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
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.
June 7, 2006
Slightly revised July 21, 2006