Sunday, April 16, 2006

Did Jesus Found a Dynasty--- Part 4

This is the final installment of a four part critique of James Tabor's new book.

For whatever reasons, scholars often seem to enjoy setting up contrasts between Jesus and his followers, particularly Paul. Tabor is one who fits this mold. Tabor states boldly: “There are two completely separate and distinct ‘Christianities’ embedded in the New Testament.One is quite familiar and became the version of the Christian faith known to billions over the past two millennia. Its main proponent was the apostle Paul. The other has been largely forgotten and by the turn of the 1rst century A.D. had been effectively marginalized and suppressed by the other.” (p. 261). This latter was of course the Christianity of James. One wonders however why Tabor does not draw attention to the documents called Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation which also all reflect early Jewish apocalyptic thinking. Apparently, it is not true that there was a move to marginalize this form of thinking when the canon was beginning to be drawn up.
Besides the fact that Tabor dramatically overplays the contrast between James and Paul as individual thinkers and apostles, he also portrays a picture of early Christianity as involving dueling banjos which is also false as we have shown in this study. The fact that this conclusion of Tabor’s is familiar and not unique does not make it true. On the one hand Tabor allows that Paul was accepted into the inner circle of Jesus’ followers by the pillar apostles (p. 262). But somehow he thinks that what Paul preached radically distinguished him from the other apostles. Following Schweitzer he speaks of Paul’s Christ mysticism and thinks that Paul promulgated an other-worldly Gospel about a pre-existent Christ who came to earth, died and rose, and returned to heaven in glory. But this is to stop the tale before the end of the story for as Tabor admits, Paul believes Jesus is coming back, perhaps in his own lifetime. Further, Paul believes the kingdoms of this world are going to get a divine make-over when Jesus returns. In other words, the end of the story is not up there or out there somewhere, it is down here. Which brings us to another important point.
Tabor thinks when Paul refers to a pneumatikon sōma in 1 Cor. 15 he means an immaterial or spiritual body. This is not an accurate reading of this grammatical construction which means a body empowered by and suffused by the Spirit, not a body made up of ‘spirit’ whatever that might be. Paul’s view of the resurrection body is not ‘spiritual’ for Paul is at the end of the day no dualist. This brings us to a second misreading of Paul, in particular 2 Cor. 5.16. This text is not at all about the renouncing of the historical Jesus or his teaching, which Paul does from time to time quote or allude to (e.g. in 1 Cor. 7 or Romans 12-15). Paul is talking about knowing Christ ‘according to the flesh’ which is to say knowing him in a purely human way. He is not referring to some sort of dualistic idea that the historical Jesus is unimportant and the heavenly Christ is all important. Rudolph Bultmann has been shown to be wrong about this many times over in commentaries on 2 Corinthians and works on Pauline theology in the last fifty years.
On p. 260 of his study Tabor suggests that Rom. 13 shows Paul was an accomodationist when it came to Rome, but Jesus, the revolutionary was not. Of course this depends on what you think of the “Render unto Caesar…” saying, but at the very least as Tabor admits, Jesus was not a violent revolutionary. On Tabor’s showing Jesus assumed God would intervene directly and sort things out. In the meantime it was o.k. to render something to Caesar (respect, his own coins?). But for some reason Tabor wants to push the contrast further. Paul, he says did not believe in an earthly kingdom. For him it was a spiritual and heavenly one. This actually does an injust to Paul’s eschatology which among other things says quite clearly in 1 Cor. 15 that Jesus is coming back to earth, that the dead in Christ will be raised, and that Jesus will be busy after his return putting his enemies under his feet, after which death will be overcome and the reign handed back over to God. This hardly sounds like a list of activities that transpire in heaven.
Tabor also suggests that Paul had a radically different view of the Law than Jesus, and of the people of God. This is at best a half truth as we have seen in this study. James did think Jews Christians were obligated to be Torah true, while Paul thought it was optional as a text like 1 Cor. 9 shows. But James and Paul stood together in the view that: 1) true Jews were the righteous remnant, and these were the Jewish followers of Jesus (cf. the letter of James to Romans 9-11); 2) the Good News is for the Jew first and also for the Gentile, the latter of whom are grafted into the Jewish root, so that the people of God are now Jew and Gentile united in Christ. This is not just Paul’s view. It was also the view of James, and of Peter for that matter.
Since Tabor brings up the matter of the new covenant on pp. 266-67 one more thing should be said. The prophecy in Jer. 31.31-33 very clearly (see vs. 32) contrasts the Mosaic covenant with the new one. The new covenant will not be like that earlier one, and so will not be simply a renewal of the Mosaic covenant (see vs. 32). Eschatolog-ically minded Jews, including some at Qumran knew this text well, and it is true to say that both Jesus and Paul recognized that the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus was not simply a renewal of the Mosaic one.
The distinctive teachings of Jesus in the Sermon of the Mount, which Paul draws on in various places, make clear that sometimes Jesus endorses previous Mosaic teaching, sometimes he intensifies it, and sometimes he replaces it with his own new teaching. This is not just a matter of having a new hermeneutic applied to an old covenant. If one reads Mk. 7 and Mt. 5-7 closely this becomes apparent. Jesus was in various ways a radical Jew, and so was Paul. Both place the emphasis on the new eschatological kingdom thing God was doing. Both taught a ‘lex nova’ the Law of Christ. Paul had a good teacher when it comes to his more radical approach to Torah, Temple, Territory, and People. It was Jesus who got himself executed for such teaching after being repeatedly accused of blasphemy during his ministry.
Tabor in fact goes so far as to say that Paul and his vision of Christian faith has shaped almost the entire canon eclipsing other and earlier Christianities (he points not only to Paul’s letter but to Luke-Acts, Mark, Matthew indirectly, and John, and the letters of Peter (pp. 272-73). He is of course right that the letter of James had a hard time getting into the canon. It was long disputed and is left off the Muratorian canon list, which is our earliest such list from mainstream Christianity. He is equally correct about James’ indebtedness to the teachings of Jesus. Unfortunately he does not give either James. 1.1 or James 2.1 their due (see p. 277). Just like Paul, James believed in ‘our glorious Lord Jesus Christ’ and saw himself primarily as Jesus’ servant, not his brother. Were there actually a human dynasty concept in operation, we would have expected to find it in the letter of James. But instead any blood connections with Jesus go unmentioned and in their place we hear that Jesus is James’ Lord. We also hear that James believes Jesus is coming back to judge the world (5.7). It is an injustice to James and Jude to suggest that when they call Jesus Lord, they simply mean respected sir or master teacher. No, the term means what it means elsewhere in the NT in post-Easter texts. It means Jesus is the risen Lord, as the Christ hymn cited in Phil. 2.5-11 but not created by Paul makes evident.
This brings up a point quite neglected by Tabor. In 1 Cor. 16.22 we find an Aramaic prayer fragment—marana tha. Paul surely got this from his contact with Aramaic speaking Christians in Jerusalem. The most likely source is Peter or James whom we know he consulted. This prayer means ‘come oh Lord’ and it is prayed to Jesus. Now monotheistic Jews did not pray to anyone but God. This in turn means that the earliest Aramaic speaking Christians like James already had a very high Christology indeed, one that Paul adopted and adapted, one that Paul agreed with. It will not do to say that James lacks any teachings that are characteristic of Paul on such matters, or to suggest that for James it was all about Jesus’ teaching and not about his person. This is clearly false as a comparison of Acts 15 and the letter of James will show. It is equally false as an evaluation of that other brother of Jesus who is in the canon--- Jude.
It may be true that there were some early followers of Jesus who were Christologically challenged. It is possible to make a case that this is so of the person who wrote the Didache (see pp. 281-82), but we must be cautious about this because the Didache is more of a lab manual, and manual for how to practice the faith than it is a theological treatise. I would not want anyone to judge Methodist theology on the basis of most of the United Methodist Discipline! If there were such Christians with a very low Christology their works did not make it into the canon, and by this I mean James and Jude do not represent them. It is simply false to suggest that James did not worship his brother or consider him divine. The evidence we have in Acts 1-4, 15 and also in James 1.1 and 2.1 will not allow this conclusion (but see p. 282). James is not the poster child for modern minimalist visions and versions of the historical Jesus. Indeed, as Tabor himself suggests James 5.6 may be about Jesus the just one who did not resist his executioners (p. 288). But this of course means James has something to say about the significance of the death of Jesus, as well as his life and teachings and current Lordship.
This brings us to James’ successor in the dynasty, a man by the name of Simeon of Clopas (see Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.11.1). Tabor (p. 289) wants to identify him as the son of Mary, but this is unlikely. Most experts on the Holy family, such as Richard Bauckham, rightly say that this is some cousin of James and Jesus, not their half-brother. Tabor once more relies on the theory that Mary married Clopas after Joseph died, a conjecture for which we have no sound evidence. He is right to note however that these later witnesses speak of him assuming a ‘throne’. Clearly someone in the later church thought of a line of royal figures. We must allow that Tabor is right that someone in the early church thought this way, even if it was anachronistic to do so. The problem is that the first century evidence does not support this idea. At best we rely upon the second century musings of Hegesippus whom Eusebius cites.
What we can say with more certainty is that the family of Jesus was honored and respected well into the second century, not primarily because of the blood relationship to Jesus, but because they were his true followers and worshippers. It was not so much that they were the Christian equivalent of a royal blood line as they were the Christian equivalent of a paradigmatic holy family, properly relating to Jesus and the faith his inaugurated. We can see in a document like the Protoevangelium of James where this thinking might go in the hands of real ascetics, prone to deny that Mary and Joseph actually had any children together. It was primarily their spiritual holiness, not their royal blood the later church was concerned to protect (but see pp. 289-92).
But as Tabor says, we must not neglect the stories about the Ebionites whom Eusebius accuses of only believing Jesus was a ‘plain and ordinary’ man born to Joseph and Mary, who taught that salvation was by works as well as faith and that the Torah must be observed by followers of Jesus (Hist. Eccl. 3.27 cf. p. 303). Are these the spiritual descendants of James and Jude? More likely they are the descendants of those whom are called Pharisaic Jewish Christians in Acts 15.1 and 5. James it will be noted, was too liberal for them, and probably too Christological as well to judge from James’ speech at the council. This reminds us that there were such people on the fringes of the early Christian movement, however few, and they continued to exist into the second century. While they did not represent the views of any of the inner circle of Jesus, it would be wrong to say they did not exist.
We must be careful about the beguiling nature of an argument such as that of Tabor’s. The book is well written with parts of it almost reading like a thriller. It has copious pictures of Biblical sites with able commentary from Tabor. He is a good archaeologist and he knows the various sites in and around the Holy Land well. His more precise knowledge of the archaeological remains can lead one to think he also has more precise knowledge about what is behind and in the Biblical texts. This is not really the case in many instances. Many of his conclusions in this book would be disputed even by the most liberal of NT scholars. Much of it is pure conjecture. His hypotheses must be sifted with the same degree of rigor that Tabor sifts the archaeological remains he digs up. When we do this, there are some things left, but not nearly as much as Tabor would allow.
When one gets to the close of the book one discovers that Tabor is no dispassionate scholar, whose interest in Jesus, James, and Jude is merely academic. No, Tabor believes there is much at stake in studying the historical Jesus for Christianity today. He puts it this way: “If Christianity can give James his rightful place as successor to Jesus’ movement, and begin to realize that his version of the faith represents a Christianity with claims to authenticity that override those of Paul, even more doors of understanding between Christians and Jews will be opened. But just as important, in terms of Christian mission and purpose in the world the unfinished agenda of John, Jesus, and James can find new life and relevance in modern times.” (p. 315, emphasis added). He goes on to suggest that the view of Jesus in the Koran comports with this reconstructed image of Jesus, through the eyes of James and perhaps the Ebionites. Tabor is hopeful that this form of Christian belief may be resuscitated, if not revived.
One has to say, that a fair bit of what Tabor says about Jesus and James is true as far as it goes, but it leaves out far too much, and indeed much that is central and crucial. The inner circle of Jesus had all seen the risen Lord. The testimony of the earliest sources is clear about this. It is not just the sayings of Jesus as found in Q that can or should be the basis of Christian faith. It must also be about who Jesus was, and what he accomplished by means of his life, death, and resurrection. We do not need to pose an either or between what we learn from the sayings of Jesus, and what we gain from other materials. A both/and approach is much nearer to the truth. And part of this both/and approach must include a recognition that our chronologically earliest witness to Jesus in the canon, Paul, is neither a distorter of the truth about Jesus nor a liar, nor one who is radically at odds with James or Peter or others on crucial matters of Christology and eschatology. This is simply false. The differences come, as they so often do, in the sticky matter of praxis and how then Christians might be together, live together, have fellowship together, while still being Jews and Gentiles. Yet we must say in the end, that Tabor has done us a great service in trying hard to integrate his great wealth of knowledge about and love of archaeology with the NT text and other historical sources. Would that more scholars would take archaeology and history serious when they interpret NT texts. Though Jesus may not have intended to found a family dynasty, he certainly left a legacy and a following, and Tabor has given us some glimpses of that legacy. For this we should be grateful.


Ben Witherington said...


You are quite right in asking--- what was the point if there was no resurrection and no miracles etc. What's the point of carrying on the dynasty of a false prophet.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi James:

I am glad you read the full form-- sorry it wore you out. The edited form in CT I trust will be alright.
While we may not agree on a lot of things, one thing we certainly do agree on is that history and archaeology do and ought to matter to the Christian faith. It is not a matter of Gnostic philosophy on esoteric topics not grounded in historical particulars. Congratulations on writing a very stimulating and well-written book. I suspect we could have lots of good discussions on historical issues, despite the different presuppositions.