Kingdom Message Seen in Latest Scholarship
By Paul Fiorilla
The term "modern scholarship" in the biblical field is loaded, in large part because it conjures images of world-weary professors digging up artifacts, trying to poke holes in the Christian faith.
And while sometimes that is true, it remains a fact that faith has to meet standards of historical veracity and that the Christian faith depends on the canonical words of Scripture. In recent decades, discoveries of troves of ancient literature including the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi Library have proven a boon to the historical field and led to the production of countless books by scholars.
Some scholarship no doubt is produced in a proverbial left field, but some of it is extraordinarily valuable to believers of the Abrahamic faith. Recently published books that share the premise that the Messiah was first and foremost a preacher of the Kingdom of YEHOVAH God include James Tabor's The Jesus Dynasty and Bart Ehrman's Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend.
The Jesus Dynasty provides a compelling storyline and Tabor, a prolific writer and researcher who is the chair of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, starts with the Messiah's ancestry. He mines the genealogies in Matthew and Luke to theorize that Mary's line contained both Davidic and priestly blood lines, which would be important in fulfilling his call as Messiah.
According to Tabor,
who cites Old Testament passages and the Essene writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls,
apocalyptic Jews of the day were looking for a two-pronged Messiah. One was
to come from the priestly line and the other from the Davidic line. "In
after text we read about not one but two Messiahs who are to usher in the Kingdom of God," Tabor writes. In Tabor's telling, John the Baptizer was a key actor who has largely been overlooked by the Church. He says John and the Messiah set up shop as a team, preaching repentance before the coming Kingdom of YEHOVAH God. "The Hebrew Scriptures were full of promises that God in the 'last day' would raise up a King of the line of David who would be instrumental in throwing off foreign rule and establishing an independent Kingdom of Israel, thus inaugurating the New Age of peace and ,justice for the entire world," Tabor writes.
A key part of the story is Tabor's recognition that the Kingdom was "not a sentiment or ethereal concept ...This was not a kingdom 'in' heaven but the idea of the rule of heaven breaking into human history and manifesting itself on earth. It was understood in a literal way, nothing less than a revolution, a complete overthrow of the political, social and economic status quo" (italics his). Also: "This revolutionary message, 'the good news of the Kingdom of God,' predicted the radical apocalyptic reversal of society from top to bottom."
The Messiah selected 12 disciples -- among them at least three of his four brothers -- as a cabinet who would be in literal charge of the affairs of this state. It has largely been believed -- mostly based on the reading of John 7:5: ''for even his brothers did not believe in him" -- that Yeshua's family was against his mission. (Tabor alleges without any support that the verse is a late interpolation.) However, Tabor claims that the apostles James, Jude, Simon and Matthew are Yeshua's brothers.
The assertion that the Messiah's brothers were part of his inner circle, and took over the group after his death, is a key piece of evidence. This was a thoroughly Jewish enterprise with much importance placed in lineage. That Jewishness was glossed over by later Christians who wrote the Messiah's family out of the picture, gave leadership of the Church to Peter and emphasized Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.
The New Testament is, however, quite clear that Peter and Paul were key leaders of the Christian mission and that they preached the SAME Gospel of the Kingdom of YEHOVAH God.
It is undisputed that James was appointed leader of the early group of followers in Jerusalem immediately after the Messiah was executed. After James was murdered some three decades later, oversight of the Church was given to another of Yeshua's brothers, Simon. Until the Jewish rebellion against Rome, the followers of the Messiah largely considered themselves as devout Jews.
According to Tabor, this group continued to preach the imminent manifestation of the Kingdom of YEHOVAH God, evidenced by the books of the New Testament written by Yeshua's brothers James and Jude. Both of those books -- James in particular -- focus on the core ethical teachings of the Messiah found in the Sermon on the Mount that were in line with the Kingdom movement and not on the theology of justification by faith that is so prominent in Paul's writings. "Neither John nor Jesus had any idea of beginning a new religion, but both lived as Jews according to the Torah or Jewish Law," Tabor says.
Such an analysis, sadly, pits Paul against his brother believers and destroys the unity of the Christian faith revealed in New Testament scripture. Paul's theology is in line with that of the Messiah and his brother apostles, though he uses different terminology.
At the core of Tabor's book is the idea that there is a true message of the Messiah that has largely been lost over the years. For him, the corruption began with the Apostle Paul, who began preaching a belief system focused on salvation by faith that was based on "visions" he had of the Messiah, not on teachings of the other apostles. Paul explicitly says in his letter to the Galatians that he avoided the apostles for three years following his visionary experience. Tabor sees Paul as one who basically set up a competing form of what became Christianity. Ideas of the Messiah's divinity, the atoning nature of his death and the celebration of the Last Supper -- Tabor notes that eating flesh and drinking blood would have been offensive to any Jew, even as a symbol -- emanated with Paul. Tabor sees even within the New Testament letters a struggle between Paul and the apostles who knew and lived with the Messiah.
Here we see the dangerous side of this form of modern scholarship. The so called struggle between Paul and the others is a figment of Tabor's imagination and a product of the fundamental fact that he does not believe in the resurrection of the Messiah.
In the end, Tabor strives to find the authentic legacy of Yeshua through textual and historical clues previously known but not put together. These authentic teachings come from what is known as the "Q" document which is derived from the stories and sayings -- such as the Sermon on the Mount -- that are found in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark. Many theologians patch these verses together to form a collection of sayings that the gospel writers used in addition to Mark. This collection is widely believed to have been an early gospel, called "Q," that has been lost.
What happened to Yeshua's first followers? Tabor sees them in a largely forgotten group called the Ebionites, or "poor ones," in Hebrew. They are known mainly through writings of early "orthodox" church writers who branded them as heretics. Ebionites saw the Messiah as completely human, observed Jewish laws, maintained salvation by works as well as faith and rejected entirely the letters of Paul.
Ehrman -- a fundamentalist-turned-agnostic and popular author who chairs the department of religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- also views Christianity as shaped by Paul at the expense of the apostolic movement. Ehrman's book presents a history of Peter, Paul and Mary viewed through a similar perspective as Tabor's, in which there is fierce disagreement between Peter and Paul that has been papered over by the author of the book of Acts. In this theme, Acts is written to create a history that smoothes over the differences between the two fundamentally opposite sides.
However, Ehrman recognizes the apocalyptic nature of Yeshua's mission, and he neatly sums up his teachings this way: "One of the key aspects of Jesus' teaching is that those expecting the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God need to prepare by living in ways that are appropriate to it. Life in the Kingdom will reflect God's own values, such as love, justice, and freedom. Those values should be reflected in how the followers of Jesus' message live in the present. In the future kingdom there will be no hatred, and so Jesus' followers should love each other now. In the future Kingdom there will be no loneliness, and so Jesus' followers should visit the widows and orphans now. In the future kingdom there will be no poverty, and so Jesus' followers should sell their possessions and give to the poor now. In the future kingdom there will be no hunger, and so Jesus' followers should feed the hungry now. In the future kingdom, there will be no sickness, so Jesus' followers should heal the sick now. In the future kingdom there will he no demons, and so Jesus' followers should cast out demons now. In the future kingdom there will be no war, and so Jesus' followers should work for peace now. In the future kingdom there will be no injustice, and so Jesus' followers should fight injustice now. The future Kingdom could begin to be realized here and now, as Jesus' followers begin to implement its values and standards in the present."
For all its appeal to Abrahamic believers, Tabor's book also will disappoint, as he explores theories about the Messiah's human father and burial place, which he believes exists. The book's storyline contains a host of arguable suppositions. He assumes, for example, that the ancient Qumran outpost was inhabited by Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, a position that is increasingly unpopular among archaeologists. His reconstruction of historical events, as impressive as it is, is somewhat glib, even in areas where no proof exists.
With regard to both Tabor and Ehrman, it is clear that they are inaccurate with regard to differences between Paul and the apostles. They blame Paul for founding concepts such as the Messiah's divinity, a view that scholars including Anthony Buzzard have ably demolished, and discount the many similarities between the teachings of Paul and the Messiah. It is probably true that differences in the early Yeshua movement have been downplayed over the years by church authorities, but its far from clear that the differences were so stark. The apostles had to learn the new arrangements which YEHOVAH God and the Messiah introduced in the New Covenant. Much of this is recorded in the writings of Paul.
Another problem comes from the use of Scripture. Tabor and Ehrman veer back and forth, using some verses as an accurate source while discounting others from the same passage. It is mystifying how they can confidently claim that one Bible verse is critical truth while discounting the next as conjured out of whole cloth.
Still, the fact that the ultimate conclusions of Tabor and Ehrman differ from Abrahamic faith doesn't rule out their value as resources. But these scholars are historians and not believers and so their contribution is limited. It is a heartening at least that scholars are increasingly recognizing the centrality of the Kingdom of YEHOVAH God to the teachings of the Messiah.
Establishing facts that support the faith is an important first step. In that regard, books such as The Jesus Dynasty demonstrate the promise -- and the difficulty -- in spreading Abrahamic faith. If the Messiah and his disciples preached an imminent Kingdom of YEHOVAH God that didn't come in their time, that leaves open the possibility that they were wrong entirely, the positions taken by Tabor and Ehrman.
In the end, these scholars arrive at unbelief! One characteristic of the religious of all stripes is that most believers tend to exalt the logic of their own views as they exaggerate the flaws in the positions of others. It's easy to note the inherent contradiction in the competing orthodox beliefs that the Bible is inerrant yet the Hebrew prophets were metaphorical figures who were essentially wrong about what they wrote. Or the illogic of the orthodox view that we have an inspired Scripture with 66 books in which not a single one explains the nature of YEHOVAH God as Triune!
It is less easy to confront the difficulties In one's own faith, although faith can rarely grow without challenge. With that in mind, Tabor in particular, and also Ehrman, provide an important service by laying a factual foundation favorable to Abrahamic believers, even if one disagrees with their conclusions. Neither Tabor nor Ehrman believe in the resurrection of the Messiah.
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