What do I say to a friend who encountered a 1,000-page book that rejects biblical Christianity and replaces it with a Dead Sea Scroll-based Jewish sect religion?
After eating lunch together my very good friend and I sat on the porch of Cracker Barrel, rocking and talking about this book. Robert Eisenman, who wrote this 1074-page tome about James the brother of Jesus, might be described as one of the “conspiratorial speculators” who have been successful in attracting an audience. He uses the Dead Sea Scrolls (ancient Jewish writings first discovered in 1948 in caves near the Dead Sea) to carve out an extraordinary/eccentric niche in the competitive world of academic/popular publishing.
Eisenman is a professor of Middle East religions at the California State University at Long Beach (one of 23 branches) who has become a “pop scholar/writer” by offering a radical view of historic Christianity’s origins. He mimics a little of Dan Brown’s fictional fantasy The Da Vinci Code. Jesus is left in the shadows while James his brother takes center stage, the leader of “Jamesian Christianity” rooted in a kind of “Essenism”, out of which came the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Good news for believers in Christ
The New Testament documents are derisively dismissed as he claims without sound justification a “late date” for their origin. He tries to link the Apostle Paul with a Paul mentioned by Josephus and then labeled by him “a spurter of lies” in the Scrolls, again without the any hard evidence whatsoever.
Many renowned and respected scholars view Eisenman as a spurter of outlandish theories without factual basis. Let’s examine the facts that are good news for believers in Christ because the preponderance of evidence refutes his book and reinforces our faith!
One of his central theses is that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written later than most everyone believes, emerging out of Jewish sects that include what he calls Jamesian Christianity. Daniel J. Harrington speaks for most scholars (who unlike Eisenman actually worked on the Scrolls first-hand) when he writes in the Journal of Biblical Literature how Eisenman and his colleague Michael Wise “infuriated many of their scholarly colleagues by providing introductions, transcriptions, and translations [of the Scrolls] … [which] are often inaccurate, and the introductions place the texts within a hypothesis that almost all scholars reject.”
Eisenman was refused access to the actual Scrolls because he “lacked training to interpret paleographic documents.” While he insists that the Scrolls are to be dated in the first century A.D., the overwhelming consensus of scholarship, using paleographic studies and carbon 14 dating, places them in the first and/or second centuries B.C. Initially, he called for carbon dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but after that dating conflicted with his theory he disputed the findings. He even tried to dissuade a friend, Greg Doudna, not to pursue further dating.
In the face of fact
Doudna writes, “I believed the radiocarbon datings … had been solid science and a good thing, and that the way forward was more of exactly that kind of science.” It has been pointed out how “Eisenman must strenuously argue against the use of carbon-dating and paleographical methods which suggest that the [Dead Sea] documents in question were written prior to the Christian era,” and this contradicts his “central thesis that the original Christianity of Jesus was a Jewish nationalist resistance movement and that Paul transformed it into a Hellenistic cult.”
Oxford professor and Dead Sea scroll scholar Geza Vermes explains how Eisenman’s “Christians-at-Qumran” speculative theory is refuted by “three harsh realities.” The Dead Sea Scrolls were published before, not after Christianity came on the scene. The teachings/ideologies differ fundamentally. Not one trace of a New Testament fragment has been found in any Qumran cave.
Eisenman’s distortion/confusion of Paul with someone mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus is without any support. Meanwhile, his suggestions/implications fly in the face of the fact that we know a lot about the real Paul which makes it rather ludicrous to associate him with post-Paul references to some vague character in Josephus’ writings.
True to Christianity
While Eisenman describes the New Testament documents as unreliable, they were written within the first century when eyewitnesses were still alive (contrary to his “late date” conjectures). Meanwhile, he deems more reliable such documents as the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions (not written by Clementine), of which we have no copies before the third or fourth centuries. In trying to formulate a basis to trust these Recognitions he writes these words: “Here one might wish to apply the doctrine of incongruity, that is, when a fact is considered poorly documented or for some reason flies in the face of obviously orthodox materials, this is sometimes good grounds, not for dismissing it, but for taking it more seriously than one might otherwise have done.”
Did you see what he said? Because it is “poorly documented” he can find “good grounds” for taking it at face value since it is so radical, heretical, and fits within his novel scheme! How can we give any credence to such reasoning even if it dressed in academic robes?
Also included in his preferred/trusted documents, as opposed to the New Testament, are some from the 1945 Nag Hammadi excavations in Egypt. These spurious documents are used by those in search of something sensational and eye-catching. I love what one wise scholar says to those enamored with these exotic discoveries: “What are we to make of the Nag Hammadi library? … the scrolls are forgeries. The Apostle Philip did not write the Gospel of Philip. The Apostle Peter did not write the Acts of Peter. Thomas did not write the Gospel of Thomas.” James did not write the Apocalyptic Books bearing his name!
These Nag Hammadi books were late, gnostic writings that were not true to Christianity! Neither is Professor Eisenman’s academic caricature of historic Christianity!