Title: The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior before Jesus
Author: Michael O. Wise
Nice history of crisis cults and their social, political, and religious roles
Shows that Jesus may not have been as revolutionary as many assume
Often more speculative than some readers might want
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
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.
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?