Friday, August 28, 2009

Jesus, the final days

The following is a book report I wrote on Jesus, the final days by Craig Evans and N.T. Wright (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).

The material for Jesus; the final days comes from a lecture series the authors did at Crichton College. The book was intended for a wide readership, all the way from interested laypersons to scholars “who have academic specialties” other than New Testament studies.

The first two chapters were authored by Craig Evans, one of the world’s foremost Jesus scholars. In chapter one Evans discusses the reality of Jesus’ death including an evaluation of the reliability of data in the sources.

Evans discusses the various sources, Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Mar bar Serapion as well as the synoptic Gospels and he evaluates the data using the criteria of embarrassment. For example, Evans argues that it was unlikely that the Gospel writers would have fabricated a story about their Messiah being crucified since Jesus crucifixion was “a source of embarrassment for Jesus’ earliest followers” because if your “Messiah” got executed, it was usually considered proof-positive that the victim could not possibly be the Messiah.

Evans then discusses the reasons for Jesus’ death. First is because his triumphal entry into Jerusalem “deliberately mimicked Solomon, David’s son, who…rode the royal mule as a part of his declaration of kingship (1 Kgs. 1:32-40).”

The second reason for his death was when Jesus overturned the tables in the Temple, charging the ruling priests with making the Temple a “cave of robbers.”

Third, is Jesus’ parable of the vineyard which warned of judgment because of Israel’s failure to pursue justice.

The fourth reason was because Jesus was anointed by an unnamed woman, which was probably reported by Judas Iscariot as a Messianic anointing.

Significantly absent in Evans’ discussion is the furor caused, according to the Gospels, when Jesus claimed to do things that only God could do, like forgiving sin, claiming authority over the Sabbath, annulling the Torah’s dietary laws, etc.

Evans then asks whether Jesus anticipated his own death. He argues that when John the Baptist was executed, surely Jesus must have known that a similar fate awaited him if he continued on his ministry.

Second, Evans argues that Jesus’ fear in the garden is not the “stuff of pious fiction or dogma.”

Finally, the last supper in which Jesus’ mentions his own death, is reported in multiple independent sources including the Gospel of Mark, First Corinthians, and the Didache.
Evan’s discussion of Jesus’ trial is largely a review of the biblical data.

Evans argues that Jesus was condemned “not only for his daring claim to be God’s anointed Son, but for implying that he will sit in judgment on the high priest, as though he were an enemy of God” (19). “According to all four Gospels the focus of Pilate’s examination of Jesus was on the allegation that Jesus had presented himself as the king of the Jews” (19).

This is confirmed by Jesus’ execution as “king of the Jews” (20). Evans argues that this was no Christian creation. “Christians regarded Jesus as the Messiah (or Christ), Son of god, Lord, and Savior, not ‘King of the Jews,’ a title the Romans granted to Herod the Great” (20).

One of the attacks on the Gospels has to do with Pilate’s offer of a Passover pardon which the critics think is highly unlikely. Evans point out, however, that there are other ancient historical accounts of officials releasing prisoners on special days so the release of Barabbas is not unique.

Further, Evans argues that the story of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus’ case was not a fabricated signs of weakness, as critics contend. Pilate’s decision was pure politics. He did not want to offend the ruling priests who wanted Jesus’ dead but Pilate also did not want to be the cause of a popular uprising. By washing his hands of the matter, Pilate hoped to appease the priests and let the possible consequences fall at their feet.

Evans points out that crucifixion was practiced by Persians, Assyrians, Scythians, Greeks and even Jews, long before the Romans used it. Victims could sometimes be scourged down to the bone. The story about Jesus not being able to carry his own cross is historically probable, says Evans, since it is unlikely that Christians would make up a story about Jesus not being able to carry his own cross when he had instructed his followers to take up their cross and follow him.

The dividing of Jesus’ cloths was consistent with Roman practice. Although Roman law permitted bodies to be taken down and bury, some were left unburied, to rot or be picked apart by birds and animals (32).

Many have argued that when Jesus said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” this was evidence that he had lost his faith. Evans argues that Jesus may well have had the entire Psalm in mind including the part about how “future generations will proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn” (33).

Finally Evans discusses the theological implications of Jesus’ death. From a Jewish perspective, Jesus died as a failed messianic pretender. From a Roman perspective, he was a condemned criminal. Jesus, however, viewed his death as an atonement for sin and an establishment of the New Covenant, a perspective his followers embraced after his death.

Evans also authored chapter two which focuses specifically on the burial of Jesus. This chapter is necessitated by modern theories about Jesus’ body being left on a cross or thrown into a shallow ditch and eaten by dogs.

Such theories, Evans argues, ignore the very strong Jewish custom about the necessity of burying the dead. Evans cites Tobit, Josephus, Philo and Rabbinic sources which demonstrate that it was considered such a great obligation to bury the dead that even a Nazarite (who was not permitted to touch a dead body) or the High Priest himself, was obligated to bury a dead body if the only alternative was to leave the body unburied. As evidenced by Deuteronomy, Ezekiel and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jews believed that leaving the dead unburied defile the land.

On the other hand, that fact that even though thousands of people were crucified in the first century AD, the remains of only two crucified victims been found, leads some to argue that this is proof that the Roman practice of not burying crucifixion victims was also practiced in Palestine (58). Evans argues, however, that almost all of the bones recovered from the time of Jesus are poorly preserved and only the smaller bones of the hands and feet would provide evidence of crucifixion (in other words, many of the bones which have been recovered may have been from crucifixion victims but without their hands or feet we would never know it).

Second, some victims were tied to crosses so no evidence would survive. Third, the best preserved bones were found in tombs likely to have been owned by the rich, which were least likely victims of crucifixion.

Finally, most of the first century Jews who were crucified and left unburied were those who died in open rebellion or in the Jewish War when Rome no longer had any reason to honor Jewish sensibilities about burying the dead. Things were different in peacetime and both Josephus and Philo say that the Romans often tried to respect Jewish customs.

Evans also briefly addresses such views as the wrong tomb theory, the swoon theory, the Passover Plot, Michael Baigent’s “silly” Jesus Papers theory, and the recent discovery of the tomb in East Talpiot.

Chapter three, “The Surprise of the Resurrection” was authored by N.T. Wright, another of the world’s foremost Jesus scholars. One significant problem, says Wright, is the fact that the word “resurrection” is used by modern laypersons and even scholars to mean things that it simply did not mean in the first century. For example, resurrection never referred to some kind of “disembodied bliss.” A “spiritual resurrection” would have been considered a contradiction in terms.

Resurrection did not simply mean “life after death,” but “life after life after death.” In other words, Jews did not view death as the end of existence, but they believed that this disembodied existence after death would one day be followed by a general, bodily resurrection.

When discussing the resurrection, critics often point to the apparent contradictions in the Gospels as evidence that the Gospels are historically unreliable. Wright counters with an illustration from a meeting between two prominent philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. The two were meeting with other philosophers in a study with a fireplace. At one point Wittgenstein picked up a poker, waved it in the air and left the room. Later, the other philosophers, who were eyewitnesses, were not able to agree on the details of exactly what happened; but no one would say that nothing happened or that there was no meeting or no poker, etc. The point is that lack of eyewitness agreement on details in no way impinges on the overall historical reliability of the reports.

This little book (only 116 pages) is absolutely outstanding! It does a remarkable job of bringing serious scholarship down to a level that even laypeople can understand. My only qualm with the book was with Evan’s explanation of why Jesus was crucified. Whatever the official explanation given at Jesus’ trial (executed for claiming to be “king of the Jews”), I would argue that the real reason Jesus’ death was sought by the Jewish leadership was for blasphemy, because he made claims for himself that only rightly belonged to God, for example his claim to forgive sin, to be lord over the Sabbath, to overturn dietary laws, etc. Pilate, of course, would care nothing about Jewish religious ideas of blasphemy so the leadership had to present Jesus to Pilate as an insurrectionist, a “king of the Jews.”

Since what happened to Jesus has been so widely challenged lately with numerous bizarre theories, and since Jesus’ death and resurrection are at the core of Christianity, this book is a “must-read” for every Christian.