The Jesus Dynasty and the Limits of Inquiry

Christianity Today for the week of May 15, 2006, has published an article by Darrell Bock, author of Breaking the Da Vinci Code: Answers to the Questions Everyone's Asking, in which he reviews James Tabor's latest book The Jesus Dynasty. The article, titled "The Jesus Dynasty: How to Explain Away the New Testament", makes the case that the assumptions that Dr. Tabor makes in his look at the life of Jesus rules out at the outset the possibility of God's miraculous intervention into the affairs of humanity. According to Bock:

Professor Tabor's Jesus Dynasty is a fascinating combination of historical and archaeological detail mixed with bits of naturalistic, "historical" explanation. He introduces the Virgin Birth as Christianity's "fundamental theological dogma":

But history, by its very nature, is an open process of inquiry that cannot be bound by dogmas of faith. Historians are obliged to examine whatever evidence we have, even if such discoveries might be considered shocking or sacrilegious to some. The assumption of the historian is that all human beings have both a biological mother and father, and that Jesus is no exception. That leaves two possibilities–either Joseph or some other unnamed man was the father of Jesus. (Emphasis his).

I start my overview here, because here we have stated a historiolgraphical dogma. (Note Tabor's phrases: "by its nature … cannot be … are obliged … assumption is … no exception.") Even before we look at the evidence or consider the possibilities, we have the Bible's explanation ruled out. This is the dilemma the Bible poses for those who wish to explain its claims while denying that God is capable of doing unique things.

I'm not certain that Bock is fully correct in his analysis of this paragraph. At the outset, one should note that Tabor does not appear to be saying that science should assume a naturalistic explanation until evidence suggests that something extra-natural has occurred. To me, such an assumption would be both good and necessary to conducting an inquiry. I certainly don't assume that trees are miraculously created every time one starts to grow in my backyard (I certainly know weeds aren't miraculously created -- there are too many of them.) But good science should not assume away possible explanations in the name of naturalism.

Still, the language quoted by Bock appears to show that Tabor's approach is to assume away any possible extra-natural explanation for the birth of Jesus. He says that historians should assume that Jesus had a biological mother and father, and I have no quibble with that. In the name of truth, when making an objective inquiry into the historical Jesus, we absolutely ought to start with the assumption that he was like everyone else and look for his earthly mother and father -- at least, until evidence leads us to a contrary conclusion. To this point, Dr. Tabor and I agree. But then he goes farther and makes an unwarranted statement that he even highlights: "That leaves two possibilities–either Joseph or some other unnamed man was the father of Jesus." To the extent we are talking about the possibilities within the assumption, I agree that these are the two possibilities. But if he is suddenly leaping from "we should assume" to "this assumption excludes extra-natural possiblities", then we are significantly different.

I have a copy of Tabor's book with me. I will read it as soon as I have finished Baigent's horrible The Jesus Papers, but for this post I took the time to look up the chapter that Bock references in his writing. I am not certain that Tabor is saying that he is absolutely excluding the possiblity of extra-natural involvement. Instead, he goes on from the paragraph quoted to make a case that the suggestion of a "virgin birth" could possibly be more spiritual, that the failure of Mark and John to talk about the birth of Jesus suggests that their was something untoward in the story, and to note that others were suggesting that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman Soldier (I don't find his arguments particularly convincing on this point, but I will deal with that in a later post). From these, he seems to suggest that it is appropriate to stick with the old canard of Jesus being the illegitimate son of a Roman Soldier as being the most likely explanation given the historic assumption that he made.

Unfortunately, it is not clear which way he uses the assumption. Is it an "exclusive" assumption where only the naturalistic explnations are possible, or is it an "inclusive" assumption which allows for the possibility of extra-natural explanations in certain situations? I wouldn't be surprised if it were the former because, Tabor, as a historian, certainly views himself as a scientist and it seems as if scientists bristle at any suggestion of outside intervention.

Science has materialistic naturalism as a base, and Tabor, who appears to be a good historian (even if his conclusions are somewhat shaky in my early reading of some of the book) and who I sincerely doubt believes in a God who could be active in our world (since the Jesus he found is not the true Son of God who raised from the dead but a typical preacher to the poor whose message was revived following his crucifixion by his family), would appear to have adopted that viewpoint. If so, it makes sense that Tabor would not believe it even possible that God would actively interefere with the naturalistic world he set up. It would seem to follow that if God won't even interfere in the affairs of the world to extra-naturally bring Jesus into the world, then he certainly wouldn't interfere by personally stepping into the world in the person of Jesus, would he? This, in part, explains his conclusion that the story of the Resurrection is a fabrication and the view that Jesus' body is probably buried in Tsfat, a low mountainous region north of Capernaum. After all, if God is not involved then there has to be a story -- no matter how fantastic that -- that explains the story of Jesus even though the accounts (which he explains away) line up against the viewpoint.

I think Bock makes an excellent summary of what Tabor is doing:

Despite Tabor's mostly excellent historical work, his assumptions force him to conclusions far from what historical documents would suggest. Tabor's study is an intriguing look at how one very competent Bible historian attempts to appropriately root Christian origins in first-century Judaism while reacting whenever that testimony violates Tabor's assumptions.

(Edited for content 9:53 a.m. MDT)


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