James D. Tabor Simon & Schuster 2007-04-24

This book claims to be “a new historical investigation of Jesus, his royal family, and the birth of Christianity” (p. 3). This easy-to-read book is a tale of Tabor’s personal discovery concerning the events surrounding the life, death, and legacy of Jesus.

After a discussion of the Tomb of the Shroud and the Talpiot Tomb, part one investigates Jesus of Nazareth’s family and the historical issues surrounding His birth and early life, including Mary and her pregnancy, Jesus’ family genealogy, and His possible earthly fathers. Part two details growing up Jewish in Galilee. Part three describes Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s rise to prominence in their local community and their early ministry. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, His last meal with His disciples, and His death and burial are examined in part four. After His death, the continuation of Jesus’ “dynasty” is explained in part five. Tabor concludes the book with a brief summary of his findings and the commonality that Christians, Jews, and Muslims share.

Tabor insists on viewing Jesus in His first-century Jewish context; in doing so he presents the reader with useful historical information. For example his discussion of ossuaries is well done and helps the reader understand this crucial element in Jewish burial practices during the time of Jesus. Tabor’s willingness to use the Gospel of John as a historical source is also refreshing. Tabor demonstrates that James’s message is coherent with the tradition Jesus Himself established. Later Gnostic texts receive skeptical reception from Tabor, who, for example, sees the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene as “long on speculation and short on evidence” (p. 4).

However, the commendation must end there. Tabor presents himself to the popular audience as the authoritative historian constructing true narratives from validated facts. But his view of history is driven by presuppositions that dictate which story lines he investigates. For example he writes, “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, italics his). Contrary to Tabor’s opinion, historians leave room for the possibility of the miraculous since the evidence points in that direction. Consequently Tabor does not spend any time investigating the historical claims of a virgin birth. He says the claims of Matthew and Luke were “invented later by Jesus’ followers to honor Jesus and to promote his exalted status in a manner common to that culture” (p. 60). Tabor makes similar claims regarding Jesus’ resurrection (p. 234). Many of Tabor’s paragraphs end with words like “perhaps” or “imagine” to present an alternative view of the evidence that is not widely accepted, even among liberal scholars.

In addition Tabor’s naturalism allows him to pit theology versus history. In a discussion concerning Jesus’ alleged earthy father, Tabor comments, “We have to remember that the gospels are primarily theological accounts of the Jesus story written a generation or more after his death” (p. 81, italics added). Statements like this allow Tabor to pick and choose which material (Gospel, later New Testament, or extrabiblical) he finds historical and which he finds as merely theological, leading to historical reconstructions from evidence tailored to his theories. For example Tabor deems several passages as “later interpolations” (such as Mark 10:33–34; 13:1–37; John 4:2; 7:5). Yet there is no variant textual evidence to support this conclusion or even any agreement on the part of scholars that this is the case. Tabor supports his claims with empty phrases such as “most scholars” (pp. 165, 181, 299), without offering any real scholarly support. The reader is left to assume (falsely) that Tabor speaks for the scholarly community as a whole.

The “historical” picture the reader is left with is not orthodox. Tabor views Jesus as a Jew, related to David, who set himself up as the Messiah, but Tabor’s reconstruction ends there. In the end the New Testament itself is a piecemeal collection of writings in which the reader must decipher “unwittingly left” clues “from other sources” (p. 248). The preaching of Paul and the teaching of James, Peter, and John are viewed as irreconcilable, despite the clear indication in many places that Paul was passing on the message of the early church. In the end Jesus Himself comes across as an entrepreneurial and opportunistic Jewish tradesman who simply reads Himself into the Hebrew Scriptures and applies them directly to his life (p. 157), a charismatic teacher whose message is distorted by Paul’s “mystical gospel” (p. 265).

Tabor concludes by acknowledging that “all historians come to their investigation with selective criteria or judgment forged by both acknowledged and unrecognized predisposed interests and cultural assumptions. There is no absolutely objective place to stand” (p. 316). Tabor himself demonstrates the truth of this very statement as his own presuppositions color every page. His narrative is entertaining and his historical evidence useful, but his method leaves an incomplete history which ignores the New Testament’s repeated claims of Jesus’ reconciling work as the divine Son of God.