Thursday, January 21, 2010

Finally! A Positive Review For the Real Messiah From a Christian Website

People that read this blog regularly know how seriously I take my research. They might not agree with my conclusions, but this isn't a case where an agenda is guiding the conclusions. That is why I find it so disheartening sometimes when I have so many Christians attacking me and my book, the Real Messiah. That is why I was so very happy to read the following review of my work at a Christian site. The reviewer is not agreeing with my conclusions. He's just saying that they deserve to be considered. The reviewer get's it.

I am not saying that he is endorsing my views. I am not sure even I endorse all of these arguments any more. You know what Heraclitus says about not being able to walk in the same river twice. There's no way that any author could write the same book twice. I still agree with the over all point the book is trying to make. I just wish people wouldn't get stuck treating the book like I am trying to replace the Bible or something.

The book was intended to be suggestive. It is saying 'something like this happened' rather than 'this is exactly how it happened.' If the canonical book of the Acts of the Apostles had the same disclaimer I would have issues with it and its mid-second century author.

In any event, before I lose more readers here is the review:

Review: The Real Messiah: The Throne of St. Mark and the True Origins of Christianity

Imagine if you will a unique kind of 2000-piece puzzle. Each puzzle box contains just a few pieces, and those pieces have multiple possible places where they may fit. In fact, some pieces can look like they belong, when in reality they just don't fit at all, since the puzzle box doesn't come with a photo of the completed puzzle on the cover. The person who wants to try to put together the whole puzzle has to assemble a whole lot of chaos and ultimately try make some sense of it all. And the likelihood is, even if someone puts together a mostly complete picture, there's a darn good chance someone else will later determine there's an even better way to assemble the pieces. To further complicate matters, millions of people sit on the outside, arguing about this or that placement of a puzzle piece and making daily proclamations about the ultimate meaning of the puzzle for people's lives.

By now, you've probably realized that my illustration is a pretty good description of what it's like to be a biblical scholar. Each individual specializes in some particular niche—epigraphy, cultural customs, textual variants, political systems, and many others—then adds his or her knowledge to the mix. Every so often, a revolutionary theory will pop up that changes the way people understand a large chunk of the biblical text, such as the Q theory of the synoptic gospels' formation, or the Documentary Hypothesis of the formation of the Pentateuch. For many Christians, learning about these theories can inspire anger, frustration, confusion, doubt, or denial, while others find ways of integrating the new information into their belief system, even if that requires a pretty radical personal shift. If you're inclined to be an "integrator," then click to read more. But don't say I didn't warn you...

I remember well two of the pieces of information that first caused me to rethink the way I thought about scripture: the various source theories about the formation of the synoptic gospels, and the opinion of scholars that Mark's gospel dated to 70 AD. Reflecting on those two pieces of data ultimately helped me to break free of the literalistic view I had of the Bible prior to college. I continue to find source theories and dating arguments to make interesting reading (honest!), plus in more recent years I've become greatly interested in archaeology and in Roman history. In part, all of these interests of mine are why Stephan Huller's 2009 book, The Real Messiah: The Throne of St. Mark and the True Origins of Christianity captured my attention from start to finish. But more importantly, the book is forcing me to wrestle with profound questions about how the Christian faith began and what that means for me personally.

In some fields of scholarship, the "Pro-Am collaboration" phenomenon is growing with striking results. Professionals and amateurs are collaborating in unique ways to make new discoveries, and sometimes the amateurs—despite the lack of scholarly credentials—make amazing discoveries. This has certainly been true, for example, in the field of astronomy, because the development of affordable digital telescopes has meant that amateurs can discover new planets and other important space phenomena.

Huller is a great example of the Pro-Am phenomenon within the field of biblical studies. He is not a professor of biblical studies, but instead has a unique personal background that ties him to the Jewish messianic leader Jacob Frank (1726-1791) and the small group of modern-day Samaritans in Israel. As a philosophy major, he has an ability to look at questions from a fresh perspective and take a logical approach to sorting out many pieces of information. Those credentials may seem somewhat insignificant, but in fact they contributed to his unorthodox interpretation of an undersized and ancient alabaster throne in St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, which he happened to visit some 20 years ago and has been studying ever since.

That interpretation (in short) is this: the throne was created for the coronation (at the age of 8) of Marcus Julius Agrippa (AKA Herod Agrippa II), who was understood by Jews (including Jesus) in the first century to be the Messiah, and who would eventually write (sometime in or just after 70 AD) the original gospel that we now know as Mark. That gospel, in its original form, was later changed by church leaders (like Irenaeus of Lyons) to present Jesus as the Messiah rather than Jesus as the herald of Agrippa the Messiah, but evidence remains in the text of the earlier version.

Reading The Real Messiah is rather like reading a good mystery, as Huller slowly puts in place pieces from Jewish, Christian, and Roman history, ancient documents, biblical texts, a Samaritan script carved on the throne, Jewish Gematria (a symbolic way of creating and understanding objects and texts in ancient times), Coptic legends, and much more to make his argument. With each piece of the puzzle in place, he eliminates previous theories about the throne, Agrippa, and the authorship of Mark (and the other gospels too, as it turns out.) Of course, Huller is very aware that a theory this grand and far-reaching could easily be viewed as a house of cards; remove a critical piece and the whole thing potentially falls apart. So, he seeks out other scholars to verify theories and interpretations, and he comes at his arguments from multiple directions to help prop them up and ensure readers stay with him. It's a book that absolutely demands a second reading, because the amount of information in it is—while very readable—utterly staggering.

Huller's book has been both praised and panned since it was released. Most of those who have panned it have done so because Huller does not consistently cite sources or even provide page numbers for some quoted passages. This is certainly a valid criticism; only 100 endnotes are included, though Huller does include a substantial biography for scholars who are interested in delving deeper into his source material. He also says that he includes much more in-depth information on his personal blog and book blog, which is indeed true. Others have criticized him for his somewhat more relaxed writing style (for example, he says he has cracked "The Agrippa Code," an obvious reference to a popular novel), or simply because they cannot stomach his arguments. Finally, some have criticized him for the rather extensive self-promotion he (or perhaps a publicist) has done on the Internet; indeed, it's clear he's quite adept at filling the blogosphere with his own comments in order to drive traffic to his own blog and, of course, to drive up book sales. My own view is that these realities are tied to his amateur status, and the fact that he hoped to appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

While some respected scholars have given the book a positive review, I had a hard time finding any in-depth responses to the book online. And, I suppose, that's the nature of biblical scholarship! Huller has put forth a theory which is potentially revolutionary. In time, it will gradually be studied, responded to, debated, cited, and revised. While I found the book to be fascinating, I also realize I do not have the necessary knowledge to fully evaluate the work, but it's certainly clear to me that The Real Messiah presents an argument that at the very least cannot be ignored, and will take significant effort to refute.

OK, so if you're still reading this far, perhaps you're wondering why this book is being reviewed in a website devoted to Christian education/faith formation. The answer is simple: progressive Christian educators need to periodically read books containing scholarly ideas that push their boundaries. I certainly hope you're intrigued enough to pick up a copy of The Real Messiah, for the more you learn about ancient history, culture, and important figures of the early church, the more you'll grow in your awareness that the puzzle is not yet complete. Most importantly, you'll know you need to approach the biblical text (and encourage others to do so too) with humility, openness, and a willingness to allow the difficult questions to transform your faith and your life.

~ by Tim Gossett
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