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Jesus: Just Believe What You Want

Craig Evans's Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels
Jesus: Just Believe What You Want

Last summer, Reza Aslan, associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, published a book entitled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The book may have died an early death, despite Aslan’s abundant efforts at self-promotion, had it not been for a now famous interview with him on Fox News, perhaps the “most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done” (Interview). In it Lauren Green attempted to present Aslan as being subversive and irresponsible for writing a book about Jesus, when he himself was a Muslim. The logic was downright silly and allowed Aslan to come across to the world as a scholar of repute, simply doing history in an objective and academically respectable manner. The book has been near the top of the New York Times bestseller list ever since.

The life of Jesus Christ is of course the most significant human life in the history of the world for the simple reason that He is the only being in history to have been—and to be—both fully human and fully divine at the same time. Christians believe He is the only being who ever will have this dual nature. This belief about the simple Jew who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago is admittedly a position held by faith. It is not provable in a laboratory or even finally demonstrable by the methods of historical research, if that historical research is limited to data that is explainable only within a universe presupposing the limits of the space-time continuum in which we appear to live. There simply are no other God/Man beings that everyone accepts as such to whom to compare the records about Jesus in order to determine that He was the One He claimed to be, and so the assumption is made by most historians that Jesus cannot have been such a being either.

However, this does not, and should not, prevent Christians from claiming that their beliefs in Jesus are grounded in history because we do not study history with the presupposition that our universe is closed to the activity of God from outside it. We do, and always have, affirmed that the resurrection of Jesus Christ did in fact happen in time and space, and that this event forms the basis for a set of arguments that result in the God/Man hypothesis being the best solution to the facts that are (almost) incontrovertible: the empty tomb, the radical change in the disciples’ willingness to face persecution, the “apostolic preaching” found in the book of Acts and other early Christian literature, and other data from early Christianity that is largely indisputable in scholarly circles.

It is from this basis that Craig Evans has written his book about those who, operating only within the narrow presuppositions of a closed universe, fabricate a Jesus of their own liking. Evans, a New Testament professor with impeccable credentials (cf., chronicles the sometimes ignorant, sometimes intentional misuse of the documentation we have about Jesus by a series of professional (and some not so professional) theologians, and divides them into two categories: “old school skeptics” and “new school skeptics.” The first refers to scholars who, skeptical of the idea that Jesus is the God/Man being of orthodox Christianity, nevertheless believe he is something other than a liar or a lunatic. In this construct he might have been a great prophet; he might even have been Israel’s messiah, but he was not God’s Son in any sort of Trinitarian sense. The “new school skeptics” on the other hand are more radically uncertain, claiming we really do not know who Jesus was because the New Testament Gospels and other sources are simply not reliable enough for us to determine how we should think about Jesus of Nazareth.

In his first chapter Evans chooses four scholars from these schools who have made public something about their own journeys of faith, “especially with regard to their understanding of Jesus and the Gospels” and analyzes their arguments and their approach to the sources we have for the life of Jesus. From their criticisms and conclusions, he derives a number of mistaken steps he believes they make and then spends the rest of the book writing about those, giving us a comprehensive analysis of how books like theirs tend to be written.

This study is a brilliantly thorough yet completely readable account of how “lives of Jesus” get written that pick and choose among the data to do what Albert Schweitzer accused such scholars of the nineteenth century of doing: creating a Jesus, who remarkably reflects the values and visions of the author of the book. Looking in depth at “cramped starting points and overly strict critical methods,” the use of questionable texts of late origin, alien contexts, skeletal sayings without a context, biases against deeds of supernatural power, ignorance of late antiquity which create dubious uses of non-Christian texts of late antiquity, anachronisms and exaggerated claims, and just plain bad uses of the historical method, Evans shows how embarrassing some of the examples of the lives of Jesus are. It is a book that is fair, thorough and accessible and would make a wonderful basis for a semester long study of who Jesus is with Christians or non-Christians.

And what of Reza Aslan, who came along well after Evans wrote his book, but whose mistakes can be found on every page of it? I’ll leave him and his book to a quotation from Elizabeth Castelli, who, writing in The Nation, concluded her brief article, reviewing the book as a historian of early Christianity (, this way:

“Simply put, Zealot [Aslan’s book] does not break new ground in the history of early Christianity. It isn’t clear that any book framed as a “the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth” could, in fact, do so. Indeed, if it had not been thrust into the limelight by an aggressive marketing plan, the painfully offensive Fox News interview, and Aslan’s own considerable gifts for self-promotion, Zealot would likely have simply been shelved next to myriad other examples of its genre, and everyone could get back to their lives. As it is, the whole spectacle has been painful to watch. And as it is with so many spectacles, perhaps the best advice one might take is this: Nothing to see here, people. Move along.”

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