Thursday, April 13, 2006

Did Jesus found a Dynasty--- James Tabor's new book

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--

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.


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.
I must say at the outset that it is a pleasure to read such a well-written book, and one which takes so seriously the interface between the NT, history, archaeology and the story of earliest Christianity. Absent from this study are wild theories about Gnostic Gospels being our earliest and best sources about the life of Jesus, thank goodness. Equally refreshing is Tabor’s willingness to take serious the historical data not just in the Synoptics but also in the Gospel of John. Furthermore, Tabor is convinced the James ossuary is indeed the ossuary of the brother of Jesus and has a genuine inscription on it, and that Hershel Shanks and I will be ultimately vindicated on this score. He is equally clear that both the canonical Gospels and the James ossuary provide evidence for the fact that Mary and Joseph had other children besides Jesus. So far, so good.
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.
The most one can say is that these women occur in the genealogy because they were involved in ‘irregular’ unions and yet God was still able to work things together for good. This prepares us for the irregular circumstance in the life of Mary. Both Matthew and Luke are perfectly clear that Mary was not involved in an illicit sexual relationship with anyone. The virtue of Mary and the virginal conception is clearly maintained, despite its controversial nature, by both the First and Third Evangelists. I would stress that no one would invent a story like this if they were starting an evangelistic sect. It is too improbable not to be true, not least because, as Tabor says Is. 7.14 does not specifically refer to a virginal conception and was not read that way in early Judaism. The incident in the life of Mary caused the re-reading of Is. 7.14, not the other way around. At least Tabor does point out that these stories in Matthew and Luke are not fully parallel with the stories of Zeus’ seduction and divine rape of Alkmene. What he does not mention is that the suggestion that Matthew in the genealogy is alluding to scandalous human origins for Jesus makes no sense in light of the fact that it is also Matthew who stresses the virginal conception. Whoever is the producer of the final form of this Gospel is certainly a better editor than to allude to scandal and then immediately rule it out with a divine explanation. There has to be a better explanation for the reference to those women in Joseph’s genealogy.
More plausible however is Tabor’s discussion of the significance of the name of the city of Nazareth, from netzer’ or ‘branch’. Tabor points out that this town is called ‘branch’ town because it was a place where descendants of the royal line of David settled. On this point I think he is quite right, and it would explain why Jesus’ family would settle there. He also makes the interesting remark that since Sepphoris was set ablaze at about the time Jesus was born as the Romans put down a Jewish revolt, and since there is a tradition that Mary ultimately came from Sepphoris, which is the larger town next door to Nazareth, there might well be impetus not to go back to Nazareth right after Jesus was born. Threats from Herod coupled with threats near Nazareth could have changed the intended itinerary of the holy family after the birth of Jesus. This strengthens the case for their having left the land of Herod altogether for a time, going down into Egypt where 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 na├»ve 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.
The assertion then of Tabor that “the assumption of the historian is that all human beings have a biological mother and father, and that Jesus is no exception” (p. 59) suggests that this is some sort of monolithic credo of all modern or critical historians. This is simply false. I might add as well that the assumption “miracles cannot happen and therefore do not happen” is equally a faith assumption. It is not based on empirical evidence or a careful study of history. There are thousands of credible testimonies to the contrary even in our own era. Though we like to pride ourselves on our open-mindedness in modernity, in fact ancient historians were far more open-minded when it came to the miraculous than modern ones.
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’.
The problem with this evidence is two fold: 1) the earliest Jewish text which includes this idea is Palestinian Tosephta t. Hullin 2.22-24. This is certainly not a first century text at all, and indeed it was written at a time when the polemics between early Christianity and early Judaism were in high gear. The same can be said about the text from Celsus, only in that case the debating partner is a pagan. As even John Dominic Crossan recently said on the CBS 48 Hours ‘Mystery of Christmas’ show we both appeared in December of 2005, these stories about Pantera are the later rebuttals to the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin. They are not the origins of the Gospel stories which are clearly earlier than such texts.
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.
Tabor’s enthusiasm for the possible connection of a Roman soldier named Pantera/Panthera with Jesus propels him to go on a trip to Bad Kreuznach in Germany where there is indeed a gravestone with this name on it. To be specific we have the name Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, a soldier who died on the German front and was buried there. We are told on this gravestone that this man was from Sidon, and Tabor, with a great deal of creative imagination links this fact with the story in Mk. 7.24 where Jesus enters a house in Sidon and would have no one know it. Could this have been the home of Jesus’ actual father? Let us consider the evidence Tabor himself presents us with.
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.
Adolph Deissmann who first spoke of this inscription says that Pantera died in the middle of the first century. If this is correct, then several things follow: 1) Pantera was not a Roman soldier in 2-6 B.C. the period in which Jesus was born, as Tabor acknowledges; 2) If indeed this Cohort of archers went to Dalmatia in A.D. 6 and then on to the Rhine in A.D. 9, as Tabor avers (p. 69), then our man Pantera was not even yet with them it would appear, or if he was, he had only just become a solider in the first decade of the current era, not in the period 2-6 B.C. In other words, the calculations are off by a least a decade if not more. Thus, Tabor is wise in the end to back off and more weakly suggest that Jesus’ father was ‘possibly’ Pantera (p. 72).
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.
In his next chapter about ‘Children of a Different Father’ Tabor presents us with some good historical reasons why it is unlikely that Mary was a perpetual virgin. He rightly notes that this idea does not even arise before the time of Epiphanius who mentions it first in A.D. 374, as part of the debate over whether Jesus actually had siblings or not. Tabor is right to point to Eusebius who refers to Jesus’ ‘brothers after the flesh’ (Hist. Eccl. 2.23; 3.19), and it does appear that before the 4th century, the dominant opinion was that Jesus’ had half-brothers and sisters through Mary and Joseph. Tabor is right on target when he says that the rise of asceticism in the church 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.
First Tabor wants to argue that the ‘other Mary’ who is mother of James and Joses (see Mk. 15.40; Mt. 27.56) is in fact Jesus’ mother. Even just taking the Markan account this is exceedingly unlikely. Mary the mother of Jesus has already been presented in Mk. 3 and 6 while Mary Magdalene is nowhere to be found until we get to Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. It is simply not plausible to suggest that Mary Magdalene, someone not introduced until Mk. 15.40-41 would be presented as the primary Mary, and Jesus’ mother as ‘the other Mary’ at this juncture. This does not make sense of the narrative logic of the account. The first Mary introduced in Mark is Jesus’ mother. Mary Magdalene is almost an after thought in this Gospel. But secondly Tabor also misreads Jn. 19.25 which surely refers to four women, not three--- Jesus’ mother, her sister, Mary of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Though early Jews had a limited lexicon for naming children, it is not really plausible that Mary’s parents named two girls in a row Mary, or more correctly Maryam/Maria.
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.
But in fact we do not even know that Mary of Clopas is either our Mary’s sister or her sister in law. The conjecture that Mary of Clopas is the Virgin Mary’s sister is based on turning four women into three in Jn. 19.25. The suggestion that she is a sister in law of our Mary is even less evident. Once more, though, Tabor backs off (p. 81) and allows that the brothers and sisters of Jesus may be Mary and Joseph’s children, while still conjuring with the notion that Joseph’s brother Clopas sired them. Then finally we have a clear statement of Tabor’s thesis, the engine that will drive the train of the rest of this book: “Jesus by age thirty functions as head of the household and forges a vital role for his brothers, who succeed him in establishing a Messianic Dynasty destined to change the world.” (p. 81). But is this really indicated by our earliest and best historical evidence? We must travel further with Tabor to see the twists and turns he takes along the way to make his case.
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 first place he stresses that Mary and Joseph were exceedingly poor, since they could only offer two doves as a sacrifice for having Jesus (cf. Lk. 2.24: Lev. 12.8). This is overlooking the important point that since Joseph is an artisan used to bartering, he could hardly cart his wares all the way to Jerusalem to make an exchange for a lamb for sacrifice. Thus he must rely of what liquid assets he has to hand. We need to bear in mind that a money economy was only just on the rise, and Jews for their part, didn’t much like handling or dealing with money, particularly Roman coins. We must envision then that Joseph has very little monetary assets on the occasion of this sacrifice. This need not imply their ‘dire poverty’ (p. 87). Most of us know what it means to run short from time to time, and artisans, even those who did well, had this experience with some regularity though this hardly meant they could not afford a home and to support a family.
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 also seems to be ignorant of the fact that the Lukan birth story, which he sees as more true to life, refers to there being no place in the katalumati (Lk. 2.7), and that elsewhere Luke uses this specific word to refer to the guest room (Lk. 22.11), not the inn. Joseph and Mary had arrived at the ancestral home late. The guest room was full. Instead they are placed, not in a barn, but as the archaeology of both Judea and Galilee has shown, in the back of the house where one would keep one’s beast of burden. It is possible that the back of the house was a cave, but this need not be the case. He is right however that Mary and Joseph would have attempted to stay in Bethlehem for at least 40 days so they could fulfill the Jewish ritual about the sacrifice for the new born. The threat of Herod may have cut this time a bit short.
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 justified in seeing Joseph and Jesus as ‘itinerant peasants’ (p. 90). This frankly is a myth. A peasant is bound to the land as a day laborer. He is not a skilled practicioner of a needed trade. Furthermore, as Tabor knows, Sepphoris was a boom town during the time of Jesus’ formative and young adult years, where there was work every single day for carpenters and stone masons. We need to stop perpetuating the myth of the bucolic, impoverished, Jesus the illiterate peasant. This is not what our Gospel evidence and the larger historical evidence suggests! If we have to see them as blue collar workers, so be it, but they were able to have homes, families, and provide for those families in a good fashion, especially since Nazareth was always near to paying work for artisans.
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
Tabor begins to cultivate an image of Jesus and his family as not only being Davidic, but even in some sense revolutionary about a third of the way through the book. Thus at p. 104 we first hear of the conjecture that Mary’s children are named after the local Galilean Zealots Judas the Galilean and his two sons James and Simon. The suggestion is made that Jesus’ family was sympathetic to violent opposition to Roman rule (Judas the Galilean had broken into the armory in Sepphoris to get weapons, and he certainly used them in various places in Galilee). It is however far more likely that Mary and Joseph named their children for the Patriarchs (Jacob and Joseph) and the Maccabean heroes (Simon and Judas). They could hardly have named them for Judas the Galilean and his sons if their children were born before Judas’ revolt in A.D. 6. Furthermore, the suggestion that Jesus’ family supported the revolt is entirely an argument from silence, unless you accept Tabor’s equally improbable conjecture that four of Jesus’ brothers were amongst the Twelve disciples, including Simon the Zealot! (see p. 120 and see the discussion below). What is odd is that Tabor introduces this idea without arguing for it at the juncture at which he first makes mention of it, but then supports it later. This is bound to confuse the average reader.
Here we can say that this notion of Jesus’ brother being among the Twelve makes little sense in light of what is said about Jesus’ brothers always being with Mary during and after the ministry (Mk. 3.21-35; Mk. 6.3; probably suggests the brothers are present in Nazareth cf. Jn. 2.12 where they are grouped with Mary and distinguished from Jesus’ disciples and see Acts 1.14). Of course Jn. 7.5 is quite explicit. Not only are the brothers separate from Jesus and the disciples and going to the festival on their own, but they are also said quite explicitly not to believe in Jesus at this juncture. They appear here to be more like the patriarch Joseph’s brothers, than like Jesus’ disciples.
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 envisions a Jesus who draws up his ideas about God’s Kingdom in response to and in reaction against the kingdom building he saw in Sepphoris and in Jerusalem by the Herodians attempting to be like Hellenistic, though somewhat Jewish, monarchs. Jesus is a Torah true Jew committed to upholding the Mosaic Law, upset with the collaboration of Jews with Rome, but remarkably open to some individual outsiders (Samaritans, Gentile centurions). Jesus however did not accept the oral traditions of the Pharisees and some other groups (p. 116).
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.
Finally on p. 121 we get a help summary of where this argument with all its speculative features is going. As it turns out, Tabor will take the Schweitzerian point of view about Jesus (see the dedication on p. vii) with all its liabilities but also possibilities. Here is his summary: “Jesus is best identified with what might be described as the Messianic Movement of 1rst century Palestine. It was intensely apocalyptic, and though sharing certain ideas with the Essenes, it had a much broader appeal to rank-and-file Jews of all persuasions, united in their hope for God’s deliverance…who expected a radical change based on the messianic predictions of the Hebrew Prophets…God would intervene to fulfill those messianic predictions.” (p. 121).
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 repentance and baptism in preparation for what was to follow. John takes a more extroverted, the Essenes a more introverted approach to the interpretation of those prophetic texts. Tabor believes John began his mission in the spring or summer of A.D. 26 (p. 125). He also believes John saw himself in the mold of Elijah, calling even the authorities and rulers to account as Elijah had done. He believes that John deliberate picked the location of Aenon near Salim just south of the sea of Galilee as this was very near Tishbe, the home of Elijah. As Tabor says, it was also near the major thoroughfare used by Galilean Jews to go up to the festivals in Jerusalem, especially those who wanted avoid going through Samaria.
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.
As Tabor admits however, the drawing on the cave wall, which may or may not be John the Baptizer (see the BAR review of this find in the May/June 2005 issue pp. 36-41, and 58) probably dates to the 5th century A.D. (p. 132). And certainly we have no hard evidence John the Baptist himself ever was in it or used this site (was it a practice site in preparation for his going to the Jordan and baptizing people?). Tabor admits there is no hard evidence but his enthusiasm for what he has helped to uncover leads him to this conclusion “I am convinced that the Suba cave is our earliest archaeological evidence related to John the Baptizer—and very possibly to Jesus himself” (p. 133). But what is the basis of this enthusiastic conclusion? Tabor frankly makes the same mistake many of us do. His enthusiasm for something he has discovered or learned propels him to overreach, to draw conclusions that outstrip the historical evidence. As the British would say, ‘he over eggs the pudding’. Unfortunately Tabor does it with such regularity that he piles one overly-enthusiastic conclusion or idea on another, building uncertainty upon uncertainty until we have an edifice with very shaky foundations at crucial points.
And here we must register a major complaint about this study. This is not a complaint about the detailed attention to archaeological or Jewish historical detail. Tabor’s study, like the work of Bart Ehrman, is long on the author’s forte (in this case archaeology, in Ehrman’s case text criticism) but very, very short on real exegesis of relevant NT texts. Neither of these scholars has produced any commentaries on any books of the NT, and consequently they do not show any signs of having had to wrestle at length with Gospel texts in their larger literary contexts. Rather bits and pieces of verses are abstracted from their contexts in the Gospels and elsewhere to create a new creative whole, used to bolster theories arrived at on grounds other than detailed exegesis of the primary source texts.
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.
A good example of what I mean when I say this study is long on archaeological and historical context but weak on exegesis is the way Tabor treats a saying like Lk. 7.28 (see p. 136). Now this saying is a particular type of wisdom saying, a contrast saying, and it is a singular mistake to not deal with both halves of the contrast. The saying reads “I tell you among those born of women, none is greater than John, but the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” Tabor unfortunately wants to only deal with the first half of this saying, which leads him to the conclusion that Jesus saw John as greater than himself (“it is clear in the Q source that Jesus is declaring John to be greater than he”). He considers the following phrase as a later Christian addition to the text. But this will not do. Not only is there not a shred of textual evidence that this second clause is added later, it destroys the very form of a typical puzzling wisdom saying for which Jesus was so famous. There can be no doubt that Jesus had a very high estimation of John and his ministry. Tabor is right that this fact must not be obscured or neglected. It is equally clear that he did not see him as a messiah or as greater than himself. There is simply too much evidence in our earliest Gospel sources to the contrary (see my lengthy discussion of their relationship in The Christology of Jesus 1990, pp. 34-56).


Terry Hamblin said...


Thank you for that. We are blessed indeed to have someone like you to confront these books. Now we don't have to read them. I particularly liked the reference to the over-egged pudding. Is this similar to the gilded lily?

Camassia said...

To raise a much less important subject, why do scholars such as yourself use "John the Baptizer" instead of the conventional "John the Baptist"? Is there something incorrect about "baptist"?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Camassia:

Indeed it is incorrect--- Baptist is a denomination, baptizer is an activity.

And to Terry yes, its like golding the lilly,


Tenax said...


I don't think you need my encouragement, but I'm offering it anyway: please continue. I'm reading your Quest book now and am impressed with it just as I am impressed with this article. In Quest, you put the nail in the Jesus Seminar coffin quite concisely. Frankly, better than Brown at the end of his NT intro.

What you say about miracles here has me still thinking.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Traditionalist:

Boy have you been listening to a lot of propaganda! The IAA repot was debunked a long time ago by the leading epigraphers in the world.

Whoever wrote the Wikipedia article is hopelessly out of touch. See the newest issue of BAR where Andre Lemaire points out that even members of the IAA like Ada Yardeni have come out and repudiated the IAA report.

In other words on paleographical grounds, epigraphical grounds, historical grounds--- every single bit of the evidence we have points to the authenticity of the James box.

Two important points to add-- the studies done at the Toronto museum when the box was there validated all the claims-- if the inscription was either modern or had had patina added in modernity it would have shown up under the ultra violet light test--- it did not.

Furthermore, there are microscopic cracks that go through the letters in both halves of the inscription which are very ancient indeed. If the inscription had even been partially modern, the cracks would stop at the top of a letter and then continue below the letter--- but these cracks go through the letters. Geologists are perfectly clear about how long it took for these cracks to form.

And now in the latest issue of BAR we have a clear explanation as to why this ossuary is more weathered on one side than the other--- one side was more exposed than the other.

One of the lessons we should learn from this whole debacle is this-- Do not believe any internet reports you read from: 1) anonymous sources who will not footnote the author and source of their evidence; 2) people talking on subjects that are not related at all to their own field of expertise. The same applies to the Shroud of Turin which needs a new carbon dating, since they dated a scorched piece of patch that was added to the cloth in the Middle Ages-- not the original cloth with image on it.

Happy Easter, and the James box is likely to rise again,


Ben Witherington said...

Well of course Oded Golan is on trial for selling antiquities as well as for alleged forgery. So the trial must run its course, and afterwards we hope to do the DNA testing on the bone fragments. If there is match with the DNA from the blood on the Shroud--- then we will really be talking a big story.



Ben Witherington said...

Wow Ranisbrough "we've never seen x, y, z, miracles."

Well, I am calling your bluff. Many of us have seen real miracles-- miracles of healing, miracles of paranormal phenomena, and yes I've run into someone who was genuinely raised from the dead in Siler City North Carolina-- flat e.k.g., dead for a good while, the whole shmeer.

I quite agree that all such claims should be carefully scrutinized and you are of course right that there are plenty of gullible people out there. This doesn't mean miracles do not happen. And here's the problem for your point of view. Jesus warned us that believing is what leads to seeing and understanding miracles, not necessarily the other way around.

I should tell you someday about the phone call my perfectly sane neighbor received from her dead best friend, in the presence of witnesses (woman had been confirmed dead a couple of hours before the phone call in Asheboro hospital). It freaked her smooth and I had to pick up the pieces.

Happy Easter--- and raise your expectations!


Ben Witherington said...

Ah no Mr. Rainsborough,

I'll not have it, and neither should you. The woman in question had her son present in the very room she had the conversation with Mrs. Albright the woman who had been dead for some time. Her son not only was there when the phone rang, his mother told him whom she was speaking to.

It is quite impossible for friends of 40 or more years to be mistaken for someone else in a 30 minute phone conversation! And her son was 25 years of age, shy and of absolutely sound mind. I am afraid you need to be skeptical of your own skeptism-- and if you will be, you shall be a much happier man by far.

Of course you are right that the man in Siler City did not have a resurrection body. He was like Lazarus, coming back to this body. And frankly when there is no pulse, no heartbeat, no breathing, no e.k.g, no brain waves of any kind for a long period of time--- the man is dead! Sorry-- you can't blame it on faulty equipment.

And what exactly would you make of what I saw in a faith healing service where I watched wretchedly deformed persons miraculously healed at Tremont Temple Church in downtown Boston in the late 70s? To see legs lengthened, goiters drop off, enormous deformities healed on the spot--- even the most skeptical would have to be Scrooge indeed to deny it happened. They would have to be willfully closing their eyes!

So you must really rethink your posture in this matter--- you do not KNOW that we live in a closed materialistic system at all. You just believe we do--- in other words this is faith postulate based on what you take to be sufficient evidence.

In other words, your posture is no different from mine. Its just my evidence differs from yours.

Think on these things.



Tenax said...

Boy am I sorry I came in late to this thread. Professor probably won't even see this.

I am astounded by Ben's examples. Astounded. What I want to know of course is what did the dead woman on the phone say!?

I have never seen gross physical abnormalities healed. I don't think I've ever seen a physical miracle (though as a kid I saw what I believe to be charlatans come to my church--slight leg lengthening for the healthy, meager sight improvement, 'isn't your vision getting clearer?') I'm almost as skeptical, frankly, as rainsborough, but the Jesus of the gospels overwhelmed my skeptic heart nonetheless.

One thing I do believe: the CENTRAL issue in Jesus-life and gospel/NT studies is allowance for or against the miraculous.

Ben, I wish I'd see some of the things you have, though you're right, my gosh, if God doesn't open the mind it doesn't matter what we see. And yes, we make conclusions on the evidence we have not matter whether it is complete, mixed together with our prejudices, emotion, psychic wounds, all of it, echoes of Bacon's Four Idols.

In Christ

Chris said...


I am in the middle of reading Tabor's book. I have met him a couple of times as he has spoken to my sunday school class here in Charlotte 2 times in the last 5 years. I actually like Dr. Tabor and believe he offers an excellent archeological overview of Palestine. He gives someone a good base of context with respect to historical geography (Sepphoris) etc...and sheds light on ther relevence of recent discoveries. However, I find his book troubling as it seems to de-bunk the divine nature of Jesus and his miracles. My only way to accept this is purely from a historical sense. I would bet that he would defend his work with the declaration that as a historian he looks for facts not conjecture about the divine. That would be opposed to the theologian perspective. In my view both have value and should part of the same discussion. Dr. Tabor's voice should be heard and studied but put into proper perspective.

Dorcas (aka SingingOwl) said...

Fascinating--both the original post and all the comments!

I'm in a rush, but just had to stop a moment to add that I, too, personally knew a woman who died and came back. She had been in a coma for several days, and then when she died she was deceased for approximately 45 minutes. Her father came into her hospital room, and someone missed catching him to let him know his daughter had expired. He entered the room to see her sheet-covered form. And he prayed...not a well-formed eloquent prayer, as you can imagine.

When she returned to her body, she was famished and immediately asked for food. She didn't get it for a while, as you can imagine! She was discharged from the hospital late the next day.

This woman was a educator, an intelligent, well-spoken but quiet, humble woman of great credibility.

Just recently in the church I pastor, we have seen several miracles. One was verified by a medical doctor.

Anyway, thanks for your excellent blog, Ben W.

Ashish Gorde said...

I came across your blog quite by accident, and I am glad I did. You have presented your arguements clearly, concisely and persuasively. Finally, one can have reasonable answers when confronted by non-believers. Thanks again, and keep up the good work.

Rick said...

re: Did Jesus found a dynasty

> But secondly Tabor also misreads Jn. 19.25 which surely refers to four women, not three--- Jesus’ mother, her sister, Mary of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Though early Jews had a limited lexicon for naming children, it is not really plausible that Mary’s parents named two girls in a row Mary, or more correctly Maryam/Maria.

I am of the belief that Clopas/Cleopas/Alphaeus were one and the same, and the brother of Josef and that his wife was named Mary. Thus the "sisters" named Mary are actually sisters-in-law.

Rick said...

re: Did Jesus found a dynasty

> But secondly Tabor also misreads Jn. 19.25 which surely refers to four women, not three--- Jesus’ mother, her sister, Mary of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Though early Jews had a limited lexicon for naming children, it is not really plausible that Mary’s parents named two girls in a row Mary, or more correctly Maryam/Maria.

I am of the belief that Clopas/Cleopas/Alphaeus were one and the same, and the brother of Josef and that his wife was named Mary. Thus the "sisters" named Mary are actually sisters-in-law.

Rick said...

Sorry for the dual post, but that interestingly enough segues into a comment I have for what Dr. Tabor said:

> I understand Paul as diverging sharply from these founders, John, Jesus, and James, and presenting for the world a dualistic otherworldly vision of Christ and salvation that ultimately becomes “Christianity.”

Some scholars, most notably Lawrence Schiffman, believe that Qumran could have been called "Damascus". Given that some of the Qumrannic literature is of a dualistic nature, and that Paul spent some time there (several days: Acts 9.19? I think more likely three years: Gal. 1.16-18) immediately after his conversion, could it be that Paul was exposed to some dualistic theology while there? If he didn't pick up true dualistic theology himself, then perhaps he just picked up some useful "dualistic" phraseology (Rom. 13.12, Eph. 5.8, 1 Thess. 5.5).

CrossWise said...

My first time reading you Ben... very informative! Thanks.

Dominic Crossan's name seems to always be present wherever dubious speculations are being aired, as though HE were an un-biased "expert".
But James Tabor is new to me, and your detailing the Pantera hypothesis was very useful.

What of the other so-called "Biblical experts" presented?


Anonymous said...

Critics will argue the unreliability of the gospels records, then they are free to pick and choose which scripture suits their theories and which ones they want to leave out. I see the same pattern all the time. Tabor is no different. If you're going to argue the unreliability of the gospels, then any scripture you choose to support your theory may be unreliable. Secondly, I notice Tabor uses the word "Pandera" (found in the Talmud) and "Pantera" interchangeably, while others actually argue that the words are different, and the Hebrew "d" does not correlate with the Greek "t" or "th" as in Pantera or Panthera. Of course, this little tidbit he fails to mention to his audience. But of course, it stands to reason that he must misrepresent the word Pandera, because of his pet Roman soldier's grave in Germany, which is labeled Pantera.