Archive for March, 2008

The Jesus Dynasty

March 14, 2008

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.


In the Onion AV Club

March 13, 2008

The Onion A.V. Club is chock full o’ things I like: an interview with Naomi Watts (my favorite hot actress), a piece about Miami Blues (my favorite obscure and off-kilter neo-noir crime film), and an “primer” on the works of Alan Moore (my (and everyone else’s) favorite comic book auteur). Check ’em out–

The Mann Act in Action

March 12, 2008

God knows I have nothing original to say about Eliot Spitzer, but talk of the Mann Act reminds me of this story:

A rather eccentric scientist, after years of painstaking research into counteracting the effects of the aging process, at last perfected a method of indefinitely prolonging lifespans, fulfulling the age-old dream of cheating death itself. Unfortunately, the process worked only on dolphins, and required that the dolphins live on a diet consisting exclusively of seagulls.  In hopes of extending the technique to humans, the scientist kept a pair of now-immortal seagull-fed dolphins in a large tank in his laboratory for study.

Every day he went  to the beach to collect his dolphins’ seagull ration.  One day, walking from the beach to the parking lot with a full load of seabirds, he was surprised to see a pair of full-grown lions–recently escaped from the state zoo, located nearby–blocking his path.  The lions did not seem particularly threatening; indeed, as far as he could tell, they were fast asleep, after the manner of cats.  The option of walking around the lions, through the stiff and prickly beach grass that lined the path, being unattractive, the scientist simply jumped over them.

He was immediately arrested for violating the Mann Act, by transporting gulls across state lions for immortal porpoises.

A plague on both their houses

March 10, 2008

I’m on record as being pro-Hillary, but she (or her campaign) seems to be trying to alienate the likes of me. That “3 AM Phone Call” spot is, if not exactly the worst kind of fear-mongering (Rove would done it more vilely, and more effectively), nonetheless icky. Not to mention that it likely helps McCain at least as much as it helps Hillary.

Meanwhile Obama’s campaign seems determined to prove that he’s as unprepared as Hillary says he is. I admire him for surrounding himself with brilliant academics and other non-politicians, but it’s a sad fact that they seem unused to the reality of Presidential politics. Mind you, I despised both candidates’ obviously insincere NAFTA-pandering, so in a way Austin Goolsbee’s “don’t worry, Canada, we don’t really mean it” is a point for Obama, but still… If Obama wins (as certainly seems likely), I rather expect him to start his administration with a series of embarrassing missteps, much like his friend and ally Deval Patrick. Hillary is stretching a bit in her increasingly desperate claims to Experience (this, for example). Her real experience (and that of her formidable political machine) is in having made those stupid mistakes already, and learned from them.

UCC/IRS/Obama, cont.

March 8, 2008

Having read a bit more UCC/IRS thing, I’m really just as ignorant as I was, and only slightly more opinionated.

First, a word about the United Church of Christ. It’s often characterized as among the most liberal of Protestant denominations. That’s correct, but should be understood in light of the fact that the UCC is also among the least hierarchical. The denomination has no real authority over individual churches; churches own their own buildings, hire their own pastors, and do pretty much whatever they want. That is of course very much in the tradition of the Congregationalists who are one of the constituents of the UCC. It’s also one of the few things we have in common with the even-less-centralized and otherwise similar-in-name-only Churches of Christ.

The denominational leadership may be quite liberal, but individual congregations (and congregants) are all over the place theologically and politically. The mean is, I think, somewhat left-of-center, but not nearly as much so as the denominational leadership. Every couple of years there is a General Synod that passes noble resolutions of a liberal bent, of which most actual UCC members (me included) are blissfully unaware.

[I should say that I’m one of the more liberal members, politically and theologically, of a relatively liberal church.]

The point there is that anything you read about the UCC and its politics does not necessarily have much to do with any specific UCC church.

Anyway. Here’s how I understand the Obama brouhaha:

At some point before Obama declared his candidacy, the UCC invited him to give the keynote address at last year’s General Synod. He is after all the most prominent member of the UCC. I don’t know whether the invitation came before or after it was clear he was thinking about running.

He was a candidate by the time of the General Synod (in June). The UCC, very correctly, attempted to make it clear that he was speaking not as a presidential candidate but as a UCC member with something to say about faith and public life.

No campaigning was allowed inside the building, but there were campaigners outside.

Most of Obama’s speech was unexceptionable, but he did mention his candidacy twice, once more or less in passing, and once in what sure looks like standard campaign fare:

It’s been several months now since I announced I was running for president. In that time, I’ve had the chance to talk with Americans all across this country…

I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term as president that will cover every American and cut the cost of a typical family’s premiums by up to $2500 a year. That’s not simply a matter of policy or ideology – it’s a moral commitment.

The IRS is now investigating whether that violated the guidelines for churches. This may or may not have been spurred by a complaint from UCCtruths, which seems to be the UCC’s version of a heretical splinter group–they think the denomination is too liberal. [I can’t tell whether the IRS ever says what prompts investigations.] Here‘s the IRS letter to the UCC–unfortunately, I can’t find the questions they attached, so I don’t actually know what the specific violations they’re investigating.

As far as I can tell (not having been there, and not being a lawyer), the UCC certainly didn’t endorse Obama or otherwise support it (although I’m sure that most of the UCC’s leadership does in fact support him). The problems are with Obama himself, and those two little references to his candidacy, which looks to me like a clear violation of the IRS guidelines (see page 9). It seems silly that the whole thing could have been avoiding with 10 seconds’ thought and a red pen.

What I don’t know is what the IRS typically does and doesn’t bother with in practice. Presidential candidates are forever campaigning in churches, whether they call it that or not. I can’t believe that none of them have never let the word “candidate” slip out before.

There does seem to be a real, fundamental problem with the IRS rules, and their assumption that a candidate’s appearances can be neatly separated into as-a-candidate and non-candidate events. Everything a Presidential candidate does is a campaign appearance. Candidates don’t go to the bathroom without campaign spin. Obeying the spirit of the rules would require forbidding candidates to go to church at all. Obeying the letter–you can’t say the magic words “candidate” and “election”–is just disingenuous.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s very unlikely that the UCC will lose its tax-exempt status over this. The denomination has a grade-A lawyer working pro bono now, and I imagine it will win the case (if “case” is even the right word) outright.

The UCC and the IRS

March 4, 2008

The United Church of Christ–my own denomination–is being investigated by the IRS about a speech Barack Obama gave at the General Synod last year. IANAL, I wasn’t there, and I have no idea what the IRS typically does and doesn’t bother investigating (Lord knows candidates pop up in churches all the time–something I disapprove of in both conservatives and liberals). But judging from the text of the speech and from this handy IRS guide, I’d say that, from the point of view of the UCC, the speech was at best ill-advised.