Book Review: Fabricating Jesus by Craig Evans

How Modern Scholars Distort the GospelsI have just finished reading this book Fabricating JesusHow Modern Scholars Distort The Gospels,  by Craig A Evans, distinguished professor of New Testament and director of the graduate program at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

The hardback copy I have from IVP (2006) contains 290 pages. These 290 pages are divided into 11 chapters, 2 appendices, a glossary, abbreviations, end notes, recommended reading, and four indices. Also included is a preface, introduction, and three pages of advanced praise for the book. The print is nice and easily readable. Contained within the main writing are several charts and excursions highlighted with a grey background and enclosed in a separate box. These are helpful, sometimes giving more detail of something contained in the text itself; sometimes merely repeating what is in the text in chart form. They are helpful and not intrusive and I believe they can be overlooked, if you choose, without losing any of the meat of the book.

Evans is a competant scholar who has written extensively on matters of the New Testament. He has an impressive resume in this respect. He is no slouch when it comes to understanding the issues he writes of in this book, exposing them as fraudulent and lies, and detailing the faulty foundations upon which semi-scholars have constructed them. I appreciated this book because he was not afraid to name names and to point out the absurdity of those who claim to be authorities in matters which they are clearly not authorities (i.e., Dan Brown): “The success of The Da Vinci Codesays more about the gullibility of modern society than it does about Dan Brown’s skills” (204). I also appreciated that Evans was not afraid to use a little humor and sarcasm to point out the fictional nature of some claims: “Beam me up, Scotty.” (204) But even more than these, I appreciated the depth and breadth of the literature he examines from popular fiction to historical treatises, ancient to modern. I think it is to his credit that even though the book is written “on the popular level and is primarily intended for nonexperts” (14) he assumes the competence of the reader to understand sometimes difficult subject matter, and is not afraid to drag us through it to prove his point. (His discussions of Josephus, for example, are most helpful.)

I don’t like the cover. I have to mention this because I’m not a big fan of any likenesses of Jesus. I would just as soon he put a picture of Dan Brown or JD Crossan or Elain Pagels or Homer Simpson on the cover than the pseudo picture of Jesus currently there. It is somewhat ironic that a book concerned with exposing the fallacies of modern scholars’ distortions of Jesus has, on the cover, a rather ridiculous portrait of Jesus. But that’s just me.

In the book he deals with the likes John Dominic Crossan, Dan Brown, Robert Funk, James Robinson, Robert Price and Bart Ehrman right from the start and interracts with their work throughout. It is thrilling to see someone put Crossan and Brown, for example, in the same book, in the same camp, and for the same reasons: Crossan for his intellectual, scholarly deconstruction of Jesus and Brown for his fictional, popular deconstruction of Jesus. When it all boils down: they are they doing the same thing which is Evans’ point. What is frightening is how many people take the work of folks like Dan Brown and simply assume the historical validity of his conclusions without doing investigation on their own. In this book, Evans tears apart the foundation upon which Brown’s conclusions are built and exposes the apostate, pseudo-scholarship that underlies it. (Brown’s work, for example, is based on a ‘scholarly’ and well documented hoax and forgery.) 

At the core of the attacks on the historicity and veracity of the canonical Scriptures is an attack on the person of Jesus himself. Why does this matter? Well, for example, if Jesus is ‘attacked’ in such a way and is purported to be anything less or something other than what the canonical Gospels report, then Christianity as a whole is at risk. This is why it is the Scripture that is always first to be attacked. What is amazing to me is that certain scholars find non-canonical documents such as The Gospel of Thomas more reliable than those historically accepted as canonical such as the document we call Matthew. But don’t they have to do just that in order for their portraits of Jesus to stand up? Seriously, when any document in existence is given equal weight with the canonical Gospels, then literally any portrait of Jesus can be conjured up from the ashes, which is exactly what has happened. From Crossan to Pagals to Brown: All have different portraits of Jesus based on their favorite non-canonical ‘gospels.’  This is why I believe that their ‘research’ is really, ultimately about undermining Christian faith altogether. It is about an unwillingness to submit to the authority of the Gospel. It is insidious, really. What other reason could there be for such activity but to distort and throw into confusion those who accept the Gospel story found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?

I like the subtitle: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. I like it because it warns the reader of what most readers suspect already: the real danger to the Christian faith are the learned ones who think that by their gnosis they are somehow superior to those who accept the faith once delivered, the simple, Biblical faith. And most of what Evans uncovers can go by the simple term: Gnosticism. This is the basis for most of the popular, avant-garde crap that is published under the guise of ‘Jesus Research’ today. Evans rightly calls this ‘radical and pseudo-scholarship.’ (222) I probably couldn’t agree more. The so-called work done by such folks has, in my opinion, nothing to do with uncovering or discovering the ‘real Jesus’ and everything to do with deconstructing the canonical Gospels. But to the point: We are already in possession of a portrait of the real Jesus in the Gospels. Part of Evans’ objective in this book is to lay waste to the notion that the New Testament cannot be trusted. To this end, he writes:

In my view, even though the Gospels are written from a perspective of faith in Jesus, they are reliable. Faith and truthful history are not necessarily at odds. Criteria of authenticity, which are remarkably vigorous in their application to the Gospels, confirm the essential core of Jesus’ teaching. It is not necessary to claim that the Gospels are inerrant, though for theological reasons many Christians accept them as such, and that every saying and deed attributed to Jesus is true to history. But claims that the Gospels are unreliable, full of myth and legend, and so biased that knowledge of what Jesus really said and did cannot be uncovered are excessive and unwarranted…[T]here is every reason, then, to conclude (again, without invoking theological dogmas) that the Gospels have fairly and accurately reported the essential elements of Jesus’ teaching, life, death and resurrection.” (234)

Another important aspect of this book is the uncovering of the pathetic level of understanding and competence of Scripture among Christians in today’s church. (Perhaps I might also add the significant lack of trust in the Gospels too.) The reason so many people are duped by folks like Brown and Harpur and Baigent is because they have not themselves studied and learned. “Some of these ideas are not well understood even by professing Christians, and they should be. If they are not understood, then writers of hokum history and bad theology will continue to prey on the naive and the credulous.” (222) In other words: Christians are the very ones creating the market for the Dan Browns and Margaret Starbird’s of the world. This is troubling for a number of reasons not least of which is the fact that such books actually get written, get published, are purchased, and read and thus is perpetuated the mythologies of said books. The end result is that faith is undermined because that which is authoritative in faith formation is undermined, namely, the Scripture. Furthermore, false gospels are perpetuated and these false gospels end up becoming the sort of gospels that Jesus warned about in Matthew 24 for example: “What out that no one deceives you for many will come in my name claiming, ‘I am he.'”

I don’t think that our current situation is any worse than at any other time in history. I am not, after all, claiming that somehow folks like Dan Brown have cornered the market on tabloid-like reporting and writing about Jesus. There have always been heretics and heretics have always rightly been rebuked by the faithful and by the Scriptures themselves. Nevertheless, there is something to be said about the nature of Biblical understanding, or lack thereof, among the folks of the church. There is so much emphasis today on the so-called practical side of Bible teaching that in many instances sound, biblical theology is simply avoided as too complex or even unecessary. This is why Jesus warned us to pay close attention. This is what Peter warned us of in his letter–that is, of people who ‘make up stories’:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. 3In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.”

Peter and the others were not duped by fancy stories. They were eyewitnesses of His glory and this is the story they have saved for us. This is also what the author of the Hebrews warned us of too:

We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, 3how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. 4God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”

The most important aspect of the book is that Evans continually draws our attention back to the canonical Gospels and reasserts their validity, authority and necessity for shaping faith in Jesus Christ. He continually brings us back and says: “These Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are our main source for understanding the historical Jesus. They are trustworthy documents, and we can have confidence in them.” Thus, while certain other documents may lend us helpful or important information they are not vital for Christian faith and lend us nothing more than what is satisfied in the canonical gospels. In other words, as fascinating as The Gospel of Thomas or The Gospel of Judas or The Gospel of Mary may be, Christianity will not be less if those documents did not exist. Writes Evans:

The true story of the historical Jesus is exciting and inspiring. The true story may well be an old story, but it is far more compelling than the newer, radical, minimalist, revisionist, obscurantist and faddish versions of the Jesus story that have been put forward in recent years. Ongoing archaeology and ongoing discovery and study of ancient documents will continue to shed light on this old story. These discoveries may require and adjustment here and there. But thus far these discoveries have tended to confirm the reliability of the Gospels and disprove novel theories. I suspect that ongoing honest, competent research will do more of the same.” (235)

I do not agree with every single conclusion that Evans makes. For example, his thoughts (see above) about the inerrancy of the Gospels is, to me, a bit disturbing and I cannot imagine what events in the life of Jesus may not be ‘true to history.’ I don’t know if Evans is stating this as a fact of his personal conviction or as a concession to those who may have issues with certain aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry. On the contrary, I think it does matter whether or not everything written in the Gospels is ‘true to history,’ but Evans is clear on this point earlier in the book when he cites three specific instances where ‘textual problems’ exist in the canonical gospels (the ‘longer’ ending of Mark, 16:9-20; the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11; and Jesus’ prayer in the garden in Luke 22:41-45). Evans contends that these stories can be removed from the gospels and that no significant doctrines would be lost, but this assumes, I think, that these stories do not add anything significant to the Gospel. In my judgment, this is somewhat misguided. If the credibility of the Gospels does not hinge on these stories exclusion then I contend that neither is its credibility damanged by their inclusion. My point is that the above sentence may be confusing to some readers and I wished that it was clarified just a wee bit. It is important, in my estimation, what we believe about the nature of the Scripture, but I have contended for this point elsewhere on my blog and will not rehash it here.

I think you will enjoy this book and I think you will benefit from it greatly. It gives the reader easy, point by point explanations of the places where ‘modern scholars’ go wrong and why they go wrong. He interacts with the historical documents well and explains them sufficiently to the lay person. You would do well to have a copy of this book handy when talking with your friends who are skeptical of the Gospels’ claims about Jesus. Also, this will be a handy volume to strengthen your own faith walk by reinforcing what you believe in your heart about the Scriptures that have been passed on to us from generation to generation: They are trustworthy.

I will say this in conclusion. Evans documents a mountain of theories and portraits. The scope of literature he surveys is daunting to say the least. However, all this ‘hokum history’ and all the ‘bogus findings’ surveyed and reported will come and go with each passing generation. They will take new shapes, new forms, and be reported in different ways by different people. There will be new ways of interpreting ‘evidence’ and manuscripts, and, I suppose, people will continue digging in the dirt of ancient lands in hopes of uncovering some new scrap of pottery or piece of papyrus that will prove or disprove the canonical gospels. Such things will always be happening and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it from happening. But it is all so much dust in the wind and will, like the fading flower men who go to the effort, wither away in the sun. The Word of God, however, will remain; and it must. Here is our confidence.

Soli Deo Gloria!

PS–For related help, pick up a copy of Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, IVP (2nd Ed), 2008. 

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