Shuck and Jive

Friday, February 02, 2007

Closer to the Bones of Jesus (and a Better Understanding of his Life)

When Robert Funk convened the Jesus Seminar in 1985, it decided early on the question of whether or not Jesus was apocalyptic. See Perry Kea, The Road to the Jesus Seminar, Robert W. Funk, Milestones in the Quest for the Historical Jesus, and Lane McGaughy, The Search for the Historical Jesus in the Fourth R (online).

Did Jesus believe that God’s kingdom would come in power in his lifetime? Did Jesus think he was the anointed one (messiah) who would inaugurate the restoration of the kingdom of Israel and break the yoke of Roman oppression? Albert Schweitzer concluded this in his 1906 classic, The Quest for the Historical Jesus.

The majority of the Fellows decided against Schweitzer. Jesus, they concluded, was not apocalyptic and that the apocalyptic movement was a later corruption to his original message. The original message of Jesus could be found in his authentic parables and aphorisms. The kingdom of God that Jesus preached was within the individual and within the communities of those who followed his vision. The kingdom of God, over against the kingdom of Rome, would come gradually, but assuredly, as mustard takes over a field. Scholars who advocated for an apocalyptic Jesus lost interest. I wonder if the Jesus Seminar decided too quickly on that question.

Other scholars have continued to uphold an apocalyptic (or eschatological) Jesus. They include Paula Frederickson, Bart Ehrman, and James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and The Birth of Christianity.

This post will review Tabor’s book. Published on the 100th anniversary of Schweitzer’s Quest, he dedicates this book to Schweitzer and his genius. Here is the thesis of The Jesus Dynasty:

In The Jesus Dynasty you will discover that Jesus was the firstborn son of a royal family—a descendant of King David of ancient Israel. He really was proclaimed “King of the Jews,” and was executed by the Romans for this claim. Rather than a church, or a new religion, as commonly understood, he established a royal dynasty drawn from his own brothers and immediate family. Rather than being the founder of a church, Jesus was claimant to a throne….Shortly before he died, Jesus set up a provisional government with twelve regional officials, one over each of the twelve tribes or districts of Israel, and he left his brother James at the head of this fledgling government. James became the uncontested leader of the early Christian movement. This significant fact of history has been largely forgotten, or as likely, hidden. Properly understood, it changes everything we thought we new about Jesus, his mission, and his message. Pp. 4-5

Tabor, an expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls is a seasoned archaeologist. In the book’s introduction he discusses the discovery and the ensuing high drama around what could be the burial box of James, the brother of Jesus. You can read this fascinating introduction here and the latest news on his blog.

In reconstructing the life and mission of Jesus and his family, Tabor takes the reader through the birth narratives and suggests that the father of Jesus was not Joseph (neither the Holy Spirit) but someone else, possibly a Roman soldier. This would explain the constant charges of illegitimacy he faced throughout his life. The genealogies trace Jesus back to David (through Mary) to show that Jesus was of royal bloodline and hence fulfills the requirements as the “anointed one” or messiah.

Jesus grew up poor in the Jewish village of Nazareth in the shadow of Sepphoris under the oppressive system of Rome and Herod. Jesus followed John the Baptist and together saw themselves as the messiahs (priestly and kingly) who would serve as God’s instruments in overthrowing Rome’s rule and establishing a new kingdom.

“He firmly believed that if he and his followers offered themselves up, placing their fate in God’s hands, that the Kingdom of God would manifest itself,” p. 201

Jesus did not expect to be killed. He thought God would save him before that. He was executed for sedition, claiming to be King of the Jews. Finally realizing that God was not going to rescue him, he put his brother, James in command. James could be the “beloved disciple” in John’s gospel.

After his death, he is buried—twice. The empty tomb narratives may contain an historical memory that the body had been removed (possibly by his brothers and sisters) from the temporary tomb of Joseph of Arimathea and reburied in an ossuary such as the one that has been discovered that possibly contains the remains of his brother James. Tabor points out that this burial practice from a temporary to a permanent place was common among Jews in that period.

James becomes the leader of the new movement. No theories of resurrection, blood atonement, or the divinity of Jesus for James. Jesus and his followers remain thoroughly Jewish. This movement continues until James is executed in the 60’s. Enter Paul. He invents the resurrection theory based on a vision he has on the Damascus Road. The New Testament eventually affirms Paul’s viewpoint, marginalizes James, and the when the Gospels are written, they are thoroughly Paulinized, especially Luke-Acts.

However, clues and memories remain of the original Jesus movement and message. These memories are found in Q—the material common to Luke and Matthew not found in Mark, the letter of James and the letter of Jude, another of the brothers of Jesus. Also, the Didache reflects the teaching of the early James community as well as portions of the Gospel of Thomas.

That is a quick overview that does not do justice to the historical work of James Tabor. His book is a fascinating read that like a mystery, is hard to put down. He provides a portrait of Jesus and is careful to distinguish speculation from historical fact. The book is for popular readers and regardless whether or not one is convinced by particulars of his portrait, the historical background he provides will change the way you look at Jesus. I found many of the puzzles I find in the gospels making sense in the light of Tabor’s insights.

Tabor does not speak at length about the parables and aphorisms of Jesus which is the defining characteristic of Jesus Seminar scholars, who, for the most part, view Jesus as a traveling sage. I am curious how the parables fit with Tabor’s portrait.

I strongly recommend this book for those who are curious as to what Jesus was about. It isn’t the only book you should read on the historical Jesus, but it will whet your appetite for more.

What about traditional faith claims, Virgin Birth, Divinity of Jesus, Resurrection, Second Coming, etc? That’s just it. They are faith claims, not historical claims. They may not even be particularly interesting as faith claims.

My second post on this blog, which got the ball rolling and angered some of my conservative colleagues was entitled, What if We Found the Body of Jesus? I suggested that historical study of Christian origins had shattered the historicity of the resurrection. We may never find the bones of Jesus, but we may be getting close.

What would this mean for faith? Obviously, the James group didn’t need a resuscitated corpse to retain faith in God’s kingdom. The idea that Jesus was God or was born of a virgin or would come again someday in the clouds would have been as preposterous to them as Pinocchio becoming a real live boy.

After reading Tabor (and Schweitzer before him), we might conclude that Jesus was a failure. In one sense, that is true. But in another sense he failed in the words of Tom Robbins, with wit, grace, and style.

"So you think that you're a failure, do you? Well, you probably are. What's wrong with that? In the first place, if you've any sense at all you must have learned by now that we pay just as dearly for our triumphs as we do for our defeats. Go ahead and fail. But fail with wit, fail with grace, fail with style. A mediocre failure is as insufferable as a mediocre success. Embrace failure! Seek it out. Learn to love it. That may be the only way any of us will ever be free." Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, p. 173

Jesus spoke for something. He was deluded perhaps, from our point of few, with ancient apocalyptic thinking. We don’t need to repeat that. However, he did live for justice, for the poor, and for peace. And he gave his life for it. May his tribe increase.


  1. This seems like a manifesto against any traditional understanding of Christianity if there ever was one, John. Could you be overlooking the fact that Tabor's theses [and Jesus Seminar as well] presupposes that there is nothing supernatural? Tabor denies the virgin birth because "we all know you need two sets of chromosomes to make a baby." (From the ABC interview - haven't read the book but I will!). The declaration that supernatural things do not happen because they don't happen naturally seems to me to be a tautology.

    I am interested to hear your thoughts on that.

    There is also the obvious question of, if Jesus was a failure or delusional, why should his tribe increase?

    Take care.

  2. I would love to believe the Jesus Seiminar and all the theories they proport - a lot of it based on good historical analysis - or at least it would seem that way. I do have problems with some of their conclusions - since they cannot make a definitive rule one way or another - merely a judgment call by the texts they have before them to study (as we all have) - and some of us are coming to quite different conclusions - and a lot of the ideas from the original church weren't based on 'stories' alone - or that's not what they proport to say (namely Paul).

    I guess I struggle with the denial of the resurrection, since to Paul, this was the cornerstone of his belief set. I would cast Paul aside if the disciples of Christ also did - but according to Paul's letters this is not the case. Nor is it ever the case the resurrection was of a dispute in the early church amongst any of these disciples - they argue over Jewish traditions and the faith - but not the resurrection. And when a question about the resurrection does pop up it seems to be coming only from Roman/Gentile communties that Paul visited (who is claimed to be the only proponent of this theory by the seminar). Even Paul points to eyewitnesses of the resurrection as people to ask about this event. Top that off, we have no verifiable factual proof that Peter, James, and John ever denied the resurrection - no writings or anything and if we have writings they seem to support the contrary - the resurrection happened or they write letters which never seem to deny this.

    I think my question would be that this would of been a hotly debated issue amongst the Jewish community since the community would have been applying something to Jesus that was not true - and this would of showed up prominently in writings. However, the only time the resurrection is ever brought up and questioned is by Pauline communities - namely in Corinth (a non-Jewish community). Peter, James, and John would have denied this fact in their teachings (and the rest of the disciples and never have supported Paul) - but this doesn't quite seem to be the case. The Jewish community (the founders of the faith) seem to not think this was an issue at all - or a subversive attempt to railroad the person of Christ. Nothing I have read yet from those early times seems to point - or anything that can be linked back to the earliest community (which was later passed on as an article of the faith - through the letters and the gospels).

  3. society said, they argue over Jewish traditions and the faith - but not the resurrection

    Exactly. To the people who walked with Jesus there was no controversy about the resurrection. The Athenians (Acts 17) doubted Paul based on the same grounds that naturalists doubt today; people don't come back from the dead. But eyewitnesses testified with their own lives that Jesus was resurrected, and they also testified that Jesus was the Son of God. These supernatural claims can't be dismissed just because some folks believe that there is nothing above nature. An eyewitness testimony can't be dismissed just because we don't agree with it.

    And aren't we forgetting that without the Big Bang, a supernatural event, we would not exist? Life is itself supernatural as the probability of life happening accidentally is 1 in 10 to the 43rd power, beyond the realm of natural possibility.

    I have called this type of historical narrative [of the Jesus Seminar] as Horsetrack Historianism; i.e. narratives based on odds, not on facts or authoritative accounts.

    Take the idea that since you need two sets of chromosomes to make a baby, then Mary had to have been raped in order to have a child. Since Roman soldiers raped a lot of teenage Jewish girls in those days, Jesus' Daddy was a Roman soldier. This is the standard for Horsetrack Historians; create a specific history based on broad generalizations esp. when the historical accounts don't agree with naturalism.

    You could make hay out of almost any historical event and come out with an endless supply of alternative histories. One could say that the Chicago Bears with their superior defense could not possibly lose to an inconsistent defense like the Colts, therefore Chicago had to have won in 2007...:)

    I think we are much closer to the bones of James Tabor, or Dominick Crossant, or even our own bones than we will ever come to the bones of the supernatural Christ.

    Perhaps you have a perspective that does not presuppose naturalism, as Tabor does, that reaches the same conclusion as Tabor. If so, I'd like to hear it.

    God bless.

  4. Gentlemen,

    This is from Perry Kea's article to which I linked in this post. "Supernaturalism" is a faith claim.

    "The quest for the historical Jesus was a product of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement in eighteenth-century Europe and North America that promoted reason as the sole standard for establishing matters of truth. The ramifications were enormous. The political underpinnings of the American and French revolutions were established by Enlightenment figures (for example, Locke and Voltaire). The scientific method was born out of the Enlightenment. The privileging of reason over other modes of knowledge (such as tradition) meant that history was brought "down to earth" so to speak. The reasons why things happened in the past had to be sought within the space-time continuum of human life without appeals to divine agency. Just as the scientist could not appeal to supernatural forces to explain natural events, so the Enlightenment historian could not claim that historical events happened because "God so willed it."

    When scholars informed by the Enlightenment considered the figure of Jesus in the gospels, they began to ask if the claims made for Jesus could be supported by rational evidence or arguments. So began the quest for the historical Jesus."


  5. Societyvs, I think it is important to distinguish between the idea of a physical, bodily resurrection, and the idea of Jesus as having been exalted into God's presence after his death. The evidence from Paul's writing is that he believed the latter, but not the former. He saw Jesus in a vision. He had a visionary experience of the exalted Christ in heaven. In 1 Corinthians, where he described those who experienced his resurrection, he used the same verb to describe his own visionary experience of Jesus that he used to describe the experience of Jesus that other hand. In other words, he believed that those who preceded him experienced Jesus in the same way he did. Paul never claimed that a resurrected Jesus walked on the earth, as the later Gospel writers claimed. Remembering that Paul was the first of the biblical writers, we can thus see a progression in the development of ideas about Jesus's resurrection:

    1) The earliest Christians believed in, and in some way experienced, Jesus's exalted presence continuing on after he died. This is reflected in Paul's writing.

    2) This continues with the Gospel of Mark, written some 40 years after the death of Jesus, which talks of a resurrected Jesus in Galilee, but which makes no mention of any actual worldly appearances.

    3) In Matthew, for the first time--some 45-50 years after the death of Jesus--we finally see a description of Jesus's physical appearance after death--in Galilee, on a mountaintop, as a kind of farewell.

    4) In Luke, written a little later still, we see finally full-fledged stories about Jesus walking around and interacting with people, but this time it is not in Galilee, but in Jerusalem.

    The evolution of ideas about the resurrection is clear as one traces the biblical stories about his resurrection. Originally, the earliest Christians had visionary experiences of Jesus's continuing presence after his execution. Later on, more and more fanciful stories emerged and were written down, stories that were not consistent with one another but which gave mythological status to the resurrection. There is no need to take these stories literally. They were simply a means of codifying the belief in Jesus's continuing presence.

  6. Mystical,

    The arguments for the pre-existence of Christ mitigate against an understanding of a human being exalted into the presence of God. There was plenty of room for that kind of talk, and Sue Garrett's upcoming book on angels will discuss notions of "angelification."

    But what happened to Jesus wasn't described in the same way. Thus, to relegate it to hero-literature or something else is erroneous. Luke, especially, writes in the form of a contemporary Hellene historiographer. To dismiss him because there is an a priori refusal to believe in miracles is to misunderstand the author's carefully crafted original intent.

    Clearly, from the authentic letters of Paul, we can see the earliest forms of Christian belief held that Jesus was pre-existent and returned to the Father in glory. (The gospels are not the first place we encounter the resurrection - rather, it is well established as an event in history by the Pauline epistles.) And who could doubt that the Logos Christology offered in the prologue to John's gospel assumes pre-existence?

    Moreover, given Tabor's interest in Jude as the brother of Jesus, he should hear the evidence about Jesus' pre-existence from the lips of his own brother who said that praise was offered to God through Christ "before all time." Tabor and his ilk are well described 17 verses prior.

  7. How is James Tabor described "17 verses earlier" when James Tabor did not yet exist?

  8. I didn't mention the Gospel of John, but it was written the latest of all the gospels, and represents the most developed and evolved Christology, thus continuing the process developing ideas about Jesus that I had already outlined in Paul's writings and the earlier Gospels. This is thus a further example of what I was talking about. Thus we can see a progression from Paul->Mark->Matthew->Luke->John.

    I think it is important to be clear that the word "resurrection" can mean different things, or at least did so in this instance. While Paul clearly and obviously did not believe in a physically resurrected Jesus walking around on the earth, such as was depicted in the mythological stories that appeared in Matthew, Luke, and John, he still believed, in a sense, in a "resurrection"--which was Jesus's exaltation, as represented by his visionary experience and the experience of that he said that others before him also had. This is not the same as the mythological resurrection narratives that latter appears in writings that came about later, with Jesus walking around on earth, eating, appearing suddenly in rooms, and so forth. And, of course, the whole ascension myth--the idea that he "ascended" literally up into a heaven simply reflects, as I've pointed out before here and elsewhere, a clearly mythological expression of a people who believed in a three-tiered universe and which doesn't conform to the realities of the universe.

  9. John,

    You wouldn't believe me, even if I showed you in the Confessions you vowed to uphold.


    1 Corinthians 15 is a strong case for numerous witnesses to a resurrected Jesus. If the resurrection were simply a religious experience of catching Jesus' image of the Kingdom, then surely there would be more than 500. It doesn't make sense to say that 1 Cor. 15 supposes anything other than a visual manifestation of Jesus of Nazareth. You can deny that it was a physical resurrection, but it's difficult to say it wasn't a visual phenomenon.

  10. You could show me in the confessions I have vowed to uphold that James Tabor is the one to whom is referred in the letter to Jude?

  11. 1 Corinthians 15 is a strong case for numerous witnesses to a resurrected Jesus.

    On the contrary, it makes just the opposite case. Paul used the same verb to describe his own (visionary) experience with the risen Christ that he used to describe the experience that others before him had. Paul clearly was not describing a physical resurrection, since he himself did not meet a physically resurrected Christ.

    When you combine that fact, with the fact that the resurrection appearances as described in the later Gospels developed from nothing (Mark) to a mountaintop Galilean appearance (Matthew), to Jerusalem appearances all over the place (Luke and John), the evolution of this concept from visionary experience to literalized mythology is obvious. (Oh, and by the way, the mountaintop appearance in Matthew--of course it was on a mountaintop. Matthew loved to place Jesus on the tops of mountains--the Sermon the Mount, for example. This was an example of his "new Moses" motif that colored the way he mythologized the life and resurrection his main character.)

    This is the kind of thing that serious, mature review of the Bible leads one to discover. Once one actually moves beyond simple-minded fundamentalist conceptions of the Bible and actually looks at the ways the different parts of the Bible portray events, it becomes clear that ideas and theologies evolved over time.

  12. I should clarify what I just wrote. I think that what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians provides an argument that there were many who believed that they had some kind of experience of the exalted Christ, just as Paul did. I think the term "resurrected" in this sense again should be clarified. I don't believe that Paul's description was of people encountering a a physical Jesus walking around on earth, but of the presence of an exalted Christ.

  13. Mystical,

    Look at it again. The word for "appear" is oraƓ, which Paul uses throughout 1 Cor. to indicate seeing with the eye. He says this happened to a number of individual disciples, to himself, and - astonishingly - 500 people at the same time. Are we to pass it off as a mass hallucination? Particularly when he describes it as a punctiliar event (aorist tense) rather than an ongoing religious experience of the "presence of Christ" or "renewed hope" or what have you.

    To argue that Paul is speaking about a selective, interior, mystical experience goes against the grain of the entire letter. Why? Because it was written to people who considered themeselves "serious, mature", spiritually insightful and privy to understanding sublime truths that were beyond the grasp of the "simple-minded." Paul would not appeal to an inner experience as the basis of their faith when all along he's been telling them to listen to the broader community of faith and emphasizing the trustworthiness of what he handed to them.

  14. John,

    I could do one better than that. I could show you from the Bible that James Tabor is exactly the kind of false teacher warned about in the Scriptures (especially as pointed to by Jude). However, to do so, you would have to admit the possibility of predictive prophecy. And that's probably far too supernatural for you to admit, as enlightened as you are.

  15. Chris,

    That is very clever. Pick out a little snippet from scripture, (like the one you applied to me, "pretending to be wise, they became fools,") and suggesting that is the Word of God to those with whom you disagree.

    That is the problem with so-called "predictive prophecy." You decide that scripture is a magical book then delude yourself into thinking that you have the omniscience to summon its magic and determine that the text you selected applies in a specific way to contemporary people and events.

    Your exegesis says nothing about the texts but everything about you.

  16. I, for one, do not claim that mystical experiences are "hallucinations". Nor do I think that Paul considered his inner experience of Christ to have represented a private reality.

    The point is nevertheless clear. Paul did not see the risen Christ walking around on the earth, such as in the mythological post-resurrection events depicted in Acts or John--nor did he claim to have done so. And clearly neither did he claim that anyone else did.

  17. John, the Tabor book definitely looks interesting. I was surprised that you said, I suppose according to the Tabor book, Jesus was an apocalyptic thinker. Was that because he believed he would overthrow Rome’s rule and establish a new kingdom in his lifetime? Is this why you believe the Jesus Seminar may have been too quick to make a decision regarding Jesus and apocalyptic thinking? I sort of hate to hear that, really.

  18. Hi Bobby,

    The idea of whether or not Jesus was apocalyptic is not settled. Scholars are in different places on this issue. I would prefer that Jesus not be apocalyptic. I would rather he be a travelling sage. That Jesus would fit better with the modern worldview. One of the struggles with historical Jesus research is that Jesus is a product of his time. He would fit in with the apocalyptic prophets of that time. One important point is that Jesus is not apocalyptic in the sense of modern modes of apocalyptic thinking. This is no "end of the world" kind of thing. It would be in terms of God overthrowing Rome at least in his own neck of the woods. Schweitzer didn't think this Jesus too helpful, nor do those who advocate for a non-apocalyptic Jesus. And certainly those who embrace the fourth and fifth century creeds as historical have to refuse this Jesus. I say let's find out who the guy was, warts and all, and let the chips fall.

  19. To say all the Pauline literature denies the 'flesh-iness' of Christ is interesting - it not true - but I find the claims interesting.

    In Ephesians 2:15 Paul straight out claims Jesus had 'flesh' - so not all Pauline epistles claim this 'mere experience' idea. Also the disciples in Galatians 2:9 (Peter, James, and John) support Paul and his preaching - on whom the gospel stories hold their credibility (in which Jesus is seen as a human person). He kinda lives and dies (a human experience) in that story from what I can tell.

    John in his first letter also looks at the fleshly story of Jesus as important (I John 4:2) and mentions the blood of Jesus (5:6).

    I think if these were the only examples I would agree to a 'merely spirtual experience' position - but this seems to be obvious from the writings - Jesus was born, lived, and died - he seems to be human in those stories through and through - I can't deny he never and even Paul doesn't outright deny Jesus was human - ever. I think if the gnostic view was true Paul would of backed it harder and claimed the fleshly Jesus was pure foolishness - however he doesn't - why? I think he knew the disciples quite well and the story they told was that of a walking talking person from Galilee, who died for their them, and the resurrected.

    If the point is 'was he made of flesh like every other human being' I have been given very little reason to doubt that from any source - be it letters or gospels.

    It may make me narrow-minded to some people but I have no reason to believe otherwise - if he wasn't flesh we would of knew that and that would of been the core of the gospels passed down - and the history we would have. Those people in Jesus' time saw that he was human - and I have a tough time making sense of any other view from that history of stories we have passed to us. I don;t think it is 'illogical' to think he was human - makes more sense to me to be honest.

  20. Societyvs, I don't know if you are responding to me, but if so you wrote a very long refutation of something I never wrote. I never claimed that Paul denied that Jesus existed here on earth as a flesh-and-blood human being. I was specifically referring to the resurrection, which is to say the post-Easter or "risen" Jesus; I wasn't talking about the pre-Easter Jesus who walked on the earth.

  21. Oh sorry Mystic - I thought that was part of what you said - my bad.

  22. No, what they're saying society is that Jesus was an ordinary nobody who taught well and earned an exaltation from God. Imagine if He'd written a "How To" book, it'd be a bestseller...

  23. Check out the official website at:
    Jesus Family Tomb.