The Evidence for the Historical Jesus You Won’t Get on TV: A Review of Craig A. Evans’ ‘Fabricating Jesus’

Fabricating JesusHave you ever been channel surfing and landed on a cable documentary about the Bible? You can find loads of them out there — such as “Banned from the Bible,” “Biblical Mysteries Explained,” or “Who Was Jesus?”

The majority of these documentaries present a one-sided picture, painted almost exclusively by liberal theologians. And if you take them at face value, they can really shake your faith. I mean, were stories really “banned” from the Bible? Are there natural explanations to all of Jesus’ miracles? Did Jesus simply decide one day to adopt the title Son of God?

There is another side. And Craig A. Evans’ Fabricating Jesus explains it. 

Summary

Craig A. Evans (who just this week made headlines by confirming the existence of a super early fragment of Mark) says that modern New Testament scholarship tends to “advance daring theories that run beyond the evidence” — leading to a series of fabricated “pseudo-Jesuses.”

Yet in Fabricating Jesus, Evans asserts that the New Testament Gospels deserve “a fresh hearing.” As a result, he confronts modern liberal scholarship head-on to defend the Gospels (“the original witnesses” to the person and work of Jesus) by objectively examining nine significant influences that lead to a distorted view of the historical Jesus. After establishing the reliability of the New Testament Gospels, he then presents a positive description of who Jesus is.

Review

Evans argues that much of modern criticism is “nothing more than skepticism masking itself as scholarship.” Fabricating Jesus is a welcome response that removes that mask and skillfully combats the skepticism. Evans is thorough yet concise, and he presents well-reasoned, logical arguments and evidence.

I particularly like how Evans writes for a popular audience while still maintaining an academic tenor. He allows you to peak behind the curtain of modern academia to see and critique the origins of the popular skeptical assertions about the historical Jesus that dominate liberal scholarship and make headlines. Moreover, he turns some of the skeptics’ own weapons, like historical criteria, against them. Though his aim is “to defend the original witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus,” he approaches each of his arguments with a sense of academic objectivity and level-headedness.

Evans is at his best when he presents his thoughtful analysis to support his assertions. For example, when he argues for late dates for the extracanonical gospels, he painstakingly demonstrates how the writer of The Gospel of Thomas likely had access to other New Testament writings and late edits of the Gospels. Notably, he cites research which suggests that The Gospel of Thomas was originally composed in Syriac, and that the writer was likely acquainted with a late harmonization of the canonical Gospels. The exhaustive research cited in these pages deals a sharp blow to those who argue a first-century composition for this extracanonical book.

He is similarly well-reasoned in his discussion about Josephus. He notes that Josephus has a penchant for avoiding eschatology and messianism, often portraying “Jewish religious parties in philosophical dress.” When you read Josephus in light of these biases, the apparent discrepancies between his accounts and those of the New Testament regarding John the Baptist and Pilate become less significant. His persuasive argument, which he explains at great length, affirms that Josephus and the Gospels “[tell] the same story, but [emphasize] different elements.”

Evans is also particularly helpful in his discussion about the criteria of authenticity. The Jesus Seminar applies such criteria to determine what they perceive to be the original words of the historical Jesus. Evans takes readers behind the scenes to explain what the best criteria of authenticity are and how they function. The problem, he claims, is when scholars, like the Jesus Seminar, reject everything not supported by one of the criteria. This misapplication of the criteria leads to the portrait of the historical Jesus being “distorted badly,” Evans argues. By explaining each of the criteria and offering readers a sneak-peek into how the Jesus Seminar arrived at its conclusions, he clearly demonstrates the reasonableness of the criteria — and the overwhelming unreasonableness and harmful presuppositions of the Jesus Seminar.

Nevertheless, Evans’ method of argument is sometimes less successful. For example, his pure reliance on external evidence and logical reasoning is a deft apologetic for the reliability of the Gospels, but it proves less useful when discussing the historical Jesus’ miracles. In addition, Evans seems to have an ax to grind with conservative branches of Christianity. Such criticism is unnecessary and out of place, particularly when he clearly has drawn lines to distinguish between faithful and distorted Christian scholarship of the Gospels.

Summary

Despite these drawbacks and limitations, Fabricating Jesus gives you solid evidence and helpful arguments that strongly confront skeptical academia in the search for the historical Jesus. It comes in an accessible medium that many average readers can consume and understand. Evans is at his best when presenting his thorough, logical reasoning and demystifying the world of critical scholarship, and he solidly achieves his goal “to defend the original witnesses” of the historical Jesus against the skeptical attacks and their underlying influences.

Source: Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Downers Grove: InverVarsity Press, 2006.

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