This technical, meticulous, expository work of New Testament scholarship is the elephant in the room for all who wish to believe that the gospels are literal documents that portray events that actually happened as described.
My introduction to the idea that Jesus survived the Crucifixion (apart from seeing Ray Bradbury spitball a scenario for it on a TV talk show in the 1970s) was in 1994 when I read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, a book subsequently made even more famous in the frenzy around Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. It was July in the Colorado Rockies, on one of two days off during an 11-week Buddhist seminary, and while other students were off hiking or making town trips, I spent the hot afternoon in the great dining-tent, hunched over my paperback. I knew I should stop reading, but I couldn’t. The idea that Jesus had not only survived, but had had children to perpetuate the royal dynasty of Israel–a dynasty that has survived–was too electrifying.
Fast-forward to January 1996. I was perusing my local bookstore (an excellent place run by a Korean couple, now long gone, alas), when what should I find but this book by Barbara Thiering. As soon as I realized what it was about, I knew I had to have it. I bought it, started reading, and again became electrified.
Many theories and stories exist about Jesus: Did he really exist? Was he really God incarnate? Was he actually crucified? Under what circumstances? And so on. What sets Thiering’s work apart from other alternative theories of Jesus is the nature of her evidence. Her main source is the gospels themselves (along with Acts of the Apostles and Revelation), but read in a new way. Thiering’s central contention is that the gospels, Acts, and Revelation are all documents of a particular type: documents intended to have what was called a pesher, which is Hebrew for “interpretation” or “solution” in the sense of solving a puzzle. They were all written carefully, deliberately, in a kind of code that was intended to conceal a literal, factual meaning behind the surface text, a code readable only to someone with special knowledge. That factual meaning is a history of the events leading up to the birth of what came to be a new religion, the one we now call Christianity.
The books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek, unlike the books of the Old Testament, which were written in Hebrew (except for the Book of Daniel, which was written at least partly in Aramaic). Scholars have supposed that the awkwardness of the Greek is due to the imperfect command of the language on the part of the New Testament authors, but Thiering denies this. On closer inspection, there is method in the seeming solecisms of the text. The apparently inaccurate use of plurals, pronouns, and gender arises from the rigorous application of this method of coding. There was nothing wrong with the authors’ Greek; their “clumsiness” is actually just our own ignorance of the texts’ real nature and purpose. Modern Bible scholars are among the exoteric group that was never intended to understand the hidden meanings in these documents.
Although I’ve read all of Barbara Thiering’s books and have studied her website, I don’t recall her ever explaining exactly how she developed this theory. It has been presented from the start as something already worked out. However, as presented, it is rigorously consistent and clearly the result of a huge amount of study and labor. To lay hold of the full meaning of these texts, Thiering had to become conversant with, among other things, the details of the solar calendar used by the sectarians who composed the texts–a calendar that was complex and that kept changing as different viewpoints arose. I mention this because I’ve done some study of calendars myself, and so I appreciate the quantity and caliber of effort involved here, and it is a lot. Everything else has been examined at a similar level of detail.
And what is the secret story underlying the gospels? Very briefly: Jesus was indeed a real person, and was indeed a dynast of the royal house of David. By the 1st century BC the David lineage had become attached to the group known as the Essenes, educated sectarians who had become alienated from the mainstream of Judean society in the aftermath of the Maccabean revolt and the ensuing reformation of the Jewish state. The Essenes were centered at Qumran by the Dead Sea, and this monastic environment is where many of the events of the gospels actually took place–including the Crucifixion. For Jesus was indeed crucified, along with two others: Simon Magus and Judas Iscariot. Jesus did survive the Crucifixion, and, with his wife Mary Magdalene, did have children. He did teach a new understanding of the Law, and remained active in the movement to bring this to the world. His date of death is not recorded, but it apparently happened in Rome when he was in his 70s.
There is much more to this story, and a great deal of context. Thiering tries to give all this, but there are problems with providing so much information of different kinds in a single accessible book. She sketches in the story in the first 214 pages; the remaining 400 pages is a set of appendixes giving details about things like the sectarians’ complex hierarchy and their understanding of time and space. About 100 pages is a detailed chronology of events based on an exact pesher of the documents. But it’s not a narrative; the tone is scholarly and scientific, and this I think is a weakness in a book aimed at the mass market.
There’s much more to this book than I can give a sense of here–to say nothing of its implications. The book provoked enormous controversy when it was first published. I recall reading a dismissive review by Bible and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Geza Vermes, and how Thiering had to point out certain large errors he had made in his review. It was as though he didn’t want to waste mental energy on such a crackpot idea, and no doubt many other scholars feel the same way about Thiering’s theory.
But it is a theory–not merely a hypothesis. It is worked out and, Thiering maintains, fully testable. The problem is that you need to be able to read ancient Greek in order to play, which makes this the preserve of Bible scholars or, maybe, some enterprising classical studies student. And Bible scholars, still comfortable with their paradigm, don’t see any need to go shopping for a new one. They’re more or less satisfied with their existing “explanations” for why the gospels’ Greek is so mangled, for why the gospels are so different in content and in outlook, for why the authors seemed not to know how big the Sea of Galilee was or how long it took to make certain journeys. People were just dumber then.
People weren’t dumber then. People, possibly, are dumber now. When I read this book I became convinced that it is a landmark in intellectual history. It has its weaknesses: it is a very technical work, and Thiering is no prose stylist. But Barbara Thiering has what no other Bible scholar now has: the right paradigm. I have no doubt that this will become the dominant paradigm for New Testament scholarship. It may take 20 years, or it may take 200, but this way of looking at the New Testament brings it into sharp focus. In the future, young researchers, if they are exposed to both paradigms and if they are not biased by religious faith, will choose this one. The image of semiliterate fishermen writing stories long after the event will be dropped.
As for Christianity itself, well, who knows. Thiering tries to minimize the impact that her theory might have on Christian faith by pointing to the importance of what Jesus actually taught, which remains intact. This to me seems naive. For as Joseph Campbell observed, if the events in the Bible are no longer seen as factual, then the Bible becomes simply a work of poetry like any other, with no greater authority than any other. Thiering’s work shows that the New Testament does present a factual narrative, but that this narrative is hidden behind a fabulous screen. And for all these centuries the fabulous screen is what we’ve taken for fact. In this we are not to blame, for the texts were designed that way. The factual content was intended to be secret. But now, finally, thanks to Barbara Thiering, that secret has come to light. And whatever the implications are for Christianity or for the world generally, I find it very exciting. And if you believe in divine providence, then you too must believe that it’s an idea whose time has come.