Essays on John the Baptist: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (6)

In this new six part series I present responses to s offered in my course at UNC Charlotte on “John the Baptist.” John is the most underrated figure in Christian tradition, rarely given his due as a messiah and inaugurator of the movement Jesus himself arose from. The responses are by my student, Jeff Poplin, now a USAF Lt Colonel, fighter pilot, married with two boys. Jeff wrote them without notes in response to exams given in the course! They offer a good, concise, and rather extraordinary summary of what we covered in the course:

From an historical-critical point of view, what do we know about John the Baptist and how do we know it? Given the plethora of ancient sources, both independent and secondary, what appear to be the “indisputable” facts about John the Baptist, his life, career, mission, practices, and teachings. Show how our various sources can be critically examined to sift through redundant, contradictory, or even superfluous materials to arrive at something reasonably “settled” from an historical point of view. From your point of view do you find the approach of the “Jesus Seminar” as reflected by Tatum to be validated or questioned in terms of historical methodology, and why? Some of the major sources you should consider are: Q, Mark, Luke-Acts, Matthew, Thomas, Josephus (Greek and Slavonic), Pseudo-Clementines, Shem-Tov Matthew, later Gospels (Ebionite, Nazoreans, and Hebrews in quoted fragments, Infancy Gospel of James), and Mandean traditions…

Throughout the course of this semester we have examined biblical, independent, and secondary sources relating to John the Baptist and the world surrounding him during the early first century of the Common Era. Each ancient source contributes its own distinct view and piece of the historical puzzle of recreating the life, mission, and teachings of John. As the end of the course is near, we now need to look back from a historical-critical point of view to see what can be known about John the Baptist and how we know it. Some of these major sources include Q, Mark, Matthew, Thomas, Josephus, Pseudo-Clementines, Infancy Gospel of James, Shem-Tov Matthew, and later gospels of the Ebionites, Nazoreans, and Hebrews. Each one presents its own unique depiction of John and events surrounding his life and will be examined closely. Starting with biblical material, the Lukan version of Q should be examined first. In 7:24-26, Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people concerning John and asking what it is they went out to the wilderness to see? He asks the same question three times and finally says John is “more that a prophet.” Jesus also tells the crowd in 7:28 that “among those born of women none is greater that John.” From Q, it is learned John “came eating no bread and drinking no wine.” In 16:16, it states “The law and prophets were until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed.” A possible original teaching by John the Baptist may be found in 16:18 (although not formally considered part of Q) and it reads, “anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” Finally, from Q scholars are presented with a prayer, by Jesus, which John taught his disciples – “Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come. Give us each our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation.”

John & Jesus

 

Mark also presents various traditions on John the Baptist. From Mark, one learns John appears and is baptizing in the wilderness (1:4). An important commentary on John’s clothes is contained in 1:6 where it describes garments of “camel’s hair with a leather girdle around his waist.” It goes on to state he ate locusts and wild honey. Scholars are also able to retrieve from Mark traditions of his baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river, Herod’s arrest and execution of John because of Herodias, and that John’s disciples fast while those of Jesus do not (2:18).

Matthew too contains biblical material concerning John. Here is found references to John’s clothing of camel hair and a leather girdle and to his dietary habits of eating locusts and wild honey. John’s baptism is explained as a baptism of repentance (3:11) and that he baptizes Jesus (3:13). Found in 11:9-12, Jesus is addressing a crowd, telling them John is indeed more than a prophet, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John, and the law and prophets were until John. Matthew also portrays John coming neither eating nor drinking (11:18). From Matthew, one learns of John’s arrest (14:3), his objection to Herod’s adultery (14:4), and his death at the request of Herodias (14:5-13). Finally, in 17:12, Jesus is speaking with the inner three concerning Elijah’s coming and says “Elijah has already come,” referring to John.

The last biblical material on John comes from Luke-Acts. From this material it is known that John is six months older that Jesus and their mothers (Mary and Elizabeth) are related, cousins perhaps. In Luke 1:80 it is revealed John grew up in the wilderness from childhood and remained there “until the day of his manifestation to Israel.” Luke 1:15 explains John as being given a Nazirite vow (while still a child) and as a requirement of that vow “he shall drink no wine or strong drink.” John’s baptism is for repentance and appears to be the only one taught in Alexandria and known to Apollos until his meeting with Paul (Acts 18:24-19:1).

Knowledge of John and his role in the early “Christian” movement would not be possible by a study of biblical material alone. Continuing the search, we find a wealth of independent and secondary sources that contain numerous references to John the Baptist. First on this list is the Gospel of Thomas, which like Q is a sayings gospel containing 114 sayings of Jesus. It was discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt where it is believed they remained buried since the 4th century. Only one in the entire gospel explicitly reefers to John. In 46:1-2 it reads, “Jesus said ‘From Adam to John the Baptist, among those born of women, no one is so much greater than John the Baptist that his eyes should not be averted’.” Thomas 52:1-2 is not specifically about John the Baptist, yet may be read as referring to him indirectly. It states, “his disciples said to him (Jesus) ‘Twenty-four prophets have spoken in Israel and they all spoke of you.’ He said to them ‘you have disregarded the living one who is in your presence, and have spoken of the dead’.”

Next comes the respected Jewish historian Josephus. There are two copies of his work: one Greek and the other Slavonic, each adding information to this evolving story. First, in the Greek version we find a reference to John in Antiquities of the Jews – written in the 90’s while Domitian is in power. This work is a little more liberal with information than the earlier Jewish War and as such might be the reason John is mentioned. King Herod’s army had a battle with the neighboring King Aretas and Herod suffered a military defeat. Josephus records that some of the Jews thought the destruction of Herod’s army came from God as a punishment of what he did against John. Herod feared John’s influence over the people and as a result had John sent out to Macherus where he was eventually beheaded.

Recorded in the Slavonic version of Josephus we find that John would not allow wine or intoxicating drink anywhere near him. Also, that his lips “knew no bread,” so much so that he did not even eat the unleavened bread traditional at the Passover feast. It is recorded John put animal’s hair upon his body wherever it was not covered by his own hair. John dipped or cleansed the people who came to him in the waters of the Jordan. Slavonic Josephus also records that John ate only natural things: locusts and wild honey.

The group of writings known as the Pseudo-Clementines claim to be the work of Clement (of Rome). Possibly written in the early 3rd century, the works, valuable for our purposes, record a discussion between Peter and Clement regarding Jewish sects and the disciples of John the Baptist. The first of two references records in 1.54.8, “Now the pure disciples of John separated themselves greatly from the people and spoke to their teacher as if he were concealed.” Could this be an early reference to the Mandeans? The second reference comes from 1.60.1-4 where the disciples of John are talking with the disciples of Jesus and saying, “He (John) is the Christ and not Jesus…just as Jesus spoke concerning him, namely that he is greater that any prophet who had ever been.” They also say John is greater than Moses and Jesus and therefore he is the Christ.

Another interesting source to be considered is Shem-Tov’s Hebrew Matthew. Written in the 14th century, a treaties written by Shem-Tov contains a Hebrew version of the complete text of Matthew. It contains several differences from the Greek copy of Matthew regarding John the Baptist. In 11:11 Jesus says, “among all those born of women none has risen greater than John the Baptist.” Shem-Tov’s version ends the sentence here without adding the phrase concerning those least in the kingdom being greater than he. Recorded in 11:13 it states, “For all the prophets and the law spoke concerning John” unlike the Greek version’s “law prophesied until John.” There exist other early Christian literature classified as “gospels” which need to be examined in addition to the earlier gospels (Q, Mark, Matthew, Luke-Acts, and Thomas). These later gospels were probably written during the 2nd century C.E. and appear to be somewhat dependent (literally) upon the earlier Gospels. The first of these is the Gospel of the Ebionites. Epiphanius quotes passages of the Gospel of the Ebionites (sect of Greek speaking Jewish-Christians) in his work Heresies and is the reason scholars are able to have the three fragments concerning John today. In 30.13.6, the reader is made aware that John was baptizing for repentance in the Jordan River during the days of King Herod of Judea. The names of John’s parents are mentioned here as being Zechariah (a priest) and Elizabeth. The next fragment, 30.13-4-5, records John wearing a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist and that he are wild honey and manna with oil (not locusts as in other writings). In the third and final fragment, 30.13.7-8, Jesus comes and is baptized by John. Next is the Gospel of the Nazoreans, which was probably written for Jewish-Christians, and scholars have a fragment of this work as recorded by Jerome in his work Against Pelagius. It is recorded that “John the Baptist baptized for the remission of sins” and he baptized Jesus (3.2). Jerome also records, in his Commentary of Isaiah, a quote from the Gospel of the Hebrews. Though John the Baptist is not specifically referenced, Jesus’ baptism is and that event is generally held that John is the one who performed the duty. The Gospel of the Hebrews has the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus as he emerges from the water as if he were the perfect human (human to Divine: late called “Adoptionism”). Last of these later gospels is the Infancy Gospel of James of Protoevangelium of James, which claims to have been written by Jesus’ brother James. This was probably done so to give the work some creditability because James was the leader of the Jerusalem Church after the death of Jesus, although he is doubted as having actually written it himself. Two passages in this work deal directly with John the Baptist. In the first, 22:5-9, the name of John’s mother is given as Elizabeth and it tells of how she hid John from Herod as he was slaughtering infants (for fear he too would be killed). In the second passage, 23:1-9, John’s father’s name is recorded as Zechariah and it is told Herod had Zechariah killed for not revealing where his son had been hidden.

Taking a step back for a moment, we can now see the magnitude John plays in the history of the early “Christian” movement. An examination of the references to him, accompanied by their respective authors has just been presented. However, a question must be posed at this stage, what does this all mean? Armed with this knowledge, what can we say about John (what are the facts, how do we know them, and in what way are they presented)? Looking individually at the major source materials with a critical bye makes any reader question the accuracy of any one account, yet taken as a whole, the materials, texts, and traditions all push certain motifs and facts surrounding the life of John the Baptist. Although each text, source material, of tradition presents its own version of the occurrences surrounding John, we are able to extract the core meaning from such sources and can confirm their validity by cross-checking these with other known reliable sources. Certain aspects about John, his life, career, mission, practices, and teachings are held to be “true” with reasonable certainty, indisputable if you will. Scholars know the John was born in Israel to a mother and father named Zechariah and Elizabeth. He is living in the wilderness for most of his life. John is baptizing people who come to him in the Jordan River for the remission of sins/repentance. Jesus came and received his baptism from John in the Jordan River. John’s clothes consisted of a garment made of animal’s hair, most likely camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist and his diet consisted of wild honey and something else (manna or locusts/ekris or akris). We know that John came neither eating bread nor drinking wine (or intoxicating drink). It is also known that John objected to Herod’s taking of Philip’s wife and viewed it as an act of adultery. In reaction, Herod had John arrested and imprisoned (most conceivably at the desert fortress Macherus) and eventually ordered John beheaded. Scholars know John the Baptist was held in high regard by the people of Israel during his time and thereafter evident by the large numbers of people flocking to him in the wilderness, by John having disciples of his own, and by Jesus himself claiming that “among those born of women none has risen greater that John the Baptist.” John taught repentance and baptism as preparation for the time of God which was near. He accepted sinners into his ministry, taught that people should care for the poor, and spread the word of the coming kingdom of God. John taught devotion to God and rejection of world as displayed by his clothing, diet, and wilderness lifestyle. John also had devoted followers/disciples who viewed him as the Christ after his death and survive today as modern-day Mandeans living mostly in Iraq and Iran. It is only through the consolidation and consideration of all ancient sources: New Testament, Gnostic scriptures, traditions, church historians, independent and secondary materials (complementary and contradictory) that scholars can discover the original, historically accurate picture of John as a member, believer, and righteous leader of the early “Christian”/baptismal movement. Looking at the approach taken by the Jesus Seminar, it could be argued that their methods are questionable in terms of historical methodology. The Jesus Seminar claims to have considered all the available historical evidence related to John the Baptist and Tatum’s book is a summary of the seminars deliberations and votes to bring readers a concise sketch of the historical figure of John the Baptist. Their inclusion of Josephus, Pseudo-Clementines, and other early Christian gospels is commendable, yet their assessment and interpretation of such sources in constructing a historically accurate portrait of John may be suspect. It would appear the members of the Jesus Seminar have an underlying motive or agenda in their deliberations and votes. They appear to accept very little as “true” facts (i.e. there was a person named Jesus – 96% agree, John baptized Jesus – 91% agree, etc.). What the Jesus Seminar agrees on as fact (not much apparently) comes almost exclusively from the New Testament. Instances in which material is sketchy or comes from independent and secondary sources, the Jesus Seminar exclude it as fiction. Examples include John and Jesus being related – 5% agree, Mary and Elizabeth are related – 3% agree, Herodias’ daughter asked for John’s head of a platter – 24% agree. The Jesus Seminar’s approach quite possibly began with good and noble intentions but the methods they employed and the results of their study are flawed in terms of historical methodology.

Essays on John the Baptist: Mark our Earliest Narrative Source (4)

In this new six part series I present responses to s offered in my course at UNC Charlotte on “John the Baptist.” John is the most underrated figure in Christian tradition, rarely given his due as a messiah and inaugurator of the movement Jesus himself arose from. The responses are by my student, Jeff Poplin, now a USAF Lt Colonel, fighter pilot, married with two boys. Jeff wrote them without notes in response to exams given in the course! They offer a good, concise, and rather extraordinary summary of what we covered in the course:

Leaving aside the Q portrait of John, what emerges in the Markan narrative regarding the figure of John the Baptizer? In other words, what does “Mark as Mark” contribute to the tradition?

Mark contains many notable additions to the Q portrait of John. This gospel was written around 70 C.E. and has the tendency not to tell the reader secrets, instead letting them figure things out for themselves. Mark 1:2-3 is crediting Isaiah with a prophecy that isn’t entirely his own. Instead, it is a combination of Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1. “Behold I send my messenger before thy face who shall prepare thy way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Mark is utilizing a Qumran (pesher) style of combining texts to get his message across to the reader. He does this as an introduction to John (like Q he begins with John the Baptist). From Mark, scholars are able to add to their professional portrait of John and one of the first examples is Mark 1:6. It reads, “now John was clothed with camel’s hair and had a leather girdle around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.” Mark is describing some of the physical characteristics of John’s daily life in the wilderness of Judea. Scholars learn what he wore while “preparing the way” and what he ate (since it is already know that he neither ate nor drank) “locusts and wild honey.” As a side note, locust in Greek is akris and manna is ekris (only one letter difference) – it is possible that the Greek was translated incorrectly and John ate manna (honey wafer) instead of locusts (see the Did John the Baptist Eat Bugs or Pancakes?). Mark 1:9 also adds to the portrait that John in the Jordan baptized Jesus of Nazareth. After Jesus came out of the water, he saw the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, Mark 1:10-11. Here, Mark is relaying to the reader that this is more of a personal disclosure to Jesus in that only Jesus saw the spirit and the voice said, “thou art my beloved son.” Mark has Jesus in 1:14 coming onto the scene after John was arrested – almost signaling that since the main person/teacher (John) is removed from the scene, now one must come to take up the movement. Mark contains a wonderful story of John’s capture and subsequent death by the hands of King Herod. Mark 6:14 introduces the plot in that Jesus has been preaching and casting out demons and when Herod heard of it, some said, “John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead.”

Beheading Reubens

Then in Mark 6:16-29 the fate of John is told in detail – this is a very important addition to our running portrait of John the Baptist. Josephus records that Herod seized John and most likely took him to his palace/fortress Machaerus. While there, Herodias’ daughter danced seductively for Herod and in return he promised her anything, up to half of his kingdom. She asked for the head of John the Baptizer on a platter at the instruction of her mother (presumably because of his rejection of Herod and Herodias’ relationship). To stay true to his word, Herod sent a soldier to behead John and brought it in on a platter as requested. The reader is also made aware that after this had taken place, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. Another interesting addition Mark makes is Mark 8:27-30. Jesus and his disciples were heading to the village of Caesarea Philippi and he asked them “who do men say that I am?” Their first answer was “John the Baptizer.” Presented here is a strong indication of the importance John had in his time that the disciples and general public would say that Jesus was John the Baptist. John had done many great things in the desert (preaching, baptizing, etc.) and when Jesus comes along doing similar actions, the people begin to think John has come back from the dead in another form. Some scholars have even suggested that John and Jesus looked similar physically. From these reports, the general public, disciples, and even King Herod feel that John the Baptist has come back from his execution and if Jesus and John did in fact look similar, it would make sense that such reports would begin to circulate. Mark 9:9-13 details a conversation between Jesus and his disciples regarding the scribes recording that Elijah must come first. Jesus says to them (Mk. 9:12) that “Elijah does come first to restore all things” and then poses a question (Mk. 9:12) “how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?” He is alluding to Daniel 7:13 “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven,” yet the Son of man is not suffering in that text. He then goes on to say in Mark 9:13, “but I tell you that Elijah has come and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him”(Zechariah 13:7). Jesus is clearly hinting here that John is Elijah return but as it is written of him? Scholars are not sure what this is in reference to, but there are four suffering servant hymns – Isaiah 42, 49, 50,53. Jesus may not be referring to a specific line of text, but a combination of these Isaiah hymns to form a “corporate role” so to speak for any servant of God, here John. Mark is showing the reader the importance John not only held to his disciples, but the high regard that Jesus himself held John to be. Finally in Mark 11:27-33, the chief priests, scribes, and elders confront Jesus asking “by what authority are you doing these things or who gave you this authority?” It is as if John is the benchmark test against which all things are measured and if you cannot speak to that, then Jesus will not speak to you. Mark is giving the information as he received it. He is not pushing an objective per se, it appears as though he presents the material fairly – showing the events in John’s life and portraying the events in Jesus’ life without editing either for a specific purpose. From Mark (as discussed above), scholars have learned a great deal relating to John’s clothing, his diet, disciples, and the manner in which he met his death. Also, readers are shown the importance in which John was held to his own disciples, the public at large, to Herod, and even to Jesus. From Mark, scholars are able to draw a fairly detailed and complete profile of who the historical figure of John the Baptist was.

Essays on John the Baptist: Redemptive Figures (1)

In this new six part series I present responses to s offered in my course at UNC Charlotte on “John the Baptist.” John is the most underrated figure in Christian tradition, rarely given his due as a messiah and inaugurator of the movement Jesus himself arose from. The responses are by my student, Jeff Poplin, now a USAF Lt Colonel, fighter pilot, married with two boys. Jeff wrote them without notes in response to exams given in the course! They offer a good, concise, and rather extraordinary summary of what we covered in the course:

Discuss the complex of traditions found in the Hebrew Bible concerning the expectation of messianic or redemptive figures, whether Prophet/Teacher, Priest, or Davidic King/Ruler. Briefly cover the origins of the basic idea of “anointed figures,” in ancient Israel, then examine the main texts, images, concepts, and ideas, related to the arrival and mission of specific redemptive/messianic agents.

To discuss the basic idea of “anointed figures” (Messiah, Christ/Christos), one must first examine how or with what such figures are anointed. Oil, we are told, is the substance chosen to do the deed so to speak. Exodus 30:22 is our introduction to how God (YHVH) instructed Moses to make this “messiahing” oil from cinnamon, cassia, spices, etc. and how to anoint an individual, thus making them a Messiah. Psalm 45:7 also refers to this by recording God has anointed you with the “oil of gladness.” From the instruction of Moses, this ritual has come to symbolize the making of an ordinary individual into a public figure, one set apart from the others for having been chosen and gone through the rite of passage. Incorporated into this theory or idea of having importance to become anointed, the anointer must be greater than the anointed.

john-the-baptist

 

Numerous examples can be found to support this: Exodus 40:13 Moses anoints Aaron making him the first messiah in the biblical traditions (priestly), I Samuel 10 shows how Samuel anointed Saul, and I Kings 1:39 Zadok anoints Solomon. Again we can see the importance placed by the Israelites on this ritual of taking oil and actually pouring it onto the head of another to anoint him. Isaiah 61:1 talks about the spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the LORD has anointed me. Another reference surprisingly appears in Sirach 45:15 addressing the occasion of Moses anointing Aaron as the first messiah with the holy oil. However, it is not only this ritual the people are interested in, it is the person. Throughout the Old Testament, one can find examples of the Hebrews looking for and believing in an “anointed” individual. They see him as coming or arriving on the scene and having a mission from God to carry out. Although they look for the anointed, this does not necessarily imply it is one individual. However, a text may not present multiple messiahs but individuals looking at texts with an idea or notion of two and sometimes three messiahs may apply such a concept. In the middle appears the Teacher/Adon, with a Kingly and Priestly messiah on his right and left side. One indication of this comes in Exodus 17:8-12. Moses is pictured in the middle with Aaron (a Levite) on one side and Hur (Judah) on the other. Looking back to the anointing of Aaron, since he was from the tribe of Levi, he is considered the represent the priestly christ or messiah. Traditions in I Samuel show the tribe of Judah represented by Saul, David, and later Solomon is the other half of the equation being a kingly messiah. Zechariah also contains a three-figure scenario in which one may see three messiah-like figures. Zechariah 4:2-4, 13 has a lampstand of gold centered (Adon) and is flanked by two olive trees on opposing sides. Psalm 80 reinforces the position of the right hand in verse 17, “let your hand be upon the one at your right hand.” To highlight the priestly messiah theme, one must turn to Psalm 110:4, “you are a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (one who blesses Abraham in Genesis 14). With the arrival of one or both Messiah figures, the texts explain a mission he/they are to engage in to save the Israelite race from the evil doers. Isaiah 9:1-7 is a good example of events to come upon his/their arrival. The beginning is signaled through the arrival of a child, appearing as a light in the land beyond the Jordan (Gentile territory). Once in power, this occupant of the “throne of David” (Isaiah 11:1) will bring endless peace, establish and uphold justice, and authority will rest on his shoulders. Isaiah 11 continues explaining the rule of the Messiah, this shoot out of the stump of Jesse. He shall judge the poor and meek, bring peace so the calf will lie with the wolf, and wolf with the lamb. Most endearing to the people in Isaiah 11:10-16 when the messiah will restore all the lost tribes of Israel from Assyria to Egypt, from Elam to Hamath. Part of the messiah’s mission too is to occupy the “throne of David,” ruling Judah (Jeremiah 22:30). Their Messiah will come with the clouds and to him is given dominion and glory and kingship that all nations should serve him (Daniel 7:13-14). Although the term “messiah” or “Davidic messiah” is never used in the Hebrew Bible, the most complete portrait of a Davidic Messiah can be found in Isaiah 2, 9, 11, and Micah 5.

Extra:  Did John the Baptist Eat Bugs?

Waiting for the Messiahs–One, Two, or Three?

Who are you? Are you the Messiah? Or the Prophet? Or Elijah?

One of the ideas I explore and develop in my 2006 book, The Jesus Dynasty, was the notion of two Messiahs. I had no idea it would become sensational–much less controversial. It actually became headline news, with a cover story in USNews & World Report and special segments on ABC’s Good Morning America, 20/20, and Nightline!

Jews and Christians today have come to focus on the appearance of a single Messiah–a descendant of the lineage of David who is to reign as king in a messianic kingdom over the entire earth. These expectations are based on a dozen or more texts in the Hebrew Prophets that predict the reign of such a future scion of David (Isaiah 11, Micah 5, Jeremiah 23:5-6).

Lucas Cranach John & Jesus

 

One of the Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith as formulated by the great Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 CE), known by the acronym “the Rambam,” states:

I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may delay I will wait daily for his coming. ((The Koren Siddur, trans. and commentary by Rabbi Sir JonathanSacks, p. 204))

The Messiah expected is the Davidic King and this affirmation is sung daily in the Yigdal, a song based on the Ramban’s Thirteen Principles. One of the petitions of the Amidah, which is the heart and soul of Jewish daily prayer, beging: “May the offshoot of Your servant David soon flower.” ((The Shemoneh Esreh, The Koren Siddur, p. 124))

Christians affirm that Jesus of Nazareth, crucified but raised from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God, is this Davidic Messiah or King and that he will return in glory “with the clouds of heaven” in a Second Coming to establish his reign over all the earth.

SideBar: One question early Christians had to face, in declaring Jesus to be the King Messiah, was who anointed Jesus? Traditionally this was to be done by a Prophet. John the Baptist might be a candidate but we have no record of any such ceremony. Luke has Jesus “anointed of the Spirit,” picking up on Isaiah 61, rather than the traditional anointing with oil. Ebionites declared that Jesus was made “Son of God,” a term used for the Davidic messiahs, at his baptism by the Voice from heaven. But there is another surprising possibility some have suggested–more on that in a future post.

What few realize is that this expectation of a single Davidic Messiah had not so solidified in the time of Jesus. In text after text, in a diverse variety of of expectations reflected in a scattered range of primary texts from the period we read about any number of redemptive figures. In terms of “Messiahs,” what we find most commonly is not one but two Messiahs who are to usher in the Kingdom of God. One is to be a kingly figure of the royal line of David, but at his side will be a priestly figure, also a Messiah, of the lineage of Aaron from the tribe of Levi. The word “messiah” refers to one who is “anointed” or appointed. In ancient Israel both the kings and the priests were anointed with oil and were thus called “Messiahs.”  The verb mashach means to “smear with oil,” and a Moshiach or “Messiah” in English is one so smeared or “anointed” as we say in English. Technically speaking the “first” messiah was Aaron, brother of Moses, anointed with oil by his brother Moses in a formal ceremony that made him the Priest of Israel (Exodus 29:7). The first anointed king was Saul, anointed with oil by the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 10:1). When Saul lost favor with God David was likewise anointed by Samuel as king (1 Samuel 16:13; 2 Samuel 2:4). Both priest and king were accordingly “messiahs” or anointed ones. This means that the notion of two messiahs was the norm in ancient Israel and this norm, of the dual messiahs was, of course, the one that was projected into the future once the nation begin to be dismantled by the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions in the 8th-6th centuries BCE.

Zechariah, the 6th century BC Hebrew prophet, foretold of a man called “the Branch” who would bear royal honor and sit on his throne, but he adds, “There shall be a priest by his throne with peaceful understanding between the two of them” (Zechariah 6:13). Here is a clear picture of the Davidic King and his counselor, the anointed Priest. Zechariah refers in another vision to “two sons of fresh oil” (i.e., “anointed ones” or “messiahs”) who “stand before the Lord of the whole earth.” He likens them in his vision to two “olive branches” that stand before the Menorah, the seven-branched oil lamp that symbolized God’s Spirit and presence (Zechariah 4).

This ideal vision of two messiahs became a model for many Jewish groups that were oriented toward apocalyptic thinking in the 2nd to 1st centuries BC. The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, dating from the 2nd century BC puts things succinctly: “For the Lord will raise up from Levi someone as high priest and from Judah someone as king.” (Testament of Simon 7. 2). Throughout this influential work there is an emphasis that salvation for Israel will come jointly from the tribe of Levi and from the tribe of Judah, the tribe of King David. The Priest Messiah receives more attention than the King Messiah and in many ways he stands superior to the Davidic figure. In fact, the patriarch Judah himself declares, “For to me the Lord gave the kingship and to him the priesthood, and he set the kingship under the priesthood” (Testament of Judah 21:1-2). The book of Jubilees, coming from about the same period, pronounces a perpetual blessing upon Levi as the progenitor of the priests, and Judah as the father of the “prince” who will rule over the Israel and the nations (Jubilees 31). It seems, based on these texts, that the notion of “Two Messiahs” was the ideal structure of Jewish leadership. It is for this reason that the Maccabeans or Hashmoneans, in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, who could claim only the Levitical priestly bloodline, were never really able to effectively establish themselves in the eyes of the populace as “kings,” despite massive political and military power. Ingrained in the Jewish imagination the ideal future in which both a Priest and a King would rule together.

John the Baptizer identified himself as the “messenger” who was to prepare the Way based on a prophecy from the book of Malachi. The version we read in our modern Bibles today is as follows:

“Behold I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming says Yahweh of hosts, but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Malachi 3:1-2).

This translation is based on the standard Hebrew text (Masoretic), the oldest copy of which dates to the 9th century AD. We now have a version of this very passage from Malachi found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. This scroll dates to the 1st century BC, so it is a thousand years older than our standard Hebrew text. Notice carefully the differences in the pronouns:

“Therefore behold I send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me. And they will suddenly come to his temple, the Lord whom you seek and the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire; behold he himself comes, says Yahweh of hosts, but who can endure them when they come?” ((See Martin Abegg, Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), p. 477.))

This ancient version of Malachi has two figures that are to come jointly—a messenger of the covenant who prepares the Way, but also one called “the Lord whom you seek.” The word translated “Lord” (‘adon) is not the Hebrew name for God—Yahweh, but a word that means a “master” or ruler of some type. It may well be that Jesus and John the Baptizer were familiar with this version of Malachi with the plural pronouns, and identified themselves accordingly. This was certainly the understanding of the sectarian community that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In one of the oldest founding documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Community Rule, the community is expecting the coming of a prophet they called the Teacher, but also the “Messiahs of Aaron and Israel.” They imagined a future in which the Priest Messiah would preside over a “Messianic banquet,” with the King Messiah of Israel, whom they call the “Prince of the congregation,” or the “Branch of David,” as his companion. There are many references in the Dead Sea Scrolls to their fervent expectation that these two Messiahs would appear. As important as the “Branch of David” was to be, they nonetheless had the most extravagant hopes for the coming priest. In a text called the Testament of Levi we read the following:

“He will atone for the sons of his generation and he will be sent to all the sons of his people. His word is like a word of heaven and his teaching is according to the will of God. His eternal sun will shine, and his fire will blaze in all the corners of the earth. Then darkness will disappear from the earth and deep darkness from the dry land” (4Q541).

This amazing text seems to match the high view in which Jesus held his teacher John the Baptizer where he says that “among those born of women there is none greater than John” and that he was not just a “prophet” but “much more than a Prophet” (Luke 7:26-30) ((In my view the qualification “but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John,” is a later gloss by gospel editors, shocked by the implications that Jesus was here putting John even ahead of himself.)) It is the very opposite of the theological overlay that our New Testament gospels in their final edited forms project in their effort to make Jesus greater than John. It certainly supports the historical probability that Jesus did view John as his teacher as well as the priestly Messiah of Aaron of whom the prophets had spoken. For those reasons Jesus would have deferred to John’s leadership and direction, a point completely lost in our gospels other than in the collection of Jesus’ earliest teachings that many scholars call Q.

The Dead Sea Scroll community waited a long time for the fulfillment of these central expectations. They had retreated to the Judean desert sometime in the 2nd century BC in response to the prophetic Voice they heard through the prophecies of Isaiah, Daniel, and Malachi. They became convinced that “this was the time” of the preparation of “the Way.” They were the community of the “Last Days” responding to Isaiah’s call to prepare the Way in the desert (Isaiah 40:3). Sometime in the 1st century BCE an influential figure arose among them who had great spiritual and interpretive gifts. They refer to him in the Scrolls as the “Teacher of Righteousness.” We don’t know his name but many events of his life, and even some of his writings, are preserved in the Scrolls. Michael Wise’s wonderful treatment of both the leader and the group, with the provocative title, The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ is one I highly recommend. The community saw him as a type of “Prophet like Moses” who had called them into a “new covenant.” They viewed themselves as a remnant group of faithful Israelites who had turned from their sins and separated themselves from the ungodly society around them. They considered the religious establishment of their day, whether Pharisee or Sadducee, to be hopelessly corrupt and compromised. They lived by the strictest interpretation of the laws of the Torah and firmly believed they were living in the “last days.” They believed that their Teacher had given them the definitive inspired interpretation of all the secrets of their prophetic writings.

When their teacher was killed, probably sometime in the mid-1st century BCE, they were convinced the final countdown had begun and that the two Messiahs would soon appear. There are some texts that speak of a final period of “forty years,” following the death of their Teacher. The forty years passed but there is no record in any of the Dead Sea Scrolls that the two Messiahs ever appeared. It was as if all their hopes and expectations were stopped in time and put on hold. For more on these disappointed hopes see my paper “Dead Messiahs Who Don’t Return“). A small group of their community still lived at the settlement we know as Qumran in the 1st century CE, and if they are indeed the people we know as the Essenes, they were scattered in communities all through the land of Palestine. They did not die out despite the failure of their original expectations. It is likely that they were partly responsible for keeping alive the hope of the coming of the two Messiahs.

Given these deeply rooted hopes and expectations among these Messianic Jews one can scarcely imagine the excitement and fervor that John the Baptist and Jesus would have stirred as they prepared their next moves in the spring of 27 CE. John as a priest from the tribe of Levi and Jesus as a descendant of David from the tribe of Judah must have stirred the hopes of thousands who had come to expect the arrival of the two Messiahs as a sure sign of the end. Even Herod Antipas soon felt the sting of John the Baptizers’ blistering message of repentance. Christians are prone to imagine a “meek and lowly” Jesus who seldom raised his voice but the evidence will show that he learned well from his teacher and that like John the Baptizer, Jesus’ radical message divided households and villages and shook the religious and political establishment.

I have prepared a special handout titled “Two Messiahs-The Evidence,” for classes and lectures that pulls together all the primary sources and fills out more details.  You are welcome to download this, print it out, and use it for your own study.

The Jesus Dynasty: Seven Major Themes

In April, 2006 I published The Jesus Dynasty.  Now in paperback it has continued to sell moderately but steadily. I wrote it as a popular summary of my own personal lifelong “quest” for the historical Jesus. It is written in a style accessible to the non-spet and many readers find that it pulls them into the story in an engaging fashion. It also has extensive references and notes. It received an enormous amount of media attention when it was released and has also been translated into more than a twenty foreign languages. It is also available in all major e-book formats (Kindle, iBooks, Nook) as well as an CD Audio version ready by yours truly, see links here.

The following is a summary of some of the main substantive points made in the book that advance our understanding of Jesus and early Christianity. If you have not read it it maybe well be that these themes will grab your attention. I know of no other book on the historical Jesus that includes these wider parameters in trying to understand Jesus as a human being in his own time and place.

1. The Material Evidence
One of the unique features of The Jesus Dynasty is the way in which archaeological discoveries inform and offer a new interpretive context to the unfolding Jesus story. Whether one is considering the location of the family tomb of Jesus, the splendor of the Roman city of Sepphoris, just north of Nazareth, the site of the Suba “John the Baptist” cave, or the location of the sites of the Last Supper, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, Jesus is put in a time and place that becomes real to us through the material evidence that survives.

2. The Historical Mary
Much has been said about the “historical Jesus” but little attention has been given to Mary his mother. She is shrouded in legend, interpreted by theology, and the focus of personal devotion and piety. But what does history actually tell us? She is an unwed mother, a young Jewish woman, Miriam, mother of seven children, eventually widowed, struggling to survive in a troubled time, courageous and full of vision for her gifted children. So much of what Jesus and his brother James became has to trace back to her strong influence.

3. Jesus and John the Baptist
The relationship between Jesus and his kinsman John is a much neglected aspect of the Jesus story. John has been marginalized and minimized as the precursor of Jesus, introducing him and then quietly moving off the stage. John was in fact the most important influence in Jesus’ life. Their mothers were close. They likely knew one another growing up. Jesus looked to John as mentor and teacher and they joined ranks in their shared vision for Israel’s prophetic future as the two Messiahs, conducting a preaching campaign that rocked the nation back on its heels and drew the attention of the Roman authorities. John’s unexpected death was a vital factor in his own developing understanding of the role he and John were destined to play in the course of history, ultimately leading him to the cross.

4. Messianic Self-Identity
Jesus’ own Messianic self-identity, from an historical point of view, was a complex mix of his own royal pedigree, his reading of biblical prophetic texts, and unfolding events. He came to see that his destiny required him to confront the authorities in Jerusalem, and like John, face opposition and perhaps even death. He found himself in the sacred texts of Scripture, and at the same time he began to act out in his own life and career the series of events that would lead up to his death. His was no “Passover plot,” but a giving of the self for a cause in hope and trust that God would somehow honor his faith and fulfill the promises of the Kingdom.

5. On Earth, not in Heaven
The vision of the kingdom of God shared by John, Jesus, and their early followers was a spiritual one, but on earth not in heaven. Like the Hebrew Prophets they looked for a time in which peace would come to all nations and righteous and justice would emanate from Jerusalem as the new spiritual capital of a restored Israel, a beacon light to the world. The entire world would turn from idolatry to worship of the one true Creator God. The two Messiahs were to inaugurate that new era and their deaths would serve for the redemption of the world.

6. James and the Brothers as Successors of Jesus
Although recent studies have moved a long way toward rehabilitating the memory and importance of James, the brother of Jesus, his vital role as the “beloved disciple” and pillar of the Church has been largely lost and forgotten. A recovery of the “historical James” is not only possible, but it is perhaps our best method for getting back to the historical Jesus as well. The towering influence of James was based both on his pedigree, as a descendant of the royal line of King David, and also upon his remarkable faith and strong character, exhibited for over thirty years following the death of his brother. That Simon took charge of things after James’s death indicates that this dynastic aspect of early Christianity has been largely lost and forgotten through the legendary dominance of Paul and Peter. An understanding of the Jesus Dynasty is our clearest entrée to really understanding both the faith and the message of Jesus and his earliest followers.

7. Recovering the Original Gospel
Paul’s gospel message is the formative influence within the entire New Testament and thus forms the foundation of what became world Christianity.  In contract, the original message of John the Baptist, Jesus, and James is a singular one that was gradually, forgotten, suppressed, and marginalized in a Gentile Church that largely lost its Jewish roots and origins. That message can be recovered in both the New Testament and other ancient sources through a careful sifting of textual evidence and a commitment to recover the lost treasures of earliest Christianity. Throughout the book John the Baptist, Jesus, and James are put in the thoroughly Jewish 1st century contexts in which they are most clearly understood historically.

Weekend Seminar: How An Ancient Apocalyptic Vision of the Future Took Over the World

I will be leading a seminar this weekend at the 72nd annual United Israel Conference here in Charlotte, NC at the lovely Doubletree Hotel in Southpark. Registration is open to anyone interested. My topic deals with “Apocalypticism, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Isis,” and here is an outline of what I will cover:

Tabor Apocalyptic Lecture

 

Details on the conference at: http://unitedisrael.org/uiwu-e…/uiwu-2015-annual-conference/

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Selected Excerpts from The Jesus Dynasty

The Jesus Dynasty was published in April 2006 (Simon & Schuster). It was a New York Times Best Seller, featured on ABC’s Nightline and 20/20 and the cover of USNews & World Report. It has been translated into 22 languages. Here are some key excerpts with further links, media and otherwise, to the book below. It is available in print, e-formats, and audio, see JesusDynasty.com

 

Jesus Dynasty Hardcover

The New Testament gospels:

“[The New Testament gospels present] a tangled tale of political intrigue and religious power plays with stakes destined to shape the future of the world’s largest religion.” (p. 81)

“[A]lthough our New Testament gospels contain historical material, the theological editing is a factor that the discerning reader must constantly keep in mind.” (p. 139)

The birth of Jesus:

“[The gospel of] Matthew implies that Isaiah’s prophecy was ‘fulfilled’ by the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus—but the original text clearly carries no such meaning.” (p. 46)

“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.” (p. 59)

More than one messiah:

“The English word ‘messiah’ comes from the Hebrew word moshiach, which simply means ‘an anointed one.’ The equivalent Greek word, christos, also means ‘annointed’ and form that we have derived our more familiar term ‘Christ,’ meaning Messiah…. Most people are surprised to learn that the very first Messiah in the Bible was Aaron. He was ‘annointed’ as a priest by his brother Moses and is referred to in the Hebrew text as a ‘mosiach’ or ‘messiah’ (Exodus 40:12-15).” (p. 58)

“Christians and Jews subsequently have come to focus on the Messiah—a single figure of David’s line who was to rule as King in the last days. And yet, in the Dead Sea Scrolls we encounter a devoutly religious community, usually identified with the Essenes, who expected the coming of three figures—a prophet like Moses and the messiahs of Aaron and of Israel.” (p. 57)

“This ideal vision of Two Messiahs became a model for many Jewish groups that were oriented toward apocalyptic thinking in the 2nd to 1st centuries B.C.” (p. 143)

The family of Jesus:

“That Jesus has four brothers and at least two sisters is a ‘given’ in [the gospel of] Mark, our earliest gospel record. He names the brothers rather matter-of-factly: James, Joses, Judas, and Simon.” (p. 73)

The historical Mary:

“The later Christian dogma that Mary was a perpetual virgin, that she never had children other than Jesus and never had sexual relations with any man lies at the hart of the issue. No one in the early church even imagined such an idea, since the family of Jesus played such a visible and pivotal role in his life and that of his early followers. It all has to do with Mary being totally removed from her 1st-century Jewish culture and context in the interest of an emerging view of the time that human sexuality was degraded and unholy at worst, and a necessary evil to somehow be struggled against at best.” (p. 74)

“There is good reason to suppose that Joseph died early, whether because he was substantially older than Mary or for some other unknown cause…. According to the Torah, or Law of Moses, the oldest surviving unmarried brother was obligated to marry his deceased brother’s widow and bear a child in his name so that his dead brother’s ‘name’ or lineage would not perish. This is called a ‘Levirate marriage’ or yibbum in Hebrew, and it is required in the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).” (p. 76)

“Given this information, a rather different but historically consistent picture begins to emerge. Jesus was born of an unknown father, but was not the son of Joseph. Joseph died without children, so according to Jewish law ‘Clophas’ or ‘Alphaeus’ became his ‘replacer,’ and married his widow, Mary, mother of Jesus.” (p. 80)

The “lost” childhood of Jesus:

“We have extraordinarily good historical records from the reign of Herod the Great. It is inconceivable that such a ‘slaughter of the infants’ would go unrecorded by the Jewish historian Josephus or other contemporary Roman historians. Matthew’s account is clearly theological, written to justify later views of Jesus’ exalted status.” (p. 88)

“A good trivia question would be ‘What was Jesus’ vocation?’ Everyone knows he was a carpenter, or at least the son of a carpenter…. The Greek word tekton is a more generic term referring to a ‘builder.’ It can include one who works with wood, but in its 1st-century Galilean context it more likely refers to a stoneworker.” (p. 89)

Jesus as a Galilean Jew:

“Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian…. To understand Jesus in his own time and place we have to understand his deep commitment to the ancestral faith of his fathers.” (p. 108)

“…[Jesus] is not ‘liberal’ with regard to Jewish observances in any modern sense of the term. What he did not accept were certain oral traditions and interpretations that some rabbinic teachers had added to the biblical commandments.” (p. 115)

“As we shall see, Jesus held Herod Antipas and all he stood for in utter contempt…. It was Herod who had brutally murdered his kinsman and teacher John the Baptizer, and Jesus had witnessed firsthand how Herod’s aspirations for wealth and power had unjustly oppressed the lives of his countrymen.” (p. 106)

His relationship with John the Baptizer:

“Jesus near his thirtieth birthday joined the crowds that were streaming out to hear John. He traveled from Nazareth down to the Jordan, along this very route, to be baptized by John in the Jordan River (Mark 1:9). By such a response he was publicly joining and endorsing the revival movement John had sparked…. [F]rom the time of Jesus’ baptism he was ready to take his destined place alongside John as a full partner in the baptizing movement.” (p. 127)

“The great embarrassment that the Christians faced was that it was well known that John had baptized Jesus—not the other way around! Jesus had come to John and joined his movement—which in the context of ancient Judaism meant that Jesus was a disciple of John and John was the rabbi or teacher of Jesus.” (p. 133)

“There [in a Hebrew version of the gospel of Matthew untouched by the Greek copyists] Jesus’ astounding testimony to John’s greatness stands unedited and unqualified: ‘Among those born of women there is none greater than John.’” (p. 134)

The twelve apostles:

“When he told them, ‘Let’s leave the nets and go fish for people,’ they did not blindly drop everything in some mesmerized state of devotion to his irresistible bidding as is so often portrayed. These disciples had worked with him and lived with him for months the previous year in Judea when they were baptizing huge crowds of people.” (p. 158)

“This is perhaps the best-kept secret in the entire New Testament. Jesus’ own brothers were among the so-called ‘Twelve Apostles.’ This means they were the muted participants in all those many references to the ‘Twelve.’ They were with Jesus at the ‘last Supper’ and when he died he turned his movement over to his brother James, the eldest, and put his mother into James’s care. James is none other than the mysterious ‘beloved disciple’ of the gospel of John.” (p. 163)

Apocalyptic vision:

This arrival of the ‘Son of Man,’ which Christians later took as a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus, was coded language from the book of Daniel. It does not refer to Jesus’ arriving, since he was standing with them when he said it, predicting the effect of their vital mission…. The phrase ‘son of man’ in the dream vision of Daniel 7 stood collectively for the faithful people of Israel who would receive rule from their Messiah.” (p. 164)

The final week in Jerusalem—the Temple and the Last Supper:

“Jesus’ activities that day [in the temple] were not intended to change things or to spark a revolution. Like his ride down the Mount of Olives on the foal of the donkey, he intended to signal something—namely that the imminent overthrow of the corrupt Temple system was at hand and the vision of the Prophets would be fulfilled.” (p. 194)

“Later Christian tradition put Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on Thursday evening and his crucifixion on Friday. We now know that its one day off. Jesus’ last meal was Wednesday night, and he was crucified on Thursday, the 14th day of the Hebrew month Nisan. The Passover meal itself was eaten Thursday night, at sundown, as the 15th of Nisan began. Jesus never ate that Passover meal. He had died at 3 p.m. on Thursday.” (p. 197)

“At every Jewish meal, bread is broken, wine is shared, and blessings are said over each—but the idea of eating human flesh and drinking blood, even symbolically, is completely alien to Judaism…. This general sensitivity to the very idea of ‘drinking blood’ precludes the likelihood that Jesus would have used such symbols.” (p. 200-201)

Jesus’ trial and death by crucifixion:

“Scholars are agreed that little in the accounts of Jesus’ trial before Pilate is historically credible. They have been completely shaped by a later Christian theological tradition that sought to put the blame for Jesus’ death wholly upon the Jewish people while exonerating the Romans as sympathetic to Jesus, with Pilate doing all he possibly could to save Jesus’ life.” (p. 213)

“If Jesus did come to anticipate his suffering at the hands of his enemies, I am convinced that he expected that he would be saved from death, delivered from the ‘mouth of the lion’ as the Psalmist had predicted (Psalm 22:21).” (p. 179)

The resurrection of Jesus:

“As shocking as it may sound, the original manuscripts of the gospel of Mark report no appearances of the resurrected Jesus at all!” (p. 228)

“Paul seems to be willing to use the term ‘resurrection’ to refer to something akin to an apparition or vision. And when he does mention Jesus’ body he says it was a ‘spiritual’ body. But a ‘spiritual body’ and an ‘embodied spirit’ could be seen as very much the same phenomenon.” (p. 230)

“In this context, it is easy to see why the Tomb of the Shroud, the James Ossuary, and the Talpiot tomb discovered in 1980 spark such heated controversy. At the heart of the storm is the unspoken possibility that the tomb might contain the remains of Jesus himself. Neither Christianity or Judaism welcomes that proposition.” (p. 235)

Jesus’ successors and legacy:

“Although the followers of Jesus reshaped themselves under the new leadership of James, and eventually returned to Jerusalem, there might well have been a period in which they retreated to Galilee in order to sort things out, and that is just what these gospel traditions appear to reflect. If that was the case then the more idealized account of the Jesus movement in the early chapters of the book of Acts is Luke’s attempt to recast things in a more triumphant way.” (p. 238)

“There are two completely separate and distinct ‘Christianities’ embedded in the New Testament. One is quite familiar and became the version of the Christian faith known to billions over the past two millennia. Its main proponent was the apostle Paul. The other has been largely forgotten and by the turn of the 1st century A.D. had been effectively marginalized and suppressed by the other.” (p. 259)

“The Nazarene movement, led by James, Peter, and John, was by any historical definition a Messianic Movement within Judaism. Even the term ‘Jewish-Christianity,’ though perhaps useful as a description of the original followers of Jesus, is really a misnomer since they never considered themselves anything but faithful Jews. In that sense early Christianity is Jewish.” (p. 264)

“I would go so far as to say that the New Testament itself is primarily a literary legacy of the apostle Paul.” (p. 270)

“There is no evidence that James worshipped his brother or considered him divine.” (p. 280)

“…[W]hat we can know, with some certainty, is that the royal family of Jesus, including the children and grandchildren of his brothers and sisters, were honored by the early Christians well into the 2nd century A.D., while at the same time they were watched and hunted down by the highest levels of the Roman government in Palestine.” (p. 290)

Academic Endorsements of The Jesus Dynasty

Excerpts from The Jesus Dynasty

Interview with Dr. Tabor on The Jesus Dynasty

Facebook page on The Jesus Dynasty with news and updates

Critical but well done review in Slate by Richard Wrightman Fox.

Read the first chapter here on-line from ABC News

For reviews, interviews and more media coverage of The Jesus Dynasty see Media Tab

Sale Ends Tomorrow: 2-1 Sale: Restoring Abrahamic Faith

SALE ENDS TOMORROW, December 31st.

Many of my blog readers have copies of my book Restoring Abrahamic Faith but I wanted folks to be aware of the annual “Holiday” 2-1 sale on this particular book. I was thinking many who appreciate find this book might find it to be an ideal gift for friends and family. Here are the details on the sale and below is a post from 2010 where I describe the book, its history, and how I came to write it. Unfortunately, due to sky high international postage (more than the cost of the book!), this 2-1 sale is only offered to US domestic customers. I hope to have an e-book version out in 2015. Copies are mailed UPSP Priority Mail and shipped the next business day of the order.

Holiday 2-1 SALE through the end of 2014
Order any quantity of copies of Restoring Abrahamic Faith
and your order will be automatically doubled at no extra cost
All Copies are signed by the author
US Domestic Orders Only

Payments by Credit/Debit or Paypal via genesis2000.org or through Amazon.
Payments by Check to: Genesis 2000 mailed to:
Genesis 2000 Press
2124 Crown Centre Drive, Suite 300
Charlotte, NC 28227

RAFShadded

As a professor in a large and thriving Department of Religious Studies in a public/state university I make every effort to keep my personal religious faith and our enterprise as a faculty in the area of the academic study of religion properly separated. There is some debate in our field on this question with arguments on both sides as to what extent one’s implicit religious or political views should become part of the teaching discourse. Although there is no need to avoid matters of religious faith in the classroom, and indeed such matters are part of our study, my position is that personal theology belongs elsewhere–particularly for those in public education.

That said, like Frank Moore Cross and many others in our field who were raised in Christian contexts, I have found myself more personally drawn toward the complex of ideas, concepts, tensions, and even contradictions, reflected in the Hebrew Bible, as I have noted previously in my Blog post “Reflections on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.”

Back in 1991 I published a little book titled Restoring Abrahamic Faith with a small non-profit publisher called Genesis 2000. It was more or less in response to questions I was getting from many quarters regarding my own “beliefs.” It was mainly an attempt to save my “breath,” so I could refer it to those who were curious about my own personal faith, or the lack thereof.  Also, in the final chapter of my popular book, The Jesus Dynasty, that was intended for general audiences far beyond my academic arena, I did include, a final “Conclusion” that delved into matters of faith and the consequences of historical Jesus studies–mentioning my view of “Abrahamic Faith.” In 2008 in an expanded, 3rd edition was released.  It is now available either directly from the publisher (http://genesis2000.org) or through Amazon. And yes, alas, it also has a Facebook Fan page! You can read the preface to the book on-line here, as well as several endorsements and reviews.

JFK and Jesus: 50 Years and Counting…

The 51st anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy was all over the media this weekend and much on our collective minds. I happened to catch some of the CNN specials on “The 60s” with many reflections of our society and its changes–good and bad. Those of us in our 60s and older have very vivid memories of that day in Dallas–Friday, November 22, 1963. It all comes back so vividly. In my case it was truly a kind of “coming of age.”  I was a young 17 year old freshman in college at what was then Abilene Christian College sitting in 1st year Bible class–a required course for all students–taught by Carl Brecheen. Around noon someone knocked on the classroom door and told us that President Kennedy had been shot. An audible gasp of shocked disbelief filled the room and Dr. Brecheen had us stand as he led a short prayer, then dismissed the class so we could get to the nearest television. The country and the world were in a state of utter shock. That weekend is a blur as we clustered in groups around televisions with little to say other than “I just can’t believe it.” For me the election of 1960 was truly a “coming of age.” I felt with many of my friends that somehow our “world” had ended that day.I My father likened the experience to the shock over the Pearl Harbor attack, when he like hundreds of thousands of others joined the service the Monday after. The only thing remotely like it in my life has been September 11th, 2001, in terms of the collective shock.

JFK2

So now 50 years have passed and I began to think this morning about the generation living in Judea and Galilee in the time of Jesus 50 years after his shocking murder by the Roman authorities in April 30 CE. What were things like 50 years later–around the year 80 CE? What about those living at that time in their 60s and older, who had either known or heard Jesus or seen or heard about his death? What would they remember?

Crucifixion Fedor_Bronnikov_002

We know that the years 66-73 CE were horrible years of death, destruction, and societal disruption as a result of the Jewish Roman Revolt chronicled in such detail by eyewitness Flavius Josephus (Joseph bar Matthias). To understand better the background and foreground of the times I tell my Christian Origins students that before they even think about reading our New Testament documents if they are interested in understanding the Jewish Roman world of Jesus they need to wear out of a copy of Josephus’s Jewish War (Bellum Judaicum) published around 75 CE. ((The Penguin paperback translated by Williamson and Smallwood is easy to obtain and a good first choice)) Josephus served as both a Jewish commander in the Revolt but following his capture a confident and friend of the emperors Vespasian and subsequently Titus and Domitian. Along with a copy of Josephus I would also recommend The Historical Jesus in Context (eds. Levine, Allsion, Crossan) for the broader context of the “life and times” of Jesus.

I think there is no doubt that the generation of those who had heard of or known Jesus 50 years earlier would have memories both vivid and faded–just as some of our own regarding the death of President Kennedy–which undoubtedly have been refreshed tremendously by photos and film in the intervening years. But still, 50 years is just not that long a time. We all have memories of people, places, and even events and conversations that reach back that far. But as every family knows when someone recounts such things at a typical family gathering there can be drastic differences on details of chronology and setting! But still, with over 40,000 books now published on John F. Kennedy, and an abundance of sources that would take a lifetime to even access–photos, letters, documents, films, and memorabilia–biographers still can’t agree on much about Kennedy–whether in life or death.

So what about remembering Jesus in 80 CE? There is absolutely no doubt that there would have been many who had known or heard–or even heard about–Jesus who would have vivid memories of him, his teaching, and even his death. The problem we face is that other than a basic framework in Paul’s letters (which date back to the 50s CE)–i.e., references to Jesus being crucified, to Cephas, to James his brother, etc.–we have no eyewitness accounts or even contemporary secondary sources that give us anything about Jesus. There is simply no comparison in terms of historical sources and materials between what we have on JFK and what we have on Jesus.

What we have is a single source–the gospel we call Mark, which most of us date in the 70s CE. The problem with “Mark” is that the name is merely a traditional designation–it is not part of the ancient work itself–and the writer neither claims to be an eyewitness nor presents material that one might associate with eyewitness testimony.

Mark is a theological production–a highly self-conscious literary presentation of what the author represents as the “Gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1, some manuscripts add “Son of God”). You might call it a “Drama about Jesus in three Acts” (roughly chapters 1-8a; 8b-10; 11-16). That does no mean it contains no history at all–indeed the basic narrative framework of Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem is generally considered reliable by most critical historians. That would include Jesus growing up in Nazareth, associating with John the Baptizer, preaching an apocalyptic message of the imminence of the Kingdom of God, gathering together a group of followers, healing and casting out demons, and confronting the authorities in Jerusalem at Passover in 30 CE.

But Mark is far removed from the kind of memories one would encounter in interviewing people regarding what they remember about November 22, 1963–or even talking to those who actually knew President Kennedy in one capacity or another. There is plenty of myth, legend, and anecdote floating around–since Kennedy has become such an iconic figure–but no dearth of firsthand oral memory.

And that is what we don’t have with Jesus. Mark was subsequently overwritten by Matthew, who used him as a source, reshaped his story considerably, and expanded it with blocks of “teaching” materials or “sayings” of Jesus that are not known to Mark. Matthew clearly has his own very theological agenda–and as with Mark, the name “Matthew” is a traditional association, not one inherent to the work itself. Despite the common assumption that he is an eyewitness (one of the Twelve!), the book itself never makes such a claim, and its content is never presented in the style of eyewitness material. Matthew’s sayings material (most often called the Q source by scholars) seems to have a history that goes back earlier than Matthew’s composition, but it is anonymous and amorphous, and much of it exists in a different version in Luke.

Scholars have expended an enormous amount of effort the past 50 years trying to systematically evaluate our gospel sources in an effort to get back to the historical Jesus.  We don’t all agree on our conclusions but the issues have been significantly sharpened and in some areas there is consensus.  I would recommend first and foremost Dale Allison’s works in this area, starting with his Jesus of Nazareth: Millennarium Prophet and then his more substantial work Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. The latter work is deals specifically with the question of what was remembered, by whom, and how was it passed on and shaped. The one central insight that many of us share, including my own take on Jesus in The Jesus Dynasty, is, to quote Dale Allison, “our choice is not between an apocalyptic Jesus and some other Jesus; it is between an apocalyptic Jesus and no Jesus at all.”

It is this radical apocalyptic outlook that most heavily effects out ability to access “memories” of Jesus during the first 50 years. Not only was the world of 1st century Jewish Judea and Galilee utterly shattered by the Great War with Rome, but the hopes and expectations of the Jesus movement had utterly failed by 80 CE. What they most expected to happen never came–namely the “Coming of the Son of Man in the Clouds of Heaven,” and what they least imagined came about–the triumph of the Roman Imperial “Beast” over all enemies and opposition. In my view the early followers of Jesus are best understood 50 years after his death as emerging through the crisis scholars have characterized as “When prophecy fails,” brought on by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In my view S. G. F. Brandon’s monumental work, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church is among the most important work in the field of Christian Origins. I have written extensively on this phenomenon of early Christian apocalypticism, see my blog post “Getting Up to Speed on Apocalypticism,” here for some references and links.

Remembering Norman Perrin

I was reminiscing in my “Historical Jesus” class today about my studies with the late great Norman Perrin (1920-1976) as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. I took my first course with him in Autumn, 1974, an “advanced N.T. course.” His textbook, The New Testament: An Introduction: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History (Harcourt College Pub., 1974) had just been released. By that time, Perrin, who had been influenced in his earlier days by T. W. Manson and Joachim Jeremiah was quite thoroughly a “Bultmannian,” and one of the clearest thinkers in that regard I have ever encountered. His little book, The Promise of Bultmann, (New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1969), remains a classic, as does his little primer, What is Redaction Criticism? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969). His earliest major work, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) set the stage of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” for a whole generation of colleagues and students–before it became fashionable to talk about a “new” or “3rd quest,” which I always took as more of a self-designation by a handful of younger scholars, in the shadow of Bultmann, Käsemann, Conzelmann, and Perrin, who imagined themselves as doing something quite new.

Perrin Stylized

I took a number of courses from Perrin including his incomparable course on the Gospel of Mark which influences me to this day in all of my teaching–second only to Jonathan Z. Smith and our work on Hellenistic Religions and Robert Grant dealing with “Augustus to Constantine,” as he put it so well. In my case, because we both lived in Park Forest, Illinois, I got to know Professor Perrin on another level. He did not drive a car much and the weather was often too harsh to try to take the train, so many dozens of times I gave him a ride up to campus in my car and we came to know each other very well in our endless private conversations on the hour commute back and forth. I mostly listened and what a treat it was–hearing his whole life and career, peppered with stories of his time in the British forces during the war years. I will never forget the word from his wife the day he died–Thanksgiving Day, 1976–that he had left us. It was quite a shock and a sad loss–he was only 56 years old. Perrin’s productivity was enormous and he was one of the hardest working scholars you could ever encounter. He rose from a working class UK background to a distinguished professor of New Testament at the prestigious University of Chicago–who influenced countless students and shaped the field of Christian Origins forever. I miss him enormously and 40 years seems like but a moment thinking back on those days at Chicago when I sat as a very naive and inexperienced graduate student in his classes and would not missed a word of his lectures or discussions.

Perrin Syllabus 1974

Anyway just today I pulled down from my bookshelves my original copy of Perrin’s New Testament: An Introduction and the one page syllabus we had used in that 1974 course dropped out! Talk about memory lane. I reproduce it here. It shows the advanced work Perrin expected of his students and the independent way he worked with us all. Sweet memories. What a time to be at Chicago: J. Z. Smith, Robert M. Grant, and Norman Perrin–for the study of New Testament and Early Christianity, how could it have gotten any better!

Further resources on Norman Perrin and his “pilgrimage” as he often referred to it see:

  • The Journal of Religion 64 (1984), Norman Perrin 1920-1976
  • David Abernathy, Understanding the Teaching of Jesus: Based on the Lecture Series of Norman Perrin (New York : Seabury Press, 1983).
  • Calvin R. Mercer, “Norman Perrin: A Scholarly Pilgrim” (Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, 1983).
  • Welton O. Seal, Jr., “Norman Perrin and His ‘School’: Retracing a Pilgrimage”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament (1984), pp. 87–107.
  • Welton O. Seal, Jr., “The Parousia in Mark: A Debate with Norman Perrin and ‘His School'” (Ph.D. dissertation, Union Theological Seminary, 1981).
  • Criterion, vol. 16, no. 1 (Winter 1977); personal tributes to Norman Perrin, from a memorial service held in the Joseph Bond Chapel, 30 November 1976