This is the second of four posts on James Tabor's interesting new study---"The Jesus Dynasty"-- blessed Good Friday to one and all.
Here it is in order to point out a fundamental problem with Tabor’s approach to the sayings material found in Q. Tabor seems to simply accept the conclusions of Q scholars about the nature and character of the saying source, that collection of largely sayings material which Matthew and Luke share in common, but which are not found in Mark. This is a mistake on several grounds: 1) firstly the underlying form critical methodology used to determine the authenticity of this material, where you slice and dice even half verses into pieces, deeming one part authentic and another not, has been shown a long time ago to be deeply flawed; 2) it is simply not the case that any preference should be given to the more Lukan form of Q sayings. In fact, Luke is Hellenizing the material for his Gentile audience. We are far more likely to get closer to the original form of such sayings in the Matthean form of these traditions (see now my commentary on Matthew, Smyth and Helwys, 2006). Joachim Jeremias was right when he said of this material that it is the inauthenticity not the authenticity of these sayings that must be demonstrated.
Tabor argues Lk. 7.28b is a later addition, but on what basis? Grasping at straws, he appeals to a 14th century A.D. document alleged to preserve the more original Hebrew version of Matthew. Now this ‘Hebrew Matthew’ is found in a rabbinic document called ‘Even Bohan’ written by one Shem-Tob Ibn Shaprut of Aragon. This document was part of the ongoing border war between Jews and Christians in the attempt to claim the Jewish heritage for one or the other of these two communities. If we actually examine this Hebrew Matthew we see that it is material which has been edited to serve the polemical purposes of this Jewish author, reflecting later disputes between Jews and Christians. There is no historical evidence whatsoever that this document existed, even in an earlier form, prior to the third century A.D.
It will not do to take much later evidence which has obviously been edited and shaped by a polemical controversy of a later era and proclaim it an earlier version of the Gospel of Matthew than what we have in our Greek text of Matthew. This is not merely an argument from silence since we have no early evidence that Hebrew Matthew even existed. It is an argument against the earliest and best evidence we do have. Not many scholars have been at all persuaded by George Howard’s thesis about the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (published by Mercer Press in 1995), and rightly so. It violates all the basic historical principles about adhering to our earliest and best evidence in order to draw conclusions about a matter. It is sad to see that Tabor is prepared to stretch historical principles this far, being prepared to take even much later and more dubious data to fit the Procrustean bed of his pre-existing theory. This is unfortunate, because Tabor’s study has many pluses and good points when it comes to the archaeology and historical aspects of the study. The danger is, it will be all dismissed as eccentric and not well grounded in historical research because of this kind of material in the book.
Let us take another example of how Tabor does not ‘look’ before he takes exegetical leaps. On p. 137 he deals with the Lord’s prayer as presented in Lk. 11.1-4. Already there is a problem since he simply assumes that the conclusions of Q specialists are right that Luke preserves the more original form. A simply and systematic study of how Luke edits his Markan material and Matthew edits the same Markan material could have told him that Luke is a more free editor of his source material, and Matthew is consistently more conservative. But for the sake of argument, let’s just deal with the Lukan form here.
The text begins with the request of the disciples “teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples to pray”. Tabor takes this to mean “teach us to pray the same prayer John taught his disciples to pray”. Tabor even says “Jesus repeats to them the prayer that he had learned from his teacher John”. But the Greek here surely does not mean this. The comparative term kathōs indicates that the disciples are not asking for Jesus to repeat the teaching he learned from John. Rather they want to be taught to pray ‘just as’ John’s disciples had been taught to pray. The comparison has to do with the activity of praying, not with the content of the prayer. Notice something else as well. John’s disciples are distinguished from Jesus’ here, but Jesus’ disciples are comparing themselves to John’s. This is interesting and understandable since Jesus had earlier had some associations with John, and seems to have drawn some of his disciples from John’s as well. But nowhere in any historical source do we even remotely hear about John teaching Jesus the Lord’s prayer.
While Jesus may well have learned much from listening to John, we have no historical evidence that Jesus was ever John’s disciple. His baptism by John should not be interpreted this way. John baptized many people who did not become his disciples at all. Jesus was probably one such person. What the evidence we do have suggests is that John felt it would be more appropriate for Jesus to baptize him! But this idea of course is too often dismissed as later Christian editorial adjustments. John, as Jesus said, was more than a prophet. This does not mean Jesus saw him as either the messiah or his own teacher. Rather, he saw him as the final eschatological prophet, the Elijah figure who announced the coming of God’s divine saving reign on earth. Jesus, by contrast expected no singular successor, and notice as well he does not include himself amongst the Twelve. Both of these facts tell us something about Jesus’ self understanding.
Tabor, having gotten up a head of steam, is not only prepared to argue on the basis of questionable later evidence, and exegesis that is far from obvious. He is prepared to argue on the basis of silence itself. For example he says “It is no accident that the following year of A.D. 27 is largely blank in our records. That was the year of the joint work of the Two Messiahs—now lost to Christian history and memory.” (p. 137). In this remark, Tabor is admitting to the fact that part of his most crucial and essential theory, that Jesus and John viewed themselves as the two messiahs mentioned at Qumran, is nearly entirely an argument from silence. One has to ask—why should we think that either John or Jesus simply adopted the Essene view about two messianic figures? Nothing in their teachings suggest such a view. Indeed, nothing in the canonical Gospels suggest that anyone saw John as the priestly Messiah figure of Qumran at all, not even Jesus. This is simply pure conjecture.
It is Tabor’s historical reconstruction that while John was baptizing in the north near the sea of Galilee in A.D. 27, a sabbatical year when people would have more free time to listen to preachers like John and Jesus, Jesus was baptizing in the south in Judea (see pp. 141-42). There are several problems with this. One moment Tabor is prepared to give the Gospel of John its due for providing us with an eyewitness testimony with accurate historical and chronological details. But he chooses not to deal with the hard evidence of Jn. 4.1-2 which suggests that Jesus himself baptized no one, rather his disciples did the baptizing. Also, the Pharisaic observers of both practices noticed that Jesus was gathering more disciples than John. Apparently not wanting to undercut John’s ministry, Jesus stops his activities and returns to Galilee through Samaria. Tabor dismisses Jn. 4.2 as the work of a later editor (p. 149), without any textual basis at all. The same hand, writing in the same style, the Beloved Disciple himself, is responsible not only for the discussion in John 3 about Jesus and John, but also for the discussion in Jn. 4.1-2. There is no sound
The material in Jn. 3.27-30 is also important to this discussion for it has a parallel in the Synoptics in Mk. 2.19-20. In both these texts Jesus is called the bridegroom. In John 3 John the Baptist declares himself to be the friend of the bridegroom. This comports with the saying of John indicating that he knew someone greater than he would come after him, whose shoes he would not even be fit to tie or untie. It seems clear that in both our earliest and latest Gospel evidence (and in those in between), John himself denies he is the messianic one, but he believes he has a special relationship to the bridegroom—he is the best man, meant to announce the coming of the bridegroom. Tabor’s partnership of equals idea about Jesus and John does not deal adequately with what evidence we do have on this matter. Even allowing for the Gospel’s writers desires to place John clearly in Jesus’ shadow, there is still a clear pecking order in the earliest of these sayings which indicates that neither Jesus nor John viewed the matter as Tabor suggests.
But there is more. On p. 142 Tabor also suggests, based on his reading on Jn. 2.1-12 that the wedding feast at Cana was perhaps a family wedding where Jesus’ brother James got married, and he suggests that this text indicates that Jesus had permanently moved his family (mother and brothers) to Capernaum because they were a part of Jesus’ disciple group, with brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas being both half-brothers of Jesus and also members of the Twelve. This simply will not do however.
In the first place the wedding takes place in Cana, presumably the one north of Sepphoris. John 21.2 tells us this is the village of Nathanel, another of Jesus’ disciples, and perhaps we are dealing with his wedding. But the following factors rule out Tabor’s reading of this story: 1) Jesus’ rebuke to his mother indicates that it is not either his or his mother’s responsibility to provide the catering when they run out of wine. This would hardly be an appropriate response if this was his brother’s wedding; 2) the disciples are clearly distinguished from Jesus’ mother and brothers at the end of the story at 2.12. Notice as well that it is said in 2.11 that it is the disciples, not the family who believed in Jesus as a result of this miracle. This comports with what we hear in Jn. 7.5—the brothers did not believe in Jesus, and led a separate life from him during Jesus’ ministry. They were not among his disciples. This is precisely what Mk. 3.21-35 clearly indicates as well which tells us that Jesus’ family thought that what with all the exorcisms Jesus had become mentally imbalanced, fifteen degrees shy of plumb so to speak. Thus they came out to take him home (Mk. 3.21,31-35). This unflattering portrait of Jesus’ family is surely likely to be well grounded in history. It is not something Mark will have made up. 3) nothing in the conclusion of John. 2.1-12 suggests that Jesus’ mother and brothers had moved to Capernaum with Jesus. He is not in charge of them and we have no evidence he played the role of head of the family at this juncture. They could all just be on the way up to the Jewish festival for all we know.
One of Tabor’s underlying assumptions is some form of Schweitzerian eschatology. Jesus believed the end of the world was near at hand, and so all his teaching should be seen as some form of interim ethic. Never mind that we have sayings like Mk. 13.32 in our earliest Gospel which clearly do not reflect later Christian views of what Jesus did and didn’t know during his ministry. No, Jesus must be depicted as one who was convinced that not merely the eschatological age, but the end of the eschatological age could be expected soon. There are numerous problems with this reading of Jesus’ eschatology, and I have demonstrated at length why we need to exorcise the ghost of Albert Schweitzer from our discussions of Jesus’ teachings (see my Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World, Inter Varsity 1992). But Tabor operates as if no one had ever demonstrated the flaws in such an approach to the eschatology of Jesus, never mind the eschatology of Paul and others (notice for example on p. 143 how he misquotes 1 Cor. 7.29 which does not say that the time has grown very short, it says the time has been ‘shortened’, a very different matter).
Though Tabor is well aware of the differences in Jesus’ eschatological teaching from that we find at Qumran (see e.g. Mk.12.35-37 where in debate Jesus speaks of only one messianic figure), and he freely admits that the two messiah’s teaching had been given a long time before the time Jesus even was born, and by the first century A. D. (see p. 148) even the Essenes, who had seen the Teacher of Righteousness come and die without the two messiahs showing up were on the downward slope of their existence (“they did not die out despite the failure of their original expectations”—p.148), still he insists that this is how John and Jesus viewed messianic matters. The truth is, there was a wide gamut of messianic beliefs in early Judaism, only one of which involved a scenario with two messianic figures. I would also stress that the messiah son of David tradition refers quite specifically to a king like David, not a priest and also a king (see e.g. the Psalms of Solomon 17). The evidence we have does not suggest that either John or Jesus operated with a Qumranite double messiah notion. To the contrary, both the John and Jesus traditions suggest that they both operated with a single messiah notion.
One of the things that does happen to scholars as they become enthusiastic proponents of their own theories and hypotheses is that what they first call a theory, later is called a fact. James Tabor is both bright and has a very active imagination. For example he paints a scene for us on pp. 151-52 of him sitting outside the Suba cave (see above) imagining Jesus himself baptizing people in this cave, perhaps even his own disciples and family. It is a nice bucolic picture not well grounded in any historical evidence.
The general term ‘Judean countryside’ is used in Jn. 3 to indicate the place where baptisms were done by Jesus’ disciples. This surely is more likely to have taken place further down the Jordan river than where John was baptizing, not somewhere west of Jerusalem in some obscure spot. The Suba cave is not on any major thoroughfare. It is not a place you would go to attract a crowd to hear your urgent message. But notice as well what happens on p. 149. Tabor states boldly: “The historical facts are plain: Jesus joined the movement of John the Baptizer and was baptized by John ‘with a baptism of repentance for remission of sins.’ He then linked up with John in a strategic move to reach the whole country at once. Jesus was preaching and practicing that same baptism—the baptism of John. They were allies and there is no reason to think that either their message or their message or their mode of operation differed.” (emphasis added). No reason, except that the Gospels tell us that Jesus and John had a very different lifestyle and a very different modus operandi. Jesus was a healer, indeed our earliest Gospel indicates he was an exorcist. In fact, exorcisms are the most frequent miracles of Jesus during his Galilean ministry according to Mark. John was not a healer at all. But there is another difference as well. John is an ascetic, Jesus is not, at least when it comes to food and drink and general lifestyle. Indeed, Jesus is accused of fraternizing with sinners and tax collectors, and of being a winebibber. This was clearly not part of John the Baptist’ curriculum vitae. One must do a better balancing act than Tabor does to deal with both the similarities and differences between Jesus and John.
One thing that John and Jesus certainly did have in common is the proclamation of the coming Dominion of God, God’s final saving reign on earth. Tabor, ignoring the variety of ways this Kingdom language was used in early Judaism stresses “It was understood in a literal way, nothing less than a revolution, a complete overthrow of the political, social, and economic status quo.” (p. 156). But a revolution undertaken by whom? We know of course of the Zealot view, but Jesus did not agree with that view. He is on record as having said that those who live by the sword die by the sword. Neither John nor Jesus were busy setting up base camps in Galilee or Judea in preparation for a revolution. Instead, they were busily calling Israel to repentance in the light of the coming direct intervention of God. Tabor accepts this point, but he insists on the Schweitzerian view that Jesus thought the end was necessarily at hand, and that perhaps if he went up to Jerusalem and threw himself on the wheel of history, God would act.
Jesus believed he was bringing in the kingdom by such preaching coupled with his acts of healing persons, including by means of his exorcisms (‘if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then you will know that the Dominion has broken into your midst’). Spiritual liberation of course also had a social consequence, but Jesus was of the peace party, as Crossan puts it, not the revolutionary party, though he was certainly executed in a manner that means he was accused of being a revolutionary guilty of sedition or treason.
We cannot flatten out all the varied views of the Kingdom in early Judaism into one social action or revolutionary meaning any more than the messianic expectations in early Judaism were monolithic. Tabor knows this so he tries to have it both ways. He thinks Jesus’ strategy was first to engage in spiritual healing and renewal and then to expect God to get on with the political revolution by direct divine judgment. He puts it this way “Jesus was a political revolutionary who expected nothing less than the violent overthrow of the kingdoms of the world, but he did not think it would come about by collecting arms and gathering rebel bands of troops as some of his contemporaries had attempted. The first step was to defeat Satan and his powers.” (pp. 161-62). Thus Satan had to be deposed first, then Herod, Pilate and the rest would be deposed, leaving Jesus alone on the throne of Israel.
On the other hand, Tabor is quite right to envision Jesus reading various passages of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Is. 61 which speaks of a healing messiah who liberates captives, and seeing them as referring to himself (see p.157). One of the strengths of this study is that Tabor meaningfully interacts with the genuine messianism of Jesus, his messianic self-understanding. He is equally correct that Jesus was by no means the first to read the Hebrew Scriptures this way, for the Essene Teacher of Righteousness had also done this (see the Qumran Thanksgiving Hymns). I can only endorse his conclusion that Jesus was driven by Scripture, and most of the texts he is said to have quoted or used of himself are not later impositions of Christians who wanted to see in Jesus one who fulfills all the prophecies and promises of God. (p. 159). And Tabor is likely right that we should read in Mk. 1.14 an indication that upon John’s arrest, Jesus shifted directions somewhat when it came to his ministry, now going on preaching tours throughout Galilee, with a base in Capernaum (p. 160). Tabor is also right that Jesus had both female and male disciples that had been recruited to engage in fishing for followers, what with God’s saving activity now breaking into their midst.
How do the Twelve fit into all of this? Tabor believes Jesus picked them as a sort of governmental officials to sit on thrones and rule the twelve tribes in Israel, sort of like regional governors, while Jesus would be the king. Tabor cites Lk. 22.30. Now this is a saying of Jesus connected with the Last Supper and clearly referring to a time after Jesus’ death when the eschaton would come. In other words, it is not a program Jesus sought to inaugurate during his ministry, but rather how he viewed the final eschatological sequel to his ministry.
At this point Tabor further argues for Jesus setting up a family dynasty. But consider for example Lk. 6.14-16 which Tabor cites (p. 164). Tabor says that the phrase ‘James of Alphaeus’ means James son of Alphaeus, and this is likely correct. Jewish men were normally identified by such patronymics (cf. Simon bar Jonah, Simon son of John). But Tabor then wants to turn around and read the adjacent phrase ‘Judas of James’ as meaning Jude brother of James. This will not do. The Greek construction is the same in both cases, and the original audience hearing this will assume that the genitive modifier has the same sense in both cases. Notice that immediately prior when Luke want to say someone was a brother of another disciple he inserts the word adelphos, for instance in vs. 14 when we hear of ‘Andrew the brother of Peter’. There is a good reason translations render the phrase ‘Judas of James’ as referring to a son and a father. This is the natural an appropriate way to render the phrase if there is no further qualification, as in the case of Peter and Andrew. This in turn means that this Judas cannot be the one who was Jesus’ brother. But then neither were Simon the Zealot or Jacob listed as one of the Twelve Jesus’ brothers. This logic cannot stand close scrutiny, and with its demise so also goes most of Tabor’s theory about a Jesus dynasty.
But where is Jesus’ brother Joseph amongst the Twelve? In a desperate move Tabor (p. 164) suggests that Matthew/Levi son of Alphaeus is actually Joseph, even though no Gospel text or later source even remotely suggests this. But then no source suggests Mary was married to Clopas who is really Alphaeus either. The facts simply won’t fit this theory no matter how hard Tabor strains to make it fit. There is a reason why the NT is silent about Jesus’ brothers not being amongst the Twelve (something Tabor calls the best kept secret in the NT)--- its because they weren’t! Tabor suggests (p. 165) that only Jn. 7.5 argues against his theory, but of course we have seen that Mk. 3.21-35 is clear on this score as well, and cannot be dismissed. It is ironic that in the process of dismissing such evidence he then adds “It is amazing what firm opinions have been built upon such shaky foundations.” (p. 165). Unfortunately, this remark can more naturally be applied to his own argument.
But we are not done with surprises yet. The ghost of Schweitzer is conjured up once more on pp. 166-67 where we are told that the phrase Son of Man, at least in the future oriented sayings about him does not refer to Jesus, indeed it does not refer to a particular individual, rather it stands collectively for the faithful people of God who would receive the rule from their messiah. Tabor thinks this is what Daniel 7 suggests. He says that the coming of the Son of Man refers to an event, not to a particular individual popping out of the clouds and Jesus thought his mission would lead right up to such final events. There are too many problems with this scenario to deal with here, but I must list the most egregious mistakes involved: 1) first of all it is perfectly clear that Jesus used the phrase bar enasha to refer to himself throughout his ministry, referring to himself in the third person as was not uncommon in a collectivist culture like that in Israel. This is one of the most well assured of NT scholarship in general. Clearly in the case of Jesus’ own usage it refers to an individual, though scholars sometimes debate whether Jesus used it of himself and also of another individual in the future Son of Man sayings; 2) in Dan. 7 there can be no question that an individual is involved. He is called ‘one like a son of man’ not a group like a son of man. Secondly he is seen as the human and humanizing figure that eclipses the previous beastly emperors and their empires referred to earlier in Dan. 7; 3) Jesus discussion of the Son of Man coming on the clouds (Mk. 14.62) refers to a theophany event involving an individual. In Mk. 14.62 it is an individual who will come and judge Jesus’ judges. It is this pronouncement which leads the high priest to say Jesus commits blasphemy. They understood perfectly well he was referring to himself! This is what prompted the handing of Jesus over to Pilate for execution. Jesus was claiming to be a ruler, indeed a judge over Israel as Dan. 7 predicted. More could be said but this must suffice.
Tabor argues that the death of John the Baptist was clearly a major blow to Jesus, and when his disciples came back from their missionary tour (sent out two by two), they withdrew beyond Herod Antipas’ borders first to Bethsaida (Lk. 9.10) the hometown of Peter, Andrew and Philip, and then on further north to Caesarea Philippi in Herod Philip’s territory. This in fact may be correct. It is hard to gage the impact of John’s death on Jesus, but this scenario is plausible and it helps us to connect some of the dots of our various disparate texts (see pp. 176-78).
Tabor suspects that Jesus chose this location because few if any would think to look for him in a place noted for being a pagan shrine (the ancient Greek city of Panias being there, complete with shrines to the Emperor and the god Pan amongst others). He envisions Jesus going there in A.D. 29 and wintering there until he could hatch his full plan of bringing in the Kingdom at the Passover in the spring of A.D. 30. Just when he makes some plausible historical arguments he then conjectures (p. 178) that Jesus meditated on Zech. 13.7 and assumed that the shepherd referred to who is struck down is John. This of course is at variance with the way Jesus himself uses the same text in Mk. 14.27 and parallels, a text which a wide variety of scholars think goes back to Jesus himself. Tabor then immediately cites Mk. 9.13 where Jesus clearly identifies John with Elijah not the shepherd figure of Zechariah. Tabor assumes that the phrase ‘as it is written of him’ in Mk. 9.13 must refer to Zech. 13.7! But it need mean no more than as with so many of God’s prophets in the OT, John met with an untimely end. Elijah it will be remembered, while not executed, was taken away from Elisha and others in an unexpected and untimely fashion, to judge from Elisha’s reaction. So was John the Baptizer. Shockingly, he also envisions Jesus applying Is. 53 to John, not to himself (p. 182).
To his credit, throughout this study Tabor tries to imagine how Jesus would have read the Scriptures and envisioned his own ministry and its goal. It is odd however that in the process of doing this, he refers to texts Jesus does not allude to (the ‘near death’ rescue texts like Ps. 16.10 or Ps. 22.21), and he rejects the Passion predictions we find in Mk. 8-10, including Mk. 10.45 suggesting “If Jesus did come to anticipate his suffering at the hands of his enemies, I am convinced that he expected that he would be saved from death.” (p. 181). But of course, this is not what any of our Gospel evidence suggests. It suggests that Jesus foresaw his own untimely demise, and indeed warned his disciples they would have to take up their own crosses to follow him. You don’t talk about crosses unless you are thinking of death. Jesus did not have to be a genius or a prophet to foresee his end would be violent. He need only look at the example of his friend and relative John the Baptizer.