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.

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

Jesus as Illegitimate and the Talpiot Tomb: Some New Considerations

In the meantime, it is indeed interesting to note that this very practice of patronymy/paponymy/metronymy, by its repetitive nature, leaves the sample of names quite narrow and refutes in essence the argument of “very common names” put forward by a number scholars that the Talpiot tomb was not that of Jesus’ family.

—Prof. Claude Cohen-Matlofsky

I wanted to call my readers’ attention to a paper posted by Professor Claude Cohen-Matlofsky, “Jesus the Patriarch and Talpiot tomb A,” at Bible & Interpretation. Her article on this subject is included in the volume of 2008 Princeton Theological Seminar Jerusalem Symposium papers edited by James Charlesworth, The Tomb of Jesus and His Family (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

Cohen-Matlofsky’s academic focus is in late 2nd Temple Judaism (see her notable recent study Flavius Josèphe entre Hasmonéens et Hérodiens, les ambitions d’un homme, L’Harmattan, Paris)  ((See her contribution on Josephus in Bible & Interpretation)) but it is her distinguished work as a prosopographist that has new and overlooked relevance to a discussion of the Talpiot “Jesus” family tomb and its possible or probably relationship to Jesus of Nazareth and his family. Her work in this area stems from her broad and substantial study, Les Laïcs en Palestine d’Auguste à Hadrien: étude prosopographique (Paris, H. Champion, 2001). ((This study consists in a list of 715 names found in the various sources with statistical charts including male and female distribution)).

What Cohen-Matlofsky has undertaken is a much tighter chronological calculation (63 BCE to 70 CE.) of the occurrences of various Jewish names, both male and female, in the period, as well as a broader and more comprehensive sampling than just names on ossuaries. She points out, for example, that Tal Ilan’s most useful lexicon includes names from 330 BCE to 200 CE, which is a very broad chronological swath, and that is what many of us have relied upon.Although Tal Ilan includes other sources beyond ossuary inscriptions, Cohen-Matlofsky has been able to update, expand, and in some places correct, her tallies.

She has previously published some of her results in connection to  names in the Talpiot tomb at Bible & Interpretation here and here, but this latest contribution adds a new dimension to the consideration of the six names in the tomb–namely how the cluster of relationships reflected in the names sheds light on the family as a whole. For example, taking the three names with patronymic relationships in the Talpiot “Jesus” family, namely:

Jesus son of Joseph
Judah son of Jesus

Theoretically we would have six possible combinations of linear descent from grandfather to grandson, namely:

Joseph-Jesus-Judah
Joseph-Judah-Jesus
Jesus-Joseph-Judah
Jesus-Judah-Joseph
Judah-Jesus-Joseph
Judah-Joseph-Jesus

What is striking is that only the first, that is Joseph-Jesus-Judah would potentially have a fit with a hypothetical “Jesus of Nazareth” family tomb, making the sequence in the tomb much more unique than one might initially think.

The tomb of Jesus is an atypical, fatherless tomb: Jesus, the eldest son, became the patriarch by “replacing” the “husband” of his adulteress mother.

Cohen-Matlofsky takes seriously the likelihood that Jesus was most likely born illegitimate (Hebrew term mamzer)–that is not the biological son of Joseph, her betrothed. ((See the references in Prof. Cohen-Matlofsky’s paper in her footnote here.)) I have written extensively about this in a series of posts on this blog, see, for example, see, “Who Was Jesus Father?– Imagining the Best,” and “Joining the Slanderers,” as well as my five-part series on “The Birth of Jesus.” Whatever the circumstances of her pregnancy by another man, which we have no way of determining given our lack of evidence, Jesus’ legal status as a mamzer in Jewish law, becomes an important factor in assessing the implied relationships reflected in the Talpiot tomb. I recommend a careful reading of Prof. Cohen-Matlofsky’s latest important contribution.

 

The Jesus Dynasty Eight Years After: Seven Major Themes

Eight years ago, 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.

Pope Francis Concecrates the Entire World to the Immaculate Heart of Mary

While most of the news media were concentrating the past ten days on issues such as ending the congressional budget/debt crisis, the computer glitches with the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) and the latest reports of the NSA phone tap spying on the world leaders of our closest allies you might have missed this story.

The original statue of Our Lady of Fatima had been transferred from its home at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal to St. Peter’s Square especially for the consecration. The act marked the culmination of a weekend of Marian prayer and devotion.

The events began on Oct. 12, when Pope Francis led a Marian prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square, followed by a worldwide televised vigil at various Marian sites all over the world.

Immaculate-Heart-E-300x350Pope Francis, in celebrating the 96th anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal in 1917, consecrated the entire World to the Immaculate heart of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The story below from the National Catholic Register is really pretty unbelievable–at least to me as a historian who has pleaded for a quest for the historical Mary–that is a rehabilitation of the memory of Miriam the Jewish mother of Jesus and his brothers and sisters (See my book, The Jesus Dynasty). 

My post last year, “Mary, Mother of God or Jewish Mother of Seven ?,” which appeared on the front page of the Religion section Huffington Post, and stirred up lots of controversy with nearly 1000 comments, drew both ire and praise, as one might expect when one touches on such a sensitive topic–see here and here. If you have not taken a look at the Huffington Post site please visit and leave your comments to add to the fray.

To be fair to Pope Francis, my guess is he is invoking Mary more as a symbolic example of virtuous behavior than the overtly superstitious extremes of “Marian” devotion that are so common to the masses, but there is no doubt that such “prayers and expressions of devotion” serve to perpetuate the myth rather than recover for our day an appreciation for the thoroughly Jewish mother of Jesus who surely would have recoiled at any such misguided worship. After all, was it not Miriam who most likely taught the young Jesus the great confession of Jewish faith we call the Shema–as witnessed by Jesus’ rebuke to those who offered him even the mildest devotion–Why do you call me God–there is One who is good–God alone (Mark 10: 17-18).

This official story from the Register deserves a very careful reading, including the links. Sadly, it reflects how far we have to go in achieving anything even close to a realistic appreciation for Mary, the Jewish mother of Jesus, in her own time and place in history.

 

National Catholic Register


Daily News

Pope Francis’ Consecrating the World to Mary Culminates Fatima Celebration

Approximately 150,000 pilgrims jammed St. Peter’s Square for the occasion.

BY EDWARD PENTIN

| Posted 10/15/13 at 12:45 AM

Rex Features via AP Images

VATICAN CITY –– Tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world gathered under unseasonably warm and sunny weather in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday to witness Pope Francis consecrate the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The Holy Father performed the consecration before the image of Our Lady of Fatima, asking Mary’s help to “revive and grow faith.”

Oct. 13 marked the 96th anniversary since the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to shepherd children Jacinta Marto, her younger brother Francisco and Lúcia dos Santos at Fatima. It also took place as the Year of Faith draws to a close on the Feast of Christ the King, Nov. 24.

In front of an estimated 150,000 pilgrims, the Pope asked Mary to welcome the consecration “with the benevolence of a mother.”

“Guard our lives in your arms,” he said. “Bless and strengthen every desire for goodness; revive and grow faith; sustain and illuminate hope; arouse and enliven charity; guide all of us on the path of holiness.”

He also asked Our Lady to teach mankind her “special love” for children and the poor, for the excluded and suffering and for sinners.

The original statue of Our Lady of Fatima had been transferred from its home at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal to St. Peter’s Square especially for the consecration. The act marked the culmination of a weekend of Marian prayer and devotion.

The events began on Oct. 12, when Pope Francis led a Marian prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square, followed by a worldwide televised vigil at various Marian sites all over the world.

Untier of ‘All Knotted Hearts’

In his address, the Holy Father stressed that the Virgin Mary leads Christians to the mercy of God, who can untie “all knotted hearts” caused by sin. “These knots take away our peace and serenity,” he said, and he urged the faithful not to give up hope that God can untie these knots. Mary, he said, “takes us with the hand of a mother to the embrace of the Father, to the Father of mercy.”

Repeatedly over the weekend, the Holy Father explained how Mary, through her witness of faith, is the paradigm for all believers. Drawing on her example, he challenged the faithful to consider their own faith more profoundly, following her example of fidelity, which was shown all the way to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Her faith at that moment, he said, was “like a little flame burning in the night”; and at the empty tomb, her heart was filled with the joy of faith.

During his Sunday homily, Pope Francis reflected on the importance of Mary’s faithfulness even in moments of difficulty. “Her Yes to God was a Yes that threw her simple life in Nazareth into turmoil. Many times,” he said, “she had to utter a heartfelt Yes at moments of joy and sorrow, culminating in the Yes she spoke at the foot of the cross.”

Importance of Gratitude

He also preached about the importance of gratitude, especially for the Christian community and for family life. “If families can say these three things, they will be fine: ‘sorry,’ ‘excuse me,’ ‘thank you,’” he said, adding that, “all too often, we take everything for granted.”

Reflecting on Mary’s example of Christian gratitude, he recalled the Magnificat, saying it is “a song of praise and thanksgiving to God not only for what he did for her, but for what he had done throughout the history of salvation.”

He added that God reveals himself in poverty, weakness and humility and stressed that the journey to salvation also entails commitment.

“I ask myself: Am I a Christian by fits and starts or am I a Christian full time?” the Pope said. “Our culture of the ephemeral, the relative, also takes its toll on the way we live our faith. God asks us to be faithful to him, daily, in our everyday life.”

But he stressed that the Christian knows God cannot be unfaithful even if the believer is himself, and he “never tires of stretching out his hand” to help and encourage us. “This is the real journey: to walk with the Lord always, even at moments of weakness, even in our sins,” he said.

Many attending the consecration and weekend of events dedicated to Mary warmly welcomed the Holy Father’s initiative and said it was much needed.

David Carollo, executive director of the World Apostolate of Fatima in the United States, told the Register that, unlike in the struggle against Soviet communism, “the whole world is in trouble today.”

Russia spread its errors, he said, and that’s been particularly clear in the U.S. and the West. “We’re rotting, culturally,” he said, and exporting a culture that is “disgusting.”

Secularism, he added, has evolved from the “mandated atheism” of communism, but is more subtle. The consecration, he said, is a way of combating this and helping the world convert to Christ. “The Pope is saying to the faithful: ‘Be simple like Mary, because the whole pontificate has that theme.’”

Timothy Tindal-Robertson, president of the World Apostolate of Fatima in England and Wales, stressed that Sunday’s ceremony was “a giving of the world into the Immaculate Heart of Mary to save it.”

“That is her whole mission,” he said. “Mary is again at the foot of the cross to bring salvation, and this is what the world needs.” He was especially struck by Pope Francis kissing the feet of the statue of Mary. “It is the Holy Father saying [to Mary] that we, the Church, welcome you; we embrace you; we love you,” he said. “That’s the message that needs to get right out into the Church.”

Consecration Must Continue

But those present were eager to stress that the consecration doesn’t end there if the world is to be converted.

“We’ve all got to play our part,” said Donal Foley, also a member of the World Apostolate of Fatima of England and Wales. “We must pray the Rosary on the first five Saturdays to make it happen in the West. It’s not meant to be a magic thing that happens and then we relax.”

Mike Daley, a founding member of the England and Wales branch of the apostolate, stressed that the consecration is meant for all people. “We mustn’t lose sight that Our Lady is our universal Mother, and that means everyone,” he said. “It’s very important just to consider it’s not an exclusive consecration.”

They also underlined the power of prayer and recalled the effectiveness of Pope Francis’ vigil for peace in Syria and the world –– a vigil at which the Salus Populi Romani, the most important Marian icon in Rome, was processed up to the altar.

“What does that tell you? Prayer moves mountains, and I think no one knows this more than Pope Francis,” said Carollo.

Carollo, Daley, Foley and Tindal-Robertson all uphold Sister Lúcia’s testimony that John Paul II consecrated Soviet Russia to the Immaculate Heart –– an explicit instruction of Our Lady of Fatima –– in 1984, along with all nations of the world. As opposed to some who still contend the pope must explicitly consecrate Russia, they believe it has been done, as proven by Soviet communism’s fall.

The real crisis, Tindal-Robertson believes, is and always has been the abandonment of belief in God. “That’s what Our Lady said; because if you address that, you’re on the path to salvation again,” he said. He also sees the consecration as a means to heal the Church and the continuing crisis that followed the Second Vatican Council.

“It’s very important to show the whole Church and the people of God Mary’s position in the Church in this Year of Faith,” said Tindal-Robertson. “We need the presence of Our Lady in the Church, and this is what Francis is proclaiming.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

Copyright © 2013 EWTN News, Inc. All rights reserved.

A Review of my book The Jesus Dynasty

I have been asked by numerous readers if I will be reviewing Reza Aslan’s new and controversial book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I do plan to write such a review as soon as I can finish reading the book. In the meantime, for my own take on the historical Jesus, but with some strongly contrasting differences with Aslan, here is  a comprehensive review of my book The Jesus Dynasty.

The following is a review of my book, The Jesus Dynasty (Simon & Schuster, 2006), professor Dennis E. Groh, noted scholar of early Christianity.  If you find this very thorough review intriguing I urge those who have not to “read the book” itself, see more information here, and you can “like” it on our new Facebook page here. ((I personally love the original hardcover edition which is now bargain priced the same as the paperback. It is beautifully bound and even has color plates in the front and back.)) This study of the “historical Jesus” is a precursor to my new book, Paul and Jesus (Simon & Schuster, 2012), published last November. ((Dr. Groh received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University, where he spent his career teaching, rising to the rank of Full Professor. After his “first” retirement he took a post as Professor of Humanities and Archaeology, and University Chaplain at Illinois Wesleyan University, from which he has now retired as well. He has served as President of the North American Patristics Society and is the author or co-author of six books and over 100 articles. Perhaps his most enduring and notable contribution is his study, with Professor Robert Gregg of Stanford University, titled Early Arianism: A View of Salvation (1981), unfortunately now out of print. This single work has completely transformed our understanding of “how Jesus became God” and the history and development of what is called “Christology.” It is rare that a single book transforms an entire field–but that was in fact the impact of Groh & Gregg on Arianism. Dr. Groh is not only a textual scholar but a highly accomplished and widely experienced archaeologist. He and I worked together at Sepphoris with James Strange for many seasons in the 1990s.))

James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty. The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2006. ISBN # 13: 978-0-7432-8723-4

Is there anyone who has been so cut off from the religious scholarship and news reporting of the last decade that s/he does not realize that our portrait of the person and message of Jesus has been seriously “messed with,” if not “messed over” [i.e., intentionally distorted] as it has been transmitted to us in the traditions of both the New Testament and early catholic Christianity? We can now add to the myriad of books offering new pictures of what has come to be called “The Jesus Movement” yet another reinterpretation of its founder and progress.

James D. Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a distinguished scholar of the texts and archaeology of first century Palestinian movements, has written a book that offers a real alternative to historic interpretations of Jesus founded on, and (he thinks) obscured by, the literature of early Gentile Christianity—most notably Paul’s letters and Luke/Acts. In fact, Tabor proposes a different list of literary sources from which he reconstructs a far different picture of Jesus and his movement, one that builds on Jewish prophetic and royal messianic movements:

“The Christianity we know from the Q source, ((Behind both Matthew and Luke was an oral sayings-collection common to both and unknown to Mark. The German word Quelle (or “Q”) which means “source” was given to this collection of sayings, which most scholars believe began as an oral source but was eventually written down, perhaps as early as 50 AD in a form that served as a source for Matthew and Luke, either directly or through one using the other’s work.)) from the letter of James, from the Didache, and some of our other surviving Jewish-Christian sources, represents a version of the Jesus faith that can actually unite, rather than divide, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, or at least open wide new and fruitful doors of dialogue and understanding among these three great traditions that have in the past considered their views of Jesus to be so sharply contradictory as to close off discussion.” (316).

Tabor has utilized recent archaeological finds from first century Jewish ossuaries to stabilize and verify the authenticity of family names attributed to Jesus by the New Testament and other literary remains of the period; he has leaned heavily on the genealogical tables of the Gospels and upon the notices in the New Testament and contemporary literature on the relatives of Jesus; he has drawn on the picture of contemporary Messianic prophecy and scriptural fulfillment from Qumran and the New Testament; he has mined early Christianity for notices of so-called “Jewish Christianity”; and he has accepted as historically accurate many statements from the narrative framework of the Gospels, usually ignored by biblical scholars as purely theological constructs. The picture of Jesus, his expectations, and the successor movement we know as early Christianity departs in a completely different direction from the Christianity long-associated with triumphant Gentile Christianity—that of Paul and Luke/Acts.

Briefly stated, Tabor’s thesis can be summarized as follows:

Jesus was “the firstborn son of a royal family—a descendant of King David of ancient Israel. He really was proclaimed ‘King of the Jews’ and was executed by the Romans for this claim.” (4). Neither a religion-founder or a church-founder, “he established a royal dynasty drawn from his own brothers and immediate family.” (4). The Hebrew Prophets which pointed to a leader from this blood line in the Last Days and the Dead Sea Scrolls gave precision to this expectation that Herod’s house and the Roman rulers worried about and watched-out for. “Shortly before he died, Jesus set up a provisional government with twelve regional officials, one over each of the twelve tribes or districts of Israel, and he left his brother James as the head of this fledgling government. James became the uncontested leader of the early Christian movement. This significant fact of history has been largely forgotten, or as likely, hidden. Properly understood, it changes everything we thought we knew about Jesus. . . . The pivotal place of James, the beloved disciple and younger brother of Jesus, has been effectively blotted from Christian memory.” (4-5).

Not surprisingly, such a radical thesis from so respected a scholar has generated a storm of discussion plus an unusual amount of curiosity in the wider public. The Jesus Dynasty was featured on ABC 20/20 and Nightline, the centerpiece of a cover story by USNews and World Report, and shot immediately upon publication to number 22 on the New York Times best-seller list.

Some key conclusions of Tabor’s—ossuary evidence confirming Jesus’ familial names (including accepting the authenticity of the disputed “James Ossuary”); his assertion that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were children of Mary by a second marriage (likely to Clopas or Alphaeus, the brother of Joseph); the location of Jesus’ probable permanent burial [hence, Tabor’s denying any resurrection claims], along with that of James, somewhere near the Mount of Olives where he thinks Jesus was actually crucified—really push the boundaries of the evidence to its extremities. And his case is not helped by “what if” thinking that he reports from various historic locations he visits in ancient Palestine. But despite its radical ragged-edges and popularist speculations, this book makes a major contribution to a new picture of Jesus which takes into account very crucial and completely disregarded aspects of early Christianity. I want to take you on a sampling of three “soundings” into Tabor’s research that show how truly interesting and controversial his work is.

1. Jesus Relationship to John the Baptizer. One of the clearest embarrassments of the written Gospels is the priority in time and importance of John the Baptizer. John not only began the “Kingdom” preaching first; it was John who baptized Jesus, not the other way around. The writers of the four Gospels respond by stressing the clear superiority of Jesus to John, emphasizing that he was only a forerunner of or witness to Jesus’ messianic status (cf. 136-137). ). Here, Tabor turns to the Q document’s saying in Luke 7:26, that there is “no one greater than John,” which Luke or the early Christians amended to, “yet the least in the kingdom is greater than he” (136). Clearly, Jesus had considered John an equal in the original form of the saying. Another Q saying preserved in Luke 7:32-34 (which Tabor does not cite) underscores the contention that early in his ministry, Jesus considered John and him to be equal partners in announcing the news of the Kingdom. Thus when Jesus’ disciples ask to be given a prayer, as were the disciples of John, Tabor suggests the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught his disciples was the very one he himself learned from John (137).

In Tabor’s complicated and intriguing reconstruction, early in his ministry Jesus moved south into Judea baptizing while John remained baptizing in the north—at the crossroads of Herod’s territory, the Galilean routes south, and the safety of western Transjordan (that is, out of what he supposed was the “reach” of Herod Antipas). Drawing on the Qumran literature, Tabor argues for a joint message to Israel delivered in concert by the Priest Messiah (John the Baptizer) and a Davidic Royal Messiah (Jesus) (pp. 147-150).

“Later, after Jesus’ death, when a replacement on the Council of Twelve was chosen for Judas Iscariot. . .it was specified that only candidates who had been with Jesus and the group ‘beginning from the baptism of John’ would be considered for this important office (Acts 1:22). Christians later tended to separate the two movements—that of John the Baptizer and Jesus, as if one was ‘Jewish’ and the other ‘Christian.’ In the lifetime of Jesus, and among his immediate followers, there was one unified movement and one baptism.” (150). It is only with the shocking and sudden arrest and killing of John, that Jesus realizes he must go on alone proclaiming: “the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand.” (157).

2. Jesus’ Genealogy and Family. While most scholars skirt the genealogies of Jesus that open Matthew and Luke, Tabor mines them for the strange inclusions that appear there. He treats the information as historical data and not just as the Gospel writers’ inventions of interwoven quotations from the Septuagint [i.e., the Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture cited in the New Testament]. These genealogies provide Tabor with important clues to Jesus dynastic claims. Noting that especially Luke includes the names of women associated with the Leviticus (Priestly) tradition, he argues that Mary possess both the Davidic and Priestly lines of descent which she passes on to Jesus (56). In fact, Mary has both the royal and priestly lines one expects in an “anointed king” [a priestly king; cf. Aaron, actually the first ‘Messiah’ in the bible: Exodus. 40:12-15]. (56). The Talpiot family tomb-find (near Jerusalem) shows another first century example of the family association brought about through the intermarriage of individuals descended from both Priestly and Davidic lines (51-56).

Most importantly to Tabor is the fact that all four Gospels avoid claiming paternity for Joseph, thus clearing the way for him to argue for an unknown (human) father for Jesus and a second marriage for Mary (61-62), producing the four brothers and two sisters of Jesus that Mark 6:3 mentions (73).

It is on his biological family that Jesus builds his dynastic hopes: “Jesus by age thirty functions as head of the household and forges a vital role for his brothers, who succeed him in establishing a Messianic Dynasty destined to change the world. This extended family of Jesus is the foundation of the mostly forgotten and marginalized Jesus dynasty and it is long overdue for resurrection. By restoring the various historical possibilities related to the family, we are prepared to gain a truer understanding of Jesus and how he might have understood what he believed was his God-ordained mission as Messiah and King of a restored nation of Israel.” (81).

3. The Leadership of the Jerusalem Church. Despite efforts to skip over, or minimize, the fact, when the curtain opens after Jesus death, James leads the The Twelve. The leadership of the early New Testament church has passed to Jesus brothers, especially James.
“This is perhaps the best-kept secret in the entire New Testament: Jesus’ own brothers were among the so-called Twelve Apostles.” (165).

Everyone assumes that Jesus brothers never believed in him. “This spurious opinion is based on a single phrase in John 7:5 that many scholars consider to be a late interpolation. Modern translation even put it in parentheses.” (165). James, in fact, is not only a disciple; he is the beloved disciple (165).

Thus, the latter part of Tabor’s book is spent carefully introducing the kind of Christianity that was dominant in the succession of Jesus relatives [note: not Peter] as heads of their church (until 106 CE) (291-293), whose movement continued to exist into the fourth century CE. The theology of this earliest movement existed in sharp contradistinction to the Pauline views of the heavenly, divine Christ whose Gospel abrogated the Jewish Law. For the Jesus Movement, who saw themselves as “faithful Jews” (not “Christians,” and certainly not “Jewish Christians”), no abrogation of the Law, no matter how widely the good news was to be proclaimed, was ever conceived (266). Paul’s insistence that the Law was a temporary or custodial guardian until Christ or a “temporary revelation” and his bitter polemic against Jewish observance was totally different from the Messianic Movement’s proclamation and aims (cf. 267).

I have only scratched the surface of this book in the three soundings above; but I encourage you to read it for yourselves. Because Tabor is constructing a new thesis on all kinds of evidence, a number of his statements are educated “guesses” and speculation to be tested by future information and study (cf. his discussion of DNA evidence, pp 11-12, 14, 22). Many who read this book will be outraged by his arguments and conclusions. But, from my point of view, a thesis rarely flies into my scholarly life out of nowhere that makes me rethink my entire scholarly framework; and The Jesus Dynasty is certainly one of those very rare birds.

For contemporary “children of Abraham,” by emphasizing the human, prophetic, ethical and messianic center of the Jesus Movement, Tabor has put interfaith dialogue on an entirely different basis. He has set the very matrix and foundation of early Christianity back into a world comprehensible in terms of both ancient Judaism and the rise of Islam.

There’s Something about Mary…More Heat than Light at the Huffington Post

There’s some thing about Mary…the mother of Jesus that is.

My Huffington Post piece is featured on the front page of the Religion section and is the headliner for Christianity. The comments (over 450 this morning and over 1000 “Likes” with 35,000 views) are a strange mixture of the good the bad and the ugly. Seems any discussion of Mary, the mother of Jesus, brings out the best and the worst in folks, including atheists, mythers, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and even Muslims–all battling it out with much more heat than light. In the meantime my post tries to sort out the differences between a historical Miriam, Jewish mother of seven children, based on our New Testament sources, and the Blessed Virgin Mary of Christian tradition. Check it out if you have not, and weight in if you wish, either with a “Like” or a comment here.

A Historical Look at the Birth of Jesus: Part 5 (Conclusion)

There are three basic positions that have been offered in response to the two birth stories we get in Matthew and Luke: 1) Jesus had no human father; 2) Jesus is in fact the biological son of Joseph; 3) Jesus is the biological son of an unnamed male under unknown circumstances.

My own position is that Jesus’ biological father remains unknown but is unlikely Joseph, husband of Mary for the reasons I mention in the previous post. This puts me in an odd position of partial agreement with Christians who take the virgin conception/birth story literally and would likewise hold that Joseph was not the father of Jesus.

But then one faces the sensitive question–if not Joseph then whom? Is there anything at all to be said of this matter? Has any alternative tradition regarding Jesus’ father come down to us? And the answer is yes, the name Pantera is found in a number of ancient sources. Rather than dismiss these out of hand as a “shop-worn tale” produced by Jewish opponents of the Christians who wanted to cast aspersions on Jesus’ paternity, I have tried to honestly examine what one might responsibly conclude about the subject. Having examined the “Jesus son of Panthera” textual traditions in their various forms I then turned to my own investigation of the tombstone of the 1st century Roman soldier, one “Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera” from Sidon who was buried outside of present day Bingerbrück, Germany. I present the full results of my own study in my book, The Jesus Dynasty. What follows here is a brief summary. You can also find further discussion and updated links in the post “An Unnamed Father of Jesus.”

The earliest textual evidence on Pantera comes from three sources:

1) We have two stories preserved in supplements to the Mishnah called the Tosefta (as well as in other parallel rabbinic texts but primarily see Tosefta Chullin 2:22-24) that refer to “Yeshu ben Pantera” (with alternate spelling variations). The first involves the famous Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus who lived in the late 1st and early 2nd century AD. Rabbi Eliezer relates a teaching in the “name of Yeshu ben Pantera” that he heard on the streets of Sepphoris from one Jacob of Kefar Sikhnin. Eliezer himself had been arrested for “heresy” and some have suspected he might have been sympathetic to the Nazarenes. The second story also involves Jacob of Kefar Sikhnin who attempts to heal a certain Rabbi Eleazar ben Dama of a snakebite in the name of “Yeshu ben Pantera.”

Although Maier and a few others have doubted these references are to Jesus of Nazareth, most experts are convinced that they are. Since both of these texts appear to use the designation “Yeshu ben Pantera” in a descriptive rather than a slanderous or polemical way they offer us evidence that Jesus was remembered as “son of Panthera” in the region of Galilee, and even on the streets of Sepphoris, in the early 2nd century. Indeed, Richard Bauckham argues quite persuasively that this Jacob of Kefar Sikhnin might well be James, son (or grandson?) of Jude the brother of Jesus, otherwise known to us as a prominent leader in the Galilean churches (Jude and the Relatives of Jesus, pp. 114-119).

2. The Greek philosopher Celsus relates in polemical work against the Christians preserved by the Christian theologian Origen that he had found it “written” that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier named Pantera (Contra Celsum 1. 69). This text dates to the late 2nd century. Origen replies that the story was concocted by those who refused to believe that Jesus had no human father and was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

3. The 4th century Christian apologist Epiphanius seems to take the designation “Jesus son of Panthera” seriously in that he argues the name is actually a nickname for Jacob, the father of Joseph, husband of Mary. So rather than denying it is part of the family tradition he tries to explain it within that context.

If one begins to read through the literature on “Jesus son of Panthera” the most common explanation one finds is that “Panthera” is not the real name of any individual at all but a play on the Greek word “Parthenos,” or “virgin” that Jewish opponents of the Christians invented to make fun of their enemies. I am amazed at how many of my critics have referred to this idea as a way of dismissing the Panthera stories as references to a specific individual. This explanation is weak on two counts. First, linguistically, the Greek words panthera and parthenos are not even closely related in sound. But more important, none of the earliest sources quoted above, including Origen and Epiphanius, who both believed in the virgin birth, make use of this explanation. Epiphanius in particular recognizes that this is a “real” name and his only defense of it being associated with Jesus is to claim it was already “in the family” before Jesus’ birth. In that sense Jesus could loosely be called “Jesus son of Panthera.”

What Adolf Deissmann contributed to the discussion in his famous 1906 study on “Der Name Panthera” was to remind us all that the Greek name “Pantera” was used by real individuals in the 1st century AD, and furthermore that it was particularly favored by Roman soldiers. He lists six examples which hardly makes the name common, but one of them is the tombstone of Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, in Bingerbrück, Germany. This particular soldier was the 1st century archer who was from Sidon in Palestine. His point in Deissmann’s study is not to even remotely imply that this individual was the father of Jesus, but just that the tradition “Jesus son of Pantera” likely referred to some real individual rather than being a concocted term of Jewish polemical slander. The discovery of an ossuary with the name “Pentheros” in a Jewish 1st century tomb in Jerusalem by Clermont-Ganneau in 1891 has given us additional evidence that the name “Pantera” was in use in Palestine by Jews in the 1st century.

When I traveled to Germany in October, 2005 to examine the tombstone of Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera of Sidon found in 1859 along with other Roman officers buried at Bingerbrück my intent was to find out all I could about these individuals. I do not hold the view that this particular individual was the father of Jesus. As far as I can tell that sort of definitive evidence simply does not exist. However I did come back with a thick file of evidence relating to the original excavation and its particulars that to my knowledge has never before been brought into the discussion. Pantera is only one of 10 other tombstones found at this grave site. I was able to photograph a painting that captures the original excavation of the site when it was accidentally discovered during construction of a railway station in 1859. Artifacts from the cemetery are also in various local museums in Germany, including coin and ceramic evidence. By studying the entire site we are in a much better position to say something about Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera and his history. It seems to me those who have dismissed out of hand even the possibility that Pantera of Sidon might relate to the “Yeshua ben Pantera” stories would do well to examine more closely what can be known, and then to draw conclusions.

If we assume that Mary became pregnant and Joseph was not the father but became her legal husband we are left to our imagination as to how the pregnancy might have come about. But why imagine the worse? Why join the slanderers? Why use words like “bastard” and “illegitimacy.” Why imagine rape and violence, or sexual looseness? One has to ask, illegitimate in whose eyes? Bastard according to whom? Matthew, in giving Jesus’ genealogy, hints to the reader that one should be careful in judging those of the past, even those of this holy lineage of David of the tribe of Judah. What about Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba, each presumably the subject of slander and evil tongues in their own times for sexual improprieties? And if the name Pantera does represent a real person, the father of Jesus, we know nothing of his life at the time he met Mary, at what age he might have joined the Roman army, or really anything at all about him–unless the German tombstone tells us a bit–and there is no way to link that Pantera to the one spoken of in Sepphoris in the 2nd century A.D.

I am a Romanticist, so I am keen on imagining the best. My reading of ancient literature convinces me that the passion of love between a man and a woman is ubiquitous in every culture in the ancient Mediterranean world. Despite societal expectations and strictures the heart has always had its ways. Why not imagine, since we are imagining, Mary and Jesus’ father deeply in love? I had someone tell me after a lecture that such ideas were anachronistic projections into the past–Marriages were arranged, individual love between couples simply did not exist as an ideal to be sought. I had to wonder what literature from antiquity this person had been reading. Why not imagine honorable motives and pure intentions? Perhaps the family objected to the whole thing? Perhaps Mary was forced to flee to her relatives? I like to imagine her firmly standing her ground and honoring the child growing within her as a gift of God.

How Joseph comes into the picture we don’t know, whether he was indeed older, or the pick of the family, or what, but he appears to be a “good man” and he can be honored for that. The father, whoever he might have been, disappears. But who knows what Mary might have told Jesus about it all, if she chose to relate to him the circumstances? He seems to have grown up under the stigma of being called “son of Mary,” with no father named, in our earliest text–the gospel of Mark. But again, I prefer to imagine Mary standing firm for her choice of his father and telling him that his father was a good and holy man in the eyes of God–no matter what the wagging tongues, ancient or even modern, might imply to the contrary. Only a woman knows the inner secrets of her heart, and who and why she decides to share her bed. Maybe Mary believed in destiny, in chosenness. Maybe she raised Jesus with a sense of his specialness, his uniqueness. All of this could be the case without angels appearing and pregnancies coming from on high, as if Jesus’ birth is like that of some Greco-Roman mythological tale of a woman being impregnated by a God–see here for some examples.

Because of the extraordinary character of Jesus, of James his brother, and the others in the family, I choose to imagine the best about Mary and the unnamed father of Jesus, and I would like to think, even though we can only imagine in this case, that such imagination is in the direction of the truth.

Who Was Jesus Father? Imagining the Best

We know nothing about the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy other than the two birth accounts in Matthew 1 and Luke 2. In both accounts Mary is engaged to Joseph, she becomes pregnant, and Joseph is not the father. Matthew says simply that before the marriage “she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). In Luke Mary is told the same–namely that Holy Spirit will come upon her, making the child holy–the son of God (Luke 1:35).  Such a designation of a future king or Messiah as “son of God” is based upon Psalm 2 where David is told, “You are my son, today I have begotten you,” which surely does not imply that David had no human father–or, that Yahweh impregnates human women as in the tale of the “Sons of God” and the “daughters of men” in Genesis 6. Although it is traditional to take these phrases about the role of the Holy Spirit in making the pregnancy “holy,”  as affirmation about no human father we might ask if those phrases necessarily imply that. What if Mary is being told–your pregnancy is sanctified by the Holy Spirit? It is worth comparing the account of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptizer in the light of this possibility, as Luke relates both stories back to back. Notice carefully:

The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah when he is serving his term of duty in the Temple at Jerusalem. He is told that his wife Elizabeth, though advanced in age, will bear him a son. When he returns home the text simply says: “After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for give months she hid herself, saying, “Thus the Lord has done to me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men” (Luke 1:24). Though it is certainly implied that Zechariah is the father of the child, it is not explicitly stated. The point of the story is that the pregnancy is brought about by Divine agency.” Might the same be said for Mary’s pregnancy, related immediately in the following verses?

Mark and John have no birth stories.  Mark calls Jesus the “son of Mary” with no father mentioned (Mark 6:3), implying some irregularity. John uses the phrase “Jesus son of Joseph” twice, though it is not clear if he intends by this to affirm that Josephus, husband of Mary, was Jesus’ biological or adoptive father (John 1:45; 6:42). In his Prologue he simply says that the Word or Logos, who is God, becomes flesh, without elaborating the means of such an incarnation. In some early rabbinic traditions Jesus was called “Yeshu ben Pantera” and a few later sources identify this “Pantera” as a Roman soldier. I have written extensively on this subject and you can find a summary of posts dealing with the Pantera materials here. Historians are generally agreed that if we had to fill out Jesus’ birth certificate we would best write in at the line for Father: Unknown, though many would argue the most likely candidate is Joseph. But if Joseph is the father one has to wonder why do all of these sources imply something irregular and out of the ordinary?

If we assume that Mary became pregnant and Joseph was not the father but became her legal husband we are left to our imagination as to how the pregnancy might have come about. But why imagine the worse? Why join the slanderers? Why use words like “bastard” and “illegitimacy.” Why imagine rape and violence, or sexual looseness? One has to ask, illegitimate in whose eyes? Bastard according to whom? Matthew, in giving Jesus’ genealogy, hints to the reader that one should be careful in judging those of the past, even those of this holy lineage of David of the tribe of Judah. What about Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba, each presumably the subject of slander and evil tongues in their own times for sexual improprieties? And if the name Pantera does represent a real person, the father of Jesus, we know nothing of his life at the time he met Mary, at what age he might have joined the Roman army, or really anything at all about him–unless the German tombstone tells us a bit–and there is no way to link that Pantera to the one spoken of in Sepphoris in the 2nd century A.D.

I am a Romanticist, so I am keen on imagining the best. My reading of ancient literature convinces me that the passion of love between a man and a woman is ubiquitous in every culture in the ancient Mediterranean world. Despite societal expectations and strictures the heart has always had its ways. Why not imagine, since we are imagining, Mary and Jesus’ father deeply in love? I had someone tell me after a lecture that such ideas were anachronistic projections into the past–Marriages were arranged, individual love between couples simply did not exist as an ideal to be sought. I had to wonder what literature from antiquity this person had been reading. Why not imagine honorable motives and pure intentions? Perhaps the family objected to the whole thing? Perhaps Mary was forced to flee to her relatives? I like to imagine her firmly standing her ground and honoring the child growing within her as a gift of God.

How Joseph comes into the picture we don’t know, whether he was indeed older, or the pick of the family, or what, but he appears to be a “good man” and he can be honored for that. The father, whoever he might have been, disappears. But who knows what Mary might have told Jesus about it all, if she chose to relate to him the circumstances? He seems to have grown up under the stigma of being called “son of Mary,” with no father named, in our earliest text–the gospel of Mark. But again, I prefer to imagine Mary standing firm for her choice of his father and telling him that his father was a good and holy man in the eyes of God–no matter what the wagging tongues, ancient or even modern, might imply to the contrary. Only a woman knows the inner secrets of her heart, and who and why she decides to share her bed. Maybe Mary believed in destiny, in chosenness. Maybe she raised Jesus with a sense of his specialness, his uniqueness. All of this could be the case without angels appearing and pregnancies coming from on high, as if Jesus’ birth is like that of some Greco-Roman mythological tale of a woman being impregnated by a God–see here for some examples.

Because of the extraordinary character of Jesus, of James his brother, and the others in the family, I choose to imagine the best about Mary and the unnamed father of Jesus, and I would like to think, even though we can only imagine in this case, that such imagination is in the direction of the truth.

Did you know that…?

Joseph, husband of Mary, mother of Jesus, is never mentioned in the gospel of Mark. Since Mark is our earliest gospel that seems all the more striking. Mark has no account of the birth of Jesus whatsoever, much less any story of the virgin birth. When Jesus is identified in Mark by paternity he is called “the son of Mary,” (Mark 6:3).

Given Jewish culture, then and now, in which children are referred to as “X son of X,” naming the father, this is all the more jarring. I remember for years in flying into Israel we would have to fill out the visitors visa form on the flight as it landed. Under name it has “father’s name,” and it meant the first name. So even as a Gentile I became, legally speaking, “Jimmy Dan Tabor son of Elgie,” my birth name and my father’s first name! I remember reading the trial brief for Oded Golan, owner of the James ossuary who was accused of forgery, the only Israeli trial brief I have ever read, and he was referred to as Oded Golan, son of his father–with his first name given. I am convinced that the absence of Joseph from Mark’s record, plus the reference to “Jesus son of Mary,” is a subtle admission by Mark, whether he know the stories or not, that Jesus’ father went purposely unmentioned. In this case the argument from silence is deafening rather than weak.