Friday, May 5, 2006

Tabor on Jesus

I know that it's been several weeks since I've posted anything on this site, but the various activities associated with the end of the academic year have made things a little crazy. However, I'm now back in Louisville for the next few weeks, so I should have a little more time to kill publishing meaningless little sermonettes on all kinds of biblical topics. In the meantime, I wanted to share an interview I discovered through the Biblical Archaeology Society's Companion. The subject is James Tabor, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who has written a controversial new book entitled The Jesus Dynasty (which I'm currently reading... hence the interest).

James Tabor, 60, chair of the religious studies department at UNC Charlotte, is the author of "The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity" (Simon & Schuster, $27). Based on early Christian documents and archaeological discoveries, the new book has put Tabor in the national spotlight for its controversial look at Jesus and Christianity.

" `The Jesus Dynasty' presents the Jesus story in an entirely new light," he writes in a preface. "It is history, not fiction. And yet it differs considerably, sometimes radically, from the standard portrait of Jesus informed by theological dogma."

The content, he says, may be "the greatest story never told."

"It will thrill and excite many," he writes, "upset and anger others, but also challenge its readers ... to honestly weigh evidence and consider new possibilities."

Reading Life Editor Jeri Krentz recently talked to Tabor about his work. Here's the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Q. How much time did you spend writing "The Jesus Dynasty?"

My teaching career spans about 35 years. In some ways, I started then.

This book is my "Jesus book." Many of us that work in the field of Christian origins ... come to a point toward the end of our career that we decide to look back and say, "OK, what about this man Jesus that we study?"

It seemed that my research was at a point where I could present some things that were fairly resolved, in my mind at least.

Q. You told a reporter that you hoped to capitalize on the interest in early Christianity sparked by Dan Brown's best-selling "The Da Vinci Code."

I do want that market. That (book) has fanned such an interest in people. They have a desire to know and maybe they're not satisfied with just what they've heard in theological approaches to Christian faith.

Q. "Nightline" aired a story about your work on April 7. What was that like?

(Over UNCC's spring break), I was digging in Israel ... and ("Nightline" co-anchor) Martin Bashir came over with his crew. We did three days of intense interviews.

At one point he said, Dr. Tabor, I take it you don't really believe that Jesus is God, that he was born of a virgin, that he was raised from the dead, that he's in heaven. Are you trying to destroy Christianity with your book?

I said to him: Martin, every one of those statements are theological. People believe these things. They're welcome to believe them. I don't want them not to believe them.

But the book is history. None of those kinds of statements can be examined historically. I'm dealing with what can ... we really know historically.

Q. Can you explain what you mean by the Jesus "dynasty"?

The Jesus dynasty is another way of saying Jesus' family -- not meaning his own offspring, but his brothers, male heirs to the throne of King David.

Q. You paint a picture of Jesus. You say, for example, that he probably was a stonemason, not a carpenter.

He was poor. Very poor. I think he was a peasant. But I don't think he was illiterate.

He's obviously bright, intelligent. He's of this lineage that's actually quite impressive, but the indication is that the family doesn't have much money. They're laborers, so he's doing manual labor.

It's more likely that he's working in stone (rather than wood). Many of us now are looking around at how buildings were made at that time and realize wood is so minimal.

Q. And what about Mary and Joseph?

Joseph is a puzzle. He's mentioned at the birth stories and never mentioned again. There's a tradition in the church that Joseph likely died. Maybe he was older. We don't know for sure.

But Mary, as I take it -- and because of Roman Catholic dogma, people disagree on this -- I believe that she had other children, that she had six other children, four boys and two girls.

She's a Jewish mother with a full family living in a little village. We have to imagine her doing all the things that women in households would do. Struggling to make ends meet and raising her children with all the hardships that come with that.

But again, we don't know.

Q. That's obviously a controversial part of your book.

As a historian I feel obligated, even though it's touchy, to say if that he (Jesus), like all other human beings, had a father; is there anything more we could say?

And, in fact, there is one name that comes up. He's referred to as a Roman soldier. So I explore what we know about that.

If somebody wants to say, "Look. I don't think he even had a father," then, fine. You can't investigate those kinds of things from 2,000 years ago.

But my assumption is that humans have mothers and fathers both, so that's what I follow up on.

Q. And Jesus' relationship with John the Baptist?

I try to resurrect, to use a loaded term, two people, John and James. On one side is John, who's a bit older than Jesus, and on the other side is James, who's his younger brother.

I think they've both been forgotten. James is forgotten more than John because John is mentioned fairly prominently. But John is mentioned almost like one who comes on stage, points to Jesus, walks off stage and you hardly hear from him again.

In his time, I don't think it was that way. I think he (John) is Jesus' mentor, his teacher. I think they're a team.

I also introduce a notion that I think people just aren't familiar with -- but scholars know it -- and that is that in Judaism during that day, they were expecting two messiahs, not one. One was to be a priest, which John was, and the other was to be of the Davidic lineage, a king, which Jesus was.

I have a chapter called "The Two Messiahs," in which I talk about how John and Jesus together are seen as a team ... with Jesus baptizing in the south and John in the north.

Q. You make the point that Christianity today differs from the message spread by Jesus' successors. What do you mean?

It all has to do with theological beliefs: that he was preexistent, that he's divine, that he was born of a virgin without a father, that he died on the cross for our sins.

These are statements of Christian belief and dogma, mainly developed by Paul.

Jesus himself didn't talk about that, especially in the early sources. He talked more about what is the right way to live.

Q. You write that your research "challenges many sacred dogmas of Christian orthodoxy." Are you prepared for a backlash?

I'm not out to storm the citadel of Christian faith.

A crucial point in my book is what happened when Jesus died and was buried and how did the tomb get empty. I present what I think is possibly likely from a historical viewpoint: that maybe the family took the body and reburied it.

But someone at that point could say, "I don't think that. I think God raised him from the dead." There's nothing at that point I can really say other than, "I don't think that."

Someone could say, well then, you're not a Christian. By somebody's definition, I might not be.

But Christians never seem to be able to agree on who's a Christian. They've been fighting for 2,000 years as to who qualifies.

I didn't write the book with the intention of "Let's see how I can shake everybody up." At each one of those crucial junctures, someone is free to say, "My faith takes me further than that."

But my history doesn't.

There's somewhere in the book the statement that good history is never the enemy of true faith. I guess that's more or less my position.

Q. Do you want to say anything about the historical Jesus that you have come to know?

I've given my life to trying to understand this person, Jesus of Nazareth. I find him so moving ... the most fascinating and interesting and compelling character in Western history.

I try to present that in the book. Out of all the Jewish teachers of his time, he seems to just get so many things right. There are other rabbis I study. But with Jesus, it seems like every parable, every story, just has a perennial ring to it that grips you.

I find myself, at age 60, still just utterly taken with him.