by Robert Eisenman, 1996

Reviewed by Michael Turton, 2002


This amazing book is the culmination of a lifetime’s familiarity with the textual and historical evidence surrounding early Christian history, particularly Josephus, the apocryphal writings, and the works of the early church historians.  It is at once exhaustive, relentless, brutal, clever, perceptive and completely convincing.

 JAMES THE BROTHER OF JESUS is not an easy book to summarize.  At 1074 pages it contains a whole world between its covers, with maps, genealogies, footnotes and an extensive and useful index.  So let's begin, not with Eisenman's conclusions, but with his methods, which are the major focus of this massive work..

 Eisenman, like many scholars from non-orthodox perspectives, begins with the idea that all sources are on an equal footing as far as their ability to convey useful information.  He rejects the establishment position regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls, and dates them firmly, by language and content, to the first century.  To him, they are intimately bound up with the history of early Christianity.  Indeed, he identifies the „Teacher of Righteousness” in the Scrolls with James, and the „Liar“ with Paul.  Point by point he builds a case for his conclusions, sifting through scores, if not hundreds, of references, stories, narratives and snippets, and relating them, not event by event, nor chronologically, but by common vocabulary.  To him the early Christian writings, the DSS, and the letters of Paul represent a giant dialogue carried on between competing groups, each sharing an identical symbolic, ideological and theological vocabulary, but modifying, twisting and transmuting it as their purpose demands.  A typical Eisenman passage looks like this:

One should also notice that Hippolytus’ ‘Nassenes’ — whom he seems to think are an earlier group of ‘Priests’,  “following the teachings of James”, have more or less this same doctrine of ‘the Perfect Man’.  They call him either ‘Man’ or ‘Adam’ — the ‘Primal Adam’-ideology delineated in the Pseudoclementines again — even sometimes, ‘the Son of Man’.  For the Pseudoclementines, which appear to think that Simon “Magus” — together with another Samaritan named Dositheus — learned this doctrine from John the Baptist, ‘the Standing One is the Exalted Power which is above the Power of the High God [‘that is, in others, the Christ’] superior to the creator of the world’.

Not only do these doctrines peer through the Gospels even in their present form, for instance, in the references to ‘the Great Power’ and the repeated allusions to ‘standing’, but their antiquity is attested to by Paul himself, who knows that Adam is ‘the First Man’ (that is, ‘the Primal Adam’) and that Jesus, ‘the Son of Man’ or ‘the Lord out of Heaven’, is ‘the Second Man’ and ‘Heavenly’ or ‘a Heavenly One’ — what he also refers to as ‘the Last Adam’ (1 Cor 15:45-49).  This, in turn, means that the knowledge of these doctrines and their identification with ‘the Christ’ comes before the Gospels in their present form and, true enough, reflections of the ‘Primal Adam’ ideology and the ‘standing’ vocabulary are to be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

The power of this method is obvious and profound.  It renders pointless the interminable debates about the date of this or the authenticity of that.  Authenticity and dating are only a concern when the documents in question offer some promise of historicity.  There is no mention of which gospel came first, or who is dependent on who.  In his treatment, the various writings of Paul, the patristic fathers, the gospel writers, the authors of Acts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the apocryphal writings are not terribly concerned with historical truth.  They all know what happened, and to who.  Rather, those writers are caught up in (and in later years, duped by) an intense and bitter ideological struggle over the meaning and direction of early Christianity.  Such history as can be uncovered in their writings is there only in obscured form, ‘like pebbles seen at the bottom of a stream,’ as Eisenman puts it.  Nevertheless, sifting through the debates between James and Paul over what Christianity meant, and refracting them through Josephus and later historians, much becomes clear.  The current NT represents an attempt by Paul and supporters of Pauline history to write James, the most important leader of early Christianity, out of the movement.  For example, sorting through the references in Acts and in apocryphal sources, Eisenman shows how the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts is really an overwrite of a physical attack on James by Paul in the 40s.  He believes that Paul probably appears in Josephus’ writings as the mysterious ‘Saulus’ who is a member of the Herodian family (a grandson of Herod the Great).  Eisenman concludes that Paul’s mission is to redirect Jewish messianism, its violent, anti-Roman, nationalistic, xenophobic ideology represented, and led, by James, into a peaceful, spiritual messianic religion presided over by a Christ-figure who is as apolitical as Santa Claus.  Pauline Christianity, then, represents the struggle for „hearts and minds“ that complemented Roman military and political initiatives against Jewish messianic nationalism.  In this Pauline Christianity was almost completely successful, for as Eisenman demonstrates, many of the ‘James“ traditions have been absorbed into ‘Jesus’ traditions, and transformed thereby.  Whether Jesus existed in his own right, or is simply one of the many NT transformations of people into their own relatives (the way Mary has a sister also named Mary), Eisenman is unable to say.  Thus, in Eisenman’s view, the LEAST historically reliable documents regarding the origins of Christianity are in the current NT.  The canonical gospels he simply dismisses as Hellenistic romantic fictions, Acts as a fantasy.  The Jesus we have is a composite figure, with a few traditions and terminologies going back to his Palestinian nationalist roots, but most of it Pauline overlay attempting to obscure the true origins of Christianity as an anti-Roman cult.

 Another advantage of Eisenman’s method is the way it unites the disparate bodies of first century literary, religious and historical writings into a whole that can be profitably mined for historical understanding.  Again and again he is able to show that Josephus was foundational for the later NT writings, especially Acts, but there are hints that Mark must have been familiar with at least THE JEWISH WAR.  Parallels between events widely separated in time and space reveal authors intimately familiar with the semiotics of the struggle in early Christianity.

 In his introduction Eisenman recommends that one have at hand an NT, a copy of the Scrolls in translations, and a complete Josephus.  These would be nice, but they are not necessary; the relevant quotes are generally given.  In any case Eisenman ranges over so much material that only the resources of a major university would enable one to have at hand all the requisite texts.  Fortunately much is available over the internet.  Eisenman also supplies maps and a genealogy of the Herodians, without which the book makes absolutely no sense.  This reviewer must confess to completely losing track of who is who in that much-married, fecund dynasty.  At times it seemed nearly everyone in Palestine was named either „Herod“ or „Judas“.

 Reviewers have complained about several aspects of JAMES THE BROTHER OF JESUS.  Foremost is the book’s repetitiveness and circularity.  Eisenman is not writing a straightforward literary exposition of an idea.  Rather, he jumps from place to place, gradually revealing the whole idea.  Reading the book is like watching a computer screen light up one random pixel at a time.  After several hundred pages the general outlook finally emerges.  He waits until the final sentence of the work, however, to announce his conclusions (which the reader by then will have grasped).

 As a consequence, JAMES THE BROTHER OF JESUS is incredibly repetitive.  It is no exaggeration to say that this might well be the most repetitive book I have ever read.  Considerable commitment and staying power are required.  Partly this seems to be to keep the reader apprised of the accumulating data set, and partly it seems to be necessary to help the reader imbibe the ATMOSPHERE of the terminology as the first century writers might have dealt with it.  THEY breathed it literally from the womb.  After the umpteenth time one sees a reference to the „standing“ imagery, one grows the right antenna.  Critics of Eisenman will argue that the repetition is there to convince, in lieu of a more developed argument, a charge I cannot wholly deny.  Many readers have complained that JAMES THE BROTHER OF JESUS is badly in need of an editor, and I cannot wholly disagree with that either.  The level of detail is so thick, and the references so copious, that it seems Eisenman often loses track of the thread of an argument in his joy at ferreting out yet another nugget from the unyielding earth of an obscure, cryptic reference.  Finally, Eisenman often descends into unjustified hyperbole — although sometimes this is a welcome relief from the soporific effects of the two hundred and eighty-fifth example of the „Power“ - imagery, or the one hundred and tenth reference to „linen“. Nevertheless, despite the uneven, often polemical standpoint of JAMES THE BROTHER OF JESUS, there is no denying that this is a great work in every sense of that much-abused word.  Those who set aside the time to read and reflect on this wonderful book will not find it wasted.