Monday, 28 March 2011

Donald Harmon Akenson, "Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus" (1999)

This book is quite thought-provoking, and written in an engaging fashion. Akenson is supremely confident in himself, and provocative in his assessments of the shortcomings of other authors' work. His scholarship is quite impressive, however.

He offers a number of interesting assessments:
1) Noting that the name 'Jesus' is a Romanized name that was adopted after long after the death of the person it was applied to, Akenson uses the Hebrew version of the name that he insists the person would have been called: Yeshuah.

2) He asserts that Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity really must be understood as coming from the destruction of the Second Temple, post-70 AD. In that respect, they are about the same age. Previous to the destruction of the Temple, Judaism was different, and fragmented enough, Akenson suggests, that he has adopted the name Judahism for it.

3) He takes umbrage with the idea of the 'Q' document which some scholars suggest forms the inspiration for the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). He also intimates, though does not state as strongly as Wilson, that Acts is a suspect document in terms of its historical verity.

4) He suggests that the idea of the virgin birth comes from a mistranslation; that the original version of the story referred to a 'young girl', not a 'virgin' in the 'woman lacking sexual experience' sense.

Having reviewed what can be reasonably argued as texts actually written by Saul, Akenson summarizes whet he concludes are Saul’s central judgements (pg. 181):
1) Jesus was the Messiah, but this status began with his resurrection. This means, then, that Yeshuah did not see himself as the Judahist Moshiah.

2) “Yeshua’s transformation into Jesus-the-Christ was a product of the resurrection.” Saul “does not evince any belief in the physical resurrection” of Yeshuah.

3) Yeshuah is the ‘Son of Yahweh’. “Saul makes explicit statements which are incompatible with a belief in the Virgin Birth of Yeshuah,” however.

On 219, Akenson makes a provocative, intriguing claim: “there are only three clearly-labelled places where Saul and the Gospels agree even roughly about words Yeshuah used” (links are to KJV):
- 1 Cor. 11: 23-25 > concerning the Eucharist (23, 24, 25)
- 1 Cor. 7: 10 > concerning divorce
- 1 Cor. 9: 14 > concerning a belief that preachers should not have to depend on secular labour for their living needs

This is provocative because it is generally agreed, as many forget, that Saul’s letters predate the Gospels (see this link for a provisional timeline of NT book authorship). If the expectations of historical method are applied, the earlier documents are likely more trustworthy as testimony. At the same time, we must take even Saul’s testimony with a grain of salt, for as Saul described, he saw himself as the preacher to the Gentiles of the parallel mission Yeshuah had taken on for the Judahists. That their messages, and requirements for their constituencies was quite different is also something that many contemporary (and past) Christians forget, or willingly overlook.

Finally, Akenson also alerts readers to the significant break the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE meant for the Judahist faith(s), as well as the burgeoning Pauline Christianity. With the removal of the Temple as a focal point of religious learning and ritual, the ‘decentralization’ of Judahist practice could more easily facilitate a practice based on a spiritual, non-material focal point.

I think the following review, offered by Loren Rossen ( ), captures well my sense of the book so far -

The book is relevant to both Paul- and Jesus-scholars, and it bridges the two fields by arguing that the apostle offers more of a
window onto the historical Jesus than commonly assumed.

I think the following excerpt from p. 173 adequately sums up the author’s position:

“[Saul] taught the historical story of the earthly Yeshua to his own disciples in person, and [in] writing his letters he took for granted that they had assimilated the basic facts and, perhaps, sayings. That he taught the Yeshua-history while he was in each community is not merely plausible, but has prima facie validity. However, it lacks explanatory robustness in relation to the matter at hand. . . [This] possibility (I think it is a probability) [is one] that most biblical scholars abhor: that Saul did indeed know the life of the historical Yeshua; that he had a full awareness of the miracle-stories, sayings, and of the various folk-beliefs about Yeshua, most of which are now forever lost; that he taught the most important stories and sayings to his own followers -- but that, when moments of spiritual crisis loomed, all the stories, all the sayings, and indeed the entire earthly life of the historical Yeshua did not count. Only the post-earthly Christ did. . . No wonder questors of the historical Yeshua dislike Saul. Yet, Saul actually tells us a lot about the historical Yeshua; however, he does so almost unintentionally...”

I won’t rehearse Akenson’s arguments..., except to say that throughout the book methodologies which have governed Jesus-studies are given sobering reappraisal (such as the limitations surrounding hypothetical documents like “Q”, in contrast to actual surviving letters). It’s refreshing, for a change, to watch a liberal academic pronounce that, “At the risk of being labelled a Luddite, I conclude that the most likely way to gain access to the historical Jesus is through the canonical New Testament” in general, and through Paul in particular (p. 116)."

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Robert Oldham, "Saving the King : Book One of the Alternative History of World War Two" (2001)

As I am working on developing a course that deals with counterfactual history, I stumbled across this novel at my local public library. It was written by a Hamilton, Canada, author, who is also a graduate of the university closest to my home. So... I thought I would break my somewhat loose rule against reading fiction and give it a go.

The book was ... ok.

It appears to be self-published, but is available in a reprint edition. I wish the author had taken the time to edit out the typos in the reprint. It would also have benefitted from a critical once-over by a good editor (to avoid honkers like "he looked around and turned around...", etc.). I wish, although this might be asking for too much, that the author would have taken the time to get the German spelling and grammar correct; such as using "die Fuhrer" when a German officer refers to Hitler. (OUCH!) Given that it is a book about the Nazis in England, I don't think this is really asking too much, is it?

All of this being said, as a piece of palate-cleansing, light, counter-factual history, it's a fun little tale. It doesn't have the grit or compelling narrative of related books such as "Fatherland", but it's local, it's slim, and...erm... it could be much, much worse. I can only wonder what the follow-up three volumes are like.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Richard Rubinstein, "When Jesus Became God" (2001)

The full title of this book is When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome.

Rubinstein manages the difficult job of making early Christian church debates about the nature of Christ easy-to-read with aplomb. The first fifty pages or so fairly clearly and efficiently explain the difference between the Arians and anti-Arians (who, essentially, debated whether Christ was man or God). By mid-text, however, the narrative seems far more concerned with the ebb and flow of the political arms of these debates than the theological elements.

It is not until the last 30 pages or so that Rubinstein reveals that what he has really been narrating is the long-trajectory development of the Nicene Creed, an oath of sorts intended to provide a foundational 'basic contract' of what Catholics (and later, Roman Catholics) believe. The book outlines disagreements that developed between the Arians and anti-Arians, particularly around the question of the relationship (and/or differences between) Jesus Christ and God in early Christian belief. Through a patient, sometimes laborious tracking of political contests (there was clearly no separation of Church and State during this time!) Rubinstein illustrates how church elders, theologians, and Roman imperial leadership fought for political and theological power. With the adoption of the Nicene Creed, and its evolution over the course of fifty years or so, the anti-Arians won - leading to the promulgation of concepts such as the Holy Trinity, with its complex singularity of and yet difference between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

Click here to read some excerpts.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Tariq Ali & Phil Evans, "Introducing Trotsky and Marxism" (2000)

This book - if it can be called that (it's closer to a pamphlet or graphic novel) - hardly merits a review. It can be read in the duration of a long subway ride across Toronto.

That being said, I was a little disappointed. For a very short text loaded with slightly juvenile illustrations (imagine Monty Python meets a bathroom wall), it jumps off into questionable comparisons, such as oppression by Stalin and Peter the Great. The book is clearly and unabashedly pro-Trotsky, which in itself is not problematic, but does not evenly consider much of the non-Stalinist criticism of Trotsky's thought.

The book is, at best, the kind of introduction that best serves someone reading a novel or history book that briefly touches on Trotsky or ideological debates in the early years of the Soviet Union. It is something like an extended, visual encyclopedia entry.

That being said, I did take away an easy to remember difference between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks (the former supported the concept of a socialist vanguard, while the latter supported the idea of a more democratic socialism that make room for the great mass of workers).