Foreword by Barrie Wilson
Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar, Religious Studies, York University, Toronto
Scholars have spent years investigating the problem of the historical Jesus, that is, how can we now reliably know what the Jesus of history said and did when Jesus himself wrote nothing, and the Gospels were written at least 40 to 70 years after his death, composed in light of Paul’s mythologized Christ of faith? The problem becomes compounded when we also realize that the Gospels themselves disagree on key elements: What was Jesus’ genealogy? Did he undergo John’s baptism for the remission of sin? Did he teach strict Torah-observance? What were the charges against him? Who was responsible for his execution? What were his last words on the cross? And so on. Moreover, there are also Gospels not included in the New Testament, those from the Gnostic as well as the Ebionite Christian traditions.
Dan Unterbrink’s insightful book argues that scholars have been looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. Jesus really is a composite figure, a strategic blend of the historical revolutionary Judas the Galilean with the Christ figure, a divine-human who spoke in and through Paul. This re-imaged figure, “Jesus of Nazareth,” was created for polemical purposes in the late 1st century CE as Judaism faced the task of reconstruction after 70 CE; as Jewish revolutionary messianic movements waned; and as Paul’s religion of faith in the Christ succeeded. Far removed from a Jewish milieu, the Gospel authors needed to paint a picture of Jesus more relevant to potential Roman, non-Jewish converts than a Torah-observant Jewish freedom fighter. Many of these would have ventured into Gentile Christianity from pagan backgrounds, from the worship of Mithras, Dionysus or Isis for instance. For them, Paul’s Christ figure would have been immediately recognizable. So the Jesus of the New Testament is a real person, rooted in early 1st century messianic fervor, but covered over with a mystery religion veneer. No wonder the historical Jesus has been so difficult to uncover.
Follow Unterbrink’s skillful detective work, honed as a forensic auditor for many years, experienced in looking behind complex and sometimes confusing documents to the truth they cover over. Just like financial records, the real meaning lies hidden beneath the writings of the Gospels, the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters. All it takes is a suspicious investigator with a nose for the truth … and for documents that deceive or deflect. Consider the independent testimony of Unterbrink’s outside expert, the Jewish-Roman historian of antiquity, Josephus, whose writings are often overlooked by New Testament students. Dan Unterbrink’s block-by-block building of evidence will take you on an exciting intellectual journey into the real identity of Jesus.
If Jesus is modeled, in part, on the Jewish revolutionary Judas the Galilean, then an earlier dating is required than the one presented in the Gospels. Instead of the conventional birth of Jesus around 5 or 4 BCE/BC, before the death of Herod the Great, and a death around 30 CE/AD, this book argues that the dating has to be backtracked by more than a decade. This would place Judas the Galilean/Jesus within the 25 BCE to 19 CE timeframe and would position him alongside other messianic figures such as Simon of Perea and Athronges. Clearly these were troubled times and Jews everywhere longed for the overthrow of the Roman regime and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. That yearning built upon ancient Jewish hopes for a better world, one in which God would be worshipped by all humanity, the Messiah King would rule over Jerusalem, peace would be enjoyed, and the righteous rewarded with everlasting life. That was the dream, and many Jewish leaders emerged to help God bring about this new world order.
Judas of Nazareth starts by orienting the reader in the political and revolutionary world of Judea in the early 1st century CE, tracing what we can reliably know of Judas the Galilean and his revolutionary movements from Jewish and Roman sources. It is within this context that we can now understand what Josephus calls “the Fourth Philosophy,” the complex mix of radicals who went by different names—Zealots, Sicarii, members of the Dead Sea Scroll community, Essenes, and, yes, the first Jewish followers of Jesus, the group scholars call ‘the Jesus Movement.’ All these groups hoped for—and worked towards—a transformed world, one in which they’d enjoy freedom from Roman rule and colonization, liberated from Roman taxation. It would be a time when the worship of the one true God could be carried out without fear of compromise.
The book then moves to Paul’s perspective, his political connections and his pro-Roman stance. Paul’s was a different religion from that fostered by the Jewish revolutionaries. Just how different Paul’s Christ Movement was from Jesus/Judas the Galilean and his radical followers, Unterbrink makes clear. The thoughtful reader will wonder how and why these two quite different movements ever became associated with each other in the minds of subsequent generations.
Most importantly, Judas of Nazareth shows for the first time the extent to which the four Gospels in the New Testament were written in light of the success of Paul’s Gentile religion. While this has been recognized for some time now, no one has demonstrated where and how each Gospel is dependent upon Paul’s perspective, his theology, and to some extent his experiences. This sleuthing clearly establishes that the Gospels cannot be treated as transcripts nor as actual history but as creative works of historical fiction. They are products of Paul’s mythologized Christ theology and their agenda is intended to serve the interests of the fledgling Gentile Christian communities. Not only is Jesus’ Jewish heritage muted, but these writings are at pains to distance him from fierce anti-Roman messianic fervor. Gone is the messianic excitement, replaced by a perspective that sees Jesus as the savior of all humanity.
So, according to Unterbrink, Jesus is not just Judas the Galilean but Judas rewritten. He is a messianic pretender, at odds with Rome, a strong advocate of Torah-observance, and a revolutionary bent on overthrowing the Roman Government. He is presented in the Gospels, however, as the anti-Torah pro-Roman Christ of faith along the lines envisioned by Paul with only a thin substratum of the revolutionary, political Judas the Galilean/Jesus of history lurking underneath. The composite figure in the Gospels gives us a sanitized hero fit for Gentile consumption. It’s a remarkable creation but one that the historically oriented reader should treat with extreme caution and skepticism.
Simultaneously this portrait of the Gospel Jesus both complicates and simplifies the quest for the historical Jesus. It complicates the task by rendering the Gospels themselves suspect documents in reconstructing the actual sayings of Jesus. They have been overwritten by the Pauline perspective of the Christ as a divine being, a savior come to rescue humanity and so a large portion of what they say can be dismissed as non-historical or even anti-historical. On the other hand, this portrait simplifies the task of searching for the historical Jesus by allowing us to discount this whitewashed perspective as alien to the Jesus/Judas of history who attempted to galvanize the Jewish people behind his vision of the coming Kingdom of God.
Unterbrink’s argument proceeds by way of similarities: X is similar to Y. This methodology represents interesting logical analysis. If there were only a few similarities, we could say with confidence that these are coincidences, X being sort of similar to Y. But when the similarities begin to multiply, then a pattern emerges. And that’s where the argument intrigues. What are we to make of these compounded similarities? Perhaps we will say, X and Y are somewhat the same. Even more radically, perhaps we will agree with Unterbrink and contend that X and Y are, in fact, not just somewhat the same but actually the same.
Judas of Nazareth is a catalyst for discussion. Some readers will agree with Unterbrink that the problem of the historical Jesus has been cracked … finally! Others may find that he has overstated the case, but even these readers will discover some insightful parallels and a wealth of history. At the very least, readers will come to see how radically different Paul was from anything resembling the Jesus of history and his revolutionary movement. Agree or disagree, the reader who investigates alongside Unterbrink will discover much that is new and worth pondering.
Those who like to explore, who value quests, who enjoy discovery, and who want an evidence-based faith—these are the readers who will find this book engaging and beneficial.