Book review / James and the giant breach

James the Brother of Jesus: recovering the true history of early Christianity by Robert Eisenman, Faber, pounds 25

This massive book purports to reveal a "truth" about the foundation of the Christian Church at odds with the known accounts in the synoptic Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of St Paul and nearly 2,000 years of tradition. If Professor Robert Eisenman's version of events is to convince, it will need to demonstrate historical proofs at least as good as the Gospels. It does not.

Educated Christians now accept the piecemeal, axe-grinding and generally historically dodgy tenor of the traditional documents. They are often obscure, contradictory and based on lost earlier texts. Our House may well be built upon the sand. But when the rains descend and the floods come, and the winds blow and beat upon that House, it tends not to fall, because all that can be used against it are other historically cloudy documents.

In Eisenman's case, these documents are mainly the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947 in the caves of the desert region of Qumran. Eisenman has campaigned tirelessly and heroically for free access to these precious relics - but if they are powerful enough to overturn Christianity-as-we- know-it, they have not done so yet. Rightly or wrongly, they have been sidelined as evidence of yet another Palestinian sect, from an era absolutely lousy with them. It is really not good enough to use these as sticks to beat the Gospels and Acts, because we have no reason to believe their authors were any less addicted to the skewing of history.

What is Eisenman's thesis? "In the course of this book, it will become clear that James was the true heir and successor of his more famous brother Jesus." Mining extensively in extra-biblical documents, he presents us with the figure of "James the Just", first Archbishop and supremo of the Church we call Christ's. James, he claims, has been written out of the Acts as part of a conspiracy orchestrated by the pro-Roman, anti-Jewish St Paul.

The election mentioned in Acts, ostensibly to replace the figure we know as "Judas Iscariot", was in fact the election of James. Both Peter and Paul, accepted as the founders of the Christian Church, were under the authority of James.

The importance of this fact depends upon whether or not you accept the divinity (in Eisenman's case, the very existence) of Jesus. If you believe, as St Paul did, that Jesus was the Son of God, who rose from the dead and reigns through what Paul characterised as the Holy Spirit, you cannot believe that James was his "true heir and successor" in any but a political sense. Eisenman repeatedly fails to give Paul's belief in Christ's divinity its proper weight. If he did defy "James" and tinker with history, this was his motive - whether or not he was right.

Through more than 900 pages of confusing text, Eisenman reveals a first-century Palestine seething with political and religious turbulence. Here, the divinity of Jesus is secondary to the in-fighting of the Jews, driven to desperation by the cruelty of the occupying Romans.

To begin with, we have the conflict between the Maccabees, the line of hereditary Jewish priests, and the Herodians, the upstarts in the pocket of Rome. St Paul, Eisenman says, had Herodian connections, and was proud of his Roman Citizenship. Upon his basically anti-Jewish attitudes, our modern Church is founded. The revolutionary Zionism of James the Just and his followers has been deliberately erased, because history tends to be written by the winners.

He points out that what James preached was not what we call Christianity. "Much of the legacy of Plato and Socrates is incorporated into the materials about Jesus," he writes, "including the notions of non-resistance to Evil, and a Justice that does not consist of helping your friends and harming your enemies - all doctrines absolutely alien to a Palestinian milieu."

The historical James, tweezered painstakingly out of early histories, apocryphal letters and the Qumram scrolls, sounds diametrically opposed to the Jesus of scripture: "Zealous for the law, xenophobic, rejecting of foreigners and polluted persons generally." The early Church was divided over the matter of the Law. Should gentile followers of Jesus be circumcised? Should they be forced to keep the Jewish law? Portions of the Gospels and Acts were clearly written with this controversy in mind, hence Jesus's welcoming attitude to gentiles and refusal to fight Romans. This conflict between assimilation and tradition is set out, with greater elegance and clarity, in A N Wilson's Jesus. Less dispassionately, Eisenman argues that "from the Palestinian point of view, Paul was a cosmopolitanising traitor". Unfortunately for the memory of James the Just, it is these "cosmopolitanising" attitudes, plus the "legacy of Plato and Socrates" that made Christianity so attractive.

James the Brother of Jesus is a work of undoubted scholarship, which does throw newish light on the foundation of Christianity. But Eisenman is never quite scholarly enough to hide his hostility to the Christian Magisterium, nor his pointless loathing of Rome. His gigantic tome cannot lose a sense of protesting too much - against what, it is never made quite clear.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?