In 1835, David Strauss published “The Life of Jesus Critically Examined,” which debunked the miraculous elements of the New Testament and inaugurated the modern recovery of the “real Jesus.” Strauss was trained in philology and textual criticism, but he was not primarily bothered by contradictions among the different sources of the New Testament, or by the gap between those literary records and the historically verifiable events of Jesus’ life. Rather, as he wrote in the introduction to “The Life of Jesus,” what worried him was “a discrepancy between the representations of those ancient records… and the notions of more advanced periods of mental development.”
In other words, in 1835, Jesus seemed passé. It was not that his miracles were weakly attested; it was that multiplying loaves and resurrecting corpses embarrassed modern reason. If Strauss could show that the miracles were the myths of primitive ancients, he could rescue the eternal idea behind the fiction. The search for a historical Jesus was not, paradoxically, an attempt to place Jesus in first-century Roman Judea — a stew of mystery cults, imperial decadence and revolutionary violence — but to save him from that history.
Archaeological bric-a-brac makes up the bulk of James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici’s “The Jesus Discovery,” which on February 28 became the latest entry into the Historical Jesus Sweepstakes. (It is almost certainly eclipsed by now; in America, theories about Jesus spring up almost as quickly as new strains of Protestantism.) The book tells the story of two tombs in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem. According to the authors, the first tomb, which was excavated in 1980, contained Jesus’ bones. The second features an impressive Greek inscription and a drawing of a fish expelling Jonah.
Tabor is chair of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Jacobovici is a television producer. Together, their résumés give a feel for the book’s blend of footnotes and hype. They argue in great detail for the authenticity of their “findings,” which lead to innumerable technicalities: the percentage of first-century Jews named “Jesus,” for instance (roughly 4%), and the results of a DNA test of samples from the first tomb’s ossuaries (which, though inconclusive, are reported down to the last nucleobase). But the authors of “The Jesus Discovery” also have higher theological purposes.