While writing my earlier reviews of the Lives of Jesus, I realised that my reading was getting a little dated - almost nothing after 1995. So it's time to do something about that - starting with Stephan Huller's The Real Messiah: The Throne of St Mark and the True Origins of Christianity.
Apart from the title, two things about this book let us know immediately that we are reading a work of pseudo-history. The first is the biographical note, which informs us that after graduating with a degree in philosophy, Huller pursued a career in the circus. The second is the point on Page 2 where he cites The Da Vinci Code as evidence of a groundswell of awareness that something is wrong with the traditional view of Christianity.
The rest of the book does not disappoint. All the tricks of the pseudohistorical trade are here - characters with multiple names, coded messages, fortuitous discoveries of previously hidden evidence, and of course the inevitable Catholic cover-up. Along with this fun is a vague and slip-shod use of sources, gigantic logical leaps thinly disguised by the repeated use of the word "undoubtedly", and a card-house of speculation, inference and circular logic.
What emerges, as far as I can tell from his turgid prose and tortuously roundabout telling of the story, is that Jesus had virtually nothing to do with the beginning of Christianity. Jesus was a humble prophet who repeatedly affirmed that he was not the Messiah. The Messiah is identified instead as Marcus Agrippa, last of the Herodian kings, in Huller's telling born around 29 AD and living and ruling (on and off) as a client king in Roman Palestine until around 100 AD. (This in itself is an interesting reconstruction - in fact there were two Herod Agrippas, father and son, whose lives covered this period but Huller turns them into one person).
Agrippa makes multiple appearances in the gospel story, under various names. He is the Apostle John, Mark the evangelist and Barabbas who was released prior to Jesus' crucifixion. He makes a coded appearance as the risen Christ, with the "true" meaning of the resurrection stories revealed as Agrippa's ascension to the messianic throne. Even Jesus' death is reinterpreted not as the "Lamb of God" dying for all of us, but as the ram, sacrificed in place of "Isaac" (aka Agrippa) to allow the messianic project to continue. Incidentally, to make this all possible Jesus' death is also redated (without any explanation) to 37 CE, at which point the eight-year-old Agrippa is just about plausible as an active participant in the story.
As far as I can tell, the rest of the tale tells how Agrippa, as well as being a Roman client king, made himself the head of a Jewish mystery cult, encoded in an artefact known as the Throne of St Mark (generally dated around 500 CE, but that doesn't seem to bother Huller) and in the original (now lost, of course) versions of Mark's gospel. Huller's rather strange view is that there was originally only one gospel (written of course by Marcus Agrippa aka Mark the Evangelist) which was split into four and substantially altered by the Roman theologian Irenaeus in around 170 CE for reasons which are incredibly confusing.
Anyway, enough of this nonsense! I won't bore you with Huller's tortuous descriptions of the Throne of St Mark, his mangling of New Testament and early church history, his speculations about Isis and Horus, and all the other odd ideas he manages to cram into this one book. I'm tempted to wonder why he needed Jesus in his story at all. If he had left him to be crucified at the usual date around 30 CE he could have told a fascinating story about Agrippa anyway. Could it be that such a book would never sell?
Which leads me to another thought, prompted by my recent reading of Karen Armstrong's The Case for God. If for some weird reason we were to accept Huller's version of events, then Irenaeus's invention of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a work of incredible genius. His Jesus gives us an ethic of compassion and inclusion, a vision of justice and non-violence, backed up by his willingness to die and fortified by the hope of his resurrection.
By contrast, what does the Messiah Agrippa offer us? A client king of the Roman Emperors, active in the destruction of Jerusalem, plotting and scheming to preserve his position through the reigns of ten different Ceasars. A self-serving religious syncretism designed to cement his place in the hearts of cosmopolitan Jews and Samaritans while avoiding the ire of his Roman overlords. A saviour who does not save, a God-king who does not rule, a set of ciphers hiding a message that, when revealed, tells you nothing. This story may have obsessed Huller for 20 years, but I'd rather pass.