effrey J. Bütz. The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions International, 2005. Paperback, xviii + 220 pages.
Ever since the beginning of his missionary work, Jesus of Nazareth has been a controversial figure. If anything, our picture of him has become more and more complex and complicated over the centuries, especially since the discovery of the Gnostic scriptures at Nag Hammadi in 1945 and only two years later the discovery of the so-called Dead Sea scrolls. The former body of works included gospels that should have been part of the Bible but were excluded because of their doubtful “Gnostic” content. The latter belonged, at least according to some authorities, to the Essene community that was active at the time of Jesus.
Both ancient “libraries” have greatly added to, if not topsy-turvied, our understanding of Jesus, his mission, and the time in which he lived. In the early days of Christianity, the question among the Jews was mainly whether Jesus was the prophesied messiah or not. Within Christian circles, the principal theological concern was over his precise relationship to God. All this was pretty much settled by the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. After that, the interpretation of the Christ and his teachings was essentially, though not invariably, that of St. Paul—embodied in the Catholic Church, which today claims over one billion followers.
Jeffrey Bütz, a Protestant minister and an adjunct professor at Pennsylvania State University, has added further important piece to the mosaic that is our image of Jesus. Treading an almost virginal byway of history, he looks at Jesus and his mission through the eyes of Jesus’ twin brother James. The result can only be described as sensational and downright revolutionary.
From the New Testament itself, we know that Jesus had siblings, among them his brother James, often referred to as James the Twin or James the Just. Curiously, Christian historians have all but blotted out the memory of Jesus’ family, notably his brother James. Basing himself on the testimony of the Bible and non-Biblical documents, Bütz has succeeded in restoring James to the place he deserves—as the first bishop/pope (an honor normally but wrongly bestowed on St. Peter) and a much-revered authority of the early Christian community who filled the void after Jesus’ death.
His findings make it patently clear that the existing canonical gospels are not particularly reliable, which we can gather already from the fact that they contradict each other. Bütz, like other historians before him, appreciates the political motivations behind the creation and preservation of Church dogma. Thus he also points to the “malignant” reasons for the almost complete neglect of James. It is even something of a miracle that James’ epistle was included in the New Testament. For his gospel, however, we have to look to the apocryphal scriptures, which came to be deemed as heretical.
St. Paul, on whom the Catholic Church chose to build its doctrinal foundations, was an ex-soldier who persecuted Christians only to become a zealous ambassador for the Christian cause. Whereas Jesus and James were chiefly concerned with spreading the message among the Jews, St. Paul—a Roman citizen—was eager to take Jesus’ teachings to the non-Jewish peoples. Without his missionary efforts, there would be no Christianity today.
James the Just, who received his epithet for his admirable adherence to the religious commandments and his exemplary life, continued Jesus’ mission. Little wonder that in some Gnostic texts, James is elevated almost to the spiritual status of Jesus. Writing in the fourth century, Bishop Eusebius said of James that he “was holy from his birth” and that he alone was permitted to enter the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem. When after Jesus’ death the Jewish authorities asked James to denounce his brother, he told them that Jesus was sitting in heaven at the right side of God. The scribes realized that they had made a blunder when many Jews believed James’ simple testimony. They stoned him to death, even while the good man was praying to God to forgive them. In Bütz’s words, James is “the unsung hero of Christianity.”
Jeffrey Bütz argues strongly against the common assumption that there was an “impassible theological wall” between the early Christians and the Jews. Jesus’ family, as he points out, continued to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem after his death. They did not believe, Bütz concludes from his studies, that Jesus was literally God but believed that he was an extraordinary human being—the messiah—who had been chosen by God to renew people’s faith. This finding effectively does away with the central Church doctrines of incarnation and trinity. Bütz believes that, in light of the historical evidence, a suitably modified theology could become a major contributor to restoring peace and collaboration between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. In his epilogue, he expresses the following hope: “Through James the Just, perhaps the wasteland of the Western world can be healed at last.”
Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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