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Just Like Jesse James

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Albright College religious studies faculty members Robert Seesengood, Ph.D., and Jennifer Koosed, Ph.D., have co-authored a new book, Jesse’s Lineage: The Legendary Lives of David, Jesus, and Jesse James, which explores the interconnectedness of these three social bandits.

by Hilary Bentman

The body of Jesse James was barely cold before the public branded his killer, Robert Ford, as Judas.

There were, after all, striking similarities between the post-antebellum Missouri outlaw and the biblical apostle.

Both men, in collaboration with the state, turned on their friend and charismatic leader, possibly for money, gunning down (literally if not figuratively) a man who stirred the masses and defied what many viewed as an illegitimate foreign power.

So if Ford is Judas Iscariot in this paradigm, does that make the outlaw Jesse James a 19th century Jesus Christ?

In many respects, the answer is yes, according to the new book Jesse’s Lineage: The Legendary Lives of David, Jesus, and Jesse James, by Albright College religious studies faculty members Robert Seesengood, Ph.D., and Jennifer Koosed, Ph.D.

Jesse’s Lineage argues that the lives of these figures, though separated by time and distance, are woven together by memory and legend, circumstance and, some would argue, lineage.

“Stories develop in particular patterns given similar historic content,” said Koosed, associate professor and chair of Albright’s religious studies department. “We wanted to play with the idea of lineage. Which stories were shaping which narratives? We’re looking forward and backward. And there are all of these interesting coincidences.”

Jesse’s Lineage is Koosed’s first book-length collaboration with Seesengood, her husband. The premise was born from the couple’s mutual love of Wild West culture.

Seesengood, associate professor and chair of the College’s classical languages department, is a Missouri native; interest in Jesse James is practically a prerequisite for Show-Me State citizenship.

“Half of the state claims some kind of relationship with James. Everybody’s got a grandmother who says they’re related,” said Seesengood, whose own grandmother possessed a photograph of Robert Younger, a member of James’ infamous gang.

Jesse’s Lineage argues that David in Iron Age Judah, Jesus in Roman Galilee, and Jesses James in post-Civil War Missouri all fit historian Eric Hobsbawm’s social bandit model. Self-perceived as noble and morally-justified (a Robin Hood type), the social bandit, often born of agrarian roots, rises up to challenge the rule of a foreign power in an unruly, frontier environment. He operates outside or above the law, and while the authorities brand him a criminal, ordinary folk see him as hero and savior.

The authors write, “In frontier regions during times of war, one man’s bandit is another man’s revolutionary; one man’s revolutionary is another man’s prophet.”

David, the future king, pillages and murders his way through the wilderness while on the run from Saul, eventually wresting control of the kingdom. Though the Bible whitewashes most of his misdeeds, the authors argue that David is clearly a bandit: “What else does one call the leader of a posse of disaffected men living in caves at the fringes of society, raiding outlaying villages, plundering their properties and murdering their inhabitants?” Jesus, on the other hand, was not a murderer.

But he was a rabble-rouser, stirring the people and running afoul of the authorities. “A messiah,” explained Seesengood, “is always something of a bandit.” And in Reconstruction-era Missouri, James, a former Confederate guerilla with a dislike for the federal government and “East Coast” culture, robs government properties, including banks and trains. “He was a serial killer and proto-terrorist,” said Seesengood.

Koosed and Seesengood argue that in all three cases, the lives and legends of these figures have been softened by public memory, altered by oral history, and manipulated by cultural and societal agendas.

James’ misdeeds, for instance, were immediately glorified in news accounts and dime novels. He has been the subject of countless films and songs, and today many speak of James with a lightheartedness unbefitting his crimes.

It is, therefore, impossible to discern the true historical figure, write Koosed and Seesengood: “The Jesse James of history is as elusive as the historical Jesus – but not because of cultural distance, language, time, documentation or even theology. Both figures remain elusive because of the fundamental energies invested in their initial memorialization…. Their legend and their history are inseparable. Their legend is their history; their history is perpetually legend.”

Jesse’s Lineage draws further connections among the three men.

Jesus and James were about the same age when they died, both in early April. Resurrection is a central feature of both stories. In James’ case, people claimed to see the outlaw after his murder, and his body was later exhumed and DNA-tested to convince skeptics he was dead. Places significant to both Jesus and James have become pilgrimage sites for the faithful.

James, the son of a Baptist minister, and his gang, were, according to the book, reared in the “Bible-saturated American frontier” and “invoked biblical traditions surrounding Jesus of Nazareth.”

Likewise, Jesus and his followers invoked biblical traditions of David. Thus, the authors write, “Legends of David gave rise to legends of Jesus. Legends of Jesus give rise to legends of Jesse James. Legends of Jesse James re-cast the legends of David and Jesus alike.”

This forward-backward narrative also plays out, to some extent, in the genealogy. Some Christians contend that Jesus is descended from David and have represented the claim artistically in the form of a Tree of Jesse – a family genealogy chart – named for David’s father, Jesse of Bethlehem.

Published in 2013 by Bloomsbury T&T Clark, Jesse’s Lineage began as a 2006 conference presentation examining the lives of Jesus and James. Koosed and Seesengood later revised it for inclusion in an edited volume, and ultimately expanded it into a free-standing work, adding the David narrative. The couple researched scripture and visited sites related to James’ life and death in Missouri.

 

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