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Non-fiction reviews


Barbara Thiering - Jesus the Man

27 June 1992

Jesus The Man: A new interpretation from the Dead Sea Scrolls
Barbara Thiering

Published in The Age

The New Testament is a kind of First Century Warren Report. The life and death of its central character, murdered by the state security apparatus, were re-written to fit a new  political climate. Today, faint-hearted newspaper editors generally omit to publish the truth of John F Kennedy's death; their accommodating antiquarian counterparts were the gospel-compilers, who surrounded the truth of Christ's life and death with (to use Churchill's phrase) "a bodyguard of lies".

When the advent of reason, and scientific research techniques, began to undermine the the New Testament - key elements, such as the Virgin Birth, were revealed to be fabrications; whole themes, such as an emphasis on the feminine, were found to have been suppressed - the field was thrown wide open to new investigators, and speculators. Thus in recent years we have been told that Christ was steeped in Indian yoga, a Jewish freedom fighter who died at Masada, a neurotic with a messiah complex, the founder of a secret dynasty which thrives to this day, and a figment of St Paul's imagination. People have dedicated their lives to proving these theories.

A theologian and linguist of high standing, Barbara Thiering is better qualified than most New Testament revisionists. In this book she tells us that the gospels and Acts, with their parables and miracle stories for the more simple-minded, are a code - the breaking of which reveals nothing less than Western history's most elusive character, the historical Christ.

The code, she says, is on the same lines as the Old Testament "pesharim" (interpretations) in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written by the Essenes of Qumran, and discovered in 1947.

Those who have read the Scrolls will be familiar with their fanatical edicts on ritual cleanliness, toilet matters and sex (one suspects it was no accident Freud was a Jew); their dire warnings to economic rationalists ("The arrogant man seizes wealth without halting. He widens his gullet like Hell, and like death he never has enough."); and their 'Bible Interpretations' - which have now led Thiering to this hypothesis.

Briefly, Thiering's New Testament "pesher" tells us that Jesus was born of the royal line of David, into the Essene community; joined with, then split from, the Essene leader John the Baptist; preached peace with Rome, causing another community split; taught a radically liberalised form of Judaism; married Mary Magdalene, fathered three children, then was deserted by her; was crucified, interred in a Qumran cave, then revived by myrrh and aloes; established his church with Paul, married again, and lived till at least 64AD.

To evaluate Thiering's system would require an exhaustive knowledge of at least three ancient languages, Jewish history, archaeology and astronomy. (Her theory relies on a complex system of linguistics, dates and Judean distance-measuring.) Lack of this knowledge has not stopped commentators like James Murray in The Australian from condemning her: however it is more responsible for the non-expert to look at whether her idea is tenable, as opposed to correct.

Thiering's evidence that the Scrolls have been wrongly dated by scholars is convincing; she thus brings the Essenes, Jesus and the Baptist into the same time-frame. And she supports parts of her story, to varying degrees of feasibility, with independent historical writings.

Most importantly, her theory appears to be internally consistent: Thiering claims to have applied her code rigorously, making no exceptions to its rules. In contrast, most other theories on "the real Jesus" rely on an ad hoc "chain of 'ifs'".

There is, however - and here we begin the negatives - little evidence of how reliable Thiering's deciphering actually is. For example if her system, applied consistently, demonstrated that the gospel word "angel" believably meant "priest" on each of (say) 50 occasions, it would be more impressive than if the parallel only popped up once or twice. But we are asked to take the credentials of most "code-words" on faith. What we are told of Thiering's methodology is sometimes less than convincing. For instance the "Wicked Priest" in the Scrolls being "humbled by means of a destroying scourge..." refers, Thiering says, to Jesus being crucified. Why?

Secondly, a close reading of the Scroll "pesharim" (which Thiering does not give us) shows them to be "interpretations" which twist Old Testament passages, often absurdly, to make them "prophesy" recent events. On the other hand the "pesharim" allegedly based on this method - the gospel code Thiering claims to have discovered - are infinitely subtler and more complex, and directly report recent events. And, whilst the interpretations in the Scrolls are supposedly factual (i.e. accurate prophecies), Thiering's gospel "pesharim" are a mix of both fact and fiction. (For instance the crucifixion is a real event, and the resurrection a code for Jesus's herb-aided revival.) Thus to describe the two types of "pesharim" as the same technique is to draw rather a long bow.

Thirdly, it is not easy to accept that Jesus - who was, at the least, a moral genius - encouraged the writing of a series of untruths (e.g. miracle stories) to attract the spiritually backward. One doubts he was that patronising.

Neither was he a wild-eyed fantasist. Thiering asks us to believe that in 60AD Jesus went to Crete to await an apocalypse: the death of every unbeliever, and the establishment of a world kingdom of the pure. By contrast, in a generally reliable gnostic gospel, Jesus said: "If those who lead you say, 'See, the kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you and it is outside of you." This hardly seems like the same man.

Fourthly, there is the problem of other scholars. Most believe, from analyses of the text, that the four gospels were written at least a generation after Jesus's death, and not by their named authors. Thiering, almost uniquely, thinks otherwise. And, if Jesus lived into his sixties and travelled widely, as she says, why are there no mentions of him, post-crucifixion, in independent histories - as there are of his earlier life?

Barbara Thiering has dedicated 20 years to this extraordinary task. Though very difficult to read, it is appropriate that Jesus The Man should receive wide attention. Apart from everything else, Australia's many gifted non-fiction writers are too frequently overlooked in favour of our often over-rated novelists.

Barbara Thiering will either join the once-respected JM Allegro, who wrote a book suggesting Jesus was a magic mushroom, and found himself no longer invited to conferences; or will prove the doubters wrong, and revolutionise our understanding of the history and theology of Christianity.

Let's hope the scholarly analyses of her theory are as painstaking as the work itself.

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