Among the series of books recently released about Jesus, the most serious entry is James Tabor's The Jesus Dynasty. The author is a professor at the University of North Carolina and has spent a great deal of time on archaeological digs in Israel. For Tabor and other scholars, one thing is clear: The Bible is difficult to believe. What does a historian do with a book that claims God was born as a human to a virgin, later died and was resurrected? The simple answer is to explain such problems away.
Professor Tabor's Jesus Dynasty is a fascinating combination of historical and archaeological detail mixed with bits of naturalistic, "historical" explanation. He introduces the Virgin Birth as Christianity's "fundamental theological dogma":
But history, by its very nature, is an open process of inquiry that cannot be bound by dogmas of faith. Historians are obliged to examine whatever evidence we have, even if such discoveries might be considered shocking or sacrilegious to some. The assumption of the historian is that all human beings have both a biological mother and father, and that Jesus is no exception. That leaves two possibilitieseither Joseph or some other unnamed man was the father of Jesus. (Emphasis his).
I start my overview here, because here we have stated a historiolgraphical dogma. (Note Tabor's phrases: "by its nature cannot be are obliged assumption is no exception.") Even before we look at the evidence or consider the possibilities, we have the Bible's explanation ruled out. This is the dilemma the Bible poses for those who wish to explain its claims while denying that God is capable of doing unique things.
The Dynasty Theory
Despite Tabor's mostly excellent historical work, his assumptions force him to conclusions far from what historical documents would suggest. Tabor's study is an intriguing look at how one very competent Bible historian attempts to appropriately root Christian origins in first-century Judaism while reacting whenever that testimony violates Tabor's assumptions. Tabor often heads off these discussions by ending paragraphs with a series of "perhaps" sentences designed to redirect one's view. Otherwise the book is filled with solid detail about the first-century Jewish world and its customs. This includes numerous appeals to key textual evidence from Jewish and early Christian sources. Discussions of ossuaries and how the temple was managed and policed are well done and presented with very effective vividness. These are but two of many such examples throughout the book that make it worth reading.
But let us turn to Tabor's main thesis and its motivation. Tabor writes clearly about his claims regarding the historical Jesus. His summary on pages 308 to 314 outlines his thesis about a thoroughly human story (emphasis his). He argues Jesus had a human mother and father (someone other than Joseph). Jesus also had five siblings, including four who became members of his self-selected council of the twelve, what we know as the twelve apostles.
Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist, Tabor says. It was John who initiated the messianic movement. They preached as twin Messiahs, one regal, another priestly. John the Baptist was the priestly Messiah who never ministered in a temple. They launched a Jewish apocalyptic movement focused on the kingdom of God in which Jesus' person or work was not a central concern. Their call was for Israel to repent and embrace the Torah and the Hebrew prophets. After John was murdered by Herod, Jesus decided his destiny was to travel to Jerusalem, enter the temple, and confront the religious authorities with his message of radical reform and call for justice to the poor. Jesus expected God to intervene on his behalf and to save him from his enemies at the end. But that did not happen.
When Jesus was crucified, his followers were devastated for some time and returned to Galilee. The faith of the new movement was severely tested with the two Messiahs now dead. Again, Tabor assumes Jesus could not have been resurrected. He was simply reburied by some unknown figure. The idea that Jesus resurrected inexplicably emerged later. Under the leadership of James and to a lesser degree Peter and John, this movement regained its faith as its followers believed that Jesus, though dead, had been victorious in his cause and would in the end be vindicated. James, also of Davidic ancestry, was Jesus' regal successor, ruling over the nascent messianic government Jesus established. They preached for a reformed nation of Israel, into which non- Jews were also invited.
When Paul showed up and began to preach in the 40s and 50s, Tabor claims he denied any explicit connection to James and other pillars of the faith. He contradicted their message with his rejection of the Torah and his lack of emphasis on works. He went his own way with a more mystical, visionary faith. This eventually won out and became known as orthodox Christianity. James' teaching was in touch with Jesus, while Paul's reflected his own independent development. So it is James who provides us with the best link to Jesus, along with the early Q material (a presumed manuscript that some scholars say must have informed the writing of Matthew and Luke) and works like the early second century Didache. The Pauline works, Luke, and Acts reflect the group that eventually won with only traces of the James wing surviving. Its original messianic message did manage to survive enough so we can piece our way back to the original teaching and the original dynastic arrangement.
Tabor believes this view of Jesus and early Christianity opens up the door for a better ecumenical discussion between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Jews, Tabor claims, did not reject Jesus but the "systems of Christian theology that equated Jesus with God, that nullified the Torah, and that displaced the Jewish people and their covenant." In this new understanding, Jesus could be a Messiah for Jews if not the Messiah. He could call them back to faithfulness and hope of messianic redemption without invoking his own work to do it. For Christians, the recovery of the Jesus dynasty means the recovery of Jesus as a Jew of his own time. This figure can override the distortion Paul brought into Christianity, opening doors between Jews and Christians. For Islam, Jesus is seen as the messianic prophet they have claimed him to be. Islamic portraits of Jesus are said to parallel Q, James, and the Didache. So we have a Jesus dynasty offered to a world in need of a less contentious religious history and engagement.
But does this reconfiguration work historically? What is to be made of it? Before we try to redefine modern dialogue, it is important to see if the reconfiguration is credible. Here are four key observations.
(1) First of all, Tabor is correct to emphasize the Jewish roots of Jesus and the likelihood that he knew and interacted with John the Baptist. However, by appealing to the two-Messiah portrait of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Tabor says something about John that none of the materials we possess say about him. It is never really explained how John functions as a priest when he frequents no temple. The Bible passages that describe what he is doing, like Isaiah 40:3-5, do not point to him as a priest, but simply as a prophetic forerunner. Even Josephus's description of John treats him as a prophetic exhorter.
(2) Tabor's attempt to have Jesus' family be a part of the Twelve seems forced in light of our sources. His emphasis on James above Peter and John also seems historically misdirected. To accomplish this, he must dismiss not only Acts, but the consistent portrait of the other gospels and much of our first-century Christian sources, which clearly give the key role to Peter. James did come to have the central role in Jerusalem, but this was because Peter and John went out as missionaries to other areas such as the Mediterranean coast (as Acts 9 indicates for Peter) and Asia Minor and Ephesus (as church tradition indicates for John). Doing so, they could not oversee the Jerusalem church. The citation Tabor notes for Hegesippus, a Jewish Christian of the early second century, appears to set James apart from the category of the apostles (i.e., the Twelve) in a manner that is against Tabor's claim about the family being in the group. That text reads, "The succession of the church passed down to James the brother of the Lord, together with the apostles." Tabor's view also makes it difficult to explain how the gospel tradition as it is expressed in our earliest sources and apostolic lists consistently sets forth Peter as the first of the named apostles.
(3) However, the most problematic part of Tabor's claims comes in the way he handles James, Q, and the Didache as representative of a distinct theological emphasis in the earliest movement. Tabor pits Paul in an irreconcilable conflict with James, Peter, and John. And he underplays how the texts from the sources he trusts most often describe Jesus and James. Â
In James 1:1, James writes that he is the bond-servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. This remark, as brief as it is, does not portray James as a dynastic successor of a line Jesus starts, but as a servant to an exalted figure operating at the side of God. James does not claim to be of the line of David and the successor to Jesus, but to be his slave. James 2:1 makes a similar point about not showing favoritism as one holds the faith of "our Lord of glory Jesus Christ." This title is consistent with James 1:1. James does not set himself up as the dynastic leader of the faith, but as part of a group of followers who all are subordinate to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The crucial early second-century text of the Didache is similar. Baptism occurs in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit (7:3). Here Jesus is not a king of an earthly dynasty but uniquely related to God. In 8:3, life and knowledge are revealed through Jesus "your child" as God is addressed in prayer at the Lord's Table (also 10:2-3, two more times). Once again, we do not have a dynastic Jesus who leaves a royal line on earth, but a figure uniquely related to God. It looks as if the "Jewish" Christianity that Tabor claims has a message but does not focus on Jesus, in fact, does focus on the Son in ways that parallel its so-called Pauline opponents. Verse 16:4 speaks of deceivers appearing in the guise of God's Son, yet another reference to an exalted Jesus. So Tabor's claim of a messianic movement without a declaration of a unique role for Jesus is suspect.
(4) But what of Tabor's claim that Paul got his gospel entirely on the basis of the revelation he received from Jesus and did not link to the other leaders of the church? This also ignores a very crucial text, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. I note this text not because it is biblical, but because it gives us an autobiographical statement. Paul says that the gospel he preached is something he received just as those in Corinth did. Paul is saying what he teaches as the gospel is what the church teaches as the gospel. More than that, he says that he received this teaching from the church. How did this take place if Paul in Galatians said his understanding of Jesus came from direct revelation?Â This is easy to answer. When Paul saw the exalted Jesus and was converted, he had to have known the church's preached message in order to understand the experience. He would have heard that preaching from the believers he persecuted, figures like Peter and Stephen. This means that he knew what the gospel was when he persecuted it. The "Jewish" wall Tabor wishes to build between Paul and the other leaders never existed. They did clash on occasion about specific practices and the implications of living this message consistently, as seen in Galatians and Acts, but not in a way that was as irreconcilable as Tabor claims.
Four major historical problems exist with Tabor's portrait beyond the mere worldview issues that drive his portrait. It is ironic that what Tabor's study represents is a type of reverse Marcionism. Whereas Marcion in the second century wished to reduce and remove those Jewish features tied to Christianity, Tabor, by reducing the status of Paul and the books of Luke and Acts, rejects those very books Marcion wanted to keep. Perhaps the solution is to reject both the approach of Marcion, who shut out the Jewishness of early Christianity, and the approach of Tabor, who in seeking to maintain the Jewishness leaves out the contribution of the most Jewish-instructed of all the apostles, Paul.
Above all, one can see there was no dynastic line in this movement. All our earliest sources (what historians are supposed to rely on the most) show that Jesus was seen as a unique, exalted figurenot the first in a line of rulers, but the Son of God.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Tabor's The Jesus Dynasty is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
More about Tabor and his project the Jewish Roman World of Jesus is available from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Other articles by Darrell Bock include:
Q&A: Darrell Bock | CT spoke with Bock, Dallas Theological Seminary research professor of New Testament and author of the forthcoming The Missing Gospels (Nelson), about the stir caused by the Gospel of Judas release in early April. (May 10, 2006)
The Jesus and Judas Papers: A Look at Recent Claims about Jesus | Questions about history may be sincere, but make no mistake: There is an agenda at work. (April 13, 2006)
The Politics of the People of God | The Church has a unique role to play in our politicized culture. (Sept. 7, 2005)
Jesus and Paul: Looking at a Journalistic Approach to Christianity's Beginnings | A full review of ABC's Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness (April 6, 2004)
The Good News of Da Vinci | How a ludicrous book can become an opportunity to engage the culture. (Jan. 5, 2004)
Seeing Light After the Smoky Darkness of the Trade Towers Collapse | The spiritual war against terrorism is the war against the sinful heart and its allegiances. (Sept. 13, 2002)
When Sin Reigns | An event like this shows us what humans are capable of becomingboth as children of darkness and of light. (Sept. 13, 2001)
No More Hollow Jesus | In focusing so intently on Jesus the man, Peter Jennings' report missed the big picture. (July 3, 2000)
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