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A review of Fabricating Jesus. By Craig Evans.

Jan 11, 2007

IVP, 2006.

At the very heart of Christianity is Christ. Remove Christ, and you no longer have Christianity. Thus those wanting to attack Christianity concentrate their heaviest firepower on Christ. And we have seen plenty of examples of that recently.

One way to attack Jesus is to attack the four canonical Gospels in which he appears. Parts of modern scholarship have been quite busy in distorting and misrepresenting the Gospels. They do this by questioning the Gospel accounts themselves, by speaking of other gospel traditions, by claiming there were alternative Christianities at the time, and so on.

In its more popular form this assault on Jesus comes out in such works of fiction as The Da Vinci Code. But it also comes out in more scholarly avenues, such as the Jesus Seminar. This volume examines all of these approaches, and finds them wanting. Indeed, Evans says the scepticism about Jesus and the Gospels betrays a “misplaced faith and misguided suspicions”.

Craig Evans is well placed to undertake this task. He is a leading New Testament scholar, specialising in the historical Jesus and the Jewish background of the New Testament era. Here he takes head on the various challenges to the Jesus of history and the Gospel accounts.

Image of Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels
Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels by Craig A. Evans Amazon logo

Consider the reliability of the Gospels. As with all ancient documents, they need to be assessed. We need to know how trustworthy they are as sources for learning about the historical events surrounding the life and teachings of Jesus. Over the years such tests have been developed. We refer to them as the “criteria of authenticity”. These are historical and literary criteria for assessing biblical literature.

One such criterion is that of multiple attestation. If we find a saying or teaching of Jesus that appears in two or more independent sources, that makes it more likely that they were circulated widely and early, and were not the invention of a single writer. And such is what we find in the New Testament documents.

Another is the criterion of embarrassment. This states that material that is potentially embarrassing or awkward for the early church is less likely to have been invented by believers after the Easter event. For example, given what a low view of women first century Judaism had, it seems strange indeed that the first people to report the resurrection of Jesus were women. Someone making up this story would surely not have chosen women, whose testimony was considered to be almost nil.

The various criteria taken together show that the four Gospels indeed have a high degree of authenticity and reliability. Says Evans, “Criteria of authenticity, which are remarkably vigorous in their application to the Gospels, confirm the essential core of Jesus’ teaching”.

Evans next looks at some of the other so-called gospels, the alternative gospels to the four canonical ones. Evans notes how the critics apply overly harsh and stringent tests for the reliability of the four Gospels, but when it comes to these alternative gospels, they approach them with kid gloves, giving them almost a free ride. Moreover, while they try to push the canonical Gospels to late dates, they are happy to give early authorship dates for these extracanonical writings.

Evans says the critics should show some consistency here, and apply the same standards to these new gospels as they do to the more traditional ones. Take for example the Gospel of Thomas. Liberal scholars tend to uncritically accept this as an early and legitimate gospel. But the evidence suggests otherwise.

As to dating, the four Gospels were all written within decades of the life of Jesus. Mark was penned in the 60s, Matthew and Luke in the late 70s, and John in the mid-90s. All of the alternative gospels however are dated to the second century and into the third. Thomas for example was written around A.D.180, perhaps later.

Moreover, it reads completely different from the four canonical Gospels. It is not really a gospel or biography at all, but a collection of sayings, reflecting a Gnostic, esoteric worldview. Says Evans, it clearly does not offer us “independent material that can be used for critical research into the life and teaching of Jesus”.

After examining other pseudo-gospels, he moves on to various aspects of theological revisionism about the life of Christ. For example, was Jesus – as some claim – in fact a Mediterranean Cynic? Did he really view himself as the Messiah? What about his healings and miracles? How did he view the Judaism of his day? In all these areas, Evans argues that the traditional (biblical) understanding of Jesus is to be preferred to the new, more radical and speculative accounts.

He concludes by arguing that the traditional Gospel accounts of Jesus may be old, but they are reliable. In contradistinction to the “newer, radical, minimalist, revisionist, obscurantist and faddish versions of the Jesus story,” the traditional one is both more convincing and more in tune with the historical and literary evidence.

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3 Responses to A review of Fabricating Jesus. By Craig Evans.

  • Bill

    An interesting review.

    Contention about the life of Jesus and the accuracy of all the various accounts is hardly new. Believers,agnotics and disbelievers alike have always been interested in Christ’s personal details.

    The Davinci Code is hardly the darling of just agnostics and atheists. How many ‘Christians’ do you think cherish a fond hope that Jesus did escape Israel with Mary Magdalen and Joseph of Arimathea to the coast of France to found Europe’s royal bloodlines and shoot the holy grail over to Britain? We would need an army to count them!

    As we know the Church has, particularly in modern times, struggled with this and similar issues. Belief in the Resurrection is the key issue that determines whether someone is a Christian. If you can’t recite the Nicene Creed in good faith then no amount of hym singing will get you there. But the Church knows that congregations would be heavily diluted if you excluded every church attendee with doubts about the Resurrection from the ranks of the ‘faithful’.

    The Church also knows that many in its congregations have, since the earliest times, felt it easier to relate to Jesus because of Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts of his early life.

    Therefore, while I thinks its unreasonable for atheists and agnostics to hold Christianity to a much higher standard than they do themselves on issues like the existence of God, I also think its faintly ridiculous of some Christians to focus so heavily on defending the accuracy of the New Testament Gospels about the early life of Jesus.

    Its harmless and good for the kids, but I nevertheless feel the onset of madness when I see all the mangers and wisemen!! We simply do not know the precise details of Jesus’ birth or other things like whether or not he was a decendant of David. And who cares!

    The only thing that can possibly matter is whether Jesus was crucified and was recurrected from the dead. By contesting irrelevancies like Jesus’ ancestry we play into the hands of the atheists and agnostics who want to apply Enlightenments tests to everything.

    Cheers
    Ben Carter

  • This is a good summarising review. What is great about this book is that Craig A Evans, clearly is not trying to downplay any of the scholars who question the canonicals gospel’s authenticity even in the first chapter ‘misplaced faith and misguided suspicions.’ He takes the evidence as it is and appraises each case clearly and in a way that makes sense to the lay person as well as the scholar who is interested in the New testament.

    There’s now a book out on Jesus’ resurrection by Craig A Evans concerning Jesus’ resurrection, which will be available to you Ben Carter. Interestingly it seems like N.T. Wright (the current bishop of Durham, UK) is a co-author of this book, he was one of the scholars part of the Jesus Seminar, an organisation who most probably popularized if not created many of the controversial and radical views concerning Jesus. He also is well-read and observes the historical evidence ‘critically’ (not skeptically like the way many scholars these days work in theology especially now in Durham, where i am from.) An expert in the field of Jesus’ resurrection and its historicity is Gary Habermas, i hope you can be critical (not skeptical) of his work regarding Jesus’ resurrection and consider the effect this will have on Christians and everyone today. But i do recommend you read this book if you want a balanced view of the authenticity of the four canonical gospels first and consider their points carefully, as i have, before passing judgement on anyone.

    Michael Lee

  • Thanks Michael

    Yes the book you mention, Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened is short but well worth reading. One correction however: Wright is not – and as far as I am aware, has never been – a member of the Jesus Seminar, but has instead been rightly quite critical of it.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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