Robert Eisenman’s James the Brother of Jesus: A Higher-Critical Evaluation

Robert M. Price
Drew University

Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Viking Penguin, 1997, xxxvi + 1074 pp., $39.95. ISBN 0-670-86932-5.

IN his recent publications The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered (with Michael Wise) and The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians, Robert Eisenman 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.”

In the process Eisenman also vindicates another dictum of Renan, namely that to write the history of a faith, one must needs have belonged to it but belong to it no more. While one still carries the burden of representing the Christian religion it appears to be almost impossible to kick free of the apologetic bias. In dealing with Paul, this means that even critical scholars cannot help presupposing that Paul’s message, theology, whatever, must be basically true. Even if one must practice a little sachkritische surgery here and there, e.g., as to the role of women, Paul is still the church’s one foundation. At the very least this implicitly Paulinist bias results in what Bruce Malina and others call a docetic approach to the text, an according of priority to the theological abstractions as if they were really the engine of the train and not its epiphenomenal, rhetorical caboose. Even the bold and brilliant E.P. Sanders, who admits, in Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, that Paul’s arguments are usually a mass of inconsistent rationalizations, still grants priority to the conversion experience which he assumes underlies them. Francis Watson gets closer to ground zero in Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles, seeing sociological realities as the tectonic plates upon which Paul’s theology slides. But it is left to Eisenman to disengage himself completely from the Pauline cheer-leading team and look at things from the other side.

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. As Schweitzer said of the historical Jesus, this is an embarrassment and a disappointment to those who expect the original gospel to look refreshingly modernistic. 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, just like those allegorizing antinomians Philo argued against, just like Josephus. 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 their congeners. 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.

But even this is not the substance of the book. Having set forth the Tendenz of the canonical Greek Christian writings we call the New Testament, Eisenman starts digging. Armed with a hermeneutic of suspicion, in the best tradition, we may add, of F.C. Baur, Walter Bauer, and Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, 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. As Richard Pervo (Profit With Delight) has begun to show, the traditional neglect of these sources and others related to them (e.g., the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles) by supposedly critical scholars is more a matter of canon apologetics than of historical method. Why do New Testament scholars agree that Luke’s Acts are legendary and fictitious in large measure—and go right on taking the story at face value? Eisenman, on the other hand, realizes that Luke and the Pseudoclementine literature are on more or less a par. Each must be treated with great reserve, yet with the optimism that, like the Oxyrhynchus alligators, somewhere amid all the stuffing one may at last discover a vital bit of information.

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, Jesus Justus, Titius 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.

In Thomas Kuhn’s terms, Eisenman has decided to start with the recalcitrant “anomalous data” left to the side by the old paradigm and to construct a new paradigm that will make sense of it, and perhaps in the process wind up making new sense of everything else. Eisenman’s efforts here recall those of Bart Ehrman in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, in which he demonstrated that a great many of the textual alterations which critics traditionally weed out of their texts and then ignore can be accounted for as theologically motivated attempts to render the text unfriendly to “heretical” exegesis, a kind of built-in “prescription against the heretics,” a booby-trapped text. What had been cursorily dismissed by scholars as a pile of random goofs wound up disclosing an apologetical pattern of redactional alteration. As Collingwood might have said, the variant readings turned out not to be evidence for the original text, but that didn’t mean they weren’t evidence for something else. And in just the same way, Eisenman has cracked the code of the strange name lists of the New Testament.

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, cf. 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 gospels’ 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 wanted to play up the authority of the shadowy college of the Twelve against the earlier authority of the Heirs and 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 was 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, Theudas (=Thaddaeus + Judas), Lebbaeus, and Judas Iscariot. Simon the Zealot is Simon bar Cleophas and may be Simon Cephas as well.

Eisenman has worked out a complex and coherent grammar of these processes of what Derrida would call “slippage along the chain of signifiers.” His theory of the doubling of characters and names here is close to that of Rene Girard, a spontaneous methodological parallel (see my article, “In the Beginning Was the Deed: A Neo-Girardian Approach to the Passion Narrative,” Forum, 9 [September/December, 1993], 257-303). Eisenman ends up with a much-reduced circle of “the Twelve,” most of them being aliases and replacements for the brothers of Jesus. This will outrage some, but other readers will find the theory ringing true against the otherwise odd fact that the Twelve are such shadowy non-entities in the New Testament.

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 another case of apologetics masquerading as criticism.) And Eisenman’s redactional analyses of Luke on Josephus provide but 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” (Acts 1:20/Ps 109:8). James has simply been excised from various tales in Acts where we should expect to read of all three Pillars but now read of only the dynamic duo of Peter and John.

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 Ananus 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 “crown” of long hair worn by 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. (Eisenman might have noted, too, that the martyr’s original identity as James the Just is signaled by Acts 7:52, “the Just, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become”!)

We read that a young man named Saul was playing coat checker 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 (the fuller motif) and sitting at the right, this time, of Jesus’ resting place (just as Stephen saw Jesus at the right hand of God).

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 identifies 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 circumcised to marry her, so she could take up with the uncircumcised 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 claims 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 counterpoint to Peter’s contest with Simon Magus in Acts 8:9 ff. (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 an unnamed 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.) This prophecy of Jesus ben-Ananias is the basis for both the oracle mentioned by Eusebius that warned the Jerusalem Christians to flee and for “Agabus’” warning to Paul not to continue on to Jerusalem (Acts 21).

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 Ananus doing the same thing, and why he would have been executed for ritual irregularity as the Mishnah required for such an infraction.

As Eisenman describes the role of James, it has very little to do with Jesus (about as little as the Epistle of James does, come to think of it!). Even the famous story of James being invited by the High Priest to address the people at Passover, to dissuade them from their growing faith in Jesus, issuing in his surprise confession, “Why do you ask me concerning the Son of Man...?” might be read, Eisenman seems to imply, as a Christianization of an original in which James was asked to quell the messianic excitement of the Passover crowds (a yearly source of eschatological headaches for the Temple and Roman establishments), with no reference to Jesus as the expected messiah. And James’ answer would have been an incitement of messianic expectation, again with no reference to Jesus as the Son of Man. Similarly, the vow of James neither to eat nor to drink till the Son of Man should have risen from them that sleep might be a Christian redaction of James’ vow to observe Nazirite asceticism till the coming of the messiah, not necessarily the resurrection of Jesus. So Eisenman’s James would pretty much make sense as a major religious figure in his own right, not standing in the shadow of Jesus. This is the impression we gain from Hegesippus and others anyway: how could the Temple authorities ever have asked James to quell the popular enthusiasm over Jesus if they knew he himself was a Christian leader? And if he was a prominent Christian leader how could they not have known it? They knew him as a pious Jew, as did Josephus.

This picture of James as important in his own right comports with two other distinctive hypotheses of Eisenman. The first is his identification of James the Just as the Qumran Teacher of Righteousness, a case he argues at length in his earlier books now happily reprinted in the collection The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians. He alludes to the possibility of this identification several times in James the Brother of Jesus, but the argument here is in no way dependent upon it, and he has reserved a systematic treatment for the forthcoming second volume. Of course, even on Eisenman’s reading of the Dead Sea texts, little is said about Jesus. His reading of the sources on James makes sense of this. Jesus would not have occupied a Christological centrality in the original context of an “Essenism” which eventually fragmented along the lines of factional loyalties to Jesus (Ebionite Christianity), John the Baptist (the Mandaean sect), and James the Just (the Qumran sect). For a similar scenario on Gentile soil see 1 Cor 1:12.

THE second bold hypothesis of Eisenman relevant to his picture of a more or less independent James is that our portrait of Jesus in the Greek gospels seems largely to be an amalgam of Pauline anti-halakha and episodes borrowed from various messianic and prophetic figures in Josephus. Indeed, I have for some time thought the same thing. Does not the warning of the Synoptic Apocalypse not to confuse Jesus with other prophets and messiahs during the siege of Jerusalem imply that just such amalgamations and confusions were going on? Do not Apocalypses always forewarn their readers against doing what the author knows they are in fact doing?

In the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to “cleanse” the Temple which had become a “robber’s den,” can we not recognize the entry of messiah Simon bar-Giora into the city at the invitation of the priesthood to “cleanse” the Temple of rival freedom fighters? And (as Eisenman and John Dominic Crossan both note) is not the mute flogging of Jesus by priests and Roman Procurator for predicting the Temple’s doom suspiciously similar to that of Jesus ben-Ananias? Jesus’ mockery as a king during a visit of a Herodian “king” sounds remarkably like the Carabas incident reported by Philo in Against Flaccus (again, Crossan notes this), which also echoes Barabbas, as if it needed pointing out. The attempt by the crowd to force Pilate into condemning Jesus by threatening to report his delinquency to Caesar recalls the actual complaint against Pilate made by Samaritans after he butchered the partisans of the Samaritan Taheb on Mount Gerizim, a deed which actually did result in Pilate’s recall to Rome. Jesus’ execution as King of the Jews reminds us of Simon bar-Giora’s in Rome.

The spear thrust to confirm his death recalls that following the suicide pact of the fugitive Spartan revolutionary king Cleomenes and his cohorts in Plutarch’s Lives. Similarly, the portents at Jesus’ crucifixion are strikingly like those at Cleomenes’ crucifixion which led the women bystanders to acclaim the slain rebel king a son of the gods and to visit the site thereafter to worship. And as Eisenman shows, even Jesus’ reappearance after three days to his mourning disciples matches that of the rebel hero Niger in the Roman War, who was assumed dead by friend and foe alike, but was really hiding in a cave for three days while his lamenting followers searched for his body, only to be “surprised by joy” when he emerged from his cave alive!

Eisenman also reminds us that we know less than we suppose we do about the chronology of Jesus. According to evidence in Josephus we might place the execution of John the Baptist as late as 35-36 CE. And Epiphanius says James’ pontificate lasted for 24 years after the departure of Jesus; given Josephus’ date for James’ death, this would place Jesus’ death about 38 CE. And the Acts of Pilate which the Christian Gospel of Nicodemus replaced dated Jesus’ execution in 21 CE. Irenaeus imagined Jesus dying at age 50, under Claudius, while the Talmud has him crucified under Alexander Jannaeus! And would the Creeds have bothered to affirm that Pilate executed Jesus unless some were denying it?

Equally shocking to some will be Eisenman’s suggestion that Josephus’ Herodian Saulus, active during the siege of Jerusalem, was none other than Saul of Tarsus! As Hyam Maccoby recently reminded us (in The Mythmaker), our conventional assumption that Paul died by Nero’s command rests only on sketchy and manifestly legendary material in 1 Clement (an anonymous digest of hortatory lumber of unknown date) and the Acts of Paul. We don’t really know what may have happened to him. Similarly, Eisenman comes close to identifying Simon Peter with Simeon bar-Cleophas who is said, like Simon Peter, to have been crucified, but much later than Nero’s reign. (Actually, Eisenman does think finally that there was a Peter distinct from the Pillar Cephas, that traditions concerning the two have been confused because of the similarity between the names. But one wonders if that is consistent with Eisenman’s methodology elsewhere.)

ANOTHER point on which Maccoby and Eisenman coincide is their willingness to take seriously the Ebionite charge that Paul was never a real Jew to begin with. Maccoby shows quite extensively in his Paul and Hellenism that the Pauline Epistles give precious little evidence of having been written by a Jew, what with their anti-Semitic outbursts, their Mystery Religion affinities, their Gnosticizing exegesis, and their utterly non-Jewish view of the Torah as a burden. Eisenman enhances his case by adducing the evidence for 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 Eisenman 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 with 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 (as F.C. Baur recognized) rioting by James’ “zealots for the Law” (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 pay for the four men’s purification rites seems to be a variant version of the presentation, and rejection, of the Collection (cf. Rom 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, 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”).

As for Eisenman’s pegging of Paul as the Lying Spouter who repudiated the Law and betrayed the new covenant, the enemy of the Righteous Teacher of Qumran, a motif that runs throughout the book, I will observe only that the coincidences between Qumran rhetoric and the New Testament vestiges of anti-Paulinism are at least as convincing as those conventionally accepted as proof for Matthew’s targeting Paul at several points in his gospel. Eisenman does threaten to obscure his own case here by overkill, citing lots of terminology shared by Paul and Qumran, sometimes used in different senses, and insisting that they reflect mutual ridicule and refutation, but the major instances are striking. And certainly the tagging of Paul, James, and Ananus in the Scrolls is far more natural than the wild shots in the dark whereby conventional Qumran scholars sought to identify the major Scrolls’ characters with this or that Hasmonean figure. (Admittedly there are rare references here and there to named first-century BCE figures, but Eisenman does not hold that every single scroll is a product of the first century CE. How could he, when his point is that Jamesian “Christianity” was an evolutionary growth from a pre-existent “Essene” species?)

ONE QUESTION Eisenman leaves open is the true identity lying behind the fictitious John “son of Zebedee.” Who can he have been? I think we have a couple of clues. (And I think it is worth pursuing them here by way of demonstrating that Eisenman’s case relies not merely upon his own subjective impressions, but rather on a method which may be taken up by others to get their own results. Once one gets the knack of it, his method proves itself as scientific as any employed in form- and redaction-criticism.)

First, since Judas Thomas/Thaddaeus is also called “Lebbaeus,” an apparent variant of James’ title “Oblias” (the Bulwark = the Pillar), we must suppose that the Heirs of Jesus and the Pillars were synonymous, which in turn makes the Pillar John a brother of Jesus. (Eisenman supposes there must have been a Pillar named John; it is his connection with the cipher “James son of Zebedee” that presents the difficulty.) Thus there is no problem accepting the Pillar John as the real brother of James the Just and of Judas Thomas and Simeon bar Cleophas. All were counted as Pillars or Bulwarks whose presence in Jerusalem kept the city safe. And remember the curious business with James and John being christened “Boanerges,” taken to mean “sons of thunder,” but (with John Allegro) more likely representing the Sumerian Geshpuanur (the prefix becoming a suffix as is common in Near Eastern names), meaning “upholder of the vault of heaven,” a title of one of the Dioscuri or heavenly twins (Acts 28:11). This is to make James and John at once both brothers and cosmic pillars. And since the two cosmic pillars upholding the roof of Solomon’s Temple (symbolic of the firmament of the heavens, as in all ancient temples) were called Boaz and Jachin, one may wonder whether Boanerges has something to do with Boaz, James/Jacob with Jachin. Like James, John is said (by Polycrates) to have worn the priestly ephod, and this would fit the Zealot-like rebel priesthood ideology of James and Judas Thomas (Theudas).

But then why does John not appear in the sibling list of Mark 6:3? I suspect his place has been taken by “Joses.” John’s original position as a brother of Jesus has been transferred to another John, John the Baptist! Luke makes the Baptist both a hereditary peasant priest by lineage and a “cousin” of Jesus, just as later tradition made Jesus’ brothers Simeon and James his cousins. And an early apocalypse preserved in Chrysostom’s Encomium on John the Baptist (see E. A. Wallace Budge’s Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt) is ascribed to “John the Lord’s Brother,” implying (in the same manner as a striking textual variant) that perhaps someone, somewhere, had remembered the original connection.

But what of Mark’s “Joses”? Eisenman suggested this name is a barely disguised reshuffling of none other than Jesus, which is not unlikely. But I would suggest Joses is a place holder for John. As for the name itself, it is a vestige of a list that originally would have read, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and Joses, and brother of James, and John, and Judas, and Simon?” By the time we see it in Mark 6, it has become garbled, Joses becoming one of the brothers and Jesus’ father dropping out of the list. Matthew thought this unseemly, so he has taken from Jesus the epithet “the carpenter” and made the carpenter into the father of Jesus (anonymous here but implicitly equated with the Joseph of Matthew’s Nativity story). Of course originally, a la Eisenman and Hugh J. Schonfield, the appellation “Jesus son of Joseph” had nothing to do with the name of Jesus’ father (who must actually have been Cleophas) but rather is a historicizing of the Galilean/Ephraimite messianic title “Messiah ben Joseph.”

As for the designation “bar Zebedee,” I wonder if we can kill two birds with one stone. In The Essene Odyssey, Hugh Schonfield puzzled over the inclusion of one “Yochanan ben Zabda” (=John bar Zebedee) as the partner of physician Asaph ben Berechiah in the ancient Sepher Refu’ot (Book of Medicines), a writing with Qumran affinities. Schonfield wondered how this Christian character wound up in such a Jewish writing. I wonder if it might not have been just the reverse: if Yochanan son of Zabda were already renowned as a Jewish healer in the early Christian period it is easy to see that, once Christians began to try to distance Jesus from his relatives, another identity would be sought for his brother John. And so he became (con)fused in the early Christian mind with a (possibly contemporary) Jewish healer named Yochana ben Zabda.

EISENMAN’S James the Brother of Jesus often seems too circuitous and redundant, but this is the result of his having to keep a number of balls in the air at once. He has to begin explaining something here, put it on hold, go to something else that you’ll need to plug into the first explanation, then return to it, go on to another, and another, then come back to the earlier items, remind you of them, and then finally assemble the whole complex device. Eisenman is like the Renaissance scientists who had to hand-craft all the intricate parts of a planned invention. The book is an ocean of instructive insight and theory, a massive and profound achievement that should open up new lines of New Testament research.


Copyright © Institute for Higher Critical Studies, 1997