This was about a dozen or so years ago, and I was doing a story about the Dead Sea Scroll controversy. At the time the Scrolls had been tightly and secretly held by a scholarly cabal who were using their exclusivity to advance their academic careers (surprise), and many Scrolls had only recently been liberated unto the purview of a wider circle of scholars by individuals such as Robert Eisenman and institutions such as California’s Huntington Library.
I got Vanity Fair to send me over to the Holy Land to talk with the various fiercely divisive Scroll factions (divisive because many of the Scrolls were in tiny jigsaw puzzle fragments, and the implications of how they were interpreted held enormous repercussions for how one viewed the origin of Christianity and its split from Judaism.) You can read the result of my investigations in my collection The Secret Parts of Fortune. (Did I neglect to mention that eminent Dead Sea Scroll scholar. Oxford’s Geza Vermes, said of my story that it was “a worthy successor to Edmund Wilson’s reportage.” Just thought you’d want to know).
In any case I managed to join up with an expedition to the Dead Sea cliff caves, located between the barren Judean desert, scene of innumerable prophetical Biblical visions and the lifeless Dead Sea, caves where the Scrolls had been found in the late ’40s near the abandoned monastic remains of a settlement called Qumran. It was an expedition led by University of North Carolina Professor James D. Tabor, and when when we got there it was 110 degrees in the shade, only there was no shade, so it was almost a welcome relief to push blindly into the cool of the caves despite the bats, which I later learned carried all sorts of vile diseases.
I found Tabor to be a totally fascinating character, extremely intelligent, a serious Biblical scholar with a touch of Indiana Jones, whose researches had taken him from fundamentalist Christianity back to the theology of the Ebionites, a sect that harked back to the very earliest Christianity, the Christianity of the time of Christ–before Paul’s Chrisitianity turned against Jesus’ Jewish roots. Tabor considered himself a “Jewish Christian”.
He’s recently written several books about early, early Christianity, including The Jesus Dynasty whjch, since I don’t speak ancient langauges, I haven’t felt qualifed to evaluate amidst the maelstrom of controversy over such matters, but which I suspect are important contributions to the debate.
Well, I just got the following e-mail commmunique from Tabor regarding the James Cameron “Jesus Tomb” documentary which I had thought must be bogus, but which Tabor believes has some value.
Here’s what he has to say:
“I am sending this to a select group of media folk with whom I have worked on various stories in the past (Waco, Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus Dynasty). It would not surprise me if you might be feeling a bit “tombed out” by now with all the flash-of-pan coverage of the “Jesus Family Tomb” the past two weeks. There is a real story here, of that you can be sure, actually two stories–One has to do with the tomb itself and a serious and proper evaluation thereof; the other is a story on how this story broke, how it has been covered, and the reactions thereto. What is not the case, despite an all-too-triumphant voice of the evangelical Christian right and a few shrill voices in Israel (Joe Zias, Amos Kloner, etc.), is that this story is dead, debunked, or of no lasting substance. I have been working on it for two years and the Cameron/Jacobovici presentation was just the public face. There is much more.
As some of you know, I chronicled some of this in the Introduction to my book, The Jesus Dynasty, which ABC News has graciously put up HERE.Take a look and if you are not “hooked” then delete this e-mail. But if you want to know more, read on…
I have put a lot of material up on my blog, Jesus Dynasty, which has become a one-stop-shop for what I hope is a responsible academic look at the issues. A bit of browsing there will quickly convince you that not much of the substance of this story has gotten out yet. It is waiting really for someone who may well be “tombed out,” but none the less is imaginative and energetic enough to realize what is here to go with it.
What has been lost in all the hysteria is that we are only now beginning to get some solid academic responses to the Tomb proposal that Cameron & Jacobovici have put before an academy that had ignored this tomb for 27 years, and a public that had never head of it. Two of these, one by Prof. Jodi Magness and another by Prof. Christopher Rollston, have been put up on the Society of Biblical Literature Forum Website.
I recently wrote an academic response to both of them titled “Two Burials of Jesus of Nazareth and the Talpiot Tomb,” and it has just gone on-line at the same site. These are more technical discussions but if you are interested in the story they are worth working through.”
As I said I don’t have a position on the question but I think Tabor’s view is worth paying attention to. He’s been right before.