An Unnamed Father of Jesus

Jesus was born of a woman. On that everyone but the most extreme docetic Gnostic would seem to agree–if there are any still left around. But how was it that Mary became pregnant?

There are three basic positions that have been offered in response to the two birth stories we get in Matthew and Luke: 1) Jesus had no human father; 2) Jesus is in fact the biological son of Joseph; 3) Jesus is the biological son of an unnamed male under unknown circumstances.

PregnancyThe first option takes us out of the realm of history into the arena of myth and symbol and even those who would take the reports in Matthew and Luke literally, that Mary became pregnant without a male, would have to admit that such “divine” conceptions are otherwise known to us in a host of Greco-Roman stories of the supernatural births of heros, demi-gods, and divine men, sired by Gods. Generally speaking such tales tend to be alien to most forms of ancient Judaism, other than tales of humans who are the offspring of “angels,” which do appear to stem from similar conceptual realities. One can hardly expect a modern historian to take such reports as matters of serious and rational investigation.

As I point out in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, one possible purpose of the “virginal conception” story in Matthew and Luke is to affirm the “divine” origin of Jesus–that he is in some special way the “Son of God” in that his conception is not through any human male. It is entirely possible that this is all one should derive from those stories. Thus we are left with the choice of taking the tale literally or metaphorically. Either way the “virgin conception” of Jesus would be a way of expressing the extraordinary nature of Jesus.

One might well leave it at that and most historians would opt for the most simple explanation–since Mary is eventually wedded to Joseph, whatever the circumstances, he is the most likely father.

However, there are some of us who are intrigued with the core of the Matthean/Lukan story–namely, that Mary becomes pregnant before her union with Joseph and though he goes ahead with the marriage he is not the father. Jane Schaberg has probably offered the most extensive argument for this option in her excellent study, The Illegitimacy of Jesus (Sheffield Academic Press, 1995). I highly recommend this book although I differ in the end with Jane’s conclusions.

Although the “Jesus son of Pantera” sources, dating from the 2nd century AD, offer a “name” of a father, this option itself does not need to have any connection to a Roman soldier, Pantera or otherwise. The notion of an unnamed and unknown father of Jesus is worth considering on its own rights.

Here, of course, we enter the realm of pure speculation, since those of us who are inclined to the view that Jesus had a human father, and Joseph took Mary as his wife, despite her pregnancy before their union, know absolutely nothing about the circumstances of the pregnancy. It is even possible that Matthew and Luke’s report that Mary became pregnant while betrothed is an invention of these writers to bolster the case that God must have been the father. After all, who could accuse such a pious woman as the mother of Jesus of immorality? And would that not make Jesus a bastard or mamzer? Schaberg has even suggested that Mary might have become pregnant by rape, but the birth is “sanctified” by God (and Joseph!) as an act of unconditional love and grace.

Continue reading “An Unnamed Father of Jesus”

Mary Pregnant out of Wedlock–Why Join the Slanderers?

We know nothing about the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy other than the two accounts in Matthew 1 and Luke 2–in which Jesus has no human father–and the traditions that Jesus was called “Yeshu ben Pantera,” son of a Roman soldier named Pantera–see my post here. If Jesus had a human father, and Joseph, who later married his mother Mary/Miriam, was not responsible for the pregnancy, which even the Gospel accounts insist upon, then we are left with nothing but imagination.

BMV Pregnancy Test

Given what we don’t know and can never really know I have been utterly amazed at the ugliness of some readers who can only imagine the worse when it comes to such a scenario. But why imagine the worse? Why join the slanderers? Why use words like “bastard” and “illegitimacy.” Why imagine rape and violence, or sexual looseness? One has to ask, illegitimate in whose eyes? Bastard according to whom? Matthew hints to the reader that one should be careful in judging those of the past, even those of this holy lineage of David of the tribe of Judah. What about Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba, each presumably the subject of slander and evil tongues in their own times? And even if the name Pantera does represent a real person, the father of Jesus, we know nothing of his life at the time he met Mary, at what age he might have joined the Roman army, or really anything at all about him–unless the German tombstone tells us a bit–and there is no way to link that Pantera to the one spoken of in Sepphoris in the 2nd century A.D.

I am a Romanticist, so I am keen on imagining the best. My reading of ancient literature convinces me that the passion of love between a man and a woman is ubiquitous in every culture in the ancient Mediterranean world. Despite societal expectations and strictures the heart has always had its ways. Why not imagine–since we are imagining–Mary and this unnamed father of Jesus deeply in love? I had someone tell me after a lecture that such ideas were anachronistic projections into the past–Marriages were arranged, individual love between couples simply did not exist as an ideal to be sought. I had to wonder what literature from antiquity this person had been reading. Why not imagine honorable motives and pure intentions? Perhaps the family objected to the whole thing? Perhaps Mary was forced to flee to her relatives? I like to imagine her firmly standing her ground and honoring the child growing within her as a gift of God.

How Joseph comes into the picture we don’t know, whether he was indeed older, or the pick of the family, or what, but he appears to be a “good man” and he can be honored for that. The father, whoever he might have been, disappears. But who knows what Mary might have told Jesus about it all, if she chose to relate to him the circumstances? He seems to have grown up under the stigma of being called “son of Mary,” with no father named, in our earliest text. But again, I prefer to imagine Mary standing firm for her choice of his father and telling him that his father was a good and holy man in the eyes of God–no matter what the wagging tongues, ancient or even modern, might imply to the contrary. Only a woman knows the inner secrets of her heart, and who and why she decides to share her bed. Maybe Mary believed in destiny, in chosenness. Maybe she raised Jesus with a sense of his specialness, his uniqueness. All of this could be the case without angels appearing and pregnancies coming from on high, like some pagan Greco-Roman tale of the god Zeus or Jupiter impregnating a woman with a “son of God.”

Because of the extraordinary character of Jesus, of James his brother, and the others in the family, I choose to imagine the best about Mary and the unnamed father of Jesus, and I am convinced, even though we can only imagine in this case, that such imagination is in the direction of the truth.

What Really Happened Easter Morning–the Mystery Solved?

Most people raised in our Christian culture have a vague story in their heads as to what is supposed to have happened Easter morning, whether drawn from attending church services, reading the Bible themselves, or even from various “Jesus” films. Around Easter Jesus usually makes the cover of some of our major magazines. Even one who is non-Christian or secular can’t help picking up on the basic story-line, which goes something like this:

Early Sunday morning after Jesus’ Good Friday crucifixion several of his women followers went to his tomb only to find the heavy stone blocking the entrance removed and the tomb empty with the grave clothes left behind. They were told by two dazzling angels dressed in white “He is not here, he is risen, come see the place where he lay.” They were dumbfounded, as were the other apostles to whom they reported these strange events. Later that day Jesus appeared to the apostles and allowed them to examine his body with its wounds, assuring them it was him, and that he had been raised from the dead. Various other appearance of Jesus followed over a period of weeks until Jesus departed this earth, taken up in the clouds of heaven.

Jesus Resurrection

What will come as a complete surprise to many people is that our historical sources for this scenario offer wildly differing accounts of Easter morning. Historians work with sources and evidence and when it comes to Easter all we have are six ancient texts–our four New Testament gospels, namely Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and the fragments of the more recently discovered Gospel of Peter. I have written recently about the Gospel of Peter here, and I have offered an extended analysis of Paul’s understanding of resurrection of the dead with a lot of historical background,  “Why People are Confused about the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead.”

What I want to do in this post is take closer look at our earliest three sources, taken in chronological order–Mark, Matthew, and Luke, viewing them side-by-side, in “Synoptic” fashion, when it comes to their accounts of the empty tomb of Jesus and the subsequent “appearances” of Jesus to his various followers. Readers who have never bothered to do this will find much of surprise I think. All you need is a copy of the Bible with the New Testament included, any translation will do fine.

Most scholars are agreed that Mark is our earliest gospel. What few non-specialists realize is that Mark’s account of the empty tomb stands in the sharpest contrast to those written after him.

Mark 16:1-8 provides the early core account with what scholars consider to be the original version of Mark ending abruptly with verse 8:

And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Salome, bought spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun was risen. And they were saying among themselves, “Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the tomb?” and looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back–it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, Be not amazed: you seek Jesus, the Nazarene, who has been crucified: he has been lifted up; he is not here: behold, the place where they laid him! But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goes before you to Galilee: there you will see him, just as he told. And they went out, and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them: and they said nothing to any one; for they were afraid.

This is how our earliest manuscripts of the gospel of Mark end!

Later copies of the Mark supply one of several added endings, clearly finding such an abrupt ending to the gospel story inadequate, so you will find in most Bibles the additional verses 9-20, which were composed by in the 3rd or 4th century by someone who wanted to round the story out and make it more in harmony with the endings of Matthew, Luke, and John1

Please note the rather astounding fact that Mark’s original ending has no appearances of Jesus. A young man, not an angel, tells the women Jesus has been “lifted up,” with a promise that they will “see him in Galilee,” which is in the north of the country.2 This was apparently the earliest faith of Jesus’ first followers–namely, that Jesus had been taken up to heaven, and that the disciples would see him at a later time in Galilee. I have argued, see the post noted above, that this is also the understanding of Jesus’ resurrection we find in Paul, and ironically, it is the view of resurrection we find in the newly discovered Talpiot tomb inscription about God “lifting up” (Greek hupso/υψω) the dead–see our book, The Jesus Discovery. Paul reports Jesus was transformed into a “life-giving spirit,” and the subsequent “sightings” of Jesus, by him and the earlier apostles, were seeing Jesus in his heavenly glory (1 Corinthians 15:42-50, compared with vv. 3-7). To be “lifted up” in this way is to leave the physical body behind, like old clothing, and thus to be “absent from the body,” but present with God (2 Corinthians 5:1-10). This was the earliest Christian resurrection faith.

As far as the age old question, “What happened to the physical body of Jesus,” the most likely explanation is that it was reburied by Joseph of Arimathea after being placed temporarily in an unused tomb near the site of crucifixion. I have written extensively about this “first burial” of Jesus here.3

Continue reading “What Really Happened Easter Morning–the Mystery Solved?”

  1. In fact, this unknown editor simply drew from stories in the other three gospels, as is quite obvious if one examines the interpolation carefully. The appearance to Mary Magdalene is lifted from John, the appearance to the two disciples on the road as well as Jesus sitting with the apostles for a meal from Luke, and the “Great Commission,” from Matthew, and the ascent of Jesus into heaven, again, from Luke. In addition to this interpolated ending there are two others that achieved less popularity but some translations of the Bible put them in footnotes. 

  2. The verb used here, egeiro/εγειρω means “to lift up, raise up” or even “be carried away. It is used in Mark 2:12 for the paralyzed man whom Jesus heals and tells to “lift up” his bedroll and walk. 

  3. On this idea of a first burial see Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” Biblical Archaeology Review (Sept/Oct, 1999), who argues that the tomb used by Joseph of Arimathea was a borrowed or temporary cave used for a limited time, pressed by the arrival of the Sabbath, with the intention of completing the rites of burial after the Passover holiday. See also Richard Carrier, “Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day,” as well as his revised version of this article in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, edited by Robert Price and Jeffrey Lowder, pp. 369-392.  

“Making Live” the Dead Ones

Although it is common among both Christians and Jews to refer to the notion of the Resurrection of the Dead, as a formal category of eschatology (i.e., the “Last Things”) there is another Hebrew expression that is more common in our ancient Jewish texts. That phrase, “to make live the dead ones” is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Rabbinic sources, and various  Jewish liturgical traditions. For example, in the Jewish Prayer Book, the well-known Yidal–summarizing Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, affirms that “God in his great mercy will “make live the dead.”1

The Qumran Cemetery--Shall These Bones Live?
The Qumran Cemetery–Shall These Bones Live?

The term “resurrection” in Greek (anastatis) literally means “to stand up” or “to raise up.”  Christians affirm in their central creeds that Jesus was  “raised the third day,” as well as faith in the future “resurrection of the dead” which is equated to “life in the world to come” It is instructive to examine how this affirmation of the “standing up” of the dead was understood within various Jewish groups of the late 2nd Temple period (200 BCE-70 CE). The more literal Hebrew expression, “making live the dead ones” seems to capture the concept quite precisely, see my exposition, Why People Are Confused About the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead.”

One of the more intriguing texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, a fragment that has been titled “A Messianic Apocalypse” (4Q521). This text contains three rather striking features that are of particular significance for comparing the apocalyptic beliefs and expectations of the Qumran community with the emerging early Christian movement.

  • First, the text speaks of a single Messiah figure who will rule heaven and earth.
  • Second, it mentions in the clearest language the expectation of the resurrection of the dead during the time of this Messiah.
  • Third, and perhaps most important for students of the New Testament, it contains an exact verbal parallel with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke for identifying of the signs of the Messiah.

First, a translation of the fragment itself:

[The hea]vens and the earth will listen to His Messiah, and none therein will
stray from the commandments of the holy ones.
Seekers of the Lord, strengthen yourselves in His service!
All you hopeful in (your) heart, will you not find the Lord in this?
For the Lord will consider the pious (hasidim) and call the righteous by name.
Over the poor His spirit will hover and will renew the faithful with His power.
And He will glorify the pious on the throne of the eternal Kingdom.
He who liberates the captives, restores sight to the blind, straightens the b[ent]
And f[or] ever I will cleav[ve to the h]opeful and in His mercy . . .
And the fr[uit . . .] will not be delayed for anyone.
And the Lord will accomplish glorious things which have never been as [He …]
For He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead (lit. make live the dead)  and bring good news
to the poor…(Michael O. Wise, translation)

The early Christians obviously focused on a single Messiah or Christ, a descendant of king David, whom they identified as Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 8:27-30; Acts 2:36). They clearly saw him as God’s cosmic agent, who would return in power and glory to rule heaven and earth (Mark 14:61-62; 13:26-27). They expected that the entire cosmos would come under subjection to him (Philippians 2:9-10; 1 Corinthians 15:24-28)). They remembered him as one who had power over the demonic spirits, over disease and death, and even over the forces of nature. This exalted view of Jesus is well summed up in the Markan version of the disciples’ exclamation when he calms a storm on the Sea of Galilee: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41).

But like those at Qumran, they associated other special figures and groups with the age of the Messiah. John the Baptist was of the Aaronic priesthood and was revered as a returned “Elijah,” a sure sign that the End was near (Mark 9:9-13; Malachi 4:5 [Hebrew 3:23]). The Twelve apostles were expected to sit on thrones over the regathered twelve tribes of Israel in the coming Messianic rule (Luke 22:29-30//Matthew 19:28). The followers of Jesus, referred to as the “elect” or “saints,” were expecting to rule over the Gentile nations and even judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:1-4).

In line 11 of this fascinating Dead Sea Scrolls fragment we have a clear reference to the resurrection of the dead. Why is this so significant? Much ink has been spilled over the past few decades discussing whether or not the people who composed the Scrolls believed in the distinctively Jewish doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. We know that various Jewish groups during the Second Temple period disputed over this doctrine of the afterlife. The first references to the idea of the dead being raised occur only in very late portions of the Hebrew Bible (Daniel 12:1-3). It was a doctrine that was emerging in certain Jewish circles from the 2nd century BCE down through the 1st century CE. We see evidence of the dispute reflected in the Apocrypha and in the New Testament (2 Maccabees 12:43-45; 15:11-16; Mark 12:18-27; Acts 23:6-10). Obviously, for the early Christians, faith in the resurrection of Jesus, and indeed, of all humankind at the end of days, was a cardinal doctrine (1 Corinthians 15:12; Acts 24:15).

But what about those at Qumran? Geza Vermes, in earlier editions of his widely circulated translation The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, says that the Scrolls never clearly mention the idea, and concludes that “resurrection” played no part in their eschatology (p. 56, 3rd edition). His view is commonly reflected in many standard Qumran studies. Of course, Vermes and other scholars had no access to this text until it was published in Biblical Archaeology Review in 1992.2

However, what is most noteworthy, notice carefully here, is that Isaiah 61:1 says nothing about this Anointed One raising the dead. Indeed, in the entire Hebrew Bible there is nothing about a messiah figure raising the dead. Yet, when we turn to the Q Source, which Luke and Matthew quote, regarding the “signs of the Messiah,” we find the two phrases linked: “the dead are raised up, the poor have the glad tidings preached to them,” precisely as we have in our Qumran text!

Luke makes more than passing use of this notion of the “resurrection of the dead” as a sign of the age of the Messiah. In the two places he quotes Isaiah 61:1 he also mentions specific cases of resurrection of the dead: as Elijah once raised the son of the widow, Jesus now raises the son of the widow from Nain (Luke 4:26; 7:11-17). This is hardly accidental, as the close juxtaposition of the texts makes clear.

It is also significant that this section of the Q Source is dealing with traditions shared between the community of John the Baptist and that of the early followers of Jesus. The close connections between John the Baptist and the community that produced the Scrolls have been pointed out by many scholars. Through this Dead Sea Scroll fragment, coupled with the early Q Source of the Gospels, we are taken back to a very early common tradition within Palestinian Judaism regarding the “signs of the Messiah.” We are in a better position to speak of the common expectations of a variety of interrelated apocalyptic, sectarian, baptist groups which have fled to the “wilderness” to prepare the “Way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3; Luke 3:4; 1QS 8,9). They appear to share a specific set of expectations, and they draw in strikingly similar ways, upon a common core of prophetic texts from the Hebrew Bible and related Jewish literature.

Of course, this fragment alone does not settle our attempts to identify the people of the Scrolls—whether they should be labeled as Essenes, Sadducees, Zealots, Pharisees, Nazarenes, Ebionites, or a unique blend of their own amalgamation, see my essay on “Nazarenes and Ebionites” for some thoughts on this question. However, the text does provide a most direct and significant example of a common messianic hope among the followers of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Teacher of Righteousness.

  1. See Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book, pp. 12-13; Maimonides Mishnah commentary Sanhedrin 10:1. 

  2. See my article with Michael Wise, “The Signs of the Messiah: Parallels Between a New Dead Sea Scroll Fragment (4Q521) and the Early New Testament Gospel Tradition,” Biblical Archaeology Review 18:6 (1992), pp. 60-65. We now have an unambiguous statement that “making live the dead ones” was one of the key expectations of the Messianic age in this community.

    Line 11 of this text also contains another highly striking feature. Indeed, it appears to be the closest and most direct linguistic parallel to a New Testament text that we have yet discovered. The line reads:

    For he will heal the wounded, make live the dead,
    and proclaim glad tiding to the poor.

    In both Matthew and Luke we read of a deputation that John the Baptist sends to Jesus while John is imprisoned. John’s disciples ask Jesus, “Are you the coming one, or do we look for another?” The story is thus tightly framed around the question of messianic identity: what will the signs of the true Messiah be? Jesus answers:

    Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the glad tiding preached to them (Luke 7:22-23 and Matthew 11:4-5).

    This reply is cast in the style of a precise formula. It reflects a very early Christian expectation of the signs of the messianic age and the marks for identification of the Messiah. One indication that we have here a very early Christian tradition is that these passages from Luke and Matthew come from the source scholars have designated as Q, from the German word Quelle, meaning “source.” According to most N.T. scholars, Q was a collection of the “Sayings of Jesus,” somewhat like the Gospel of Thomas in genre, which was compiled in the middle of the first century, but before our finished Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were written, see here.

    The phrase at the end of line 11, about “proclaiming glad tidings to the poor” is a direct quotation from Isaiah 61:1, which tells of an “anointed one” (i.e., messiah) who will work various signs before the Day of the Lord.

    This passage is quite important in the Gospel of Luke. In fact, he highlights it as the inauguration of the Messianic mission of Jesus. According to Luke, it is this very verse from Isaiah which Jesus reads and claims to fulfill in his home town synagogue of Nazareth. For a fuller and more technical treatment of this text see James Tabor and Michael Wise, “4Q521 ‘On Resurrection’ and the Synoptic Gospel Tradition: A Preliminary Study,” in Qumran Questions, edited by James Charlesworth (Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), pp. 161-163. 

Getting our “Jameses” Straight

With all the recent attention to the ossuary inscribed “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” I thought it might be helpful to give some consideration to the confusion about the name “James” in most English bibles. When news of this ossuary inscription first broke in 2002 any number of people asked–James who? Or responded–I had no idea Jesus even had a brother.

Few English readers of the New Testament are aware that the familiar name “James,” as it is translated in English, is actually the name “Jacob,” or Yaaqov in Hebrew. In other words James=Jacob. It is the same name. In Greek it is written Yakobos, which echoes the name Jacob quite clearly. It is an unfortunate circumstance of English naming traditions that the original origin of the name James has been largely lost on people.

James the Just copy

The name itself occurs about 60 times in the New Testament and according to John Painter, in his worthwhile book, Just James, these occurrences break down into as many as eight different Jameses (or Jacobs):

(1) Jacob the patriarch (Abraham’s grandson) in the Hebrew Bible

(2) Jacob the father of Joseph (husband of Mary, Matthew 1:16)

(3) James the son of Zebedee, brother of John the fisherman

(4) James the son of Alphaeus, one of the Twelve (Mark 3:18)

(5) James the “less,” son of Mary and Clophas (Mark 15:40)

(6) James the brother of Joses/Joseph (Mark 6:3)

(7) James, the brother of Judas (one of the Twelve Luke 6:16; Jude 1)

(8) James the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19)

This can all become rather confusing but I think we can bring some clarity to the data with a bit of examination.

The first three are without question different persons, thus unlikely to be confused. Number 3 is the well known Gospel character, James son of Zebedee, the fisherman, brother of John. The possible overlap occurs with numbers 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8. Each might well refer to a separate person, giving us our total of eight Jameses, but I am convinced all five of these references could well be the same person.

Number four and five fit well with the Clophas/Alphaeus scenario which I cover in chapter 4 of my book, The Jesus Dynasty. Number six seems likely to be the same James as well because the brothers of Jesus were James and Joses according to Mark 6:3. Number seven is also the “other” James of the Twelve, and brother of Judas/Jude, and therefore Jesus. Number eight is clearly James the brother of Jesus.

Therefore, each of the Jameses listed here, namely numbers 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8 can be seen as one individual represented in five contexts. It is confusing to readers today, but once the identification of this “second” or “other” James is made, these texts fit together rather well. If we leave out the Patriarch Jacob, and Jacob/James the father of Joseph, husband of Mary, that leave only TWO Jameses–James the fisherman and James the brother of Jesus. And that is indeed what we find in the letters of Paul as well as in the book of Acts–two Jameses not six. I not only find the economy of this interpretation convincing but it makes the best sense of the various passages where these “Jameses” are mentioned.

James the fisherman apparently dies quite early on, beheaded by Herod (Acts 12). But what about the “other” James, the brother of Jesus, about which there is so much confusion. Two theories come to dominate in Christian theology, one being the eastern view and the other being the western. The eastern view holds Mary to be a virgin not only at the time of the birth of Jesus, but throughout her entire life. It goes on to portray Joseph as father of four sons and two daughters with another woman prior to his marriage to Mary. He becomes a widower, remarries, and thus brings these six children to the marriage. The western view is stricter in that it holds not only Mary, but Joseph also were strict virgins throughout their entire lives and neither of them ever had any children. These “brothers” and “sisters” are merely cousins, children of Joseph’s brother Clophas, but through another woman named Mary, not Mary the mother of Jesus. In The Jesus Dynasty I present an alternative view.

Continue reading “Getting our “Jameses” Straight”

Another Comforter: The Forgotten Brother of Jesus

Something of which I am more and more convinced is the paramount importance of James the brother of Jesus to the very survival of the Messianic movement in the critical months and years following the tragic and brutal murders of both John the Baptist and Jesus. I present my extended argument for that idea in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, in the chapter titled “Go to James the Just.” James is not merely a figure we need to “add” to our emphasis on Peter and Paul in Christian tradition–he is, quite literally, the missing piece of the puzzle in terms of understanding Christian origins.1

James the Just

As I explained here recently, I am convinced that James was the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the one who became head of family, leader of the movement, and dynastic successor to Jesus as next in line of the royal lineage of King David. Jesus died in the year 30 CE and the earliest written records we have of the movement come from the apostle Paul in the early 50s AD–twenty years later. The historian John Dominic Crossan has called these twenty years the “dark age” of the Jesus movement in that we have no surviving records from those crucial years. What little we know is based on attempts to try to read back what we might possibly construct from later materials–namely the Synoptic Gospels, John, and the book of Acts–all of which are late compositions, heavily influenced by Paul and his visionary based Gospel. These texts become the “standard narrative” and James is pretty much written out of the story, see my post on getting the New Testament “James” straight here.  Given the dominance of these texts in the New Testament it becomes difficult to even imagine how vital James was to the survival and development of the movement in those first critical decades.

I am convinced that the earliest followers of Jesus and John regained their faith and resolve following Jesus’ crucifixion not by a spirit of ghost of Jesus appearing to them, nor by experiences of the resuscitated corpse of Jesus coming to life and living among them, passing through walls, and finally rising up bodily into the clouds into heaven, but by the living presence of James the beloved brother of Jesus.

It was the spirit that James must have reflected and exhibited in those dark days of danger and disappointment, when the scattered followers migrated back to Galilee after the Passover week ended, that would have held them together. I realize this is quite an alternative to the later “Easter story,” as I have explained here and here, but this is the picture presented by our earliest independent sources.

To have James with them was akin to having Jesus with them. In terms of historical explanations I think this one makes the most sense and it was James who led the group back to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost or Shavuot, 50 days after Jesus’ death, where they really began to consolidate things and found a new direction and hope for the expectation of the Kingdom of God to which they had dedicated their lives. Their faith was focused on the “coming of the Son of Man in the clouds of heaven” based on their understanding of Daniel 7:13, which for them meant the “saints of the Most High” receiving “dominion, glory, and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages” would serve them (Daniel 7:13-14 as interpreted in verse 27).

The book of Acts quite deliberately mutes the vital role of James, listing the presence of the remaining Eleven apostles in Jerusalem and then adding, in passing, that “Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” were there as well (Acts 1:14). Peter and the fishermen James and John take center stage in Acts and Jesus’ brothers, including James, go unnamed.

It is only at the critical Jerusalem Council meeting (c. 50 CE), when the unity and survival of the entire movement hung in the balance, that the author of Acts, quite reluctantly, and without fanfare, has to acknowledge that none other than “James” (whom he does not even bother to identify as Jesus’ brother!) presided over the group, declared his “decision,” while both Peter and Paul stood before him in audience (Acts 15:13-21). If all we had was Luke-Acts we would not even know Jesus had a brother names James who assumed leadership of the movement. The same is true of all three of our Synoptic gospels. James’ place and role is written out of the story and that is why most non-academics, and even pew sitting Christians today have no idea he even existed–unless they have somehow picked up on all the publicity surrounding the “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ossuary inscription.

One speculation I find appealing is the idea that James somehow reminded the shattered group of Jesus. Whether they were very similar in looks, voice, outlook, and personality we will never know, but somehow, after Jesus was dead and buried, the community found solace in the physical presence of James. Perhaps he was the mysterious figure on the shores of the sea of Galilee whom they had trouble recognizing, or the one who appeared to them on a mountain in Galilee, leaving some “doubting” (John 21:4-14; Matthew 28:16-17). This would also mean he is the “witness” cited by the final editors of the appendix to the gospel of John (21:24).


In gathering around James it was as if the spirit of Jesus was still among them in the person of his brother. I have wondered whether the original idea now embedded in latter part of the gospel of John, about the “Helper” (better translated as Guide) coming, was originally referring to James:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Guide, to be with you forever (John 14:16)

But the Guide, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (John 16:26)

“But when the Guide comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me (John 15:26)

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Guide will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you (John 16:7)

The Greek word is Paraklete/παρακλητος, and refers to one who represents, advocates, helps alongside, leads, or guides. It is true the text personified this one in John as “the Spirit of Truth,” but “he” is spoken of in a very personal way, in the masculine gender, very much as one would speak of a person. Jesus says of this one that he will be “sent in my name,” and that he will be a Teacher who will remind the community of all that Jesus has taught them. The Ebionites held the view that what they called the “Christ Spirit” had “hastened through the ages” and rested upon various ones in a successive way from generation to generation. In this view the “Spirit of Truth,” that Jesus received at his baptism, making him the “anointed of the Spirit,” was passed on to James his brother. This idea, of the “anointed of the Spirit,” is based on Isaiah 61:1, a text that both Jesus followers and earlier, the Dead Sea community, had focused upon, as I recently discussed here. Jesus told them that this one “abides with” them and will be “among” them. This one will “not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

Indeed, when you compare the teachings of Jesus in our earliest source and the teachings of James, the parallels are quite striking, notice:

Jesus’ Teachings in the Q Source

Teachings of James

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20)

“Has not God chosen the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (2:5)

“Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments . . . shall be [called] least in the kingdom” (Matthew 5:19) “Whoever keeps the whole Torah but fails in one point has become guilty of it all” (2:10)
“Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom . . . but he who does the will of my Father” (Matthew 7:21) “Be doers of the word and not hearers only” (1:22)
“How much more will your Father . . . give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7: 11) “Every good gift . . . coming down from the Father” (1:17)
“Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24) “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you” (5:1)
“Do not swear at all, either by heaven for it is the throne of God, or by earth for it is his footstool . . . let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matthew 5:34, 37)

“Do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath but let your yes be yes and your no be no” (5:12)

Paul’s emphasize on his visionary apparitions or “appearances” of the heavenly “Christ,” come later by several years. The Galilean based group of Jesus followers must have found a way to sustain themselves and express their faith in Jesus as one whom God had exalted to heaven long before Paul showed up on the scene with his unique claims to be a “thirteenth” Apostle on a par with those who had known Jesus personally and were chosen by him.

  1. Robert Eisenman, in his pioneering 1997 book, James the Brother of Jesus, laid out the foundation for his recovery, see Robert Price’s review here

Ebionites & Nazarenes: Tracking the Original Followers of Jesus

The issue of the relationship of Jesus to the “Essenes,” as well as to the the Dead Sea Scrolls, whether Essene or otherwise, is central to our attempts to view Jesus in his historical contexts. In other words, we are essentially asking, in our historical Quest–“what kind of a Jew was Jesus?” We know that James the brother of Jesus assumed the leadership of the original Jerusalem-based Jewish followers of Jesus. Even Paul acknowledged the status of James and at least gave lip service to his authority. What this “Jesus” movement was called or just how it fit into the broader spectrum of Jewish groups and movements of the late 2nd Temple period is a complex issue.

Josephus regularly reports three main sects or schools of Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes,  (War 2: 119; Antiquities 13:171; 18:11). In one passage he mentions a “fourth” philosophy that he does not label but associates with Judas the Galilean, and treats as a kind of “subset” of the Pharisees (Antiquities 18:23). Elsewhere he seems to refer to this movement as the “Zealots,” which seems to be a rather loose designation for those who participated in the 1st Revolt against Rome (War 2:651; 7:268). He mentions John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, and Jesus himself (an a passage that has been heavily interpolated), but he never labels the group or movement/s to which they belonged.

Like the group behind the sectarian writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest followers of Jesus, apparently, did not use a dominant self-identifying label but preferred a variety of descriptive terms. Paul’s letters are our earliest sources, dating to the 50s CE, and he never “names” his followers or the movement as a whole, but uses phrases like “the believers” or those “in Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:7, 2:10; 1 Corinthians 14:22; Romans 16: 3, 7, 9; 1 Thessalonians 4:16).

According to the book of Acts, which comes late in the 1st century, the followers of Jesus were called, or perhaps called themselves, “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22). The term “Christian” or “Christians” is mentioned twice, but presented as a newly minted designation, probably coming from outsiders, as the movement spread north to Antioch of Syria (Acts 11:26; 26:28). It is surely surprising for many to realize that the term “Christian” only occurs one other time in the entire New Testament, in one of our latest sources (1 Peter 4:16). This is, however, the name that apparently stuck as it shows up in our earliest Roman sources mentioning the movement, namely Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Lucian, and Galen (see texts here.). It is a Greek name, not a Hebrew or Aramaic one, but unfortunately the English term veils what was likely the more original connotation of the term, which would translate roughly as something like “Messianist.”

There is, however, a reference in the book of Acts to a Hebrew name for the Jesus movement that might have well been its earliest formal appellation. Paul, on trial before the Roman governer Felix, is referred to as being “the ring leader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). Whether this term was used by “outsiders” to label the group, or within the movement itself, is difficult to know. Associated with the term “Nazarenes” is a second Hebrew designation, namely Ebionites, that was also apparently used for the earliest mostly-Jewish followers of Jesus.


This Ebionite/Nazarene movement was made up of mostly Jewish followers of John the Baptizer and later Jesus, who were concentrated in Palestine and surrounding regions and led by “James the Just” (the oldest brother of Jesus), and flourished between the years 30-80 C.E. Non-Jews were certainly part of the mix but the dominant ethos of the group was an adherence to what Paul calls ioudaizein–to live according to Jewish law (Galatians 2:14). They were zealous for the Torah and continued to observe the mitzvot (commandments) as enlightened by their Rabbi and Teacher. The non-Jews in their midst were apparently expected to follow some version of the Noachide Laws (Acts 15: 28-29). The term Ebionite (from Hebrew ‘Evyonim) means “Poor Ones” and was perhaps related to the teachings of Jesus: “Blessed are you Poor Ones, for yours is the Kingdom of God” based on Isaiah 66:2 and other related texts that address a remnant group of faithful ones. I am convinced that Nazarene comes from the Hebrew word Netzer (drawn from Isaiah 11:1) and means “a Branch”—so the Nazarenes were the “Branchites” or followers of the one they believed to be the Branch–that is the Davidic Messiah. It is often confused with a completely different word,  Nazirite or Nazir, that refers to individuals, male or female, not a group, who took on a special vow based on Numbers 6. The two terms can sound alike in English are spelled differently in Hebrew.

If I were guessing I would think the designation Nazarene was likely used by outsiders for the group, whereas the term Ebionite was more likely used within the group as a self-description. It seems significant that the Dead Sea community also used this term Ebionite or “Poor Ones” to refer to their own movement (CD 19:9; 1QSb 5:21). This movement, that Josephus and others label as Essene (possibly from ‘Ossim, meaning “Doers of Torah”), who wrote or collected the Dead Sea Scrolls, pioneered certain aspects of this “Way” over 150 years before the birth of Jesus. They were a wilderness (out in the Arava, near the Dead Sea–based on Isaiah 40:3), baptizing (mikveh of repentance as entrance requirement into their fellowship), new covenant, messianic/apocalyptic group. They believed they were the final generation and would live to see the end and the coming of the Messiahs of Aaron and of Israel (the two anointed ones–priest and king). They saw themselves as the remnant core of God’s faithful people—preparing the Way for the return of YHVH’s Glory (Kavod) as set forth in Isaiah 40-66. They too referred to themselves as the Way, the Poor, the Saints, the New Covenanters, Children of Light, and so forth. Perhaps their most common designation was the Yachad–the brotherhood or community, and they referred to themselves as brother and sister. They were bitterly opposed to the corrupt Priests in Jerusalem, to the Herods, and even to the Pharisees whom they saw as compromising with that establishment to get power and influence from the Hellenistic/Roman powers. They had their own developed Halacha (interpretation of Torah), some aspects of which Jesus picks up (ideal of no divorce, not using oaths, etc.). They followed one they called the True Teacher (Teacher of Righteousness) whom most scholars believe lived in the 1st century BCE and was opposed and possibly killed by the Hasmonean King/Priests at the instigation of the Pharisees. John the Baptizer seems to arise out of this context and rekindle the apocalyptic fervor of the movement in the early decades of the first century CE. Jesus joined this movement and it remains our best insight into the conceptual world of an apocalyptic, messianic, movement of this period, akin to the Jesus movement.

The variety of self-designations used by the John/Jesus/James movement, many of which had previously been used by the Essenes, is telling. Indeed, one might call the Jesus movement a further developed messianic “Essenism,” modified through the powerful, prophetic influence of Jesus as Teacher and the leadership of James his brother for nearly 40 years.

Later, when Christianity developed in the 3rd and 4th centuries and gradually lost its Jewish roots and heritage, largely severing its homeland connections, the Gentile, Roman Catholic Church historians began to refer to Ebionites and Nazarenes as two separate groups—and indeed, by the late 2nd century there might have been a split between these mostly Jewish followers of Jesus. The distinction these writers make (and remember, they universally despise these people and call them “Judaizers”), is that the Ebionites reject Paul and the doctrine of the Virgin Birth or “divinity” of Jesus, use only the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, and are thus more extreme in their Judaism. They describe the Nazarenes more positively as those who accept Paul (with caution) and believe in some aspect of the divinity of Jesus, even possibly the virgin birth, but viewed him as “adopted” as Son of God at his baptism. What we have to keep in mind in reading these accounts from the Church fathers is that they are strongly prejudiced against any form of what they call “Judaizing” among Christians and they share the view that “Christianity” has replaced Judaism entirely overthrowing the Torah for both Gentile and Jew.

I think it best today to use the collective term Ebionite/Nazarene in an attempt to capture the whole of this earliest movement, and it would be useful to revive the term Yachad as a collective designation for the community of the Hasidim/Saints.  Ebionite/Nazarene is a good historical designation to refer to those original, 1st century, mostly Jewish, followers of Jesus, gathered around James the brother of Jesus in Jerusalem, who were zealous for the Torah, but saw themselves as part of the New Covenant Way inaugurated by their “True Teacher” Jesus. James is a key and neglected figure in this whole picture (see essays on James). As the blood brother of Jesus, authority and rights of leadership were passed on to him. When he was brutally murdered in 62 CE by the High Priest Ananus (see Josephus, Antiquities 20.197ff), Simeon, a second brother [“cousin” according to Hegesippus] of Jesus took over the leadership of the Jerusalem based movement. Clearly we have the idea here of a blood-line dynasty, and according to the Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1946 in upper Egypt, this dynastic succession was ordained by Jesus himself who tells his followers who ask him who will lead them when he leaves: “No matter where you are, you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being” (Gospel of Thomas 12, and additional primary texts here). Indeed, when Simeon was crucified by the Emperor Trajan around 106 C.E., one Judas, perhaps an aged third brother of Jesus, or at least a close relative of the bloodline, took over the leadership of the community.

As far as “beliefs” of the Ebionites, the documents of the New Testament, critically evaluated, are our best sources, including some of the fragmentary traditions still embedded in the book of Acts (7:37-53). There are fragments and quotations surviving from their Hebrew Gospel tradition (see see A. F. J. Klijn, Jewish-Christian Gospel Tradition, E. J. Brill, 1992), the so-called Pseudo-Clementine materials, as well as some of the traditions reflected in texts such as the “Hebrew Matthew” preserved by Ibn Shaprut, and now published in a critical edition by George Howard (The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, Mercer University Press, 1995). Based on what we can reliably put together from these sources we can say the Ebionite or Nazarene movement could be distinguished by the following views:

1) Jesus as a human being with father and mother but designated a “Prophet like Moses,” or “the Anointed of the Spirit,” who will be revealed in power as the “Son of Man coming in the Clouds of heaven,” following his rejection and death (Acts 7:37; Luke 4:18-19; Mark 10:35-45; 13:26-27).

2) Disdain for eating meat and even the Temple slaughter of animals, preferring the ideals of the pre-Flood diet and what they took to be the original ideal of worship (see Genesis 9:1-5; Jeremiah 7:21-22; Isaiah 11:9; 66:1-4). This reflects a general interest in seeking the “Path” reflected in the pre-Sinai revelation, especially the time from Enoch to Noah. For example, divorce was shunned, as violating the Edenic ideal, even though technically it was later allowed by Moses (Mark 10:2-11).

3) Dedication to following the whole Torah, as applicable to Israel and to Gentiles, but through the “easy yoke” or the “Torah of liberty” of their Teacher Jesus, which emphasized the Spirit of the Biblical Prophets in a restoration of the “True Faith,” the Ancient Paths (Jeremiah 6:16; Matthew 11:28-30; James 2:8-13; Matthew 5:17-18; 9:13; 12:7), from which, by and large, they believed the establishment Jewish groups of 2nd Temple times had departed.

4) Rejection of the “doctrines and traditions” of men, which they believed had been added to the pure Torah of Moses, including scribal alterations of the texts of Scripture (Jeremiah 8:8).

Generally, the movement came to have a very negative view of Paul as an “apostate from the Torah,” though it is possible that in the 2nd and 3rd centuries there were branches of the Nazarenes who were more tolerant of Paul as the “apostle to the Gentiles,” but who as Jews, nonetheless, insisted on Torah observance.

For much more on the whole “underbelly” of the original Jesus movement led by James the brother of Jesus, its relationship with the Dead Sea Scroll sect, and the Ebionites and their subsequent history, see Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus (Penguin, 1998). There is a new abridged edition of this work as well here, but I recommend the original for serious students of early Christianity. On “Jewish Christianity” more generally, see H-J Schoeps, Jewish Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), out of print but still useful for students as a general introduction. For a modern interpretation of the Ebionite ideals, reflecting the peaceful ideas of vegetarianism and non-violence, see Keith Akers, The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Non-Violence in Early Christianity (Lantern Book, 2000). Finally, there is an active “Ebionite” movement today, that seeks to revive and reflect these ancient perspectives, see the web site:

A Historian’s Take on a Different Kind of “Silent Night”

December 25th as the date of the birth of Jesus can be traced back to the early 3rd century CE although it did not achieve more universal recognition until the late 4th century. It is common to hear the charge that “Christmas is pagan,” based on the popularity of the Roman winter festivals of Saturnalia (Dec 16-24), and Sol Invictus, that marked the Winter Solstice (Dec 21st), or “birth of the sun.” Certainly the celebration of such winter festivals in various cultures where Christianity spread, perpetuated in our day at office parties and social gatherings, have contributed to the seasonal popularity of December 25th, with or without much focus on the birth of Jesus.


However, as far as we can tell the designation of December 25th as the date of the birth of Jesus had nothing to do with pagan customs and practices. Rather it was based upon the detailed chronological calculations of early Christians such as Julius Africanus (c. 200 CE). Africanus who put the conception of Jesus around the Vernal Equinox (March 20th), which gave him his date of December 25th, nine months later, for Jesus’ birth. It is possible that the view common in some Jewish circles that Adam was created in the Spring, at the time of the Equinox, contributed to the idea that Jesus, as a “second Adam,” was incarnated on this day as well.

The New Testament gives us precious little about the chronology of the birth of Jesus. No month or season is explicitly mentioned in either Matthew’s or Luke’s birth stories. Luke does mention three things that chronologists, both ancient and modern, have used to attempt to get a more precise date. He puts the conception of John the Baptist shortly after Zechariah, his father, carried out his priestly duty in Jerusalem as part of a cycle of priests known as the “Abijah” group (Luke 1:5, 8; see 1 Chronicles 24 where these “courses” of priests are listed). He then tells us that Jesus and John are about six months apart in age (Luke 1:26), and he notes that when Jesus is baptized he is “about 30 years old” (Luke 3:23). It is upon this tiny thread of Luke, which most historians would place wholly in the realm of the theological, that any attempts to place the time of the birth of Jesus have hung (see the extensive discussion of Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Yale University Press, updated 1999).

According to Josephus each priestly section served for periods of eight days, from noon on one Sabbath to noon on the following Sabbath, twice a year, with everyone serving during the three festivals, Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. The cycle began on Nisan 1st, which was in the Spring, just before Passover, and the “Abijah” group was eighth in line. Scholars have worked this out in various ways and the major proposals are surveyed in Jack Finegan’s A Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Hendrickson, 1998).

Reconstructing the chronology of Luke’s  “thirty-something” Jesus who dies in April, 30 CE, puts the baptism of Jesus by John in the Fall of 26 AD, around the time he turned 30, which would also place his birth date in the Fall (September), rather than the Winter (December). This assumes that the time of the birth of John the Baptist, six months earlier (March), is related to Zechariah’s service in the Temple as part of the Abijah section that finished its duty in June of the previous year. Thus one gets:

Conception of John the Baptist: late June, 6 BC

Conception of Jesus: late December, 6 BC

Birth of John the Baptist: late March, 5 BC

Birth of Jesus: late September, 5 BC

Given such a construction, ironically, Christmas would turns out to be the time of the young teenaged Mary becoming pregnant, with Jesus’ birth in late September, nine months later. The source of that pregnancy is a matter of debate among believers in a literal “virgin birth,” (Jesus had no human father), most academic scholars of early Christianity (his father was Joseph and the virgin birth story theological myth), and a minority view that Miriam became pregnant from an unnamed father in circumstances unknown to us. (see Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus, Sheffield, 2006).  Subsequently, Joseph took her as his wife, but was not the father of the unborn child.  Part of the profile of Jesus then was that he and his mother faced the scandal and gossip throughout their lives associated with the charge that he was a mamzer–that is illegitimate (John 8:41).

So, if one is imagining this season, and imagining is all we have can do given our scanty sources, one might honor Miriam, the Jewish mother of Jesus, in whose heart were kept secrets to be judged only by her and by God. This would include hard times she must have endured during the ensuing months of her pregnancy through the winter of 6-5 BC when she fled her home-town area of Sepphoris to hide out in the hill country of Judea with her relative Elizabeth (all according to Luke again!) I am thinking here of a different kind of “Silent Night,” but with thoughts and emotions every bit as touching as those of a manger scene.

Christmas: What Would Jesus Do?

The well-worn admonition to “put Christ back into Christmas” raises some fascinating issues for those of us who study the origins and history of Christianity. Most know that Christmas as celebrated today has evolved over the centuries, drawing from a diverse and rich assortment of customs, none of which go back to Jesus. The season itself can be traced back to the Roman Saturnalia, which was the birthday of Saturn, celebrated at the end of December and corresponding to the Winter Solstice. Many ancient cultures celebrated the “return of the sun” and the sure promise of spring. Our most popular customs today such as gift giving, the decorated Christmas tree, Santa Claus, wreaths, and mistletoe can be traced back to various European cultural roots.  But “Christmas” means the “Mass of Christ,” and nativity scenes, Christmas carols, and church services  mark the religious holiday today.

Jesus Xmas Tree

Is Christmas really the birthday of Christ? And is it a “Christian” holy day? Our best evidence indicates that Jesus was more likely born in September rather than December, so his birth has nothing to do with the later holiday as it developed. More important, Jesus was a Jew not a Christian. His Hebrew name was Yehoshua, a fairly common Jewish name of his time, born of his Jewish mother Miriam and his father Yehosef—known to us of course as Mary and Joseph. Jesus would have grown up with Jewish holidays and customs—including Passover, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah in late December. The gospel of John mentions all of these festivals, including Hanukkah, which Jesus celebrated in Jerusalem the last winter of his life.

As a Jew living in Roman-occupied Palestine he would have perhaps been familiar with the celebration of the Roman Saturnalia—since Judea had a series of Roman governors during his lifetime and even in the Galilee, where he grew up, the sight of Roman troops was a familiar one. Both Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas had built the thoroughly Roman cities of Caesarea, Tiberius, and Sepphoris in Jesus’ lifetime. The archaeology of the period has amply demonstrated that Greco-Roman culture was widespread and influential. It is evident in the style of the buildings, the clothing, and many artifacts of daily living.  The Jewish city of Sepphoris, only four miles north of Jesus’ hometown Nazareth, was complete with theater, amphitheater, and Roman baths. The contemporary Jewish historian Josephus called it the “jewel of all Galilee.” If Jesus  knew anything about Roman festivals he would have surely considered the celebrations of the Winter Solstice to be alien and pagan.

But what about Christmas as it came to be understood—the celebration of the incarnation of the virgin-born Son of God as Savior of the world? What would Jesus do—or think—about all that? Here we enter the complex area of what scholars call the “quest for the historical Jesus.” In other words, how does one separate the Christ of Christian faith and tradition from the Jesus of history? Is there any evidence that Jesus as a Jew in his own time would have  endorsed the later theological affirmations of Christianity, such as those found in the Apostles Creed?

Many historians are convinced that it is the apostle Paul, not Jesus, who should be credited as the founder of Christianity. Paul never met Jesus but he based his gospel message on a series of clairvoyant visions and revelations that he experienced some years after Jesus’ death. Paul’s letters are the earliest documents in the New Testament, predating even the Gospels. In those letters we encounter a portrait of Christ as the divine Son of God and Savior who was “born of a woman,” taking on human flesh, living without sin, and dying as an atonement for the sins of the world. Paul’s Jesus was the heavenly Christ whom he expected to return in his lifetime. The theological understanding of Jesus that is largely drawn from Paul influences even the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Although they come first in the New Testament they are among the last documents written—in the last decades of the 1st century when Paul’s understanding of Christ predominated.

Perhaps the deepest meaning of Christmas might lie beneath the popular customs of our culture and the  overlay of Christian theology. If we sift through the texts as archaeologists sift through the material layers of human habitation we might well find  Jesus as a Jew in his own time and place, defining the “kingdom of God” as the will of God done on earth as in heaven. This  was the Jesus who denounced the corrupt societal norms of power, wealth, and oppression, and called for a radical change that broke down the barriers of class, gender, and privilege. This  was the Jesus who taught love of God and love of neighbor as the heart of true religion and cited the “Golden Rule” as a summary of all of God’s commandments—a Jesus who even called for “turning the other cheek” and loving enemies. Such a focus on the historical Jesus, in contrast to the Christ of theology, might  help us to better address the question this Christmas season—what would Jesus do?

‘Tis the Season: Paul and the Invention of Christmas

One would not normally think of the apostle Paul around Christmas time since all of the focus of the holiday, beyond the shopping, gift-giving, and family gatherings–is on the birth of Jesus. Many biblical scholars would argue that Paul knows nothing of the “virgin birth” of Jesus but I argue differently in my book, Paul and Jesus-in fact I maintain that he “invented” it. If that be the case one could say that Paul is the real architect of Christmas.



Here are three posts that touch on this topic in various ways:

The Daily Beast: Should Christians Celebrate the Birth of Jesus or of Paul?

The Huffington Post: Did Paul Invent the Virgin Birth?

The Christian Science Monitor: Paul and Celebrating Christmas