Was Jefferson for Jesus?

Robert Orlando has an interesting piece in the Huffington Post today titled “Was Jefferson for Jesus? Our Founding Father’s Religious Resume.

Many realize that Jefferson’s view of religion–and Jesus for that matter, were based on three insights: 1) The preeminence of reason over fable, myth, or miracle; 2) the corruptions of the gospels and all ecclesiastical and theological systems; and 3) Jesus as the greatest “moral rationalist” of history. His secret but now famous “Jefferson Bible” simply cut out portions of the Gospels that he considered offensive, mythological, rationally unacceptable, or immoral. I have the Smithsonian edition on my desk–it is a lovely  facsimile, complete with handwritten notations and the equivalent of 18th century “sticky notes” in the pages. Here is a bit of Orlando:

During our recent 2012 partisan campaign, with its familiar bipolar rhetoric regarding religion, we inevitably heard calls upon Jesus and the Founding Fathers, the latter among whom Thomas Jefferson stands as the most towering figure. Curiously, he supported both political sides. And he left an historical record, one that can be verified and that plainly spells out his hotly debated religious views (unlike Jesus, who never revealed his private thoughts in pen and ink). In his book “Thomas Jefferson, Author of America,” the late Christopher Hitchens, an outspoken atheist, defines Jefferson as a secular deist. Yet, Hitchens needs no artfully blended facts to find Jefferson a man clearly on the side of a secular nation. Though his writings at times publicly favored or encouraged the practice of religion, some of Jefferson’s most private writings did not.

You can read the rest at the link above…”Rest in peace Mr. Hitchens.”

Not To Be Missed: The Top Five Posts on TaborBlog in 2012

Here is a listing of the Top Five most visited articles on this blog during the calendar year 2012

Many of you will have already looked at these but I encourage you to revisit and especially to send this post to others whom you think might be interested in this kind of in-depth content. Each of these posts, along with the embedded links, offers a rather substantial treatment of the topic. It does not surprise me that the #1 visited post is the one on “Resurrection of the Dead” and that the “Easter Morning” post came in at #4. What I offer in both these posts, taken together, is an approach that has taken me the span of my 30 year career to develop though a combination of thinking through the implications of our textual, theological, philosophical, and archaeological evidence.

“And the dead shall be raised” Qumran Cemetery

1. Why People Are Confused About the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead

2. Keeping Up with the Latest on the Talpiot Jesus Tomb

3. Was Mary Magdalene the Wife of Jesus? Was She a Prostitute and Sinner?

4. What Really Happened Easter Morning?–The Mystery Solved

5. Huffington Post Op-Ed: Did Paul Invent the Virgin Birth?


James Tabor on PBS–Does God Know the Future?

Does God know the future? Millions of Bible believers would answer “yes” without hesitation! Doesn’t the Bible say God knows the end from the beginning? And would not time–whether past, present, or future–be irrelevant to God, who is somehow “outside of time,” as well as Omniscient or “all knowing”? There are dozens of popular films dealing with the alluring theme of “time travel.” We all know the famous conundrum about predicting the future. If I could see that tomorrow you would leave your house, get in your car, and be involved in a wreck and I told you so, could you not just decide to stay home or not drive that day–thus proving my prediction wrong? The past is past but the future is unfolding in nanoseconds, yet to be determined with all the implications and repercussions of an infinite number of causal “events,” and variable choices large and small.

The issue, even from a biblical perspective, is more complex than one might think. What God, according to the prophet Isaiah, actually says is “I declare the end from the beginning, from ancient times things not done, my counsel shall stand and I will accomplish my purpose” (Isaiah 46:10). This is actually quite different from knowing a predetermined future. It is rather a declaration about purpose and intentionality, and it allows for all the variables of human choice and history to unfold in a process. It might be comforting and appealing to believe that anything that happens is somehow “predetermined” by God, but that is not really the biblical perspective of God. There is a vast difference between saying “all things that happen are good” and believing that God works within all things for the good. Strangely, rather than “limiting God” the biblical understanding of God and human history as an unfolding process, involves God in our lives in a way that is profoundly deeper and more responsible, as participants, “made in the image of God,” who have real choices as how the future unfolds.

Here is one more in a series of conversations on the PBS show “Closer to Truth” with the ever perceptive host Dr. Robert Kuhn, where we explore this topic, “Does God Know the Future?”. Click on the video image here for the link to this interview:

If you are not familiar with this remarkable PBS series created by Dr. Robert Kuhn dealing with the “Big Questions,” namely God, Cosmos, and Consciousness, you can browse some of the past shows here. The group of experts he has gathered together is truly impressive, a virtual “Who’s Who” on all sides of every issue, with Kuhn’s probing skills as host bringing out their best.  I am honored to have been included. Television does not get better than this.

My PBS Interview Segments on “Closer to Truth”

My interviews on the PBS Series “Closer to Truth,” hosted by Dr. Robert L. Kuhn, have now been posted on-line. Altogether there are twelve segments on topics ranging from the historical to the theological. They are part of larger shows that include several experts from various perspectives discussing this or that topic.

This amazing show is in its third season and the new series on  “Cosmos, God, & Consciousness” pulls together top experts from the worlds of science, philosophy, and religion. So far there are 117 episodes drawing upon the expertise of 128 thinkers in the fields of science, religion, and philosophy. The site itself is rich and thick with archival material, inviting endless browsing. In my book “Closer to Truth” is the best show on PBS, even surpassing Frontline for its depth and breadth of responsible intellectual inquiry.

As Robert says, “I do not promise that you will find Ultimate Truth. I do promise that you will be exhilarated… getting Closer To Truth“.

Robert and I have been life-long friends and we share an intimacy in our intellectual quest for truth seeking. Robert’s Ph.D. is in the science of the human brain from Johns Hopkins University, whereas my training is as a historian of ancient Judaism and early Christianity at the the University of Chicago–so our pairing together on these very biblically oriented topics is quite fascinating.

You can access the main web site here, and my segments, which are parts of larger topical programs, here. Here is a list of my twelve interviews:

Does God Know the Future? (James Tabor)
How is God the Creator? (James Tabor)
What would a Judgment be Like? (James Tabor)
Is This the End Time? (James Tabor)
Do Angels and Demons Exist? (James Tabor)
Arguing God from Miracles & Revelations? (James Tabor)
Does God Intervene in the World? (James Tabor)
Authentication and Conflict in Religious Belief? (James Tabor)
A New Heaven & A New Earth? (James Tabor)
Imagining Immortality and Eternal Life (James Tabor)
What is Immortality? (James Tabor)
What is an Afterlife? (James Tabor)


Worshipping Apollonius, Orpheus, Jesus, and Abraham

Julia Domna, who was born in Syria, became the wife of the Emperor, Septimius Severus (193-211 AD). She was highly regarded as a patron of artists and writers. It was she who commissioned Philostratus to research and write the Apollonius of Tyana biography. The book proved very popular, and exerted an influence on subsequent emperors. The immediate successor to Septimius Severus, Caracalla (211-217 AD), built a shrine to Apollonius. A few years later, Emperor Severus Alexander (222-235 AD), according to one ancient writer, had a very interesting array of statues in his private chapel, namely images of Apollonius of Tyana, Orpheus the Greek mystic, Jesus of Nazareth, and Abraham. ((Lampridius, Vita Alexander Severus xxix. This reference has been dismissed by some as a Christian interpolation but I think there is no reason to doubt this tradition, especially given the Megiddo finds and other evidence of Roman army devotion to Christ as a god, including the mysterious palindrome Sator-Rotas graffiti at Pompey and elsewhere.)) Talk about an eclectic mix, or “covering ones bases.”  I think this shows that in the early 3rd century CE, a hundred years before the emperor Constantine, Jesus was being made into a cult figure that was popular within Roman culture–even by the emperor himself. It is even more fascinating that Abraham (not Moses) is included, showing, I think, the widespread popularity of the Hebrew tales of origins that were increasingly attracting crowds of “God-fearers” in the synagogues of early Roman empire. Recall that Paul writes to non-Jewish converts in Greece and Rome, freely mentioning “Abraham” as a figure they might know something about (Galatians 4, Romans 4).

Christ as Orpheus in the Roman Catacombs

In the late 1990s on the prison grounds at the base of Tel Megiddo in northern Israel archaeologists discovered further evidence of devotion to Jesus as a god by the Roman army. They uncovered a chapel or “Prayer Hall” of the Second Traiana and the Sixth Ferrata Roman legions that were stationed there. On one of the mosaics was the inscription “The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to god Jesus Christ as a memorial.” You can read a fascinating report here in Biblical Archaeology Review, plus the excavation report here.  I highly recommend the little booklet by Yotam Tepper and Leah Di Segni, A Christian Pray Hall of the Third Century CE at Kefar ‘Othnay (Legio): Excavations at the Megiddo Prison 2005, published by the Israel Antiquities Authority. It contains wonderful maps, photos, and illustrations and should be part of every library on Christian Origins.

I will write more on pre-Constantinian evidence of early Christianity among the Romans in subsequent posts, so stay tuned.

Nonsense and the Academic Study of Religions

The late great Hebrew University scholar Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), who devoted his life to the study of Jewish mysticism and messianism has been oft quoted as having once said:

“Nonsense is nonsense, but the academic study of nonsense is legitimate scholarship.”

I can’t remember when or from whom I first heard this, or even if I read it years ago, but it always stuck with me as a particularly wise observation. As it turns out, according to Neil Silberman, who has run down what he thinks is the origin of the quotation, it in fact came from Saul Lieberman, and was either then passed on by Scholem or wrongly attributed to him. ((According to John Efron, “My Son the Alchemist: Shedding Light on the ‘Great Art.” Forward, October 7, 1994: “…An apocryphal story is told that when the distinguished talmudist Saul Lieberman once publicly introduced the historian of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, he began with the quip, “Now everybody knows that Kabbalah is narishkayt (foolishness), but the history of narishkayt — now that’s scholarship!”))

Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Flesh

I find the quotation more than appropriate to my own specialty, the quest for a historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity. Such a study involves one in a thick complex of overlapping areas including magic and miracles, angelology and demonology, journeys to heavenly realms, revelatory epiphanies, messianism, and a range of cosmological and eschatological models of world transformation. These and many other related categories seem to have one thing in common. They involve “imagining the world” based on claims of religious experience that move decidedly outside the purview of a scientific understanding of reality. Indeed, for many post-Enlightenment thinkers they involve a way of thinking about the world that is often called “magical,” that can best be described as “fantasy,” or if taken seriously enough, outright delusion.

In other words, to cut to the chase in terms of the Jesus movement, women do not become pregnant without a male, decaying corpses do not return to life, walk out of tombs, and eat meals with living people, angels do not descend from heaven and move tombstones, sickness is not caused by demon possession, humans do not walk on water, the truly blind and lame are not instantly healed by a word or a touch, five thousand men are not fed by five loaves and two fish, no one ascends or flies bodily into the sky, and the overthrow of the kingdoms of this world will not come “in a moment, in the blink of an eye” by the appearance of a human-like figure in the clouds of heaven. And yet, millions of Christian “believers” insist that unless such things are affirmed in an absolutely literal fashion one has somehow rejected both the message of Jesus and Jesus as the messenger. Others, equally claiming to be fully a part of the Christian community, understand such phenomena in a mythological or symbolic way, as part and parcel of a Hellenistic world view of the cosmos and its operations. Their position is that such affirmations cannot be simply imported from an ancient pre-scientific understanding of the universe in the cosmology of the 21st century without some kind of interpretive evaluation.

In terms of communicating this to the masses, with Christian believers squarely in mind, Bishop John Shelby Spong’s recent work, Jesus for the Non-Religious, makes an appealing case that I highly recommend. Less known in the U.S. are the works of Uta Ranke-Heinemann, the first woman to teach Catholic theology in Germany. ((Prof. Ranke-Heinemann teaches in the theology department of the University of Essen. In 1987, the Vatican sought to invalidate her authority as a theologian after she pronounced the virgin birth a theological belief and not a biological fact. One of her more provocative books, published in 1992 titled Putting Away Childish Things: The Virgin Birth, the Empty Tomb, and Other Fairy Tales You Don’t Need to Believe to Have a Living Faith makes a powerful case for a faith fully built on a scientific view of things and a recognition of the power of religious myth and symbolism.))

Such a stance is not necessarily “materialistic,” nor is it reductionistic, see my recent blog posts: “Why the Category of the Supernatural Makes No Sense,” and “Rejecting the Supernatural.” Indeed, there are surely undiscovered mysteries beyond number awaiting our further understanding, but no appeal to the unknown and the not-yet-understood should become a justification for an affirmation of nonsense. As Philip Davies once remarked, biblical literalists affirm faith in phenomenon of the past that they would instantly reject as absurd and impossible in their own present lives and experience. Imagine contemporary reports of someone walking on water, flying into the clouds, or raising a corpse at the local cemetery, and how they would be received. I will never forget the late philosopher and theologian, Richard Underwood, telling me how as a young boy of eight years old he sat in a small country church on a spring day with the windows open, and suddenly had his own epiphany. The local preacher was giving a sermon on Easter in which he insisted on a literal view of the corpses of the dead in coming to life and walking around Jerusalem. Suddenly, it came to young Underwood like a bolt, an insight that stayed with him into his mature adult life–what the preacher was saying had to be untrue. It simply never happened. The world outside the window, in all its beauty and its agonizing complexity, was more “real” than what the preacher, so separated from “nature” by rhetoric and tradition was affirming.

Historians, by definition, operate within the presuppositions of a scientific world view. Yet one often hears the claim that believing that someone was raised from the dead, or ascended bodily into heaven, is no more of an act of “faith” than considering such claims to be nonsense, as if both views are equally compelling as rational alternatives depending on ones “presuppositions.” It may well be that such approaches are culturally conditioned in that these same folk would not dream of taking Mohammed’s journey from Mecca to Jerusalem on his horse in a single night (the Isra and Mi’rah) as a subject deserving any kind of serious historical investigation–did it really happen? And, just as one might expect, Muslims also are divided into camps, with some taking the journey as a literal “physical” event, and others interpreting it more “realistically,” as a dream.

The subject of the Talpiot tomb that broke into the news again this past February seems to have crystallized, or maybe even galvanized, Christians into two camps–those who interpret the resurrection of Jesus as having to do with his physical corpse being resuscitated, and those who understand “resurrection of the dead” as referring to what Paul calls a “spiritual body,” neither flesh nor blood (1 Corinthians 15:42-50).

Whether or not this tomb can be shown to have held the physical remains of Jesus of Nazareth or not, the issue remains. It seems to me that a historian, as historian, has no choice. Jesus as a human being died and his body eventually “returned to the dust,” as happens with all of us, and all other creatures when we die. I am convinced that the evidence supports the view that he was most likely reburied in a rock hewn tomb in Jerusalem, which well might have become a family tomb for other intimate members of his family. But those who are absolutely certain that no tomb with Jesus’ physical remains can possibly ever be found, since Jesus ascended bodily to heaven, are surely engaged in a discussion that is ahistorical, or at least nonhistorical, in which the normal “rules of engagement” are suspended.

Rejecting the Supernatural

In my previous post I briefly questioned the assumptions associated with the term “supernatural.” From a philosophical standpoint I would argue that what is needed is not so much a rejection of the supernatural as a redefining thereof. On the other hand, I am not a philosopher but a historian of ancient Judaism and early Christianity. In that role the charge I most often hear from readers who identify themselves as Christian “believers” is that historians “reject the supernatural.” In other words, historians begin with what are labeled as “naturalistic” presuppositions and thus end up rejecting a priori, the very possibility of the incarnation, the virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles, his atoning death, his bodily resurrection, and his ascent to heaven–in other words all the theological affirmations of the Apostles’ or Nicean Creeds. I have addressed this issue quite recently here, but want to expand a bit in some different directions.

Prof. Ronald Hendel has an interesting piece in this regard in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, “Critical Biblical Scholarship–What’s the Use?,” challenging those who would question the value of historical critical study of the Biblical texts as Christian philosophers. Hendel is the one who opened this “can of worms” back in August, 2010 with an op-ed in BAR titled “Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies” (36:04, July/Aug 2010) in which he lamented the increased participation and influence of evangelical and fundamental Christian scholars in the Society of Biblical Literature meetings, many of whom openly oppose standard historical critical methods in favor of a ‘faith based” Biblical scholarship. You can read an on-line version here, and some SBL responses here. I would particularly direct readers to Kenneth  Atkinson’s insightful response here. Hendel’s charge is that essentially folks are mixing categories here, confusing the role of faith with that of reason–that is the scientific investigation of texts and other historical evidence–“Biblical” or otherwise. Hendel wrote:

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” This famous line from Pascal’s Pensées draws a wise distinction between religious faith and intellectual inquiry. The two have different motivations and pertain to different domains of experience. They are like oil and water, things that do not mix and should not be confused. Pascal was a brilliant mathematician, and he did not allow his Catholic beliefs to interfere with his scholarly investigations. He regarded the authority of the church to be meaningless in such matters. He argued that “all the powers in the world can by their authority no more persuade people of a point of fact than they can change it.”1 That is to say, facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts. Faith resides in the heart and in one’s way of living in the world.

I have to side largely with Hendel on this issue. As I often tell my students, good history is never the enemy of informed faith, but I don’t see my job as a historian of religions to sort out the faith issues for people–or even to deal with them at all. This is not to say that people who hold such faith are stupid or uninformed, but rather that faith and history are separate ways of looking at religions. Other than a few clerics, every major scholar of whom I am aware in the field of “studies of the historical Jesus,” shares the same basic historical methods and presuppositions. This is not to say we all agree on conclusions, but we are clear on the methods of historical research and what counts for evidence. Continue reading

Why the category of the “Supernatural” Makes no Sense

I think the main problem in discussions between theists and atheists is the assumption that static categories like “the Divine,” the “supernatural,” the “natural,” and the “material” exist other than as our dualistic semantic projections upon the whole of reality as we can perceive it. Our experiences are never reductionistically “materialistic,” even in the proverbial “hard, cold” lab. Process theism, by whatever name (Whitehead, Hartshorne) seems a better way of thinking about our “reality” even if “God” might not be the word one choses to use given the connotations from “Classic” theism (omniscience and omnipotence).

Bottom line: the very nature of reality presents us with what appear to be “mechanistic” “time and chance” “atoms and the void” phenomenon (as per Jacques Monod), but also “mind” “thought” and other transcendent “spiritualist” phenomenon as well, that seem to exhibit will, reason, and the aesthetic–hence this very blog, this topic, and the any discussion thereof. It is a simple truism that there is no way to step outside of things and make “meaningful” nihilistic declarations about the non-meaning or hyper-subjectivity of our existence. As the old joke goes: “There are no absolutes?–Are you absolutely sure of that?”

“Mind and Matter”are no opposing realities but of one whole “panentheistic” reality as witnessed by our every thought and word. Most of us agree that “magical” thinking is not a credible casual factor in our universe (angels, demons, fairies, and projected illusions) but who among us can reduce to the “normal” or the purely “material” (i.e., the four forces/fields of gravity, electromagnetic and strong and weak nuclear) our wondrous and marvelous minds and our common as well as not-so-common experiences of reality? In other words, all natural phenonema are by definition supra-natural, if by “natural” one means a truncated mechanistic view of both our inner realities and all that we experience in our world of “nature.”