The Kingdom of Christ
A bold new take on the historical Jesus raises questions about a centuries-long quest
The story sounds almost familiar. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus of Nazareth, considered the rightful king of Israel by his growing following, came together with his Council of Twelve on the upper floor of a Jerusalem guesthouse. It was Wednesday, not Thursday, and so the supper they shared was a normal Jewish meal with leavened bread, not a Passover Seder with matzos. Before eating the meal, which he declared would be his last with the disciples until the coming of the Kingdom of God, Jesus blessed it in the usual Jewish fashion, giving thanks for the wine and then the bread. Afterward, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and then announced that one of them would betray him. Judas Iscariot promptly left, triggering the events that would lead to Jesus's Crucifixion the following day.
This account, much of which comes from the New Testament, conforms in certain respects with the traditional Christian story of the Last Supper. In important ways, however, it does not. According to tradition, the Last Supper was a Passover meal, so it would have taken place on Thursday evening, the day before Good Friday. And, significantly, according to tradition, Jesus would have initiated the ceremony that came to be known as the Eucharist, asking his disciples to eat the bread as his body and to drink the wine as his blood in remembrance of his sacrifice. To leave out this crucial innovation, or to have Jesus offer a standard Jewish blessing, is to tell a vastly different story. It is to put aside the "Christ of faith" and to join the centuries-old search for the "Jesus of history."
The investigator in this case is James Tabor, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. And his provocative new book, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity, takes the search for the historical Jesus to a bold--some would even say fanciful--new level. According to Tabor, Jesus, in partnership with his cousin John the Baptizer, saw himself as the founder not of a new religion but of a worldly royal dynasty. Fulfilling ancient prophecies, the dynasty, descended from King David, was destined to restore Israel and guide it through an apocalyptic upheaval culminating in the Kingdom of God on Earth. And all of this was to happen not in the distant or metaphorical future but in the very time in which they lived. Although their message was one of peaceful change, Jesus knew that he and John had aroused the suspicions of the native Herodian rulers of Palestine as well as their Roman overlords. To carry out his work, Tabor says, Jesus had established a provisional government with 12 tribal officials and named his brother James--not Peter, as traditional Christianity holds--as his successor. And indeed, according to Tabor, James later became the leader of the early Christian movement.
Hidden story. This alternative story of the birth of Christianity--including Jesus's quite worldly dynastic ambitions and the crucial role played by James and other members of Jesus's family--survives in the shadows of the New Testament, Tabor argues, but it was obscured in the version of Christianity that ultimately prevailed. Now, though, partly thanks to important archaeological finds, Tabor believes that this hidden story can be recovered. "Properly understood," he writes, "it changes everything we thought we knew about Jesus, his mission, and his message."