What Have They Done with Jesus? When History and Theology Collide
by James Tabor
I have written quite a bit over the past few months on the differences between the historical critical method in biblical studies, particularly as applied to the “historical Jesus,” which has been my area of focus for over three decades. This is much on my mind this weekend since the case of Chris Rollston, and attempts to remove him from his tenured post at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, have recently come to light. See my blog post from yesterday here.
I presented the results of my take on Jesus in my 2006 book, The Jesus Dynasty. It is a book written for a non-specialist audience, not for my academic colleagues, though I am happy that any number of them have offered their reviews. This includes Jim Strange, Craig Evans, Darrel Bock, Jack Porier, and Ben Witherington–all of whom are academics with a decidedly conservative approach to matters of Christian Origins. Craig Evans and Ben Witherington have written entire books on the more general issues involved in historical Jesus research. Evans titles his book, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels, with a chapter endearingly titled “Hokum History and Bogus Findings,” in which he treats my own take on Jesus. Still, Ben Witherington’s title surely has to be my favorite: What Have They Done With Jesus? The book is a rather typical liberal vs. conservative treatment of recent historical studies written by well known academics on Jesus and early Christianity that have made it into the mass market trade publishing world. Witherington is bound and determined to save Jesus from the critical scholars but at the same time to be cute and engaging with chapter titles such as: Gullible’s Travels,” “Naughty Gnostic Gospels,” “For Pete’s Sake,” “Simon Says,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” and “Hey Jude, Don’t Make It Bad.” In an appendix to the book, hastily added as it was going to press, is Witherington’s critique of The Jesus Dynasty, previously published on his blog in several parts. Gary Burge, in Christianity Today, characterized Witherington’s treatment of my work as “a stinging dismantling of James Tabor’s primary theses in his speculative book, The Jesus Dynasty.”
I find it interesting that Prof. Burge considers Witherington’s treatment a “stinging dismantling” of my primary theses, though I suppose I should not at all find it surprising that Burge would characterize my work as “speculative.” After all, I do indeed “speculate” that Jesus had a human father, or that dead bodies don’t rise and walk around and eat and drink, talk to folks, and then rise up into the heavens. Therefore I assume that Jesus must have had the normal DNA that comes from a human mother and father, and that if the tomb into which he was temporarily and hastily place after his execution was empty someone must have removed Jesus’ corpse. It is that simple. Since I know neither the father nor what happened to the body I suggest a few possible speculative scenarios that you can take a look here and here. So in that regard I guess I have to plead guilty of “speculation.” But is there really any serious alternative? Seriously? See my essay here on “Sense and Nonsense in the Academic Study of Religions.”
There are of course many things we don’t know with certainty about the historical Jesus, and when I can I try to fill in what one might reasonably suppose, and that could well be labeled speculation as well, but I think it is the “Jesus had a father” and “dead messiahs don’t come to life” assumptions that most hackle folk who take such things literally. As for the charge that Witherington has offered a “stinging dismantling” of my primary theses I must confess I find myself at a loss here. Somehow I can not imagine that anyone familiar with the areas I cover in my book would evaluate Witherington’s critique in that way. I guess it just goes to show how Evangelicals love champions, those few of their number who go out and somehow “meet the lions” on their own terms (and I am surely not even one of the lions compared to the likes of Crossan, Ehrman, or Funk).
I have not chosen to “answer” Witherington’s critique of my book in an explicit and direct way. I think our basic presuppositions are so very different on many issues there is, unfortunately, simply no room for dialogue. Ben is doing theology and I am trying my best to stick with history. Witherington wrote me in the course of his questioning my discussion about Jesus having a father that he believed the blood samples tested on the Shroud of Turin had strangely showed neither X nor Y chromosomes, indicating that Jesus was somehow human, but without normal human blood like the rest of us with two human parents. I must admit, it took me aback more than a bit. But it also helped me to realize that in such circles the normal rules of scholarly engagement and critical discussion are suspended. On the other hand, I have responded to most of the critiques of Witherington, Evans, and others in the many posts on this Blog, particularly the matters relating to the Talpiot tombs, the ossuaries and their inscriptions, and the matter of Jesus having a father. It is all there for those who want to go back and read a bit, beginning with the links above as well as here, here, and here.
I think my book speaks for itself and anyone who wants to carefully read it will be able to judge for themselves whether Witherington has “dismantled” my main theses as Budge seems to think. Frankly, in my experience Christianity Today is not an objective vehicle for reviewing and airing critical reflections and debate on Christian Origins. How could it be otherwise, since the end is always determined from the beginning–the very opposite of scientific and historical processes and method? Since I grew up in that world I think I tend to have less patience with it. Some of these reviewers are my friends and though I find their treatment of my book sometimes polite and respectful I obviously operate in such a different world than that of the “dismantlers” I find it hard to respond within normal academic parameters.