Craig A. Evans, a Canadian New Testament scholar, understands the nature and shape of the modern attacks upon the historical Jesus. Evans is a first-rate scholar and a fine teacher. I had the opportunity to hear him do a seminar today titled: "Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels." (This is also the title of his IVP book that came out in late 2006.)
Dr. Evans showed us that the more scholars, and they quite often are not real biblical scholars, depart from the traditional view of Jesus the more the popular media jumps on their bandwagon. This sometimes shakes the faith of young Christians or provides seemingly intellectual cover for those who do not want to consider the biblical claims of Jesus. But why do some scholars fabricate new Jesus stories with the slimmest of serious scholarly reasons? What causes them to pre-suppose that the biblical story cannot be the correct one?
These fabrications range from the more serious work of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus to James Tabor’s book, The Jesus Dynasty. Popular treatments include Michael Baigent’s The Jesus Papers and Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ, appealing to non-scholars and the wider popular media. The whole effort tends to build a mountain that appears, at least to some, to be impressive in how it undermines the Christian faith.
Evans showed us how to deal with the real question of authenticity. He began the day by saying that Peter, on the day of Pentecost, did not say: (1) Your faith rests on inerrant biblical manuscripts, and; (2) The Four Gospels will harmonize perfectly if you line them all up correctly. He admitted that such simplistic responses will never serve the truth well. This, it seems to me, is something of an explanation for Bart Ehrman’s project. (For those who do not know, Ehrman is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. He then did doctoral work under Bruce Metzger at Princeton. Metzger, who recently died as I noted on this blog spot, gave Ehrman no support in his approach to the biblical text.) Ehrman’s faith seems to have been misplaced from the very start. It would serve all pastors and teachers well to help their people get a solid grasp on where real faith lies from the outset. Ehrman, who has clearly departed from the Christian faith, thus stands as a warning to all fundamentalists that such a cozy set of assumptions will not guarantee living faith.
I asked Evans why we have seen such an amazing growth in these "Jesus theories" since World War II? He answered: (1) The growth of archaeology and the direct access to the Holy Land since the state of Israel came into existence; (2) The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, and; (3) The Nag Hammadi Library of manuscripts. I would add to these three academic reasons a very simple human one. We live in a culture that craves conspiracy theories and we have scholars who crave fame just like anyone else. This produces a veritable industry for Jesus theories, such as the Gospel of Judas project and the recent suggestion that the bones of Jesus have now been discovered, a theory no important scholar—Christian, Jewish or otherwise—takes seriously at all.
What we have created is what Catholic scholar Scott Hahn, on the dustjacket of Evans’ book, calls a "tabloid scholarship that captures headlines and confuses the general public." What is needed is clear-headed scholarship that fearlessly faces the real questions and refuses to hide from the hard ones. Craig Evans provided such a stimulating day for me personally. Sadly, only 16 people registered for this much publicized event. I do fear that far too many evangelical pastors are busy selling the church to take such important questions seriously. I hope I am wrong about this conclusion.
Evans made a solid point that I hope every reader will consider. The early church grew and developed rapidly, for well over fifteen years, without any written New Testament Scriptures. The Bible was then attacked in the first century and has been attacked ever since. The earliest apologists spent much time on these very same issues. Some things never change. We have some real work to do if we would show why the best biblical and historical evidence still supports the true story of Jesus and the resurrection.