Geering on Thiering

This article, by Lloyd Geering, was originally published in 1996 in Newsletter number 19 of the Sea of Faith New Zealand.

Following the recent visit of Barbara Thiering to New Zealand to promote her books, I find myself continually being asked by people what to make of her radical reconstruction of early Christian history and of the life of Jesus, as presented in her two books Jesus the Man and Jesus of the Apocalypse. Some may be interested, therefore, in a short article I wrote. It was intended for The Dominion but they had no use for it. It has subsequently appeared in TheoLit. The following is a shortened version.

Barbara Thiering claims that Jesus lived on for some forty years after the crucifixion, married twice, fathered three children and helped to organise the growing Christian movement from behind the scenes. She arrived at these surprising conclusions on her reading of the Qumran Scrolls and New Testament, using a series of very questionable steps which, in their simplest form, are as follows:

1. Some of the Qumran scrolls were composed later than 1 AD. While scholarly opinion on dating is by no means final or unanimous, nearly all scholars place all the scrolls in the BC period. If that is where they belong, all of her claims are immediately falsified.

2. The Pesher technique is a reliable one for expounding the Dead Sea Scrolls. Barbara Thiering is quite right in claiming that the Qumran community interpreted some of the sacred texts of their Hebrew Bible by writing what they called a Pesher. By this method the Qumran monks believed they found references to current events hidden in the ancient texts. To quote Thiering, "Scripture, then, in their view contained hidden historical facts. In the case of the Old Testament, they had read the facts into it; they were not really there."

This admission by Barbara Thiering concerning the Qumran community could turn out to be the Achilles heel of her own work also. For it immediately raises the question of whether her own use of the pesher method (see the following steps 3-6) is any more valid than when it was first developed by the Qumran monks. If it was not valid for them, why should it be valid for Barbara Thiering?

Since the Qumran community believed the Old Testament contained a second level of meaning, Thiering proceeds to her hypothesis.

3. When the Qumran community wrote new texts they intended their readers to interpret them by the pesher technique. Thiering says that the pesher "gave them an ideal way of solving their problems. They needed to record in full detail their history, a history that must, by religious necessity, remain partly secret. This time the history would be objectively there in their scripture, because they had placed it there".

But just why "they needed to record their history" and why it was "religiously necessary for it to remain secret" is never satisfactorily explained by the author. Moreover, there is no explicit evidence to support this assumption, except the findings to which Thiering believed herself to be led.

Having made the assumption, Thiering then proceeds to reveal the hidden meanings which she subsequently regards as proof that her assumption was correct. These hidden meanings, when put together, convince her that:

4. The Scrolls contain a secret history of the Qumran community itself. This turns out to be much more extensive than anything to be found in the Scrolls by reading them at face value. It is a history, however, which is not confirmed by any other known sources. In particular it leads her to believe:

5. There is a definite and intrinsic relationship between the Qumran community and the Christian community, including such key figures as John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. When the Scrolls were first discovered they were intensively searched in the hope of discovering just such a connection. Great disappointment was felt when the Scrolls were found to contain no explicit reference to anything or anyone from the Christian era (thus confirming they come from the pre-Christian period).

However, having shown to her own satisfaction the validity of her original hypothesis and the truth of the conclusions to which they it led her, Thiering then made the boldest of all her assumptions. She argued that, since the Qumran community wrote scriptures intending them to be interpreted by the Pesher technique, and since the Christian community had its origin in the Qumran community, then what applied to the Qumran writers could be applied also to the Christian writers. She concluded:

6. The Christians wrote the Gospels, Acts and Revelation at two levels expecting their readers also to use the Pesher technique of the Qumran community. So by applying the Pesher technique to the New Testament, Thiering has uncovered to her satisfaction, a hidden history of the rise of Christianity. This includes a version of the life, death, supposed resurrection and subsequent life of Jesus.

Even if this were true there is a difference the author tends to ignore. When the Qumran monks wrote their Pesher of the Old Testament they reached hidden meanings which in no way conflicted with the face value meanings. The hidden meanings which Thiering finds in the New Testament, however, do conflict with the face value story. In other words, the two levels of meaning which are supposedly there are in a strange state of contradiction.

Further, there is no supporting historical evidence outside of the New Testament to support this post-resurrection life of Jesus. As with her original assumptions about the date of the Qumran Scrolls, Thiering finds herself alone in the scholarly world and has received little or no support from the world of biblical scholarship. Her reconstruction is more fragile than the proverbial house of cards.

Why is Barbara Thiering so convinced? It is chiefly because of what she maintains is the absolute consistency which operates whenever she applies the clues she has painstakingly uncovered. She speaks of "the very rigorous test of consistency", and of a "very highly structured system" used by the Pesharists.

She invites readers to test this consistency for themselves.

When we do so, we find her argumentation extremely unclear. She arrived at her hidden "facts" only by a process of selectivity which ignores all contrary evidence. Like the Qumran monks before her, the "facts" she finds in the texts "are not really there." She claims to have uncovered evidence of new historical facts; no reputable historian would dream of writing history on the basis of this kind of evidence.

But let us suppose, for a moment, that Thiering's reconstruction is correct. Where does it take us? It produces some supposed chronicles of how Jesus married, fathered children and directed some church events. But we learn nothing of what this Jesus thought, taught or felt. It is at this point that we discover the sheer religious barrenness of her so-called secret history of Jesus. The only Jesus who is of religious value to the Christian is the Jesus of the Gospel stories.

The Gospel narratives may be partly legendary and often lacking in historicity (something modern biblical scholars of the last 150 years have increasingly conceded) but these stories are vastly superior to bare chronicles, however historical. This point was well made by Martin Kahler in 1896 in his epoch-making book The So-called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ.

Barbara Thiering's radical reconstruction of primitive origins is not only quite unconvincing, finds little or no support from the academic world, but it is to be judged of no religious value.