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The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior before Jesus, by Michael O. Wise

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The First Messiah: Savior before Jesus

The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior before Jesus

About 100 years before the probable lifetime of Jesus, a man came to Jerusalem who eventually came to be called “The Teacher of Righteousness.” Given the name Judah by author Michael O. Wise, this all-but-forgotten preacher and prophet prefigured the stories surrounding Jesus in a startling number of ways. Equally messianic figures, they both were were arrested and condemned by authorities due to their religious claims.

Summary

Title: The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior before Jesus
Author: Michael O. Wise
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 006069646X

Pro:
•  Nice history of “crisis cults” and their social, political, and religious roles
•  Shows that Jesus may not have been as revolutionary as many assume

Con:
•  Often more speculative than some readers might want

Description:
•  Examination of what we know about “Judah,” a Jewish figure pre-dating Jesus
•  Shows that much attributed to Jesus was said or taught by Judah
•  Explores how much of the Jesus-movement may have drawn from Judah

 

Book Review

Combinations of personal charisma and apocalyptic prophecies led to the establishment of institutions which carried their messages long after they died. But unlike Jesus, Judah actually left behind personal writings explaining his perspective. Just how much did Jesus and his following cult owe to Judah? As Wise argues, Judah was perceived by his contemporaries as fulfilling many of the same prophesies as Jesus, he taught many of the same principles Jesus taught, and after his death he inspired a movement that prefigured early Christianity.

Wise starts out his book with a detailed discussion of what he calls “crisis cults” — new religious movements which spring up in societies undergoing dramatic (and traumatic) changes. The crisis cult is centered not simply on tradition, but instead upon charismatic figures preaching apocalyptic doom for the changing society and predicting a new, divinely ordained society embodying all of the old traditions which are being lost.

The First Messiah: Savior before Jesus

The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior before Jesus

Cargo Cults, Ghost Dancers — Wise goes through a litany of cults from around the world in different cultures and at different times which fit the pattern. This sort of cross-cultural analysis of doomsday prophets and the resulting religious movements is itself probably worth the price of the book.

But Wise then goes on to explain how Palestine and the Jewish people in the first century BCE were undergoing a similar sort of cultural and political crisis. On the one hand was the Roman occupation, imposing different cultural norms and exposing people to unprecedented outside influences. This was not a good time for traditionalists. On the other hand was an internal Jewish conflict: whose understanding of religious laws would govern the rules and activities at the Temple? The Pharisees or the Sadducees?

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