James Tabor, a professor of religious studies, in his 2006 book “The Jesus Dynasty,” takes surprisingly seriously the old Jewish idea that Jesus was known as the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named Pantera—as well attested a tradition as any [emphasis mine — RD], occurring in Jewish texts of the second century, in which a Jesus ben Pantera makes several appearances, and the name is merely descriptive, not derogatory.
The whole problem with two centuries worth of historical Jesus scholarship is summed up in those seven words: “As well attested a tradition as any.” Because obviously if you don’t mind a little supernaturalism with your history, a story about Jesus being a Roman soldier’s bastard that dates from the second century — and late in the second century, at that — is dramatically less “well attested” than the well-known tradition (perhaps you’ve heard of it) that Jesus was born of a virgin married to Joseph the carpenter, which dates from the 70s or 80s A.D. at the latest, when the Gospels of Luke and Matthew were composed. Bracket the question of miracles, and there’s really no comparison: Giving the Roman soldier story equal weight with the accounts in Matthew and Luke is like saying that a tale about Abraham Lincoln that first surfaced in the 1970s has just as much credibility as a story that dates to the 1890s (and is associated with eyewitnesses to Lincoln’s life).
Now of course what Gopnik means by “well attested” is “well attested and non-miraculous,” which is fair enough so far as it goes. But this no-miracles criterion is why the historical Jesus project is such a spectacular dead end — because what would ordinarily be the most historically-credible sources for the life and times of Jesus Christ are absolutely soaked in supernaturalism, and if you throw them out you’re left with essentially idle speculations about Jesus ben Pantera and other phantoms that have no real historical grounding whatsoever.
Think about it this way: If the letters of Saint Paul (the earliest surviving Christian texts, by general consensus) and the synoptic gospels (the second-earliest) didn’t make such extraordinary claims about Jesus’s resurrection, his divinity, and so forth, no credible historian would waste much time parsing second-century apocrypha for clues about the “real” Jesus. They’d thank their lucky stars that the first-century Christians were such talented narrative writers, and spend most of their time trying to reconcile the discrepancies and resolve the contradictions in Matthew, Mark and Luke, while arguing amongst themselves about how much historical weight to give to the events and sayings recorded in John’s gospel. The gospel of Thomas would attract some modest attention; the later “lost gospels,” very little, save as evidence of how intra-Christian debates developed long after Jesus’s death. For the most part, the argument over how the Nazarene lived and died would revolve around competing interpretations of the existing Christian canon, and the rough accuracy of the synoptic narrative would be accepted by the vast majority of scholars. [read the rest]
I read the Gopnik piece a week or two ago and was struck by a similar feeling in regards to the futility of the exercise he was attempting. Gopnik and other secular scholars seem to come to the scriptures with the idea, “Well, we certainly know that Jesus wasn’t, so let’s throw all that stuff out and see what we can come up with.” At that point, you’re not really looking, you’re inventing.