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Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus

by Donald Harman Akenson
346 pages,
ISBN: 0773520902


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Trusting St. Paul
by Daniel A. Smith

For a long time now it has been generally agreed that the earliest source we have for the origins of Christianity is the body of epistolary literature left by Paul. This is so despite the implicit claim of the canonical gospels to the contrary: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are later compositions, most (if not all) coming into existence after the critical moment of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Donald Akenson argues long and hard for the priority of the Pauline corpus: not its chronological priority (a given), but its singular importance as source in the ongoing Quest for the Historical Jesus. Life-of-Jesus research has always focussed on the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so called because they tend to take the same view of things); the paucity of relevant material about Jesus in the letters of Paul has been sufficient for scholarship to all but dismiss Paul as a potential source. Akenson insists that Paul demands (and repays) a closer look.

The results of Akenson's use of Paul and his call for further research along the trail he blazes (more on this below) are not, ultimately, what will make the book appealing to the reader. Akenson comes to the discipline of biblical studies as something of an outsider, though he has published quite extensively in this arena (his 1998 book on the composition of biblical and post-biblical literature, Surpassing Wonder, received glowing reviews). As a professor of history, Akenson brings a keen eye for methodological sloppiness and does not mind putting scholarly convention on its ear. He engages others' work, at times, quite aggressively. One of the blurbs suggests that he "is not afraid to go into the corners and mix it up," and this is putting it nicely. The hockey metaphor is apt: everyone likes a good brawl, but it's best not to be the target (more on this below too). Yet Akenson also engages the primary sources in a lively and entertaining way, using brilliant metaphors and analogies, to open up for the reader with only a passing interest in or acquaintance with the original texts, the world of late Second Temple Judaism, in all its theological and ideological ferment.

The years leading up to the destruction of the Temple were strange times, but passing centuries of dogma have domesticated them and put them to service in our religions' myths of origin. Akenson's insistence on foreign-sounding names and terms (Saul and Yeshua, Judahism and Yeshua-faith) is based, he says, in "avoiding words that make us lie" by reinforcing the dogmatic domestication of these characters and movements. His terminology destabilizes the reader and emphasizes the distinction between how the historical figures and movements are remembered by tradition and how they really were (as far as historians can tell).

What does Paul have to tell us about the historical figure of Jesus? It must be remembered, and Akenson makes this sufficiently clear, that the letters of Paul were not written as scripture. They constituted personal correspondence to friends, addressing very specific exigencies in the Pauline groups¨"moments of spiritual crisis," Akenson says. The "cosmic Christ" was ultimately more relevant to such situations than the "earthly Jesus." Yet does Paul's relative silence mean he knew little or even nothing of Jesus' life and ministry? After all, they never met. But on his own account, Paul had ample opportunity to consult with the "pillars" of the Jerusalem Jesus movement. The question for researchers is what information has found its way into Paul's letters.

Biographical details about Jesus are sparse in the letters. Paul tells us that Jesus was born of a woman, under the Law, and was associated with the Davidic line; aside from that we only read that he celebrated a final meal with his inner circle, was betrayed, and was crucified, died, and was buried. (Paul also believes that the resurrection was the means by which Jesus was confirmed as the Messiah.) Akenson's discussion of these details does not break much new ground, except that he suggests (on a fairly weak textual basis) that Paul implies that Jesus was not executed at Passover, as the gospels state (pp. 202-5).

As far as sayings of Jesus go, sometimes Paul helps us out a bit, introducing this or that teaching as "a word of the Lord," that is, a precept from Jesus himself. Yet even here we are not on uniformly solid ground, for the "word of the Lord" formula may indicate divine revelation as much as oral tradition; Akenson does not note this distinction. On at least one count, however¨Jesus' teachings on divorce¨we know Paul (1 Corinthians 7:10-24) is dealing with something directly from Jesus, because it is also present in the Synoptics. Paul's use of the divorce teaching is quite instructive, argues Akenson. First, Paul does not hesitate to correct or modify Jesus' position; thus, whereas Paul thought very highly about Jesus in his post-earthly state as the Christ, or Messiah, he did not "mythologize" his earthly life. Second, Jesus' sensitivity to divorce and other issues of family confirms what Akenson argues from another context, namely, that there was some suggestion of illegitimacy surrounding Jesus' birth.

One other instance where we are on fairly certain ground is the teaching on non-retaliation (Romans 12:14), again because this teaching is present in the gospels. Here, however, the teaching is not introduced as a "word of the Lord," but is simply presented as an ethic to be followed. This leads Akenson to wonder whether more of what Paul presents without comment may have originated with Jesus; a new program of Jesus research in this direction is suggested. I doubt whether this would be a fruitful line of research, for in cases where confirmation by the gospel sources is impossible, how would we know what materials from Paul could have been associated with Jesus? Akenson seems to have similar doubts, but for him the problem lies in the capabilities of researchers: "the delicacy of touch required for disinterring such buried treasures is not common in the community of Yeshua-questors" (p. 224).

Akenson goes a long way to set up his reading of Paul, and a good deal of the book discusses the gospel literature¨the natural place to begin, after all, if one is suggesting an alternate program. He contends for two reasons that the Pauline letters must be considered first in any attempt to collect information about the historical figure of Jesus. (Really, no justification is necessary, since they are early [ca. 47-55 CE], first-person compositions whose central focus is the significance of Jesus.) First, he attempts to establish the theological and chronological distance of the Synoptic gospels from the events in question, in favour of the authentic Pauline letters; and second, he attempts to discredit the source-critical reconstructions of mainline gospel scholarship, in favour of his own (admittedly more parsimonious) program.

In the first instance, he rightly insists that the events of 70 CE were crucial in the development of both early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. As already noted, most scholars of Christian origins would take at least Matthew, Luke, and John to be post-70 compositions. Mark is sometimes dated a little earlier, but no matter. What is decisive here is Akenson's view that the gospels are post-70 attempts to make faith in Jesus the new religion that superseded the defunct temple worship. This view is not entirely without merit, but in his discussion Akenson blurs the distinction between the gospels as final literary compositions and the gospels as repositories of pre-70, or even authentic, Jesus-traditions.

The standard view has been that the gospels developed from a beginning stage of oral tradition, and passed through a stage or stages of intermediate textual collection of some sort, before the final authors/editors produced what we have now. Authentic traditions or details theoretically may derive from any stage, but the "rules" governing their extraction are varied and complicated, as Akenson stresses. He admits that the Synoptics are of diagnostic use in approaching the letters of Paul, and even on their own provide information about the historical life of Jesus; but, he insists, no complete source other than Paul exists from before the shattering events of 70 CE. One comes to presume that the post-70 attempts to pick up the pieces and rebuild¨and the subsequent processes of homogenization and canonization¨necessarily subvert whatever the individual pieces might offer. In fact, Akenson insists, the whole New Testament is so completely governed by this project that we may take it as a single source; since none of its component documents is really "independent", we may fuse Paul and the gospels together. Yet in terms of their origin, the individual parts of what is now the New Testament came out of fairly diverse forms of the early Jesus movement, forms which likely operated in some degree of isolation from one another.

This leads to the second point: for the past two hundred years or more, gospel scholars have sought to find, somehow embedded in the gospels as prior sources, literary compositions about Jesus that pre-date the gospels. At times, and not only in the distant past, such attempts have been directed at recovering the pristine source for information about Jesus, often in blatant service of dogmatic or ideological concerns. Akenson argues that such attempts have turned up nothing historically credible nor of any great consequence. Here the goal, ostensibly, is to justify Paul's letters as a source. But an important by-product, it seems to me, is that recent gospel scholarship as a whole is depicted as unnecessarily inventive, methodologically unscrupulous, and overly credulous. As an absolute worst-case scenario, Akenson raises the Secret Gospel of Mark.

In 1958 Morton Smith, then of Columbia University and now deceased, announced that he had discovered a copy of a letter, purportedly written by Clement of Alexandria, a late second century Christian author. The letter contained extracts from an alternate version of Mark ("Secret" Mark, as it came to be known) that Clement considered heretical. Fifteen years later, Smith published his critical edition of the letter, which to that point (and until very recently) no one else had ever seen. Akenson raises Secret Mark, which he considers to be a rather obvious forgery, because it gives "anybody with a literate interest in the Bible" an opportunity to judge the experts in the field, to determine "whether they have at least as much common sense as God gives to a goose" (pp. 86-7; the vitriol is, unfortunately, characteristic).

For in Akenson's view, some of biblical scholarship's finest minds were convinced that Secret Mark represents a prior form of our Mark, so strong the desire for new finds of primitive gospel material. The effect of the Secret Mark illustration is to cast the same pall over other hypotheses of gospel origins, hypotheses argued and defended on sometimes very good grounds. Yet as far as Secret Mark goes, Akenson might have to do some reevaluation: new colour photographs of the manuscript, and new documentation, were made available last year (Charles W. Hedrick, "Secret Mark: New Photographs, New Witnesses," The Fourth R 13/5 [2000]; the photos are now on the Web at http://www.westarinstitute.org/Westar/News/SecretMk1/secretmk1.html). In any case, the rhetoric is clear: gospel scholars sometimes get too caught up in their own game and need some kind of external referee to keep them honest.

Saint Saul is cleverly and forcefully written, and will provide for the interested reader an engaging entrTe into the worlds of Pauline and historical Jesus research. ˛

Daniel A. Smith is a professor at the Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto.

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