The Kingdom of Christ
A bold new take on the historical Jesus raises questions about a centuries-long quest
What Tabor attempts is not completely new. As far back as the 18th century, Enlightenment scholars sought to separate the facts about Jesus and his early movement from the theological interpretations that supposedly distorted them. That quest, pursued by a variety of seekers with diverse motives and methods, has produced strikingly different accounts of Jesus, his mission, and the Christian movement. By joining the search--and by pushing it to far-reaching conclusions--Tabor raises valuable questions about the whole enterprise. Foremost among them is whether the Jesus who emerges from even the best investigations is any more real or true than the traditional figure venerated by millions of Christians.
From the beginning, some seekers of the historical Jesus have been motivated by the desire to discredit the supernatural claims of the Christian faith in order to discredit religion more generally. Others hoped to shore up Christianity and religion by presenting a more liberal or modern Jesus defined mainly by his ethical teachings. Whatever their motives, says journalist Charlotte Allen, author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus, most of the early seekers "had come to believe that history itself was a branch of science, and as such, it could even explain religious experience."
Ironically, such confidence in the historical method received a sharp blow from one of the leading investigators. In his 1906 book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, no less than Albert Schweitzer concluded that all his major predecessors tended to find a Jesus who suited their own personal and ideological needs.
For a time, many scholars concluded that the historical evidence was simply too sketchy to say anything certain about Jesus the man; the important thing, they said, was his message. But if the historical quest was briefly stalled, important mid-20th-century findings gave it new life. Long-lost documents found in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 and a rich trove of scrolls found near the Dead Sea in 1947 fed a variety of new efforts to capture the historical Jesus and the early Jesus movement.
None of those modern efforts--including the recent attempt to color-code Jesus's sayings according to their supposed authenticity--has been more productive than the attempt to recapture the Jewishness of Jesus and his world. Geza Vermes, a retired professor of Jewish studies at Oxford University, set the tone about 30 years ago with his Jesus the Jew, which located Jesus as a first-century Galilean who exemplified "the charismatic Judaism of wonder-working holy men such as the first-century B.C. Honi and Jesus's younger contemporary, Hanina ben Dosa." Other scholars have focused on the political tinderbox that was first-century Palestine in order to understand how Jesus came to be viewed as such a threat.
Yet other investigators have emphasized the varieties of Judaism in Palestine during the two centuries leading up to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70. All Jews worshiped one God and believed in the divine election of Israel, the divine origin of the Torah, repentance, and forgiveness, but new research has focused on the different emphases associated with the various religious parties of the day, including the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. Scholars have also tried to situate Jesus and his ideas within this mesh of contending Judaisms. Such efforts have, for example, helped to dispel the caricature of the Pharisees as inflexible legalists, showing them to be much closer to Jesus's emphasis on spirit and grace than some Gospels represent.