Book review / Jesus Inc: a different sort of family business

JAMES THE BROTHER OF JESUS: Recovering the True History of Early Christianity by Robert Eisenman, Faber pounds 25

THE BIBLE has been used down the centuries to justify many strange theories and unpleasant prejudices, but Robert Eisenman's feat in producing 1,000 pages on the basis of a single throwaway line in the Acts of the Apostles must rank among the most absurd. It is the scriptural equivalent of writing a four-volume biography of an unknown extra who appeared in a single scene in Gone With The Wind.

In Chapter 12 of Acts, St Peter suffers a brief period of imprisonment at the hands of King Herod, before being freed by a friendly guard. He rushes off to a safe house where he greets the assembled throng with "Tell James and the brothers". Read countless times during the Sunday morning lesson, this has scarcely prompted a raised eyebrow. James might be James the Apostle or one of the many followers of Peter littered in the text. Yet it has led Professor Eisenman of California State University to fashion a scenario which, if true, could empty the pews forever.

Simply put, it is that this line is the last remaining clue in the New Testament of the true history of Christianity. In this account, the Virgin Mary had three, perhaps four, sons. After Jesus, her eldest, was executed for political crimes, his brother James took over and led what was in essence a small, ultra-devout Jewish sect. Strictly vegetarian and obsessed with ritual purity and bathing, this family business saw its biggest asset - the memory of Jesus - stolen from under its nose by budding entrepreneurs like the Apostle Peter and St Paul, allegedly Herod's stooge and his distant relative. These two schemers then encouraged written accounts of Jesus's life that edited out what really happened in favour of, as Eisenman puts it, "Hellenistic romance and mythologising ... with a clear polemicising of dissembling intent".

Claiming Jesus for Judaism is fashionable at the moment. A N Wilson's newly-published account of St Paul does much the same, though with more panache. It is not, however, a new thought, and the same could be said of much of Eisenman's theory. The historical Jesus has long been a mystery, since the gospel accounts were written long after his death by authors with their own axes to grind. Mary's virginity came even later, dreamt up by the early church to separate Jesus from the messy business of sex. In his time as Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins reminded us of this salient fact in a soundbite a fraction of the length of Eisenman's tome.

To flesh out the single line in Acts, Eisenman turns to various surviving contemporary texts and fragments. In contrast to his harsh words for the gospels, he treats these "apocalypses" with exaggerated reverence, as if decades of careful and often damning analysis of their claims had not already taken place.

The problem is that while the Bible may indeed by historically unreliable, so too are most other sources on the period. Between the Old and New Testaments, for example, there is a gap of 200 years. It was filled by a whole host of apocryphal books, prompted by the national self-doubt of the Jews who, under Roman overlordship, began to question their status as God's chosen people. And at the same time as the New Testament, there was another wave of early Christian literature - gospels according to Mary of Bethany, Peter, Mary Magdalene, and so on.

Somewhat arbitrarily, later church leaders decided to exclude most of these from the authorised account, little imagining the confusion this might cause. For Eisenman, after showing scripturally illiterate church- goers the shortcomings of the gospels themselves, demands that parallel accounts - which have all the drawbacks of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - be taken literally. He adds a dollop of passion to the mix in his outrage at the historical "injustice" that has befallen James.

His trump-card in all this is his knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of texts and fragments found in 1948 in the Holy Land and dating from Christ's time. Eisenman has long campaigned for these to be more accessible to scholars. Yet the best he can manage in relation to James is that there are parallels between Jesus's would-be brother and the "righteous teacher" figure referred to in some of the scrolls.

The irony is that, 50 years after their discovery, the Dead Sea Scrolls have generated an industry in precisely the sort of populist speculation that, behind all the pseudo-academic jargon, lies at the core of Eisenman's book. Barbara Thiering's 1992 Jesus The Man was the most celebrated example. At the very least, the scrolls are as complex, contradictory and coded as any passage of the Bible. Amateurs should proceed with caution, and beware of selective quotation without reference to a context that is still little understood. And woven into the web of the scrolls' mystery has to be the question of why they were abandoned in a cave in the first place. It could conceivably have been because they were considered of no importance at the time.

Professor Eisenman would like to see himself as breaking the taboos of traditional biblical scholarship and bringing a new authenticity to the understanding of our Christian heritage. What he manages instead is a book that will mount a feeble challenge to Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods and Michael Baigent et al's The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, in the lucrative market in fascinating but fanciful investigations into religious "mysteries".

8 Peter Stanford's 'The Devil: A Biography' is published by Mandarin at pounds 7.99.

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game