Top critical review
Speculate to accumulate?
on 19 May 2015
The first half of this book probably deserves 4 or 5 stars, but from there it progresses into deeper and deeper speculation, which though not impossible, stretches the scant evidence to absolute breaking point. The primary theories relating to Paul/Josephus are extremely interesting and do have a degree of credibility - though, again, this is still highly speculative and should be regarded with a liberal dose of salt.
Ellis is an excellent communicator, competent writer and a noteworthy scholar, so his opinions deserve attention, while his books are commendably readable. In short, Ellis makes some fascinating observations relating to the historical record of 1st & 2nd century Judaea, which certainly make food for thought. However, his theories relating to Jesus are a little fanciful, given the singular lack of any hard evidence; there is a danger of forcing 2 and 2 to equal 5. My principle argument against those theories relate to Tacitus - and there are two ways of looking at this: if the 11th century copies of Tacitus' Annals are regarded as authentic, and specifically in relation to Jesus, then it would seem inconceivable that Tacitus would not be fully aware of his true identity and therefore refer to him in rather different terms than he does. Of course, then there is the other view of Tacitus' Annals that some or all of it is forgery, or has at least been doctored by Christian scribes - which is certainly possible. In this case, can we rely on any of the historical records pertinent to Ellis' thesis, much of which was written long after the events (and, in many instances, regarded as pure folklore by all other credible scholars), just because they were written by "anti-Christians" - who therefore had their own agenda and were probably more interested in disseminating that rather than any known facts, assuming that they were in possession of any to begin with? Ellis' assertion that Paul could have accomplished the greatest historical perversion and cover-up ever perpetrated does seem rather far-fetched, (albeit, not impossible), while his reliance on his interpretation of the Talmud (which also has an anti-Christian agenda) may be somewhat foolhardy. Ultimately, the "historical" material (currently) available can be manipulated by just about anyone with an axe to grind and made to fit whatever hypothesis they happen to champion. It is all just supposition to the power of supposition.
By all means read this book and Ellis' other work, just treat it with due caution. That said, I do empathize with Ellis' overall attitude toward the Biblical historical record, in that there is undoubtedly something fishy going on! However, what that is, is far from clear.
Where Ellis does score highly, though, is in his analysis of the potential theological roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; here he makes a great many significant observations within a narrative that runs through the entire book; he also makes some intriguing observations about John the Baptist and the Mandaeans. It is a shame then that commercialism is the likely driving force behind the voluminous and largely frivolous claims being posited by Ellis... [Incidentally, I am an atheist, in case anyone thinks I have bias towards Christianity.]