Book Review: The Jesus Dynasty by James Tabor. Publisher: Simon & Schuster
At first glance, The Jesus Dynasty seems like another dubious book cashing in on the notoriety of Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code. However, a quick perusal of the book will dispel this notion, given the academic credentials of the author, James Tabor. Tabor comes across as an archaeologist who has patiently collected and coordinated solid evidence to support his bold thesis. The Jesus Dynasty bears the marks of a well-researched academic book.
At the outset, The Jesus Dynasty argues for an alternative history of the origins of the Christian faith in Jesus the Messiah. Some of its provocative theses include the following:
1) There was no Virgin Birth. Mary, the mother of Jesus was either seduced or raped by a Roman soldier named Panthera (whose grave Tabor allegedly found in Germany). This claim, if true, would shatter Christian faith considerably.
2) Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist, from whom he got his understanding of the Messianic vocation. John and Jesus took on the role of Jewish Messiahs and preached the coming of the Kingdom of God amidst political turmoil. Jesus included his four blood brothers in the Council of the Twelve which he formed the in anticipation of his success in establishing the Kingdom of God on earth.
3) Christianity traditionally identifies the “beloved” disciple as John. Not so, says Tabor. It was actually James, Jesus’ brother. After Jesus was crucified by the Romans, his brother James – the ‘Beloved Disciple’ – took over the leadership of the Jesus Dynasty and ‘ruled’ for 30 years, although to say ‘ruled’ might be exaggeration since he had no more than motley band of impoverished, persecuted Christians in his charge.
In short, Tabor claims that “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). In this regard, both Tabor and Dan Brown promote the conspiracy theory that the Church continues to suppress the truth of history out of vested interests. But given the academic format of The Jesus Dynasty I predict that Tabor’s book will continue to pose an ongoing challenge to the orthodox view of the origins of the Christian faith in Jesus the Messiah. In contrast, the pop fiction of Dan Brown’s book will be forgotten in a few years’ time.
What is it that motivates Tabor to propose the radical thesis in his book? Tabor expresses hope that his reconfigured Christian faith will make Christians more amenable in inter-religious dialog between Christians, Jews and Muslims. Such sentiments are noble indeed. But noble sentiments aside, we must ask whether Tabor correctly read the biblical texts and sufficiently grounded his thesis on historical facts. In this regard, I find Tabor’s project wholly inadequate.
Tabor sandwiches his textual reading between layers of informative and entertaining accounts of his archaeological outings. The reader is gently led to place his trust in an authoritative archaeologist whose reading of the text is correspondingly trustworthy. In reality, the alert reader should know that there is little connection between Tabor’s stories and his textual readings. His expertise in one area does not make him an authority in others.
Tabor periodically challenges prevailing academic consensus to enhance his authority. For example, he dares to challenge the traditional consensus that Jesus was a carpenter. Tabor appeals to the Greek playwright Sophocles to argue that the word tekton means no more than a landless day labourer.
I am aware that lexicography is a complex exercise. But Tabor’s suggestion goes against the evidence provided by THE Classical Greek Lexicon by Liddell and Scott which cites a wide spectrum of classical writers to support the traditional view of tekton as referring to a skillful artisan in wood, stone and maybe metal. This includes Aschelaus, Homer, Xenophon, Herodotus and even Sophocles himself. A tekton can throw a bridge over a river. Tekton can mean to lower middleclass subcontractor. I may be pressing the point, but only to emphasize that we need not take Tabor as having the final word.
Readers will be duly impressed by Tabor when he suggests what seems to be a bold and novel reading of the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). In fact, his approach is nothing new in the academic world. He correctly notes that the DSS gives evidence of the expectation of two Messiahs. Based on the expectation of two Messiahs, Tabor suggested that Jesus and John the Baptist fit the bill – John being the senior prophet-Messiah, and Jesus being the junior priest-Messiah.
In response, I shall merely point out that there was diversity of Messianic expectations in Judaism at that time and there is no reason to privilege the Qumran community’s expectations over other Messianic expectations. Indeed, the Qumran community was a marginal community in decline after the death of its founder, the Teacher of Righteousness.
In general, Tabor adopts a skeptical view towards the biblical texts. He scoffs at the story of Herod’s slaughter of innocent children. After all, such a dastardly deed could not have been overlooked by such a thorough historian like Flavius Josephus.
Many academic historians would disagree with Tabor since the massacre was fully in keeping with Herod’s character. However, given that Bethlehem was a small village in Jesus’ day, the number of children under two would probably have been less than twenty. Not surprisingly, the episode could have been too small and too localized to catch the media headlines or get recorded by Josephus.
I will just list one more disagreement with Tabor’s often skewed reading of history. He appeals to a late 2nd and 3rd century Jewish polemic that suggests that Mary’s pregnancy was the result of seduction (or rape) by a Roman soldier named Pantera. Tabor allegedly found the tomb of Pantera in Germany. The problem is Adolf Deissmann, whom Tabor relies as his primary source, had earlier concluded that Pantera died in the middle of the first century. Given a record of his long career in the Roman army, further calculations would indicate that Pantera was probably posted to Palestine a full ten years after the birth of Jesus sometime 6-4 BC.
To his credit, Tabor senses the untenability of his position and backs off. In his official website he protests that the media has sensationalized his suggestion. He notes that the biblical texts reported that Joseph was not the physical father of Jesus, and as such, he was merely exploring all possible explanations and concluded that Pantera was “quite possibly” Jesus’ father. But the fact is, the chapter title “The Mystery of Pantera Solved” amounts to a claim to have substantiated his thesis.
Historians do not just quibble over fragmentary archaeological remains. They also assess historical claims holistically on the basis of psychological plausibility. This involves raising several questions: Would Jesus (knowing that he was illegitimate – as Tabor suggests) dare to consider himself as the Jewish Messiah? Would a bastard (pardon my words) dare lay claim to inherit the throne of David? Likewise, would James have the audacity to step in as royal successor to perpetuate the so called Davidic Dynasty if he too, knows Jesus is an illegitimate child? All these problems make Tabor’s thesis of Jesus’ illegitimacy implausible.
The plausibility of any historical thesis also lies in its explanatory power. In this regard, Tabor’s thesis is again problematic in that it fails to explain how such a dynamic movement could emerge after the execution of its founder.
It is common knowledge that the Christian faith rests on the truth claim that Jesus rose from the dead. However, Tabor’s postulates that those Christians who proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection when they found the tomb of Jesus empty were mistaken. They did not realize that Jesus’ family had reburied him in another tomb outside Jerusalem.
According to Tabor, the Christians who proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection also refused to accept James as the successor of Jesus, claiming to have received new directives from the resurrected Jesus to take the gospel to the Greeks. The question is, “Why didn’t James simply invite the misguided Greek Christians to visit the second tomb where Jesus was reburied and take a personal look at the body? James’ silence renders Tabor’s premise questionable.
For Tabor, Jesus and his followers “mapped a social and political program to be put into operation in order that the Kingdom of God might be realized on earth as it is in heaven” (p. 314). But the stark reality is that Jesus’ mission ended in a tragic failure. Such a tragic ending may well be the logical and expected outcome for the Jesus that Tabor painted. For me, this only intensifies the puzzle how such a tragic failure could jumpstart a new religious movement in the face of official persecution that included feeding believers to hungry lions.
Tabor stresses that his book is primarily a recovery process, “a building up, rather than a tearing down.” He adds that there are some rather striking connections between The Jesus Dynasty and the traditional beliefs of Islam. Of course achieving these similarities would necessarily entail discarding the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus as divine.
I personally doubt a failed Jesus would be of interest to Christians and non-Christians. It is also questionable if Christians could engage in genuine dialog with others if they have to jettison their most fundamental belief in a living Messiah able to save his followers.
Obviously, I have many disagreements with Tabor’s book. Nevertheless, it should be recognized that the book is well written and thought provoking. More importantly, it is offered as a serious academic project. Christians should give Tabor a fair hearing if they believe their faith must be based on solid historical facts. They will find the book a good challenge. At the least, they will find it an entertaining read.