Every now and then one comes across a piece of literary or artistic work where the contrast between the style of presentation and what is actually being presented is so incongruous that it leaves one at a loss. Meticulously sculptured copies of Michelangelo's "David" made of milk chocolate come to mind. They leave me impressed by the work and skill that has gone into them, but I am uncertain that the result is worth the effort, and I really wonder why the attempt was made at all.
Hence my reaction to the A.B.C.'s recent documentary, "The Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls" (shown on Palm Sunday, April 8th, at 8-30 p.m.), and more recently to Jesus the Man. The film is a highly professional piece of documentary film-making. The book is beautifully produced by an experienced and respectable publisher. The theory they put forward, however, is very poorly supported. It attracts outrage from mainstream religious groups, due to its well-publicised negative conclusions about the Virgin Birth, the miracles, and the resurrection of Jesus. Because it was well produced, controversial, and heavily advertised, the documentary attracted a great deal of attention from the general public. Many Australians found it convincing or at the least plausible. That is the problem. For the documentary, and the book which followed it, was fundamentally misleading on at least three major points.
Three Misleading Claims.
The first was the claim that there is not just a serious delay in the publication of the remaining Dead Sea Scrolls, but a deliberate cover-up of their contents by conservative church groups. This is sensationalist nonsense, as Dr. Thiering (who was the moving force behind the documentary and is the main focus of its action) herself agrees. Here the makers of the documentary and the A.B.C. publicity department have simply got carried away.
The second was the strongly made claim that the program represented the views of many younger scholars, and that its conclusions are resisted only by the older generation, clinging to outmoded theories. This is simply false. I doubt whether Dr. Thiering can produce a single recognised scholar to agree with her overall historical conclusions. If one watches the program closely, one realises that only two of the specialists interviewed agreed with Dr. Thiering about anything; and even they only agreed with her criticism of the accepted dating of the Scrolls.
The third was the claim that the reconstruction of the story of Jesus and the early Christians given in the program is not just an interesting theory, but hard historical fact. It is not. It is an eccentric theory based on weak historical evidence, sloppy logic, and wild guesswork. Many of its claims are completely unsupported: but watching the program does not give that impression.
When we add to our considerations the fully elaborated theory put forward in Jesus the Man, very little changes. The book is a quite extraordinary feat of disciplined creative imagination. The coherence and integration of the whole is remarkable. That, however, is quite a different thing from saying that it is good history. When it comes into contact with the real world of the first century, as opposed to other portions of its own theorising, the problems become overwhelming: of this Dr. Thiering appears to be blissfully unaware.
The Theory itself: Stage One.
The theory advanced in the program, and elaborated and fully stated in the book, falls neatly into three parts, in a descending order of probability. The first part attempts to cast doubt on the accepted dating of the ancient writings found in 1947 near the Dead Sea. These were made up of a mixture of copies of the Old Testament and what are probably the writings of a Jewish sectarian group or groups related to the "Essenes". (The Essenes are one of the Jewish "schools of thought" known from the historian Josephus and other evidence.) The overwhelming majority of scholars date those particular scrolls which refer to the "Teacher of Righteousness", the presumed leader of the Dead Sea sect, to the mid- to late-second century B.C. Dr. Thiering argued that this dating cannot be proven. She assumed, however, that if serious doubts can be raised against this general 2nd Century B.C. dating, then her own dating of these crucial portions of the Scrolls to the 1st Century A.D. is the chief alternative. As of the date of writing, none of these crucial Scrolls has been carbon-dated, so the argument remains in the hands of the Palaeographers - specialists in the development of ancient hand-writing - who in general reject Dr. Thiering's conclusions.
This brings us to an important point. This leap of logic - that if her opponents are wrong on any important point, her alternative proposal must be true - underlies the whole dramatic structure of the film, and it is a false assumption. If the conventional dating is wrong, (and the bulk of scholarly opinion still emphatically claims that it is not) the Scrolls, or any particular portion of them, could be from the 1st Century B.C., from another period altogether, or even from a mixture of different periods. Dr. Thiering's assertion of a first-century date in the film is just that: an assertion. Her supporting arguments, published elsewhere, have not convinced many of her academic peers. Certainly her argument (put forward in the A.B.C.'s reply program, broadcasted a week and a half later) that the Scrolls must have a first century date because of the savage hatred of the Romans they display, is utterly unconvincing. The Romans were hated by many of the provincials of their empire just as much in the previous century, as numerous bloody rebellions testify. Far from "giving the Jews their freedom and their own King", as Dr. Thiering claimed, the Romans imposed upon them the savage tyranny of the Edomite Herod, who was widely hated and despised as a foreign puppet (see below).
The Theory: Stage Two.
From this argument to do with dating we come to the second main point. Dr. Thiering identifies two of the main personalities of the Qumran Scrolls - the group's leader, the "Teacher of Righteousness", and their enemy, the "Wicked Priest" - as John the Baptist and Jesus respectively. This is again asserted rather than argued in the documentary (though Dr. Thiering has argued it in detail in her published works). While her criticism of the accepted dating of the Scrolls may have some limited scholarly support, this identification of the main figures as Jesus and John has none. Her case has failed to convince any professional working in this field. What is more, even if her asserted redating of the relevant portions of the Scrolls to the 1st Century is correct, this second stage of the argument lacks conviction. On the other hand, if her dating is wrong, then this second stage must be wrong as well. In either case, her argument so far is made up of two major points, both of which are opposed by virtually all competent scholars in the area.
The Theory: Stage 3.
It is in the third stage of the documentary, however, that her unsupported speculation really takes over. Arguing (correctly) that the Qumran community made use of a particular technique for interpreting the Bible (the "Pesher" technique, well known to Rabbinic and New Testament scholars), she suggests that we can find the same thing in another guise in the New Testament. She proceeds to unveil for us a second layer of meaning she claims to find in the New Testament: a hidden history of early Christianity as a reforming movement within the Qumran community and the wider Jewish world of the 1st Century.
What Dr. Thiering is claiming is that she has discovered a whole new category of evidence which must be added to our conventional evidence about the period. She claims that, just as the Qumran "monastics" (if such there were) found new levels of meaning to do with their own times in their Bibles, so they might well write "new scriptures" with multiple levels of meaning. On the basis of this newly discovered information she will completely re-write the history of Judaism and Early Christianity in this period. But such a view is beset with problems, both in terms of method and results.
In terms of method, scholars agree that "Pesher interpretations" are to be found in the Scrolls. But interpretations are what they are: Biblical passages interpreted according to the Qumran sect's own rules. Once or twice similar techniques of Old Testament interpretation are used in the New Testament. But Dr. Thiering is arguing for something much wider. She claims that virtually the whole of the Gospels and Acts is written at two levels. One, the literal level, is written for the "children", immature believers, whether in the first century or now. The other, "deeper" level is the truth, she claims, that the writers really wanted to pass on. Here she is out on her own here once again. No serious scholar of the New Testament, Jewish, Christian or Paphlagonian, believes this. Nor is Dr. Thiering likely to change their minds! Whatever she is finding in the New Testament, no-one from Qumran would think it was Pesher.
Problems with the Theory.
In terms of her results, Dr. Thiering's problem is even worse. Time and again her "Pesher" evidence must fly in the face of what we know from hard external evidence. Dismissing miracles, mythology, and other features of the New Testament she finds unacceptable, not as myths or mis-reporting, but as parables, she tries to show us the Qumran "truths" behind the stories of Jesus. For example, the "raising of Lazarus" in John ch. 11 she turns into a Qumran excommunication ("spiritual death") and rehabilitation ("raising from the dead"). But her crucial claim - that the Qumran people actually used symbolic burial as a part of their ceremony of excommunication - is sheer guesswork. Nothing whatsoever in the Scrolls suggests this. We must rely entirely on her "Pesher" evidence.
Elsewhere, Jesus' "walking on water" is somehow watered down into the claim that Jesus is a "true priest" - or rather, the claim that all believers have priestly privileges. In terms of argument, thin ice, not water, is what is being walked on here. She presents a whole complicated theory of Qumran baptism, with boats, jetties, and salt water, but it is just that: a theory. The Scrolls describe no such ceremony.
The complex argument lying behind her dismissal of the virgin birth is based around three "grades" of "nuns" within the Essene movement, two of whom were called "virgins", is based on nothing in the Scrolls whatsoever. In the one piece of evidence she mentions (Josephus, Jewish War 2.160-161, about Essene marriage customs) the word "virgin" is not used at all, and she misreads 1 Corinthians 7 to make it fit her theory. No other scholar of the Scrolls believes in these "nuns" at all, because the evidence never mentions them. Once again we must rely on the "Pesher". And what about Jesus' ascension to heaven? This, Dr. Thiering maintains, is actually Jesus' return to the central sanctuary at Qumran, which, she claims, the community described metaphorically as "heaven". Dr Thiering presents no evidence for this claim, and to my knowledge none exists outside her "Pesher".
There is much more of the same sort of thing. To cap it all off we have a very silly version of the old "swoon" theory of the resurrection. Here Jesus drinks wine mixed with poison (that the New Testament does not say was mixed with poison), swoons, fools experienced Roman executioners (she thinks this too is "Pesher", code for people from Qumran who "actually" carried out the execution) into thinking he is dead, and is buried with the "Zealots" the New Testament does not say he was buried with (and that historians do not think existed as an organised group for another forty years: more on this below). They have both had their legs broken, asserts Dr. Thiering, not to kill them quickly before the Sabbath comes on, as the New Testament and common sense clearly imply, but to stop them running away! They feed Jesus the "restoratives" that have been "smuggled in" with the grave-clothes, and the three of them, Jesus just back from the brink of death and with a serious chest-cavity wound, and the "Zealots", with their legs broken, push away a massive stone that was intended to keep them in for ever, and somehow elude the Roman guards (who have mysteriously dropped out of the Documentary altogether: we learn in Jesus the Man that they were actually Qumran guards, not Romans or Jewish Temple guards), thus convincing the disciples that Jesus has triumphed over death! This is such an extraordinary fantasy that it almost defies comment!
Despite Dr. Thiering's implied claims to the contrary, there is not a shred of direct evidence in the Scrolls themselves for many of her claims. The results of her "Pesher" reading of the New Testament (which she claims are coming from the Scrolls) and which is itself an unsupported theory, seem to be read back into the Qumran documents. She justifies finding the interpretation in the New Testament with the claim that it comes from Qumran. But just a minute! In most cases she only knows it comes from Qumran because it's in the New Testament! And that is the problem. The argument is perfectly clear - and perfectly circular!
Other Historical Problems
For a work that claims to be breaking so much new ground, this book is in fact in many ways very out of date. It presumes throughout that the scrolls found in the caves near Qumran all come from the one community, living at Qumran; it presumes that this community must be Essenes. 20 years ago such assumptions were generally taken for granted, but there is now serious doubt among scholars about both of them. The recently published Scroll of a letter from a leader of a group, probably from Qumran, looks more Sadducean than Essene. (Scholars used to see the diversity of the documents as tracing the developments of the theoretical "Essene Community" over the years. Now these differences are more likely to make them wonder whether the Scrolls come from any one group at all!)
The author takes it for granted that for most of the period the inhabitants of this site lived a generally strict and ascetic life - she uses the term "monastery" widely - and again, twenty years ago, this was widely accepted. More recent diggings on the site have turned up quantities of relatively expensive artifacts, including glassware and perfume flasks, suggesting the atmosphere of a wealthy villa complex more than that of a monastery.
The book presumes that the Zealots, the nationalist militants, existed throughout the period from 11 B.C. to the Jewish Revolt, 66-70 A.D. The last fifteen years of scholarship has convincingly dismembered this fantasy, showing that the great majority of Jewish resistance to the Romans was non-violent, and that the Zealots were only formed during the great Revolt itself, as the Jewish historian Josephus clearly says. There was no organised militant revolutionary movement simmering in the background of the life of Jesus. Judas "Iscariot" is far more likely to be "the man from Kerioth" than "the Sicarius (terrorist)" - and Dr. Thiering is mistaken to identify the Sicarii with the Zealots in any case. The only other evidence that ever suggested that a follower of Jesus was associated with the (not yet formed) Zealots is a misunderstanding of the title of "Simon the Zealous" (Luke 6.15 and Acts 1.13). Again and again Dr. Thiering's "Pesher" information is contradicted by the hard evidence of our sources.
An enormous amount of good scholarship on the economic and social conditions in Galilee and Judaea has been accumulated and used as background to the life of Jesus in the last twenty years. Geza Vermes, John Riches, E.P. Sanders and R.A. Horsley, to name just some of the front-runners, have all contributed vastly to our understanding of Jesus within his Jewish environment. Yet reading Dr. Thiering's book, one could be forgiven for thinking that none of this scholarship had ever been written.
Dr. Thiering can hardly be unaware of all of these problems. Time and again scholars have pointed out the misconceptions that underlie her theories, in print and in person. Yet the reader of her book could be forgiven for believing that no critical comments have ever been made, for none are referred to. No interpretations are revised, no objections refuted. The argument rolls on with hardly even a passing reference to the virtually unanimous consensus of scholarship, Jewish, Christian and atheistic, that this is fantasy, not history. In simply repeating her claims without even acknowledging the criticisms of her scholarly colleagues Dr. Thiering is being less than frank with her readers.
Dr. Thiering may object that I have unfairly isolated various elements of her argument which properly belong together. Each point of her case, she argues, supports the rest. If her dating is correct, this supports her identification of the main figures. This in turn supports her "Pesher" reading of the New Testament, which itself provides much of the evidence for the identifications. This is false logic, and again at risk of becoming circular argument. Chains are as strong as their weakest link. The problem for Dr. Thiering is that virtually every link in her chain of argument is flimsy. She might prefer the metaphor of a teepee or wigwam, where each pole of the argument supports all the others. But even a teepee can only stay standing if a majority of its poles are strong. This is not so much a teepee as a house of cards.
The book's publicity
The quotation of Prof. Philip Davies of Sheffield on the back of the dust jacket of the Australian hardback edition is a serious misrepresentation. Davies' comment that Thiering's views represent "a new shift in the direction of Qumran research which has been stuck in the doldrums", made during the documentary, applies only to her suggestion of a first-century date for several of the crucial Dead Sea documents. It does not apply to any of the reconstruction which Thiering so elaborately builds upon this basis. I wrote to Davies to clarify this point at the time of the showing of the documentary on ABC television three years ago. His reply, dated May 11th, 1990, was precise:
"I do not accept much of what Barbara argues . . . her later books have become self-corroborating and not amenable to arguments which others regard as common sense . . . I do not think her methods of exegesis, as they have developed, very helpful because they cannot be argued with - she is either all right or all wrong, and the latter is surely the case."On Thursday May 28th, 1992, I faxed him to ask (a) whether he had given permission for the quote on the back of the dust jacket, and (b) whether he was happy to be associated with the book. His reply (within less than 24 hours) included the following, which I quote here with his permission:
"I was not approached about being quoted on the cover (or anywhere), and I certainly do not want to be associated with the thesis she is peddling . . . do what you can to dispell the idea that I endorse BT's work . . . you can't win any way at all: any approving gets used out of context, silence can be taken as having no answer and opposition is the conspiracy of those who can't or won't admit the unpalatable truth. I know that sometimes people with unusual ideas have been treated badly by the establishment, and that is why I don't like to see Barbara persecuted. But by now the roles seem to be reversed: she is hardly a victim, except of her own ideas, which she is incapable of assessing critically, it seems."It should also be noted that the publicity material from Doubleday is in several ways highly misleading. A notable example is the claim that Barbara Thiering's work "has established her as one of the world's leading authorities on the Dead Sea Scrolls". This is simply false. Barbara's work has radically isolated her from virtually the entire scholarly community, which sees her, not as an authority, but as an embarrassing eccentric.
In her preface to Jesus the Man, Dr. Leonie Star suggests that "Whatever religious conclusions are reached by individuals, what remains unimpeachable is the quality of Thiering's scholarship." This judgement demonstrates simple ignorance not only of the opinions of other scholars in the field, but also of the nature of historical scholarship in general. This is not historical scholarship. This is ingenious but wayward fantasy, floating loosely within the framework of torn fragments of known history. It consistently prefers its own internal evidence to hard external evidence; it consistently relies on the multiplication of hypotheses; it consistently forces the evidence into the mould of its pre-ordained theory. In doing so it violates all canons of good scholarship.
Dr. Thiering is an intelligent and persuasive lady, but her theories about the Scrolls lead her into absurdities. In fact the New Testament says nothing direct at all about the Essene movement, and the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us nothing direct at all about Christianity. At the most they describe the organisation and views of one small, eccentric group of Jews living in Roman Palestine, who form no more than one part of the background to early Christianity. It may well be that even this is overstating their significance, especially if recent theories (that they do not even represent the views of the people who lived at Qumran) stand the test of time. They remain important evidence for the extraordinary diversity of Judaism in the first century B.C. and A.D., but far too much about them is still uncertain for us to base far-reaching claims about early Christianity on them. They most certainly will not support the extraordinary edifice of fantasy that makes up Jesus the Man.
Other reviews of Jesus the Man:
Dr. B. Byrne, Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday June 27th, 1992.
Prof. A. Crown (Professor of Semitic Studies, Sydney University), in Annals, June 1992.
Dr. P. Esler, The Bulletin, 9th of June, 1992.
Dr. H. Shanks (Editor, Biblical Archaeology Review), B.A.R., Sept/Oct. 1992.
Useful books and articles on Qumran and the Scrolls:
G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 3rd Edition, Harmondsworth, 1987: the main scrolls in English, with a clear and thorough introduction.
R. Eisenman and M. Wise, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, Dorset, 1992: texts and translations of 50 of the recently released Scrolls. Some off-beat interpretations, but generally sound.
G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective, Oxford, 1987: a good outline with a fair bit of detail, from the older "consensus"point of view.
J.H. Charlesworth, ed., Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, New York, 1992: a collection of technical and semi-technical articles by different scholars.
N. Golb, "Who Hid the Dead Sea Scrolls?", Biblical Archaeology vol. 48 part 2, 1985, pp. 68-82: the article which sparked of the "new approach" to the Scrolls.
H. Stegemann, The Library of Qumran, Grand Rapids, 1998. A thorough
and sensible recent overview of scholarship.
This new book is an extension of Dr. Barbara Thiering's previous book, Jesus the Man, and is based on the same foundations. Unlike virtually all other specialists in the field of Dead Sea Scrolls studies, Dr. Thiering believes (a) that many of the Scrolls were written in the first Century A.D., not in the second or first century B.C.; (b) that we can identify several crucial people alluded to in the Scrolls with crucial people in the New Testament - Jesus, John the Baptist and others; (c) that as a result it becomes possible to uncover a whole "hidden history" encoded into the Gospels, Acts and Revelation. That history is utterly unlike the "surface story" of the New Testament, and, Dr. Thiering believes, it is the true history.
Some historians think Dr. Thiering has a point in her criticisms of some arguments about the dating of the Scrolls. But virtually none agree with her that they come from the first century; and if that premise is removed, her entire story collapses. No reputable historian agrees with her identifications between people in the Scrolls and people in the New Testament, or believes in her "hidden history". Here she is utterly out on her own.
Dr. Thiering knows that historians around the world believe she is wildly wrong. But you will look in vain for a comment such as "I know this view is controversial", or "I am aware that the majority of my colleagues do not hold this view" in her book. Dr. Thiering does not do her readers the basic courtesy of informing them that nobody agrees. The reader is left to form the opinion that it is all immensely learned, far too detailed for them to check up on, and that "there must be something in it". She takes no account of the criticisms of her ideas over the years, and writes as if only those who have not studied the matter carefully think she could be wrong. This is deeply misleading. Historians may disagree about many things, but on this point they are unanimous: Dr. Thiering's ideas have no historical credibility. Why might that be?
First, while she claims that the "Pesher method" by which she "decodes" the New Testament is based on the way the Scrolls people read their Bibles, it is in fact quite different. Historians know about the "Pesher method" in the Scrolls. It was used by the Scrolls people to find fulfilments of Biblical prophecy in their own times. They did this at the level of isolated passages. Dr. Thiering uses it to argue that the New Testament was written as a coherent two-level narrative. This is quite different. The Scrolls people did not use "Pesher" to write hidden histories. Further, one of Dr. Thiering's most common uses for her "Pesher" is to show that "miracles" in the New Testament are actually just "picture-language". The Scrolls never use "Pesher" to do this. What she calls "Pesher" is not really "Pesher" at all.
Second, she claims that in her "Pesher" decoding of the New Testament we have a brand new source of historical information, provably valid because it produces internally consistent results. In her terms, a jig-saw puzzle can only fit together one way, so if it does fit together, the method must have been right. Here is one of the biggest disagreements between Dr. Thiering and her historical critics. They claim that her "pesher method" is utterly subjective, and could produce just about any results the researcher wanted. She completely disagrees, claiming that her theories are "an hypothesis to be tested", and that their internal consistency is the best test [Note 1]. But is it?
My concern about the method is that it allows a researcher enormous latitude. Apparently ordinary words (such as "thunder") can be titles for people, or for positions. People can occur, she claims, under multiple "names", and a title can be used by different people at different times, or even at the same time [Note 2]. Indeed, "the principle is that the more powerful the person, the greater the number of pseudonyms" (p. 51). This is not "an hypothesis": this is a network of mutually dependent hypotheses, expanding as it goes. How easy it would be to create a consistent theory, with rules so flexible! To make a person more significant, for example, one would simply need to discover that even more apparently ordinary terms are "actually" covert references to them. It might take great effort and some skill to make a consistent picture, but it could be done. I make the claim that, in the case of such a method, "internal consistency" is not a sufficient test: the results of the "pesher" must be tested against the hard evidence of our other ancient sources, not just against other parts of the same theory. If they cannot pass that test, their "consistency" proves nothing except the creativity of the practitioner.
Third, Dr. Thiering claims that in the "apocryphal" Gospels and Acts, and in what is called the "Clementine" literature, we have another important source of historical information. She regularly claims that this evidence is ignored by Christian scholars due to personal bias. For example, she claims that "The existence of this material has been suppressed by ecclesiastical writers through the tactic of denying its value" and that this amounts to "censoring major sources" [Note 3]. She omits to mention that no reputable ancient history scholar agrees with her that this literature supports her theory, and her claim that "the existence of this material has been suppressed by ecclesiastical writers" is sheer nonsense. Biblical scholars have not suppressed this material: it is available in university, theological and public libraries and bookshops for anyone who cares to study it. Historians, some of whom are, and some of whom are not Christians, have come to the considered view that the literature she mentions is largely ahistorical fantasy. She may disagree with them, but their professional judgement is not even remotely the same as "censoring major sources".
But if we were to put aside the question of doubtful assumptions and speculative methods, and put Dr. Thiering's results to the test, what would we find? Since her "history" often fits into the gaps where our other evidence is silent, it is sometimes hard to test for "external" consistency. But where it can be checked against external evidence, her "history" still ends up claiming many things that are wildly unlikely, and many more which simply cannot be true. Let's start with some that are only wildly unlikely.
She claims that in the 1st century B.C. "Paganism was in decline; no educated Hellene believed any longer in the myths of the ancient gods . . . The Roman Empire needed a religion" (p. 7). As a result, Herod the Great was secretly planning to replace paganism with a new, purified form of Judaism. He headed up a world-wide Jewish evangelistic mission, within which were various factions. The Essene "wing" was founded, she claims, in the sixth or fifth century B.C. (it included "diaspora Essenes", p. 45). There were also the Pharisaic and Sadducaic, and the Zealot wing, it beginning (she claims) around 6 A.D. (p. 41). There were also monastic and Gnostic sub-groups, and more. She argues (p. 19, p. 45) that Paul was one of the order of Pharisees within this broad movement set up to teach the princes of Judah Greek philosophy. The movement, in one form or another, reached Rome before the beginning of the first century A.D., where "it was respected as a new religious philosophy" (p. 61), and spread as far as Britain by 30 A.D. (p. 32)!
Where to begin? The odd atheistic philosopher does not mean that "paganism" was in decline: the vast majority of the population clearly did still believe in their gods. The reaction of the Ephesians to Paul as a threat to Artemis, if nothing else, ought to make that clear [Note 4]. As for Herod, he built temples and funded festivals for pagan gods all around the Mediterranean, and tried to introduce many pagan customs within Israel itself [Note 5] ! Our earliest evidence that the Essenes existed comes in the mid-second century B.C. [Note 6], not the fifth, and none of our other evidence suggests that "Diaspora Essenes" ever existed anywhere except (possibly) in Egypt [Note 7]. Josephus is explicit that the Zealots as a movement did not exist before 67 A.D [Note 8]. Our first independent evidence of monasticism comes in the 4th century A.D [Note 9]. Virtually all scholars now believe Gnosticism was a post-Christian development. There is a major historical debate whether Judaism in this period was evangelistic at all [Note 10], and though I believe it was, to an extent, the evidence is not straightforward. As for St. Paul's "order" of Pharisees, nobody but Dr. Thiering believes there were "orders" of Pharisees at all, and the idea that one such "order" taught Greek philosophy is almost too silly for words [Note 11]. The last claim, that in Rome Judaism was respected as "a new religious philosophy", displays Thiering's extraordinary lack of understanding of the ancient Romans in this period. For them, religion and philosophy were quite different, and the very last thing that would commend a new "religious philosophy" (if there could be such a thing) would be to call it "new". The Romans were deeply conservative, and distrusted "new" things on principle! What impressed them about Judaism was how old it was. As for the mission to Britain, her evidence for this is Gildas, a 6th Century A.D. British monk. How credible is isolated evidence written more than five hundred years after the event?
Ready for more? All four Gospels were written (according to the "Pesher") by 49 A.D. (p. 68ff.), along with several New Testament letters, and officially promulgated in the Cathedral of Ephesus, in the presence of King Herod Agrippa II, as a "new Scripture". Matthew's Gospel was seen as standing (in a sense) for the Law, Mark's as the "Former Prophets", Luke's as the "Latter Prophets", and John's as the "Writings" (the Psalms, Proverbs, and assorted other books, p. 72).
Well! No other evidence at all suggests any of the Gospels were written so early. The earliest known church building, at Dura-Europos (let alone anything you could call a Cathedral!), is dated by archaeologists to c. 230 A.D [Note 12]. In June of A.D. 49 Herod Agrippa II was probably in his newly allotted kingdom of Chalcis, not in Ephesus at all [Note 13]. With the exception of one isolated reference in 2 Peter 3.16, it is not until the mid-second century that Christian writers can be shown to treat the Gospels and letters of Paul as "scripture" in the full sense [Note 14], and I know of no evidence whatsoever that any Church Father lined up the Gospels with the divisions of the Hebrew Bible in this fashion. For each and every detail of this, then, we have only her "pesher evidence".
Two more cases: in two particular instances where Acts mentions Roman governors having dealings with Paul, the "pesher" leads her to argue that it isn't really the Roman governor at all! In Acts 13.7, the Proconsul Sergius Paullus (whose family is known to us from a number of stone inscriptions of the time [Note 15]) was "really" Agrippa II, "acting as the representative of Rome in the place of the proconsul" (p. 19), despite the fact that our other evidence suggests he was still likely to be in Rome [Note 16]. Likewise on p. 421, among the footnotes to p. 48, she claims that in Corinth Proconsul Annius Gallio (again a well-known historical figure) was "really" Timothy Herod, Agrippa's crown prince. It would amaze the Roman historians I know to suggest that the Roman state would ever permit the young son of a client king to "act in the place of" a proconsular governor, authorised by the Senate and People of Rome, within the governor's province [Note 17]. To put it bluntly, this is fantasy.
But enough of ideas that are merely ridiculous. Let's turn to cases where she is just plain demonstrably wrong. On p. 10 she claims that Judea directly after the time of Herod was governed by Procurators. Incorrect: the officials were "Prefects". The difference is that Procurators are primarily financial officials, while Prefects are primarily military [Note 18]. On p. 16 she claims that, under Herod the Great, "for the first time in Jewish history, it became possible to dismiss a high priest". Incorrect: it had happened several times in the previous century, in the lead-up to and during the Maccabean revolt of 167 B.C [Note 19]. Speaking of that period of history, she claims that "All Jews had gathered around the heroic priest Mattathias and his five sons - at first" (p. 43). 1 Maccabees 1.11ff. 1.52, and 2 Maccabees 5.27 and 8.1 make it very clear that this was not the case.
Speaking of the Zealots (who are crucial to her reconstruction as the "militaristic" wing of the Jewish mission movement, p. 10), she says that "the remnants of the zealots committed mass suicide on Masada in A.D. 74" (p. 42). Incorrect: that was the Sicarii, a quite separate group of Jewish terrorists [Note 20]; Josephus does not confuse them with either the "Fourth Philosophy" or the Zealots [Note 21]. Barbara Thiering confuses them with both. As I showed above, there were no Zealots until 67 A.D.
She claims that King Herod the Great "had earned admiration for his early exploits" and "was readily accepted by all sides as king. For the first twenty years of his reign he was popular and progressive" (p. 16). Herod's "early exploits" actually included the ruthless suppression of banditry, with mass executions that saw him prosecuted in the Sanhedrin for judicial murder. Only the intervention of the Romans saved him [Note 22]. As for being "readily accepted by all sides", he had to flee Judea when in 40 B.C. the populace opened the gates of Jerusalem to the Parthian invaders and besieged him in the Temple. When he recaptured his new "kingdom" it took him three years of hard fighting, with Roman support, and the population of Jerusalem "accepted him" only after a siege lasting three months and great slaughter [Note 23]. He was so well "accepted by all sides" that he needed the support of a Roman legion to maintain control, had to avoid assassination, and murdered anyone who became too popular. And that was early in his reign, before he became really paranoid! By 20 B.C., he had a ruthlessly efficient network of spies and secret police [Note 24]. That's still within "the first twenty years of his reign"!
Let's just turn, for a minute or two, to cases where Dr. Thiering is simply wrong about the opinions of other historians. On p. 39 she claims that "More orthodox commentators (on the "number of the beast") have had to accept the opinion that it (666) refers to a Roman Emperor, possibly Nero, without being able to explain the detail or the number". They have not "had to accept" anything: they have been convinced that this is the best explanation of the data. On p. 82, speaking of the Roman biographer Suetonius' mention of Jewish rioting in Rome "at the instigation of Chrestus" (Life of Claudius 5.25) she claims that "It has never been doubted that "Christus" means Christ." Well, it has, actually, by among others, Prof. Stephen Benko, and Prof. E.A. Judge, at Macquarie University, right here in Sydney, in a major article published nearly thirty years ago: old news [Note 25]! On p. 101, speaking about the dating of the birth of Christ and the "turn of the era" she claims that "No really convincing reason has been offered by historians for the choice of that year" (A.D. 1 in our calendar) . . . It is usually taken for granted that it was fixed only much later." Nonsense! It is not "taken for granted": it is argued from the writings of Dionysius Exiguus, the 6th century monk who calculated the date (though he got it wrong). He and his calculations are the reason for the choice of that year.
In each of these three cases it simply suits her purposes to cast doubt on a view with which her "pesher evidence" forces her to disagree. But that is the point: the "pesher history", is actually contradicted by the evidence, not only of the Bible, but of the other Greek, Roman and Jewish historians of the time. And there's more: we haven't even got far past p. 100 yet!
But enough. It must by now be very clear that, in case after case, the "hidden history of Jesus and his times" generated by the so-called Pesher method is simply unhistorical nonsense. In some cases this happens because Dr. Thiering is clinging to out-of-date views that she built into her theories many years ago, and now cannot do without. In some cases it happens because she simply doesn't know the historical context well enough. In some cases there seems to be no good reason at all: just the wilful pursuit of the theory she already "knows" must be true. But whatever the reason, it isn't good enough. Her books cannot be described as history. They are extraordinary fantasy, and have been dismissed as such by historians around the world.