Interview for the Jesus Mysteries forum, with Dennis Walker, May 15, 2012.
Dennis Walker: Your Ph.D. studies were in Islamic Law at Columbia. How did Christian origins and the Dead Sea Scrolls become your specialty?
Robert Eisenman: My general area of studies was in Middle East History and Religions. As such, I concentrated on Judaism and Islam.
My M. A. was in Hebrew and Near Eastern Studies at N.Y.U. At Columbia, I found working with the most famous Islamic scholar in the world, Joseph Schacht was inspiring.
He wrote: The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, Oxford. and was the Editor of The Encyclopedia of Islam for EJ Brill in Leiden. I found the methods he used revolutionary.
When I came to Cal State Long Beach, I encountered almost all Fundamentalist Christian Students. They were almost to a person interested in Jesus and the New Testament.
I found I could apply Schacht’s methods of Hadith/Tradition criticism which he applied to the Sunna of Islam to the traditions of early Christianity. This helped me immensely.
Then I found everyone was interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of my Master’s subjects. So when I put them altogether. This was what I got.
DW: In your first book, Maccabees, Zadokites, Christians and Qumran, an E.J. Brill monograph published in 1983, you challenged the dominant paradigm of Dead Sea Scroll scholarship, seeing the anti-Establishment themes in the DSS as aiming at the Herodian rather than the Hasmonaean rulers. What convinced you to go against the field?
RE: Well, it was clear from my own studies and the numerous lectures that I had been giving at that point for some 10 years that when you read the Dead Sea Scrolls over and over again, the ethos and approach of these documents were generally completely in line with the Maccabeans not opposed to them. In other words, the Dead Sea Scrolls could not be considered anti-Maccabean. Rather they had to be considered pro-Maccabean.
This, in effect, was the thrust of Cecil Roth’s ‘Zealot hypothesis’. He, anyhow, had come to grips with the uncompromising, aggressive and so-called ‘Zealot’ or non-Essene character or ethos of the writings. The only problem was dating. Establishment scholars had decided to place the larger part of the sectarian documents in a pre-‘Christian’ period and had done this on the basis of parameters that they considered totally convincing, that is, external parameters such as archaeology but, in particular, handwriting style or paleography – hardly a secure or well-established discipline.
But what there was in these documents was a reigning establishment that could best be referred to as ‘Wicked Priests’. Who could these be? They either had to be the compromising previous establishment before the coming of the Maccabees or the one who came after the Maccabeans. Why, because the ethos of the documents that were then known (the unpublished documents at that time didn’t change this to any extent – on the contrary, just reinforced it) made it clear that what we had before us were a species of uncompromising, aggressive, and certainly unaccommodating mindset. But ‘the internal evidence’ of the materials – that is, what the documents themselves said, which I always considered superior to the ‘external evidence’ such as it was bearing on these materials – had to be the determinant. This clearly pointed to the same compromising and pro-Roman establishment one encounters in the New Testament period.
For example, there were things like the emphasis on Habakkuk 2:4, ‘the Righteous shall live by his faith,’ the foundation piece of Christian theology such as it became, the brutality of the foreign armies invading the country who ‘adored their standards and worshipped their weapons of war’ (certainly the practice of Imperial Rome), the farming out of taxes by this overseas super power, the condemnation of niece marriage and polygamy, and the emphasis on ‘the Star Prophecy’ which we knew from Josephus played a part in the whole First Century and the run-up to the War against Rome – these were the kinds of internal things pointing towards the Roman/Herodian Period.
It was data of this kind that convinced me that the present ruling consensus among Qumran scholars was, not only completely unsophisticated and woefully out-of-touch, but basically totally wrong. Moreover, to add to this, was something I reiterated in the Introduction to my first book on the subject which you refer to, Maccabees. Zadokites Christians, and Qumran: A New Hypothesis of Qumran Origins (E. J. Brill, 1983), which was basically an expansion of an article I was then writing. This was the clear anti-Maccabean bias inherent both in the mindset and, even if unconsciously, the writings of the scholars who were approaching this subject at the time – and unfortunately those still approaching the subject – who were basically either of a Jewish or Christian theological view.
Where so-called ‘Christian’ ones were concerned, one might have expected an anti-Maccabean mindset. This would not have been abnormal, but the casual observer might ask how could Jews have an anti-Maccabean mindset? As difficult as this might be to comprehend, that’s pretty obvious. Rabbinic Judaism or, for that matter, Jews in general have never had a high opinion of the Maccabees until recently. In fact, Rabbinate literature on the whole – if not overtly, then certainly covertly – does not have a positive view of the Maccabeans. In fact, one can hardly find a mention of them in the whole corpus and if and when one does, it is usually unflattering.
Of course, there is the non-inclusion of the Maccabee books in the Canon which was determined by Rabbinic Authorities after the fall of the Temple; but this mindset – which certainly cannot be described as positive or sympathetic – actually seems to go so far as to blame movements like the Maccabean one as the cause of the destruction of the Temple and the loss of the homeland. Therefore scholars emanating from religious backgrounds of this kind found it perfectly normal to view the Maccabean Establishment as a ‘Wicked’ one. Some of us new, more Zionistic authors (believe it or not, I am still persecuted by Israeli scholars and societal institutions) did not.
DW: Your follow-up to MZCQ, another Brill monograph, was a line-by-line reading of the Habakkuk Pesher. One thing that stands out is the close attention you pay to the vocabulary, the language of the texts. Did your background in both literature and Islam equip you for this?
RE: This comes from a line by line and word for word repeated reading of the text to classes over a 25-year Period. But as you correctly imply, my background in literature, which was one of my majors during my undergraduate years at college, also played a part. I had learned in such classes and those of my 2nd major Philosophy that instructors conducted such classes, not by following notes or pre-arranged lecture outlines, but by reading the texts themselves – commenting on, analyzing, and illuminating them.
This I found to be the most effective way, not only of teaching classes in atmospheres such as this, but of keeping student interest. Students weren’t interested in ‘canned lectures’ which, as it were, just put them to sleep. They wanted something fresh and exciting and, since our classes at a great public university like California State University Long Beach with 35,000 students had to be interesting in order to survive and not be cut; this, I found this to be the best way of presenting material as it was both a fortuitous conjunction of professional and intellectual development and survival because in this way every lecture was fresh and original and the texts could speak for themselves.
You have to look at the ‘internal data,’ as I said – given the less-than-secure nature of what could be considered ‘external data’ in a subject like the Dead Sea Scrolls. ‘External data’ where these were concerned included archaeology, the results of paleography such as they were, and even the carbon dating. Unfortunately, in a moment of inadvertence, I myself had called for this last-mentioned procedure in the midst of the debate over the release of the Scrolls but not to achieve ‘absolute’ dates – which were for the most part impossible given the margins of error in question – but ‘relative’ dating of the different manuscripts just to test the accuracy of the so-called paleographic sequences then considered both operative and sacrosanct as determinants.
This last turned out to be the most damaging effort I initiated because the public were 1) just not aware of its limitations and 2) did not understand how ‘relative dating’ as a procedure might differ from ‘absolute dating.’ Consensus scholars, who had never called for these tests or felt the need for them in the first place, were quick to capitalize on this ignorance – being for the most part ignorant of such fine-points themselves.
But here’s where Islam comes in and plays a part. The studies in Islam – specifically Islamic Law – I had undertaken at the end of my graduate Ph. D. career gave me the basis for understanding ‘tradition’ research, as I explained above, and how various ‘traditions’ or ‘hadith’ (news) could represent the positions of various schools both early and late. This gave me the understanding of how to determine historical fact from retrospective tradition imposition or more literary mythological representations transposed backwards in time.
My teacher, Professor Joseph Schacht, was the Editor of The Encyclopaedia of Islam and the foremost expert on Hadith criticism in the world – and you could consider what we call ‘the New Testament’ just another form of what the Muslims call ‘Hadiths’, that is, ‘News’, or ‘Good News’. This basically was my fundamental training and it helped me beyond anything I could imagine connect what were being called the Dead Sea Scrolls with what was later being retrospectively represented in the Gospels and later literature.
One caveat here, the Pauline Corpus, where demonstrably authentic, provided an entirely opposite picture and harmonized well, not only with events, but also the vocabulary in the Dead Sea Scrolls; so, once again, here too a line-by-line and even a meticulous word-by-word familiarity with the vocabulary and emphasis of the Scrolls themselves was absolutely necessary and, not only did my repeated classes in these subjects year after year, term after term, help me to achieve this; but this is what I have tried to achieve in my work. Some may regard this as tedious, but nothing less will suffice.
DW: Those books were produced well before all the Scrolls were publicly available. Did you feel at the time that ‘consensus’ scholars generally wanted to keep these texts not only hidden from view in many cases, but also wanted the public to see them as only distantly related to the New Testament texts?
RE: Well, not exactly. As you correctly surmise, it was these ideas and these books that led me to campaign for the release of all the Scrolls – and this in unexpurgated editions without the usual commentary. Why? Because the public then came to see such commentaries, being ‘officially sanctioned’ or so it thought, as the last word.
The idea that such ‘consensus scholars’ or members of the ‘International Team’, as it came to be called, purposefully wanted to keep such documents hidden – and I think I originally coined the term ‘consensus scholars’ – was not really mine but more people like Baigent and Leigh in their Dead Sea Scrolls Deception. Of course, psychologically or, shall we say, spiritually these ‘consensus scholars’ were intent on distancing these documents as far as possible from ‘Christian’ origins in Palestine but I’m not even sure this was as purposeful as you imply.
For my part, I did not really think they themselves understood that there actually was a relationship to ‘New Testament texts,’ as you put it, or ‘Christianity’ as it were – whatever this was in Palestine/Judea in this period. I never gave them this credit. So convinced were they of the correctness of their view of ‘the external data’ – particularly a pseudo-science such as paleography with quite large error parameters as I explained – they just never really saw any close connection with things like the New Testament so how could they be frightened?
Moreover, if you took the New Testament to mean solely what we now call the Gospels, their attitude was quite understandable and, for the most part, largely correct as there was very little relationship. This was like comparing fiction to reality or, if one prefers, apples to oranges. Few people bothered looking closely at the vocabulary of the Pauline corpus because they didn’t really consider it had a relationship to any extent to the Scrolls – that is, before we started pointing it out and focusing on it.
People like Frank Moore Cross, the doyen of Dead Sea Scrolls Studies in America, really had no speciality in this area anyhow. His speciality was perhaps some ten centuries earlier – Canaanite literature, if you want to call it that – so how could he and International Team scholars like him and those people following them (more or less like lemmings) correctly perceive the relationship to materials like the Letter of James in the New Testament or the authenticated letters of Paul such as Galatians 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, and such like? They could not.
Therefore, I never really blamed anyone for suppressing the Dead Sea Scrolls for ideological reasons and not just plain empire-building or turf wars – except perhaps someone like Father Milik. Where he was concerned, the perception and insight might have been a little bit deeper. Milik even suggested in the Introduction to the work he finally published, Ten Years of Discovery in the Judean Wilderness, that the group in question – which of course he was referring to as ‘Essenes’ – would be like early Christians (as he conceived of them) except they did not have a really developed notion of the Gospel or Pauline concept of ‘Jesus’ or ‘the Supernatural Christ’!
How surprising! But, of course, this would be true because there was no developed conception of ‘Jesus’ or ‘the Supernatural Christ’ at this time in Palestine or even much later, as the concept was Greek as Paul and others announced it, in any case, in their travels in the Dispersion or overseas in and from the mid-50s onwards. So in Palestine there was something else, ‘the Messianic Movement’ as I liked to call it because the Scrolls were, if nothing else, certainly ‘Messianic’ – and this was, for lack of a better term, the original ‘Messianic Movement’ if one preferred to call it this.
So, I never accused anyone of purposely suppressing the Dead Sea Scrolls for ideological reasons – still don’t (as I said, this was more Baigent and Leigh’s and their imitators’ approach and they got good mileage, financially speaking, out of it). For me, the situation was more subtle. What was clear from what they were doing is that they were empire-building and building academic and scholarly monopolies that not only controlled all publication and reviews of publications, but gave them full control interpretation-wise of the materials and even, moreover who got hired and where; so what developed was a kind of academic curia.
It followed, therefore, that In order to be admitted to this curia you had to adhere to certain views. But this is to a certain extent almost always true in graduate studies. You have to have the same or similar ideas of your ‘Dr. Vater’ as they call him in German – the person who directed your research. Otherwise you really could not be expected to advance and, if you didn’t, you might as well quit. This was not only a problem in Qumran studies but elsewhere too then, but in Qumran Studies it became very serious. As I put it in my Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, ‘control of the manuscripts meant control of the field’ and this problem extended for some 30 years from the early 50s when the Scrolls were first discovered (though the Israelis did at first allow everything they had bought to be published) to the mid-80’s; and this is what I and then others who came to grips with this problem started to agitate against.
I really didn’t expect to find any new or significant materials in the unpublished data. I just wanted to get away from Establishment’s Editio Princeps official interpretations, as it were, which gave the public the artificial idea that such ‘official’ or ‘semi-official’ interpretations were, so-to-speak, frozen in stone. This was the kind of interpretation that we were trying both to undermine and open up by ‘letting a thousand voices sing’ as I put it in my Introduction to James Robinson’s and my Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is what happened when the Scrolls became in their unedited, unreconstructed, and un-interpreted form free for everyone to look at and free for everyone to interpret for themselves.
DW: The picture of first century CE Judaea is that it was a pretty bleak time for most of the population. Is the gospel picture strike you as accurate?
RE: This is a pretty good question. Of course, in order to properly study the Dead Sea Scrolls, you must read both the Maccabee Books and Josephus very closely. Of course it is a very bleak, as you put it, though, obviously, there was a lot of interest and enthusiasm in the burgeoning ‘Messianic Movements’ as I have explained and which were emerging in opposition to and hopefully ultimately replace both the Herodian and Roman regimes.
This is also the picture somewhat in the New Testament or the Gospels, but for the opposite reasons because the Gospels – if you can refer to such a multitude of them like this – have been, unfortunately, completely pacified and Hellenized and the real historical picture only occasionally peeks through. Again, unfortunately, this is the general public perception of the period as well – and one means by this, not just the religious public, but also even the secular one because both have grown up on and are familiar with Gospel stories – and are completely unaware of the rather distorted nature of their lens because for almost two millennia so many before them have credited this picture as an historical one or that of true history.
Even today, one sees how impossible it is for either the unschooled or unlettered – nay even the lettered – to distinguish literature from true history. This is a skill only a very small number of highly-sensitized and critically-minded aficionados are able to embrace, since to run against an entrenched spiritual and conceptual axis that has been operating for some sixteen-seventeen centuries now is very difficult for anyone with just a finite, comparatively minuscule time of existence on this earth. How are such persons to stand against almost all of history, yet this is what a proper understanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls allow, nay, demand one to do.
So yes, one must expect the reading public to start with a reading knowledge of these early sources but one cannot expect this to be very prevalent in a large segment of the population. This would also include Islamic populations, Hindu populations, Buddhist populations, or almost any other world cultural elites who, because of the insistent way these materials from the Western world have circulated and penetrated their cultures (who in the world, for instance, has not heard of ‘Jesus’?), have come to accept them as authentic stories or authentic history as well. Therefore, the barriers against developing this kind of insight into any of these materials in any widespread way are almost insurmountable.
To start with, as just signaled, one must have an almost meticulous understanding of the works of someone like Josephus, but even his lens must be corrected, as we suggested, for the pro-establishment, anti-agitator/’Messianic’/’Zealot’ (he even seems to have first coined the designation) enthusiast whom he so despises because he blames them and their agitation for the deaths of number of his friends and his own discomfiture. So, like a space telescope whose lens has been distorted, even the images of an historian like Josephus (to say nothing of the Gospels) must be corrected; and this is a skill which is almost impossible to expect in the general population. Even for persons, such as those in your discussion milieu, this task can be Herculean.
But having said this – yes, the Gospel picture, too, is completely ahistorical or, if one prefers, absolutely distorted and has, as I have said, nothing to do with ‘true history’ but rather period literature and its lens must be corrected by using the Dead Sea Scrolls as well even as early Church testimony about people like and the person of James, including how James emerges by refraction in and through the lens of the Pauline corpus, to say nothing of the Book of Acts.
Though I have been criticized for the length or what some have called ‘the density’ of my books, without length of this type or density and the complete presentation of sources for the general reader as remarked above, this task is virtually impossible for the general reader to undertake in any serious and/or convincing manner. Just as in the social sciences or reading a work by, say, Karl Marx, I hope lengthy and heavy-duty works of this kind can help give the reader the tools, he or she will need to penetrate this literary and historical labyrinth and move forward.
For a start, one must also correct the inaccurate picture of the First Century which, while bleak, was essentially one of utter turmoil ending with the destruction of the Temple and independent Jewish life in what the Romans started calling – using a term in Greek based on the Biblical term for ‘Philistines’ – the Province of ‘Palestine’.
Once one has developed the insight and the tools to start to correct the retrospective historical presentations of outside and overseas documents, like a giant snowball rolling down a hill, feeding upon themselves as more and more people unfamiliar with the true situation in Palestine and hostile to Jewish revolutionary and ‘Messianic’ ideals motivating it, took over the production and course of this literature; then one can begin to come to real grips with questions like the true meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the real Historical James, and finally what most people, of course, are most interested in and want to know, who was the Historical Jesus.
DW: There are two things in particular that stand out for me in your more recent books that we don’t see elsewhere: the Helen and Izates conversions and certain Scroll texts like the Damascus Document as providing a surprising amount of material for the NT texts. If that’s accurate, did you always know you were headed in that direction or did this insight come gradually?
RE: Again a good question. No, these were things that developed out of my research and lengthy exposition of these matters. Perhaps the key moment of insight came at the climax of my James the Brother of Jesus when I discovered the similarity of the conversion in Acts of the Treasurer of the Ethiopian Queen returning from Jerusalem on his way to Gaza (the gateway to Egypt) with the conversion of the two sons of Queen Helen in Josephus and also as reflected in Talmudic literature (which knows the actual passage from the Bible as opposed to what Ananias and his unnamed companion – Paul? – are teaching, that the ‘Zealot’ teacher from Galilee is using to convert them and convince them to circumcise themselves, Genesis 17:27), set in the Kingdom of Adiabene in today’s Kurdistan and Northern Iraq and Syria; and saw the similarity between the two Queens, Acts’ ‘eunuch’ allusion (the Roman view of circumcision), and Helen’s and Paul’s ‘Antioch Community”s famine-relief operations.
Not only did this give me a good insight into the working method of Acts’ authors, but it is why my attention began to shift to Queen Helen whom I came to see as very important in the support of many of these movements – not the least of which being, as just noted, her famine-relief efforts, celebrated in both Josephus and the Talmud, when she sent her Treasury agents down to Egypt to buy grain paralleling this story about ‘the Ethiopian eunuch’ in Acts (there is so much more buried here, it is difficult to describe but your readers no doubt know the most of it); but also her rich gifts to the Temple, again described both in Josephus and Talmudic literature (here the golden candelabra given by her and her son to the Temple is still pictured as the central item in the booty displayed on Titus’ Victory Arch in Rome), not to mention her son, whose construction of her burial monument in Jerusalem rivals that of any other burial monuments we know from this period.
Nor is this to mention, either, the role of her descendants, who triggered the final Uprising against Rome and martyred themselves on the Road to Beit Horon, nor her seeming involvement with a Simon Magus-type character at some point in her career, nor her relation, for instance, to Nazirite oath procedures so important to Qumran as well. All these matters helped focus my attention on her, her sons, and their conversion to a different form of Judaism than Paul and Ananias were preaching.
Moreover, all the time I had spent meticulously analyzing almost every line of the Damascus Document called my attention too to certain passages seeming to relate to a cadre of Gentile adherents and God-Fearers as supporters of the positions and the Community at Qumran. For instance the use of the term ‘Nilvim‘ or ‘Joiners’ in the interpretation of Ezekiel 44:15 in the 3rd and 4th columns was particularly illustrative of this (this is what I have meant by a meticulous reading of the texts themselves, not people speaking about the texts!). In addition, as one moved through the Document, one could see that there were expressions like ‘raising the fallen Tent of David in a Land north of Damascus’ that also began to point towards an area such as that of Edessa and the Edessenes (Helen’s supposed husband and Izates’ father’s homeland), but also Adiabene.
Finally one could see in the closing Columns that one was addressing this same cadre of Gentile ‘God-Fearers’, ‘for whom a Book of Remembrance would be written out’ (cf. Jesus’ words at the Last Supper) as well as Jews. These were the things that began to focus my attention on Northern Syria and the matters that were transpiring there. Moreover, all these were set in a 1st century CE provenance and that is why a good deal of the attention of a book like my New Testament Code turned its attention to these areas and these issues.
Of course, when one did focus on these issues, one began to realize that even the term ‘Damascus’ or ‘Land of Damascus’ itself was a kind of code, that is, ‘the New Covenant in the land of Damascus’ was another version of what Paul was calling ‘the cup of the New Covenant in his (Christ’s) blood’ of Christ – in Hebrew ‘Dam‘ and ‘Chos‘ even though they rendered in the Greek formulation, were the words for ‘cup’ and ‘blood’. There was very little chance that this could be simply accidental. So the two ‘New Covenant’s had to be related both in kind and orthographical similarity.
There was clearly a play on words going on somewhere either in the Pauline/Gospel formulations that were to my mind later variations, or in the original Qumran allusion which was, in fact, the direct opposite of what one finds in the Pauline and New Testament configuration, that is, instead of basically the Book of Acts version of these things, we were now talking about a rededication to the Covenant of Moses or, as the Damascus Document puts it so eloquently, ‘to raise the Holy Things up according to their precise specifications.’ Of course, in Acts and in the Pauline corpus generally and the retrospective Gospel portrait of Jesus – and I use the term ‘portrait’ advisedly – Paul and others are learning not to call any man or thing impure or profane. In other words, we are not to raise the Holy Thing up according to their precise specifications as in the Damascus Document, but the opposite and that is the importance of Peter’s tablecloth vision on the rooftop in Jaffa in Acts.
This is the Gospels’ new ‘Jesus’ and this of course is the very opposite of what was going on in Palestine in the First Century and in particular, the Dead Sea Scrolls. So yes, these are the things that grew out of what some may call my ‘over-dense’ writing and my need to express these things meticulously and in their totality as well as in my lectures, almost all of which are now free on youtube – but more my writings. It was necessary to set these things forth in detail so the private enthusiast would have everything at his or her fingertips.
So, again, yes – my attention became more and more focused on these aspects of the Damascus Document and its parallels or, shall we say their non-parallels or reversals, and the connecting these things to the Jamesian Community particularly in Northern Syria – as well as the later retrospective New Testament portraiture of these matters or their outright Pauline reversal. I think your audience has perhaps realized these things but your question helps to further focus attention on them.
DW: Do you see the Pauline redeemer myth as something arising in gentile environs? Could this idea of the Messiah dying be thought of as a ‘Jewish’ idea?
RE: Well clearly, the idea of a living and dying God who is going to be resurrected in the here and now is a non-Judaic idea. Moreover, the idea of an almost God-like Messiah again has no connection with Palestine at all, nor an actual immediate ‘resurrection’ and not at the End of Time (and this for all ‘the Righteous’ not just ‘the Messiah’!), which is nowhere envisioned. All these are non-Jewish and Hellenistic if one prefers or even Egyptian.
Of course, you can hark back, as documents like the Gospels try to do, to Daniel’s apocalyptic presentation of ‘one like a son of man coming on the clouds’; but this is meant to evoke the coming of the Heavenly Host in apocalyptic vengeance and Glory as the War Scroll from Qumran, much as the Letter of James, in key passages definitively evokes and describes.
Still, the general Gospel or New Testament presentation and Christianity’s to follow is based on an improper and even probably a reversal of the meaning originally in Daniel. Daniel avers in straight-forward Aramaic that he ‘saw one like a son of man riding on the clouds’ – an obvious impossibility even for him since ‘men’ don’t ride on the clouds; but the point was that whoever or whatever was ‘riding on the clouds’ was ‘like a son of man,’ i. e., had the appearance of ‘a son of man’ even though he wasn’t, meaning that, in our English, he looked like a man. There was no such thing like ‘the Son of Man’, this being an obvious figment of the New Testament artificers imaginations.
‘Son of man’ in Hebrew even to this day is the way one expresses ‘being a man’ and this is particularly the case in the Israel of today, where people often say ‘be a Ben-Adam‘ – meaning ‘be a son of Adam,’ ‘Adam’ and ‘Man’ being the same word, that is, ‘be a man.’ So, again, even here the fact is that there is no such thing as an expression or persona like ‘the Son of Man’. This in itself is a complete misnomer, a misunderstanding of the original Hebrew or Aramaic and probably a purposeful obfuscation of the original. At the very least, it was written by people in a more Hellenistic or non-Judaic environment who had no idea what they were talking about.
But in the Bible also, Prophets use the term to refer to themselves, the most notable of whom being Ezekiel who is constantly using the phrase ‘son of man’ to refer to himself – probably to distinguish himself from an Angel, e.g., ‘son of man prophesy against the nations,’ ‘prophesy against the peoples’. Here, he is undoubtedly addressing himself. So the whole idea of ‘the Son of Man’ wherever it occurs is a complete misnomer and would show the reader that we are in a total non-Jewish alien environment.
To go back, however you want to look at this, the idea of a living and dying or to be more precise, in this case a dying and living Messiah, is completely at odds with any conceptuality that would have been understood or known in Palestine at this time. But of course, as you correctly imply it has everything to do with how these sorts of god-like figures were seen elsewhere in the Mediterranean World outside of Palestine.
One can see views of the same conceptuality in the tomb paintings of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs and how to enter the environment of the gods in ancient Egyptian mythology and folklore. It runs through the whole Book of the Dead, a good ten or fifteen centuries earlier – instructions for how to become a living and dying God or a dying and living God.
The same is true in the Hellenistic Roman world where figures like Alexander – probably influenced by this kind of earlier Egyptian practice and ideology – start to claim that they are descendants, not of their own fathers, but of much more important supernatural deities. This, then, becomes transferred to the Roman Emperors in succession to him, who seem to feel they have to make the same kinds of claims – particularly someone like Augustus, with whom it seems to really have begun, has to start to claim that he is the son of a Jupiter or whomever, since he wasn’t really the son of Julius Caesar or anyone like that; and then this idea of being the son of God starts to permeate the whole Julio-Claudian line and Emperors up to the time of the fall of the temple and the fall of that line.
Each member, in turn, had to declare himself the son of God or some such phenomena so obviously, if you were going to compete in the Greco-Roman world with these kind of conceptualities, the Messiah-type person you are trying to disseminate had to incorporate many of these kinds of qualities. This kind of material had already been circulating in the Horus/Isis/Osiris theology, also from Egypt, and it was widespread in Mithra and other Greek Mystery Religion materials that someone like Paul, familiar with the part of the world now called Asia Minor (but then just ‘Asia’), would have known.
The claims put forth on his behalf have him coming from Tarsus in Southern Asia Minor or Northern Syria, however you want to put it; but in my work, as you may know, I identify him clearly as an Herodian – which family had, in any event, already spread their influence into these areas under Roman sponsorship too.
Paul’s ‘Herodian’ roots are very apparent, not only in his ideology and Acts picturing his connections to the highest circles of Jerusalem, but also at the end of his greetings in Romans – if you want to credit these – when he speaks of his ‘kinsmen’, in particular, referring to one he sends greetings to whom he refers to as ‘my kinsman Herodion’, meaning ‘the littlest’ or ‘youngest Herod’ – not a very common name.
In the same passage, he sends his greetings to ‘those in the household of Aristobulus’, probably Herodias’ nephew by that name and ultimately the infamous Salome’s second husband, both of whom had been exiled to Rome – and probably, too, Paul’s own first cousin and the father of this telltale ‘youngest’ or ‘littlest Herod’ referred to in 16:11.
I give the genealogies in my James the Brother of Jesus and New Testament Code books as your participants probably know but, once again, I think I was probably one of, if not the, first to identify Paul as an Herodian. Of course, both the sociology and theology of his approach could also have led us to the same conclusion – not least, the claim to be of the ‘Tribe of Benjamin’, an extremely archaizing one saved for groups like the Herodians and in his case, of course as he says, implying being a ‘Hebrew’, but not really a ‘Jew’ – a claim he never really makes for himself in any explicit way anyhow. This is also the way Edomite/Idumaean genealogies as set forth – also in terms of Benjamin – both biblically and in Josephus.
So, yes, living and dying Redeemer myths of this kind are not found at Qumran but rather, starting with the Pauline corpus, where authentic, and down through the rest of the New Testament which has to be seen as being, for the most part, written or compiled after the fall of the Temple. After this, they turn into the ‘Christianity’ we are all so familiar with. As for Palestine proper, as the Scrolls anyhow like some gigantesque time capsule make clear – whether considered Maccabean or later Herodian, still neither edited or redacted – these kinds of Hellenistic/Roman conceptualities just were not present in a native Palestinian milieu.
DW: Your reconstruction of the person of James seems to undercut the possibility that the Jesus of the gospels existed as such. You’ve also said we really have no independent information for Jesus as we do for James. James emerges as the revered Zaddik and preeminent leader. Some believed the destruction of Jerusalem was tied to James’ demise. Is there anything to suggest that Jesus even existed as a real figure in first century Judea?
RE: This is a very difficult question to answer. I do not say there was no ‘Jesus’ in Palestine or Judea of the First century. Even the idea of James the brother of Jesus or that he had a brother named ‘James’ or that James was the brother of someone or something important and it was not just a honorific title of some sort, points to the fact of an actual ‘Jesus’ character of some sort in Palestine previously. That’s why I say in my James book and elsewhere that perhaps the best proof that there ever was a ‘Jesus’ was the fact of his brother James (in this sense, that Paul only calls James ‘the brother of the Lord’ – never of ‘Jesus’ – is a little disconcerting).
Of course the partisans and artisans of the so-called ‘James ossuary’ have understood this and that is why they are so intent on proving the authenticity both of the ossuary and the content of its inscription because, clearly, if someone is going to be called ‘the brother of’ of someone, that person must have been very important indeed.
But, of course once again, the recent James ossuary trial is misunderstood by those trying to draw some final conclusions from it. They’re quick to jump on the fact that the forgery charges against those being charged with this were dismissed or, at least, declared ‘unproven’. For them, this proves something when, of course, it proves nothing at all – only that there was insufficient proof against them – which was obviously going to be the outcome of the process from the start, not only because it took so long, but because to get sufficient proof of a such matters is next to impossible.
At the same time, however, they conveniently ignore the fact that certain lesser charges were, in fact, confirmed – a not insignificant happenstance. Still nothing about these proceedings, positive or negative, says anything about the authenticity of the inscription itself and, in particular the second part, seemingly in a different hand, though some deny this and that is the problem. Rather it just throws the whole matter back in the realm of uncertainty.
That is why I have said these kinds of matters have to be determined by the internal evidence, such as it is, not the external because internal evidence – though dependent on insight and a proper historiography – is more accurate. Evidence of this kind, of course, was just not considered because Courts prefer the external which in this instance was just not sufficient enough to say anything of certainty. Like scholarship in general, for the most part, they just do not consider it.
But to go back to the struggle over the ‘Jesus’ issue again. Again, another good witness to the fact that there was an Historical Jesus of some sort is Paul’s information, though it is clear Paul was not an eye-witness to anything. Nevertheless, he does insist in some places that someone was crucified at some point – in fact, the fact that there was a crucifixion of some kind seems to be the only secure information he has about this person whom he ends up by denoting ‘Christ Jesus’ – whatever he meant by that.
So, one is not particularly arguing with the fact of whether an individual who was a brother of another individual we call ‘James’ or ‘Jacob’ and came to an unhappy end, crucifixion – an end that was usually reserved for people who had committed some heinous crime or other, ‘heinous’ according to the Roman definition which usually meant seditious, subversive, or insurrectionary activity of some kind because, from the time of Spartacus Uprising (also documented by Josephus, as well as other early Roman historians), crucifixion was an exemplary punishment telling the population, ‘you see, this horrific fate is what is going to happen to you if you step out of line in some fashion or other’. But, as everyone knows, crucifixion is a punishment forbidden by Jewish law and this is true even in the Dead Sea Scrolls which give pretty clear indication of an outright disapproval of this kind.
No, what I am saying and have been saying is that the picture we have of this ‘Jesus’ in the Scripture, which we are so enamored of and honor to such an extent, is unreliable, inaccurate, retrospective, and mostly fictitious as well. In fact, I have been insisting that this picture is really the reversal of what had to have happened in the Palestine of this period.
Otherwise, there could be no real reason for such a demise other than those I have outlined above (the Romans did not normally make mistakes!) – except perhaps if the Jews were lying to or fooling them in some way. This, of course, is the implication of the picture that has come down to us and everyone knows this; and this is the problem that has haunted the Jews over some twenty centuries of their history – playing a role too in the horrific Holocaust in our own century that even Pope John XXIII, much to his credit, has acknowledged.
So this is how fearful and terrifying such misrepresentations, mythologizing, and fictionalizing can be. So no, all I’ve tried to do is to rescue the Historical Jesus from this kind of obfuscation and I think, to some extent, I have succeeded though it is hard for people to realize that the picture they so cherish and love is a literary and not a completely historical one, largely in line with Pauline theology and dialectic and that of other teachers like him which later turned into the ‘Christianity’ we know.
So, to repeat, we are not denying the existence of the Historical Jesus. On the contrary, we are saying that who and whatever he was had to be a reflection or replica of and not dissimilar to his closest living relatives, associates, and successors, i.e., individuals such as James if we entertain the ‘brother’ relationship.
As for the fall of Jerusalem, it is clear from Josephus and the other early Church Fathers who saw the still-extant version of a different and seemingly original and earlier Josephus in the libraries of the Middle East, particularly Caesarea – people like Hegesippus, Origin, Clement, and others – who averred that in the copy they saw, the Jews considered the fall of Jerusalem to be connected to the removal of James theZaddik. In fact, later theologians like Constantine’s Eusebius and Jerome and Epiphanius in the next century rail against them for having admitted this.
Other documents, such as Wisdom and its derivative literature, including at Qumran, make it clear that the world depended upon or was sustained by the existence of the Righteous – in Kabbalistic tradition, ten of them. The Righteous Teacher at Qumran or in the Dead Sea Scrolls was clearly just such a Zaddik or Righteous One. This is what it means to be a Righteous Teacher or Teacher of Righteousness. In fact at Qumran, every passage where ‘the Righteous Teacher’ is mentioned, the underlying biblical text being analyzed is a ‘Zaddik‘ one. This is rather startling if one inspects them.
Furthermore, it makes sense that the Jews who were sympathetic to an individual like James would have reckoned the fall of Jerusalem to be in some way connected to his removal because the two events occurred in such close proximity or succession to one another. As I have argued in almost all my work, the idea of ascribing the fall of Jerusalem to an event that happened perhaps forty years before that fall is only convincing to unschooled and generally somewhat naive audiences who knew nothing about the history of Palestine – such as the kind that existed outside its borders and still is in wide existence today, but now all over the world.
This is another example of how events from the lives of others – in this case Jesus’ seemingly closest relative, follower, and even successor – are retrospectively absorbed in the portrait of the life and death of that person the Gospels designate as their ‘Jesus’. This does not mean that there was no such person as Jesus per se as you asked. It only means that, according to the documents we have, which are so overwritten, retrospective, and highly mythologized or, if one prefers, Hellenized; there is almost no way of getting through to the really core factual information concerning him.
DW: What kind of feedback have you got from younger scholars? Are people more open to your ideas in recent years?
RE: I get quite a lot of feedback and appreciation from younger scholars, but there are also very many who are afraid to identify themselves too closely with the works of someone like myself. The reason for this should be clear. There is no mileage in it, only trouble. They have seen how I have been treated by a good many members of the establishment, so they correctly conclude that what awaits them is not un-similar treatment or worse. Notwithstanding, because of those that have demonstrated their appreciation, I have had the good fortune to get my ideas out in quite a few books – not to mention, even a number of rip-offs – which have had pretty good circulation.
I have found a lot of admirers and a lot of imitators in fact too. As they say, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ though one would appreciate a few footnotes now and then even from them. There are even imitators who don’t admit that they’re imitators. Actually – and I think I can take some of the credit for this – James has become a central focus of modern theological debate and consciousness. One caveat to this – people don’t like associating any of this with the Dead Sea Scrolls. They prefer to keep it only within the context of early Christianity.
One example of this is someone like Bart Ehrman. Though commencing his writing perhaps a decade or so after me and, if not borrowing at least utilizing many of the very same ideas I utilized; in his most recent Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (2012 – he devotes a whole book to this subject which I thought we covered somewhat above), he speaks about the ‘widely discredited views of Robert Eisenmann in his book James, the Brother of Jesus‘ and calls them ‘wildly speculative’ (I wonder if they are so ‘discredited,’ why does he use so many of them across the spectrum of his work – of course, as usual, without accreditation?).
Not only is he unable to spell my name correctly, but he even reproduces the title of my James book inaccurately: it’s James the Brother of Jesus not James, the Brother of Jesus (was this the work of his research assistant?). Never mind that by making such a gratuitous remark – even if only casually and in passing and delivered in a footnote (p. 355) – he is really only ‘discrediting’ himself and not me. I wonder where have my views been so ‘widely discredited’ (if one chooses to use such language) and in what way and how are they ‘wildly speculative’?
Of course, like so many others, he is really only talking about my views relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls, so he might better have referred toThe Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians (1996), The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered (1992), etc., if he has read any of them. Still, by making such a gratuitous and insulting comment, even if only in a passing, he demonstrates the problem in this field and how little of my work he is actually familiar with and not refracted or reflected second or third-hand through others.
Even more to the point, he obviously has not taken the time to read them through and digest them with any diligence and understanding, so his ideas on the subject are themselves hardly to be ‘credited’ (again, if one chooses to use such language). Of course, it is painfully obvious that he knows next to nothing about the Dead Sea Scrolls, nor has even read through them with anything like the thoroughness many of your participants have.
The sources he (or his research assistant) does recommend in the same footnote (the only one in the whole book as far as I can see) are the usual suspects (if one can speak this way): Fitzmyer, Vermes, Vanderkam, etc., all, of course, being basically part of the same ‘Establishment consensus’ and having the same rather routine and somewhat run-of-the-mill points-of-view – none except Fitzmyer very original (especially Vermes).
Still, since people involved in the kind of subject matter Ehrman’s book from the title onwards proposes to deal with are mainly theological writers approaching the subject as secular academic scholars (Jew or Christian, it matters not) – many trying either to make the Historical Jesus more palatable to their constituencies or rescue him as far as possible from those trying to gainsay his existence, while still trying to appear to absorb at least the trappings of some of their ‘doubting Thomas’ approaches (not to mention, make a little money in today’s tough publishing market where the ‘airport book’ is the one that usually flourishes); most like him know next to nothing about the Dead Sea Scrolls, have never made a serious study of them, and – as just indicated – are therefore dependent upon the same rank-and-file of Dead Sea Scrolls scholars that we have been dealing with since they were discovered in the late 1940s and throughout the 50s and 60s.
Not having made a serious study of the Scrolls themselves, they rely on the hearsay or word-of-mouth evidence or comments of people whom they consider have: and this is the problem in Dead Sea Scrolls studies today – not only the Scrolls, but other fields as well. Nevertheless, unfortunately however, ‘consensus’ or ‘Establishment’ thinking on the Dead Sea Scrolls has since re-formed as if the struggle over their release and interpretation of the last few decades never occurred; and, once again, we have people who are marginalized if they do not adhere to the establishment or ‘consensus’ line which is the gist of Ehrman’s comment if only in a footnote (nay, even in a footnote).
This is what frightens young scholars away just as it did their forebears, peers, and predecessors. Since they are in fear of their sponsors and dissertation directors, they hesitate to take any really controversial positions. I have even heard over the years of someone being told by their Harvard-trained and, therefore, ‘consensus’-minded and ‘Establishment’ thesis advisors to change his or her dissertation to reflect this. If such persons wanted to continue in the field, they were obliged to do this and, therefore, over time, not a few singularly qualified people have left it.
So the support has really come from the private aficionado, the turned-on non-professional, the person who makes it a personal exercise to follow all these matters and gain these critical expertises even if not in or outside the university; and, with the influence and effectiveness of the Internet, they have been very successful and become very widespread.
Therefore, as I have said, I have found a lot of my ideas, at worst parroted but at best reflected there and absorbed by large numbers of such internet-savvy and self-publishing savants in their attempts to rewrite this historical situation regarding Christian origins and the nature and authenticity of the story of ‘Jesus’ – people, again for instance, like those who take part in and participate in your forum. I am very honored by this and very pleased and most gratified by it.
It’s hard to expect any greater success than that and I don’t – particularly when one who is said to have written such ponderous book as some insist I have done. I am the first to acknowledge that they are both dense and not for the light-of-heart (though it might have been useful for persons characterizing my works in such manner to have actually read them). Still, without treatments of this kind, the ideas they incorporate regarding both the Scrolls and Early Christianity in Palestine could not have stood up to either scholarly or lay criticism as well as they have – and they have, as your participants well know even if some others do not.
It was necessary to argue the case fully and in detail, meticulously if you prefer and beyond a shadow-of-a-doubt (though now we are coming out with some compressed versions of my work; cf.: James the Brother of Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls I and II); so the scholarly community could hardly – except for superficial asides of someone like Ehrman – ‘lay a glove’ on them, as it were.
As for the lay community, they had to have all the sources at their disposal, so they could argue with the credentialed ‘scholars’ so-to-speak, who so often tried to either ‘pull rank on them’ or ‘pooh-pooh’ them. This I have attempted to do in my work and, in this, I think I have been not a little successful in accomplishing; so I am quite glad to have found even the kind of relative openness to my ideas that I have found widespread across the internet and among dedicated aficionados like the ones you involve, if not the greater university community itself whom, as I said, rarely if ever read my works either in part or in their entirety.
Thank you for the opportunity of contributing to and participating in your web discussions. Keep up the good work, as they say, and don’t allow yourselves to be defeated or discouraged by any hostile ‘academicians’ or so-called ‘scholars’. These, in the end, will always be the hardest either to influence or bring over to the kind of thinking you represent since they have the most to lose by either acknowledging or entertaining it, largely because they would be seen as somewhat ridiculous by their peers if they were to deny the whole thrust of their previous academic work and training.
We must leave them like this, but should not expect any different from them or be discouraged in any way by them. You and your participants are the final judge of these things and you have sufficient information and data at your fingertips to make your own final, intelligent, and incisive judgments yourselves which will hopefully be full of insight.