Why is an atheist website concerned with reviewing a book on one of the brothers of Jesus, especially one who was such a minor character in the New Testament? Despite its basic biographical title, James the Brother of Jesus is not merely a dissertation on the biblical portrait and historicity of James, but a blinding light on the earliest origins of Christianity, the obfuscations of it produced by the New Testament authors, and much more. At nearly a thousand pages of content, it may be more appropriately called a journey than a simple book, yet with the depth and quality of its information, the journey is doubtlessly one worth taking for those interested in Christianity’s descent from Second Temple Judaism amid the turbulent waters of first century Judea.
Robert Eisenman is a Professor of Middle East Religions, Archaeology, and Islamic Law and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Judeo-Christian and Islamic Origins at California State University Long Beach. He holds a Master’s in Hebrew and Near Eastern Studies from New York University, a Ph.D in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures from Columbia University, and led the campaign to free access of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1980s and 90s. Some of his other books are The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians (a second volume to this work), and The New Testament Code.1
I. A Long Forgotten Hero
The first thing you may notice in the book is the author’s tremendous knowledge base and the impressive extent of his research. While most scholars would likely just rely on the New Testament, the accounts of Josephus, and any evidence in the archaeological record to construct a picture of James, Eisenman also pours through the Clementine Recognitions and Homilies, the Apostolic Constitutions, the writings of Eusebius, the apocalypses of James at Nag Hammadi, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and even alternate language versions of Josephus and Acts. Though conservative scholars, and even many liberal ones, have been known to dismiss such texts on little basis other than dating and canon apologetics, here Dr. Eisenman truly shows the value of working with all available information to weed through traditions and spot alterations, in order to reconstruct the original sources which may often hold a much earlier date than the versions we currently possess.
Eisenman also sorts out the confusing mishmash of multiple names in the New Testament, such as the numerous Jameses, Simons and Marys. The necessity for this is best seen in Acts, where “Joseph Barsabbas Justus” – a name which never again occurs in the New Testament – is presented as the runner-up against Matthias in the replacement of Judas Iscariot (1:23). Later on, when we find James as the head of the Jerusalem church (15:13-21), no typical introduction is given, as though we are expected to already know who he is. Because of the similar title of James the Just with Joseph Barsabbas Justus, the placeholder nature of “Barsabbas,” meaning literally ‘son of the father,’ as well as other issues, Eisenman argues that the author of Acts has reinvented our introduction to James. Where we should expect to hear of an election to carry on the Jerusalem ministry after Jesus, we are instead given an election to fill the seat of a disciple who betrayed Jesus (note the reversal of an heir with a betrayer).
This brief example is just one of many that Eisenman employs to build his case for an intentional cover-up of the importance and identity of Jesus’ brothers, especially James. It is no big secret that James and Paul did not see eye to eye on things, as even the canon of the New Testament attests (Paul disregards all of James’ directives on Gentiles in Acts 15:13-21 and scolds Peter for following James in eating only with Jews in Gal. 2:11-12), and with Luke, the purported author of Acts, being a companion of Paul, it is not difficult to accept the possibility of embellishment smear tactics. It has long been recognized among biblical scholars that Pauline Christianity was not the only game in town during the formative years of the religion, as Paul himself clearly wrote of having to fend off Jewish-Christian opponents several times to spread his message, yet the real controversy for traditionalists in Eisenman’s book would be the radical brush with which he paints the Jamesian community.
Dr. Eisenman places James among the Zealot movement described by Josephus, not just as one of its participants, but as one of its principle leaders. In first century Judea, the Zealot movement was an opposition force to Roman governance and other Jewish sects considered to be accommodationists, namely the Pharisees and Sadducees. Along with the Zealots were the Essenes, Nazoreans, Nazirites, Ebionites, Sabeans, Mandaeans, and other sects that embraced a ‘Jewish Christianity,’ and were not so separate from one another, as Eisenman shows. James’ title of “the Just One” or “the Righteous One,” as well as his reputation preserved among Hegesippus, Epiphanius, Clement of Alexandria, and other sources, points to a lifestyle of extreme piety and Jewish nationalism. So popular was James with the Jerusalem community that his unjust execution sparked the first Jewish revolt in 66 AD. Astoundingly, James appears to have a legacy that left quite an impression on his contemporaries, while his brother Jesus has very little of such impact in the historical record.
II. Herodian Company and Alterations in the New Testament
When one contrasts the anti-establishment teachings of Jewish Christian groups like the Jamesian community with the politics of Paul, Luke, and the other gospel authors, it becomes startingly clear that the latter bears a pro-Roman, pro-Gentile slant. While James is counted among the opposition forces, only committed to the law of Moses, Paul teaches obedience to governing authority (Romans 13:1-7) and trivializes the law of Moses (Gal. 3:13, Romans 10:4). This is just one additional motive behind the reversals and obfuscations regarding James that can be found in the New Testament. Paul had imbued himself with a ‘mission to the Gentiles’ which was not well received by the Jamesian community, as evidenced by the “some from James” that taught Peter not to even eat with Gentiles (Gal. 2:11-12).
In addition to his conflicting teachings, Paul may have been disliked by Jewish Christian groups for another reason. Eisenman proposes that Paul was a Herodian, descendants of the integration of Jews with Edomites during the second century BC. Herodians were not well liked by Israelites, not just because of their heritage, but because they came to hold positions of power in Rome from which they often oppressed the Jewish people. Among these rulers were Herod the Great, Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas, Agrippa I and Agrippa II, who all either showed utter insensitivity to their Jewish subjects or at the very least engaged in marriages and divorces that were seen as offensive by many Jews, especially Zealots and similar sects.
Eisenman ties in Paul with the Herodians by noting his reference to a “Herodion” he calls his “kinsman” in Romans 16:11, his relation to the household of Aristobulus (Romans 16:10), and his Roman citizenship (Acts 22:25-29). There were several ways to obtain Roman citizenship in Paul’s time, such as by serving in the Roman military, purchasing citizenship from a Roman official, or by being a member of the Herodian family, but because Paul claims to have been born a Roman citizen in Acts 22:27-28, military service and payment are ruled out. Paul even surrounded himself with other Herodians, as several members of his church at Antioch appear to be (Acts 13:1). Add to this the fact that Paul’s only claim to knowing James’ brother Jesus was from a vision he had on the way to allegedly persecuting Christians and it is not difficult to see why Paul would have been denounced by “those reputed to be pillars” (Gal. 2:9).
One does gain the impression from many passages in Paul’s writings that he harbors resentment against the early church in Jerusalem and its treatment of him. Not only does he scoff at those reputed pillars, clearly implying a difference between reputation and actuality, but he elsewhere states that their status is irrelevant in his eyes, that they “contributed nothing” (Gal. 2:6), and, seemingly in some anger, argues that he is not inferior to “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5). To say the least, tensions were quite high between Paul’s community and the community of James, and with Paul’s intent to unite Jews and Gentiles alike with his message, also encouraging submission to Rome, it becomes easy to recognize potential motives that would exist for downplaying the brothers of Jesus, distorting things in one’s favor, and even outright replacing whole events with stories of a ‘befitting’ message.
The election of Judas Iscariot is one of these alterations described by Eisenman which we have looked at already, and there are many other examples. Acts 8:26-38 tells of the conversion of a eunuch of “Candace, queen of the Ethiopians”, yet this queen’s name is actually a corruption of the title held by the queens of ancient Kush (synonymous with Ethiopia in Greco-Roman sources), kandake. While a Candace did rule Kush in the fourth century BC, there was no queen of the region from approximately 41 to 62 AD, during when Philip would have supposedly met the Ethiopian queen in Acts. As Eisenman explains, this story is remarkably similar to one in Josephus of an unnamed individual asking Izates, the son of Queen Helen of Adiabene, if he understands the importance of obeying the Torah – which he happens to be reading at the time – specifically the instruction on circumcision. Why has Luke reinvented this story? For starters, Josephus’ version seems to be a conversion to Judaism, whereas the conversion in the Acts version is to Christianity, but Eisenman also suggests that the tale serves as a Queen of Sheba legend for the New Testament: a queen of Ethiopia who came to hear the wisdom of Solomon transformed into one who came to learn the wisdom of Pauline Christianity.
Another example would be the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7. Dr. Eisenman proposes that the story is a distortion on the stoning of James plus an earlier attack on him perpetrated by Paul. The name Stephen, he argues, was taken from Josephus yet again, where a Roman official named Stephen is beaten outside the city walls by Jewish revolutionaries. Further significance can be found in the meaning of the name, which is “crown” and may serve both as the ‘crown of martyrdom’ and a mockery of the ‘crown’ of long hair worn by Nazirites like James. In Acts, Paul is among the crowd stoning Stephen, and a remnant of the original identity of the victim may be preserved in the reference to “the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become” (7:52). Once again we have a reversal tactic, from the stoning of the nationalist James by Roman officials to the stoning of Stephen, a Roman official beaten by nationalistic Jews.
Eisenman goes into many more examples, including the obfuscations in the gospels that shape Jesus into a more pacifistic and Hellenized messiah, but for the sake of length, I will not cover any more of it in this review.
III. Qumran and James
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of James the Brother of Jesus is the association to the Dead Sea Scrolls that Eisenman draws. James is depicted as the Teacher of Righteousness and Paul as the Spouter of Lying, while Ananus, the murderer of James, is portrayed as the Wicked Priest. Eisenman’s theory on this has received much criticism, mainly because of the prevailing scholarly opinion that the Dead Sea Scrolls are the product of a sect of Jewish Essenes of the first century BC. However, Eisenman does not suggest that all the scrolls date to a later period, and in fact many of the ones he comments on have a range of dates in carbon testing that extends well into the 2nd century AD, such as the Damascus Document and the Community Rule.2 The preference for a first century BC dating of all the scrolls seems to come more from pet theories like that of Roland de Vaux, as well as the reliance on specific passages, like a reference to the Righteous Teacher arriving 390 years after the Babylonian Exile, as found in the Damascus Document. Needless to say, there is some room for disagreement on dating certain texts.
Whatever time period one ascribes to the scrolls, it must be admitted that Eisenman delineates some interesting similarities and shared terminology between them and the epistles of Paul, the letter of James, and other non-canonical sources. The Three Nets of Belial in the Damascus Document – fornication, wealth, and Temple pollution – are a subject of no small amount of coverage in the letter of James and the epistles of Paul, and were certainly present in the Herodian kings of the time, part of what caused such disgust for them among many Jewish Christian groups. Eisenman even notes recurring usage of the Hebrew B-L for Belial and Z-D-K for Zadok in various texts relating to James, Paul, Simon, and others.
The association of Paul with the Spouter of Lying also makes for interesting observations in James’ warning to guard your tongue (James 3:1-12) and Paul’s own reassurances that he is not lying (Gal. 1:20, 4:16), indicating that he was likely accused of it enough to include such epithets among some of his fantastic claims. Overall, the case for this connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls is not well made in James the Brother of Jesus because Eisenman promises to give it due treatment in a forthcoming book (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians, which is now available), but nonetheless, his theory is fortunately not a necessary component to the rest of his thesis in the book. One can easily accept the presentation of James and all else without having to accept a connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls too.
A work of this magnitude cannot be done justice in as brief a review as this, so I encourage all who are intrigued to read the book themselves, especially if you leave this review feeling puzzled or unsatisfied, since the book goes into far greater detail and many additional points than I have elaborated upon here. Some readers may be a bit perturbed by the amount of repetition, but with all the subjects covered in the book, Eisenman has to juggle starting one line of argument, picking it up later, reminding us of past details, relating things to each other, and much more. Scholarly and immense as this is, the repetition is necessary to keep us from getting lost along the journey. Chronological charts of most of the sources and persons mentioned in the book are also included, along with maps of ancient Judea, abbreviations, and countless notes and citations.
James the Brother of Jesus is a most worthwhile read for anyone interested in the earliest origins of Christianity, the backdrop of first century Judea, the Hellenization of Judaism into Christianity, or the historical identity of James, and by extent Jesus too. It may challenge orthodox conceptions in these areas, but Eisenman’s reconstruction has the testimonies of history, scripture, archaeology, and logic on its side, while it simultaneously exposes the flaws in much of the orthodox view. All that remains to be said is that one cannot have a complete discussion on the rise of Christianity without this book, as it is one of the cornerstones of recent scholarly investigation.