Christian riddles remain unsolved
Steuart Campbell reviews The Unriddling of Christian Origins – A secular account by Joel Carmichael.
This book demonstrates the fact that, where an author is convinced that he has the solution to a mystery, he will see evidence everywhere for that solution and will be blind to obstacles. I know – l too hold such a conviction, but not the same one as Joel Carmichael.
It is a book of two halves. Part one (“Jesus Before Christ”) examines the life of Jesus. Part two (“Christ after Jesus”) studies the articulation of the Christian message after Jesus’ death, focusing on the role of Saul of Tarsus (St Paul) and the impact of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem on both the Jewish and the fledging Christian communities.
Carmichael puts special emphasis on the concept of the “Kingdom of God”, which was fundamental to the teachings of Jesus, John the Baptist and Paul. He describes the ferment of political unrest and apocalyptic theological speculations that influenced the thinking of the earliest Christians, and he delves into the intriguing relationship between the many Jewish sects of the time and the believers in Christ Jesus. My main interest is in part one.
As the biblio page admits, much of what Carmichael has to say about Jesus appeared in his 1963 book The Death of Jesus. There is little new here – Jesus is still the leader of an armed band who held the Temple in an insurrection.
Carmichael sees evidence for his “insurrection” throughout the Gospels. The Sermon on the Mount predicts social turmoil, which Jesus would bring about. John the Baptist was the organiser of a seditious group, executed for his activities, which involved his followers in a massive secession from the state. The disciples were Jesus’ “lieutenants”.
Jesus went to Jerusalem because his campaign in Galilee failed. Judas betrayed the hiding place of the leader of an armed revolt. The Galileans of Luke 13:1 “may very well have been the group who took and held the Temple”. The fall of the tower of Siloam (Luke 13:4) is evidence of a siege operation by the Romans to recover control of the city after it had been taken by Jesus and his insurgents.
He can see that much of the Gospels is invented, but he has difficulty sorting fact from fiction. He can see that it was the Romans who arrested, tried and executed Jesus, but he is not sure why:
It is difficult, on the basis of the Gospels, to grasp the Roman role in Jesus’ execution.
Yet elsewhere he emphasises the Roman involvement in Jesus’ death and that he was executed for sedition. In particular he believes that the story of Jewish trial was invented to throw blame on the Jews.
He believes that Jesus “held the Temple” by force, but he has very little evidence for this idea. He speculates that
Jesus must have had an armed force powerful enough for him to seize this vast edifice and hold it for some time.
All this is based on the story of the moneychangers and the fact that at least one of his disciples had a sword, which he was told to put away. Carmichael’s hypothesis hinges on a single incident, almost a single verse – Mark 15:7, where there is reference to an “insurrection” (stasis), which involved Barabbas. Luke (23:19) also refers to this event.
Carmichael puts great weight on this account, which he thinks “no commentator has yet ventured to explain”. Yet most are content to accept Luke‘s statement (23:25) that Barabbas was imprisoned for “insurrection and murder“. To Carmichael, the “insurrection” was one led by Jesus and Barabbas was a Temple dignitary or his son, accidentally arrested and later released.
To bolster his thesis, Carmichael even makes the outrageous claim that “ancient authorities refer to the armed character of Jesus’ enterprise” and he quotes Tacitus, who did no such thing. Carmichael sees an abundance of hints to the real nature of Jesus’ enterprise. This is true, but the hints Carmichael sees are not those I see. We all see what we want to see. He wants to see hints of an armed rebellion led by Jesus, and this is what he sees. I see no such hints.
His idea seems to take no account of Jesus’ own philosophy or of his evident pacific nature. It takes no account of the forecasts of resurrection, the coming of the Son of Man or the mystery of the empty tomb. Although he discusses some of accounts of post-Crucifixion appearances of Jesus, Carmichael shows no interest in explaining them, especially that in the last chapter of John’s Gospel, which he admits is “curious”.
Nor does it take account of the influence of Zoroastrianism on Pharisaism. It is a simplistic reading of the gospel as if it were merely the record of a failed military leader. Moreover, a leader unknown to Josephus, a former general himself who mentioned every other Jewish military leader. Josephus’ record of Jesus bears little relation to Carmichael’s Jesus.
All I can say in Carmichael’s favour is that he understands the concept of the Kingdom of God and that it is true, as he claims, that the genesis of Christianity cannot be understood without its historical background. Also, he recognises that Jesus was no “Jewish schismatic”; Jesus observed Jewish customs and practice and the basic Jewish laws. However, this is not surprising. What matters is how Jesus interpreted the Jewish scriptures and what he planned. Carmichael is weak in this area.
In addition to criticism of content, I have some criticism of form. The absence of both a subject index and a Scripture index is annoying. There are too many quotations from the Gospels, some far too long. The strange title is misleading. The book does not solve any riddles about Christian origins, at least none that have not already been solved by others. On the other hand, Carmichael’s idea that Jesus led a revolt is itself a riddle that even he cannot solve.
• Steuart Campbell is the author of The Rise and Fall of Jesus (WPS, 2009). His review was first published in the July, 1996, edition of the Freethinker.