The Kingdom of Christ
A bold new take on the historical Jesus raises questions about a centuries-long quest
Jesus and Judaism. The attraction of gentiles to the Jesus movement was no problem to early Jewish leaders of the church. Jewish teaching held that righteous gentiles would be brought to the core beliefs of Judaism with the arrival of the Kingdom of God on Earth. Some leaders of the early Jesus movement differed as to whether gentiles who accepted Jesus as the messiah would also have to become full Jews through such measures as circumcision. (Paul did not.) But all believed that the Jesus movement was squarely within Judaism.
Why, then, did Judaism and Christianity pull apart? For Tabor, as for many other historians, the reason was partly political. After a Jewish uprising that led to the Roman destruction of the Temple, many members of the Jesus movement found the association with Judaism increasingly problematic. The three Gospel writers working after the Temple's razing (Matthew, Luke, and John) all had a powerful motive to highlight the supposed novelty of the Christian message: its emphasis on spirit over law. And all of the Gospel writers leveled criticism at Jews who spurned Jesus, including the Temple priesthood and the Pharisees. Later, Christian readers of the Gospels would see that criticism as a rejection of Judaism in general, often holding Jews solely and collectively responsible for the Crucifixion of Jesus.
The role of Paul in leading the Jesus movement toward orthodox Christianity is one of the more important and contentious points of Tabor's argument. Much recent scholarship has tried to show that Paul's teaching represents a variety of the Judaism of his time. It points out, for example, that Paul never equates Jesus with God and that the phrase "son of God," like the word messiah, has many possible meanings within Jewish tradition. Tabor tries to walk a fine line: "I don't want to pull Paul out of his Jewish context, but he does emphasize the man over the message. He creates a 'heavenly, exalted' figure. He equates Jesus's functionality with Jahweh's. Jesus is a manifestation of God's lower powers but more than human."
And, ultimately, Paul's version of Jesus as divine savior obscures and replaces the apocalyptic visionary and dynasty builder--who for Tabor is the more credible Jesus: "I don't think Jesus taught that he was the savior, believe in me and you will be saved."
How to prove that interpretation is, of course, the question. Tabor often engages in close textual analysis of the Scriptures themselves. In discussing the Gospel of Matthew's claim that Jesus's virgin birth was the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, Tabor explains that the Hebrew word that Matthew translates as "virgin" "means a 'young woman' or 'maiden' and carries no miraculous implications."
But often Tabor must look beyond the Scriptures to support his claims. Why, for example, does he think that Jesus did not institute the "eat my body/ drink my blood" tradition at the Last Supper? Again, he calls this liturgical tradition an invention of Paul, recorded in Corinthians and picked up by Mark. Matthew and Luke follow Mark, but John does not. Tabor admits that he needs an independent source to challenge the idea that Jesus would have broken with the Jewish tradition of blessing the wine and then the bread--and, even more significantly, that he would have violated a strong Jewish taboo against even symbolic cannibalism.