After the death of Jesus
According to western Christian mythology, Jesus died on Good Friday and came back to life three days later on what we now call Easter Monday. But, argues Jack Conrad, Jesus and his first followers were not Christians, but Jewish revolutionaries. It was Paul who invented Christianity
The Romans’ execution of Jesus surely came as a stunning shock. His followers must have been mortified. Nevertheless, the Jesus party survives the death of its founder-leader. Indeed it grows rapidly. The ‘Acts of the apostles’ report a big increase from 120 cadre to several thousand in the immediate aftermath of his crucifixion.
The recruits were, of course, fellow Jews - including perhaps a few essenes, baptists and guerrilla fighters. People undoubtedly inspired by Jesus’s attempted apocalyptic coup and the subsequent story that his body had disappeared and like Elijah had risen to heaven (the Romans blamed his disciples, saying they had secretly removed the corpse from its tomb - a slightly more likely scenario). All fervently expected imminent deliverance through the return of Jesus: “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of god is at hand”.1 Obviously the social atmosphere was feverish. People must have been desperate - after all, they were investing their hopes in a dead leader and the imminent armed intervention of god’s legions of angels.
The party, commonly called the nazarenes or nazoreans, was now led by James - the brother of Jesus. This is hardly surprising. The followers of Jesus presented him as king of the Jews. He was, they claimed, genealogically of David’s line. The election of James, the brother of Jesus, by the nazoreans was therefore perfectly natural in terms of continuity and inheritance, the nazorean tradition being closely followed by the Sunni Muslims. Supposedly its leadership was till March 1924 - and the abolition of the caliphate by Kemal Atatürk - able to trace itself back to the prophet Mohammed himself.
Surely it is a sound argument that to know Jesus it is necessary to know his brother, James. Who would be more like Jesus in terms of beliefs, expectations and practices? His closest living relative, who is chosen by Jesus’s cadres as his successor; or Paul, who never saw Jesus alive, only in visions? Who defended and continued Jesus’s programme? Was it James and other intimates in Palestine? Or was it Paul, a Roman citizen, who, as Saul or Saulus, admits he was a persecutor of Jesus’s followers? All the Christian churches maintain that it is the latter. Paul with his convenient dreams and reliance on the doctrine of faith was apparently more in touch with the authentic Jesus, the so-called christ in heaven, than James and the family of Jesus.
To establish this reversal of common sense, and reality, the gospels go to great lengths to denigrate the family of Jesus, his brothers and disciples. They are constantly belittled, portrayed as stupid and lacking in faith. “I have no family,” says the Jesus of the gospels. The disciples are rebuked for failing to understand that Jesus and his kingdom are “not of this world”. Peter famously denies Jesus thrice before the cock crows due to lack of faith. Etc, etc.
Although James is elected head of the Jerusalem community and was also supposedly of the Davidic family line, he is almost entirely absent from the Christian tradition. He has been reduced or cut out altogether, so embarrassing is he. Nor does James appear in the Koran - though Muslim dietary laws are based on his directives set out for the overseas communities, as recorded in the acts.2 Arabs were being drawn to monotheism before Mohammed - and the ideological influence of the Jews (and perhaps the nazoreans) is unmistakable in Islam.
The gospels, as they come down to us, have obviously been overwritten to remove or downgrade Jesus’s family, not least his brother and successor. James peers out as a shadowy figure, as if through frosted glass. Sometimes he is disguised as James the Lesser, in other places as James, the brother of John, or James, the son of Zebedee. Such characters make a fleeting and insubstantial appearance in the gospels. However, James does suddenly pop up in the 12th book of the Acts as the main source of authority in Jerusalem. Evidently his other obscure titles are due to redaction. Paul’s letters also openly acknowledge the true relationship between James and Jesus. James is straightforwardly called “the brother of the lord”.
There is further evidence about James in the polemics and commentaries of the early Christian church. James is discussed by Eusebius (c 260-340), Epiphanius (367-404) and Jerome (347-420). Much of what they have to say is based on earlier writers, whose work has been destroyed or lost. The first is Hegesippus (c 90-180) who was a church leader in Palestine; the second, Clement of Alexandria (c 150-215). There is another Clement (circa 30-97), this time of Rome, who gave his name to what we now know as the Pseudoclementine (‘pseudo’ as in ‘falsely attributed’).
Works such as the Recognitions of Clement are, as Eisenman argues, “no more ‘pseudo’” than the gospels, acts and the other Christian literature we now possess from that period.3 Eg, none of the now standard four gospels were authored by a single individual - hence we certainly have a Pseudomatthew, a Pseudomark, a Pseudoluke and a Pseudojohn. Fascinatingly, though the account of the Pseudoclementine material is highly mythologised, it includes letters purportedly from Paul to James and from Clement to James. James is addressed as “bishop of bishops” or “archbishop”.
Eusebius in the second book of his Ecclesiasticalhistory writes that: “James, who was also surnamed Just by the forefathers on account of his superlative virtue, was the first to have been elected to the office of bishop of the Jerusalem church.”4 Elsewhere Eusebius cites Clement of Alexandria: “Peter, James and John after the ascension of the saviour did not contend for glory, even though they had previously been honoured by the saviour, but chose James the Just as bishop of Jerusalem.”5 Jerome provides an account of how James was either “ordained” or “elected” as bishop of Jerusalem. Epiphanius suggests that James was appointed directly from Jesus in heaven. James was the “first whom the lord entrusted his throne upon earth”.6
So there is not a shadow of doubt that James was elected leader of the Jesus party after the death of his brother and served in that capacity till his own execution in 62 (he was succeeded by Cephas, a first cousin). The Acts manifest a highly significant silence about his election which was surely a defining moment for the post-Jesus nazorean movement. The first chapter which deals with the replacement of Judas Iscariot after his treachery and suicide, is a crude mythical invention - Judas is in all probability Jude: ie, another of the brothers of Jesus. The story of the “eleven” getting together to elect another apostle is in all likelihood a cynical overwrite for the election of James. In the acts it is rather a non-event, with which to begin the official history of the early church. “Mattias” is chosen after the casting of “lots” over “Joseph called Barabas”.7 The redactors were determined to blacken the name of Jesus’s closest associates or remove them where they could. There is a striking parallel here to the way Stalin’s propagandists demonised or airbrushed out Kamenev, Trotsky, Zinoviev and other members of Lenin’s inner circle after his death.
Whatever the exact truth, an obvious question presents itself. Why was the early church so eager to play down or obliterate the role of James? We have already discussed the embarrassment concerning the blood relationship between Jesus and James. But there was more to it than that.
Firstly, James, the successor of “the lord”, has to be counted amongst those who opposed the Roman oppressors. That in turn would put Jesus in the same camp as the Jewish revolution. The Jesus party, headed by James, took an active role - perhaps a leading one - in preparing the ground for the great anti-Roman uprising of 66.
Secondly, James exhibited neither in thought nor practice the slightest trace or hint of Christianity. He was single-mindedly, not to say intolerantly, Jewish. He observed the minutiae of Jewish religious law and demanded that other Jews did the same.
Thirdly, there is abundant evidence that there was a fundamental and acrimonious schism between Paul - the real founder of Christianity - and the community led by James. There is even the possibility that Paul was involved in an attempt on the life of James. None of this would have been to the liking of the early church. Indeed, so successful was it in forgetting (destroying) its own origins, that in the 4th century Christianity could become the state religion of imperial Rome.
The burning discontent that characterised the period from the imposition of Roman direct rule in 6 to the revolution of May 66 destroyed all the old methods of social control and yielded a crop of charismatic messiahs, who found themselves a substantial following. Josephus mentions a handful by name or title - Theudas, a “false” prophet from Egypt, etc - but all the indications are that as a type they were numerous. After the defeat of one, another arose. Some - for example, John the Baptist, who, though he never claimed to be the messiah, led a messianic movement - were relatively peaceful. Though such “religious frauds” did not “murder”, Josephus calls them “evil men”. They were “cheats and deceivers” and “schemed to bring about revolutionary changes”. The Romans typically responded by sending in infantry and cavalry. John was beheaded by Herod Antipas. Others fought fire with fire. These “wizards” gained “many adherents”, says Josephus. They agitated for the masses to “seize” their “liberty” and “threatened with death those that would henceforth continue to be subject and obedient to the Roman authority”. There was an unmistakable class content. The “well-to-do” were slayed and their houses “plundered”.8
From Josephus it is clear that the masses were not united behind a single party. Yet, inhabiting the rarefied atmosphere of the aristocracy, Josephus would have had only the vaguest knowledge of the politics of the extreme left of his day. One should take his description as a crude sketch, on a par with the bumbling mentions of the left coming from an intelligent writer on The Daily Telegraph or The Guardian. Logically everything tells us that mass politics in 1st century Palestine were far more variegated than described by Josephus. In the Talmud we meet the artistic claim that “Israel did not go into captivity until there had come into existence 24 varieties of sectaries.”9
Where do James and the post-Jesus nazoreans fit in here? Obviously there are big differences between them, on the one hand, and the essenes and the zealots, on the other. They were not monastic like the essenes. Nor were they republicans and practical guerrilla fighters along zealot lines. Nonetheless, at least five of Jesus’s so-called 12 disciples were associated with, or came from, the ranks of the freedom fighters and retained guerrilla nicknames. More than that, their founder, Jesus, was crucified as a rebel by the Romans. Broadly speaking then, the nazoreans should be thought of as occupying the same political-religious space as the essenes and zealots, and certainly shared broadly similar aims.
The party name, ‘nazorean’, reinforces this thesis. There is a common misconception that ‘nazorean’ derives from the town in Galilee where the youthful Jesus and his family are supposed to have lived: ie, Jesus of Nazareth. The origins of this are to be found in Mark and are repeated for the church by Epiphanius. Yet in Hebrew the term simply means ‘keeper’, ‘consecrated’ or ‘separated’. It conjures up the idea of keeping the customs of the ancestors, and as such was an esoteric term, or party name, associated with zealotism or messiahism. So ‘nazorean’ “cannot mean ‘from Nazareth’ ... though all such plays on words were probably purposeful”.10 In all likelihood the town Nazareth, if it existed in ancient times, derives from ‘nazorean’, not the other way round.
Nazoreans were apocalyptic revolutionaries only different from the movement founded by John the Baptist in that they could confidently name the messiah. It was surely another advantage that their man had safely risen to heaven. He was still alive and could neither be captured nor killed. Jesus would come and deliver his people at the appointed hour (in this respect the nazorean story of king Jesus is akin to the British myth of the sleeping King Arthur). The potency of this Elijah-like combination is shown in the Acts. In spite of itself the acts also cast light on the true nature of the nazorean party.
Seven weeks after the crucifixion of Jesus the nazorean party was gaining many recruits and was widely acclaimed by a Jewish population that had, according to the gospels, just been clamouring for his death. “And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the lord God added to their number day by day those who should be saved.”11
The Acts were composed in the 2nd century and are overtly Pauline. Nevertheless, though an apologia for Paul and unmistakably Christian, the acts not only show the communistic nazoreans finding “favour with all the people”. As a community the party uses and worships in the Jerusalem temple. Evidently the nazoreans were neither Christian nor Jewish-Christian. They were Jews by birth and Jews by conviction. The nazoreans were a leftwing Jewish sect that primarily distinguished itself from other similar groups by proclaiming Jesus as the prophesied messiah, a descendant of the house of David, who is the legitimate king. Hence they diligently kept the laws of Moses and observed the Sabbath.
James - their prince regent - in particular was renowned for his saintly devotion. So often did he pray that his knees became “callused as a camel’s”. Like the most extreme Jews of his day he recoiled from any contact with foreigners, abstained from drinking wine and was a lifelong vegetarian. Furthermore he took a vow of celibacy in order to preserve his ‘righteousness’ (zaddik in Hebrew). It was James, not Mary, who was the perpetual virgin from the womb. We know about the dress, dietary rules and taboos observed by James from a wide range of sources. Take Eusebius: he quotes Hegesippus as saying that James “drank no wine or strong drink, nor did he eat meat”. We can also employ deduction and come to similar conclusions from the Acts and Paul’s letters to the Galacians and Corinthians. For example, unlike the “pillars” in Jerusalem, Paul tells his followers that they can eat “everything sold in the meat market”.12 He also instructs Jews to break the taboo outlawing table fellowship with gentiles. The biblical image of Jesus magically transforming water into wine, the man-god who like a heathen equates the bread and wine of the last supper with his body and blood and who freely consorts with prostitutes and Roman centurions, was almost designed to produce apoplexy amongst the nazoreans. It is an insulting reversal of nazorean moral standards and taboos.
The righteousness or ‘zaddikism’ of James is repeatedly referred to by the church fathers, Origen, Eusebius and Jerome. They claim to have seen a no longer extant version of Josephus - the implication in Eusebius is that it is his The Jewish war. It is quoted as follows: “And these things happened to the Jews [defeat and the sacking of Jerusalem] to avenge James the Just, who was the brother of Jesus, the so-called christ, for the Jews put him to death, notwithstanding his pre-eminent righteousness.”13 Obviously we must discount the idea that Josephus was the author of this nonsense about Jerusalem being destroyed because the Jews bear collective guilt for the death of James (as they are supposed to have done for the killing of Jesus). Origen, however, gives a similar account, though he claims his version of the tradition about the death of James originates in the Jewishantiquities of Josephus. In essence Jerome repeats what he has read in Origen and Eusebius. Interestingly he refers to another tradition about James (which also echoes the standard Jesus story). He says that James, “who was the first bishop of Jerusalem and known as Justus, was considered to be so holy by the people that they earnestly sought to touch the hem of his clothing”.14 Jerome and Epiphanius are moreover insistent that James wore the mitre of the high priest and actually entered the inner sanctum, or holy of holies, in the Jerusalem temple (no-one apart from the high priest, who enacted the annual Yom Kippur ritual there, was allowed in).
So it appears that James functioned in the temple as an opposition (righteous or zaddokite) high priest. Whether he stood before the ark in the holy of holies just once or on a regular, annual, basis is a moot point. Either way, James could only have crossed the threshold of the inner sanctum, to pray for the people on Yom Kippur, if he had the active support of the masses (both the poor of Jerusalem and pilgrims). In other words, against the morality, ritual and the feeble statelet wielded by the high priesthood there was another power - the morality, ritual and mobilised masses of the fourth philosophy. Put yet another way, Jerusalem was gripped by dual power. Josephus candidly admits that there was “mutual enmity and class warfare” between the high priests, on the one hand, and the “priests and leaders of the masses in Jerusalem, on the other”.15
With all this in mind, it is hardly surprising that the nazoreans were overwhelmingly lower class. One of their party names was ‘the poor’. This sociological make-up continued after the first beginnings and is referred to by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians:
… not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were noble of birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.16
The proletarian character of the nazoreans is one of the reasons why we possess so little hard evidence of exact organisation and ideology. The leaders were surely persuasive and eloquent men. But their party culture was oral, not written. Maybe the apostles could read and write. They were unlikely to have been humble fishermen - a reading which stems from a misunderstanding of fourth philosophy parables relating to preachers who cast their nets. That aside, the rank and file were overwhelmingly illiterate. The loric teachings and sayings of Jesus were therefore, to begin with, handed down by word of mouth. There was considerable scope for exaggeration and downright fabrication. But, of course, it should be stressed once more that the myth-making of the nazoreans about Jesus, his mission and his miracles were within the traditions of Jewish communistic sects.
Nazoreans exhibit a strong class antagonism against the rich. We find such firmly established ideas scattered throughout the New testament. Being seared onto the brains of even the most ignorant amongst the congregation, they could not easily be expunged by later redactors. The acts have a story about a well-off married couple, Ananias and Sapphira, who, having joined the nazoreans, “kept back some of the proceeds” from the sale of their property.17 They both fall down dead when rebuked by the apostles. In Luke we read that the rich man “who was clothed in purple and fine linen” goes to Hades, “torment” and the “flames” because he is rich. The poor man, Lazarus, in contrast finds comfort in “Abraham’s bosom”.18 The letter of James - written down in the first half of the second century is, as we have already seen, full of loathing of the rich, once more simply because they are rich. The poor have been “chosen by God” to be “heirs of the kingdom which he has promised”. The rich “oppress you”, “drag you to court” and “blaspheme”, thunders the top apostle.19 The poor are urged to patiently await the “coming of the lord” and class revenge.
If we grasp the fact that the poor masses in Jerusalem of the 30s to 70 were in sympathy with the nazoreans and their anti-rich messianic programme, then the events reported in the Newtestament and other sources about the strength of the community make sense. It is also because the nazoreans were lower class, revolutionary and popular that the Romans and sadducees considered them a threat and, when the situation allowed, persecuted them.
As we have said, almost immediately after the execution of Jesus his followers reorganise themselves and find a remarkable response in the poor quarters of Jerusalem. Their headquarters was in a district called the Ophel, situated in the cramped lower city. The atmosphere must have been close to collective madness. There is wild talk of miracles and cures; of the coming messiah and quickly ending Roman rule. In our terminology the masses were refusing to be ruled in the old way. Recruits came in their thousands and they brought all their possessions with them. The nazorean leaders address huge crowds from the steps of the temple. Only the temple area has enough space to accommodate those who want to hear them. Any fear that might have demoralised or cowed them when Jesus was executed vanishes. The masses breathe courage and power into the cadre. They are inspired and psychologically become the message in their own persons. The ‘spirit’ is upon them.
The sadducees, the party of the high priests, responds by having the temple guard arrest those whom the Acts call Peter and John. Their reported excuse is that they were preaching resurrection - Jesus being proof. But the actual interrogation that followed the next day concerns the healing of a cripple. He is hauled in as a witness. The apostles refuse to be intimidated and boldly proclaim the name of their messiah. No religious or state crime has been committed. The high priest makes threats, but decides to release them “because of the people”.20 The nazoreans had scored an important tactical victory and were further emboldened. Some 5,000 more purportedly join their ranks.
Not long after, worried by the ever increasing numbers attracted to the nazorean meetings at the temple, the high priest and sadducees have all the “apostles” arrested and placed in a “common prison” - presumably a temple dungeon.21 When the temple police go to fetch them for interrogation they are horrified to discover that the cell is empty. Presumably sympathisers, not an angel, had sprung them. Far from fleeing, the apostles are once again found “standing in the temple and teaching the people”.22 Without violence, “for they are afraid of being stoned by the people”, the guards bring them before the sanhedrin court. They are ordered to stop their agitation. On behalf of them all Peter refuses. A pharisee named Gamaliel eloquently urges caution. So after roughing them up and warning them not to “speak in the name of Jesus” they “let them go”.23 Again to no effect. Every day nazoreans continue their meetings at private homes and in the temple enclosure.
Nazorean doctrine found support not only among the Palestinian Jews, but numerous “Hellenists”: ie, Jews living in Jerusalem who spoke Greek. It is in this context that the acts introduce Stephen. The sadducees have him seized and falsely accused of blasphemy. Stephen defends himself bravely, but, deaf to his pleas, they stone him to death. There is an interregnum in terms of the Roman power structure in 36-37 with the departure of Pilate and the preparation of war against the Arabs. Under such conditions Jonathan, the high priest, exercises greater autonomy. The acts report that Saul (Paul) takes a lead, not only in the killing of Stephen, but the “great persecution” against the “church in Jerusalem” that followed, initiated by Jonathan.
Robert Eisenman disputes the veracity of the Stephen story. He argues at length, and persuasively, that the martyrdom of Stephen (a Greek name) is an overwrite for an attempt on the life of James. He reckons that James was attacked by Paul and his gang of hired thugs, who participated in Jonathan’s pogrom against the nazoreans and allother oppositionists. We find confirmation of this thesis in the Pseudoclementine material. The scenario it presents tells of a big debate at the temple between the sadducean hierarchy and the nazoreans headed by James. At a prearranged moment Saul (Paul) and his men stage a riot. Saul (Paul) lays hold of a brand from inside the temple and begins the action. The Recognitions contain the following passage:
Much blood is shed; there is a confused fight in which that enemy [Paul] attacked Jacob [the Hebrew name for James], and threw him headlong from the top of the steps; and, supposing him to be dead, he cared not to inflict further violence upon him. But our friends lifted him up, for they were both more numerous and more powerful than the others.24
Though both his legs are broken, James survives. He retreats to Jericho, along with 5,000 followers. The traditional narrative then proceeds with Saul (Paul) in chase - with the blessing of Jonathan, the high priest - and then having his vision of Jesus and losing his sight for three days. He then turns nazorean and later adopts the Latinised form of his name.
The nazoreans launch themselves as active proselytisers outside Palestine. They recruit Jews living throughout the Roman empire - in particular in Rome, Syria and Alexandria. Through their work amongst well established Jewish communities belief in Jesus as a resurrected messiah spreads. However, the key to why nazoreanism sired Christianity as a bastard child is found in its success in winning non-Jews to convert to a sympathising level of Judaism. Full conversion involved circumcision and observance of all of the laws and taboos. ‘God-fearers’ or ‘proselytes of the gate’ were a kind of partial or half-way conversion. They were not required to undergo circumcision nor change their nationality. God-fearers only had to accept the seven laws of the sons of Noah and revere the Jews as a ‘nation of priests’.
Paul proves brilliant at winning people in the eastern part of the Roman empire to become god-fearers and winning god-fearers to recognise Jesus as the messiah. It is his converts who are first called Christians. Possibly James encouraged Paul to take up missionary work abroad when he presented himself to the Jerusalem council three years after his road-to-Damascus ‘experience’. Paul says he tried to see the apostles, but only met “James, the brother of the lord”.25 He travelled widely and persuaded many of the uncircumcised to accept Jesus as redeemer. Yet so determined was Paul to maintain the growth of his overseas communities that he embarks on a process of whittling away the specifically Jewish elements of the faith. At first his programme would have been no more than implicit, a tendency. Laws and taboos should be moderated, not discarded. However, soon his teachings start to explicitly diverge from nazoreanism and Judaism itself. Paul’s mature views are to be found in his letters or epistles. Written some time between 50 and 55, they are in the most part considered “the genuine work of Paul”.26 This Pauline material forms the earliest texts contained in the Newtestament.
In them we find Paul expounding upon the divine nature of Jesus. The death of Jesus is recounted in terms of the self-sacrifice and rebirth of a man-god. Paul announces that Jewish laws are no more than outdated prejudice and that the distinction between Jew and gentile is forthwith abolished. He openly courts the Romans and the powers-that-be. What is to be Christian doctrine is still underdeveloped. There is no trinity nor virgin birth. But what we know as the gospels of today owe their mysticism and pro-Romanism to Paul. With his innovations acting as mediation, the whole Jesus story is gradually retold and turned into something entirely at odds with the nazorean tradition. The only nazorean document in the Newtestament that survives the Pauline revision more, rather than less, intact is the letter of James. Presumably due to its fame.
1. Mark i,14-15.
2. Acts xv,20-29.
3. Ibid p71.
4. Quoted in ibid p166.
5. Quoted in ibid p187.
6. Quoted in ibid p200.
7. Acts i,23-26.
8. Ibid p147.
9. Quoted in H Schonfield The pentecost revolution Shaftesbury 1985, p259.
10. R Eisenman James, the brother of Jesus London 1997, p244.
11. Acts ii,44-47.
12. I Corinthians x,25.
13. Quoted in R Eisenman James, the brother of Jesus London 1997, p235.
14. Quoted in ibid p239.
15. Quoted in ibid p318.
16. I Corthinthians i,26-30.
17. Acts v,2.
18. Luke xvi,19.
19. James ii,5-7.
20. Acts iv,21.
21. Acts v,18.
22. Acts v,25.
23. Acts v,40.
24. Quoted in H Schonfield The pentecost revolution Shaftesbury 1985, p127.
25. Galatians i,19.
26. H Maccoby Revolution in Judea London 1973, p235.