Revile P. Oliver: A Critique

This is a difficult article to write because of our subject matter. Our subject's name was "Revilo P. Oliver" (yes, it was a palindrome, and a real name). He is deceased, and not many moutn his passing, for the article I am evaluating from his pen was taken from the Aryan "stormfront" Web page and contains some of harsh anti-Semitic diatribes of the sort we might expect from that quarter. But the subject of the article of our focus is the existence of Jesus. And in this realm, Oliver was a sort of a Christ-myther.

Oliver was well-heeled in the publication and credentials department, apparently: My source for this project sent me data indicating that Oliver was a professor of Classics for 32 years, and wrote a number of books. Another source has told me that one of Oliver's articles was referenced as a source in the standard handbook on the transmission of ancient Latin texts, L. D. Reynolds' Texts and Transmissions.

But you wouldn't know it from the article I was sent on the subject of the historical Jesus. This article by Oliver doesn't pay any attention to any of the secular references to Jesus and is decidedly no work of scholarship; sources include a fellow named Larson who theorized that the >Essenes and Christians were one group and himself used as sources the likes of Allegro and Dupont-Summer.

Oliver begins with the generalizing and blandly unsupported assertion that there were a large number of Jewish magicians who lived and roamed the countryside in the first century and in the one preceding (though only one is named - we'll get to that in a moment) and that "they often took the logical step of representing themselves as christs (messiahs)" - a decided untruth, as we have noted elsewhere; no such claim was made as recorded by any person other than Jesus until the time of Bar Kochba. But what of that one other?

Here is what Oliver has to say, and I warn those of you who read this may find this either the most ridiculous or the most tragic accounting you've ever seen:

One of the most interesting Jesuses...was Jesus ben Pandera, who was born in the reign of a Jewish King who had assumed a civilized name, Alexander Jannaeus. When he grew up, he learned magical tricks in Egypt, wowed the Jewish peasantry and even impressed Alexander's widow, Alexandra Helene, acquiring her favor and a considerable following, but he eventually was ruined by the holy men with whom he was in competition and, betrayed by one of his disciples, named Judas Iscariot, when he rode into Jerusalem on an ass, was hanged, after which there was hanky-panky about disposal of his body. His career obviously contributed quite a few elements to the tales about a later Jesus in the "New Testament."

The reader is perhaps already wondering where this comes from. Well, the document as such does exist, and we'll get to that later; but what does Oliver make of it? He says:

It is not at all unlikely that there was another Jesus who, in Roman times, tried again and also came a cropper, and that, given the identity of two names, stories about them were conflated; that, in fact, would explain many of the passages in the "New Testament" that flatly contradict others.

Oliver doesn't name one of these "flat" contradictions, or how they support his case, but it hardly matters. The attempt to use this document of previous reference is telling.

It is called the Toledoth Yeshu, or "Book of the Lineage of Jesus", and some may recall that it is sometimes used as a proof that Jesus actually existed - though it shouldn't be. What happens here, though, is that Oliver thinks that it is a reliable historical source. So if it is, why haven't we heard about it before? Why haven't historians and NT scholars called upon it?

Here's Oliver's answer:

The record of Jesus ben Pandera has mightily embarrassed professionals in the Jesus-business ever since it was rediscovered in the Sixteenth Century. One expedient is to feign ignorance of it and hope the customers will not have heard of it...The more common expedient is to claim that the story of Jesus ben Pandera was devised by the wicked Jews during the Middle Ages to undermine faith in the Saviour of the "New Testament." That, of course, is intrinsically absurd: no one who intended to contradict a story about a Jesus who flourished when Palestine was a Roman province would transpose the story to an earlier period when Judaea was ruled by an historical Jewish King and Queen.

So: It's all a conspiracy to hide the truth about Christianity. I don't know who wrote the Toledeth Yeshu, actually - no one knows - but whether they were wicked, or polemical, or whatever, why shouldn't they have done such historical transposition? Perhaps they were having some fun and it's part of the joke: Oliver does not bother mentioning that these writers, whoever they were, also brought a certain Rabbi Tanhuma back in time without benefit of a modified Delorean; he himself lived about 400 years after the usual time of Jesus.

The story also has a few other amusing recollections, like Jesus and Judas Iscariot having a flying battle like Superman and Captain Marvel, and both using God's Divine Name to perform magic. In any event, it is clear that someone transposed the historical data somehow, whether it was the authors of this early version of the Weekly World News on the one hand, or else the Gospel authors, Paul, Josephus, Tacitus, the Church Fathers, etc. on the other.

Let's get to some hard data. Is there anything we can say about the actual date of this document? Our earliest literary reference to it comes from the Archbishop of Lyons - c. 826 AD. Hard textual data at its earliest comes from six fragments of it found in the discard heap of a 7th-century synagogue.

The hard data doesn't hold out a lot of hope, does it? No wonder Oliver doesn't say anything about it.

Schoenfield, he of Passover Plot fame, went as far as dating it to the fourth century; but the sixth century is more likely because of what the document draws upon as sources [ibid., 161]. And what does it use? In this work, Goldstein tells us, "we have a conglomeration of a parody on the Gospels, with the full play of the imagination which is characteristic of this period (the 6th century) in this type of literature in the Near East, plus misinterpretation of Talmud and Midrash passages, plus excerpts from non-Canonical and Patristic writings, plus vestigal remains of sectaries, plus (as some believe) items from the Yosippon, plus unwritten folk legend." [ibid., 163] In other words, either the Toledeth either borrowed from all (or most) of these sources, or the sources all borrowed from the Toledeth. I don't have to point out which option is far more likely.

Things don't get better for this document as time progresses, either: Goldstein remarks that "none of the prominent Jewish scholars" over history refer to it, and (as Oliver admits) it comes in multiple versions with all kinds of variations (changes he puts down to "Jewish stupidity" - not only did they create the document for his theory; they also ruined it). Some of the variations won't pass your server's filter, but suffice to say that they are enough so that any use of this as a reliable historical source is even further put to rest.

Oliver does offer up one other reason why he feels that we ought to take this work seriously, to wit:

Moreover, the holy men who made that claim were, if at all educated in their profession, consciously lying. One cannot suppose that students of theology would not read so important a Father of the Church as Origen, from whom they would necessarily learn that the story about Jesus ben Pandera was known to Celsus when he wrote, c. A.D. 170.

Well, first of all, there is no evidence that "holy men" wrote this thing - again, we don't know who wrote it; maybe a 6th-century version of MAD magazine put it out.

As for Celsus, this is a little off balance. Celsus makes reference merely to the idea that Jesus was the product of a soldier named Panthera; but he doesn't allude to anything like what is found in the Toledeth, where Jesus' father is said to be a man of Judah named Joseph Pandera - much less does he seem to know about other elements of the story, like Jesus and Judas' aerial battle, and there is certainly no indication that Celsus thinks that the Christians are worshipping someone who was 100 years off their proclaimed date, or somehow mixing theirs with someone who was.

You may never run into an Aryan Nationesque type of Skeptic in your lifetime, and that's a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone -- but if you do, and they use the Toledeth, at least now you know what to say.



  1. Gold.JJT - Goldstein, Morris. Jesus in the Jewish Tradition. New York: Macmillan, 1950.