This article first appeared in Spirituality & Health's 10th Anniversary Issue during the fall of 2008.
A few years ago, on a press tour of Israel, I was taken to the mountain town of Safed (pronounced as one syllable, “Tsfat”) in the region known as the Galilee. In the fifteenth century, Safed was a world center of Jewish thought and the birthplace of mystical Judaism known as Kabbalah. Today, Safed remains a religious center, and we had gone there to witness something called the “Bible Code” in action.
According to Jewish tradition, the Torah is the word of God that has been copied perfectly, letter by letter through the millennia. Some also believe that the Torah holds coded messages about the past and future that can be revealed by pulling letters at intervals. Decoding messages from the scrolls used to take weeks or months or even years. In Safed, however, the rabbis had copies the scrolls into a computer, and now the work could be completed with a few strokes on a keyboard. The rabbi demonstrating the Bible Code glowed with pride, but his instant result seemed pretty silly to me. I wandered out of the demonstration feeling dispirited and extremely judgmental.
How could anyone believe this?
And that’s when I happened upon another rabbi, about my age, who could sense from my questions that I was feeling superior to these strangely dressed men in this remote mountain town. He started telling things I might find of more interest: Did I know that Safed was the home of the Rabbi Isaac ben Luria, the revered sixteenth-century Kabbalist? (No, I didn’t.) Did I know that Rabbi Luria has compiled a list of local tombs of saints and sages who had lived and died here? (Ditto.) Did I know that Shimon bar Yochai (Who?), credited with writing the Zohar (The what?), the most important book of Kabbalah (Oh.) is buried in a lovely tomb. (That’s nice…)
The rabbi paused. “Maybe you would like to visit a tomb of someone from your own tradition?” he asked. “It’s very close but harder to find.”
I stifled a yawn. “Who’s that?”
“Jesus of Nazareth,” he answered.
I don’t remember what happened next. I think I carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary had been said. I was the only Christian on the press tour, and I didn’t bring up the mention of Jesus’ tomb once we were back on the bus. Looking back, I don’t think I’ve talked about it for years.
Why? The instant he spoke, I knew that the rabbi wasn’t lying, and what I could not deal with then (and even now, I tear up as I write this) is what I feel at the prospect that he was right. At the time of the press tour, I didn’t want to think about that, and I certainly wasn’t going to write about it. Spirituality & Health was then owned by Trinity Church, Wall Street, the oldest Episcopal Church in New York. In the early nineties, as Trinity approached its 300th birthday, the rector, Daniel Matthews, boldly launched a nationwide study to find our what this country needed most. When the answer turned out to be “spiritual development,” Dr. Matthews allocated millions to launch this magazine. He specifically did not create a Christian magazine and valiantly protected our freedom to explore the varieties of spiritual experience. But that freedom did not include attacking religious beliefs, and I was not about to go back to New York and suggest we look at potential evidence did not rise again on the third day.
Still, the Rabbi’s story nagged. Why was I so afraid of it? Why did I believe it? What if it were true? Gradually, I overcame my fear of the story by reframing the possible tomb and the biblical story of Jesus as something of a treasure hunt. Could the largest treasure in the history of the world be hidden in plain sight?
Three Lessons from Treasure Hunts
During my career as a journalist, I have spent years thinking and writing about treasure hunts. I went scuba diving on the pirate ship Whydah that sank in 1717 off Cape Cod. I was on hand at the discovery of the American brig Baltic that sank in the Bahamas in 1866. More recently, I was lucky enough to locate the “story chair,” the stone centerpiece of an ancient Takelma Indian salmon ceremony, in my own backyard at the Rogue River in Oregon. The story chair is the place where Daldal, the great dragonfly, came to bring piece to mankind.
The first and most obvious lesson I learned from treasure hunts is that the stories of lost treasures get wildly exaggerated over time. The Whydah treasure, for example, was announced at $400 million and was probably worth $4 million.
The second lesson is that the location of a treasure if often known by the locals but, up to the point of “discovery,” has not been valued as a treasure. For example, the treasure hunters located the Whydah from a historic marker placed on the beach where coins washed ashore. So a “discovery” often signals a change in values: when we suddenly recognize the value of something, we notice it.
The third and most challenging lesson is that one person’s “treasure” may represent another person’s identity. In the case of the story chair, I thought Native Americans would be thrilled about the discovery and the resurrection of their ancient salmon ceremony. Many were, but certainly not all — and part of the problem was me. It took me awhile to understand that my “discovery” was potentially an incursion into their tribal identity. Whether or no the local Native Americans still believed in the Daldal or the power of the salmon ceremony was none of my business. It was my place to shut up.
Since the time of the press tour to Safed, I’ve come to understand that the rabbis there are well aware of this treasure/identity friction. In their tradition, Jesus is an important Jewish teacher, so they keep track of where they believe he is buried. At the same time, they understand that in the Christian tradition, Jesus isn’t buried anywhere, so out of respect for this, the rabbis don’t put the tomb on maps or sell souvenirs. I suspect the rabbi only mentioned the tomb to me because I was being a jerk. But I’m grateful he did.
The source of my own inner friction is this: I spent a significant chunk of my life reciting the Apostle’s Creed, which includes the line “and on the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures,” and I need to know if these words are more than just a pledge of allegiance to my Catholic tribe. Are they true? Are they helpful? Would Jesus approve? It turns out that a lot of people are asking the same questions.
The Greatest Treasure of All?
Like many young Catholics, I grew up thinking that the Gospels were written by the apostles acting as reporters. I was shocked to learn that they were written years after Jesus’ death by anonymous people later called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as a matter of convenience, and that the contents had been rewritten, translated and retranslated, and voted on at different times and for a variety of reasons. Nor did I understand the Gospel-challenging manuscripts like the Dead Sea Scrolls have popped up throughout history. Mostly what I didn’t realize is that the relentless increase in human knowledge has included relentless scrutiny of the Bible. Not only do rabbis explore the Bible with computers, but so do historians and linguists and archaeologists. The problem for traditional believers is not that scientists do not understand the origins of the Bible, but that scientists understand it so thoroughly.
Probably the most readable book on the origins of the Bible ….. as a human document is Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ahrman’s account of his own transformation from a born-again Christian at Moody Bible Institute, where the Bible is considered the unerring voice of God, to noticing imperfections in the text while he was at Princeton Theological Seminary, to deciding the Bible is a completely human and misleading document when he was chair of the Department and Religious Studies at the University of North Carolica, Chapel Hill. Ehrman’s recent book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer, is the story of conversion to atheism. The book is a meticulous treasure hunt that undercuts his own identity, leaving him disillusioned and angry.
But there is another way to look at the historical Jesus — another way through the hyperbole of the modern Bible. This path, hidden in plain sight, has allowed me to identify with the original — and personally more satisfying — treasure of Jesus. This path is described in James Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty. Dr. Tabor is chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and his book is the culmination of his own 40-year treasure hunt into the life of Jesus and his family. Some of his work I will outline here. The entire book is well worth reading.
A Fully Human Jesus
According to Tabor, the father of Jesus was most likely Pantera, a Roman soldier whose grave is located in Germany. Jesus’ mother was, of course, was Mary, who carried the bloodline of King David. Pregnant and alone, Mary, probably age 15, married Joseph, an older man who soon died. Following the tradition of the time, Mary then probably married Joseph’s brother Clophas and had six more children before he died. Jesus became the head of his household. His stepbrothers became the core of his apostles.
The time of Jesus was the time of many messiahs following scripts detailed by earlier prophets. Their goal, says Tabor, was to bring about the kingdom of heaven, when God, using the bloodline of King David, would bring peace and justice to the earth. This belief in the coming of a legitimate Jewish king, and these messiahs posed such a threat to the Romans who ruled Palestine that they devised the most publicly gruesome execution imaginable: nails through the wrists and ankle bones. (Modern crucifixes and even the stigmata of saints do not match the nail placement found in bones of the victims of crucifixtion.)
Jesus, as a young man, was likely a day laborer with the gift of healing. As his following grew, he went to be baptized by a radical preacher, John the Baptizer, who Tabor believes is probably responsible for many of the teachings now attributed only to Jesus. For about a year John and Jesus were baptizing as a team, following a prophecy that the kingdom of heaven actually required two messiahs: a priest and a king in the line of David. Then John the Baptizer was beheaded, and Jesus, disillusioned and fearing for his own life, retreated to his place of refuge in the mountains of Galilee. In time, however, Jesus chose to take on the prophecy himself. He gathered his followers and marched into Jerusalem on a donkey, thereby fulfilling a Jewish prophecy and proclaiming himself to be the king of the Jews. By doing so, he was also giving himself up to crucifixion. He believed that his suffering would fulfill the prophesy for the kingdom of heaven.
Tabor writes that on the night Jesus was betrayed by Judas, he broke bread and drank wine with the apostles, but he did not say that the meal was his body and blood. Tabor argues that Jesus lived by Jewish law, following Torah, which would never allow blood in a meal.
Jesus was then captured and condemned to die. He went willingly to his crucifixion to fulfill the prophecy, fully expecting God to save him. His final cry, “God, why have you forsaken me?” must have been especially chilling to his followers. Not only was their leader dying, but the very foundation of their faith seemed to be dying before their eyes. Meanwhile, night was coming, and, according to Jewish law, Jesus’ body had to be underground by sundown. Jesus’ followers hasn’t prepared a tomb, because the Messiah wasn’t supposed to die.
Today, it is abundantly clear that the story of Jesus’ resurrection provides hope for countless people. God is in the form of an illegitimate day laborer is a radical role model, who implies that every person is holy. Yet Tabor notes that the oldest known Gospel actually ends with an empty tomb. The story of the resurrection wasn’t included by Jesus’ first biographer and was added later. What we are certain of is the facy that Jesus was hastily put into a tomb that didn’t belong to him — and then his body was gone.
What if the true story of Jesus’ body can be reconstructed?
The Second Coming
Imagine you are James, the oldest brother of Jesus, who will take on the leadership of the followers of Jesus. You have witnessed your beloved brother carry his own cross to his place of execution, driven both by ancient prophecy and by a series of radically new teachings to bring forth tbe heaven on earth. (See box: On Earth as it is in Heaven.) The ancient prophecy didn’t work as expcted, but in your heart, you know Jesus was right — that his teachings are the key to heaven on earth. And you know you will never forget these teachings because your brother has died for you.
So what do you do with his body? The body does not belong in the family tomb because Jesus no longer belongs to one family. But neither does the body to one family. But neither does the body belong in a stone monument like that of the Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, because Jesus wasn’t supposed to die. So you take him where he would want to go, his special place of refuge in the mountains overlooking the Galilee, the place he would go to be along to pray. There would be no need to put a name on the grave. The only marker would be a pile of stones, pointing toward Jerusalem. And you know there will always be people who will keep track of his sacred grave.
Today, 2,000 years later, out times are very different from the time of the Gospels. The treat to all life is so much greater, and we need anew vision to create heaven on earth. Maybe it is coincidence that just as scholars are returning the actual history of Jesus to us, we may have also discovered his grave. Tabor visited the tomb and reports that it is easy to find. I’m hoping to go there myself, not to pray but to say thank you.
On Earth As it is In Heaven
In The Jesus Dynasty, The Hidden Story of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity, James D. Tabor attempts to recreate some of the original, radical teachings of John the Baptizer and Jesus. As Tabor explains, these teachings represented more than a set of pious platitudes. Rather, they mapped a social and political program to ring about the kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven. Against the backdrop of the brutal Roman occupation of Palestine, the challenges and the dangers of this new program were well understood. John the Baptizer was beheaded. Jesus and Simon were crucified. James was stoned to death. Whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead, his teachings changed the world.
- Love God first, and your fellow humans as yourself, and whatever you find hateful to yourself, do not do to another, but do to others as you would have them do unto you. This is the essence of the Torah and the Prophets. Don’t think I came to destroy the Torah and the Prophets; I came to fulfill. Whoever relaxed on the least of the commandments will be considered “least” by those in the Kingdom of God. Be doers of the Torah and not bearers only, for faith without works is dead.
- When you give to charity do not let your left hand know what your right is doing. Let your gift to charity sweat in your hand until you know to whom you give it. When you pray, go to your room and shut the door and pray to your father who sees in secret. The first will be last, and the last will be first. For nothing hidden will fail to be revealed.
- Do not be of two minds or speak from both sides of your mouth, for speaking from both sides of your mouth is a deadly trap. Above all, you are always under oath. If you say “yes,” then it is “yes,” and “no,” then it is “no.”
- Give to one who asks you, and from the one who would borrow turn not away. Whoever has two coats must share with who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise. Lend, expecting nothing in return. Take no interest.
- Forgive and you will be forgiven, give and it will be given to you, for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another. Care for those who oppose you, pray for those who curse you. Cast the plan form your own eye so you can see to remove the splinter from that of your fellow human. In the same manner as you judge others, you will be judged. For judgment will be without mercy who has shown no mercy.
- Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Humble yourself before God and He will exalt you.
- It is impossible to mount two horses or stretch two bows — you cannot serve God and the system of this world. Following the path of righteousness leads to the cross. Beware when all humans speak well o fyou. A prophet is not without honor except in his or her own circles. He who is not for me is against me.