The Kingdom of Christ
A bold new take on the historical Jesus raises questions about a centuries-long quest
Earthly realm. Tabor sees himself squarely within this effort to restore the Jewish context of Jesus's life and mission. But to him, the big question is what Jesus did within that context: "Was he an apocalyptic visionary," Tabor asks, "or a preacher of ethics?" His answer: "He was probably both, but if you leave out the former, you miss something." More provocatively, Tabor insists that Jesus's vision of what was to come was not some otherworldly kingdom in a nebulous future but an imminent earthly realm, with Jerusalem as the spiritual capital of a restored Israel. Righteousness, justice, and peace would reign, drawing people away from idolatry to the worship of the one true God.
That, quite clearly, is not how later Christians interpreted Jesus's vision of the coming kingdom. "Most forms of Christian eschatology wait for something so otherworldly that its failure to arrive is no problem," Tabor says, "but the Jesus I find took things in hand and tried to make something happen." Tabor acknowledges that seeing Jesus this way is to see him as an "apocalyptic failure," but he finds Jesus no less an inspiration for being that.
Certain Gospels show Jesus hesitant to accept the label messiah, but Tabor insists that Jesus understood the word (literally "anointed one") as having spiritual and political connotations. And he believed both described his divinely ordained mission. His confidence derived in part from his royal pedigree as a descendant of the "Branch of David." But it also came, Tabor argues, from his knowledge of particular prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures and of contemporary speculation (captured in many of the Dead Sea Scrolls) about the coming of the two messiahs. "In text after text, we read about not one but two Messiahs who are to usher in the Kingdom of God," writes Tabor. "One is to be a kingly figure of the royal line of David, but at his side will be a priestly figure, also a Messiah, of the lineage of Aaron from the tribe of Levi."
That priestly figure, in Tabor's reading, is Jesus's cousin John the Baptizer, even though later Christian tradition would reduce him to a herald rather than an equal. The reason for the demotion is obvious: John cannot be as important as the only son of God and second person of the Trinity, which is how orthodox Christianity comes to understand Jesus.
Equally downplayed in Christian tradition is Jesus's brother James, a figure who is crucial to Tabor's thesis that Jesus was a dynasty builder who saw his mission being carried forward by his siblings. For some 30 years after the Crucifixion, James dominated the Jesus movement through his leadership of the church in Jerusalem. But orthodox Christianity (shaped in large measure by Paul, who greatly influenced the four canonical Gospels as well as Acts of Apostles) reduced his role, elevating Peter and Paul to a higher standing.
The slighting of James--early church leaders questioned the canonical status of the Epistle of James, and later Christian theologians disparaged it--had everything to do, Tabor insists, with the effort of an increasingly gentile church to suppress the original and solidly Jewish message and mission of John the Baptist, Jesus, and James. James's Epistle was troubling to later Christians because it insisted that law and works were as important as grace or faith. Furthermore, Tabor notes, "the letter lacked any reference to Paul's view of Jesus as the divine son of God, his atoning death on the cross, or his glorified Resurrection."