Happy New Year to All My Readers!

Happy Biblical New Year, Nisan/Aviv 1, the 1st day of the 1st month…Exodus 12:1 “This new [moon] shall be the beginning of the months [news moons] for you…A time to think back and forward and begin afresh, with Spring Sprung and the early “harvest” getting ripe. Aviv means “spring” or new.

Do Historians Exclude the Supernatural?

The investigative task of the ancient historian is by definition an interpretive one and no interpretation is without predisposition or even prejudgment stemming  from known or unknown proclivities of both a personal and contextual nature. Add to this the paucity of our incomplete evidence, whether textual or material, and there is no wonder we hardly ever agree on anything of consequence. Nonetheless careful argument based on logical analysis and best evidence remains our only path.  James D. Tabor to his students regarding the “methods” of the academic study of religion

One of the most frequent responses I get to my work as a historian of religions, particularly in my dealings with Jesus, Paul, and the development of early “Christianities” is the objection that I “exclude  the miraculous” as a valid part of the investigation. The idea seems to be that “secular historians” prejudge evidence and are accordingly biased in that they will not allow even the possibility of the miraculous as part of ones historical inquiry. If historians ask the questions: what do we know and how do we know it–how is it that we claim to “know” from the start that miracles do not happen and that supernatural explanations for various developments are to be rejected? As Darrel Bock put things, reviewing my book, The Jesus Dynasty for Christianity Today: “James Tabor’s historical assumptions that reject God’s activity on Earth force him into odd arguments to explain the birth of Christianity.”

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The divine light of logic and reasoned evidence shines its rays of light on the scholar’s table

For Bock and others these assumptions essentially result in “explaining away the New Testament” to use his words. Bock is referring particularly to my observation that historians assume that all humans have two biological parents, that dead bodies don’t rise, and that humans do not bodily ascend to heaven. Oddly enough, I maintain, along with most historians, that the “odd arguments” are characteristic of those who take the assertions that Jesus had no human father or that he walked out of his tomb and ascended bodily into the clouds of heaven as literal scientific statements of fact. Whether I reject “God’s activity on Earth” is a much more complex matter that I will deal with in another context, but what about this charge that secular historians are biased against the supernatural?

My training at the University of Chicago was that of a historian, not a theologian or even a “Biblical Scholar” as such. My Ph.D. was not from the Divinity School but in the Division of Humanities. I worked broadly in the area study of “Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Culture” and more specifically within ancient Judaism and early Christianity. My teachers were primarily Jonathan Z. Smith and Robert M. Grant. What I reflected in The Jesus Dynastyand in all of my academic work (see my Curriculum Vitae), are the methods and approaches generally employed by most qualified scholars who work in these areas.

Doing the work of an historian is not “hard” science in the purest sense of the term, but none of us in the field would want it to be understood as “art” either, at least not in some wholly subjective way. There is no doubt that historians often differ in their conclusions in important ways, and that “interpretation” of the data, how it is finally weighed and processed, is indeed a somewhat subjective process. When it comes to Jesus, as Albert Schweitzer pointed out long ago, historians all to often have “looked into the long well of history” and seen their own reflection staring back at them. In other words, when they come up with a so-called “historical Jesus” fashioned almost wholly by their own imaginations and biased desires.

When my students retreat to some historical conclusion that I or others have reached, with the easy retort “but that is just your interpretation,” I encourage them to go beyond that kind of reductionism. History is not mere subjective interpretation, even if it involves such. Ideally it is based on arguments and evidence and in the end a good historian wants to be persuasive. It is rare that historical conclusions close out any possible alternative interpretations, but the goal is to set forth, in the open court of reasoned argument and evidence, a compelling “case” for whatever one is dealing with. Even when we disagree we end up stating “why” we don’t find this or that argument convincing, or what we find weak in the assumptions of one with whom we differ.

As for sources, nothing is excluded and everything can be evaluated as long as it offers us some reasonable way to reconstruct the past. Historians love and welcome evidence. That is what we live on and we crave any new materials that can shed more light on what we know. But even our best sources, particularly the literary ones, are remarkably tendentious. Modern standards of argument and objectivity were unknown to ancient writers. Writing was more often than not a blatant attempt at propaganda and apologetics, and all the more so when it came to competing systems of religious understanding. Recognition of those factors is a vital part of every historian’s method. If we want to “use” Josephus we also have to give attention to what we know of him as a person, as a writer, what his tendencies are, what his competence was, and so forth. It is the same with the Gospels, with Eusebius, and with all the ancient texts and material evidence that we have at our disposal. It is also the case that for many important questions related to Jesus and his movement we simply do not have good evidence and probably never will. As thankful as we are for what we have, whether textual or archaeological or myth or tradition, in the end we have to face our own limitations.

Determining what Jesus said, or what he did, given the obvious theologically motivated editing and “mythmaking” that goes on even in our core New Testament gospels is a methodologically challenging project upon which none of us wholly agree. For example, we know virtually nothing about the so-called “lost years of Jesus,” and thus are left to speculate about his childhood and early adult life until about age 30 (assuming we even trust Luke, our single source, about his age when he joined John the Baptizer). Our attempts are educated guesses and creative reconstructions. Most of us are quite sure that the reports of the various so-called “Infancy Gospels” that have Jesus as a child magically turning clay birds into real ones or jumping off the roof of a building unharmed are less than historical. They are late, legendary, and fabulistic to the extreme. It is doubtful that such sources contain any useful historical information at all. I cannot prove that Jesus and his brothers worked with their father Joseph in the building trades in nearby Sepphoris, but I think it is a likely possibility, given what we know (see Mark 6:3). In contrast, the assertions that Jesus traveled as a child with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea to Britain, or that he studied in Egypt or in India, are based upon legendary materials far removed in time and place from his world. It is the same with the question of whether or not Jesus was married or had children. For years I agreed with most of my colleagues that the possibilities of this appear to be slight but over the past five years, in looking at the new evidence from the Talpiot tombs, as well as reviewing all the arguments, I have become convinced otherwise. An early reviewer of our new book, The Jesus Discovery, has asserted on this point that “The claim that the Gnostic Gospels are a good source on Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene, for instance, is just breathtakingly silly — they were written incredibly late and reflect a particular theology/religious perspective–not history.” I have to disagree here and clearly, the reviewer, Raphael Magarik, is completely unaware of the solid scholarship on Mary Magdalene by fine scholars such as the late Jane Schaberg, April DeConick, Karen King, Ann Graham Brock, Margaret Starbird or a host of others. But more important he seems not to have read very carefully the arguments I review in the book that I think are actually quite persuasive.

The public has been geared to think of the suppression of evidence, usually with the Roman Catholic church being the culprit, but such grand “conspiratorial” theories have little basis in fact. What is most characteristic of early Christianity, or more properly, “Christianites,” is a competing diversity of “parties and politics,” each propagating its own vision of the significance of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. All sorts of interpretations are offered of Jesus, but the question finally comes down to how convincing a given argument is to other historians who work in the field and deal with the same sources and materials. But even “consensus” is no guarantor of final truth. Sometimes a minority view, in time, can prove to be true, and often pioneers in any area of history are castigated or rejected by colleagues when they initially put forth their theses.

Even a subject as seemingly straightforward as the claim in the Gospels that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead and ascended to heaven is one that is “textually bound” by what our sources actually say or don’t say–and the work of the historian is to interpret these texts as objectively as possible. See for example my methods on this very topic in my essay, “How Faith in Jesus’ Resurrection Originated and Developed: An Old New Hypothesis.”

As far as the subjects of the miraculous and the supernatural, historians of religions remain observers. The fact is we do not excludereligious experience in investigating the past–far from it. We actually embrace it most readily. What people believe or claim to have experienced becomes a vital part of our evidence. We can note that Mark reported that Jesus walked on water or raised the dead or met his disciples in Galilee after his death, and then we date and evaluate Mark as a source, just as we note the miracles that Philostratus claims for his contemporary hero Apollonius of Tyana, or that the story that Zeus fathered Hercules or that Romulus was taken bodily into heaven (see these and other texts here). Most scholars in the field would say that Jesus practiced “exorcism,” and healed the sick, which was seen as a releasing one afflicted from Satanic power, but what that implies about the reality of the demonic world goes beyond our historical methods. We know enough about human psychology and our modern controversies regarding psychic phenomenon to realize the complexities of drawing such conclusions. History and theology/faith do part ways in some of these areas but I tell my students often: “Good history is never the enemy of proper faith.” It is easy to hold that “God” can do anything, and thus argue for the acceptance of a male baby being born without male sperm, or reports of a corpse rising after two or three days and ascending bodily into heaven, but such claims are not the purview of historians and they run contrary to our human experience and a more rational scientific understanding of birth and death. Historians likewise deal with “beliefs” about the afterlife and the unseen world beyond, but without asserting the historical reality of these notions or realms. We can evaluate what people claimed, what they believed, what they reported, and that all becomes part of the data, but to then say, “A miracle happened” or this or that “prophet” was truly hearing from God, as opposed to another who was utterly false prophecy, goes beyond our accessible methods. I don’t want to oversimplify things here and I realize that the question of “faith” and “history” and the assumptions modern historians make in terms of a so-called “materialistic” worldview can be challenged, even philosophically. But for the most part historians are willing to leave the “mystery” in, but in terms of advocating this or that view of the so-called “supernatural,” as an explanation, they properly, in my view, remain wary.

We will probably never know with absolute certainty who Jesus’ father was, or what happened to the body of Jesus, or whether Paul “really” talked with Jesus after his death, but I prefer the “odd arguments” of the historian in investigating those matters, however inconclusive and speculative, to the dogmatic assertions of theology that are problematic from a scientific point of view.

A Few Reflections on The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament

I have been thinking lately about the essential differences between Judaism and Christianity, or more properly, the kind of religion reflected in the Hebrew Bible and that of the Greek New Testament. In terms of definition and label I am neither a Jew nor a Christian — by that I mean the Mishnaic-Talmudic forms of the Classical Jewish faith that developed after Second Temple times, and the Orthodox Catholic versions of Christianity that developed in the West and East after Constantine. I am interested in religious and philosophical truth, but my training is that of an historian, so perhaps that is why I am drawn to the more ancient forms of these two faiths, i.e., the Hebrew faith as formulated by the Prophets and final redactors of the Hebrew Bible, and earliest Christianity as reflected in the New Testament. In considering these two “religions” or ways of thinking about God, the world and human purpose, I find that I am much more drawn to the former than the latter. Why is that so? What is it about the Hebrew Bible, even on a symbolic/mythological level, that seems to draw me so? Conversely, what is it about early Christianity, especially the systematic theologies of Paul or the Gospel of John, that puts me off so?

BurningBush

The Hebrew Bible’s Ambiguity

As for the Hebrew Bible, the whole notion of the One, true and living Creator, the God of Abraham is most appealing. Humans are seen as mortal, made of dust. Consequently, death and human history are taken very seriously. They are made in the image of God, capable of reason and free choice, of good as well as evil. God reveals Divine laws, the “Way” for humankind; a way that brings blessings not curses. The human race is seen starkly in its wayward and sinful condition, yet there are those who love and follow this true God in the midst of it all. Their mission is to be a witness to the “nations” (non-believers) and to bring about the establishment of righteousness, justice, and peace on the earth. On an individual level, as in Psalms or Job, there is a lot of questioning after God. The ways of God are far from clear. There is certainly expectation of intervention, a longing for God’s help and care, but simplistic view of things is rejected.The Hebrew canon (with the exception of Daniel) essentially closes with this kind of ambiguity.

Humans are to seek God, to live the ways of God on the earth, but much is left open, whether individual ideas of immortality or broader schemes of historical plans and purposes. The essential idea of the Shema is the heart of it all: God’s people are to acknowledge God’s nature, to love God, and to follow the ways of God revealed in the Torah and Prophets. Ecclesiastes shows clearly how many questions are simply left unanswered. True, the Prophets do offer many predictions of a restoration of Israel and even a transformed age to come. However, the texts themselves express lament-full doubts about when, and even whether, this will ever come (e.g., Psalm 89; Habakkuk). The Hebrew canon closes with II Chronicles 36:23 — “Let him go up” — which could bear some symbolic meaning beyond the proclamation by Cyrus of the end of the Persian exile of the Jews. It comes at the very beginning of the Second Temple period, as if to say: all if open, Israel’s future is still unwritten, and individuals are called to respond.

The New Testament’s Answers

The New Testament comes out of a wholly different milieu. First, it is part and parcel of the broad changes in religious thought that we know as “Hellenization.” It is characterized by a vast and expanded dualistic cosmos, an emphasis on immortality and personal salvation, i.e., on escaping this world for a better heavenly life. At the same time, and to be more specific, it is absolutely and completely dominated by an apocalyptic world view of things, whereby all will be soon resolved by the decisive intervention of God, the End of the Age, the last great Judgment, and the eternal Kingdom of God. In addition, the Christology that develops, even in the first century, is thoroughly “Hellenistic,” with Jesus the human transformed into the pre- existent, divine, Son of God, who sits at the right hand of God and is the Lord of the cosmos. The whole complex of ideas about multiple levels of heaven, fate, angels, demons, miracles and magic abound. It is as if all the questions that the Hebrew Bible only begins to explore — questions about theodicy, justice, human purpose, history, death, sin — are all suddenly answered with a loud and resounding “Yes!” There is little, if any, struggle left. There are few haunting questions, and no genuine tragedy or meaningless suffering. All is guaranteed; all will shortly be worked out.

ChristAscension

Of course, various attempts are made to reinterpret this early Christianity for our time, usually in terms of ethics or some existential core of truth, but early Christianity rests on two essential points, both of which resist easy demythologization: it is a religious movement built upon an apocalyptic view of history; and an evaluation of Jesus as a Hellenistic deity, i.e., a pre-existent divine Savior God in whom all ultimate meaning rests. If these are unacceptable in the modern world, or incompatible with the fundamental Hebrew view of things, then the whole system become difficult, it not superfluous.This is not to say that there are no similar problems with the Hebrew Bible, but fundamentally things are different. Even Daniel, that begins down the path of fantastic apocalyptic answers to hard human questions about the meaning of history, is somewhat vague about it all. That is one good reason Daniel was never included among the Prophets in the Jewish canon. Of course, the Hebrew Bible, like the New Testament, is framed around God’s intervention in human history: God calls Abraham, delivers Israel to Egypt, reveals the Torah at Sinai, gives the Land to the Israelites, expels them, promises to bring them back, etc. It is an interventionist story. And yet, in contrast to the New Testament, God is often silent, there are many dark areas, many unanswered queries, and much doubt and debate expressed about it all, even within the texts themselves. But more important, the two of the major problems for the later Hellenistic age–human mortality and theodicy, are left largely unaddressed.

Some years ago I read a fascinating interview in Biblical Archaeology Reviewby editor Hershel Shanks with Jewish thinker and Holocaust surviver Elie Wiesel and renowned Harvard Biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross (July/August, 2004). In one short but significant section Professor Cross comments on how being a Christian affects his relationship to the Hebrew Bible, which is his field of concentration. I find his comments enlightening, and though here he only focuses on one issue, that of the magical/demonic world of late antiquity, the implications of what he states appear to parallel my thoughts here:

Shanks: How does being a Christian affect your relationship to the Hebrew Bible?

Cross: Happily, I come out of a Calvinist tradition in which the Hebrew Bible carries as much authority as the New Testament. No different weight is given to one or the other. The Bible is one, Old and New, in my particular tradition. My own interest is far more in the Hebrew Bible. My religion is more personally related to the Hebrew Bible than the New Testament.

Shanks: What does that mean?

Cross: I find myself a little uncomfortable in the New Testament environment. And this is also true of what I would call late Judaism, the Judaism of the Second Temple and later. With the Hebrew Bible, you’re living in an austere world. When you come to the New Testament you can’t even swing a cat without hitting three demons and two spirits. And magic becomes something that is everywhere. In the Hebrew Bible this sort of thing doesn’t go on.

Shanks: You have miracles, yes, but they’re not the work, normally, of demons.

Cross goes on to explain his approach to the Hebrew Bible as one that takes a critical view of its stories and narratives, with lots of question marks regarding “historicity,” while appreciating the power and meaning of its epics, myths, and symbols.

My Attachment to Both Canons

Began my career as a “Bible scholar” and my college majors were Greek and Bible, so I still, broadly, consider myself a student of the Bible–that includes Hebrew Bible as well as New Testament, and of course my specialty is Christian Origins. I find myself drawn to these biblical texts, these ideas and images, tempered through the sifting and sorting out that comes through historical criticism in an effort to separate myth and history. I want to neither devaluing the former nor ignore the latter. The opening chapters of Genesis powerfully expresses any number of fundamental perceptions around which my own approach to human life is shaped. God as the “Power of all powers” (Elohim) orders the chaotic planet earth with humans, created from the, “dust of the earth,” but reflecting the image of the Elohim. Humans and beasts are given only “green herbs” to eat. It is only after the Flood that meat is allowed, when sin and violence had filled the earth. Are we to re-present to the world in this small way, this way of peace from which we have fallen? It is a powerful idea, as Isaiah himself knew when he spoke of the child’s leading the lion, the infant’s playing at the nest of the scorpion–“They will not hurt nor destroy on all My holy mountain, says the LORD” (Isa. 11:9). Human are to “dress and keep” the garden and have both the power and responsibility to exercise custody over the good earth, even in the world of “thorns and thistles” outside the gates of Eden. When it comes to the New Testament the cosmically triumphant theologies of Paul and John are dominant, but running through the Gospel materials are layers in which one finds a Jesus wedded to the ethics and perspectives of the Hebrew Prophets, not a deity but one who is vulnerable, a “human all-to-human,” one who, as Schweitzer puts it, throws himself onto the wheel of history in an effort to move things forward but is tragically crushed. Those contingent, conditional, and open-ended aspects of the Jesus story I find most compelling, and most in keeping with the Hebrew view of history and human possibilities.

A version of these thoughts was published in the Journal of Reform Judaism (Summer, 1990): 35-38.

A Conversation with Colleagues: What Do We Know About Jesus?

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I was recently pleased to participate in a wide-ranging conversations with my colleagues at UNC Charlotte as a guest on their ongoing series “Conversations about Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed.” You can listen to or download from iTunes. This program is dated 8/17/2017 but please browse some of the previous ones as well and bookmark or subscribe as you wish to the series.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/conversations-about-buddha-jesus-and-mohammed/id1101785064

 

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