Sunday, 6 February 2011

Lives of Jesus 3 - Barbara Thiering

After the heady intellectualism of Schweitzer and Robinson, it is almost a relief to review something as plainly absurd as Barbara Thiering's Jesus the Man.

Barbara Thiering is an Australian biblical scholar whose speciality is the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  For those who have spent the past 50 years in isolation, the Scrolls (discovered in the 1950s) are the large and intensely fascinating library of a strict Jewish Essene religious community based at Qumran on the banks of the Dead Sea.  As well as manuscripts of various Old Testament books, the documents include unique and previously unknown writings of the community itself, many referring to a struggle between a character called the Teacher of Righteousness (the community's leader/hero) and his opponent dubbed the Wicked Priest or Man of a Lie.

Thiering's idea is that the events of the Gospels and the life of Jesus describe the other side of this conflict, and that Jesus is the Man of a Lie.  To arrive at this conclusion, she describes the Gospels as a form of "pesher" - stories which have two levels of meaning.  On the surface, to the uninitiated reader, the gospels tell the story of a miracle worker who died for his followers and then rose from the dead.  This understanding is the one used by the modern church.  For the inner circle of Jesus' followers, however, the documents contain a second, coded meaning, accessible only to those who have the code.

While most of us lack the code and hence are forced to read the gospels only at the surface level, Theiring has it and is not afraid to use it.  Hence from her rather vague description of the pesher idea itself, she proceeds to an extraordinarily vivid and detailed retelling of Jesus' life. 

In this version, most of the Gospel events take place in the Qumran community, with sites conveniently renamed after places in the larger world of Palestine so that uninitiated readers would believe they actually took place in Galilee or Jerusalem.  The various miracles are encoded stories of conflicts between Jesus and the Teacher of Righteousness (identified in this interpretation with John the Baptist, and also disguised as other characters in the story).  The parables also have a hidden meaning related to this conflict.  Jesus' crucifixion is real enough and in fact supervised by the real Pontius Pilate, although also taking place at Qumran.  However, Jesus doesn't die - after a stipulated time on the cross, drugged to make him unconscious, he is cut down and placed in a cave (Thiering is even able to identify which one) in which he is treated and revived.

Of course if Jesus didn't die at that point, he must have still been alive during subsequent events.  Indeed she believes that all the Gospels and the Book of Acts were written in his lifetime, John's Gospel first in around 37 AD, Acts the last sometime around 60.  Jesus continued to guide his followers during this time, as well as marrying and having a son with Mary Magdelene, but for various reasons stayed in seclusion, "behind the scenes" of the movement which bore his name.

In such a brief review it's difficult to convey the vividness and completeness of Thiering's retelling.  Every detail is covered, in a bewildering array of historical connections, interpretations of code words, speculation and sheer fantasy.  Its imaginative breadth, its astonishing creativity, marks it as a work of genius.  Yet as a work of history it is simply odd, taking a few slender and debatable items of evidence, drawing connections between them that defy evidence, and sewing on this fragile framework a tapestry of the finest artifice.

Despite her claims to revealing a previously hidden truth, most of Thiering's ideas can already be seen in the works reviewed by Schweitzer almost a century before.  Schweitzer's own favourite of the genre, Venturini's Non-supernatural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth, describes Jesus as the agent of a group of Essene Jews and explains his various actions in terms of the political agenda of the Essenes.  Schweitzer's own comment is that Venturini's work "may almost be said to be reissued annually down to the present day, for all the fictitious 'Lives' go back directly or indirectly to the type which he created."  Thiering is no exception.

Like other books of this type, her work also has a close affinity with the various "rationalist" Lives described by Schweitzer.  A characteristic of this approach is that miracles are given a "rational" or "natural" explanation and Thiering adopts a cornerstone of this approach - the idea of Jesus' resurrection as a revival from unconsciousness.   However, what she adds for herself is the idea that Jesus' closest followers were neither dupes nor ignorant bumpkins.  They knew very well that Jesus had not died and the story of his death and resurrection was a cleverly encoded message to the inner circle as well as a way of putting his enemies off the scent.

For all its fascinating detail, this account has little to recommend it as truth.  It is built on the flimsiest of foundations, and rejected summarily by serious scholars both devout and iconoclastic.  However, it has its own powerful place in popular culture.  Michael Biagent, co-author of Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, relies heavily on Thiering's account as the launching pad for his pseudo-history of the descendents of Jesus, the inspiration for Dan Brown's blockbuster novel The Da Vinci Code.  Thiering appeals to our love of a conspiracy, our desire to find hidden secrets behind the world as we know it.  In its own perverse way, it satisfies our longing for something more, for a hidden meaning behind our otherwise dull and pointless lives. 

At the same time, though, the challenge of Jesus is neutralised.  Once we are past our fascination with these hidden secrets we are left empty.  Jesus is removed from our present, from relevance to our daily lives, and turned instead into a mere oddity of history.


Bruno Tonon said...

"The Gospels as a form of "pesher" - stories which have two levels of meaning" that Theiring uses for her interpretation, can they be explored????
What formulae is used to decipher the writings??
Does one exhist or is Theiring the only one that has it??

Regards bruno

Jon said...

Indeed Bruno, good questions. Theiring is very vague about how the pesher actually works and doesn't provide us with the code of formula, just with the story. I'm no Dead Sea Scrolls expert but I did read the Penguin "Dead Sea Scrolls in English" and didn't find it for myself.

Perhaps she has a secret document cache of her own, or found her way into the locked secret vaults of the Vatican library where such inconvenient secrets are said by conspiracy theorists to be held.

Lucy said...

It is not more sensible to accept Theiring's explanation than to believe in miracles?
If I told you that a person who should have hung indefinitely on the Cross, until he was really dead, (birds expected to pick the flesh from his bones), was in fact taken down from the Cross after about three hours and placed in a cave, and that the next morning the body was no longer in the cave, and no cadaver was ever found (because it had risen up into the sky, eventually to sit on the right hand of his father), would you not think that there was a simpler explanation?
Maybe his friends saw that he was still alive in the cave, and hurried him out?
Maybe his friends then revived him?
Maybe, when he appeared before his assembled disciples shortly afterwards, spoke to them, had something to eat, he was not dead?
Maybe when Saul/Paul looked up into a blinding light and heard a voice asking him not to be a persecutor, there was a real, live human being behind that voice?
Isn't that what Father Brown, Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Barnaby, might conclude - there was no corpse, no resurrection, no death on the Cross?

Jon Eastgate said...

Hmm Lucy, there's a lot of "maybes" in that explanation.

I guess if Thiering's was the only alternative to the orthodox explanation then it might be attractive, but there are plenty of others to choose from that don't involve multiple aliases, an unsubstantiated connection with the Qumran community, a wholesale shift of the action from Jerusalem to Qumran and the gospels written in a secret code hidden for 2000 years until Thiering somehow amazingly rediscovered it (even though other students of the Dead Sea Scrolls found no such thing).

The miracles in Thiering's version may not be supernatural but they are just as miraculous, if not more so. If you're looking for a non-miraculous version of the tale, there's a lot more value in Funk's version, Borg's, or perhaps even John Carrol's, all reviewed later on in this series. You might also be interested in my series of posts on miracles - tagged as such.

Anonymous said...

These are the facts:

1)Unusually for this type of scholarship, Thiering has used the principles of the scientific method. She has provided the full body of her work in meticulous detail on her website ( This includes the numerous texts she studied iteratively over decades, including the pesher she discovered in the DSS as the means of decoding the dual layers of the NT.

2)Thiering has invited peers to test her work and either confirm or disconfirm her history of the Essene origins of Christianity by EXACTLY replicating her methodology.

3)Thiering’s peers have NOT risen to this challenge. Her work has NOT been properly and systematically evaluated (i.e., replicated) by peers.

4)Until that replication has been undertaken it is not known whether Thiering’s history is right, wrong or a bit of both.

5)Most peer reviews were done early on are both superficial and fallacious: “nobody else has discovered this so-called pesher for the NT from the DSS, so it must be a figment of Thiering’s imagination”; “nobody else has undertaken a NT exegesis like this before so it must be wrong”; “nobody else has proposed these historical details before so they must also be fabricated”; “other details do not conform with what we already know so they, too, must be wrong or fabricated”.

6)Robert M Price has proposed that Thiering’s work has not yet been properly and systematically evaluated (i.e., replicated) because its uniqueness, detail and complexity are BEYOND the expertise of her peers, himself included, at this time.

7)However, it is possible to extrapolate from the research discipline of psychology to consider Thiering’s proposed history for face validity, internal consistency and external validity. The history does exceptionally well on all three criteria.

8)It is possible to conclude the history has sufficient prima facie merit to warrant a proper and systematic evaluation (i.e., replication) by peers.

9)In addition, there continue to be independent scholarly and archeological findings which are either consistent with or do not contradict elements of Thiering’s history.

Andrew said...

I am a former christian minister. I recently read some of her work. It would seem to me that Jesus was an opportunist in an age where he and the essenes knew the jews were eagarly looking for a saviour - so he gave them one. I believe it was a well planned execution of a political/religious conspiracy.

Anonymous said...

To Andrew
So very interesting that you were once a Minister - more well versed in the texts than us mere mortals. I have always believed on Jesus the man/evangelist, who saw an opportunity to bring religion to the masses freely instead of only the "chosen" few. History has always pointed to the fact that religion was used to control the "masses", politically, especially to graft taxes from them.
I believe he was a man of good intentions - I just can't buy the "fairy tales" invented for the feeble minded - which keep me from not entering a "house of God". That's why I believe that Thiering is on the right track - irregardless of the learned not supporting her work.

Jon Eastgate said...

Of course a good conspiracy theory is hard to refute because conspirators will cover their tracks. Nonetheless, despite the ambiguity of the various resurrection accounts the fact remains that the Apostles were proclaiming a resurrected Jesus within at most a few years of his crucifixion, at the risk of their own lives (and in fact most were executed). Would you do this for a fairly tale? If you simply wanted to promote a mystery religion, as Thiering is suggesting once you get through the mumbo jumbo, there were much safer ways to do it than that.

whiskymikeable said...

When the Romans executed someone they stayed executed, othwerwise the Roman guard was executed.
This is just one of a thousand books written on this subject