Now that the dust has settled a tiny bit from the publication of my book The Jesus Dynasty (Simon & Schuster) last week, with heavily edited sensational treatments on ABC-TV (Good Morning America, 20/20, and Nightline), a really decent cover story on this week’s USNews&WorldReport, dozens of newspaper articles, and a mailbox full of many hundreds of messages of every persuasion, I thought I might say something more directly about the book myself, as the author. Frankly, I have no reason to complain about the “press” and I am grateful for the massive attention the book has gotten in just over a week.
Despite the title, The Jesus Dynasty, and the fact that Michael Baigent had a book out the same week, and Dan Brown was released in paperback all over the universe, my work is a serious academic study of Jesus along the lines of what we scholars (à la Albert Schweitzer) call the “Quest for the historical Jesus. The book is wholly an historical investigation, not a theological or dogmatic one, and it rests upon my 35 years as a historian of ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Its presuppositions and methods are those common in the field among historical investigators. I deliberately chose to write it for a broad non-specialist audience, not for my colleagues in the field, so I present my evidence of Jesus, from birth to death, in what I hope will prove to be an engaging unfolding narrative style. The focus of the book is singular: What do we know about Jesus and how do we know it? Although I consider all the surviving evidence of which I am aware, including a strong emphasis on the material side of the story revealed by archaeology, much of my results come right out of the New Testament texts themselves—though read in an historical-critical fashion based on the methods in our field.
I turned 60 this year, and like many of my colleagues before me (Vermes, Crossan, Chilton, Ehrman, Friedrikson, Wright, et al.) I felt it was my time to “step up to the plate” and present my “Jesus book” before the world. I put into this book all that I have learned about Jesus in my long teaching and research career at Notre Dame, William&Mary, and UNC Charlotte). I wanted the book to be in every sense, for me at least, a “summing up.”
I interpret Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic messianic inaugurator of the Kingdom of God set in the context of the wider movement sparked by his kinsman John the Baptizer, with all the radical social, political, and religious implications thereof. After the death of John and Jesus I trace the movement through James, the brother of Jesus, and subsequently into the second century led by Simon, another bother (or perhaps cousin)—hence the “Jesus Dynasty” idea. I set the entire story in the context of the broader messianic movement in Palestine before the catastrophe of 70 A.D. I am not convinced there is any strong evidence that Jesus was married with children. My emphasis in this regard is upon Jesus’ own immediate family—the seven children of Mary his very Jewish mother. I understand Paul as diverging sharply from these founders, John, Jesus, and James, and presenting for the world a dualistic otherworldly vision of Christ and salvation that ultimately becomes “Christianity.”
The book has many surprises, some of which have been sensationalized by the press, as one would expect—particularly what I discovered about the Pantera tradition, the notion of “two Messiahs,” the surprising identity of the “beloved disciple,” and my speculations about the empty tomb. But there is much more than these elements, important as they are, and all that I say is given a wider context and laid out in a sensible academic way. I do speculate and imagine in the book, but like any historian I seek to do that responsibly, in the “direction of the evidence,” and nothing of that nature do I present dogmatically. I have expected some readers of a more evangelical Christian perspective to react negatively to the book, or I should say, to “reports” of the book, as in truth most who read it go away with a positive evaluation, even while not accepting all its conclusions.
For reviews and more information about the book see the menu at the Home Page of JesusDynasty.com, but better still—there is always the book itself! I also have archived a wealth of interesting materials related to my work on Christian Origins at my University Web site. There is also a perceptive review of my work, contrasting it (a bit too harshly I think) with Baigent’s latest on Salon.com