Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Report: The Jesus Dynasty

The Jesus Dynasty is a book written a few years ago by religious scholar James D. Tabor.  Tabor, according to his website, is the head of the Department of Religious Studies at UNC-Charlotte, and his specialty is Christian Origins and Ancient Judaism.  He apparently leads a lot of archaeological expeditions in and around Jerusalem and modern Israel and Galilee.

It's taken me a long time to get through the book, but that isn't because the book wasn't any good - I just haven't had nearly as much interest, in the last year or so, in critical historical Jesus scholarship.  I've gotten a bit burned out, I think.

But in any case, the book presents a very provocative reconstruction of the historical Jesus and particularly of the early Christian church that sprang  up in his name.

To put Tabor's thesis simply, he argues that early Christianity was split into two main groups - Jewish Christians, based in Jerusalem, and led by James the brother of Jesus, and Gentile (or non-Jewish) Christians, spread in pockets throughout the Roman empire, and led by Paul.

He goes on to argue that the Jerusalem Christians - that is, the Jewish Christians - were the ones who were staying true to the teachings of Jesus, and the non-Jewish Christians, led by Paul, were the ones really creating a whole new religion - one which diverged from the teachings of Jesus in dramatic ways.

He also argues - and this is where the title comes from - that the "Jesus Movement," as he calls it, was really a dynastic movement.  He argues that Jesus started as a follower of John the Baptist, and that these two men - Jesus and John - viewed themselves in prophetic terms as the ones God had chosen to bring a message of repentance to Israel, in preparation for the inauguration of the Kingdom of God.  The Jewish scriptures spoke of two lines uniting Israel - the priestly line of Aaron, and the royal line of David.  John the Baptist, Tabor argues, represented this priestly line, while Jesus - descended through the house of David - represented the royal, or messianic, line.

When John was executed, this threw the movement into confusion for a while, but Jesus eventually returned to the scene, leading the movement by himself, and increasingly viewing himself in messianic terms.  He genuinely believed, Tabor argues, that God was going to intervene to free Israel from its Roman oppressors and that Jesus himself would become the new leader of a new Israelite nation.  Even on the cross, Tabor believes, Jesus still believed God was going to intervene.

As a result of this, his eventual death came as a great shock to his followers.  But once they had recovered from their mourning, they kept his movement alive by coming to understand him through Jewish scriptures as the "Suffering Servant" who had to die for the sins of the world.  And they continued to believe that Jesus would eventually return in a Second Coming to rule as God's authority on earth from a new Jerusalem.

Since this entire movement, according to Tabor, was predicated on the fact that Jesus was the Davidic Messiah, it stands to reason that after his death, one of his relatives would take over the movement - like a son ruling after a father.  Jesus had no son to inherit his "throne" as it were, so it went to his brother - James.  After James died, Tabor argues that it passed to another of Jesus's brothers, Simon - the same Simon known as "Simon the Zealot" from the gospel lists of Jesus's 12 disciples.  After Simon's death, it passed to yet another brother, Jude.  Jude, according to James, was the last of the Jesus Dynasty, because by that time - around 100 C.E. - the Jewish Christian movement was virtually dead (except for a few pockets here and there).   It had been marginalized and ultimately killed by Paul's movement.

Much of these arguments are not so earth-shattering.  Many scholars argue that Paul's movement marginalized those Christians who believed in practicing Judaism, and many scholars agree that Jesus had an apocalyptic worldview and saw himself as God's messiah.

What is ground-breaking about Tabor's argument is the assertion that the movement was dynastic - that Jesus really did come from the line of David, and that leadership of the movement passed on successively after his death through his brothers.  Tabor argues that three of Jesus's 12 disciples - James son of Alphaeus, Judas brother of James, and Simon the Zealot - were all Jesus's half brothers.  He argues that Jesus was Joseph's son with Mary, but that these other sons were the sons of Joseph's brother and Mary - his brother having married Mary after Joseph's death, which was customary.

I'm not really sure what to make of this argument.  I find it provocative, but ultimately I think he is on very shaky ground from a historical perspective.  He bases his conclusions on very questionable passages within the Gospels and in a few 2nd century texts, and I simply don't know if there is enough reliable evidence there to make some of the assertions he makes.

For instance, he relies on the genealogies of Jesus to support his assertion that Jesus was from the royal line of David.  For those who don't know, the genealogy of Jesus is provided by both Matthew and Luke, and is somewhat notorious for the fact that each writer gives a completely different genealogy.  Most modern scholars (that I am aware of, anyway), don't put much stock in the accuracy of these genealogies, simply because they are, in fact, contradictory.  Furthermore, how could the writers of Luke and Matthew have known this information?

But Tabor relies on them as factual, and reconciles their discrepancies by arguing that Matthew's genealogy is through Joseph, while Luke's is through Mary.  This is not a new argument - it has been the position of the Catholic Church since time immemorial.  And I find it totally insupportable.  Both writers make it obvious and explicit that their genealogies are given through Joseph.

Matthew's starts with Abraham, and ends like this: "Mathan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus."

Clearly that's a genealogy through Joseph's line.

Luke provides his genealogy the other way around - starting with Jesus and going all the way back to Adam.  Here's what Luke says: "He [Jesus] was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat...."

Clearly both these writers are explicitly providing a male genealogy.  I just can't see how any argument can be made to the contrary.  Yet the notion that Luke's genealogy provides Mary's line is an important argument in Tabor's overall thesis, underlying the claims he makes later.  It's a problem, for sure.

He also accepts Luke's story about John the Baptist's heritage - with a priestly father named Zachariah and a mother who was a cousin to Mary - making John and Jesus cousins themselves.  This is what Luke tells us, but most scholars I am familiar with do not take these passages seriously.  This story of John the Baptist is Luke's way of writing theology, not history.

The problem with all these background arguments is that so much of what comes later in the book - all his arguments relating to the Jesus Movement and the Jesus Dynasty - are built on these assumptions about the biological background of Jesus and John.  If those assumptions are shaky, it casts doubt on all the subsequent arguments.

In the end, I have to say that the book provided a very thought-provoking perspective on Jesus and the movement that sprang up in his name after his death, but I am not sure that I agree with all of Tabor's ultimate conclusions.  At the very least, I feel like he has not adequately provided reliable evidence for these claims.  It comes across to me as a lot of speculation based on shaky evidence and the occasional grasping at straws.

Still, despite that rather harsh criticism, I think the book is a valuable asset in the growing body of work on the "historical Jesus," and I would certainly recommend it to anyone who has a serious interest in this field.    

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