My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Short on scholarship, long on coprolite polishing
I really wanted to like this book, after seeing it at the local library. And parts of it, upon review, I do — above all, Akenson’s critique of the latest version of the search for the historic Jesus, especially as conducted by most of the fellows of the Jesus Seminar.
But, at the same time, Akenson gets a LOT wrong in this book — and, at the risk of concern-trolling for academics, I suggest that he might reconsider jumping from history to biblical studies with any more books.
Some of his errors, per that above, are whoppers.
The New Testament is NOT a “single artifact.” The theology of Paul is not the same as that of the Synoptic Gospels — which Akenson himself discusses!
Second, Yahwism does NOT go back to 1600 BCE. It’s no earlier than 1000 BCE, in all likelihood, and certainly no earlier than that in an organized state called Israel, if it’s even that old.
Now, some more specific errors.
Paul, in his passage in 1 Corinthians on marriage, was NOT giving halachic correction to Jesus’ “don’t get divorced and remarried” passage from Mark and softened parallels. First, Paul and Jesus were operating in totally different Sitz im Leben. Paul is speaking, I believe, in terms of the End Times, and thus, this passage is similar to his “neither Greek nor Jew, neither slave nor free” in Galatians. He’s telling believers don’t change your status in life. Second, he admits in 1 Corinthians 7 this is HIS teaching and not “from the Lord.” Jesus, on the other hand, if we call him a quasi-Pharaisee, WAS offering a statement of halakah.
Next, his accusation that “Questers” want to date Mark pre-70 just to have something before the destruction of the Temple is untrue. Rather, the Markan apocalypse is lacking some vaticinium ex eventu that are in Matthew and Luke, and thus, like Daniel, gives us a dating hook.
Next, claiming the Talmud has nothing historical, or nearly so, about this era? The “gardener protecting his cabbage” from the Toledoth Jeshu was knows to Tertullian, so it at least includes myth from the middle second century.
Soon after that, he is too credulous to Robert Eisenman.
Now, Paul “versus” James and other things. First, how do we know James only believed after Jesus’ death? Paul’s word plus Synoptic disparagement of his family. Now, I don’t believe in Eisenman’s earthly dynasty, but Akenson makes a statement with slim warrant.
Next, the food sacrificed to idols and blood, re 1 Corinthians and whatever council met on this. The meat sacrificed to ideas was not kosher, as he notes. But Akenson then commits either a big “oops” or a huge rewrite. The law on blood in meat is NOT Jewish; it’s Noahide. I’m sure he knows that, and thus is doing a deliberate rewrite, softening up Paul.
Next, if the Mishnah is not historically accurate, how do we know mitzvoth were numbered at 613 in the time of Paul and Jesus? Actually, the number 613 isn’t even mentioned until the Talmud. And, what they are isn’t itemized until Maimonides. Oops! More Judahism pseudo-authenticity by Akenson gets torpedoed!
On the criterion of embarrassment in the gospels, he ignores the variant “he was angry” reading in Mark 1 with the unclean man. Oops again, or deliberate rewrite again?
A bigger possible rewrite is ignoring the idea that Paul may have “invented” the Eucharist out of similar meals from pagan mysteries. Akenson here is bad in general.
Even worse, finally, is his claim that Mark may well have known about the Virgin Birth myth and deliberately discarded the idea. This underplays how oral tradition plays out and eventually becomes concretized, as shown in Mark, then the other Synoptics, then the Protoevangelium of James, etc.
The bottom line that Akenson seems to have, that Saul is a reliable witness to the historic Jesus, as well as a reliable anchor to a semi-unitary development of the move from Jesus to Christ, pretty much fails.
His smackdown of the Jesus Seminar and related issues are probably the primary things saving this from a one-star rating, which is ironic, because in his construction of Paul, he comes off as not a lot better than some of the Jesus Seminar fellows he excoriates.
And, I forgot to mention until now that he says he's going to use the KJV as his English text because of its poetic language or whatever, and he, first cite of it, talks about how it's a bad translation.
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