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DISCOVERING THE JESUS DYNASTY
It is a rare book that is forty years in the making. In some sense this is the case with The Jesus Dynasty. Over forty years ago, as a teenager, I made my first visit to the Holy Land with my parents and my sister. It was that experience that set me on my own lifelong "quest for the historical Jesus." This is the phrase scholars use to describe historical research over the past two hundred years related to Jesus and the origins of early Christianity.
What do we really know about Jesus and how do we know it? Forty years ago I had not even formulated the question with any sophistication. I knew nothing of archaeology, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient texts, or historical research. But I had begun to read the Bible, particularly the New Testament, and had become fascinated with the figure of Jesus. On that Holy Land trip this interest began to develop into a more intense desire to know what could be known about him and to somehow touch that past.
I vividly remember walking around the Old City of Jerusalem. The city was thick with tourists, all Christians, no Jews or Israelis. This was before the 1967 Six Day War when the Old City of east Jerusalem was still ruled by Jordan. We were shown around by one of the hundreds of would-be resident guides who could be hired on the spot pressing upon anyone who looked like a tourist. We saw all the sites typically shown to Christian pilgrims the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Upper Room of the Last Supper, and the Dome of the Rock, where the ancient Jewish Temple once stood. On such a tour one enters dozens of churches, all built centuries after the time of Jesus but supposedly at the precise place where this or that event took place.
Over the three days we were there I began to experience a growing sense of disappointment. I was having difficulty connecting, even in my imagination, 20th-century Jerusalem with the city in the time of Jesus as described in the New Testament. Even if the names and places were the same, and correctly identified, what I saw before me were Turkish, Crusader, and Byzantine remains, with little if anything from the 1st century a.d. visible. Even the modern street level, I learned, was twelve to fifteen feet above that of Roman times. I had purchased a tourist guidebook entitled Walking Where Jesus Walked, and somehow, in my naiveté, I wanted to do just that.
We stayed in a small hotel on top of the Mount of Olives just to the east of the Old City. About midnight, restless, I got out of bed, Bible in hand, and decided to walk to the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the mountain. The steep path down is now paved, but I could see bedrock cut or worn along the way on both sides, indicating this was the narrow road from ancient times. I imagined Jesus riding the donkey down that very path into the Old City, hailed by the crowds as Messiah, a week before he was crucified. In those days, unlike today, you could enter the Garden of Gethsemane at any hour, day or night, as the gate was always open. Visitors were also allowed to walk among the centuries-old olive trees. I was the only one there that night, at that hour. My reading had convinced me that this was the spot where Jesus spent the last night of his life in prayer. For the first time on our tour, on that path and in the garden, I felt that I was able to reach back and connect with the past that I sought. I stayed there for the longest time, trying to imagine it all. I kept thinking to myself this is the place. It happened here. The "historian" in me was awakening and I think a bit of the "archaeologist" as well. In some way I had begun what would become a lifelong quest to discover and to understand the life of Jesus as he lived it.
There is something in all of us that thrills to this experience of touching the past. It could be an old letter, a genealogical record, a battlefield, a cemetery, or fragments of an ancient text. Today in Israel you can visit the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum and view the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date to around the time of Jesus. I think many visitors experience the same feeling I did the first time I saw the displays. There, under glass, just a few inches away, are the actual ancient documents written over two thousand years ago. I remember pausing for long minutes before each exhibit, trying to take in the reality of what I was viewing. There one is looking at the very parchment or papyrus from that long-ago time, with words in Hebrew and Aramaic that could have been read by Jesus or his followers.
Many other sites in Jerusalem have now been excavated. You can walk or sit on the very steps that led up to the Jewish Temple built in the time of Herod the Great. When I first visited Jerusalem in 1962 these steps were twenty-five feet below the present surface, completely lost to modern eyes. In various places the paving stones of the streets of the Roman city have been exposed. Twelve feet below the modern street level, in the Jewish Quarter, you can walk in the ruins of a wealthy mansion, one that likely belonged to the family of high priests who presided over the trial of Jesus. In the summer of 2004 the pool of Siloam, mentioned in the New Testament, was uncovered, after being forgotten and hidden from view for centuries. All over the country the past is being exposed to the present by the spade of the archaeologist and equally by the deciphering of ancient texts by the historian.
I have since been back to Israel and Jordan dozens of times as a researcher and scholar. Whether I am digging an archaeological site, researching in a library, or studying firsthand a given area or location, my focus remains the same to recreate a past that has important relevance to our present. The Jesus Dynasty is a new historical investigation of Jesus, his royal family, and the birth of Christianity. At the same time it is a reflection of my own personal quest, integrating the results of my own discoveries and insights over the course of my professional career.
The Jesus Dynasty presents the Jesus story in an entirely new light. It is history, not fiction. And yet it differs considerably, sometimes radically, from the standard portrait of Jesus informed by theological dogma. The Jesus Dynasty proposes an original version of Christianity, long lost and forgotten, but one that can be reliably traced back to the founder, Jesus himself. The impact and implications of this book are far-reaching and potentially revolutionary. There is a sense in which one might call it "the greatest story never told." It will thrill and excite many, upset and anger others, but also challenge its readers, of whatever persuasion, to honestly weigh evidence and consider new possibilities.
The Jesus Dynasty has no connection to the recently popularized notions that Jesus married and fathered children through Mary Magdalene. While gripping fiction, this idea is long on speculation and short on evidence. But as is so often the case, the truth is even stranger than fiction and every bit as intriguing.
In The Jesus Dynasty you will discover that Jesus was the firstborn son of a royal family a descendant of King David of ancient Israel. He really was proclaimed "King of the Jews," and was executed by the Romans for this claim. Rather than a church, or a new religion, as commonly understood, he established a royal dynasty drawn from his own brothers and immediate family. Rather than being the founder of a church, Jesus was claimant to a throne. According to the Hebrew Prophets, the Messiah, the scion of David, who would lead the nation of Israel in the last days, was to spring from this specific lineage. Recently released portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls have shed further light on the concrete nature of this expectation. This coveted royal bloodline, the family of David, with its radical revolutionary potential, was well known to the Herod family, the native rulers of Palestine at the time, but also to the Roman officials who ruled the country, including the emperors themselves. These "royals" were not only watched, but also at critical times even hunted down and executed.
Shortly before he died, Jesus set up a provisional government with twelve regional officials, one over each of the twelve tribes or districts of Israel, and he left his brother James at the head of this fledgling government. James became the uncontested leader of the early Christian movement. This significant fact of history has been largely forgotten, or as likely, hidden. Properly understood, it changes everything we thought we knew about Jesus, his mission, and his message. Everyone has heard of Peter, Paul, and John but the pivotal place of James, the beloved disciple and younger brother of Jesus, has been effectively blotted from Christian memory.
The Jesus Dynasty explores how and why Christians gradually lost the recognition that Jesus was part of a large family, the members of which exercised dynastic leadership among his followers. This critical, alternative, story, which survives even in our New Testament records and in bits and pieces of later Christian tradition, can be effectively recovered. A combination of recent archaeological discoveries and the surfacing of texts long forgotten has given us a new perspective from which to view the birth of Christianity. Understanding the origins of this largest global religion not only offers us insights about the past, it also opens up whole new ways of seeing Christianity in our own day. We now have a sharper and more historically reliable understanding of Jesus as he was in his own time and place.
THE AMERICAN COLONY HOTEL, JERUSALEM
JUNE 7, 2005
Copyright © 2006 by James D.Tabor