This morning I watched 'Jesus the Cold Case' which aired on TV One last night. The program involved Bryan Bruce exploring the question of who killed Jesus and why? The agenda was to challenge the idea that the Jews were behind the killing of Jesus as this has led to blaming Jews for his death, to anti-Semitism and to horrors such as the Holocaust. Here are some thoughts in response.
Positively, the program did unmask a whole range of Christian traditions that have accumulated over time such as Jesus looking like a western man with long hair, when in fact he was a short man, with rounded face, cropped hair and tanned skin. It showed how many of the supposed sites in Israel where Jesus supposedly did this and that and upon which churches are now found are likely bogus. I like some of the drawing out of the political implications of Jesus, with Jerusalem a tinder box and Jesus killed by the Romans in the end for being a political danger. I like the recognition that his actions in the temple were decisive for his death. It also rightly brought to the fore that to whatever extent some Jews played a part in Jesus' death, Pilate and the Romans did the deed. He was sentenced by Pilate, and was crucified by Roman soldiers. It also rightly challenged anti-Semitism and the Holocaust – like all racism and atrocities against humanity, these are abhorrent, repugnant and to be rejected out of hand.
With all that in mind, as a NT biblical scholar and a part of the academy Bryan Bruce drew on for the program, the whole thing was unbelievably poorly conceived and put together, it was subjective and imbalanced in the extreme. If this reflects on the quality of Bryan Bruce's work in other 'cold-cases', I would suggest that he has little if anything to offer.
Why do I make this claim? Here are the reasons.
Through the program Bryan Bruce drew on a range of scholars like NZ's own Lloyd Gering, Bishop Spong, Dominic Crossan and others. Without exception, the scholars drawn on are a particular breed of liberals (e.g. Jesus Seminar) with a particular viewpoint and agenda i.e. they reject the Scriptures and revision them radically reinterpreting Christianity through a liberal sceptical lens. They pick and choose which bits of the Bible they prefer, rejecting others. Now, unbeknown to Bruce and many others, there are a vast array of biblical scholars and theologians out there who find their views incorrect at many levels. Some names that did not feature in this are N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington, Craig Blomberg, Don Carson and Richard Bauckham, among many others. Most if not all the things discussed in the program have been discussed in biblical scholarship. Through the program we hear 'most/some/all biblical scholars' again and again – let the reader know, his confidence is misplaced and arrogant. He does not have any idea what 'most, some and all' biblical scholars think, he has not done his homework. It is absolutely unacceptable to present such a biased perspective when there is mountains of scholarship that can be brought alongside what he put together to critique it.
This imbalance leads to biased perspectives. For example, he draws on one or two scholars who argue that John the Baptist did not die as the Gospels say. They suggest John did not die for challenging Herod's adultery, but for political reasons. Perhaps there were political reasons lurking in his death, but there is simply no evidence to back it up except the opinion of a couple of radical thinkers. This would not hold up in any court! There is the view that Pilate could not have given the crowds an alternative at the Passover to choose Barabbas or Jesus. Why? There is no evidence of such a possible decree and it is inconsistent with the picture of Pilate in Josephus etc. There is the view that when Jesus cleared the temple it was insignificant, that he did not come into Israel on an ass but walked in. All such things, and there were many others we could pick apart one by one, are mere conjecture and opinion based on absolutely no evidence – just machinations of some scholar's minds. This is inadequate. Take the authorship and dating of the gospels for example. He dates Matthew and Luke in the 75-80 region, and John in the 90-100's. He states none were written by apostles. While many would agree, many would not. Many date Luke at the point Luke's work in his second volume Acts ends, AD 61-62. Many believe Matthew the apostle wrote Matthew and John wrote John. The early church from the early second century at least, holds that Peter was instrumental to Mark's Gospel. Luke writes plainly that he drew on eye-witness testimony to write his gospel. Many scholars believe that Luke was an excellent first century historian, with almost all geographical, political, historical and other references easily cross-referenced to secular literature. He says things like, Jesus never had a tomb or used Joseph of Arimathea. Who says? On what basis? It is simply speculation. He argues that Jesus was likely crucified on an olive tree in seclusion, and his body disposed of. As Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura would say, 'Reheally!' Why not argue that Martians took the body after he was crucified upside down in a latrine? There is no basis for such claims. On the other hand we have four Gospels each saying much the same things, but with differences one might expect from genuine accounts based on recollection. It seems a big deal to the makers that the Gospels were 30+ years after the event. Interview someone who was involved in Watergate in the early 1970's or the American Space program, and see if their recollections are accurate. You will find that they are if not perfect. The program was arrogant, it is as if these views do not exist. Sure, we can't be certain of any of these thing, but strong cases can be made. This was not well balanced forensics, it is bringing an a priori viewpoint to something, and then seeking to prove it.
It is amazing how Bruce at time accepts what the bible says but at other times doesn't. Surprisingly he does not question Jesus as a miracle worker, one would have thought he would. Those in the know recognise why he doesn't, all sources for Jesus accept him as a miracle worker. He accepts that Mark wrote Mark on the basis of the ascription, but rejects that John and Matthew wrote their gospels, yet they have an ascription likely written at the same times when the four gospels was becoming a collection for circulation. Hengel would say in the early 2nd century this happened. Bruce notes that aside from the Gospel writers, we have no other witnesses to draw on to check their work. That argument cuts both ways. If we use its logic, we have nothing to critique the gospels on at all, and so we should take them as read and decide what to do with them. Yet he does a remarkable job tearing them down with nothing. All he really has is some radical scholars opinions and his own weakly researched one. Another inconsistency is to prefer Paul's letters because of their early dating (which he gets wrong saying 50-55, when Spong rightly in the same program says 50-64 – I would say 48-64/66). He rejects the idea that Jews were ascribed the blame in the NT for killing Jesus, yet Paul in 1 Thess 2:13-16 directly attributes the killing of Jesus to the Jews. Of course, as you can imagine, a whole range of scholars consider this an interpolation – yet, using the art of Textual Evidence as practised by the serious, there is NO evidence that it is an interpolation except scholars being uncomfortable over the so-called anti-Semitism in this text. Remember Paul is a Jew writing this, hardly anti-Semitism, just a Jew critiquing his own country-men. He quotes Joseph Zias and 'expert on crucifixion' who says there are many ways to crucify in the ancient world, but then surmises Jesus must have been crucified in any way other than the one recorded. But, if there are many ways for the Romans to crucify someone, why not the way we read in the Gospels?
He makes assumptions like 'Jesus of Nazareth' must mean that Jesus was from Nazareth and not Bethlehem, so the idea he is from Bethlehem is a construct. Yet Matthew explains this, Joseph took Jesus away from Bethlehem when his life was threatened, and then left for Nazareth via Egypt. It says in Luke and Matthew that he grew up in Nazareth. As such, when emerged on the scene, he was to all intents and purposes 'a Nazarene.' Why assume this is incorrect? Bizarre. Pure speculation. Then there is the way he deals with Joseph, Jesus' father. He thinks Joseph never existed. Yet he refers regularly to Jesus' father, a carpenter. Why not Joseph? In Mark 6 there is mention of Jesus' brothers, one being Joseph? Perhaps he was named after his dad? There are sisters? Can't for the life of me work out why he wastes his time speculating and assuming such things? Another assumption is that Herod did not kill the babies in Bethlehem on two grounds, one is that he wouldn't have bothered as his control was unquestioned; secondly, that it is not mentioned in secular sources. Well, neither argument is compelling. Herod was despised by his own people as a non-Jew and sell-out to Rome. He was likely paranoid. In the ancient world, there is nothing more dangerous than someone people think is king, and the best thing to do is wipe that kid out early to remove any threat. Further, the absence of reference to it in secular sources proves nothing. Why would one small massacre in a small non-descript town (note he admits through the program that Bethlehem was tiny, a few hundred people) in the backblocks of a tiny nation Israel, get into the writings of historians? Note how he deals with the raising of Lazarus. He discusses the 'saved by the bell' tradition and then simply decides that the Lazarus account never happened. Whether it did or not cannot be decided on the whim of some dude without anything. Man this guy annoys me – how dare he call himself a forensic scientist. He is an embarrassment. There is also the statement that Palm Sunday never happened, this despite scholars he quoted believing that it did. Whatever. There is the idea that Jesus when he went into the temple and courts to clear it and debate, that 'he expected to get away with it.' Come on. The Synoptics are shaped around three passion predictions in which Jesus clearly stated that he would suffer and die (Mark 8:31; 9:30; 10:32). There is Mark 10:52-45 where Jesus speaks of his ministry as patterned after the servant who dies for the nation, and as a 'ransom for many.' There is the garden scene in Gethsemane whereby he pleads with God for deliverance from his cup of suffering – the cross (Mark 14:32-42). These and other references to his forthcoming death all suggest he had no expectation of getting away with it, but expected to die. Sure, we can write these things off, but it is selective reading, choosing the bits we want, with no real basis other than the agenda.
5. Confusion over Christian History
One of the problems in the presentation is the way in which later Christian history is fused into his rejection of the bible. So for example, the date of Jesus' birth. Jesus can't have been born as per the Gospels because he was born before 4 BC under Herod the Great. Now, the current calendar was put together centuries later by people who did not know this. We have known this for years. It proves nothing about the factuality of the narrative, because no date is given in the narratives at all! Look at any bible dictionary, encyclopedia, commentary and they will say Jesus was likely born between 8BC and 4BC, not sure what it proves. I have mentioned Jesus' looks above. Biblical scholars for years have critiqued western art and its depiction of Jesus and the Last Supper etc. Again, one can believe everything in Scripture and be unaffected by later Church tradition. We know that the stories of Jesus we embellished over time, and in the period of relics and indulgences, badly distorted. Holy sites are almost all questionable. None of this says anything about the Scriptures. Irenaeus and others in the mid to late second century accepted four gospels rejecting the others, they were set well before these corruptions of the Christian story began to fully proliferate. There is a real misunderstanding of Christian history. Further, there is reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls as a cave full of 'biblical documents'. That is nonsense. It was full of OT and other Jewish documents, there is nothing from the NT in the documents. Aside from radical speculation without a hint of scholarship, there is no evidence established of a link between Christianity, the NT, and the Essene Qumran community. This is a naive and ill-informed.
6. SpeculationsI could put the whole program in this section. A couple of further examples are of note. It is assumed and speculated that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist because he was baptised by him. Was he? There is no evidence of this. It seems rather, that they were related, that John was in the Wilderness with a knowledge that he was a prophet of the coming Messiah. Jesus came to him for baptism. Then John recognised him and told some or all of his disciples to follow Jesus, which some including Andrew did. Maybe John was Jesus' mentor, maybe he wasn't, it proves nothing and is pure speculation. He draws on Crossan's idea that Jesus saw that John's approach to the Kingdom was wrong after John died, and so came up with another idea based on a non-violent kingdom. Maybe, but again, speculation. Maybe God told him of another way? There are arguments that Jesus went to visit family in Bethany i.e. Martha, Mary. Again, maybe, but irrelevant. Proves little. There is the idea that Judas is a construct, that he did not betray Jesus. There is the idea that there was no trial, but the Romans took him and killed him. There is the idea that he did not die as said, or carry his cross – these are all later additions to the text. May the reader know, there is no basis for this except pure opinion. There is the idea that just because Judas' name sounds like Judah, it is a construct. There is an assumption that wherever there is an OT prophecy mentioned or alluded to in the passion, it is a creation based on the prophecy, not a fulfilment of the prophecy. Well, yes, one could argue this if one liked. But one could equally argue the converse, that there was an explicit attempt by Jesus to fulfil prophecy, and that the events were shaped by God in history to fulfil prophecy. A balanced argument would hear both sides and let the reader/hearer make up their own mind. That is what Christianity is all about. There is nothing historical, balanced, forensic, academic or anything to any of his analysis in the program.
7. Factual Errors
There are factual errors like his saying that Luke records the wise men coming to Bethlehem to follow the star – that was Matthew's Gospel Bryan. Lloyd Gering is interviewed early in the program stating that the accounts of the crucifixion are constructs as none of Jesus' followers were at the cross. Wrong. There were women at the cross in every gospel and in John, one of the men 'the disciple Jesus' loved' who is given care over Mary (John 19:26). The traditional view is that this is John, while some argue it is Lazarus or another disciple. Whoever it is, it is a disciple who may have passed on the material. So the argument that there are no sources for what happened is spurious. It is also sexist, Gering showing no respect for the women that were there. Many scholars believe that Mary Jesus' mother was one of Luke's sources for his gospel based on the material found in the Infancy Narrative. The women would have been a perfect source for the material in Luke's Passion Narrative (e.g. Luke 23:26-31). John may well have been the disciple mentioned at the cross. A classic error was the comment on the Lukan Census in Luke 2:1-3. He states that it was impossible for the descendents of David to come to Bethlehem to be counted as per the narrative. He says there were 50 generations, David had 300 wives, this would leave potentially 10 billion descendants. Yeah right! There still are not 10billion in the world today! There were 200,000 to 300,000 in Galilee at the time of Christ and some 1-2 million in Palestine at best. So, using such ridiculous stats is of little use and skews the discussion irrationally. He states that the Election of Israel, Torah, and Law were given 2000 years before Jesus was born. This is inaccurate, with the call of Abraham perhaps 2000 years before Christ, but the Exodus/Sinai event in the 1400-1200 region, depending on which chronology of the OT you follow. He follows Crossan who argues that Jesus could not read, of course he could read. He knew reams of Scripture, as did Paul. He should have stuck with Vermes. There is the statement that Christians were fed to the lions in the Coliseum. This is incorrect. They were killed at Nero's Circus the site of St Peters Basilica.
8. The Bible is Anti-Semitic
There is this claim that the Bible is anti-Semitic that lurks behind all this. There is a fear of anything in Scripture that paints Jews in a bad light. This is due to a phobia amongst westerners to give any credence to the Holocaust. There is an attempt to discredit. I too am disgusted by all oppression and violence against peoples on any basis, let alone race. All genocide is revolting and abhorrent. However, it is a complete misreading of the Scriptures to find this in the NT. The NT was written in a time of great clashes between Judaism and Christianity. There are statements that are strong such as John's use of the term 'the Jews' in terms of Jesus' opponents; there is Matthew's statement in Matt 27:25 'And all the people answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!"' There is Paul's comment that the Jews killed Jesus in 1 Thess 2:15. Yet these need to be read in the full perspective of the NT. The first Christians until Cornelius were all Jews or converts to Judaism! The critique of Paul is a Jew writing of his own people and says nothing justifying the Holocaust. Matthew's comment too, is placed in a Gospel that advocates non-violence and gives no grounds for any racism. John clearly does not mean 'all the Jews' when he uses 'the Jews', rather, it means 'all the Jews who reject Jesus.' After all, all followers of Jesus in John are Jews! At one point in the program, it was even said that John's Gospel is a 'Gospel of hate'. What? Love is the dominant theme in John! Its theme is that God loves the world (e.g. Jn 3:16). It is because of our love that all people will see that we are followers of Jesus, who is love. My goodness, what a corruption. The Bible affirms all humanity as created in God's image and Jesus came to end such bigotry. We do not need to revision the NT in this way.
So why did Jesus die? Jesus died because he really upset many of the rulers of his nation, the Jews. Not all felt the same, there are two Jewish leaders at least who turned to him, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. The reason he upset them was he challenged their thinking and power. He claimed to be the Son of Man. He claimed the power of God to forgive. He claimed to be the one interpreter of Law, the 'Lord of the Sabbath', repeatedly challenging their views on law. He was accused of threatening to destroy the temple. He hung out with the wrong people, sinners, the marginalised, the unclean. He flouted the externals of the law. He refused to play the game of power and lead and assault on the Romans. He threatened their power. The crowds loved him. He entered Jerusalem arrogantly on a donkey, as if he was Messiah. He assaulted the temple. He incited debate. He was a threat. So they went to work to get rid of him.
The Romans are equally culpable. When the Jews brought Jesus to them, they sought to convince Pilate that Jesus was a political threat, a revolutionary, an agitator, a threat to Rome. Pilate wasn't really interested as he was no threat. Yet, to appease the Jews at the volatile time of Passover with Jerusalem full of pilgrims, he condemned Jesus to death. It was political expediency that led him to do it.
The coming together of Jew and Roman to kill Jesus does not implicate all Jews, or all Romans for that matter. It theologically speaks of us all rejecting God again, and killing him. No one race is to blame. There is no justification for anti-Romanism or anti-Semitism. Jesus came to draw people to God and love, not to hatred and violence.
The whole program claims that the early Christians 'rewrote history to suit their purpose.' The real truth is that Bryan Bruce has joined a whole lot of other revisionists to rewrite history to suit his own purposes. His purpose is to destroy Christianity, and westerners are buying it. There is the claim that the early Christians had one of the greatest PR campaigns of history. I would argue rather, that they simply went out and told what they had seen and heard. That the differences in the Gospels are a result of authentic honest attempts to record the story of Jesus honestly as they recalled it. I would argue that the Gospels are linked to the end of the lives of Apostles, they recording the stories before lost in time. They believed that Jesus rose from the dead, and died for that belief. They went about living not out of anti-Semitism, but out of non-violence and love, and even though many were killed for their faith, eventually saw the whole Roman Empire 'taken over' by this belief. Sure, after this point the stories became embellished and the faith corrupted. But that does not do anything to remove the power of the story as it is written.
I would say that we are now living in the midst of another PR claim much more insidious. Western thinkers since the Enlightenment and up to the present day have been seeking to tear down the edifice that made such a huge contribution to why western culture has blossomed so much, Christianity. As we look around, we see Westerners abandoning Christianity. As they do, we see the Judeo-Christian ethic in decline. We see greater and greater social problems around the breakup of the family. We ponder how to deal with the problems of alcohol, drug abuse, family violence and other issues. At a global level, we see its dominance receding. Well, that is what will come from this counter PR campaign, and it is based on the most biased, uncritical, assumptive, speculative, reading of the world ever conceived.
The Media is tied up nicely in this. I ask, why was I not interviewed for the show, or better, why was N.T. Wright or others who deal with this stuff in a more specialist way interviewed? Because it would have muddied the drama and reduced its effect. It would have brought to the public arena the converse voice. Those who defend Christianity are marginalised in NZ. We no longer hear balanced debate. The goal is demolition of Christianity. The Media is out of control in many ways (e.g. Murdoch), this is another example. TV One, when are you going to give a balanced view?
We need to wake up and rediscover the story.