Next Up, James Tabor's The Jesus Dynasty

It has been a busy week for apologists and those interested in things historical. After The Jesus Papers and The Gospel of Judas, I thought I could take it easy around here until The Da Vinci Code movie debuts later in May. But then Professor Witherington entered a lengthy critique of Dr. James Tabor's new book, The Jesus Dynasty. BK has already posted good stuff about Dr. Tabor's theory, which is that Jesus and John the Baptist were something like co-messiahs. After John was killed, Jesus reconsidered his mission and began preaching against the Romans and their collaborators anew until his own death in Jerusalem.

Jesus' family featured prominently during his ministry and upon his death, James took the helm. Dr. Tabor considers James to be "the beloved diciple." But then Paul usurped the Christian message, altered it according to his own personal revelations, and founded what we know today as Christianity. Which is not something, apparently, Jesus would have much to do with. Jesus had intended for his family to govern Israel (hence the "Dynasty"), not to found a new religion.

Professor Ben Witherington has posted the first of a four-part response to Dr. Tabor. As to Dr. Tabor's claim that Jesus' father was really a Roman soldier:

Tabor trots out for us the shop-worn tale of Mary being impregnated by a Roman soldier named Pantera. As he rightly notes, this story first appears in a work written by a Greek philosopher named Celsus (circa A.D. 178), a work entitled ‘On the True Doctrine’ which is a polemical document Origen was to take on. Tabor then points to rabbinic traditions, predicated of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus which refers to Jesus as the ‘son of Panteri’.

The problem with this evidence is two fold: 1) the earliest Jewish text which includes this idea is Palestinian Tosephta t. Hullin 2.22-24. This is certainly not a first century text at all, and indeed it was written at a time when the polemics between early Christianity and early Judaism were in high gear. The same can be said about the text from Celsus, only in that case the debating partner is a pagan. As even John Dominic Crossan recently said on the CBS 48 Hours ‘Mystery of Christmas’ show we both appeared in December of 2005, these stories about Pantera are the later rebuttals to the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin. They are not the origins of the Gospel stories which are clearly earlier than such texts.

Next, Professor Witherington responds to Dr. Tabor's dismissal of Mattthew's account of the slaughter of the innocents:

This is unfortunate, since the archaeological and historical records support the likelihood of this event. Firstly, it is completely in character for Herod the Great to do such a thing as he was paranoid about the succession even executing some of his own offspring and wives! Secondly, Bethlehem was a very tiny town in Jesus’ day. If all children under two were killed we still would not be talking about even 10 children in all likelihood. Such a small event in a small town, well off Josephus’ radar screen when he wrote his history of the ‘Jewish Wars’ and even later his ‘Antiquities’ could easily have been missed by him. It is not good history to exaggerate the size of the slaughter, and it is an argument from silence to say it didn’t happen because Josephus doesn’t mention it. Matthew mentions it, and not just for theological reasons either.

Prof. Witherington goes on to point out a pervasive shortcoming of Tabor's work:

And here we must register a major complaint about this study. This is not a complaint about the detailed attention to archaeological or Jewish historical detail. Tabor’s study, like the work of Bart Ehrman, is long on the author’s forte (in this case archaeology, in Ehrman’s case text criticism) but very, very short on real exegesis of relevant NT texts. Neither of these scholars has produced any commentaries on any books of the NT, and consequently they do not show any signs of having had to wrestle at length with Gospel texts in their larger literary contexts. Rather bits and pieces of verses are abstracted from their contexts in the Gospels and elsewhere to create a new creative whole, used to bolster theories arrived at on grounds other than detailed exegesis of the primary source texts.

This lack of experise concerning the primary textual evidence means that Dr. Tabor pays insufficent attention too, and gives insufficient weight too, the textual evidence regarding Jesus. The notion that Jesus viewed John the Baptist as a messianic figure finds no support in the relevant documents. Nor do the relevant documents provide any support for the notion that Jesus intended to found a family dynasty to rule Israel.

I doubt Dr. Tabor's theory will shift historical Jesus studies in any particular direction. It involves simply too much "historical conjecture" and not enough supporting evidence.

Update: Prof. Witherington has published his second of four posts on The Jesus Dynasty. He tackles Dr. Tabor's simplistic use of Q, noting that "the underlying form critical methodology used to determine the authenticity of this material, where you slice and dice even half verses into pieces, deeming one part authentic and another not, has been shown a long time ago to be deeply flawed." Prof. Witherington also tackles the flawed exegesis regarding Jesus' relationship with John the Baptist and concludes that the argument about their acting as co-messiahs is "pure conjecture." He also responds to the arguments that Jesus believed that the end of the world was close at hand and that he taught an "interim ethic." The majority of the post, however, is devoted to responding convincingly to Dr. Tabor's novel understanding of Jesus' relationship with his family.


Jennifer said…
The Biblical Inerrancy debate has been burning a hole in my blog this week. As a Christian who is also an archaeology student, free-thinker, and, as of this week, a confirmed heretic, I am interested in the work of both Ehrman and Tabor. That’s not to say I agree with them; I just think it’s worthwhile to examine what they have to say and likewise, what the apologists have to reply. Thanks for this good summarization of The Jesus Dynasty.

I do have a major complaint with Prof. Witherington’s major complaint:

Neither of these scholars has produced any commentaries on any books of the NT, and consequently they do not show any signs of having had to wrestle at length with Gospel texts in their larger literary contexts.

I think one of the problems skeptics have with Biblical text is that the Christian community has neglected to portray it in its “larger literary context.” I would argue that Tabor and Ehrman are much more inclined to look at it from a literary viewpoint simply because they do not believe it. To them, it is a work of fiction. They have no emotional attachment to the message of the Bible, and are therefore more objective in their perspective of it Just my two cents.
Layman said…

I do not think that having a dismissive attitude towards the New Testament texts as "fiction" makes one "more objective." IMO, the underutilized "criticism" for studying the New Testament is that of genre criticism. The best available scholarly inquiry into just what the canonical Gospels are is Richard Burridge's revised What Are the Gospels?, where he makes a powerful case that they are ancient biographies.

I am still of the opinion that the Gospel of Luke is a type of ancient historiography given that it is a two-part work with Acts, but the distinction may not be too substantive, as both genre's focused on producing historical material. This is no gaurantee against legendary embellishments working their way into the tradition, or against purposed redactions, but it does mean that if you approach the NT Gospels as fiction you are starting off on the wrong foot.

A good, though broad, inquiry into the genres of the New Testament books is Davie Aune's, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment
Jennifer said…
Thanks for the reply, and the book recommendations.
Layman said…
Correction: That should be "David Aune's The New Testament in its Literary Environment.
James D. Tabor said…
I appreciate the detailed comments and evaluation of my friend Ben Witherington on my book. We have been in close touch via e-mail since it came out and had begun to discuss various points along the way. Needless to say we differ considerably in our methods and our presuppositions, and as in any debate, I find many of his charges and points needing rebuttal. He and I have discussed how we might be able to do that at some upcoming forum, perhaps the SBL meeting.

On the wider issue, 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 (
Layman said…
Dr. Tabor,

Thanks for dropping a Comment.

I am going to be placing Prof. Witherington's four-part series responding to The Jesus Dynasty on the CADRE's main website, I will include a link to your website as well.

Layman said…
BTW, I will say that despite my own political leanings, Salon often has balanced articles, or discussions, on issues related to biblical studies. They often draw on top scholars to discuss issues as well.

Thanks for the link to that article.

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