The Bible and Culture

This is the third of four posts on James Tabor’s new book— The Jesus Dynasty

Here is where I say that Tabor needs to realize that the historical Jesus could very well have viewed himself in a divine as well as human light. As such he was no different from various other notable figures of his era, including various Greek ruler figures (Alexander) and various Roman Emperors (see my Christology of Jesus, pp. 90ff). A divine yet human character is in fact what Dan. 7 suggests about the Son of Man—he is to rule forever over God’s people, unlike the promise to David in 2 Sam. 7 which speaks of siring a line of descendants to rule over them. Jesus did not plan on a dynasty, he planned on ruling himself when he returned from heaven, just as the Son of Man comes down from heaven for final judgment in Dan. 7. What kind of person sees himself as ruling forever over God’s people? Some moderns might well think Jesus deranged for having such thoughts, but the fact is, it was historically possible, even in a Hellenized Jewish context. Consider the case of Herod Agrippa, struck down by God, according to Josephus, due to his divine pretensions.
Tabor’s speculation about Jesus applying texts like Is. 53 or Zech. 13 to John the Baptizer of course goes against what evidence we do have from the Gospels, and Tabor is forced to admit “Of course we don’t know the inner thoughts and struggles of Jesus.” (p. 183). Indeed we only know what these texts say Jesus revealed about himself to his disciples. And what they suggest is that Jesus saw himself, not John in light of Is. 53 and Zech. 13. This view comports better with Tabor’s own argument later where he says that Jesus acts out Zech. 9.9 by sitting on a donkey and riding into Jerusalem as the king Zechariah envisioned (p. 192).
Jesus, according to Tabor, did not stay north of Galilee before his final march to Jerusalem. He also stayed in the Decapolis east of the sea of Galilee (John 10.40), and Tabor claims to have found the spot! (p. 186). He envisions Jesus staying across the Jordan from Aenon near Salim (Jn. 3.23) at ‘el-Yabis’ a spot thought to be near the brook Cherith where Elijah went and hid out ( 1 Kngs. 17). But Tabor has more.
Since this location in Jordan is not too far from the Decapolis city of Pella, Tabor envisions Simon the brother of Jesus leading the Jerusalem Christians to Pella in about A.D., 67 based on his memory of having hid in this vicinity as one of Jesus’ chosen Twelve (p. 188). There are surprises on most pages of this book, but like so many of the other ones it is based on the unsound conclusion that Jesus’ brothers were his close followers during the ministry.
Jesus during that final winter of A.D.29 only ventures forth once and clandestinely sneaks into Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah but is confronted in the Temple and asked to declare whether he is messiah or not (Jn. 10.22-32). Jesus escapes and goes back across the Jordan (Jn. 10.40). On this particular historical matter Tabor could be right. It may be true that Jesus and his disciples hid out in the wadis and caves of the brook Cherith, though no text tells us so. It is however odd that after building up such a case for Jesus’ messianic self-understanding of the Davidic sort he then demurs and says “Judging from his actions he was an apocalyptic prophet, an exorcist, and a healer. His message was not about himself but about the arrival of the Kingdom of God. But he had explicitly tied the arrival of the Kingdom to his activities…” (p. 190).
Surely in fact, on the basis of Tabor’s own case, Jesus did see himself as a Davidic ruler figure, as a Davidic messiah. This is far more than any of these categories Tabor lists here. And entirely missing from Tabor’s discussion is the primary form of public discourse Jesus offered—wisdom speech in the form of parables, aphorisms, riddles and the like. The omission of the wisdom component is one of the most notable lacunae in Tabor’s case, and had he included it he would have learned that Jesus presented himself as God’s wisdom come in person to God’s people, speaking on his own authority, and indeed, speaking about himself, though mostly indirectly in public. He would have learned that the cry for healing from the ‘son of David’ in Mk. 10.47 refers to Jesus being like the Son of David, namely Solomon who was believed in early Judaism to have the wisdom for all sorts of cures, unlike David himself.
Tabor paints a picture of Jesus performing a series of prophetic sign acts on Passover week including entering the city on a donkey, symbolically interrupting trade in the Temple (while thinking of prophecies like Zech. 14.21, Jer, 7.11, and Is. 56.7—see p. 196). He stresses “Jesus’ activities… were not intended to change things or to spark a revolution…. He intended to signal something—namely the imminent overthrow of the corrupt Temple system was at hand” (p. 196).
This I think is correct, but it means that Jesus was not a revolutionary in any ordinary sense of the word. He was more like a messianic prophet signaling what would soon transpire. The term revolutionary then is not really a very apt term as it suggests willingly using violence against persons to achieve one’s aims. Tabor allows that Jesus followed up these prophetic sign acts with provocative teaching and debates with Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians later in the week. I agree. Things were building to a climax.
Tabor holds the view that Jesus was crucified on Thursday April 4 (14 Nisan) A.D. 30 rather than Friday. He does not justify this conclusion he simply states that in regard to crucifixion on Friday “We now know that is one day off” (p. 199). But how exactly do we ‘know’ this now? He also argues that Jesus never ate the Passover which transpired after his crucifixion. While I am inclined to agree that the meal referred to in Jn. 13 as before the Passover was earlier in the week than Thursday, it is a mistake to see this meal as the same as the one described as the Last Supper in the Synoptics.
Tabor points out, possibly correctly, that the accounts in both Lk. 22.14-16 and 1 Cor. 11.23 refer to the ‘bread’ (artos) not the matzos which would be the unleavened bread. This may well be a pointer away from these meals being Passover meals (p. 200). Notice as well no Passover lamb is mentioned in any of these meal accounts in the Gospels. But of course Tabor must interject his own speculations into the mix. He says categorically “It is inconceivable that a Jewish head of a household would eat Passover segregated from his family with twelve male disciples.” (p. 201). This is by no means inconceivable if it is true that for Jesus the family of faith was his primary family as Mk. 3.31-35 suggests, and there is the further point from this same text that we must insist once more— Jesus’ family were not among his disciples at this juncture in time.
Tabor then objects to the idea that Jesus could have said ‘This is my body….this is my blood’ at the last supper with disciples. In fact he is categorical about it: “Such an idea could not have come from Jesus the Jew” (p. 203). He thinks Paul dreamed this idea up based on Greco-Roman Osiris worship where the blood of the beloved is consumed. He also assumed Paul grew up in Tarsus outside the land of Israel. This is quite clearly contradicted by Acts. 22.3 where we learn that Paul grew up in Jerusalem and was trained by Gamaliel.
And what are we to think about the words of institution given at the last supper? Is Paul simply lying when he says in A.D. 54 that he has this tradition ultimately from Jesus himself (see 1 Cor. 11.23)? I think not, since Paul knew both Peter and James and had consulted with them in Jerusalem on more than one occasion (see Gal. 1-2). No, it is not Paul who is playing fast and loose with the facts. Unfortunately this is part of what is yet to come in his study as like many before him Tabor credits Paul with the corruption of the true religion of Jesus
and the fall from pristine grace that led to orthodox Christianity.
He also makes the mistake of assuming that apostles and the Twelve are one and the same category of persons, despite the evidence not only in 1 Cor. 15 but also in Acts to the contrary (see p. 203). The Twelve were certainly among the apostles, but there were many others who were apostles as well, including Paul. The fact that Paul is not included among the 12 in Acts 1.12-14 is irrelevant and is no surprise since Paul is not yet a follower of Jesus. While we are dealing with these verses in Acts it is important to note yet another contradiction to Tabor’s theory. According to Acts 1.14 Mary and the brothers of Jesus are a separate group from the Twelve! It is said that the newly reformed Twelve “all joined together constantly in prayer along with the women [disciples] and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” Most everywhere look, there is evidence to contradict the theory that Jesus was setting up a family dynasty.
The words of institution, ‘This is my body, this is my blood” are found in our earliest Christian documents, namely Paul’s letters, and in all four Gospels, which means we have multiple attestations to these words and their authenticity, Thus, Tabor turns to the Didache, a late first or early second century Jewish Christian document to bolster his case against their authenticity (pp. 204-05). What he fails to mention is that the Didache is only passing along the thanksgiving prayer to be offered at the Eucharist, not the interpretation of the meaning of the Eucharist. It is further developing the liturgy of the Eucharist, not supplanting what already existed in multiple Gospels and in 1 Corinthians as well. It is after all a practical training manual for those who already know the Gospel traditions! Therefore, Tabor reads more into the silence of a document, in this case the Didache, than can possibly be warranted.
On pp. 206-07 Tabor airs once more his theory that James was the Beloved Disciple. This will not do on several accounts, but it becomes clear that the reason Tabor is enamored with this conjecture is that he cannot imagine Jesus bequeathing his mother to anyone else. But let us think through the narrative logic of John’s Gospel for a minute: 1) on the only occasion we find Jesus’ disciples and his family together at Cana, mentioned in Jn. 2, they are distinguished (see 2.12); 2) the very first time after that we hear about Jesus’ brothers they are egging him on and said not to believe in Jesus (Jn. 7.5). Notice that this transpires prior to any mention whatsoever of the Beloved Disciple in this Gospel. That does not occur until at least Jn. 11 if not Jn. 13. Those who were hearing this Gospel, which would be read aloud to the audience, would have no way of associating James with the Beloved Disciple. Indeed, they would draw quite the opposite conclusion—James is not a disciple, nor are the other brothers. The Beloved Disciple is called by this name because he is a disciple not a relative of Jesus; 3) The coup de grace for this argument comes in Jn. 19.25. Here Mary is bequeathed to the Beloved Disciple who for the first time takes her into his own home, which is surely in Jerusalem. But the Gospels tell us that the brothers lived in Galilee, not Jerusalem. This is clear also from the discussion of pilgrimage to Festival in Jn. 7.3-5. Tabor apparently does not recognize that for Jesus his eschatological family of faith is the primary family from the beginning of his ministry to the end. Mary is joining the Jesus community, she is not going home with James. The Beloved Disciple as he exits in vs. 27 is simple called ‘the disciple’ not the brother of Jesus.
Tabor’s account of the trial(s) and execution of Jesus runs swiftly through the evidence. He agrees that Jesus had a hearing before the high priest. He thinks there was some sort of Sanhedrin meeting perhaps, though not the whole council. He accepts the idea that Jesus actually spoke Mk. 14.62 to the high priest which ended the proceedings, though as he have already noted (see above) he does not think Jesus referred to himself here as the Son of Man that would be coming to judge. He accepts the historicity of Jesus being passed along to Herod Antipas and then back to Pilate.
In this entire book it is clear enough that Luke is Tabor’s main touchstone when it comes to historical substance, with Mark and John following there after, and Matthew bringing up the rear it seems. He accepts that Pilate should be credited with passing final judgment and having Jesus crucified, though he does not deal with the possibility that Pilate, and anti-Semitic Roman if there ever was one, might well have delayed the proceedings to thumb his nose at the high priests and demonstrate his own final authority. He also does not come to grips with the crucial bit of Johannine evidence that what finally prompted the execution is that the Jewish authorities threatened to complain to Caesar, threatening his amicus Caesaris status with the Emperor.
Tabor also thinks Jesus was heavily flogged, even though Luke makes clear that Jesus only endured flogging prior to the attempt by Pilate to release Jesus. If this is correct, Jesus certainly did not endure the sadistic ‘viberatio’ the most severe form of flogging, and in fact the Gospels only mention the flogging in passing. They do not play it up ala Mel Gibson’s the ‘Passion of the Christ’(pp. 208-18).
Tabor’s description of crucifixion is both graphic and correct. There is however one obvious mistake in his account. He is right that Mark says Jesus was on the cross from the sixth to the ninth hour (Mk. 15.33), but in fact he means he was on the cross even longer from the third to the ninth hour (see Mk. 15.25) which is indeed a full six hours (p. 221). Tabor is right that crucifixion could take two-three days to kill a person, depending on the degree of their flogging, their physical strength, the weather, the form of crucifixion (nailing or using ropes), the degree of shock, and whether the victims were attended and plied with myrrhed wine or not. Jesus’ time on the cross was mercifully shorter than many. Tabor agrees that the cry of dereliction was likely spoken by Jesus near his moment of death (Ps. 22.1).
Continuing his mistaken identification of Jesus’ mother with the ‘other Mary’ he envisions her going to the tomb. He also thinks Mt. 27.60 is a later editorial insertion, but once again there is no textual or historical evidence to support this conjecture. If Joseph of Arimathea requested the body, which Tabor allows, then it is reasonable to assume he would bury it in a tomb he himself owned (p. 224). Tabor disputes both assumed sites in Jerusalem for the crucifixion and the burial. He sees the Mount of Olives as a more logical site for the crucifixion. His basis for this conjecture is the second century document the ‘Acts of Pilate’ so once again he prefers later evidence to the earlier evidence, always a historically dubious move. He also suggests that Jesus and the disciples had been staying in Bethany at the house of Mary and Martha (p. 227). This is certainly plausible, but then where are James and Mary and where is this house the Beloved Disciple took Mary to in Jerusalem? He does not say. What he does say is that Jesus was truly dead, that he was hastily and temporarily buried, and that his movement did not die with his death, rather it continued under the leadership of James. (p. 228). What he fails to note is that it was Peter, not James that first took up the mantle of leadership of this movement as is clear from Gal. 1-2, 1 Cor. 15, and Acts 1-4 especially. James, takes over when Peter moves on (see Acts 12). Once again there are flaws in the dynasty argument.
Tabor sternly reminds his audience, whilst discussing Jesus’ burial, the empty tomb, and his ‘appearances’ that “Historians are bound by their discipline to work within the parameters of a scientific view of reality. Women do not get pregnant without a
male—ever….Dead bodies don’t rise—not if one is clinically dead—as Jesus surely was after Roman crucifixion and three days in a tomb. So if the tomb was empty the historical conclusion is simple—Jesus’ body was moved by someone and likely reburied in another location.” (pp. 233-34). Tabor has come up with a location as well. In Galilee outside the city of Tsfat. Who knew! This conclusion is based on the testimony of a 16th century mystical rabbi named Isaac be Luria (p. 238). Sadly, I have to say that Tabor has no right to lecture anyone about what is historically plausible if he is going to go chasing after these sorts of red herrings from a much later era. This is not the mark of a good historian who limits himself to the earliest and best evidence we have. Furthermore, one might ask— which scientific view of reality does he have in mind? There are actually quite a few, and many of them include the possibility of what we might call miracles. Does he really not know that there are plenty of good historians and scientists that do indeed believe in miracles, and in no way see that as a violation of their critical judgment or commitments?
The idea that Mk. 16.8 is the original ending of Mark’s Gospel, is accepted by Tabor, but is not plausible as most major commentaries on Mark’s Gospel make clear. There was a reason why those various other endings of this Gospel were added by later scribes. They knew something was obviously missing. And now we have a definitive study which shows that Mk. 16.8 is surely not the ending of this Gospel (see N. Clayton Croy’s, Mutilation of Mark’s Gospel, Abingdon, 2003). The ending rather is lost, though perhaps we can see the vestiges of it in Mt. 28.
But more importantly, 1 Cor. 15 will not go away with the wave of a hand. There were many people in various places, in various states of mind, and at least one of them was not a disciple, who saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion. Clearly enough, not all these ‘appearances’ were simply visions, for resurrection does not refer to a vision as has been show at length by N.T. Wright ( The Resurrection of the Son of God, Fortress, 2003). The historical accounts we have suggest the male disciples, except the Beloved Disciple, all abandoned Jesus in his hour of need. It is clear enough that it would have taken more than a pep talk from James to have turned them into the courageous witnesses, and in some cases martyrs, that they became.
But how does Tabor see the revival of the Jesus movement, given that he denies the resurrection and appearances of Jesus happened? He hypothesizes that the Holy family takes over, particularly Mary and James, and that they continued to put forward the claims about the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God, and that what with the distress and turmoil of the era, a message about the coming end of the age still had a ring of truth to it (p. 244). In the course of making his case, he discredits Luke to a significant degree (see pp. 248-49) while in the same breath saying that Luke follows Mark more closely than Matthew does. This is not true. Even more confusing is that Tabor goes on to stress that Luke is writing theology, not history, and he has a pro-Peter, pro-Paul agenda, while sublimating the Holy family. This is very odd in light of the unique material in Lk. 1-2 which presents a very positive view of Mary. It is equally odd when one considers Acts 15 where James is prominent and decides the issue.
Lost altogether in the discussion is our earliest source for information about James namely Galatians 1-2. It is telling to follow closely Paul’s account of his visits to Jerusalem. On the first occasion he goes up to Jerusalem in the mid to later 30s to see Peter, and he also sees James. Peter is mentioned first. Fourteen years later he goes back with Barnabas and Titus and Gal. 2.9 mentions James, Peter, and John in that order. Paul says these are the ones reputed to be leaders or pillars of the Jerusalem church. This would refer to a time in the mid to late 40s. Then finally Paul says at Gal.2.12 that men came from James to Antioch to check out what was happening there.
These revealing narratives reflect the change in leadership amongst the inner circle in Jerusalem from Peter first and also James, then James, Peter and John, and finally James alone because Peter has moved on as evangelist of Jews and is found in places like Antioch. What we can say is that by the late 40s James is the head of the Jerusalem Church. What we cannot talk about is a Jesus dynasty that was always in place there from just after the death of Jesus.
Tabor has a very different reading of Gal. 1-2. He thinks that Paul had to consult with James on his first visit to Jerusalem. Actually what the text says is merely that he ‘saw’ no other apostle except James the brother of Jesus. In regard to consulting, that is confined to his time with Peter. Vs. 18 is quite clear. Paul went to Jerusalem to spend time with Peter. The verb historēsai refers to his consulting and learning from and conveying information to this one person over the course of a fortnight. We may be sure they didn’t spend all that time debating the weather. James he merely ‘saw’ Peter he consulted with. Why? Because Peter knew the whole Jesus story from stem to stern, whereas James had not been present for every so many things that went on during the ministry. He was at home with the family in Galilee and perhaps even in charge of the family.
Tabor also wants to argue that Gal. 2.9 suggests that only Peter and John are seen as the pillars supporting James on his right and left. But in fact Paul calls all three of these men pillars here including James. The head of the church is not James, it is the risen Jesus, with these three men as human leaders of the movement (p.252). And both Galatians and Acts agree that Peter is the first human leader of this church, then he is replaced by James after Peter goes on the road witnessing to Jews.
I must say at this juncture that I quite agree with Tabor that James has been given short shrift, and this very book hopefully helps remedy that. But it will not do to displace Peter or the importance of Paul, who knows these eyewitnesses, with some ‘Jesus dynasty’ argument. After all we are only talking about the leadership of the Jerusalem Church, and only in a tenuous way of the rest of the movement especially after 50 A.D. Tabor also wants to see James’ decree as being about Noah’s rules (Gen. 9.4), but in fact the decree is about eating in pagan temples and avoiding both the idolatry and immorality that happens in such a venue (cf. p. 254 and my Acts of the Apostles Eerdmans 1997) on Acts 15. Tabor is however right that James was the overseer of the Jerusalem Church from the late 40s until A.D. 62 when he died. Various later sources, including Clement of Alexandria even go so far as to suggest that Jesus chose James as Overseer of the Jerusalem Church (see Eusebius. Hist. Eccl. 2.1.3). If he did, he must have done it by some extraordinary means after Easter, because clearly enough, Peter was the one chosen as the head the Twelve, and stayed leader in Jerusalem until he became itinerant.

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