The Yeshua Tree

Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key To The Historical Jesus

By Donald Winkler

A review of Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key To The Historical Jesus by Donald Harmon Akenson

Published on October 1, 2000

Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key To The Historical Jesus
Donald Harmon Akenson

McGill-Queen’s University Press
$32.95
cloth
346pp
0-7735-2090-2

“Our problem is forensic,” states Donald Akenson at the outset of his new book. That problem is how to get some sense of Jesus, or Yeshua rather, he who walked the earth in his own time, while sifting the evidence, sparse as it is, in a responsible manner. The book makes a case for Akenson’s own preferred line of attack, while launching a withering and highly entertaining broadside against the “historical Jesus” industry, with its (often) poor scholarship, hubristic overreach, flawed statistical analyses, wishful thinking, and at times sheer gullibility.

Of course the problem is huge, the obstacles many, the temptations legion. And in his effort to impose some modicum of rigour, Akenson has turned to the source nearest in time, and in life experience as well, to the pre-Christian Christ, the Yeshua who worshiped Yahweh and preached his own brand of Judahism. This is Saul, known to us under his Hellenized name, Paul, he of the Epistles. Although he never met Yeshua, he shared with him something none of the Gospel authors can claim – he lived on the far side of a great historical chasm.

This was the destruction by the Romans of the Second Temple in 70, a catastrophe Akenson characterizes as “not a military event, but apocalyptic.” Why? Because as a result “an entire grid of belief…vanished.” In order to grasp the magnitude of this shift, we must understand how exceptional were the hundred or so years preceding that disaster. For Akenson, “the century covered roughly by the years 30 BCE to 70 CE…was the most inventive, most imaginative, most ideationally fecund in matters of religion of any time that is adequately recorded in human history.” Why exactly this should have been so is less clear, but unquestionably it was a time of great ferment where an abundance of “multiple Judahisms” flourished, and not one single faith. This was the world in which Yeshua and Saul lived, and at the core of this world, constituting its focal point and gravitational centre, was the Temple. With that gone, the great question became: can any of these Temple religions survive, when there is no more Temple? It was a crisis of Darwinian dimensions.

Two religions made it through, evolving into the Christian and Jewish faiths we know today. In the case of Christianity, the Temple found its embodiment in the figure of Jesus. And it was in its own interest to portray itself as part of the “inevitable flow of spiritual progress,” and not as a product of historical contingencies. The Christian Gospels were central to this enterprise. The destruction of the Temple, and its consequences, is the Gospels’ reason for being. They were written under post-traumatic duress.

But Saul wrote before, and does not “read into” the life of Yeshua mythic inventions designed to shore up subsequent dogma. Although some of his ideas helped lay the foundation for Christianity, he was no Christian. He was a Second Temple Judahist with revolutionary ideas.

The problem, of course, is that Saul writes much more about Yeshua’s sayings than about his doings; the biographical details are thin on the ground, thin enough that Akenson proposes we look to Saul’s own life for clues, on the premise that in many respects he modelled it on that of Yeshua himself. And although Akenson regards his book as an effort that will clear the way for further exploration by others, it remains to be seen how much more about Yeshua can be gleamed from Saul’s writings than Akenson has already been able to unearth. Nevertheless, this is a stimulating, provocative, peppery book that will appeal to many readers who are not deeply immersed in Biblical scholarship. mRb

Donald Winkler is a Montreal filmmaker and translator. His most recent film is Maureen Forrester: The Diva in Winter.

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