Stephen Kaufman wrote the following review of Disciples. It appeared in the May 15 issue of the e-newsletter of the Christian Vegetarian Association.
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Nearly all Christians accept without question the assertion that Christianity started with Jesus. In this remarkable book, Keith Akers argues convincingly that the movement now called Christianity preceded Jesus’ ministry. It regarded Jesus as an exemplary leader, but evidently it did not consider Jesus divine.
Akers focuses on the Jewish Christian movement – those Jews who followed Jesus during his life and honored him after his death. Though they were the ones who knew Jesus best, their understanding of his teachings was eventually deemed heretical by a Gentile church that was heavily influenced by Paul.
None of the initial Jewish Christian literature remains, but Akers is able to draw inferences by looking a range of biblical and non-biblical sources. In particular, Akers shows connections between the third century literature of the Ebionites, a Jewish Christian sect, and what we know about the Jewish Christians, whose “heresies” were denounced by several early church writers.
The Bible is another major source of information about the Jewish Christians. In particularly, Paul’s letters relate to his bitter conflicts with the Jewish apostolic church in Jerusalem. Interestingly, Acts, written much later when the Jewish Christian movement was no longer a significant component of Christendom, minimizes these conflicts. Clearly, Paul and these early Jewish Christians had significantly different views about who Jesus was and what he taught, which leads to the question of which source is more reliable – those who lived with Jesus or one whose only contact was a claimed encounter after Jesus died. Paul rejected the Jewish Christians’ commitment to vegetarianism. Later, when Constantine co-opted Christianity, the Jewish Christian commitment to pacifism and simple living were similarly discarded.
In summary, this is a remarkable book, featuring thorough scholarship, insightful analysis, and very clear writing. Some might be hesitant to accept the book’s conclusions about Jesus as a great leader rather than as God incarnate. However, this view lends itself well to receiving Christianity as a call to serve God right here, right now, on earth, rather than focus one’s life on heavenly rewards. As we face increasing population, environmental, and social justice challenges, perhaps this view is just what our world needs.
Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.
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