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The Family of Jesus

The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity. James D. Tabor. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.

James Taborís book The Jesus Dynasty, just released in April, is a breath of fresh air in historical Jesus literature. Just when you thought youíd read absolutely everything there was to know about Jesus, along comes a book that can convince you that truth really is stranger than fiction.  

The Jesus Dynasty tells the familiar basic story of Jesus, but in the light of his relationship to his family. His mother, father, brothers, sisters, and other relatives all play a part. While it is certainly serendipitous that The Jesus Dynasty appeared in print just barely more than a month before the movie version of The Da Vinci Code, Taborís book is clearly in a completely different category. Whether or not you think Jesus was married (Tabor thinks he wasn't), Jesus clearly had a family, and there's a lot we know about this family. What was the role of this family in Jesusí own life and in early Christianity?

Tabor (the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte) is well grounded in the subject and is on the front lines of archeological research in the area. He opens his book with an interesting digression into his own involvement in recent archeology concerning the family of Jesus. He describes the recent discovery of an ossuary from the first century inscribed "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" -- which Tabor and many others believe is likely genuine, despite the reports of the Israel Antiquities Authority. While Taborís account of Jesusí family does not depend on this or any other archeological discovery, this archeological sideshow is an impressive and fascinating introduction to the rest of his book.

There are surprises in practically every chapter. Tabor takes the biblical evidence on Jesusí family very seriously, but he also introduces evidence on Jesusí life, times, and family from other sources such as Eusebius and Josephus. He shows that James, the brother of Jesus, really was the leader of the church after Jesus passed from the scene -- it wasn't Peter, as the orthodox church still maintains to this day. Not only was James the next leader of the church after Jesus, but Jamesí successor (after he was murdered in the year 62) was Simon -- another member of Jesusí family.

The discussion of Simon, the "third in line" to head the church after Jesus and James, is quite intriguing. Early church writers depicted Simon as a cousin of Jesus, but Tabor concludes that Simon was probably Jesusí half-brother. Mary the mother of Jesus not only married Joseph, but after Josephís death married Clophas and had other children -- among them Simon! So you have three members of the same family (indeed, all brothers) controlling the early church for many decades. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is here a dynasty in the making, or to use a slightly different simile, early Christianity was a family-owned "business."

Another interesting feature of this book is that Tabor derives a lot of important historical information from the gospel of John. John was written much later than the other three gospels and many scholars dismiss its historical value. The Jesus Seminar, for example, rates a number of the sayings of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke as "red" or "pink" (likely to be authentic), but none of the verses in John are rated "red" or "pink." Tabor, however, argues that within the long theological monologues which John attributes to Jesus, there is much good historical information. For example, the "last supper" was not a Passover, and Jesus himself (not just John the Baptist) engaged in baptism, even before John the Baptist was thrown into prison (John 3:22-24). Johnís gospel thus throws light on an entire year of Jesusí ministry which the other gospels pass over quickly.

Tabor has a much more solid understanding of the dynamics of the final confrontation in the temple than most scholars. He depicts Jesusí disruption of the animal sacrifice business, "the most lucrative system of temple commerce in the entire Roman world," as the key incident that got Jesus killed. 

For those of us interested in the Ebionites, it gets even better: Tabor clearly states the historical importance of the Jewish Christian Ebionites, a critical step forward for Jesus scholarship. For the vegetarian and pacifist Ebionites, almost alone among early Christian groups, it was James the brother of Jesus, not Peter, who was the first leader of the church after Jesus passed on. The Ebionites also claimed members of Jesusí family as part of their own movement. This exactly accords with the case which Tabor lays out in his book.

Tabor does not devote a lot of space to the Ebionites, but clearly acknowledges that the Ebionites had a valid claim to understand Jesus:

The Ebionites rejected the letters of the apostle Paul and considered him an apostate from the original faith. Eusebius . . . classified each of these Ebionite views as heretical. And yet ironically, their views are grounded in the teachings of Jesus himself, and that tradition passed on by his brothers. (P. 303)

Tabor doesnít spell out the significance of vegetarianism for the Ebionites, though on his web site he is more straightforward. There he describes the views of the Ebionites on the subject as follows:

Disdain for eating meat and even the Temple slaughter of animals, preferring the ideals of the pre-Flood diet and what they took to be the original ideal of worship (see Gen 9:1-5; Jer 7:21-22; Isa 11:9; 66:1-4). A general interest in seeking the Path reflected in the pre-Sinai revelation, especially the time from Enoch to Noah. For example, divorce was shunned, even though technically it was later allowed by Moses.

The Jesus Dynasty is not a book to recommend to your Christian fundamentalist friends, who will doubtless be upset to see all of their traditional ideas turned upside down. Nevertheless, Tabor stays -- if anything -- closer to the scriptures than many scholars do. I found myself at several points in the narrative doing a double-take as Tabor calmly explains the significance of passages which I have dismissed out of hand as fictitious from the start. In some ways, despite his "radical" viewpoint, Tabor is more "conservative" than most Biblical scholars.

What springs to mind is his treatment of the virgin birth.  Now I would be inclined to write off the virgin birth story as a legend which may very well have become popular just because it deprecates the role of Jesus' family -- since the heretical Ebionites claimed to have members of Jesus' family among their own number.   But Tabor takes the virgin birth legends seriously, not because he thinks that Mary really was a virgin, but that it may be historical that Joseph was not the father.  He examines in some depth the origin of the name "Pantera" and the references to "Jesus son of Pantera," concluding that they may not be fabrications of Jewish opponents of the Jesus movement after all.   His examination of the evidence is interesting and challenging.  

In the middle of all the hype about The Da Vinci Code, here we have a story about Jesusí family which is solid and readable -- but with the imagination to rely on historical sources outside of the New Testament, and allow those sources to illuminate the context of the gospels and early Christianity. Tabor has demonstrated Jesusí family played a decisive role in the history of the early church, and that this involvement continued for decades and even centuries after Jesus passed from the scene. If we were to understand properly what this role was, we would have a better appreciation of how much closer some of the "heretics" were to understanding Jesus, than was the orthodox church.

Keith Akers
June 7, 2006
Slightly revised July 21, 2006