The Quest for the Historical Jesus–despite the interest the newsmagazines ought to take it in any day now, just in time for Easter–yields little that is both startlingly original and remotely believable. A great many people have based a great deal of speculation on a great paucity of reliable information: the signal-to-noise ratio is high, there’s little ground left uncovered, and anything new enough to be interesting (interesting to laymen like me, anyway) is likely to be silly. So it’s a great pleasure to see something new, different, and even vaguely plausible, such as James Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty.
Tabor’s basic thesis is that Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist set out to establish the earthly Kingdom of God, the arrival of which was immanent, or so they thought based on interpretations of scripture. They saw themselves as the two messiahs–Jesus the “Messiah of David” and John the “Messiah of Aaron,” the Anointed King and the Anointed Priest. After first John and then Jesus were killed, their movement–which they had certainly never intended to be a new religion–was first led by Jesus’ half-brother James the Just and then by his other half brother Simon. By the second century the original Jesus movement was almost entirely displaced by the proto-orthodox Christianity of Paul, and its original purpose forgotten.
Tabor, a Bible scholar and archaeologist, bases his ideas on both archaeological and textual evidence, drawing on both the Bible and writings of the early church fathers and of their enemies. His interpretations are at times distinctly unorthodox but never ridiculous–in this he is nothing like the authors of, say, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, or of its more popular novelization. His book itself is clearly written and absorbing.
Parts of his theory are certainly not new. Jesus’s and John’s conviction that God was about to bring forth His Kingdom, punishing the wicked and justifying the righteous, is not unlike the much held view that Jesus was essentially an eschatological prophet theory. More controversial is the theory that Jesus was (in the eyes of his followers and himself) the rightful Davidic King, was the centerpiece of Robert Graves’s eccentric and brilliant1 King Jesus. The similarities don’t go too far–Tabor certainly has none of Graves’s White Goddess mysticism–but are nonetheless intriguing.
Among the many details of Tabor’s theory I’ll mention two closely related ones. First, the parentage and lineage of Jesus. Tabor’s Jesus was the son neither of God nor of Joseph, but rather of some other father, possibly a Roman soldier named Pantera (nothing new there; that tradition goes back at least to the second century, and appears in the Talmud). The two seemingly conflicting genealogies given by Matthew and Luke Tabor identifies as those of Joseph (in Matthew) and of Mary (in Luke). Joseph’s line (to which, of course, Jesus does not belong by blood) goes back to David through the Kings of Judah, who lost their right to kingship. Mary’s, on the other hand, goes back to David through another, uncursed, line.
Second, Mary’s family life. Tabor theorizes that Mary’s marriage to Joseph produced no children (not counting Jesus himself, of course). After Joseph’s death, she married Joseph’s younger brother, in a Levirate marriage as required by Jewish law, to produce an heir for Joseph. This brother appears in the Bible as Clophas and Alphaeus, both of which mean something to the effect of “replacement.” She bore four sons and two daughters by Clophas, of whom the oldest was James, identified by Tabor as the disciple James the Less, as the church leader James the Just, and as the “beloved disciple” of the Gospel of John.
Each of these points illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses of Tabor’s argument. His interpretations of scripture and of extra-scriptural writings are unorthodox but plausible and ingenious–too ingenious, actually. Like other searchers for the Historical Jesus, he allows himself to accept that evidence that fits his theories, while assuming that anything else must have been somehow altered or misinterpreted to disguise the truth.
Take John 19:25, the only mention of Clophas:
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.
Clearly here Mary the mother of Jesus is not Mary the wife of Clophas. Tabor says of this
…No matter how common the name Mary was at the time, surely three Marys should give us pause. Something seems to be going on here. John knows something that either he, or those who later edited his gospel, chose to veil.
Combined with the inconsistent accounts of various Marys in the other gospels, I suppose a coverup is one possibility. A more likely possibility, in my view, is that the evangelists were as confused as we are by the surfeit of Marys. They were after all writing long after the fact, presumably basing their work on tangled and inconsistent accounts that had been unreliably transmitted. If John is veiling anything, it may simply be his own ignorance.
Similarly, Luke’s genealogy begins
And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, …
The word “son” is added in the translation; the literal Greek is (as I understand it) closer to “of Joseph” and “of Heli.” Tabor feels free to assume that the genealogy simply omits women, and that the correct interpretation is more like
…supposedly being a son of Joseph, but actually being of the line of Heli.
Again, I suppose that’s a possibility, but it seems farfetched. I don’t know Greek, but the parallelism in the “[son] of” phrasing makes it seem unlikely to me (Greek scholars, please tell me if I’m wrong!). Yes, Matthew has Joseph being the son of Jacob, two different names for Joseph’s father is hardly the only inconsistency between the Gospels, and is to be expected if Matthew and Luke were written independently of each other (as they were according to the standard Q hypothesis, which Tabor relies on). Even if one prefers a Q-less theory such as the Farrer hypothesis (I do) it hardly defies explanation.
Tabor also makes much of the phrase “as was supposed,” assuming it refers to the commonly known but embarrassing fact that Jesus was the son not of Joseph but of some other man. Of course, the usual explanation makes perfect sense: that (to Luke, and his fellow early Christians) Jesus was the son not of Joseph but of God.
This sort of just-plausible but strained interpretation occurs throughout. I don’t think Tabor ever hits anything like the heights of self-indulgent circular reasoning that, say, the Jesus Seminar is capable of, but I do think he lets his enthusiasm get the better of a healthy skepticism. That is also evident in his opinions of controversial archaeological finds; he is a strong supporter of the authenticity of both the James ossuary and the Talpiot tomb (he discusses both in his book, although neither is central to his theory). Tabor writes eloquently of his experiences at archaeological sites, of being swept away by a feeling of “touching history,” of connection to the past. I envy his experience, but I would like to see his enthusiasm tempered by dispassionate skepticism.
1 “Eccentric” and “brilliant” are perhaps redundant in connection with anything to do with Robert Graves.