Judas – the Real Messiah?
Daniel Unterbrink, Judas of Nazareth.
How the Greatest Teacher of First-Century Israel Was Replaced by a Literary Creation
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Daniel Unterbrink's latest restatement of his thesis that Jesus of Nazareth is the disguised and rewritten tale of Judas the Galilean is well worth time and attention. It isn't that he "proves" his case: he doesn't. But rather like Atwill with his Titus thesis, Unterbrink presents a welter of argument that appears at first to have great explanatory power. Judas of Nazareth is an engrossing read for any Jesus sleuth.
A single-sourced Jesus?
Rather than draw our attention to a cabal in Rome, concocting a darkly humorous joke to delight imperial paymasters and fool the Jews (per Atwill), Unterbrink keeps his exposition within a recognizable Judean history. His initial focus is upon a minor character, a teacher of the Law named Judas who instigated the destruction of the Golden Eagle with which Herod had profaned the Temple. A mere footnote in an increasingly violent history? It is rather interesting that the assessment of this particular Judas by Josephus is far from his usual condemnation of seditionists:
"There was one Judas, the son of Saripheus, and Matthias, the son of Margalothus, two of the most eloquent men among the Jews, and the most celebrated interpreters of the Jewish laws, and men well beloved by the people, because of their education of their youth; for all those that were studious of virtue frequented their lectures every day."
– Josephus, Antiquities (17.149)
Now you might describe this incident as a "cleansing of the temple" by popular rabbis, which just happened to occur about the time Matthew says Jesus was born. One might well presume, from reading Josephus, that Judas the temple cleanser was imprisoned and executed for his folly, along with his co-conspirators, though as Unterbrink argues, the text does not unambiguously say that. In fact, Unterbrink suggests that Judas was released soon after by Herod's son Archelaus as a crowd pleaser (a Barabbas-style "prisoner release", no less), and this very Judas reappeared twelve years later leading a tax rebellion, under the name of Judas son of Hezekias. A second named father? That problem is resolved, says Unterbrink, by reading not Saripheus, but Sepphoris, a place of origin, an identification vouched for by Josephus himself in the equivalent passage in War (1.648). It allows an interesting conflation of two figures named Judas.
In any event, was that second, early 1st century Jewish militant, and leader of a tax rebellion, really the template for the gospel Jesus, given that the biblical hero is very unlike that? Unterbrink offers us forty-two parallels that say that he was. A lot of readers, as this reviewer, will find many of these parallels contrived and unconvincing. But Unterbrink's thesis is far more comprehensive than vulgar parallel mania. The author believes his breakthrough is to recognise that the early historians (Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny) plus the "authentic" Pauline letters, are our primary sources and that the gospels are less reliable secondary sources. Viewed without the distorting lens of the gospels, the primary material supports the Judas thesis rather well, particularly if we allow a few not unreasonable speculations.
A Slavonic source?
Ironically, in building his case Unterbrink himself draws attention to a pretty obscure secondary source, Christian interpolations within the Slavonic edition of Josephus's War (an 11th century Russian copy), and poses a number of what if questions. What if the unorthodox additional Christian material actually reflected the thoughts of a contemporary to the author of Matthew, at a time when the Jesus biography was still in flux? If we dare to make this highly speculative supposition, then puzzling aspects of the authorised story begin to make a lot more sense. Thus, before Judas Iscariot was named and demonised, it was Pilate who was bribed by the High Priests to crucify Jesus. But as Christianity cosied up to Rome, blame for the death of Jesus had to be reassigned unambiguously to the Jews. If the Slavonic variant is our guide, then John the Baptist appeared earlier in time, and was in fact one and the same with Sadduc, an associate of Judas and deputy leader of the "Fourth Philosophy". This sect, described thus by Josephus, Unterbrink labels as the "Jewish Jesus Movement", which at different points he also identifies with the Zealots, the Sicarii and the Nazareans. The JMM was led in turn by Judas, John the Baptist, James and Peter. Committed to the Laws of Moses and hostile to the occupiers, the movement was not uncompromisingly militant, some part of it was waiting patiently for the Messiah.
More crucial to the Unterbrink thesis than the multiplicity of Judas/Jesus parallels is the complete remodelling of the apostle Paul. The evangelising saint of the New Testament is no less of a fabrication that the saviour himself:
"Paul of Tarsus was created by the author of Acts, just as Jesus of Nazareth was created by the author of Mark." (p. 237).
Before the apostle himself was sanitised in scripture, Paul was the villainous Saul, the Herodian scoundrel also found in the pages of Josephus (and stretched to include the unnamed Jew who swindles a Roman matron). Herein lies the prototype for the dark, pre-conversion Paul. Unterbrink offers us an revisionist biography of the apostle.
Paul/Saul – an Herodian on the make
Initially, the young Paul, despite the the good fortune of having Herodian family ties, had been drawn into Judas's "Fourth Philosophy", at a time when he was "zealous for the Law". This was around the year 20, soon after what Unterbrink surmises was the real death of Judas the Galilean. Details of that death, curiously, are missing from Josephus. Unterbrink suggests that the relevant passage in Antiquities was deleted and replaced by the Testimonium Flavianum. And Paul's "Damascene road" transformation? Here, I think, Unterbrink is way too speculative. Apparently it was the success of his "cousin" Agrippa I, appointed King of the Jews, popular with the people and rewarded handsomely by Caligula and Claudius, that both irks and inspires Paul to greater things. From Agrippa Paul borrows the grand idea of converting the Gentiles to Judaism. Influenced by his understanding of Mithraic mythology, Paul branches out with his own concoction: the Risen Christ. Far from being spiritual enlightenment, it is a formula for raising funds, initially under the pretext of helping the Holy City and the Temple.
Paul is expelled from the JMM for going off message and hostility between his old comrades and his new "Christ Movement" intensifies in the following decades. Resolution comes only with the all but complete destruction of the Jewish Jesus Movement in the war, which leaves the field clear for Paul (still alive in the 70s perhaps?) or a close follower of Paul to write or influence the writing of Mark, and subsequently, the other gospels. Paul's own theology of Grace without the Law is retrofitted into the story of Judas and onto the lips of "Jesus" and his disciples. The Last Supper, for example, was not instituted by Judas/Jesus at all but invented by Paul himself. "Mark's Jesus is a stand-in for Paul," says Unterbrink. The "Jesus of Nazareth" movement was born.
A multi-sourced Jesus?
Thus Paul's Judas/Jesus was really a composited character, blending only a little of the historical Judas with Paul's own life and an ethereal Christ that he had created and which conveniently "talked through him". The Messiah was celibate because Paul himself was celibate. The Messiah caroused with sinners because Paul himself caroused with sinners. As the movement grew, new gospels were written to disguise the movement's origins and widen its appeal to pagans (thus "water into wine" was a nod to the cult of Dionysus). Unterbrink examines each gospel in turn, detailing what he sees as the Pauline influences. It's an interesting exercise. After the war and the destruction of Jerusalem, money continues to flow, but now into the coffers of the spiritual Israel, the Church.
Unterbrink completes his work with four appendices, almost a hundred pages (or a third of the book), summarising and supplementing his main arguments. Some of this material would serve better in the main body of the book. Here the reader will find the author's revised timelines, the forty-two parallels, and excursuses on John the Baptist, Pontius Pilate, and the Slavonic Josephus. All very closely argued material.
So did Jesus really exist?
There is much to agree with in Unterbrink's latest book: that the biblical Jesus is a literary creation; that the gospels are creative works of fiction; that the gospels were influenced not only by Paul but also by Mithraism and the cult of Dionysus; that the Q hypothesis is redundant (a simpler truth is that Luke copied from both Matthew and Mark); that Jesus the Nazorean was morphed into Jesus of Nazareth as part of the faux history; that at an early point in its emergence Christianity melded together two formerly distinct groups, a Christ faction and a Jesus faction; and that Acts is harmonising fakery, written to disguise not illuminate the true origins of Christianity. Unterbrink speculates widely and makes connections unjustified by the available evidence; but one need not agree with all or indeed any of Unterbrink's contentions to find his arguments immensely interesting,
A nice tidbit that I enjoyed was being reminded that Eusebius, in writing of The Times of Pilate (Church History, 1.9), refers to a "forgery recently given currency … (Acta Pilati?) … which dares to say" that the passion of the saviour occurred in the fourth consulship of Tiberius. Now that was the year 21, a date which completely undermines the conventional Jesus chronology but which, argues Unterbrink, works well for the death of Judas. What did those "forgers" know that we can only but surmise?
Judas of Nazareth is an engaging rearrangement of the pieces that make up the Jesus puzzle, probing the old paradigm for weaknesses and offering radical solutions where it finds them. Compared to the "imperial conspiracy" scenario found in Caesar's Messiah, the "Judas the Galilean remade for the Gentiles" hypothesis has much to commend it.
The weakness of all theses built on "parallel lives" is that there can be so many of them. All human lives are to some extend parallel: we live, we age, we die. Is Unterbrink's "temple cleanser" any more valid than Carotta's "clement" Julius Caesar, or Atwill's "fisher of men" Titus? The human mind is prejudiced toward seeing meaningful patterns, even when the patterns are random and meaningless. Those unfamiliar with the vast number of alternative explanations for the godman of Galilee, who read Judas of Nazareth and nothing else in the genre, are likely to be convinced that the real Jesus has indeed been found. The alternative is to recognise that the "historical Jesus" was a multi-sourced literary creation, a fable with a veneer of humanity and verisimilitude applied here and there through time onto the phantom at its core – a Creator of All who has not abandoned us. That pathetic hope was first expressed in redeemer myths and found an echo in Jewish scripture.
Unterbrink says he is not a mythicist – that he is somewhere in the middle ground. Yet in Judas of Nazareth Unterbrink reveals not a lost Messiah but a composited Jesus which includes elements from the lives of two Judases, Saul, Paul, John the Baptist, Mithras and Dionysus. Unterbrink may not yet be numbered among the saints but he's not far from the kingdom!
Daniel Unterbrink, Judas of Nazareth. How the Greatest Teacher of First-Century Israel Was Replaced by a Literary Creation
(Bear & Co, Toronto, 2014)
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