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Craig Evans: Fabricating Jesus (Review)

Evans is a distinguished Christian scholar, who here is writing to correct the popular misunderstandings about Jesus.

SUMMARY AND SYNTHESIS

            Evan’s scholarly track-record and list of credentials is impressive: Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College of Acadia University, founder of the Dead Seas Scrolls Institute at the University of British Columbia, and professor of New Testament Studies for over twenty year, Evans certainly seems qualified to write this book. It is remarkable, then, that Evans is also able to write in a familiar, non-technical tone. Although some laymen will find sections challenging, Evans has overall done an excellent job of bridging the gap between academia and the educated layman. [SE1]

“Appalled” and “embarrassed” by what he has read, Craig A. Evans intends to, “take a hard look at some of the sloppy scholarship and misguided theories that have been advanced in recent years,” (Evans 2006, 14). In doing so in a non-technical format, he hopes to sensitize lay-readers to the major distortions present in recent Jesus scholarship, with special reference to the Jesus Seminar.

Evans divides the distortions of Jesus neatly into eight categories: 1) cramped starting points and overly critical methods, 2) questionable texts, 3) alien contexts, 4) skeletal sayings, 5) diminished deeds, 6) dubious uses of Josephus, 7) anachronisms and exaggerated claims, 8) hokum history and bogus findings. In so doing, he manages to engage and critique most of the major critical works on Jesus published in recent years, while also giving adequate attention to the appropriate ancient documents themselves, including the Gnostic Gospels – with special reference to Gospel of Thomas –and also the Mishnah and Dead Sea Scrolls.

Evan’s thesis is that sober and thorough scholarly research will lead one to construct a vision of the historical Jesus almost entirely from the canonical gospels themselves. Although appreciative of external sources, especially The Dead Sea Scrolls, Evans is convinced that they do not fundamentally challenge traditional beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth. He believes that the so-called “Gnostic Gospels” contribute virtually nothing to Jesus research.

After ten negative chapters, Evans concludes positively, writing a chapter on what Jesus Scholarship has contributed to our knowledge of the Historical Jesus.[SE2]  He explores: “(1) Jesus’ relationship with the Judaism of his day, (2) Jesus’ claims, (3) Jesus’ aims, (4) the factors that led to Jesus’ death, (5) the resurrection of Jesus and the emergence of the Christian church, (6) the nature of the New Testament Gospels, and (7) Christian faith as part of the Jewish story,” (Evans 2006, 222). True to his negative assertions, Evans limits himself almost exclusively to the Synoptic Gospels, for his explication of Jesus’ life.

He concludes that the story of Jesus contained in the Gospels is an “exciting and inspiring” one – far more so than the “newer, radical, minimalist, revisionist, obscurantist and faddish versions of the Jesus story that have been put forward in recent years,” [SE3] (Evans 2006, 235). He concludes that the evidence thus far has “tended to confirm the reliability of these Gospels” and he predicts that – aside from “an adjustment here or there,” future scholarship will do more of the same (Evans 2006, 235).

 

 

 

 

EVALUATION AND CRITIQUE

 

Evans mentions in the introduction that he studied first for law before turning to Christianity, and Christian Scholarship. In this book, his earlier training shows. Although he everywhere demonstrates his competence, the scholarly and nuanced tone of the scholar is here subsumed under that of a careful and well-studied lawyer, setting forth an airtight case[SE4] . The result is very convincing, but in some ways unsettlingly self-assured. Is it not the nature of academia to lead from certainty towards uncertainty, from dogmatic assertions of truth towards nuanced statements of probability? Considering the diversity of opinions within Jesus scholarship, Evans has perhaps over stated his case, by casting the discussion mostly in hues of black and white.

However, examination of peer-reviewed journals would allay these fears. That Evans’ work has been well received and appreciated in the scholarly community is a good indication that his work fairly represents it. Although some have critiqued Evans as being over-confident on a few dates (Gathercole 2009, 32), none have accused him of inaccuracies. It should be remembered that Fabricating Jesus is not meant to be a review of Jesus Scholarship – which Evans has done elsewhere (see A Life of Jesus Research) – but only to mention and critique the major and most egregious of the distortions within Jesus research. [SE5] Thus, the over-confident tone of his work likely comes from his selection.

Similarly to N.T. Wright, Evans sides very clearly with Evangelicalism, and seems to consider himself an Evangelical, while at the same time rejecting some fundamental Evangelical doctrines. Specifically, Evans rejects inerrancy: the first chapter of Fabricating Jesus reads almost like an apologetic for a non-inerrancy position. He is so bold as to call verbal plenary inspiration a “misplaced faith,” which is responsible for creating a brittle Christianity. He implies that an untenable inerrancy was the result of more than a few scholars – some on the Jesus Seminar – losing their faith. Evans has made a fine case for this position here: however, the mere fact that he does not hold to inerrancy will distance him from many Evangelicals[SE6] .

Tied to and undergirding Evan’s rejection of inerrancy is a philosophy of interpretation which gives prominence to human investigation and critical thought. While many Evangelicals would begin with Scriptures as a divine book necessitating (and allowing!) no support from human critical inquiry, Evans believes that Scriptures have some errors, that they can be critiqued and compared to other human documents, and that the various sources and redactors of manuscripts may be identified. [SE7] In basic methodology, then, he is similar – if not identical – to the Jesus Seminar. Evans’ critique, then, is not one of basic philosophy: rather, he meets the Jesus Seminar on their own terms and according to their own rules, claiming that faithfulness to their own principles will support a far more conservative conclusion.

Among his most salient points was his careful distinction between skepticism and criticism. In a distinction helpful in many areas of apologetics, Evans asserts that, “Radical skepticism is no more critical than is credulity,” (Evans 2006, 21). Because he has been less skeptical, and (he claims) more versed in Hebrew culture than the members of the Jesus Seminar, he has found that the evidence does not challenge his faith. Although less “skeptical,” Evans believes that his conclusions are consistent with the evidence provided by “critical” scholarship.

Although winning the “battle,” one wonders if Evans is losing the war, by resting the surety of Christians’ faith on the unsure footing of the scholarly consensus? Evans asserts that the evidence thus far has “tended to confirm the reliability of these Gospels” (Evans 2006, 235). This certainly is encouraging: but what will be the result, when some new finding comes out which seems to undermine the faith? Need we all sit in nail-biting anticipation until the scholars have deliberated the significance of this or that artifact? Or, more pressingly, what if the winds of consensus blow the scholarly community towards the Left? Should we then feel unsettled in our faith? Or, conversely, do we have a more lasting anchor than the changing tides of human opinion (Eph. 4:14-15)?

Despite these apparent weaknesses, however, there is no doubt that a book such as this was and is needed in today’s context, where authors like Dan Brown are honored, heeded and rewarded far above serious scholars. Evans’ book has certainly achieved its primary objective, which has been to shed a light on and refute the shoddy scholarship and hoaxes circulated about the Historical Jesus.

Whether or not one agrees with Evans’ methodology and stance, one cannot help but appreciate the access which he has given the reader to the original documents themselves. He provides frequent cutaway sections which provide charts, excerpts and helpful summaries of relevant topics such as the dates of the Gospels and Related Sources, excerpts from various Gnostic Gospels, and ancient Jewish writers on Jesus. These sections, as well as Evans’ careful engagement with the source documents themselves, gives the reader a much-appreciated education in the ancient documents which are relevant to Jesus research.

Another great strength is his thorough treatment of the Gospel of Thomas and also his concise but informed treatment of the Da Vinci Code[SE8] : no doubt these two issues will be raised at least once in the ministry of every pastor.

That Evans felt compelled to attack inerrancy, and raised some questions to which he gave no answers was perhaps unavoidable. This is a work which will be exceedingly useful in the ministry of pastors and apologists alike.


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