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Robert Eisenman, James, The Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (London: Watkins Publishing, 2002, £14.99, 1136 pages, ISBN 1-84293-026-5)—Jacques Coulardeau, Université Paris Dauphine


Robert Eisenman played a major role in the world of religious studies by advocating with success the opening of all Dead Sea Scrolls to the widest public of intellectuals, research workers and plain interested people. We now have full facsimiles of all these scrolls. He spent his whole life studying religious questions in the Middle East from the first century BC to the fourth or fifth centuries CE. He concentrated most of his work on the various religious movements around the Dead Sea in the crucial period beginning in 50 BC and ending in 150 CE. The present book is the first volume of his final research work in this field. It is essential work, that cannot be avoided by any scholar attempting to understand current world events and how they are reflected in literature and the arts. In the short period of two centuries—from the Roman Empire’s conquest of the region to the final destruction and scattering of the Jewish community in Palestine—the three Semitic religions that dominate the world today were affected in different ways. Judaism experienced an important transformation; Christianity was born, and the Muslim religion was to emerge later.

What’s more, the book will revive disputes and arguments that raged for centuries in the MiddleAges, those debates which founded all heresies and schismatic decisions or activities, including the Reformation. It even speaks to the dramatic events concerning the Jews in the twentieth century (though, of course, the Holocaust did not only concern Jews; since the genocide and other crimes of humanity were committed upon gypsies, disabled people and minorities of race, class, and sex). The research used for this book is also heavily present behind the famous Da Vinci Code and some other popular books in the field.

I intend to provide a sample of what the book is about, rather than a full discussion of its content.

The Style and the Method

The author uses so many minute details that the book becomes circular. Some data emerge repeatedly in the various successive parts and chapters. However, this is not a handicap or a drawback to the argument. Some facts and quotations are used many times but each time in different circumstances, and in different discursive environments. These facts and quotations take on different meanings in every single case. It is in a way the proof that the context gives meaning. It becomes a great asset for the book even if it is a great difficulty for the reader, who constantly has to go back or check every single quotation or reference in the Bible or other documents. Thus, such a book reads slowly.

Dropping from book level to chapter level, the reader encounters the same circular style, but this time it operates differently. The logical argument is built as a sequence of facts that are threaded linearly and the conclusion is drawn from this series of facts. This looks circular, and may give a reader vertigo, but it is an interesting method that brings together facts and details that would not have been brought together normally. The contrast and the similarities a reader can find between these threaded facts are both nerve-racking and inspiring. Eisenman’s argumentative style leads to interesting hypotheses that must be explored and then confirmed or discredited.

Eisenman’s method is equally as interesting as his style. The author brings together all the documents available from this period beginning in the first century BC to the third or fourth centuries CE, stopping just short of Constantine.

He refuses to reduce his consideration to canonical documents of any sort, or to give these canonical documents any higher value. Yet he concedes that canonical documents have a special place in his study because they have been rewritten through time. I will discuss this further in this review. He also considers on an equal historical footing all other documents, the Dead Sea Scrolls of course, but also all apocryphal and pseudepigraphic documents, particularly those found in Nag Hammadi. He does not follow the standard canonized method that asserts that points common in several documents are more truthful or closer to the truth than those that are unique. Due to the fact that many of the canonical documents have been rewritten countless times, he considers his method to be the best. He argues that a fact mentioned only once is more meaningful in a search for the truth, because it allows the researcher to build a hypothesis that may lead to a new and fruitful interpretation. Either this unique fact is unique because it was erased everywhere else, or it is unique because only one author managed to judge it important and hence mention it. Some facts may be fallacious, but a fact that is mentioned only once may be the unconscious delusion of one person, whereas a fact that is mentioned many times may be a collective voluntary delusion of a group of people who purposely misinform their audience.

The guarantee of the quality of Eisenman’s work is in the minuteness of his observation, particularly of the text of the documents. He works in many languages, not just the official language of the document, but also the languages of other versions of the same document, as well as various languages that were available to the speakers and writers of the time. He particularly keeps in mind that some of these documents were constantly translated into Greek, the official language of the Empire in this area, from various Semitic languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, Syrian, etc. He shows how some canonical texts play on the literal correspondences between Hebrew and Greek for some fundamental words or names. And of course he tries never to be the victim of the English translation. One example will suffice. Adam is a proper name, but in Hebrew it means man. Hence when Jesus says he is "the Son of Man" what he said in Hebrew also means "the son of Adam." This refers to a Jewish belief that the Messiah is to be the Second Adam, (the Son of Adam), and his coming is supposed to announce the Second Coming, God’s judgment, the time to reach omega, and the end of things that were created at the time of alpha. In other words, when Jesus says he is "the Son of Man" he situates himself in a messianic approach, even an apocalyptic approach that we do not feel or understand anymore. What’s more, we then find references to this ideological approach in the Dead Sea Scrolls and communities living around Qumran.

Robert Eisenman uses the method devised by Kenneth Burke in his book on Logology (The Rhetoric of Religion) that analyzes the Confession of Augustine. The result is outstanding.

Main "conclusions" or rather "hypotheses"

Rather than summarizing Eisenman’s arguments, I will instead give some of the author’s "conclusions," then ask a few questions.

The first conclusion is that Jesus was one in a family. We know the parents, Mary and Joseph. First note: there is only one Mary. The proliferation of Marys was a way to set Jesus aside. This family had four sons. First is James, known as the Just (Note: there is only one James, cf. note supra). Second is Simon the Zealot, known under some other names and not to be mixed with Simeon bar Cleophas who might be an uncle or great-uncle. Third is Jude or Judas the Zealot known under a myriad of names particularly Thomas, Didymus Thomas, etc, (Thomas and Didymus meaning Twin, thus this brother is thought by some to be the twin brother of Jesus. Last is Joses assimilated to the Hebrew word Jesus that meant Savior. The family also had a daughter known as Mary Salome or Salome.

This family was a family of zealots fighting for the strict observance of the Law of Moses. Circumcision, for instance, was to be a fundamental debate between Paul and the Church of Jerusalem led by James. Another point of contention was, the rejection of fornication, which had a precise meaning at the time: it forbade incestuous sexuality, marriage with nieces or nephews, divorce, and marriage with uncircumcised men. Separation was also a subject of debate, which specifically forbids sexual behavior during the woman’s menstrual flow. But there are other restrictions that fall under separation as well: it refers to separation in the Temple, which is not open to uncircumcised men, non-Jews; separation for eating, meaning that Jews cannot eat with Gentiles; separation of food, requiring a rejection of everything sacrificed to idols; separation from blood, which requires meat to be bled in a certain way and blood not to be in any way consumed (this can also go as far as excluding all meat and wine). Another topic debated was the rule of righteousness that requires one to love one’s neighbor as one’s brother and that condemns riches and the rich, hence setting God on the side of the poor. Finally, the rule of piety, which is love for God that has to be expressed in strict ways: prayers, rites, observing all rules, circumcision, the sign of the Covenant, etc. Eisenman assumes that Jesus adhered to these rules entirely, and that James, who was a strict follower of righteousness and piety, is the closest image we can have of Jesus himself. I will question this point at the end.

Eisenman’s second conclusion is that the Gospels and the Book of Acts or Book of Revelation were systematically overwritten to erase this family, to degrade its members, and to set Jesus apart with the virginity of Mary behind proving he was the Son of God, in spite of the fact that he is never made to speak these words, even under torture. The image that emerges is that of Jesus as a preacher of "Naziritism" (the word that best covers what I have explained before as far as observing the Law of Moses is concerned), and as an organizer of the popular Jewish masses (to resist slavery, to resist Roman occupation, but in a pacific way because what was essential was to fight, within the Jewish community, against the High Priests and the Herodians associated to the Pharisees and the Scribes). The question asked by the author, and never answered, is: who did it?

The third conclusion concerns Paul. He is customarily seen as being the Saulus present around the Herodians at that time. His conversion is discussed though there are some dark periods in the seven years or so that surround it. His position on the other hand is very clear. For one, he refuses circumcision for Gentiles. He rejects the idea of separation at the table and allows all available food to be eaten. He rejects baptism in the flesh (circumcision) and is in favor of a baptism in the spirit (with water like John the Baptist). He promotes the rite of Eucharist and communion in bread and blood. It is a clear provocation to all zealots and Nazirites, and of course James and the Jerusalem church. It also shows that the synoptic Gospels have been rewritten, since the three synoptic gospels advocate this communion in bread and wine, flesh and blood, but John’s does not. There is a lot more to say on this presence of wine in the Gospels if Jesus is a Nazirite like his brother James. Nevertheless, the term Christian was first used in Paul’s church in Antioch, though there seems to be some fuzziness about which Antioch we are speaking of.

The fourth conclusion is that Paul was directly responsible for James’s fate. First, in the early 40s in the Temple, James’s preaching was supported by the people present when Paul intervened and called to the young priests (in agreement with Temple rules) to expel James, then beat him severely and threw him down the stairs, leaving him for dead, although in Jericho with his supporters, having only a broken leg or two. Then Eisenman shows that after his conversion, Paul managed to declare himself an apostle, impose himself on the others in Jerusalem, and look the other way when a plot came up in Jerusalem in 62 to try and stone James for blasphemy, which was performed at once by the High Priests, the Pharisees, the Scribes, and the Herodians. After this event Philip and the other disciples and apostles had to disappear into distant communities, or get along with Paul, since Paul became the master of the new church that would be built on his line.

Unfortunately, it was not that simple. James’s death triggers a complete upheaval of the Jews against the Romans. The Nazirites seize power, execute the High Priest, some Pharisees, and of course the Herodians, destroy their palaces and organize the war against the Romans. On the Roman side Vespasian and Titus seize Jerusalem, destroying it and the Temple. Paul is well-known among these Romans and thus will survive. The hypothesis, or conclusion, Eisenman reaches here is that Paul’s project is actually set into motion by the death of James, the insurrection of the Jews, and the leveling of Jerusalem by Vespasian and Titus. This cannot be proved but it fits with what we know. On the Jewish side it is the emergence of rabbinic Judaism.

Eisenman finishes his book with Jude and a "minor" problem that shows, from his point of view, how the whole “Christian project" worked. Jude’s importance is minimized to the utmost by being referred to in many names, which essentially erases his existence, similarly to Theudas and many others. But he is also indirectly vilified by the creation of Judas Iscariot who delivers Jesus to the soldiers. No research has been able to find a meaning or origin of the name Iscariot, though the most common source may be "sicarios," meaning the armed rebels, or extreme Nazirites, in Greek. In fact, this character evades any capturing and Eisenman concludes he did not exist and there was no real traitor, just plain repression.

A Few Questions

First, I cannot accept the conclusion that "Who and whatever James was, so was Jesus" [963]. Due to the rewriting that took place we only have a false vision of Jesus. But we have no element to prove that Jesus was like James, who was an extreme, though non-violent Nazirite. At least one other hypothesis is possible: Jesus was taken in between two parties. One party wanted to reassert the Law of Moses (Qumran for example) which meant a stronger but completely closed-up Jewish community and extreme hostility to Roman occupation, eventually going so far as to advocate a war against the Romans. The other party consisted of those who wanted a more open community, though Jewish and independent. This meant spreading the faith in a new way (which Jesus did) and building a vast alliance of all eastern provinces and kingdoms to recapture some level of independence from the Romans. This meant that the religion had to be altered so that it did not appear sectarian, and could provide some hope to the masses. Alternatively, the religion could be conceived as having to produce a completely new doctrine that could appeal to everyone, that could become universal. It had to abandon the strict rules dictated by the Law of Moses and to introduce some simple new rites that would be always open, particularly to women, who played an important role in politics as Queens or as the wives of Emperors, senators, etc. It is in that line that we find Paul’s approach; I think (though maybe it is wishful thinking) that Jesus was on the second line, whereas James was on the first line. What are the elements that make me think so?

First, the fact that after Jesus’s death, James and the other brothers and apostles sent messengers to various non-Jewish kingdoms to convert them, and first of all their Kings or Queens. That’s where Paul does not require circumcision, whereas the others do.

Second, the Gospel of Mary-Magdalena. This Gospel is centered on going out to preach and evangelize, do the work of the Lord, on the one hand, and on the rejection of anger as a proper motivation on the other hand. We could also use other documents from Nag Hammadi, a library that is not used enough by Eisenman, to show that Jesus has preached another type of evangelization that was not based on Naziritism.

That leads me to the second question. What role did Mary-Magdalena play around Jesus and after his death? She is only quoted two or three times by Eisenman when he discusses the first sighting of Jesus after the resurrection. That is not enough. He does not decide who "the disciple that Jesus loved" is. Is it John? Is it James, or is it any other? That question has to be answered because of the tremendous power it may contain.

There is a third question that is floating over all these pages. If Jesus was not the son of God, which Eisenman seems to accept (it may have been a later construction from the Pauline and Greek trend), then how can we accept his resurrection? Eisenman discusses the sightings of Jesus after the resurrection as if they were real. This point must be clarified seriously. According to Eisenman’s data Jesus was a plain man; if this is true, we must put aside all the divine discourse in order to recapture the human being in Him, as well as the people around Him. This is a difficult task; in those days it was quite common to believe in supernatural events and most Jews believed in the possible intervention of God and the coming of a Messiah who was the son of God. This point is the weakest of the book because here Eisenman is no longer a historian. Instead, he accepts the truth of an impossible supernatural element that is the result of some obvious rewriting, overwriting, or ideological interpretation. I do understand that these episodes are "pregnant," as far as the method used to rewrite or write these supernatural events into the Gospels is concerned, but they are the proof of a later interpretation or completely mythologizing attitude on the side of those who did the rewriting or overwriting, which was guided by a motivation to prove Jesus is the son of God.

The research work and the discussions that have been going on for some time now and that have found their way into the general public, are going to change many of our ways of looking at the world. I am thinking of another conclusion I have not yet discussed: Islam was born in that period and is the heir of the defeated Naziritism of the time (particularly Qumran). If it is true we can see that the beliefs Islam carries have been rejected for at least six centuries more than its own lifespan, before it was officially born, and thus it was born into rejection. This should make us think twice before asserting anything about Islam. It is urgent that we step over more than twenty centuries of rejection of this way of looking at the world and accept it, integrate it and eventually learn how to live with it. One element is particularly disturbing along this line. At the time, These Nazirites were trained to smile under torture, so that when they were captured, they could die cursing—or forgiving, like Jesus—their torturers. Before being bludgeoned to death at the end of his stoning (he had been obliged to dig up his own grave and then was buried into it up to the waist before the stoning began), James would have said: "Forgive them, Father, they do not know what they are doing!" For them, death was both a reward of purity and an escape from absolute rejection. The historians of the time recorded details about these tortures, documenting the excess shedding of blood, shortening of members, pealing of bodies and heads, cutting of tongues, etc.

This book is also a tremendous tool to understand our problems today and maybe provide a guide for us to become better citizens. How can we integrate twenty centuries of rejection in our way of speaking to the victims of this rejection? They were born in rejection. They lived most of their history in rejection. And even today they are marginalized if not rejected in our society. That is the concrete heritage of Naziritism. I do believe Jesus was trying to find a new way to avoid this impasse. But he was crucified too early.

This leads to a last question. The Nazirites, including James, Simon and Jude, had an interest in eliminating Jesus, whose discourse could not be understood by the Jewish masses that were heavily influenced by Naziritism and hence could easily be manipulated by the High Priests, Pharisees, Scribes and Herodians. So Jesus might have been removed by some in his own movement. We have to take this hypothesis into account, though Eisenman does not seem to do so.

Finally, and this will be my own personal conclusion, Paul appears to have been an extremely intelligent opportunist who understood that the Roman Empire would be eventually confronted with the need of a unifying ideology or religion, an ideology or religion that could appear universal, and that the mythology that was developing (James seems to be one who advocated the permanent virginity of Mary, his own mother) could become the basis of a new religion that could satisfy that demand, be it only offered. Paul was going in the way history was going, though he does not appear to be very "kosher" about his means of action, but of course "kosher" does not apply any more to him than to one who drinks wine, dinks blood, eats all food available, including animals sacrificed to idols, etc.

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