BOOK REVIEW / Who had three children with Mary Magdalene?: 'Jesus the Man' - Barbara Thiering: Doubleday, 16.99

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The Independent Online
JESUS CHRIST, according to the dramatis personae at the end of Barbara Thiering's book, was 'son of Joseph, a descendant of King David and of Mary, conceived during his parents' betrothal period'. In AD29, Jesus 'joined with the Twelve Apostles to oppose John the Baptist . . . was crucified through a political stratagem . . . given poison on the cross to end his sufferings, but merely lost consciousness and was helped to revive by his friends'. He spent the rest of his life 'with the pro-Gentile party' and was still alive in Rome in AD64.

Unsurprisingly, Dr Thiering's book caused a storm when it was released in her native Australia in 1990. It will undoubtedly do the same here. Dr Thiering, who describes her own creed as that of a 'social believer' after a strict Christian upbringing, has spent the past 20 years studying the Dead Sea Scrolls, the remarkable stash of documents uncovered at Qumran in 1947. The conventional wisdom among those granted access to the scrolls is that they are principally of use in further illuminating the Old Testament accounts. Dr Thiering, however, has focused on a smaller group of the scrolls thought to detail the life of the sect of Orthodox Jews, the Essenes, who lived at Qumran in the immediate pre-Christian period.

Challenging the dating of these scrolls and drawing parallels between the Essenes' beliefs and those of Jesus and his followers, Dr Thiering argues that the two are one and the same. Jesus was an Essene, born not in Bethlehem but in Qumran, and is the central figure - the 'Man of a Lie' who flouted the conventions of his day - whose story is told in the scrolls.

Dr Thiering's coup de theatre is to reveal the pesher code, a sort of cipher added to the New Testament accounts and only understandable in the light of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The basic idea is that the gospels work on two levels: for the masses a populist romance of Jesus going around performing miracles; another one for the knowledgeable, with the pesher enabling them to read the message into the story.

The peshers, according to Dr Thiering, were all to do with Qumran custom. Hence, when they read of Mary Magdalene anointing Jesus' feet, the cognoscenti would know that such a gesture was integral to the Qumrani wedding service. Ergo Jesus married Mary Magdalene - and had three children, the book then claims. The same method is used to debunk the Crucifixion, the Virgin Birth, the miracles, everything in the Christian canon that cannot be explained by reason. Jesus becomes just another interesting historical figure in the maze of Middle Eastern politics.

Not having seen the Dead Sea Scrolls makes it difficult to dismiss such a proposition. But I felt distinctly uneasy as Dr Thiering breathlessly wrote off one Christian belief after another, having discovered the key to understanding with her pesher. It is all too easy, and as unsatisfying as being given a mathematical formula at school that enabled you to answer all the questions at the stroke of a pen. While the introduction suggests that Dr Thiering's research will 'open up a whole new understanding of historical Christianity', in effect it attempts to pull down the shutters on Christian faith, the things we trust in but cannot prove, for ever.