Today is Wednesday, June 26, 2019


Fred's Views

Three Books

I have always hated questions like “If you were stranded  on a desert island, what three books would you like to have with you?” How could I possibly decide on which books have been most important to me or entertaining. I like to read, but I do not have a good memory, so I quickly lose much of what I have read. So, picking three books, or ten or twenty, has always seemed a daunting, impossible task. Until now. At this particular point in my life, I can name the three books I would want to have with me. And so I shall.

My first choice may seem somewhat ordinary. It would be likely to appear on many people's lists, although, until very recently, it may have slipped a bit in popularity. I am referring to the Bible. If I could get to choose, I would want a modern translation that included not only the standard canon, but the apocrypha, the nag Hammadi texts, the Dead Sea scrolls and any other ancient texts from the time of Jesus and early Christianity. It could even include the Koran. But if I must limit myself to just a standard Bible, at least let it be a modern scholarly translation with lots of footnotes. Being stranded on that desert island would give me the time to study some of the passages quoted or alluded to by my two other book choices and read them with a new insight and perhaps more understanding.

My second choice would be Dan Brown's phenomenal bestseller The Da Vinci Code. Without going too deeply into the theological issues raised by this (and my next choice), I picked this book because, like the Bible, it can be read and enjoyed on many levels. It is a thriller. It has a rather unusual love story (the two protagonists develop a deep attachment to each other but it is never manifested as love or simply lust. At the end the girl is, if anything, more unattainable than at the beginning, but it's okay. Somehow it is still a satisfying experience for the reader as well as the characters. It is a pop history. Keeping in mind the limitations of fiction as history (and they are substantial), The Da Vinci Code has probably taught more history to more people than any other recent book. Unfortunately, since it is a work of fiction, it is difficult to separate the facts from the fanciful. Dan Burstein in his introduction to the new edition of Secrets of the Code which he edits states that he believes more people have learned that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute from Dan Brown's book than from the Roman Catholic Church's announcement in the 1960's correcting a papal error of some fourteen centuries. It is theology, presenting a new (not actually new, but new to most readers) view of Jesus' mission and message and the history of the early “church”. It is a handbook on symbology and mythology. But, above all, it is an interesting read. (I have already read it twice.)

My third choice is a more scholarly work, still written for the ordinary reader, It is The Jesus Dynasty by James D. Tabor. Published only this year, the book is, as the author asserts, a work forty years in the making. It recounts some of the discoveries the author and others have made in and around the “holy lands”. For example, a Jewish burial cave was discovered a few years ago that dated from the time of Jesus. In it were found ossuary boxes containing human bones and labeled with names like Mary, Joseph, James and a form of the name Jesus. All of these names were extremely common in the first century (witness the three or four – or more – women mentioned in the New Testament all called Mary), but to find them all in one tomb? Recently the tomb of Caiaphas, the high priest that presided over Jesus' trial has been found and positively identified.

But more importantly, the book takes a serious historical look at Jesus, the man. It neither disclaims nor proclaims the religious aspect of his existence, but merely presents what we know about him as historical fact and reasonable probabilities. It is a fact that Jesus existed. It is a fact that Mary Magdalene played an important role in Jesus' mission. It is a reasonable probability that they had some kind of personal connection as well. However, it is only speculation that they might have been husband and wife. In other words, there is no proof that Jesus was married, but there is also no proof that he was not.

It was common for Jewish men to marry. This includes rabbis and other religious leaders. But the leader of the Essenes was apparently not married, although most of the Essenes themselves were. There is nothing in the New Testament that states whether Jesus was married or not. However, some if not most of his disciples were certainly married.

The Jesus Dynasty provided me with a new insight into the life of Jesus and into the probable early development of Christianity. It seems almost certain that much of accepted traditional Christian beliefs were either introduced by the apostle Paul or were later additions. The Immaculate Conception (Mary's – not Jesus'), the Virgin Birth, Mary's supposed perpetual virgin state despite having four or five other children, the visit of the Magi, the escape into Egypt, and perhaps the actual resurrection are all later add-ons as is the idea that priests must be male and celibate, or that the pope is infallible (which is a very recent idea dating to the 1800's).

Instead, Tabor presents a Jesus who may have seen himself as John the Baptist's disciple. It is possible that John and Jesus considered each other as messiahs: John was the spiritual messiah (anointed one), Jesus was the political messiah (anointed – through baptism – by John) who was to bring about a new order on earth. This idea of dual messiahs was very commonly believed during Jesus' lifetime. Did Jesus deliberately choose a path that “fulfilled the scriptures” and lead to the confrontation with the Roman Governor and the chief priests that resulted in his crucifixion? Did he expect God to “rescue” him at the last moment? Did Jesus expect his ministry to be carried on by Peter (the rock the church would be built on) or, more likely, by Mary Magdalene with whom he had some kind of special relationship.

In fact, there were two early strains of followers of Jesus: the church at Jerusalem led by Jesus' brother (or half-brother) James, and the mission to the gentiles spurred on by Paul. After the final (until recent times) defeat of the Jews and loss of the Jewish homeland thirty or so years after Jesus' crucifixion, the Jerusalem strain may have died out, or it may have made its way to Egypt or elsewhere. It may have reappeared (in part) with the Gnostic heresy. Or its message may lie buried beneath Rosslyn Chapel or the pyramids of the Louvre – or somewhere else.

At any rate, it would not be dull with these books to read and study and a whole new theology to contemplate.

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