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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
But faith need not be undercut by historical fact. A dramatic example of how historical research can shore up even a very traditional Christian reading is novelist Anne Rice's new book, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Written after her return to the Roman Catholic Church after a 30-year hiatus, the novel is narrated by a 7-year-old Jesus. It takes him and his family from Egypt back to his family's home in Nazareth by way of Jerusalem, where Jesus sees a Jewish uprising being quelled in the bloodiest fashion. For her book, Rice plowed through much of the best scholarship re-creating Jesus's Jewish milieu. But useful as Rice found that research, she says she was unconvinced by the efforts of many scholars to discredit what she considers the crucial claims of the canonical Gospels. "In sum," she writes, "the whole case for the nondivine Jesus who stumbled into Jerusalem and somehow got crucified by nobody and had nothing to do with the founding of Christianity and would be horrified by it if he knew about it--that whole picture which had floated in the liberal circles I frequented as an atheist for 30 years--that case was not made." People may find fault with Rice's attempts to fictionalize the way the child Jesus comes to understand his divine character, but her extensive use of the historical sources is no more creative than Tabor's.
Or is it? That is the great argument of our time, the cultural, intellectual, and social debate pitting religion against science, faith against fact. But perhaps the many conclusions coming out of the quests for the historical Jesus suggest that none can ultimately claim to find the "real" or "true" man. It may be that the elusiveness of Jesus, his life and his meaning, is part of his enduring power and mystery.
This story appears in the April 17, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.