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.

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