for James. Jesus finds him, conspicuously, sitting beneath a fig tree, the posture of rain-makers, as they waited (in a gesture of anticipative, imitative magic) for their prayers to be answered. And Jesus tells him he will, like the Genesis Jacob, witness heaven open, revealing the Son of Man, which Nathanael does not see in John but which James does see, at his martyrdom, according to Hegesippus.

James’ stoning to death after proclaiming his vision of the Son of Man standing in heaven has been (as Hans-Joachim Schoeps first noted) changed into the martyrdom of Stephen after announcing the same vision.

But Eisenman adds more. For instance, he argues that the resurrection appearance of Jesus to James the Just in the Gospel according to the Hebrews is the origin of both Luke’s Emmaus Road story and John’s Doubting Thomas tale. Here is the ostensible original:

Now the Lord, when he had given the linen cloth to the servant of the priest, went to James and appeared to him, for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour wherein he had drunk the Lord's cup until he should see him risen again from among those who sleep. And he said to him, "Hail!" And he called to the servants, who were greatly amazed. "Bring," said the Lord, "a table and bread." He took bread and blessed and broke and gave it to James the Just and said to him, "My brother, eat your bread, for the Son of man has risen from those who sleep."

In the Emmaus story, Jesus appears to a pair of disciples who are pointedly not among the twelve. One is named Cleopas and is therefore to be identified as Simeon bar-Cleophas. He is, of course, one of the brothers/Heirs of Jesus, as is James. And then who must his companion be? James himself! His name and Simon’s (deferred till Luke 24:34, so as to make him into Simon Peter) have been changed because of the factional rivalry between the Heirs and the twelve. The climactic detail of Jesus being recognized in the act of breaking bread echoes the same gesture in the Gospel according to the Hebrews version, in which the risen Christ calls for bread to break the fast James had sworn not to break till Jesus should rise again. In the Thomas story (John 20:24-29), Jesus appears to a figure who is listed among the twelve, as we now read it, but it is obvious that he is not one of them, as the narrator has just said Jesus previously appeared to the twelve with no hint any of them but Judas Iscariot was absent. Thomas, though subsequently counted as one of the twelve, is only one of many doublets in that group, his namesake being another of the Pillars, Judas Thomas. And like James in Hebrews, Thomas has made a vow that is satisfied by the appearance of the risen Jesus (“Until I place my hand in his side and my finger in the wounds…”).

Given the rapid succession of events involved, it would certainly appear that James’ execution was the trigger for Jesus ben Ananias, the mad prophet predicting Jerusalem’s demise, to begin his doom-crying. We already knew Origen read a text of Josephus which said the people blamed the fall of Jerusalem on the death of James. It is ironic that Origen piously harrumphs that they should have traced the disaster to the execution of Jesus instead, because, as Theodore J. Weeden has shown beyond reasonable doubt (The Two Jesuses, a monograph published as Foundations and Facets Forum New Series 6/2, Fall 2003), Mark and John both based their gospel passion narratives on Josephus’ account of Jesus ben Ananias. Eisenman similarly suggests that Mark has replaced Jesus ben Ananias’ prophecy with one attributed to Jesus Christ, the Olivet Discourse, which was the signal for several of the “Essene” groups, including the church of the Pillars, to flee Jerusalem while they had the chance, leading to their fanning out through Pella to farther fields.

Eisenman’s broadest goal is to show how the Greek gospels are products of a Paulinized, Hellenized, completely non-Jewish retrofitting of the tradition. The underlying reality must be speculatively pieced together by comparisons between gospel materials and apparently related texts from the Mishnah and Talmud, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, and Ebionite sources. Very often, all we may find is a series of sets of motifs that seem to have, as he puts it, “reverberated” between documents and traditions, forming very different stories as the motifs gradually combined into various “multicellular organisms” of different sorts. Eisenman spends the first several hundred pages trying to reel in these minnows and to reconstruct the schools of fish they used to swim in.

The most straightforward set of cases cluster about the gospel transformation of stories of neo-Joshua prophets and Samaritan messiahs leading their flocks of four hundred or four thousand or five thousand into the wilderness to witness a miracle which will commence the liberation of the messianic age. When Jesus is shown multiplying food for such crowds in the wilderness, we certainly have gospel reworkings of these stories originally recounted of Theudas the Magician, the unnamed Egyptian prophet, and the Samaritan messiah whose followers Pilate ambushed on Mount Gerizim. The secondary nature of the gospel versions is evident from the fact that Palestine contained no genuine deserts such as the stories require. But the connection is even more manifest from the fact that John’s version pointedly raises the question of whether Jesus should be made king by force—only to dismiss it (6:15). Thus also Paul is asked whether he is not the Egyptian who led the Sicarri out into the desert (Acts 21:38), to give him the opportunity to deny it.

And remember, “Theudas,” as in the Nag Hammadi Apocalypses of James, is another version of Thaddeus. Eisenman also makes Theudas a version of Judas Thomas. Was it he who promised to make Jerusalem’s walls collapse? As for the Samaritan Pilate killed, he must have thought himself the Restorer (Taheb), and Eisenman sees a refracted glimmer of this hero when Peter resurrects Tabitha in Lydda, all the more since the Samaritan messiah’s followers rallied at Tirathaba. Speaking of Lydda, Rabbinic tradition tells us of the crucifixion there of a Messiah ben Joseph who was named either Doetus or Dortas (originally perhaps the messianic Dositheus of Samaria), who shows up cross-dressing at Lydda as Dorcas, Tabitha’s other name! 

All this represents a bowdlerizing of precisely such traditions, “cleaned up” for the gospels, i.e., for Gentile consumption. Much less straightforward (which is perhaps why Eisenman takes so incredibly long tying the ends together, and that pretty loosely) is another set of stories sharing DNA, and not necessarily dominant strands). Hang on. First there is the story in Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28 in which a Syro-Phoenician woman (a Gentile) begs a reluctant Jesus to heal her devil-possessed daughter back home. Demon exorcism is the ostensible topic, but the story turns on the issue of dining at table and of the proper dinner guests’ food falling off the table to the dogs. Eisenman implies that the story means to deal not just generally with the Gentile Mission (true enough as far as that goes), but specifically with the issue of Jewish-Christian table fellowship with Gentiles. The reader is to think of how “what Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, not to God” (1 Cor. 10:20). But Jesus, allowing that Gentile “dogs” may eat what falls from (Jewish-) Christian tables, seems to resolve the issue in a manner acceptable to the author of 1 Corinthians 10:25: “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience.”

That would also seem to be the/an underlying issue in Luke’s version of the same story, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Here the dogs that greedily devoured crumbs falling off the table in Mark and Matthew have become those who lick the wounds of the skeletal Lazarus, who wishes he might eat the scraps from the rich man’s table. He has taken the place of both the dogs and the daughter. Luke derives his canines from the dogs who came to the Rich Man ben Kalba Sabu'a’s door but always went away not "wanting to be filled" as in Luke’s substitution, but rather the opposite: always "filled." Especially in view of Scott Morshauer’s exegesis of the parable in a recent issue of this periodical, it is evident that the Gentile taint of the Syro-Phoenician mother has become the Idumaean taint of Dives, since he patently stands for the faux-Jewish scofflaw Herod Antipas. (She has also become the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50, whom Jesus defends against “Simon the Pharisee,” i.e., the historical Simon Peter as depicted in Galatians 2:11ff and Acts 10:14.)

Lazarus will meet us again in John 12, at a feast served by his sisters Miriam and Martha, at which Miriam anoints Jesus with perfume, as did the sinful woman of Luke 7. And these two ladies stand for a pair of supremely wealthy daughters in Talmudic tradition. One of these was Miriam, daughter of the rain-maker Nakdimon, the other Martha, daughter of the Sadducee Boethus. Miriam was so spoiled that she required a daily budget of 400 dinarii just for perfume. Whenever she walked to synagogue, her servants laid a path of richly embroidered cushions for her to tread upon so that her dainty feet might never touch the dirty ground. (The cushions were then given to the poor.) The expensive perfume has become that “wasted” upon Jesus (instead of being sold for the poor) by the unnamed woman (Mary Magdalene) in Mark and Matthew, Luke’s “sinful woman,” and Mary in John. The cushions have become the clothing spread in his donkey’s path by Jesus’ fans on Palm Sunday. Nakdimon is Nicodemus who joins Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus, smearing him in a fantastically huge amount of funeral perfume (John 19:39).

The anticipated stench of Lazarus, thought to be dead (or actually dead but soon-to-be-revived) derives from another reek arising from a tale of Johanon ben Zakkai, who made his escape from Jerusalem, being passed through the Roman lines as a corpse in a coffin. To simulate the stench of decomposition, the Rabbi had to carry a mouthful of dung. But, despite the stench, he sprang alive from the coffin. The filthy smell reminds us of Paul’s reckoning his former, spotless record of Torah-observance as mere dung (Philippians 3:8) when compared to Christian devotion without the law. The latter would be symbolized by the perfume with which Jesus is anointed, and which fills the “house” (i.e., the inhabited world) with the anointer’s fame. And of course, unenlightened Jews can be expected to recoil at the sweet savor of gospel preaching as if it were the stench of decomposing flesh (2 Cor.2:14-16). Again, when we read of Jesus filling the pallid Jewish ablution jars with heady Christian wine in John 2:6-11, we are to think of the many cisterns filled in a time of drought by the rain-making prayers of the hasid Nakdimon. Not bad, but not wine.

Whence the black comedy in Matthew 27:3-10, in which the pious hypocrites of the Sanhedrin, having just delivered the Son of God to death, scruple over what to do with Judas’ returned bounty money? Hmmm, they cannot put it back into the treasury, but there’s nothing stopping them from putting it toward a cemetery for indigents! Eisenman traces this one to a Rabbinic report to the effect that Eliezer ben Hyrcanus approved of a legal opinion ascribed to Jesus that, should a pious Jewish prostitute donate her evening’s wages to the temple, they might, instead of being rejected outright, be used to buy a new commode for the High Priest! (Think of Mark 7:18-19, “Whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach and so lands in the toilet, which renders all things clean,” as well as 1 Cor. 6:12-19, which uses the same motifs a bit differently.) Judas Iscariot corresponds to the harlot with her hire, which he casts back into the temple just as she donated it (implying that she had been paid the same money by the priest whose privy it will now buy—just as it rented her private parts!). And think of John 13:29-30, where Judas leaves to collude with the Sanhedrin and some think he is off to make a holiday contribution to the poor. He is, since the money he has received from his evil masters is going to end up paying for a burial place for the poor!

The utter transformation of Jamesian Torah-Christianity into a Gentile mystery religion is epitomized by the subtitle of this book. It represents a Pauline esoteric reinterpretation of the judgment language of the Scrolls, paralleled in Revelation 14:9: "Whoever worships the Beast and his statue and allows a mark to be imprinted on his  forehead or his hand, he shall choke on the wine of the fury of God, mixed full strength in the cup of his rage!” (Cf. Isaiah 51:17; Jeremiah 25:15-16; 49:12; 51:7.), plus the Qumran jargon of “the New Covenant in the Land of Damascus.” Paul employs a homophonic pun between the Hebrew “Dam-Chos,” or Blood-Cup (or Dam-mashek, “giving blood to drink”) and Damascus (the retreat of the James community). In his communion meal he administers the “New Covenant of the Cup of Blood” of the Christ. If one fails to discern this allegorical reference to the saving, sacramental body and blood of Christ (thinking obliviously only of “Damascus” as Jamesian Christians would), one winds up instead drinking of the cup of the wrath of God, the classic fate of the enemies of God.

The New Testament Code enables us to see not only how wholesale a Hellenization overtook Christianity, far beyond anything Harnack ever envisioned, but also the absolute rage of Torah-Christians who understood Paul as Antichrist and apostate. For the first time, they are not made to look like horned villains and sinister opponents of a noble Pauline gospel. Eisenman’s monumental work stands as a new milestone in the progress of New Testament research. As much as some might wish it otherwise, we can now never turn back from his revelations, great and small, any more than we dare retreat from the ground gained by Strauss, Baur, and Bultmann. Indeed, it is among the ranks of these scholarly titans that we must now enroll Robert Eisenman.



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