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Keith Akers’ earlier book on the origins of Christianity, The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity (Lantern Books, 2000) was a pioneering work of original scholarship that opened up new vistas in two fields: the ongoing search for the historical Jesus and the history of vegetarianism. A German essayist once said that “A book is a mirror.” The same could be said of Jesus. Everyone who looks at him sees themselves and their vision of Utopia looking back at them. George Wallace saw a segregationist, Martin Luther King saw a civil rights activist, feminists see a feminist, and so on. Many of these visions of Jesus are nothing short of delusional, based on no evidence, fraudulent evidence, or interpretations of evidence that are so tortured they discredit themselves. But some are spot on. Who can read the story of the Good Samaritan or the Woman at the Well without realizing that Martin Luther King was right? Or the story of Mary and Martha without acknowledging that feminists who claim Jesus as one of their own are right?
A vegetarian and animal liberation advocate since the 1970s, Keith Akers sees Jesus as a pacifist, vegetarian opponent of animal sacrifice and advocate for a plain, close-to-the-earth lifestyle. In light of the evidence marshaled in The Lost Religion of Jesus, it is clear that Akers’ interpretation of Jesus, while radically different from the orthodox interpretation, is far more accurate than institutional Christianity’s view. Akers relied entirely on authentic early Christian manuscripts and other ancient evidence that all scholars agree are legitimate. He interpreted the evidence knowledgably and judiciously, and reached conclusions that are strongly supported by evidence and argument. The Lost Religion of Jesus is essential reading for anyone who wants to know what Jesus really taught and how Christianity was born.
So is Disciples, which is a kind of prequel to The Lost Religion. In it, Akers argues, again on the basis of impressive research and a profound knowledge of the period, that Jesus did not, as is commonly believed, create a new movement. Rather, he taught in a tradition that was already well-established in Judaism when he came on the scene, a minority tradition that grew up in opposition to the Temple cult of “official” Judaism. As Akers puts it, “First there was a movement, then Jesus became its leader” (p. 1, italics in original). In 266 pages of clear, easily accessible prose, Keith Akers takes us on a guided tour of the religious landscape of Israel in the time of Jesus, again relying exclusively on authentic ancient texts: Jewish, Christian and secular. He describes the various groups that were active, untangling the often knotted threads that have generated so much confusion. What emerges is a remarkably clear picture of the spiritual world in which Jesus lived and taught. We also get a new understanding of important, but mysterious figures like John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, and Simon Magus.
As with any profound and original exploration of a complex era, it is possible to find things in Disciples to quibble over. I, for example, wish that Akers’ had not been quite so ready to discount the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But one of the great values of Disciples is that it forces you to reexamine long-held certainties. Perhaps they aren’t so certain after all. And the overall picture painted by Akers is fresh, challenging, and above all, faithful to the evidence.
Most important, Disciples, like The Lost Religion of Jesus, is about much more than ancient history. It has an urgent message for the 21st century. “[The movement of which Jesus became the leader] saw that simple living and nonviolence were essential to spiritual understanding and living. They also saw that vegetarianism was an integral part of simple living and nonviolence. There is an essential connection between all sentient creatures. One kind of nonviolence cannot easily be separated from another” (p. 265).
I see The Lost Religion and Disciples as forming two volumes of a single, monumental, work. If you have any interest in the authentic teachings of Jesus, in the ethics of nonviolence, or in the ecological crisis that is threatening our planet, read them both.
Norm Phelps is the author of The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible and The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA, both published by Lantern Books.