The Da Vinci Code gravy train

Note: Please see addendum at the bottom of this post -- my thoughts on this matter have been changed. -- BK

"And did they tell you the name of the game boy?
We call it riding the gravy train." -- Pink Floyd "Have a Cigar"

With the pending release of the Da Vinci Code, I expected that people who seek to follow the admonition of 1 Peter 3:15 to be prepared to defend the faith would need to become familiar with the many historical speculations and inaccuracies in the book and movie as their first priority. What I didn't expect (although I ought to have expected) was the number of other books seeking to ride the coat-tails of the Da Vinci Code. Earlier, I have mentioned the efforts of Michael Baigent, and his new attack on Christianity The Jesus Papers. Now, comes a new book by James D. Tabor, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, entitled The Jesus Dynasty.

According to The Jesus Dynasty website, The Jesus Dynasty teaches the following:

[Jesus] joined a messianic movement begun by his relative John the Baptizer, whom he regarded as his teacher and as a great prophet. John and Jesus together filled the roles of the Two Messiahs who were expected at the time, John as a priestly descendant of Aaron and Jesus as a royal descendant of David. Together they preached the coming of the Kingdom of God. Theirs was an apocalyptic movement that expected God to establish his kingdom on earth, as described by the prophets. The two messiahs lived in a time of turmoil as the historical land of Israel was dominated by the powerful Roman empire. Fierce Jewish rebellions against Rome occurred during Jesus's lifetime.

John and Jesus preached adherence to the Torah, or the Jewish Law. But their mission was changed dramatically when John was arrested and then killed. After a period of uncertainty, Jesus began preaching anew in Galilee and challenged the Roman authorities and their Jewish collaborators in Jerusalem. He appointed a Council of Twelve to rule over the twelve tribes of Israel, among whom he included his four brothers. After he was crucified by the Romans, his brother James -- the "Beloved Disciple" -- took over leadership of the Jesus Dynasty.

James, like John and Jesus before him, saw himself as a faithful Jew. None of them believed that their movement was a new religion. It was Paul who transformed Jesus and his message through his ministry to the gentiles, breaking with James and the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, preaching a message based on his own revelations that would become Christianity. Jesus became a figure whose humanity was obscured; John became merely a forerunner of Jesus; and James and the others were all but forgotten.

In an book review authored by James C. Howell simply entitled "Book Author: James Tabor" posted April 1, 2006, the Charlotte Observer notes the following conclusions from Dr. Tabor's book:

Tabor's conclusions will trouble many:

Mary had sex with not zero men, or one man, but three men.

Jesus' father wasn't God or even Joseph, but a Roman soldier named Panthera (whose grave Tabor found in Germany).

Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist, and learned all his good material from John.

The "beloved" disciple wasn't John (as traditionally thought), or Mary Magdalene (as "The Da Vinci Code" suggests), but James, Jesus' brother. In fact, Jesus' brothers are among the twelve disciples -- though they weren't really disciples, but the regional managers, the "cabinet," of a provisional government Jesus was fashioning.

Tabor's thesis? "Rather than a church, or a new religion, Jesus established a royal dynasty."

He and John the Baptist were co-Messiahs until they died; then James, Jesus' brother, took over and "ruled" for more than 30 years ("rule" being an extravagant word for what anyone could do with a few dozen impoverished, persecuted Christians).

Jesus' tomb indeed was empty on Easter morning -- but his own followers had reburied him, either in the family tomb Tabor studied outside Jerusalem, or in Galilee, in another grave Tabor has visited.

So, what are we to make of this? Well, even the Charlotte Observer seems a bit skeptical. Note the following warnings and insights from the Charlotte Observer's book review:

The reader should beware: Though Tabor has much hard evidence, he builds on facts with a hypothesis, then a guess, a few more facts, then another two hypotheses, an artifact that admits of multiple interpretations, another fact, then a guess -- then he connects all these dots in one of dozens of possible ways.

The feel in this marvelously well-written volume is that he is building a structure of facts toward his conclusion, and the reader may easily forget that a hypothesis is merely a hypothesis, and a string of them become guesswork.

* * *

His reading of the Bible is selective: At one moment he takes a text quite literally as revealing fact, but the next moment he debunks what is in the Bible as trumped up by later generations. How do we pick and choose?

I ambivalent about Dr. Tabor. I don't know a great deal about him other than what little I have read on his website in the past. I feel comfortable in saying much of the work I have read by him in the past seems to be factually based even if it is apparent that he reaches conclusions that I find artificial. But I find it very difficult to believe his hypothesis when the Charlotte Observer can so readily find many flaws in a quick book review. With all due respect, it seems that Dr. Tabor, consciously or unconsciously, is trying to ride the gravy train from the upcoming Da Vinci Code movie just as I think Michael Baigent is doing. But it seems that the train is already overloaded with nonsense, and I hope that Dr. Tabor's book accidentally falls off the caboose.

Addendum: (4/19/2006): I made a mistake in this post which I acknowledge as the result of comments offered by Dr. Tabor. I hereby note that I am withdrawing my claim that Dr. Tabor was seeking to ride the gravy train, and my apology can be seen here. As I say, I remain skeptical about the book itself, but I was apparently wrong that Dr. Tabor was seeking to capitalize on the Da Vinci Code movie based upon the word of Dr. Tabor which I have no reason to doubt at this point.


James D. Tabor said…
Now that the dust has settled a tiny bit from the publication of my book, The Jesus Dynasty (Simon & Schuster) last week, with heavily edited sensational treatments on ABC-TV (Good Morning America, 20/20, and Nightline), a really decent cover story on this week’s USNews&WorldReport, dozens of newspaper articles, and a mailbox full of many hundreds of messages of every persuasion, I thought I might say something more directly about the book myself, as the author. I particularly want to say that I think the "gravy train" image is a cheap shot.

Despite the title, The Jesus Dynasty, and the fact that Baigent had a book out the same week, and Brown was released in paperback all over the universe, my work is a serious academic study of Jesus along the lines of what we scholars (à la Albert Schweitzer) call the “Quest for the historical Jesus. The book is wholly an historical investigation, not a theological or dogmatic one, and it rests upon my 35 years as a historian of ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Its presuppositions and methods are those common in the field among historical investigators. I deliberately chose to write it for a broad non-specialist audience, not for my colleagues in the field, so I present my evidence of Jesus, from birth to death, in what I hope will prove to be an engaging unfolding narrative style. The focus of the book is singular: What do we know about Jesus and how do we know it? Although I consider all the surviving evidence of which I am aware, including a strong emphasis on the material side of the story revealed by archaeology, much of my results come right out of the New Testament texts themselves—though read in an historical-critical fashion based on the methods in our field.

I turned 60 this year, and like many of my colleagues before me (Vermes, Crossan, Chilton, Ehrman, Friedrikson, Wright, et al.) I felt it was my time to “step up to the plate” and present my “Jesus book” before the world. I put into this book all that I have learned about Jesus in my long teaching and research career at Notre Dame, William&Mary, and UNC Charlotte). I wanted the book to be in every sense, for me at least, a “summing up.”

I interpret Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic messianic inaugurator of the Kingdom of God set in the context of the wider movement sparked by his kinsman John the Baptizer, with all the radical social, political, and religious implications thereof. After the death of John and Jesus I trace the movement through James, the brother of Jesus, and subsequently into the second century led by Simon, another bother (or perhaps cousin)—hence the “Jesus Dynasty” idea. I set the entire story in the context of the broader messianic movement in Palestine before the catastrophe of 70 A.D. I am not convinced there is any strong evidence that Jesus was married with children. My emphasis in this regard is upon Jesus’ own immediate family—the seven children of Mary his very Jewish mother. I understand Paul as diverging sharply from these founders, John, Jesus, and James, and presenting for the world a dualistic otherworldly vision of Christ and salvation that ultimately becomes “Christianity.”

The book has many surprises, some of which have been sensationalized by the press, as one would expect—particularly what I discovered about the Pantera tradition, which I don't accept (contrary to Howell), but I examine, the notion of “two Messiahs,” the surprising identity of the “beloved disciple,” and my speculations about the empty tomb. But there is much more than these elements, important as they are, and all that I say is given a wider context and laid out in a sensible academic way. I do speculate and imagine in the book, but like any historian I seek to do that responsibly, in the “direction of the evidence,” and nothing of that nature do I present dogmatically. I have expected some readers of a more evangelical Christian perspective to react negatively to the book, or I should say, to “reports” of the book, as in truth most who read it go away with a positive evaluation, even while not accepting all its conclusions.

There is lots more information about the book at, including an interview I did and quotations from the book, but better still—there is always the book itself! I have had more than one occasion of late to say to interested parties: Read the book! I also have archived a wealth of interesting materials related to my work on Christian Origins at my University Web site ( There is a perceptive review of my work, contrasting it (a bit too harshly I think) with Baigent’s latest on (
BK said…
Dr. Tabor,

I am sorry you feel that my belief that you are trying to capitalize on the Da Vinci Code is a cheap shot. Personally, I think that your views are an offense to orthodox Christianity.

While I certainly have no question about your knowledge of history or your archaeological work (which I assume to be top-notch) if you start with the assumptions that the miracles of the Bible have every-day explanations, you are going to come up with ideas that support that conclusion regardless of how far-fetched. If you really wanted to show that you are not gravy training, then you certainly could have delayed publishing your book to a later date -- sixty is not that old. My post points out that your gravy training may be unconscious, but in my view, gravy training it is. Sorry if that offends you.
James D. Tabor said…
I am not offended at all, I just think it is as cheap as it is inaccurate, but given your attitude I am not going to even attempt to explain further. Those who know me, including Ben Witherington, Craig Evans, and countless colleagues of an evangelical persuation, know my record of integrity. I think the book speaks for itself in the tone and attitude with which it is written. I have always found it best to read first, then evaluate later...Enough said, I am gone from here, though I really appreciate the attitude I just saw elsewhere on this Blog from your very moderate moderator. JT
BK said…
Dr. Tabor,

First a couple of things: you are absolutely mistaken about me. I have been the person who has been primarily in charge of the CADRE website for the last two years, and I linked to your site. Thus, it strikes me as a bit odd that you would think that I am not moderate since I have linked to your writings. That is exactly what Layman said he would do and you find him to be much more conciliatory. Hmmmmm.

Second, I don't doubt your integrity. I don't doubt that you are a fine historian. I personally look forward to reading your book which I have put a hold on at the library since I am sure that I will learn mountains of information about life in First Century Palestine. But it seems apparent to me when you say things like "I interpret Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic messianic inaugurator of the Kingdom of God set in the context of the wider movement sparked by his kinsman John the Baptizer, with all the radical social, political, and religious implications thereof" you are echoing the claims of the Jesus Seminar who is a group for which I have no respect.

If I have been wrong about about your book, I will certainly put it in headlines in a new blog, but thus far, nothing you have said has done anything but to convince me that I am correct in my assessment of the book. In other words, I take you at your words both in this comment and elsewhere what the book is about and what it says, and I find that you are starting with assumptions that I do not find to be accurate or warranted based upon my reading.

If you feel that you cannot get along with me, talk to Layman. But if you expect me to not speak my mind about this book being in the same vein as books by John Dominic Crossan, then I cannot do that. That disappoints me, because I am sure that occasional input from you would have been very valuable.
Layman said…
Dr. Tabor,

I can understand you not wanting to be associated with psuedo-scholarship like The Da Vinci Code or The Jesus Papers, because you should not be associated with such works. You are a respected scholar in the relevant field and should be treated as such. For my part, I have found your website useful and informative on the occasions I have visited it. (And please note that BK says something similar).

One thing I would say on our behalf is that this is an avowedly apologetics site. We see it as our purpose to respond to works that question the canonical presentation of Jesus, though we should be fair to those with whom we disagree. Obviously, we lack the manpower and expertise to respond to every such work that is published -- even ones by respected scholars such as yourself. Because of that it is my practice to refer readers to respectable reviewers and critiques of new theories and publications that call into question aspects of the historical basis for the Christian faith. My responsibility in such matters is to refer our readers to informed critiques, which is why I chose Ben Witherington once I saw he was doing an in-depth response on his blogs. And like I said, I will be happy to refer to your link, and any specific responses to Professor Witherington that you may pen.

I do try and personally review all works I discuss in my respective area of lay-expertise (such as Luke-Acts, Paul, the "Jesus Myth" theory, and the Testimonium in Josephus' Antiquities).

Chris (Layman)
James D. Tabor said…
I have no objection to any discussions of content or issues, that is what this enterprise is all about, i.e., the "historical Jesus." My comment had to do with the "gravy train" remark, now repeated twice, which I think is not only out of place and rude in a civil discussion but slanderous toward a researcher who presents in print a life-long work, as I explained in my original post. Being an apologist is one thing, being nasty is another. The clear implication of that phrase is that I published this book in order to ride some publicity wave and cash in. In point of fact both Baigent's book and the revelation of the Judas Gospel were moved up a week, originally scheduled for Easter weekend, out of fear that my book, coming out April 4th, would preempt these works. My date was set over 18 months ago, with no knowledge of anything coming out at this time, including the DaVinci Code...So the whole attempt to cast me in this light is unfortunate. Best, James

P.S. That you could think I somehow agree in any way with the Jesus Seminar is beyond me...since my thesis is the opposite of theirs, but that is another issue...
BK said…
Dr. Tabor,

If you are still here, I encourage you to read the following entitled "An apology to Dr. Tabor" here: It is an apology to you about the gravy train comment. As I told you, I make sure that if I make a mistake, and your most recent comment makes clear that I have, I would apologize. Moreover, I do not apologize in private, but make the apology as public as possible. We are on the up-and-up here, and always have been.
Karth Antony said…
I have read the 'Jesus Dynasty' recently. Though there is a tremendous amount of archaelogical research described in the book - the conclusions of the book are reached more by speculation and conjecture through "textual sleuthing" rather than hard evidence. Dr. Tabor feels free to use the NT gospels and other books in the Bible - but seems to reserve the right to selectively label what he likes as the truth and what he does not like as possible additions or embellishments motivated by a secret agenda.

Though he claims that Paul had literally usurped the marketing of Christianity - and had succeeded in selling his version of Christianity - he fails to address two key issues in his book. The dramatic turnaround in the disposition of Paul and the reasons and motivations behind it and the detailed theological arguments in the letter to Romans that establish the basic tenets of the Christian faith which are completely in line with the sayings of Jesus in the gospels as is obvious to any keen student of the NT.

His foregone conclusions that exclude any of the usual Christian dogmatic beliefs including virgin birth or resurrection - clearly forces him to form alternate opinions and theories. Nothing wrong with that - but when dealing with a subject that deals with the divine - all possibilities have to be considered for a balanced approach - nothwithstanding how implausible they may appear. When dealing with religion and spirituality - attempting to approach it without the possibility of the miraculous and extra-ordinary is like trying to study marine biology without swimming.

Strikingly the conclusions Dr. Tabor reaches appears to be supportive of and least disruptive of the Jewish worldview. He also appears to be quite zealous to exonerate the Jews of Jesus' era.

In the end the conclusions he reaches is beyond the scope of the research that he appears to have reached irresspective of how many years he claims he has spent. they appear far too conjectural, illogical, biased and speculative - not backed up by solid logic or factual research. Titillating probably to increase the sales but short on facts or logic in the end.

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