Barbara Thiering (1930 – ) is an Australian author of several works, including the best-selling Jesus and The Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Thiering takes a naturalist approach and believes that the miraculous aspects of the New Testament are just codified political statements. She studied the Dead Sea Scrolls, which mention a “teacher of righteousness” and writes that this teacher existed in the Qumran community, somewhere between 200 BCE and the time of Jesus.
For Thiering, the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal the social conditions and practices of the Qumran community. And she believes the New Testament writings about the nearby Early Christian community can be assessed from the perspective of the Qumran community. For instance, in Qumran all newcomers were apparently initiated, regardless of social standing, with a baptism of water. Members of the inner circle were also given “The Drink of the Community,” which Thiering says was wine.
Thiering argues that Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding ceremony at Canaan reveals the Gospel writer’s ingenious attempt to symbolically convey Christ’s true message—that group membership is not just for a select few, but for all types of people (John 2: 1-11).
Thiering likewise says that the miracles of the virgin birth (Matthew 1-18-25; Luke 1:26-38; Isaiah 7:14), walking on water (Matthew 14:25; Mark 6:48-51), the multiplication of loaves (Matthew 14:15-21; 15:32-38), the eating of miraculously obtained fish (John 21:1-11) and the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44) represent the Gospel writers’ use of symbolism to depict natural events and Jesus’ political motives.
Jesus, she claims, didn’t walk on water but walked on a “jetty” (a wharf or a dock). She also sees as metaphorical the Gospel account of Peter getting “out of the boat” to “walk on the water” toward Jesus. Peter’s becoming afraid and beginning to “sink” when the wind picked up is said to be purely allegorical, as was Christ’s “outstretched hand” that rescued him (Matthew 14: 25-32).
Common sense says we cannot “sink” while standing on a jetty. But for Thiering Peter’s symbolic sinking represents his fear of being “number two” to Christ. His sympathy with the rite of circumcision, which Paul abrogated, would make him “sink” in stature.
Citing another New Testament passage that claims it’s better to drown with a millstone around your neck in the sea than suffer the consequences of placing a “stumbling block” before one of God’s children (Matthew 18:6), Thiering says this passage relates to supports her interpretation of Peter’s sinking (Matthew 14:30) because “the same verb” is used.¹
But from a broader perspective, her argument seems questionable. Some scholars insist that portions of the Qumran scrolls were, in fact, imported from outside Qumran. Others say that the scrolls might be commentaries on Old Testament scripture.
Randall Price says that Thiering’s logic sometimes contradicts itself. Price points out that Thiering’s use of the so-called “pesher technique,” that apparently gets at the true meaning of the scrolls, is a false attempt to legitimize what is nothing more than her own individual interpretation, weakly supported (as sometimes happens with overzealous researchers) by a vast amount of illogically applied data.
According to Price, “pesher” simply means commentary.
Florentino Garcia Martinez rather bluntly says:
Thiering’s work is a wholly artificial construction that not only disregards logic and distorts the meaning of events, but trespasses all reasonable boundaries of sound historical reconstruction.²
Meanwhile, many Christian writers say that the symbolic import of miraculous events need not conflict with their historicity. Instead of reducing the miraculous to the natural and political, the events and teachings in the life of Christ arguably serve a dual function: First, they are actual, for the benefit of those around Christ at the time. Second, they are symbolic for the pastoral benefit of subsequent generations.
If Gospel stories have been exaggerated, we must remember that this was a common technique used in Bible times. Stories were exaggerated for emphasis. So the details of a big emotional and spiritual event would normally have been exaggerated in its retelling to try to convey the supernatural awe and wonder experienced by actual witnesses.
Another view from depth psychology differs from Thiering’s as well as from orthodox Christian perspectives.
Depth psychology makes use of the mythic instead of the historical dimension of Christ. Contemporary individuals don’t undergo physical crucifixion, death and visible resurrection. Instead, thinkers like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and James Hillman say the Christ story depicts an archetypal truth about psychological transformation.
Individuals sometimes undergo a symbolic death of outmoded, inappropriate ego-attitudes. In the best case scenario, these are replaced by newer, more comprehensive realizations—a symbolic type of resurrection.
¹ Jesus and The Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Toronto: Doubleday, 1992: 329.
² Randall Price, Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1996: 361-369.