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JAMES THE BROTHER OF JESUS 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 throw-away line in the Acts of the Apostles must rank amongst the most absurd. It is the scriptural equivalent of writing a four-volume biography of an otherwise unknown extra who appeared in a single scene in Gone With The Wind.

In chapter 12 of Acts, Saints 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 from the pulpit during the Sunday morning lesson, it has scarcely prompted a raised eyebrow. James might be James the apostle or one of the numerous followers of Peter littered in the text. yet the scenario it has now led Professor Eisenman of California State University to fashion has, if it were true, the potential to 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 such an account, the Virgin Mary was no such thing. She 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 Saint 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 polemicizing of dissembling intent".

Claiming Jesus for Judaism is fashionable at the moment. A N Wilson's newly-published account of Saint Paul does much the same, though with more panache and less mindless clutter. It is not, however, a new thought.

The same verdict could apply to much of Eisenman's theory. The historical Jesus has long been a mystery with the gospel accounts 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 - who was of course both human and divine - from the messy business of sex and childbirth. In his times as Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins managed to remind us of this salient fact in a soundbite a fraction of the length of Eisenman's tome.

To flesh out the one line in Acts, Eisenman turns to various surviving contemporary texts and fragments of texts. After his harsh words for the gospels, he treats these "apocalypses" by contrast 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 they cover. Between the Old and New Testaments, for example, there is a yawning 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 then 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 forth.

Somewhat arbitrarily, later church leaders decided to exclude most of these from the authorised version. Little could they have imagined that centuries later this sin of omission would encourage adventurers like Eisenman. After showing scripturally illiterate church-goers the shortcomings of the gospels, this breed of biblical time-share salesman then demand that parallel accounts that have all the drawbacks of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John be taken literally. Eisenman adds a dollop of passion to complete the mix. He is outraged at the historical "injustice" that has befallen James.

His great trump card in all this is his much-vaunted knowledge of the Dad Sea Scrolls, a collection of texts and fragments found in 1948 in the Holy Land and dating back to Christ's time. Eisenman has long campaigned for them 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. You are left with the feeling that Eisenman is hoping some of the reverence the scrolls command might indirectly rub off on this shabby and shambling work.

The irony is that, 50 years after their discovery, the Dead Sea Scrolls have generated a veritable 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 just 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 still little-understood context. 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. However blasphemous it may sound, it could conceivably have been because that 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 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 Holy Blood and Holy Grail by Michael Baigent et al in the lucrative market in fascinating but fanciful investigations into religious "mysteries". Indeed the approving quote form Baigent on the cover of James Brother of Jesus gives the game away.

Peter Stanford's The Devil: A Biography has just come out in Mandarin paperback.

Homer's epic by Princeton professor and translator Robert Fagles. It's a fitting choice of work for the end of our century d so eloquently, it certainly has the life.

Josephine Balmer's 'Classical Women Poets' is published by Bloodaxe Books at pounds 7.95

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