The John Wesley Fellowship began in 1977, with Steve Harper and yours truly being two of the first John Wesley Fellows chosen. I have told the story of Ed Robb and AFTE this past Fall on the blog so I will not repeat it. Here are some of the senior fellows attending the meeting. […]
There is much in the news today of relevance to the study of Jesus. For example, there is now an article in the NY Times about the money and dealings which led to the National Geographic even having the Gospel of Judas. It seems not only Judas, but also those who bought and sold his Gospel had money issues. Here is the link to the NY Times story– http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/13/science/13judas.html?ei=5065&en=7e8f2d9b53f573f7&ex=1145592000&partner=MYWAY&pagewanted=print
I am more concerned however with James Tabor’s book which made the cover story this week in U.S. News and World Report, because Tabor is actually talking about first century documents, namely the NT and a theory of Christian origins. In my judgment his work is far more important than these other so called revelations. Because of this I am going to post a lengthy critique of the book in several parts to help the audience read through and weed through the book itself.
THE ROYAL LINE OF JESUS?
For a moment when one reads the title of James Tabor’s latest book, The Jesus Dynasty, (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 2006) one may be forgiven for thinking this is a book which grows out of the ‘Da Vinci Code’ debacle with its claims about Jesus’ marriage and descendants. But even with a cursory glance of this study it becomes clear that this is a serious work written by a genuine archaeologist and historian, and its claims are meant to be taken seriously. This is far from fiction, though it involves no small amount of historical conjecture. Since this book has so much substance, and since it may well be extremely influential in the way people look at Jesus and early Christianity for a long time to come, it deserves a thorough and detailed critique.
The book begins with hard archaeological data and its analysis. There is the discussion of the newly found Shroud tomb (not to be connected with the Shroud of Turin) and the Talpiot tomb which has ossuaries that bear various names that are similar or the same to the names in Jesus’ family. The discussion is crisp and interesting, but all is not yet disclosed as to how this might be connected to the historical Jesus. I say this all the more because the Talpiot tomb is not a recent discovery and various archaeologists involved with it in the past have dismissed or denied the suggestion that it has any connection with Jesus’ family. There is also the further problem that while there were ten ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb, one went missing, as the British say. The suggestion that the missing one is the James ossuary really does not make sense of all the data we have about the latter ossuary. It was found in 1970s but the Talpiot tomb, first excavated in the 1980s. Nevertheless the idea can’t be entirely ruled out, for it is possible that Oded Golan, the owner of the James box may have not remembered correctly as to when he bought that ossuary.
The really fascinating part of this book begins about 50 pages in with Tabor’s analysis of the two genealogies of Jesus (one in Mt. 1 and one in Lk. 3). Tabor suggests that we take seriously these two genealogies and that they reflect two different branches of the royal Davidic line, but Joseph’s line is the cursed line referred to in Jer. 22.30, the line of Jehoachin, whereas Mary’s line is the line that runs back to David’s son Nathan, a more obscure line. In order to come to this conclusion however it requires a rather remarkable exegetical leap involving Lk. 3.23. Tabor takes this verse to mean that Jesus was assumed to be the son of Joseph, but actually he was of the line of Heli who is then presumed to be Mary’s father. The text actually says however “being a son, as was supposed of Joseph, of Heli”. The natural way to read this would be to connect Joseph with Heli, not Mary. But there is more. Tabor also suggests that Heli is short for Eliezer which in turn is actually Joachim, the traditional name of Mary’s father! To say the least this takes some exegetical and historical gymnastics to come to this conclusion.
But there is more. Tabor suggests that the reason for including four women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba in the Matthean genealogy is because the author is preparing the reader to understand that Jesus likewise was conceived by means of an immoral union. This is not quite correct in regard to all these examples. In the case of Ruth for example, we are dealing with a Levirate marriage situation which was consider perfectly moral by Levitical standards and nothing whatsoever in the book of Ruth portrays Ruth as somehow a temptress just because she is a Moabite woman. Later rabbinic polemic is irrelevant in evaluating this.
e the largest Jewish population in the Diaspora lived. In other words, the connections Tabor has made thus far support the traditional reading of the story as well or better than Tabor’s reading of it.
I must confess that one of the things that bothers me about some modern historical reconstructions of the life of Jesus is that there is no openness at all to what we would call the miraculous, or it might be better to call it divine irregularity. I see no reason why divine intervention should be ruled out of the equation ‘ab initio’ (i.e. from the beginning). It is not a good historical principle to rule out causes of events in advance of examining the evidence, especially when none of us have an exhaustive knowledge of either historical or natural causation. The proverbial anti-supernatural bias is no more a good historical presupposition any more than the naïve assumption that everything requires a miraculous explanation, even the common cold (I am referring to those who like to talk about a demon or spirit causing them to catch a cold, and so on). All data needs to be critically analyzed of course, but one does not rule out the miraculous from the outset.
Beginning on p. 64ff. Tabor trots out for us the shop-worn tale of Mary being impregnated by a Roman soldier named Pantera. As he rightly notes, this story first appears in a work written by a Greek philosopher named Celsus (circa A.D. 178), a work entitled ‘On the True Doctrine’ which is a polemical document Origen was to take on. Tabor then points to rabbinic traditions, predicated of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus which refers to Jesus as the ‘son of Panteri’.
Tabor is right that all four Gospels suggest Joseph was not Jesus’ father. What he fails to say is that one needs to consider the source and sort of the remarks we find in Jn. 8.41 or Mk. 6.3. None of these remarks come from Jesus or from his disciples. Rather they come from either skeptical outsiders, or even opponents. Gospel of Thomas saying 105 is much too elliptical to support Tabor’s reasoning at this juncture. In my view it may well be that the ‘son of Panteri’ polemic is a rebuttal to the Christian ‘son of a parthenos’ claim of the followers of Jesus. This is typical of the kind of punning and wordplay that went on in debates beginning with Jesus and the Pharisees and continuing with his followers and other Jews unpersuaded by the Gospel.
In the first place Tabor is right that the names Tiberius Julius suggest that this soldier was a slave who became a freedman and a soldier. Tiberius came to rule in A.D. 14 so he cannot have received this name before that time. Presumably he received the name and the Roman citizenship for his service in the army, which again places that service after A.D. 14. Now the gravestone also mentions that this soldier’s unit was the first cohort of archers and we also learn that this man served some 40 years in the army, dying at the age of 62. In all likelihood we are meant to think he died with his boots on. This in turn would mean he became a soldier at the age of 22.
I would say there are too many weak links in this whole line of thinking and we would do better to accept the judgment of Dom Crossan that the rebuttal story is responding to the virginal conception story which is earlier. What is troubling about this suggestion in any case is that it ignores that Mary grew up in a strict honor and shame culture and every indication we have is that she was exceedingly young when she became betrothed and pregnant—probably, as Tabor suggests, barely a teenager. We then have to ask the question how such a girl would even have met Pantera of Sidon, a man who lived more than 40 miles away in a different province and was not yet a soldier. Even more to the point since young daughters were closely watched and protected in devout Jewish homes, we must not think of her ever being alone with any strange man at the age of 12-13, much less a pagan. This is simply not true to first century Jewish life in a devout home. It is not like we can envision Mary going out at night to the local pub with her teenage friends! The historical implausibilities of this whole scenario suggested by Tabor and others are too great to be given real credence. I agree with Tabor’s lament that we should not abstract Mary from her first century Jewish milieu (p. 74), but unfortunately he is the one who opens the door to one such implausible scenario.
urch led to the increasing likelihood that Mary and Joseph would both be dissociated from their sexuality or any form of sexual expression as such activity was deemed unholy. He is also right that it is anachronistic to read later church dogma, grounded in a rather unJewish sort of asceticism back into the NT text itself. But it is piling conjecture on conjecture to suggest that Mary bore children to Joseph’s brother, since Joseph died childless! This is something no NT or early Christian text suggests. It is based on the supposition that Joseph died childless and therefore the Levirate marriage rules came into play. We also have no evidence that Joseph was much older than Mary and had had children by a previous marriage. The Protoevangelium of James from the 2nd century A.D. is a classic example of the effect of a later Christian ascetical movement on the representation of Mary and Joseph. But alas, despite this good beginning in this chapter, once more the logic goes awry.
Tabor’s argument takes another left turn when he tries to amalgamate three Mary’s (or two and an anonymous sister) into one, and say they are all Jesus’ mother, who had married Joseph’s brother, named Clopas. Nothing in Mark or Matthew or John even remotely suggests this. Indeed the texts as we have them suggest we are dealing with multiple women, at least two of whom are named Mary and have children named for patriarchs— Jacob and Joseph. This is no surprise since these are exceedingly common male names in this era, indeed the most common ones, along with Simon. It is not at all absurd that Mary, Jesus’ mother, and her sister-in-law might use the same patriarchal names for their children.
In the beginning of the second major part of his book, Tabor reminds us that we should not give much if any credence to later apocryphal stories about Jesus in the 2nd century document the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, much less even later legends about Jesus traveling to India or Great Britain! I could wish he would have taken his own advice and ignored much later traditions from the so-called Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, and even later Jewish traditions about Jesus. Tabor then states clearly “Historians give such legendary material little credibility. We have to face the fact that thirty years of Jesus’ life are simply missing and attempts to fill them in with legends and fables do nothing to advance our quest for the historical Jesus.” (p. 87). Undaunted however, since both nature and historians abhor a vacuum, Tabor proposes to fill in the gaps with the help of archaeological and historical tidbits, using some Gospel tales while dismissing various other parts of the Gospel evidence we do have.
In the second place Tabor dismisses the slaughter of the innocents’ story in Mt. 2 out of hand, on the grounds that it is not mentioned by Josephus. This is unfortunate, since the archaeological and historical records support the likelihood of this event. Firstly, it is completely in character for Herod the Great to do such a thing as he was paranoid about the succession even executing some of his own offspring and wives! Secondly, Bethlehem was a very tiny town in Jesus’ day. If all children under two were killed we still would not be talking about even 10 children in all likelihood. Such a small event in a small town, well off Josephus’ radar screen when he wrote his history of the ‘Jewish Wars’ and even later his ‘Antiquities’ could easily have been missed by him. It is not good history to exaggerate the size of the slaughter, and it is an argument from silence to say it didn’t happen because Josephus doesn’t mention it. Matthew mentions it, and not just for theological reasons either.
Tabor rightly reminds us (p. 89) that the Greek word teknon means builder or artisan. It can refer to a worker in wood, or in stone. I agree that this likely means Jesus and his family used both sorts of materials to build houses, since stones were the normal main material used to construct a house in Galilee (see Lk. 6.48). Unfortunately, then Tabor makes the leap of logic that a teknon is or is akin to a day laborer, and that therefore we are also
In his reconstruction of Jesus’ ‘lost years’ Tabor takes a very different and more interesting tact than some. He suggests that Jesus was busy running his family’s business as he conjectures that Joseph had died prior to the time of Jesus’ ministry. This indeed is possible since Joseph is not mentioned as being alive during the ministry of Jesus, and whenever we hear of the family (Jn. 2, Jn. 7, Mk. 3, Mk. 6 and parallels) it is only Mary and the children that are referred to. Does this warrant the assumption that Jesus ran the family business for many years? No it does not. Joseph may have died only shortly before Jesus began his ministry somewhere around A.D. 27-28. Jesus may of course have worked in the family business but that is a different matter. And notice that when his ministry begins, Jesus would have left the family in charge of someone who stayed home most of the time, presumably James the next eldest brother. Still Tabor is perhaps right that Jesus may well have worked in Sepphoris for some time
But Tabor is not content with just these sorts of unsubstantiated conjectures, some of which flatly contradict what various Gospel texts do say or suggest. At p. 108 he states boldly that Jesus had a plan “that he believed would lead to the complete overthrow of all that Rome and its Jewish sympathizers and supporters represented, including the corrupt religious establishment that ran the Temple of Jerusalem.” He adds that “He saw himself as doing nothing other than fulfilling the words of Moses and the Prophets, and the messianic hope that guided his life, and led him to his death, was the central core of his being”(p. 109). This is fair enough provided we bear in mind that Jesus by contrast did not share the Maccabean or Zealot commitment to violent opposition to one’s oppressors. At this same juncture Tabor stresses that Jesus was a Jew not a Christian, but this is only a half truth at best. Tabor admits Jesus had a messianic self-understanding, he just doesn’t think it much comports with later Christological ideas about Jesus. I disagree and have argued for the ‘Christology of Jesus’ in a full length monograph of the same name. Jesus had a messianic and thoroughly Jewish self-understanding but the question is— What sort?
Tabor paints a picture of Jesus as one in some ways similar to the more lenient Hillelite wing of Pharisaism, and in some ways like the Essenes (i.e. Dead Sea sect). The Esasenes called themselves the people of the New Covenant, were awaiting the coming of two messiahs, one priestly, one royal, practiced a form of baptism for initiates, and advocated communal living involving sacred meals among others things (pp. 118-20). Tabor, like most of us, is puzzled as to why the Pharisees and Sadducees get significant play in the NT but the Essenes are never once mentioned by Jesus or anyone else. Here Tabor is at his more judicious best when he reminds that most Jews were not part of any of the major sects of Judaism, and when he suggests that there were indeed Pharisees in various places in Galilee that Jesus could have encountered.
This places Tabor somewhere between Bart Ehrman and Dale Allison in his view of Jesus, and there are aspects of this view which are absolutely correct. Tabor is right that there is no non-messianic, non-eschatological, non-Jewish Jesus to be found at the bottom of the well of history. But what sort of messiah, what sort of eschatology did Jesus advocate? What sort of Jew was he? These are the real questions.
To address these sort of questions, Tabor begins with a portrait of John the Baptizer. He saw himself as carrying out the mission announced in Is. 40.3 and Mal. 3.1. While he may have spent some time at Qumran, and he used the same texts to envision his mission, his approach to the coming conflagration was not ‘withdraw, purify and save yourselves’ but rather to call the nation to repentan
Tabor then suggests that soon thereafter Jesus himself came to be baptized by John and heard the call of a different Isaianic text (Is. 42.1). “By such a response he was publicly joining and endorsing the revival movement John had sparked…from the time of Jesus’ baptism he was ready to take his destined place alongside John as a full partner in the baptizing movement. Together they were prepared to face whatever lay ahead in the prophetic roles to which each believed he was called.” (p. 129). But did Jesus actually join John’s movement, or simply endorse it? Do we have any hard historical evidence that Jesus baptized people along side of John? And while we are at it, do we have any hard evidence that John saw himself, or that Jesus viewed John, as the priestly messiah spoken of at Qumran? The answer to all these questions is probably no. John may well have, and Jesus more certainly did, see John as an Elijah like prophet. This did not make him a priestly messiah figure. Tabor makes much of the findings at the Suba cave, near Jerusalem, which may include a stick figure drawing of John. This location is seen as close to John’s birth home in Ein Kerem in the Judean hills. As Tabor admits, this is a Christian site, where pilgrims came to honor the birth of John the great prophet. The visit to this cave seems to have involved pouring of water, anointing of feet, and perhaps even immersion in a pool that is at the back of the cave. One could see this as a pilgrim following the lead of Jesus who was baptized by John.
I am want to say, ‘a text without a context is just a pretext for what you want it to mean’. It is not enough to know either the archaeological context or the general historical context or even the textual history of particular verses. One must deal in depth with the primary source of information we do have about Jesus and his first followers, namely the NT texts themselves. In Tabor’s case his love for archaeology leads him to place archaeology and historical context as a primary source and NT texts as a secondary source for his proposals. This is exactly the opposite of what should be attempted. The historical context and archaeology are important to an enterprise like studying the historical Jesus to the extent that they clarify, illuminate, or clearly refute what the NT says.