The Kingdom of Christ
A bold new take on the historical Jesus raises questions about a centuries-long quest
That source, says Tabor, is an early-second-century Christian manual, the Didache, which gives specific directions on words to be said at the Eucharist. Of the wine, which is blessed first, the words go, "We give you thanks our Father for the holy vine of David, your child which you made known to us through Jesus your child." And of the bread: "We give you thanks our Father for the life and knowledge that you made known to us through Jesus your child." Tabor writes: "Evidently this community of Jesus's followers knew nothing about the ceremony that Paul advocates. If Paul's practice had truly come from Jesus surely this text would have included it."
Surely? To some readers, that may come as a stretch. After all, there were many Christian communities spread throughout the Mediterranean world. Some certainly received different accounts of the Jesus story. Equally conjectural are Tabor's speculations about Jesus's very human paternity and his discussion of the possibility of a Jesus family tomb in Jerusalem.
Tabor admits that his book uses evidence creatively. "It takes on a novel quality that is imaginative, I hope in a way that is consistent with the facts," he says. Other scholars working on early Christianity agree. "It sounds like a creative reimagining of the historical material, more like historical fiction than history," says Boston University scholar Paula Fredriksen. But her concern is that the imaginative reconstruction may lead to pat conclusions that are not faithful to the complexity of the facts. Tabor makes much of the Epistle of James as representing the view of Jesus's brother, but Fredriksen cautions that "Most people would not accept that 'James' was James."
Fredriksen registers a more general caveat about Tabor's book: "It illustrates how plastic the evidence is," she says. Despite the big midcentury finds and ongoing discoveries, the evidence is still so sketchy that it can be taken to support conflicting or opposing arguments. Indeed, a number of other recent books draw on the modern research into the Jewishness of Jesus but come to conclusions quite different from Tabor's.
Fuzzy details. Were the canonical Gospels, and even the Epistles of Paul, really so responsible for moving the Jesus movement out of Judaism? Julie Galambush, a professor of religion at the College of William and Mary, makes a powerful case to the contrary in The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament's Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book. Based on her close reading of the New Testament, she argues that "one cannot conclude that a new religion called Christianity existed at the turn of the second century." The texts themselves are still solidly within Jewish tradition. The Gospel of Matthew, she writes, "presupposes Christians and Pharisees as two Jewish sects competing to offer the most authentic version of Jewish life and belief."
Speaking more generally about Tabor's effort, though, Galambush voices a broad skepticism about the possibility of overturning traditional Christian understandings of the New Testament with new understandings informed by a supposedly objective, scientific history. "An historical Jesus doesn't have much of a legacy," she says. Galambush points out that the Gospels were written or assembled by people who didn't equate historical truth with literal accuracy. "If it had been vital to the early Christians to have a literally accurate picture of Jesus," Galambush says, "they wouldn't have kept all four Gospels." She is not suggesting that history didn't matter to the faithful, but the details (many understood allegorically) were "less important than the religious experiences that people were having."