Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book Review: Fabricating Jesus by Craig Evans

For the average layperson, modern New Testament scholarship can seem a bit like alchemy. With strange nomenclature like P.Oxy. 840, and tales of lost Gospels written in Coptic, most just don’t know what to say when asked about it. Throw in a good conspiracy theory about secret agents from the Vatican stealing a manuscript which tells of a letter written by Jesus Christ to the Pharisees in 45 AD, years after he’d been crucified1, and any reasonable person just gives up and goes home. This is a problem because New Testament scholarship has been one of the most vocal challenges against the existing canon in present day. From the popularized Holy Blood, Holy Grail, to the prolific Bart Ehrman, everybody seems to be taking a shot at re-creating Jesus as someone different than man portrayed in the four Gospels. For the Christian who wants to respond intelligently, wrapping one’s hands around this esoteric and specialized field can seem impossible. Craig Evans wrote Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospel to provide readers with a place to start understanding these claims and a means to respond.

Dr. Evans is Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia. He has a robust résumé, which is summarized in the preface, although his experience with some relevant texts is mentioned later in the book.2 It is clear that Evans is well acquainted with the issues and people he discusses. The years Evans has spent with the New Testament community has left him exasperated at the poor scholarship being presented to the general public. In the introduction Evans writes, “Fabricating Jesus is a book that takes a hard look at some of the sloppy scholarship and misguided theories that have advanced in recent years. I am appalled at much of this work. Some of it, frankly, is embarrassing.”3 Evans is confident that the layperson can respond to the popular level claims made by these scholars. And, in this book, Evans outlines three areas of criticism that are easy for the layperson to grasp and communicate.

Evans begins by describing the baggage that most New Testament scholars carry with them into their work. While modern scholarship often portrays itself as “impartial,” Evans shows that it’s quite the opposite in the first two chapters. In Chapter 1, he focuses on four prominent New Testament scholars (he classifies them as “old school”4 or “new school”5) whose work is being used as a “litmus test” to determine which scholarship is acceptable to the New Testament community. Evans finds that the work of these men has led to the incorrect assumption that the manuscripts we have are not reliable because they are not without error. Evans responds to this idea, stating “The truth of the Christian message hinges not on inerrancy of Scripture or on our ability to harmonize the four Gospels but on the resurrection of Jesus. And the historical reliability of the Gospels does not hinge on the inerrancy of Scripture or on proof that no mistake of any kind can be detected in them.”6 Evans does a good job of briefly addressing textual errors (which are minor) and shows how they have no bearing on the meaning of the text—especially in regard to the reliability of the canonical Gospels’ report of Jesus’ resurrection.

In Chapter 2, Evans shows how scholars establish the “authenticity” of a document and what preconceptions they use in this determination. Most scholars cannot consider the Gospels authentic because of how they portray Christ. Their assumptions about who Jesus could be dictate their conclusion about the reliability of the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus. Evans highlights this in regard to scholars’ doubts about Jesus’ literacy:
Accordingly, we hear comments from them to the effect: “Given that Jesus probably could not read…had no interest in scripture…this saying does not go back to him.” Given such cramped starting points, which often are little more than presuppositions and not documented and argued conclusions, it is not wonder that much of the material in the New Testament Gospels is regarded as inauthentic and unhistorical.7
As well as addressing the popular claim that Jesus was illiterate, Evans corrects the notions that Jesus had no interest in eschatology or that he did not consider himself divine.

As well as discussing the false contexts created by modern New Testament Scholars, Evans also does a wonderful job of introducing the reader to the important extra-biblical texts which have influenced modern New Testament scholarship. This area seems the strongest for Evans. He takes the reader through the Gnostic Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Mary, the Secret Gospel of Mark, and the Egerton Gospel as case studies on how to approach non-canonical texts. Chapter 3 is an extended look at the Gospel of Thomas, in which Evans discusses how to accurately arrive at the gospel’s date. By showing various texts common to Matthew, Luke, John, and Thomas8, Evans makes a very convincing case that the Gospel of Thomas was written later than the Gospels, thus negating it use as an interpretive lens for the canonical Gospels.

Then, in Chapter 4, Evans covers the balance of the non-canonical Gospels and analyzes their content. It quickly becomes clear that the difference between the messages found in both types of Gospels is vastly different. He writes, “When students ask me why certain Gospels were omitted from the canon of the New Testament and whether some of them ought to be included, I tell them to read these Gospels. They do, and that answers their questions.”Because this book is an overview, it makes sense that too much time is not spent on excessive detail for each document.  But, even the brief look at the non-canonical Gospels gives good explanations of the issues so that a layperson can engage his or her neighbors and give them positive reasons to re-examine any conclusions they have made about the canonicity of the Gnostic Gospels..

Other historic texts that Evans interacts with are the writings of Josephus. In Chapter 8, he resolves some tensions that exist between the historian’s work and the Gospel narratives. Chapter 9 addresses the claim that the diverse types of Christianities which existed at the outset of its establishment were winnowed down to what we know today. Evans does not deny that early Christianity was without conflict, quite the contrary. His analysis of the Jerusalem Council helps the reader better understand that the disagreements in the early church were mostly about practice, not about what the church actually agreed upon—namely, the Christ presented in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Another major section of the book, comprised of Chapters 5 through 7, highlight all of the foreign elements scholars impose on Jesus himself. Whether it is altering the context of Jesus’ time and ministry10, or altering the greater context of Jesus’ sayings11, or even by stripping his miracles of their reality and eschatological purpose12, modern scholars just can’t seem to let the Jesus of scripture speak for himself. It seems that there is something about Jesus, as he presented in the Gospels, that is just too dangerous for some people to accept at face value, so he must be altered so that he is safe.

Chapter 10 ends his analysis with a brief overview of some of the stranger ideas which have made their way into popular discourse. Evans makes quick work of dismissing the work of Dan Brown, Barbara Thiering, Michael Baigent, and other irrational claims regarding the New Testament. Evans sums this work up well:
Some of these writers treat ancient documents as coded material that must be unpacked of its “true meaning.” Others accept legends, hoaxes, and forged documents as fact, and are quite ready to draw conclusions from unsubstantiated rumors. Still others blend together legitimate archaeology with highly speculative guesswork. It is no wonder that nonexperts today are bewildered and would like to know what’s going on.13
Given how mass media has popularized most of these claims (especially those from Dan Brown and Michael Bagient) it’s nice to see Evans show how baseless they are. The claims truly are indefensible, and Evans’ impatience with the unscholarly approach to sacred text is fairly clear.

The criticisms of the book are minor. First, in an attempt to make the book more readable, the author chose to use endnotes rather than footnotes. While this does unclutter the page, finding endnotes is a cumbersome process. If you are a person who follows the citations, flipping to the back can be bit frustrating. Second, there are many helpful insets with interesting information like a list of “The Oldest Greek Manuscripts of John’s Gospel” or “The Pilate Inscription” showing the text of a dedication to Pontius Pilate scattered throughout the book. They are, however, placed in locations which have minimal relevance to the point of the insert. Third, Evans becomes caustic near the end as he addresses the “non-scholarship” of Dan Brown, Barbara Thiering, and others. While his exasperation is understandable given the unbelievable claims made, it can be a little harsh. Keep that in mind as you share the book.

Evans addresses a lot of information in this book, and he moves through information rather quickly. There is a sacrifice of depth for breadth here, but given the popular-level nature of the book it’s appropriate. This the kind of book you want to read so that you know what’s in it, and then buy a copy for your neighbor next time they bring up The Da Vinci Code. This is the true strength of the book: it’s meant to be given out.  The last chapter, “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up”, is makes a positive case for what we do know about Christ. It’s very even-minded, and while he doesn’t overstate his case, it leaves very little doubt that the canonical Gospels, as we have received them, are reliable.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer David Field is an architect who specializes in construction defect analysis for buildings that are in litigation. He is also Acting Campus Director for Ratio Christi at UC Berkeley. For more information, visit

  1. Michael Baigent claims this to be true. See p. 213-14.
  2. Specifically, Dr. Evans was on the team assembled to assist with the interpretation of the Gospel of Judas. See Appendix 2, page 241.
  3. p. 14
  4. Robert Funk and James Washington. See p. 22-24. Note that James Washington was a professor of Evans during his graduate work.
  5. Robert Price and Bart Ehrman. See p. 24-31. 
  6. p. 31
  7. p. 34. The ellipses are from Evans and are part of the text. The reviewer has not removed any text in this citation.
  8. See table on p. 60
  9. p. 98-99
  10. Usually by casting Jesus as a Cynic, see Chapter 5
  11. “I am inclined to think that those whom Jesus taught…had a better sense of the original context and meaning of Jesus’ sayings than many scholars do today.” P. 125
  12. Chapter 7. This section includes helpful commentary on the role of the historian in scholarship. 
  13. P. 205


jeremy said...

I would like to add _Jesus in an Age of Controversy_ by Douglas Groothuis, as a beneficial read. His book is about the sort of more whacked out Jesus constructions (deconstructions) like saying he went to India and so forth. (I read it years ago but it holds up and has been reprinted so he may have even added things to it though I cannot say. My original seems to cover a lot and is a fascinating read and got me attuned to his other works.

winteryknight said...

I liked Lee Strobel's "The Case for the Real Jesus". It was very practical.

Stephen Bedard said...

I really enjoyed this book. A great book by a great scholar.

jeremy said...

One more..._What Have They Done with Jesus?_ by Ben Witherington. I could keep adding books as can others but I will stop here. I can guarantee most will enjoy these two books recommended. I will have to check out Strobel's book.

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