I mentioned Barbara Thiering earlier on, now is the time to discuss her writings.
Barbara is an Australian theologian who achieved brief notoriety in the ‘70s due to her book called ‘Jesus the Man’. I believe it was serialised in one of the UK daily papers. She has since been ‘discredited’ by the academic establishment and her views are generally not taken seriously by anyone in the mainstream, a bit like David Icke or George Galloway.
The main thrust of her writing is that Jesus was a leader in the Essene movement (a monastic Jewish order active in Palestine before and around the time of Christ. Barbara gains her information from various contemporary texts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls but also from a particular and controversial interpretation of some books of the New Testament, notably the gospels and Revelation.
Barbara claims that these books contain a hidden code or ‘pesher’ (a Jewish term denoting a special code, pronounced pay-sher). The hidden code provides a detailed history of the life of Jesus which includes a lot of political information about the movement and its ‘mission’ both to Jews and gentiles.
Now at first hearing this sounds like a ridiculous idea and many people would dismiss it out of hand simply because they could not contemplate it being true. This would probably ‘take out’ around 90% of the population without reading another word. When one looks into it, however, one realises that the idea of a pesher is not necessarily that bizarre. The writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls used the pesher technique to interpret certain books in the Old Testament. This is a slightly different use of the pesher but indicates that the sect were very familiar with the concept. In the Dead Sea Scrolls the writers take a piece of Old Testament text and give a commentary indicating what they thought it really meant in the context of their present day. So they took much of the writing to refer to the Roman occupation and rule of Palestine (referred to in the Old Testament as the ‘Kittim’). The key point is that the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls were seeing within the words of scripture a hidden political history. Barbara Thiering claims that the writers of the gospels and Revelation deliberately included a hidden history when they wrote the books. This does not take anything away from the spiritual meaning of the New Testament, it means that the books can be read at multiple levels. It is quite common for books to have a surface meaning and an underlying spiritual meaning (such as fairy tales or the Greek Myths). Barbara claims that the New Testament writers took it one step further.
So what is this code like? Well, it has two main ways of encoding:
It uses nicknames for places and people.
It uses the Greek language in a very particular way to mean different things to the apparent surface meaning.
Barbara claims that this code is 100% internally-consistent where it is used (i.e. once you have the rules they can be seen to be applied in exactly the same way everywhere).
Regarding the first point, the use of nicknames. This is exactly the same as the pesher interpretations of the Old Testament, e.g. everywhere Kittim is mentioned they took it to mean the Romans. In the same way, many of the familiar names of individuals and places within the New Testament actually refer to different people or places.
Regarding the second point. Often the way Greek is used for the pesher is grammatically incorrect. Biblical scholars normally have to guess at certain meanings because the language is used so strange, incorrect declensions of nouns or verb tenses or plural vs singular, etc.
One question you may ask is why would they do this? The main reason is, probably, the New Testament writers were involved in high politics with potentially revolutionary overtones. They wanted to record a history but keep it concealed. They were in regular contact with the ruler of Palestine at the time who was very close to Rome. So we are talking about politics at the very top of this nation state.
Another question you may have is why the theory has not been accepted by academia. The key factor relates to one of Barbara’s main claims in the history which concerns the time when the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. Barbara claims that many of the texts were written whilst Jesus was alive and directly concern his conflict with John the Baptist both of whom (she claims) were leaders in the Essene movement. Barbara postulates that there was a major rift between Jesus and John over the political and religious strategy of the Essene movement in Palestine. Jesus was much more liberal (take the eating of corn on the Sabbath as an indicative example) whereas John was much more traditionalist (literal interpretation of the Bible). It is strange to see how almost the exact same battles are going on within today’s religious movements.
Barbara claims that the story of this struggle is contained within the Dead Sea Scrolls (referred to as the struggle between The Wicked Priest and the Teacher of Righteousness). These two individuals are never referred to by name – only by these nicknames (more evidence supporting the pesher view). There has been much speculation since the scrolls were discovered about who these two characters were and whilst there is no general agreement pretty much all of the academic community places them several decades before the birth of Jesus (in the time of the Maccabees a prominent nationalist Jewish family) active around 150 BC to 50 BC.
The reason for dating the scrolls in the earlier period is due to the style of writing which changes characteristically over time. This happens with all handwritten scripts. For example, without knowing much about it you are likely to be able to tell the difference between a handwritten script from the 16th century and from the 19th century. This science of ‘paleography’ is quite mature and experts can distinguish fine details. However it is based on the assumption that writing everywhere changes at the same pace. For example they would assume that a monastic community of scribes copying texts from previous versions would have the same handwriting style as a trader in the market. Any form of language, whether written or spoken, evolves at different rates depending on which community you are in. The language in certain public schools or in the aristocracy may be described as posh or archaic by many modern people living in a middle class environment.
Suffice to say that palaeography is not necessarily 100% reliable but that is essentially the main factor for the traditional dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Barbara has proposed a different dating which puts many of the scrolls right in the period (20-30 AD) when Jesus and John the Baptist were active. In this case they immediately become very obvious candidates for the Teacher of Righteousness and the Wicked Priest. It is worth noting that there are a few other writers who have supported the dating but not the identifications of these key individuals. One writer proposes James and Jesus as potential candidates, another focuses on the apostle Paul.
What emerges from Barbara’s dating of the scrolls is a wonderfully satisfying and coherent picture of the Essene movement going through an internal struggle. The beauty is that this story from the scrolls is coherent with the underlying history in the New Testament and suddenly out of a mass of confusing and inconsistent literature comes a clear and believable picture of the Palestinian world. It is like discovering a great master painting under layers of oily, dirty grime. Or an iceberg popping up out of the sea.
The richness of detail that is exposed in Barbara’s writings is truly stunning and brings a very different light to the life of Jesus.
I will continue this in the next chapter because it is important to understand more about Jesus and, I believe, restore him to the correct place in our minds, one that he would be happy with (or at least I think so – but if I’m wrong I could be in trouble….!).