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Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus [Paperback]

By Donald Harman Akenson (Author)
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Item Specifications...

Pages   364
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 9.3" Width: 6.02" Height: 0.78"
Weight:   1.11 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Jun 20, 2002
Publisher   Oxford University Press
ISBN  0195152387  
EAN  9780195152388  

Availability  139 units.
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Item Description...
In Saint Saul, Donald Harman Akenson offers a lively and provocative account of what we can learn about Jesus by reading the letters of Paul. As the only direct evidence of Jesus we have that were composed before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE forever altered the outlook of the Christian and Jewish faiths, Akenson claims that these letters are the most reliable source of information. He dismisses the traditional method of searching for facts about Jesus by looking for parallels among the four gospels because they were handed down to us as a unit by a later generation. Akenson painstakingly recreates the world of Christ, a time rich with ideas, prophets, factions, priests, savants, and god-drunk fanatics. He insistently stresses throughout the Jewishness of Jesus, referring to Jesus and Paul as Yeshua and Saul, as they were then known. As an eminent historian, Akenson approaches his subject with a fresh eye and a scholarly rigor that is all too rare in this hotly disputed field.

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More About Donald Harman Akenson

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Donald Harman Akenson is Professor of History at Queen's University, Kingston (Canada), and Beamish Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, England. A senior editor at McGill-Queen's University Press, he is an award-winning author of numerous books on a wide range of topics, including Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds.

Donald Harman Akenson was born in 1941.

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Reviews - What do our customers think?
Informative, but Too Long  Aug 23, 2006
Donald Harmon Akenson's 2000 book Saint Saul is difficult to read, but the rewards are many for the dutiful student. Akenson hopes to see what historical evidence can be found for the life of Jesus by examining the epistles of Saul (aka Paul). To do this, he begins by examining the religious dynamics in the First Century to try to give us some idea of the world in which Yeshua and Saul lived. BTW, Akenson insists on using words such as Yeshua, Saul, and YHWH instead of the traditional Jesus, Paul, and God. His rationale is that only by using the words that they used can we try to put ourselves into their world (It's a good point and I found it useful.).

Akenson gives us an excellent background into the religious situation. He documents the plethora of Jewish sects, an issue rarely discussed by other scholars. He also provides the OT references to concepts such as Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, etc. and shows that it took a great leap of faith, diligent searching, and some dishonest juggling for the early Christians to find any precursors to Jesus in these OT concepts.

The book is not without its problems. For example...

- Akenson claims that Jesus' followers were Nazarenes because Jesus came from Nazareth (p. 63). In fact, the Nazarene sect existed long before Jesus, and it is a mis-translation of Nazarene which leads gospel writers to even think that Jesus came from Nazareth, which at that time was a stop over for camel jockeys and cave dwellers and didn't contain a synagogue as described in the gospels.

- Akenson equates Josephus scholarship with Winston Churchill and claims "his standard of accuracy is higher than Churchill's (p. 270)" suggesting that Akenson's own Irish background has influenced his scholarship. Josephus lived on a Roman pension and was a traitor to his Jewish followers. Every word of every book was carefully selected to keep his Roman paymasters happy, lest they give to him the same fate they gave to the men he betrayed.

- Akenson believes that the later addition of material about Jesus to Josephus' Antiquities (20:200) are original. Few scholars would agree.

- Akenson believes that John the Baptist and Jesus were "cousins" (p. 80), which comes only from a fleeting reference in Luke (1:41), is actually contra-indicated later in Luke, and attested to in no other canonical sources. In his defense, he admits that his conclusion "is peripheral", and he correctly concludes that Jesus became a disciple of John.

There are also several ad hominen attacks in the book which are unwarranted in scholarly publications. For example...

- "Although I could extend the list of those who inhale the narcotic fumes of Secret Mark to include probably two-thirds of the North American-based Jesus-questors... (p. 89)." Is Akenson revealing his own insecurities of teaching in Canada and the UK to take a slur at North American Jesus-questors. Are there not Jesus-questors (itself a derogatory word) elsewhere?

- "...he could only have enjoyed watching the most powerful figures in the liberal wing of the Quest establishment - Harvard... (p. 89). Earlier, Akenson makes a crack about Harvard University Press (p. 85), and one has to wonder if his own position as an editor for McGill-Queen's University Press (Who???) somehow motivates his attack here.

The biggest problem with this book is that one has to endure 175 of the 255 pages filled with words like "rebarbarative", "caesurae", "spumescent", etc. in order to finally reach Akenson's first comments about what Saint Saul had to say about the historical Jesus. More than half of the preceding 175 pages has been filled with comments left over from Akenson's previous book (Surpassing wonder: The invention of the Bible and the Talmuds). Many authors do this, and it always is a source of annoyance.

These errors and problems are glaring, but not significant in the larger picture that Akenson paints. Yet one can only wish that Akenson had condensed his 255 pages into the 100 good pages contained therein, and saved a dutiful reader many hours of laborious study in order to mine his nuggets of wisdom.
Second Half Redeems the First  May 10, 2004
In brief, the author's thesis is that our only quasi-reliable source for the historic Yeshua (= Jesus) are Paul's letters, or at least the 7 which are most probably his. These date from 49-63 A.D., before the catastrophe of the Destruction of the Second Temple, and the four canonical Gospels post-date that event, at least in Akenson's view, and hence are not reliable sources regarding pre-Destruction proto-Christianity and its roots in the life and death of Yeshua. The importance of Paul as a periscope into the early decades following the Crucifixion is indeed a welcome insight, seemingly overlooked by the Historic Jesus authors. As Akenson reminds us, Paul attests to the Eucharist (communion), the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, within a short time after these events took place, and he believes Paul was certainly tutored in Yeshua "folklore" (his term) during Paul's fortnight stay with Peter and others who knew Yeshua intimately. The second half of the book, which is excellent and quite moving (particularly the final chapter), more than redeems the first half, which is cranky, sarcastic, and caustically unfair to Akenson's "opponents" - that is, Akenson displays an emotional range similar to many of Paul's letters, from the all-too-human to the celestial. As to the attack-dog sarcasm: Akenson's Big Insight is that Paul is the best (only) source for pre-Destruction proto-Christianity, and so any suggestion in competing authors that the Four Gospels (or any noncanonical gospel) may predate the Destruction of the Temple, is subjected to childish (and needlessly mean-spirited) ridicule rather than sober disputation - reminiscent of the bitter dogma wars that formed (and ruined) the early Church; Akenson would have been right at home in the 4th century. For a refreshingly different take on this, see Robinson's "Redating the New Testament," which argues, convincingly for me, that the chief basis for dating the Four Gospels after 70 A.D., Jesus' prediction that the Temple will be destroyed, is far from determinative: Jesus may well simply have predicted the Temple's fate. (Robinson notes that the Gospels do not make the sort of big deal out of this correct prediction that might be expected if it were written "after the fact," for example. If Robinson and others are correct, then the Four Gospels may well constitute largely first-generation accounts, a possibility which is anathema to those who are deeply uncomfortable with the miracle accounts and the Resurrection.) Akenson's fury at such heresy seems based principally in his characterization of the pre-70 daters as Fundamentalists (and no doubt their view of Akenson and the Jesus Seminar folks is reciprocally vituperative). But you certainly don't have to be a Fundamentalist to accept pre-70 dates for the canonical Gospels (and for that matter, there seems no good reason the Gospel of Thomas can't arguably be dated to just after Jesus' death, if not actually during his lifetime -- apparently the surviving manuscript is far older than those of Paul's letters, if that were a persuasive factor (it's not).) The late Morton Smith takes it on the chin for concocting a gay hoax in the form of the Secret Gospel of Mark, and Crossan and others who treat that work seriously are lampooned as worse than country bumpkins. As his discussion progresses, Akenson gradually calms down and writes beautifully and convincingly about Paul (despite Akenson's criticism of neologisms (and then his use of them throughout the book -- "Judahism," etc.), he occasionally slips and calls Saul "Paul") and the glimpses his letters afford at the historic Jesus. The work ends with a discussion of the great Sermon on Love in 1 Corinthians 13, which Akenson believes closely reflects Jesus' own teachings. The fact that it also closely reflects the Last Supper sermon in John suggests again what may be the central flaw of Akenson's Gospel-dating. A very good read, all in all.
A Fresh Examination of the Jesus/Paul Relationship  Dec 25, 2002
Akenson has done a good job of writing an informative, entertaining and accurate (inasmuch as the latter adjective can be at all meaningful here)book on Paul and Jesus for the lay reader. All in all, a very good hermeneutic reading of both concerned persons and a good illustration of their milieu. However, I have differences of opinion on several issues.
First, the author is quick (and correct) to point out the highly suspect nature of Secret Mark. But he is also quick (incorrectly- this time) to proclaim it a forgery. While I certainly agree that Crossan and Koester have prematurely and somewhat naively antedated this document, there is, at the other logical extreme, no reason to insist that it is an obvious fabrication on the part of Morton Smith (its 'discoverer') or any other. Sure, its possible. But without real evidence, we can just as properly take the leap and say that the earliest fragments of Secret Mark come from C.E. 50. Not a very good approach, of course. Methodologically, the best response to this issue is a negative one; i.e. there is NEITHER evidence that Secret Mark should predate Canonical Mark, NOR any direct evidence that the former is a forgery rather than a very late and poorly documented piece of apocryphal literature.
Second, Akenson seems to misunderstand the idea behind the Criteria of Multiple Attestation. Few biblical scholars (the Jesus Seminar included) believe that the extant Gospels are independent resources, in and of themselves. What they do believe is that there are strands of contradictory material within the Gospels that can be reasonably supposed to have come from a different source than that which they contradict. If some of these differing materials have thematically or theologically common elements, that constitutes a possible or probable independent attestation- not necessarily a definite one (though Akenson is quite right when he says that some scholars have too much faith in this device). Furthermore, Akenson does not delve sufficiently into the debate as to whether John ought to be considered dependent upon the synoptics. The concensus says no but, as Akenson points out elsewhere, others in biblical scholarship are only too willing to appeal to authority. In not dealing more fully with this issue, Akenson misses an important point that is pivotal in either making or breaking his case against the utility of the Criteria of Independent Attestation.
Third, Akenson's treatment of Q seems to me to be too conservative (very much echoing other giants like John Meier and Richard Horsley). He does not seem to want to grant that Q is best explained as having been written in stages (or formative stratum, to use Kloppenborg's terminology). If Q were was orally transmitted, verbatim and near-verbatim agreements on Jesus' aphorisms in Matthew and Luke are hard to explain. If it was not written in various stages, its various thematic tendencies also become cumbersome. While it is clear to me that the 'Cynic Sage' thesis of Burton Mack and Leif Vaage is based on too liberal an approach to scant information, Akenson's (and Meier and Horsley's) methodological conservatism is also somewhat beyond the pale.
Fourth, Akenson is correct to point out that liberal scholars are frequently sailing off the edge of the world in their conjecture. He is also correct to say that Paul is "the nearest thing we have to a witness." Unfortunately, this is not enough. In order for the Quest for the Historical Jesus to succeed to proceed substantively, we need more sources, and such sources as are not so scant in their mention of historical details. Akenson is skeptical of how we can so proceed with every other source being colored by the cultural response to the fall of Jerusalem in C.E. 70, thus most likely endearing himself to Luke Timothy Johnson and other like-minded (and admittedly articulate and respectable) theological conservatives who routinely lecture on the 'limitations of history.' My position is that because we have so very little to go on after C.E. 70, it does not follow that a careful examination of Gospel material cannot yield a reasonable amount of important, accurate and explanatory data. One previous reviewer has stated that "[e]arly First Century Jerusalem is a murky, far-away place, and we're never going to know all we want to about it, or the people who lived in it." That is a more extreme propounding of the non sequitur that lies behind the reluctance of some theological and methodological conservatives. Like the contemporaries of that revolutionary astronomer Copernicus, scholars should be ready to sail off the edge of the world before coming upon is spherical nature. The Gospels are certaunly problematic as sources, but not altogether impenetrable.
Finally, Akenson does not consider the position that Jesus never existed. Paul's relative silence on historical details about him have led some toward that hypothesis- an hypothesis that has recieved too little attention. Ironically, Akenson has firmly grasped some ammunition that could potentially blow a few holes in the mythicist argument but does not feel trigger happy on such an important, albeit little addressed, issue.

All of this aside, however, Akenson's writing ability and his approach to the subject matter as a non-specialist is quite commendable. There are always going to be disagreements in such a volatile subject matter, so my criticisms should not be mistaken for indictments. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in an insightful survey and series of arguments regarding those two great speakers whom we now wish could have written a bit more (though Jesus may not have been literate). A more than satisfactory effort, I recommend it highly.

not what we hoped for  Oct 17, 2001
If this book, with a most interesting thesis about how to get to the historical Jesus more certainly than the usual way, had been written with clarity, brevity, skill and talent it would have done the job needed. As it is few, will take the trouble to extract what is impotant from a mass of undigested material.
An excellent book for the lay reader  Jun 5, 2001
If you're looking for a broad historical overview that addresses all of the critical issues surrounding the quest to understand Jesus from an historical perspective, this is a great book. While some other reviewers found that the book dealt too much with the gospels and that the author over-focused on the destruction of the temple, I found that the emphasis was just right. Here's why:

1. If the author is to make the case that Paul's writings present the clearest possible picture of Jesus, it is critical that we understand why it is that the gospels are inadequate to the task.

2. That the gospels were likely written after the fall of the temple (or because of the fall of the temple) means that the content of the gospels were necessarily colored by this disaster -- the authors of the gospels are likely to have engaged in considerable reconstruction of the past in light of present knowledge. (Alas, such is human nature!)

If the reader's intent is to picture Jesus as he really was (in as much as such a thing is possible), a clearer picture is likely to emerge from studies of writings that precede the destruction.

The book is well-written, scholarly, and often entertaining. The author is clearly an iconoclast of some skill -- an excellent read, and whatever you do, don't miss the notes and appendices of this book!


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