Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Jesus Dynasty -- whatever happened to Herod?

Even though the "Jesus Family Tomb" controversey is becoming more of a third page tabloid healdine than a serious academic story, I think it worthwhile to spend time with the original source: the work of UNC-Charlotte James Tabor. Just as The DaVinci Code evolved from the less well known Holy Blood, Holy Grail, so does the Talpiot tomb documentary find its intellectual DNA from Tabor's book The Jesus Dynasty.

True confession -- I've not yet read the complete book; any thoughts in these next few posts will be my developing thoughts as I play around with this material in my brain. In other words -- these aren't final conclusions, and I welcome your commentary. What I have done thus far is carefully read the introduction and conclusion and skim the other chapters -- then I've done a pretty detailed read of chapter 1 (where Tabor sets the stage by talking about the birth of Christ).

I admire Tabor's passion. He writes with verve about his heartfelt thrill in the study of antiquities. I'd wager that his lectures are a blast. In the first chapter, he lays some groundwork for us: the background of Mary, mother of Jesus. He takes us on a tour of church tradition rooted in minor documents of the Catholic church. Through this tour, we learn of the extrabiblical ideas that Mary's parents were named Joachim and Anna -- that she was from the metropolis of Sepphoris (the impressive administrative capital of Galilee), but that her family moved to the tiny village of Nazareth (population about 300) some 4 miles away. He introduces us to Joseph and gives surprising credence (for a critical scholar) to the Bethlehem birth story.

Now here's the interesting thing. Tabor tells us that Mary was born about 18 bc (Pg 39) and that her parents likely moved from Sepphoris sometime before its destruction by the Roman General Varus, who in 4-3 bc swept through Galilee with 20,000 men to quell a revolt following the death of Herod the Great. Remember that, will you? Varus came through after the death of Herod the Great. That's important because Tabor down the road in chapter 3 (I did skim the book and read the conclusion after all) is going to assert that Mary became pregnant by a roman soldier named Pantera. That's right, the old charge levied against Jesus that he was illegitimate. Tabor will flood us with early pagan accusations and with the innuendoes of Jesus' own hometown folk (found in scripture); he will even produce the evidence of a grave of Pantera somewhere in Europe on the frontier of the Roman empire.

But there are some things he doesn't do -- he never interacts with the scriptural assertion that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. Matthew 2 makes this dating integral to the Birth narrative. It was the paranoia of Herod who feared a rival to his throne that led him to dupe foreign dignitaries into seeking out this coming messiah. It was the ruthlessness of Herod that grew into a pogrom, executing baby boys across his kingdom. Interestingly, Tabor doesn't address this little tidbit. He simply states that Mary was born in 18bc and sometime before the destruction of Sepphoris they were in Nazareth -- just in time to be impregnated by a roman soldier who came to the region to quell the revolt after the death of Herod the great.

This might not seem like a big deal. But Tabor inadvertently makes it a big deal. He goes to great lengths to convey to us the character of Herod the great: he cites Julius Africanus in saying that Herod had the genealogical records of Galillee burned so that there would be no way to trace a rival claimant to the throne. Tabor cites Josephus who tells us that Herod had his own wife and children murdered in a fit of rage. Tabor reminds us that it was Herod who outfitted the rock fortress of Masada to be a refuge in case his own people revolted against him. This information seems to corroborate the Matthew account -- it's almost unthinkable that he didn't draw on Matthew's account in painting his picture of Herod.

Then Tabor talks about how the canonical gospels are our best source of information about "the historical Jesus" -- even though he's not willing to take them literally, he realizes that they're a valuable source of information. Yet he skips right over a whole chapter's worth of vital information in reconstructing his scenario. He also doesn't provide any documentation to support why he thinks that Mary's pregnancy happened after the death of Herod rather than before.

It seems this is a pretty big oversight. More on why this oversight happens in the next post.

Soli Deo Gloria