Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels
Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Downers Grove: IVP, 2006. 290 pp. $19.00. ISBN 0-8308-3318-8.
Craig Evans, the Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity School in Nova Scotia, is one of the foremost evangelical New Testament scholars in our world today. Regularly interviewed for major network documentaries and author of countless articles and several fine monographs, particularly in the area of historical Jesus studies, Evans here makes a huge amount of complicated and controversial material understandable and readily accessible to the educated layperson and introductory theological student.
Evans' main objective throughout this concise volume is to debunk the claims of radical, unrepresentative scholarship about Jesus and the Gospels. Chapters 1-10 each treat, in turn, scholarly cul de sacs and carefully explain why these dead ends develop. Chapter 11 then helps the reader piece together the true insights that have emerged from each previous chapter and more systematically addresses who the real Jesus was.
Chapter 1 points out how C. S. Lewis' famous "liar, lunatic or Lord" triad of options excludes at least two main approaches of contemporary skeptics--those who see him as a prophet, sage or other significant historical figure because they sift through the Gospels to find a smaller core of truly authentic material and those who portray him as quite different from historic Christian claims because they reject all or nearly all of the canonical accounts as reliable. Using the published autobiographical reflections of Robert Funk and James Robinson to illustrate the first category of skepticism, and of Robert Price and Bart Ehrman as examples of the second, Evans highlights one recurrent problem--the all-or-nothing approach that leads some people to think that, if they cannot accept strict biblical inerrancy or harmonize every last detail in the Gospels, they must reject most or all of them (a mistake, I might add, sadly perpetuated by many very conservative evangelicals, too, who thus unwittingly send more hesitant skeptics over the edge).
Chapter 2 addresses the need for having valid criteria of authenticity in order to determine if the main contours of the Synoptic tradition of Jesus are indeed trustworthy. Evans believes that such standard historical criteria as that which is multiply attested, fits an early first-century Palestinian environment, would have proved embarrassing to the early church, or coheres with material authenticated by other reliable criteria, and so on, are the right tools for the task.
Evans next devotes two chapters to later extra-canonical "Christian" texts that paint a dramatically different picture of Jesus than the canonical Gospels present. Spending an entire chapter on the well-known Gospel of Thomas, and a second on the Gospel of Peter, Papyrus Egerton, the Gospel of Mary and the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark, Evans provides solid reasons for viewing all of these as no earlier than second century in origin and rarely, if ever, preserving reliable information about Jesus of any kind, much less data that should be viewed as more reliable than that found in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. The one anomaly is Secret Mark, which is, in all probability, not an ancient document at all but entirely a modern hoax perpetrated by Morton Smith, as several recent studies have virtually conclusively demonstrated.
Three chapters in various ways next turn to challenges raised especially in the 1990s by the Jesus Seminar and continue to be held by many predisposed toward their conclusions. Was Jesus a Cynic? Not likely. This was the Greco-Roman school of philosophy that made fewest inroads of all into Israel, and those elements in the Gospels that might call to mind a Cynic lifestyle (esp. itinerant teaching with a very simple lifestyle) contain material that strikingly contrasts with Cynicism (take no bag for your journey; depend on the hospitality of others who take you into their homes rather than begging, etc.). Did Jesus speak just in short pithy proverbs and enigmatic parables without any contexts preserved? Not likely either. Nothing we know of any teachers and especially not Jewish teachers in Jesus' world supports such approaches. Every religious and philosophical leader made claims about himself and about the future, including future judgment, so it would be astonishing if the Jesus Seminar were right that he never addressed such issues. Do we reject the healings and other miracles attributed to Jesus because of unsupportable bias against the supernatural? Not if weï¿½re smartï¿½the miracles as a whole pass the standard criteria of authenticity as well as any part of the Gospel traditions, and again one can find striking parallels (with important differences) in other contemporary Jewish figures like Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Rain-maker (or Circle-drawer).
What about Josephus, the famous late first-century Jewish historian, who has two famous references to Jesus? Chapter 8 notes that one of them probably does have a few later Christian interpolations, but not enough to call into question its basic corroborative value. More importantly, Josephus' extensive testimony about the Herodian family and about Pontius Pilate dovetails, sometimes in detail and usually in spirit, with what we read about those characters in the Gospels. The story of Jesus ben Ananias in the 60s depicts another prophetic figure whose preaching so irked the Jewish authorities that they initiated a sequence of events strikingly parallel to those that the New Testament depicts surrounding Christ's death.
What of the claim so oft-repeated by Ehrman and others that "lost Christianities" give a quite different picture than the Bible does and that the New Testament itself is filled with too much theological disunity to be believed? Again, Evans shows how there is simply no evidence to date the New Testament documents later than the first century or "heretical" forms of the faith earlier than the second (and usually not earlier than the late second) century. All of the latter developments were deviations from and mutations of first-century faith, which displays a fundamental unity across all the New Testament documents with respect to core beliefs.
Finally Evans debunks the popular novelists of whom Dan Brown (with his DaVinci Code) is hardly the only, just the best known, who revise history often to create a Jesus or an early Christianity radically unlike anything that can be supported by actual history.
Turning to the positive case for the nature of Jesus that a broad swath of the so-called third quest of the historical Jesus would endorse, Evans places Jesus squarely within an early first-century Palestinian Jewish framework and milieu. He believed his mission was to restore Israel as the heaven-sent Son of man of Daniel 7:13 and the miracle-working Son of David and Jewish Messiah of numerous prophecies. He crossed an invisible boundary between humanity and the divine in claiming to sit at God's right hand and come on the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62), akin to Yahweh's very own chariot-throne in Ezekiel 1 and elsewhere. He claimed to mediate divine forgiveness apart from the priestly system and the temple cult, ultimately predicting his own death and resurrection. Resurrection, in turn, becomes the heart of Christian faith and preaching.
Two appendices briefly discuss other sayings of Jesus not found in the canonical Gospels and then the Gospel of Judas. Fuller endnotes and indices than typically found in books of this size and genre enable readers to follow up with bibliographies of more technical literature and help the casual peruser to locate numerous topics (or Scriptures) of interest quickly. A glossary also defines key terms.
I find nothing of any substance with which to disagree in this volume and commend it heartily to all those interested in accessible writing and accurate history on any or all of the topics it surveys. If all scholars were as sensible and judicious as Evans in his historical judgments, we would not have the confusion and disarray either in the scholarly world of biblical studies or among laypeople unwittingly "suckered" by the distortions and inventions of the far-left wing. Buy this book, read it carefully, and help spread the news of what really happened in Christian origins and with Jesus of Nazareth.