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James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty. Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


This book reads too much like those by Baigent, Lincoln, and Leigh. It chronicles the travels, researches, and thought processes of the author, trying to draw the reader along to the finish line of his conclusion. I prefer to have the case set forth in a vacuum, built up and defended on its own objective merits. As it is, Tabor’s case is a chain of weak links soldered together by supposition, possibility, and “what ifs.” Tabor often simply asserts, “I believe that…” That is a matter of hunches, not evidence. I will simply leave aside the archaeological side of his case, since I find it weakens his case rather than strengthening it. What is his basic claim, and upon what evidence does it rest? He believes that Jesus was a would-be king with genuine Davidic credentials, which he inherited from his mother Mary. Jesus’ legal father Joseph was of Davidic descent, too, but he descended through King Jeconiah, whose descendants Jeremiah the prophet disqualified from ever taking the throne (would that have mattered?). Jesus was actually the son of Mary and of Pandera, perhaps even a particular Tyrian Roman legionary named Adbes Pantera whose tombstone Tabor visited in Germany. Joseph fathered no children and died young. His brother Clophas (a harmonization of two gospel names, Cleophas and Clopas) begat James, Joses, Judas, and Simon with Mary, then died or bowed out of the picture, transferred to Germany, where Tabor saw his monument. But they were all, as per the Levirate marriage custom, considered Joseph’s sons and heirs. 

Everything is wrong with this. Tabor is willing to take both gospel genealogies as true and historical. That they conspicuously fail to agree is grist for his mill, for like a couple of obscure Catholic apologists, he gratuitously makes the Lukan genealogy the family tree of Mary, even though it plainly says it is the line of Joseph, her husband. He decides that the Jewish jibe that Jesus was the bastard son of the Roman Pandera was true and not a pun on the virgin (parthenos) birth claim, just because Pandera was a common name for Roman soldiers, ignoring the fact that even the pun theory requires such, as there wouldn’t have been a joke to get unless there were actually men named “Pandera.” The hardly reliable Epiphanius tried to co-opt the slur by saying that Pandera was part of the name of an ancestor of Jesus. And that’s good enough for Tabor.

Tabor swallows the obvious Lukan fiction of John the Baptizer being Jesus’ cousin as a historical fact. He gratuitously posits that “Nazareth” (for which there is no extra-biblical evidence till later centuries) is named for being a settlement of many who belonged to the lineage of David, and hence stemmed from the “branch” (netzer) of David. This is fantasy. Another Lukan figment he accepts is the trial of Jesus before Herod Antipas. From Mark he absorbs the error of making Herod Antipas woo away the wife of his half-brother Philip. Herodias was actually the wife of Antipas’ brother Herod.

He has an interesting discussion of the presence of three different Marys at the tomb, an improbable circumstance, he suggests, even though, as he acknowledges, “Mary” was the most common female name among contemporary Jews. I have many times been in a room with two or three other Bobs, so pardon me if I don’t see it as that odd. But the empty tomb narratives are hardly historical reporting anyway. Nonetheless, Tabor reasons that for one of the Marys to be Jesus’ mother (John 19:25) and another to have sons named Joses and James (Mark 15:40), names also of Mary’s sons, is too much. So maybe the other Mary is Mary the wife of Clopas (John 19:25). And maybe she is a fictive doublet of Mary, Jesus’ mother, which would explain why “they both” have sons with identical names. This doubling would have resulted in a later attempt to suppress Mary’s levirate marriage as somehow unseemly, or perhaps just as a mistake. Like Robert Eisenman, Tabor notes the fascinating fact that “Cleophas” (and its variant “Alphaeus”) come from a root meaning “replacement, substitute.” And Tabor says that would fit with this man’s having been Joseph’s brother standing in for him to beget children for his name. But then are we to suppose that his parents named him because they foresaw his future task? “Cleophas” would be better understood as a subsequent epithet. But who would this man be a substitute for?

Tabor is building toward the venerable theory of Adolf Harnack and Ethelbert Stauffer (never mentioned in this book), that Jesus was a messianic king, and that in his absence, James, then Simeon his brother, took over as “caliphs” in his place, as Abu-bekr, Umr and Uthman did after Muhammad’s passing. Tabor even points out how the name “Cleophas” comes from the very same root as “caliph” (though he seems to think it is an English word. I have to think he means that “caliph” is the Anglicized version of the Arabic khalifa). So I should think Eisenman’s approach would make more sense of these intriguing bits. Eisenman realizes none of the narratives of the gospels, and hardly the Nativity stories, preserve any real sequences of events, but that all gospel narratives must be decoded, reflecting, at best, dim echoes and clues of what was really going on. And in this case, surely the “Cleophas/Alphaeus” business must denote that James the Just as the brother of Simeon bar Cleophas (and therefore another “son of Cleophas”) barely conceals the fact that James and Simeon were both “Cleophas,” the caliph, or stand-in, for Jesus.

Tabor makes James the Just the secret identity of the Beloved Disciple, but how can that be, since John, whose exclusive property the Beloved Disciple character is, makes clear that Jesus’ brothers were derisive skeptics (John 7:3-5)? Tabor simply posits that the brothers of Jesus were among the twelve disciples, so he must discount this verse, as well as Mark 3:31-35. His refutation? Nothing more than to say that, if the brothers were among the twelve, then scholars have been misreading these passages. Right.

Again, Eisenman sees the link but makes more sense of it: the twelve were indeed fictive doublets, by and large, of the Pillars, the ostensible “brothers of the Lord.” For Eisenman (to whom, by the way, Tabor gives a friendly shout-out in his Acknowledgements, but to whose work he never once refers in the body of the book), these names are islands on the surface, emerging from a vaster, hidden mass below, the outlines of which can still be dimly discerned. But Tabor is handicapped by taking way too much of the narrative surface as is.  

Tabor makes Luke a Paulinist and imagines that he was not eager to uphold the leadership rights of the Heirs, the relatives of Jesus. But this is a bad misreading of Luke-Acts, where the implication is that the family of Jesus were disciples already before the resurrection (compare Luke 8:19-21 with Mark 3:20-21, 31-35 and see Acts 1:14). 

Tabor recaps Strauss’s theory that John 3:22-24 attests an interim period in which Jesus acted as an apprentice of John, sharing his baptizing work. (Of course, the casual reader would never guess anyone before Tabor had come up with the theory.) You can decide if that is more plausible than the alternative scholarly guess that Jesus baptizing represents simply an anachronistic retrojection of Christian baptism into the narrative so as to depict the competition between the two emerging sects and to have John give his blessing on the winners (John 3:25-30). But if they were indeed colleagues this means they might have conspired together to become the dynamic duo of Qumran saviors, the Priestly and Royal Messiahs. Yes, maybe so. Maybe not. In any case, another old theory. And maybe they derived their revolutionary timetable from Daniel’s prophecy of the Seventy Weeks. Could be. Who knows? I don’t think Tabor does. He is winging it, merely speculating.

There is little or nothing new in this book. It is but a pale ghost of Eisenman’s magisterial James the Brother of Jesus. It is dedicated to Albert Schweitzer, which is no accident, since it basically recapitulates his theory that Jesus expected he would usher in the apocalypse by his ministry of healing, preaching, and exorcism, but that John the Baptist’s shocking death made him reconsider, making him realize for the first time that he might have to die, too, taking the Great Tribulation onto his own shoulders. To this add Hugh J. Schonfield’s The Passover Plot, which Tabor’s book greatly resembles in its imaginative mind-reading of Jesus and how he might have-cum-must have applied various scriptural prophecies to himself, then endeavored to fulfill them.

One might apply Tabor’s own words to his book as an epitaph: “It is amazing what firm opinions have been built upon such shaky foundations” (p. 165).



Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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