A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus
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Akenson, Donald Harman. Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s          University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-7735-2090-2. Cloth. CA$32.95. Pp. x + 346.

Donald Akenson, a professor of history at Queen’s University, is author of the highly acclaimed Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds (1998). Saint Saul, his second foray into Biblical terrain, is aimed at that literate segment of the general reading public whose attention has been captured by the work of the Jesus Seminar. At the same time he is highly critical of the contemporary quests for Jesus—and in ways that set him apart from other critics of the Jesus Seminar—so that his book adds a fresh, distinctive and controversial voice to the debate. In addition, he writes in a vigorous, highly engaging manner. Even when he takes his readers on excursions into obscure territory, the ride is always entertaining.

Akenson’s thesis, simply stated, is that the war between Judea and Rome in 66-70 CE had such a decisive impact on the shape and nature of what we normally call "Judaism" and "Christianity" that any historical reconstruction of Jesus’ aims and activity needs to be based on evidence dating from before the war. Since the only writings that meet this requirement are the epistles of Paul, historians who are serious about historical method need to treat Paul’s letters as primary and foundational.

In general terms, such privileging of Paul is unremarkable; the idea that Paul has to be our starting point for reconstructing early Christianity is a commonplace among New Testament scholars. But the suggestion that Paul should function in this way with respect to the Jesus of history is much more unusual. Scholars have tended to be much more impressed with Paul’s apparent lack of interest in the words and deeds of the earthly Jesus. Still, scholars have identified various references, hints and allusions in Paul’s letters that are germane to the Jesus of history. Akenson builds on these, supplementing them with intriguing inferences drawn from Paul’s claim to "imitate" Christ.

The main features of Akenson’s Jesus are as follows: Jesus was born in normal human fashion (Galatians 4:4); since messianic status is linked with the resurrection (Romans 1:4), Jesus did not ascribe messianic status to himself; he was both thoroughly immersed in his Jewish world and responsible for a "revolutionary" reinterpretation of Judaism; he was not interested in Gentiles, directing his attention only to Israelites (Romans 15:8), from whom he gathered disciples; his resurrection, at least as Paul understood it, was a cosmic rather than a physical event.

This portrait of Jesus, while contrasting sharply with traditional views, is nevertheless unremarkable when set alongside other popular reconstructions of the Jesus of history. For this reason, Akenson’s book invites comment less on the basis of its final result than on the route he takes to get there.

The main weakness in the argument is his assumption that the events of 66-70 CE were cataclysmic for formative Christianity. His whole project rests on the assumption—and it is an assumption; he does not really try to demonstrate it— that the war with Rome and its aftermath produced such an upheaval in the development of Christianity that post-70 CE sources are opaque to the pre-70 state of affairs. Of course, the significance of these events for Judaism is not to be downplayed (though even here it is less true for diaspora Judaism, which demonstrated little enthusiasm for the war and whose self-understanding did not rest in any fundamental way on the existence of the temple). But in the case of Jewish Christianity, the assumption is open to serious objection. In fact, Paul himself represents a highly pertinent counter-example. For Paul and other first-generation Christians, it was the experience of the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:8; Galatians 1:15-16) and the resultant beliefs about the significance of Jesus in the divine scheme of things, that was the "equivalent of a nuclear blast" (cf. p. 8), removing the temple from the centre of their world and generating of a new and distinct form of Judaism. Precisely for this reason, pre-war Christianity would not have been effected in any cataclysmic way by the events of 70 CE. Of course, this "nuclear blast" creates its own problems for those who want to peer behind it to catch glimpses of the pre-Easter Jesus; but even so Paul provides us with no special advantage over the Gospels. In the end, then, while Akenson’s St. Saul is highly entertaining, it is Paul himself who undermines its argument.

Terence L. Donaldson http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/wycliffe/faculty.html

Wycliffe College Toronto