James Tabor: Reassessing Paul
By Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. | Nov 02, 2012 Print Edition
After his bestselling The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (Simon & Shuster, 2006), which was a look behind the scenes at the life of the historical Jesus, James D. Tabor didn’t have to cast about very long to find the subject for his next book. “After spending so much time with the historical Jesus, a book on Paul seemed the next logical step,” he says.
With his new book, Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity (S&S, Nov.), Tabor, chair and professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, hopes to bring some of the more acute issues in Paul studies to a wider audience, especially a question he believes scholars are deeply divided on, which remains central to our understanding of Christianity: “Should we consider Paul the founder of Christianity, and what does Christianity look like when we do?”
Paul and Jesus represents a return full circle for Tabor, whose first book, Things Unutterable: Paul’s Ascent into Paradise in Its Greco-Roman, Judaic, and Early Christian Contexts (University Press of America, 1986), explored Paul’s mystical experiences and his unique message set in the context of the Hellenistic religions of his time. After writing two books on the historical Jesus, Tabor wanted to go back to Paul, examine Paul’s own words in Paul’s letters, and discover “why Paul is the most influential person in human history and why he has shaped practically all we think about everything.”
Tabor’s approach to the history of Christian origins has evolved over the years since his first Paul book, maturing with his books on the historical Jesus, including the recent The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity (S&S, Feb.), written with Simcha Jacobovici. “I used to be a texts guy,” Tabor says, “but since 1990 I’ve participated in eight to 10 archeological digs, and I now see the history of Christian origins through the lens of material evidence as well as through textual evidence.”
Drawing on close readings of Paul’s letters as well as archeological data, Tabor demonstrates that “Paul’s claims are the beginnings of a new religion,” one very different from the Christianity preached by Jesus and taught by James, the brother of Jesus, and the Jerusalem Church. “Paul and the Jerusalem Church are enemies, and Paul’s letters reveal this tension,” says Tabor. “Jesus and James taught that the kingdom of God would transform this present world, while Paul taught that the kingdom of God was outside this present world, in a heavenly realm. Paul was always looking up, while Jesus was always looking down the line.”
The New Testament, Tabor observes, has become a monument to Paul, obscuring the original Jesus movement, which has, in his mind, become a lost Christianity. “If Paul is going to define Christianity—and he does for many Christians—then Christians need to know who Paul really is, through his own letters, not through the stories in Acts.” In Paul and Jesus Tabor presents Paul in his own words “so that readers can say, okay, that’s Paul, and I can decide for myself whether I like him or not,” Tabor says. He hopes they can then understand how Paul remade Christianity in his image and deeply influenced the course of Western history.