by James D. Tabor
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006, 384 pp.
Reviewed by James F. Strange
This book represents a wholly alternative reading of the New Testament gospels, aimed at a popular audience. I use “alternative” in its root sense—namely, “other.” Some readers may say, “Finally, a laying bare of the real story that was concealed for centuries by the church and is now made available to us.” They might add, “And this one is written by a scholar with real credentials.” Yes, that’s so. But author James Tabor presents us with a thoroughly personal quest, not a dispassionate inquest.
“The Jesus Dynasty,” he writes, “is a new historical investigation of Jesus, his royal family, and the birth of Christianity. At the same time it is a reflection of my own personal quest, integrating the results of my own discoveries and insights over the course of my professional career.”
In other words, Tabor seems to have a personal stake in letting us in on his “discoveries and insights.” I wish I knew what that stake was, besides telling us that Christianity is all a mistake. Has he finally, after centuries of systematic doubt from Feuerbach, Freud, Voltaire, Bruno Bauer, Lüdermann, Spong, the Jesus Seminar and others, finally got the Jesus story straight?
The book is substantial. It contains 317 pages of text. At the end there is a useful “Timeline of Major Events and Figures.” This is followed by 23 pages of endnotes, acknowledgments and a helpful index. Furthermore, there are three maps and 67 unnumbered photographs and line drawings, including ten paintings of ancient scenes. It’s a shame the paintings could not be printed in color, though two of the paintings in color do grace the end papers.
In his introduction, Tabor relates an exciting story of how he and his students, working with Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson in 2000, discovered a looted tomb with smashed ossuaries (bone boxes) and a burial shroud in Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley. The shroud was carbon-dated to the first half of the first century C.E. Tabor thinks there is reason to believe that the famous James ossuary (inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”a) was looted from the Tomb of the Shroud. Furthermore, Tabor links this tomb with the tomb found in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot neighborhood in 1980, because certain names found on ossuaries from the Tomb of the Shroud also occur on ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb. The names in the Talpiot-tomb ossuaries included Mary (twice), Jude son of Jesus, Matthew and Jesus son of Joseph. (Incidentally, this gives us the sequence Joseph begat Jesus who begat Jude, which is not the order in the holy family.)
Tabor then asks a sizzling hot question: “Was it possible that we had unknowingly stumbled upon the Jesus family tomb?” This reveals the rather sensational tone of the book.
Now, I have to put on my scholar’s hat and ask why anyone would think that the Jesus family tomb was in Judea and not in Galilee, though I do not mean to imply that this was impossible. Furthermore, why two tombs? (There are three, if we count the 1926 Talpiot tomb found by Eliezer Sukenik, which also featured the name Jesus son of Joseph on an ossuary.) Tabor gives no clear answer, just a simple assertion. This pattern—asserting a proposition, not establishing the truth of the proposition—repeats itself throughout the book.
Tabor’s thesis is that Jesus, first as follower and then colleague of John the Baptizer, set up a dynasty for himself because he was a royal descendant of King David; that is, he conceived of himself as the earthly Messiah, like King David; Messiah, that is, as ruler and deliverer of Israel. Jesus’ successors were to be his brothers, beginning with James. Tabor analyzes the genealogies in Matthew and Luke to support this contention. When both John the Baptizer and then Jesus were killed, that aborted the dynastic campaign, but brought on the birth of Christianity.
Tabor even argues that, since Nazareth is derived from netzer (“shoot, branch”), Jesus was living in Branch Town, a locality occupied by descendants of David. How does that follow? In fact, there is another town in Galilee with a name that could mean “shoot,” and that is H.elif of Naphtali, mentioned in Joshua 19:33. Are we to conclude that it, too, was built and populated by descendants of David? Should any town with a similar name be so interpreted?1
In certain details, Tabor seems to know more than anyone else. For example, he knows that Mary was born “around the year 18 B.C.” He knows that when Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 as saying a virgin (rather than a “young woman”) shall bring forth a son, Matthew is quoting directly from the Hebrew, instead of quoting the Greek Septuagint. Tabor knows that Moabite women had a reputation as “sexual temptresses.” He knows that Simon the Zealot was one of Jesus’ brothers. He knows that no pig bones have been found in excavations in Galilee. He knows that the year 26/27 was a Sabbatical Year. How does he know all that?
And by the way, he tells us a “shocking truth,” namely, that Jesus and his followers were never baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Is he being ironic?
Indulge me in a little irony: No, James! Say it ain’t so!
There is much in this book that is valuable and important—for example, the discussion of the cave at Suba and its possible connection with John the Baptist.b Another is Tabor’s treatment of Jesus’ “trial.” There is also good information about certain archaeological discoveries, such as the tomb of Caiaphas and the “Caiaphas ossuary.”c The discussion of the role of James in later Christian tradition is also attention grabbing. And besides all this, it is a fascinating read, a well-written, free speculation. On the other hand, there are just too many conjectures presented as “discoveries.”
This is not the book that will finally tell us the Jesus story straight. For that, we will have to go back to the Gospels.
1. Let me pursue this place name a bit. James and Levi (Matthew) are known in the New Testament as sons of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:3 and Mark 2:14). This name is ordinarily understood as derived from Aramaic h.alaf (plj), “to be smooth, glistening, or sharp edged.” It also means “to replace, to exchange, to barter, and to pass by.” Pointed as h.elef it means “a shoot” and even “substitute.” A variant of the name is H.alafta (“willow”), which is the name of the father of a famous early rabbi of Sepphoris. H.alef (Aphaeus) was found in a sixth century Aramaic inscription on a column at Capernaum in the form “Halfu bar Zebida” (Alphaeus son of Zebedee.) I would conclude that the place name gave rise to personal names derived from h.elef (a common practice), much as a form of Magdala became Mary Magdalene’s “family name.” But Tabor says that Clopas (John 19:25) is Chalaf in Hebrew (not Aramaic), but he prefers the meaning “substitute.” This allows him to assert that Joseph had died and Clopas (his nickname) took Mary as his own in levirate marriage.
Ordinarily we prefer simple explanations for personal names or for family names based on place names. Tabor’s argument amounts to a hypothesis, but how in the world would we test it?
James F. Strange is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and executive director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Greek Studies at the University of South Florida. He has excavated at numerous sites in Israel, including Sepphoris in the Galilee.