AKENSON, Donald Harman - "Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus"

Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000, paperback 2002.

by Robert Brow  (www.brow.on.ca)

Professor Akenson teaches history at Queen's University on my doorstep, and I very much enjoyed his previous book, Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmud, 1998 (reviewed on this site). When his Saint Saul came out two years later I did not take the time to buy it and read it. But last week Donald Bailey recommended Appendix A "Winnie the Pooh and the Jesus Seminar" (313-320, which covers the argument of 84-89). This so delighted me that I read Appendix B "Hubris and the Plasticity in the Q Industry" (321-328 which covers the section 99-115). That hooked me into reading the book. And I am glad.

For two thousand years Jews were the only nation who have reviled the person people of other nations admire and call their Messiah. That has been changing rapidly. More and more Jews are now appreciating the fact that their Yeshua made by far the greatest Jewish contribution to the world. But now Akenson asks us to conceive of Saul of Tarsus as a product of the Jewish mental world of Second Temple Judahism" (15, 21). It was "rich with ideas, prophets, factions, priests, savants, and god -drunk fanatics" (17, 34, 46, 53, 240) and he never stopped being a Jew (obvious from Acts 22:3, 2 Corinthians 11:22).

Akenson therefore concludes that the best source for our knowledge of Jesus is found in the writings of Saint Saul. That neatly reclaims Saul of Tarsus for the Jewish fold. And this includes the "celestial music" of the praise of love (1 Corinthians 13) as one of the fountainheads of Jewish faith" (253-255).

The problem for me is that the argument is based on two big assumptions. "Nobody who knew Yeshua personally put anything down on paper, at least not that we've ever found" (7). And the Gospels were invented after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. This is repeated with great confidence twelve times (1, 8, 42, 53, 73, 75, 77, 80, 95, 98, 184, 213). But Akenson does not give one shred of proof for this except that the synoptic Gospels all three refer in detail to the fall of Jerusalem, and to a historian that kind of predictive prophecy is impossible. That means his whole argument is based on an assumption without explaining his reason for adopting it.

To show my hand I must admit my assumption that the Gospels were written after the beheading of James, AD 44, to give the early Christians some written evidence of who Jesus was and what he did. If I am right, Akenson's tower of cards collapses. If he is right, the Gospels offer us no reliable evidence for the life and message of Jesus, and our only source for that is found in "the seven authentic letters" (134, 143) of Saul. In those he was "a missionary acting within the behavioral boundaries of late Second Temple Judahism" (149).

Having rejected Akenson's assumed foundation, I loved his writing style. He refers to someone who called footnotes "porcupine quills meant to protect an underdeveloped epistemology" (14). He will certainly encourage a move of Jesus of History studies from the Gospels to Paul's epistles.

One little nit-pick. Akenson says Saul viewed Jesus as "the son of Yahweh" (179, 181). I prefer to read he is the Son of God who came to Abraham, Moses, and the Psalm writers where he is always referred to as Yahweh (written in the NRSV as the LORD in capital letters). But if a Jew did begin thinking of God as Father, God the Son coming into contact with humans (John 1:18), and God the Holy Spirit, he would already be a Trinitarian Christian. And happily these days among Christians that would not stop him being a loyal Jew.

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