Run a Google search for “the historical Jesus” and you end up with more than 650,000 results. But the search for a historical Jesus itself isn’t anything new. In fact, not only did it start in the 18th Century, but Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer published his classic work, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, in 1906.
If anything, popular interest in Christianity’s origins has grown over the last several years with the success and attendant news coverage of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The title of James D. Tabor’s nonfiction work, The Jesus Dynasty, would make it seem yet another entry in the market based on the premise that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and produced offspring. Tabor’s work, however, is a serious exploration of the so-called historical Jesus and the origins and development of what we now call Christianity.
The Jesus Dynasty does contains some assertions that will attract attention and even be considered heresy. For example, Tabor not only postulates that Jesus was fathered by a man but also that his mother, Mary, was married more than once. But these are not the main points of the book, merely factors Tabor uses to develop his theme.
Tabor points to history, the Christian canon, works that were excluded from the Bible and archaeological evidence to advance a theory that is, at bottom, quite simple and not wholly unique. According to Tabor, Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist and together they founded a Messianic movement. This was not the type of messiah as Jesus is viewed today. Rather, John (who Tabor calls John the Baptizer) and Jesus were messiahs in the sense that John, representing the priestly line descended from Aaron, and Jesus, representing the royal line descended from David, were destined to bring to Judaism “God’s kingdom on Earth.” Tabor argues that prior to his death, Jesus entrusted control of the movement to his brother, James, and that for decades thereafter James and other brothers of Jesus led the movement. That is the dynasty –? the leadership of this movement were all descendants of Mary.
Similarly, Tabor, the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, asserts that Jesus was not establishing a new religion. Instead, Jesus was a Jew whose Messianic Movement was an apocalyptic one in which the kingdom of God would be realized on earth if Israel repented and fully embraced the Torah and the prophets. This kingdom would be one in which the earth would be filled with the knowledge of God. Thus, Jesus’ message was attempting to teach the moral, spiritual and ethical principles that would enable the realization of that kingdom.
How, then, did the “Jesus Dynasty” and its principles become what is now known as Christianity? Tabor says those ideas came from Saint Paul. Although Jesus designated his brother as his successor, Paul managed to gain popular control and converted John the Baptizer into a follower rather than a leader and Jesus from a man to the son of God. Tabor points out how the gospels and other literature of the time reflect this change and how his theories are far more consistent with 1st Century ideas and thought than what is accepted today.
Tabor makes a well-reasoned and credible, although not always compelling, case. If anything, he suffers the same hindrances as others seeking the historical Jesus. There is certainly no definitive information and, thus, conclusions must be based on personal analysis of particular parts of the puzzle. Plainly, others can –? and do –? reach different conclusions looking at the identical evidence or by emphasizing other evidence. And this is where The Jesus Dynasty tends to suffer. Tabor tends to make definitive statements when, in fact, he is expressing his opinion.
For example, he writes, “By the time he was thirty years old [Jesus] had begun to formulate a plan that he believed would lead to the complete overthrow of all that Rome and its Jewish sympathizers and supporters represented[.]” Similarly, Tabor later notes that in traveling to Capernaum in northern Galilee prior to Passover in 27 A.D., “Jesus definitely had something strategic in mind.” While Tabor can muster evidence to support these positions, it is impossible for him to definitively state that Jesus formulated a plan or that anything he did was a strategic move. Yet these are just two of many instances of Tabor asserting his hypotheses as fact. While that may make the book readable, it cannot help but undercut trust in whether other statements are ones of fact or theory.
Still, The Jesus Dynasty is a highly readable exploration of not only Christian origins but also life in the 1st century and Jewish tradition and customs. In fact, when Tabor takes the reader to various archeological sites, you can understand the excitement he expresses about being there. It is rare that an alternative exploration of Christian history and its original thought comes in such a non-polemic and entertaining package.
[H]istory, by its very nature, is an open process of inquiry that cannot be bound by the dogmas of faith.
James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty