My favourite Christmas story … stop me if you’ve heard it.
According to the late Sydney theologian Dr Barbara Thiering’s academic investigations, Jesus was naturally conceived and did not die on the cross. After being given poison that imitated death, he was taken down and revived with aloes in the tomb. Jesus, she claims in her published works, fathered three children, married twice, and probably died of old age either in Rome, or the South of France – but not before triggering a social, religious, and political revolution that changed the world.
I interviewed Thiering (1930 to 2015) several times before her death. In one of her books, Jesus the Man (Doubleday), Thiering reinterprets the gospels and claims that – studied with the pesher technique – the Dead Sea Scrolls corroborate her detailed reconstruction of the life and death of Jesus.
The virgin birth was lost in translation; the word ‘virgin’ is a translation from the Hebrew for ‘nun’. Mary’s status was like a nun in training.
The Gospels were written, according to her studies, so that two layers of meaning were embedded in the text – an idea suggested by a view of the scriptures held by the original authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The pesher technique enables the informed reader to see through the outer layer.
Using the pesher technique over 30 laborious years of literary jigsaw puzzling, Thiering had effectively re-translated the Gospels.
A keen linguist, she learned Hebrew as a young house-bound mother, ‘to save my sanity when my children were small’, and her interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls led her into her lifelong search for the answer to those puzzling questions about Jesus and the origins of Christianity which haunt many Christians.
Her reading relies on identifying characters mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls with code names – the Teacher of Righteousness, and the Wicked Priest (also identified as The Man of a Lie, according to Thiering). These, she claims, are John the Baptist and Jesus, respectively.
Wicked Priest and Man of a Lie are labels that reflect the fact he was far more moderate, progressive (or inclusive), than the ultra-strict religious sect in which lived, the Essenes.
To some, the Sydney theologian seems nothing less than a demon – an anti-Christ and a mischievous scholar who was determined to destroy the Catholic Church and Christianity. Not true, she proclaimed. Thiering was totally committed to a Christian God. A grown-up one…
To others, she brings great comfort and peace – enabling them to live decent, Christian lives without having to swallow unnecessary illusions of Jesus’ divinity, his miracles, the virgin birth, and a wildly surrealistic resurrection. What a PR opportunity for the new messiah: Jesus survives and disappears from public view, not hard to do at the time. ‘He is risen’ is a better slogan than ‘he walked away’… But some still think the resurrection version is more credible.
Jesus also had a bit of luck being crucified on a Friday. The Romans allowed him to be taken down much sooner than would otherwise be the case to avoid breaking Sabbath rules…
As for palaeography, Thiering discredited that furphy as long ago as 1979 in her academic book, Redating the Teacher of Righteousness (Theological Explorations). ‘The rules of palaeography have been broken in order to arrive at the incorrect result of placing the Teacher of Righteousness in the Hasmonean period,’ she claims.
Put simply, it boils down to this: a fragment vital for dating the Teacher of Righteousness (John the Baptist) was dated in a 1961 book by the Polish priest, Joseph Milik, as being between 75 and 50 BC. Milik himself says (elsewhere) that the writing was in the personal, semi-cursive script; palaeographers agree that such script cannot be dated with any precision, as can the formal script used in other parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Thiering placed him beside Jesus, some 75 years later.
And 2021 years later, here we are.