120 Things ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, and NBC Won’t Tell You About Jesus and the Bible – Part 2
By: The John Ankerberg Show
|By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. Craig Evans, Dr. Ben Witherington; ©2001|
|Recently ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and FOX have featured programs about Jesus. Inevitably, two things come up: the only information we have about Jesus is in the Bible, specifically the 4 Gospels, and we can’t trust hem; Jesus was (if he existed at all) certainly a great man, but no more than that. We don’t think either of these assumptions is correct. Dr. John Ankerberg spoke with two biblical scholars to learn what they had to say about the Bible vs. other classical literature, interpretive assumptions, and Jesus – His deeds and His claims about Himself.|
[Dr. Craig Evans earned his Ph.D. in New Testament from Claremont Graduate School and is the Director of the Graduate Program in Biblical Studies at Trinity Western University, where he has taught since 1981. He has lectured at Cambridge, Durham, and Oxford. Co-editor of Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds, Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research and Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Author of Jesus and His Contemporaries.]
- 1 Dr. Craig Evans
- 1.1 1. The evidence about Jesus is better than we have for any other historical figure of his time.
- 1.2 2. Ancient biographies often had a theological bias.
- 1.3 3. The best place to find information about a person is to start with his contemporaries.
- 1.4 4. “Conspiracy theory” won’t work to explain away the Gospel accounts about Jesus.
- 1.5 5. All the evidence, both internal and external, indicates that the Gospels are credible.
- 1.6 6. Ancient historians had a purpose for writing, and for including or excluding certain material.
- 1.7 7. Jesus probably spoke predominately in Aramaic.
- 1.8 8. We need to be realistic about the kind of physical evidence you should expect to find from someone who lived 2,000 years ago.
- 1.9 9. Luke (author of the Gospel that bears his name) claims to have checked many sources, including eyewitnesses, before writing both Luke and Acts.
- 1.10 10. The Gospels are not contradictory versions of Jesus’ life.
- 1.11 11. Paul’s writings are right in line with the Gospel accounts.
- 1.12 12. At least two of the Gospel writers were eyewitnesses, the other two certainly knew eyewitnesses.
- 1.13 13. The Gospels were written within a generation after Jesus’ death.
- 1.14 14. The “Gospel of Peter” was not a source for Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
- 1.15 15. The Jesus Seminar does not speak for biblical scholarship.
- 1.16 16. Jesus was a complicated person.
- 1.17 17. Jesus’ “revolutionary” cry was for national repentance.
- 1.18 18. The phrase “the Kingdom of God” holds more than political overtones.
- 1.19 19. Jesus saw himself as a proclaimer of the Kingdom of God.
- 1.20 20. “Messiah” means more than “anointed one”—it implies Jesus is the Son of God in some unique way.
- 1.21 21. Jesus pointed to his actions to show that he was the Messiah.
- 1.22 22. The title “Son of Man” had clear divine overtones for the first century Jews.
- 1.23 23. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial are credible.
- 1.24 24. Jesus was crucified as “the King of the Jews”.
- 1.25 25. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the Triumphal Entry was a clear Messianic greeting.
- 1.26 26. Jesus must have had a fairly extensive following at the time of His Triumphal Entry.
- 1.27 27. Jesus understood that He would be killed when He went to Jerusalem for the Passover.
- 1.28 28. Jesus taught that His death would be significant.
- 1.29 30. There is little reason to doubt Jesus said the words attributed to him at the Last Supper.
- 1.30 31. If you are going to establish your own rules of interpretation you should at least be consistent in applying them.
- 1.31 32. The Bible is both historical and theological.
- 1.32 33. The title “Son of God” meant different things to different people.
- 1.33 34. Caiaphas clearly thought Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah.
- 1.34 35. Jesus uses “Son of God” in reference to Himself in ways that the Jews would not have made up.
- 1.35 36. Jesus has the authority to forgive sin.
- 1.36 37. Jesus had the authority to do what he said—unlike the scribes.
- 1.37 38. Jesus performed miracles.
- 1.38 39. Jesus’ miracles were quite different from miracle stories of Greek and Roman mythology.
- 1.39 40. Scholars are compelled by the evidence to accept that Jesus did miracles.
- 1.40 41. The Gospel accounts clearly point to the fact that Jesus saw himself as God.
- 1.41 42. If your worldview forbids miracles, perhaps you need to change your worldview.
- 1.42 43. Even in Bible times, all disease was not caused by evil spirits.
- 1.43 44. Ancient people were perfectly capable of telling a true miracle from a false one.
- 1.44 45. However you look at him, Jesus was extraordinary.
- 1.45 46. Jesus’ ministry was not designed simply to create a movement.
- 1.46 47. Jesus did not view his death as failure.
- 1.47 48. There is no evidence of a “suffering messiah” concept prior to Jesus’ time.
- 1.48 49. The Triumphal Entry had clear Messianic overtones.
- 1.49 50. The picture of Pilate in the Gospels fits with the historical information about him.
- 1.50 51. Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple threatened the Jewish religious leaders on several levels.
- 1.51 52. Jesus claims—or at least strongly implies—that he is sent by God.
- 1.52 53. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead was more than just a psychological phenomenon.
- 1.53 54. There is solid historical evidence that Jesus died on the cross. So the missing body has to be explained somehow.
- 1.54 55. We have good evidence of the message the disciples preached in the time immediately following Jesus’ resurrection.
- 1.55 56. If you are going to ignore Jesus, you will have to do so on grounds other than historical.
- 1.56 57. Jesus understood himself to be uniquely the Son of God.
- 1.57 58. If the Gospels were written today, they would probably be written differently—but they weren’t written to 21st century standards, or for a 21st century audience.
- 1.58 59. The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter are two good examples of what happens when legend creeps into the story.
- 1.59 60. Jesus’ relationship to God was unique.
- 1.60 61. “Tradition” in the New Testament context does not equal “Catholic Tradition”.
- 1.61 62. Jesus is for everybody—but it’s got to be on His terms.
- 1.62 63. Christianity is more than just a philosophy.
- 2 Notes
Dr. Craig Evans
1. The evidence about Jesus is better than we have for any other historical figure of his time.
Dr. John Ankerberg: Craig, Peter Jennings opened his special with these words. He says, “We suspected that reliable sources would be hard to come by” in terms of investigating Jesus. And they constantly hammered on the theme that there’s a lack of evidence concerning Jesus’ life. Is that true?
Dr. Craig Evans: Well, it depends on what you mean by that. There’s not a lack of evidence if you’re talking about ancient sources that tell us the important things that Jesus said and did. If you’re talking about stuff that’s of popular interest like, “How tall was Jesus?” Or, “What color was His hair or His eyes?” Yeah, we don’t have information about that. But that’s not what’s important. What’s important is what He said, what He did, how He understood Himself, how He understood His mission–and we have plenty of reliable material for that.
Ankerberg: Compare the material that we have for Jesus with, say, of Caesar or any other historical figure of that time.
Evans: Well, it’s above average. We have more information about some of the Roman emperors, but for goodness’ sakes, what are we talking about? We’re talking about the Roman emperor and Jesus is in that same league. We have four biographies about Him and with some of the Caesars we have maybe one biography or maybe two; for some, nothing at all. So Jesus compares very favorably, never mind comparing against other, say, ordinary people. But compared the Roman Caesars, I think He compares rather well.
2. Ancient biographies often had a theological bias.
Ankerberg: Now some people would say the information we have is not historical biographies because the guys have so much theology in there. But say, compare that with Tiberius Caesar, the guys that wrote about him.
Evans: There’s theology in everything that’s written in antiquity. They don’t make that distinction—”Well, this is secular and this is theological”. Everything is theological. The question for the Caesars was to what extent did the gods assist, help, inspire, guide, whatever, the Roman Caesar? So that same idea underlies any kind of biographical writing in late antiquity. And so just because the New Testament Gospel writers have a theological interest and that’s what drives them to tell the story of Jesus in the first place, that doesn’t disqualify their writing. It doesn’t make it suddenly unhistorical or of no value.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Give me some examples of ancient history where you have the same thing come up and yet no historians would throw that information out.
Evans: Well, there are all sorts of information from Suetonius and other ancient historians who talk about certain events in the lives of these Caesars as they grow up and historians normally accept that, unless it’s something really fantastic or strange this information is readily accepted. Historians of classical antiquity and history use the Gospels for information about what was going on in Palestine in this period of time. For some reason, biblical critics are highly skeptical, excessively so in many cases, and always approach with sort a hermeneutic of skepticism or hermeneutic of doubt when they approach the Gospels—and that’s strange, because historians of classical antiquity, they don’t do that.
3. The best place to find information about a person is to start with his contemporaries.
Ankerberg: All right, for a news reporter or a historian, let’s talk about, where does a person start when you want to find information about Jesus? What is the historical method? What’s accepted among the scholars?
Evans: Well, where you begin, you begin with your oldest sources, your oldest and most reliable sources. And we’ve got them. We have four Gospels in the New Testament. But there are other gospels and some people think, Well, what about the Gospel of Peter? Or what about the Gospel of Thomas? Or what about this source or that source? Well fine. Scholars who’ve studied them, they don’t compare very well. Their secondary, second century and later. And I think for good scholarly reasons, these gospels, by most scholars, are held in reserve and are not considered of primary importance as are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Ankerberg: All right, so if you go to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, a lot of the folks in the Jesus Seminar would say Matthew didn’t write Matthew; Mark didn’t write Mark; Luke didn’t write Luke and John didn’t write John. Okay? What do you say to those people?
Evans: Well, okay, again I think we’ve got a little too much skepticism going on here. The early Church believed that Matthew the Apostle wrote Matthew, and that a figure named John, possibly the Apostle John, wrote John. But the early Church says Mark and whose Mark wrote Mark. They didn’t say James or they didn’t say Peter. They didn’t come up with some apostle for Mark. What does that say? And they come up with Luke? Who’s he? Apart from his authorship of Luke, Acts, we don’t really know anything about Luke. He’s just a name in one of Paul’s letters. So why does the Church choose two non-apostolic authors of the Gospels? It’s because I think they are trying to be accurate and trying to remember who really did write these things anyway. So to me that’s a strong indication of the veracity of the Tradition. Matthew probably did have something to do with the Gospel of Matthew; and someone named John, possibly the Apostle John, had something to do with John. And Mark probably is the author of Mark and Luke probably the author of Luke.
4. “Conspiracy theory” won’t work to explain away the Gospel accounts about Jesus.
Ankerberg: What would you say to guys that are so skeptical they say, “Well, you know, even Papias and those guys that lived and wrote before, say, 110 A.D. and mentioned those fellows in that connection, they were in cahoots, in other words, they were part of the Church so they were all building the case here. I mean, where do secular scholars draw the line and say, “That’s too skeptical?”
Evans: Well, that’s a subjective call I realize but the way you phrase that question, it sounds almost like a conspiracy theory.
Evans: These people are putting their lives on the line. They’re being murdered in some cases, imprisoned, they lose their jobs. I mean, there are scary things going on. They’re not in cahoots at all. They’re looking for the truth and there better be something to it or they’re not going to believe it. I’m not going to lose my job, I’m not going to be imprisoned, I’m not going to be executed for some kind of a thing that I know is false or something that’s a conspiracy. I’m not going to be in cahoots with somebody just so that I can pull the wool over the public’s eyes. And I find that kind of argument not very persuasive.
5. All the evidence, both internal and external, indicates that the Gospels are credible.
Ankerberg: Go the opposite way. Tell us why it’s acceptable to scholars that probably the writers, the traditional writers, did write it. In other words, that we do have good information from people rather relatively close to the fellows that wrote the stuff who verified it.
Evans: Sure. What’s so strange about the idea that somebody would put to writing, set down in writing, the life, the teaching and the events, the major events, of somebody that in their opinion fulfilled prophecy, was the long awaited Messiah and Redeemer of Israel. What’s so strange that after the passing of 30 years or so this is all put to writing? We would expect that. It would be very strange if they had not. So I’m not surprised at all that several Gospels within one generation were produced. That really is what we should expect.
6. Ancient historians had a purpose for writing, and for including or excluding certain material.
Ankerberg: All right, now, talk about the methodology of writers in ancient history as well as the New Testament writers, how did they go about organizing their material? In other words, Matthew seemed to be writing to a certain crowd; Luke seemed to be writing to a different crowd; John seemed to be writing to a different crowd. Is that bad? Does that automatically knock one writer out versus another? How did people in ancient history write?
Evans: Well, that’s how they wrote. And the whole idea in writing a story was, there was a moral to it. There was something about it. It taught the youths something. It conveyed and passed on values. That was the whole purpose. And so there was always a slant to how one wrote. But the Gospels, what are interesting about them in comparison to other biographies an antiquity, you have this very old, very archaic material that survives. Sometimes even though the Greek gets bumpy because of the underlying Hebrew or Aramaic, and it smacks of antiquity and originality, authenticity. You don’t just have real smooth, polished Greek speeches the way you usually do in the Greco-Roman sources. But you get a little bit of this…you know you read and you think, “This is kind of funny. It sounds a little better in Hebrew or Aramaic.” And I think that’s a sign of the originality and antiquity that we see at work in the Gospels.
7. Jesus probably spoke predominately in Aramaic.
Ankerberg: What language do you think Jesus spoke?
Evans: Well, I think He predominantly spoke Aramaic, but linguistic study in late antiquity in Israel—and by that I mean inscriptions that we find. We find inscriptions of graves, on ossuaries, bone boxes; the manuscripts that we have found and so on—you can’t rule out Greek and even Hebrew. I think in Judea itself and in Jerusalem the language spoken there was probably more Hebrew than it was Aramaic. You go up into Galilee where Jesus ministered and where He was raised, and it’s more Aramaic than it is Hebrew. And yet you’ve got Greek everywhere. And so I think it’s distinctly possible that when Jesus was speaking, for example, to the Syro-Phoenician woman He may very well have been speaking to her in Greek. When He was being interrogated by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, that conversation may very well have taken place in Greek.
8. We need to be realistic about the kind of physical evidence you should expect to find from someone who lived 2,000 years ago.
Ankerberg: Jennings stated, “All but the most skeptical historians believed Jesus was a real person even though when you come here”—talking about coming to the Holy Land—”you do not find any physical evidence.” They’re talking about the rock that Mary sat on and stuff like this. My question is, What kind of evidence should people expect to find in the Holy Land today regarding Jesus?
Evans: Well, of course, I mean, a question like that would exclude 99.99 percent of the population that had ever lived in Palestine in late antiquity. I mean, what kind of evidence is he talking about? Pieces of property with your name inscribed on it? I guess. In which case we have precious little evidence. About the only time anybody’s name shows up on something is on an epitaph; it’s on his grave; it’s on a tomb; it’s on a bone box. That’s about it. And so I don’t know what evidence we can talk about.
Ankerberg: Yeah, talk about the other way of the archaeological evidence, some of the archaeological evidence that we have found in the Holy Land that substantiates the New Testament record. It’s not every piece of the New Testament record, but you’ve got enough that it makes it credible. In other words, if there are some things that show up like the stuff that Luke said in Acts and in Luke, what are the things that stand out in your mind that have been found, say, in the last 20 years archaeologically that substantiate we’ve got a solid historical account?
Evans: Yeah. Well, there are several things that come to mind. One of the things that’s very interesting is the way Jesus replies to John the Baptist and he wants to know, “Are you really the one who is coming or do we look for somebody else?” And Jesus, in an almost indirect way, says, “Well, go back and tell John what you see and hear: the blind regain their sight, etc.” and we read that and we think, early Christians didn’t make that up because they’re not going to make up a story about John expressing doubt about Jesus. And they’re not going to make up a story where Jesus indirectly replies. And so that was accepted as authentic but people were left wondering, how come Jesus doesn’t come right out and say, “Well, I’m the Messiah. Go back and tell him, ‘Of course I am.’” Well, then we find a scroll from Qumran and we realize the way He replied was indeed messianic. The passages of Isaiah He was alluding to — it’s clearly messianic. It’s discoveries like that long the way, and we realize, “Huh! the reason we didn’t understand it before is we just didn’t know any better. We just lacked the information.” The culture, the background, things that anybody living in Palestine in the first century just took for granted we don’t know. You get a Ph.D. basically. You get a Ph.D. today to know some of what the average illiterate person knew back then. And it really is funny when you think about it. And so there are things we find and we realize, “Ah! now we understand the Gospels better,” or we realize, “Yeah, they’re telling the truth all along but we just didn’t know because we lacked the information. There are examples like that.
Ankerberg: All right, you’ve written a commentary on Luke. Luke says, in the very first verse, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us from those who from the first were eyewitnesses.” What was he talking about? What do these words mean?
Evans: Well, it’s very clear what he means by that. He’s going to provide an accurate account of the important elements in the life of Jesus. And there is no reason in the study of Luke and Acts to think that he did not do that. Luke wrote a very good history, very reliable history, and where he can be checked, where we actually can compare what he says to other sources in late antiquity, Luke has it right.
Ankerberg: When Luke says, “Hey, when I came on the scene, many had already written an account,” what kind of stuff was he looking at do you think?
Evans: Well, he may very well have been talking about an early edition of Mark, an early edition of a collection of Jesus’ sayings. At least, it’s in the plural, at least two other accounts already are in circulation, maybe more than that. And so his Gospel is not one of the first, it’s one of a series.
Ankerberg: Okay, he says, “Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account.” What do those words mean, “I myself have carefully investigated these reports”? How did he do that?
Evans: Well, if he is indeed the Luke of Luke/Acts, and I believe he is, then he’s an eyewitness to some extent. He actually is with Paul during some of his travels in the Book of Acts. It also means he’s been in Palestine. He’s actually had a chance to meet face-to-face with some of the living eyewitnesses, people who could tell him things about what Jesus said and did; people who saw Him with their own eyes.
Ankerberg: Now, why then would modern scholars doubt what the man claims? Is that fair?
Evans: No. I don’t think it is fair. I think, again, it’s this hyper-skepticism that’s at work. And they look at that and the very verses that you read at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, they say, “Well, that’s formulaic. That’s the kind of things that historians write.” And then they go on and politicize and say whatever they want. But I think it’s unfair to assume that an author of the caliber of Luke says this and doesn’t really mean it and doesn’t really live up to it.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Anything else you can say about that kind of skepticism that would be an illustration from ancient history that suggests you shouldn’t do that. You ought to give the benefit of the doubt, whether the guy is a Christian, Buddhist, Gnostic, agnostic or whatever.
Evans: The benefit of the doubt is in fact given to ancient historians. That’s the routine. If you have reason to suspect the veracity, if you have reason to suspect their motives, fine. But routinely the benefit of the doubt is given to our ancient sources. It’s something about skeptical biblical scholars who do not give the benefit of the doubt to New Testament writers. And I don’t know what that is. It’s a disease or something.
Ankerberg: Okay. Take, besides Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, let’s stray for a moment into Peter’s book because Peter is also a part of the New Testament and what he said is that, you know, “we have not devised cunning tales in making known unto you the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His glory.” Okay? Does this kind of stuff count when Peter just says in black and white, “Hey! We were eyewitnesses.”
Evans: Well, there’s an irony in this whole thing and that is, classical scholars who study classical history lament the lack of sources, but biblical scholars, skeptical biblical scholars, discount the sources they do have.
10. The Gospels are not contradictory versions of Jesus’ life.
Ankerberg: Peter Jennings said, “Scholars told us early on that they don’t take everything they read in the New Testament literally because the New Testament is four different and sometimes contradictory versions of Jesus’ life.” Do we have four contradictory versions of Jesus’ life? Or is there something going on?
Evans: No. That’s an exaggeration. We have four Gospel accounts. They are not the same, that is quite true. Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar. John is very different. However, what they do is, they give us different aspects of Jesus’ life and they’re attempting to do different things. They’re speaking to different audiences. They cover different material. They present it in different ways—they arrange it and present it differently. And so I think the fact of the differences is exaggerated and they are not really that different. And the portrait of Jesus as it images is remarkably coherent and consistent.
If we had four Gospels that said essentially the same thing, then people would suspect collusion. They’d say, “Hey, this is artificial. This just isn’t the way it is.” And so the diversity provides us like a check and a balance and we realize, Hey, we’ve got four different sources coming at it from different angles and yet a unified picture still emerges.
Ankerberg: Give me a real example of where the scholars, like the Jesus Seminar, would say they do contradict each other that you think would show, not collusion, but the fact is, the veracity by the fact that they did say it differently.
Evans: One of the very obvious differences, Matthew, Mark and Luke give the Jesus’ temple cleansing, as it’s traditionally called, His temple action, at the end of His ministry. John places it at the beginning of His ministry in John chapter 2. What’s going on there? And if we had collusion, if we had something that was artificial, I don’t think that would happen. John puts it at a different location. He’s trying to make a different point. I think he’s trying to present Jesus as something over against the Temple establishment and he wants his entire story stamped with that, so it’s presented near the beginning.
For Mark, it occurs near the end, which is when I think, on a historical level, it probably happened.
Ankerberg: Is there anything wrong with them choosing that?
Evans: No. Why not? In fact, that’s what I think accounts for why John is so different from Matthew, Mark and Luke. John is trying to do something very different. I mean, he ought to be given a Pulitzer Prize. It’s an interesting piece of literature that he’s put together. So he’s giving us some theology. He has given us confessional material and at the same time he’s updating it and trying to make it very relevant for a persecuted and recently excommunicated Church at the end of the first century. And John does it very effectively and he can’t do it by just simply giving us a fourth synoptic Gospel.
11. Paul’s writings are right in line with the Gospel accounts.
Ankerberg: Now, pull Paul in here, too, in terms of showing that we have information that we could trust in the Synoptics and John via Paul because the Gospels may be “out” in terms of some of the scholars, but Paul is “in.” Well, if Paul is “in,” what does that tell you about the Synoptics?
Evans: When some of the scholars say that Paul doesn’t really know the Gospel tradition or doesn’t relate to it, they’re wrong because you have the tradition of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in Paul in various places–like the words of institution: the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11; or the eyewitnesses of the Resurrection mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15. There is important Matthew, Mark, Luke tradition right there in Paul years before Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written.
12. At least two of the Gospel writers were eyewitnesses, the other two certainly knew eyewitnesses.
Ankerberg: Peter Jennings said in the Special: “It is pretty much agreed among scholars that the Gospel writers were not eyewitnesses.” What would you say to that?
Evans: Well, two of the Gospel writers were not eyewitnesses but that does not mean they did not know eyewitnesses. Two of the other Gospel writers may very well have been–and that’s Matthew and John. And so again, Jennings’ statement reflects what I think is a hypercritical stand that’s entertained by some scholars but not by all.
13. The Gospels were written within a generation after Jesus’ death.
Ankerberg: Another statement that he made was, “In fact, the Gospels were probably written 40 to 100 years after Jesus’ death.” Where would you place them?
Evans: Okay, 40 to 100 years. That’s way too far. I would put them more like 35 to 50 years after Jesus’ death.
Ankerberg: And if they are 35 to 50 years after Jesus’ death, if He died in 30 A.D. and they’re on the newsstands at 60 A.D. up to say 85 A.D., what does that tell you about the content of those books?
Evans: Well, the books are written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses and written in the lifetime of people who knew what Jesus said and did.
That’s another important thing about it. The Gospels are very honest about the criticism that’s leveled against Jesus. And so you have some critics saying, “Oh, sure. He performs miracles. Yes, He can cast out demons. But He had Satan’s help in doing that.” And the Gospels acknowledge, admit that, yeah, there’s controversy. But what I find interesting, as a historian, is that whether you accept Him or not, whether you believe in Him or not, everybody acknowledges He did those things.
14. The “Gospel of Peter” was not a source for Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Ankerberg: There are other documents that aren’t a part of what we call the traditional New Testament. How should scholars, how should people in general evaluate these when the Jesus Seminar is pulling them up and making them like the Fifth Gospel? Do you agree with that kind of thinking?
Evans: No. I don’t. On the level of as a historian and as a scholar, I think everything is “fair game.” And if somebody finds a Gospel, they did it up and find it in Israel tomorrow, I want to look at it and take it very seriously. So in that sense I don’t privilege the canonical Gospels. Just because they’re in the Canon, that doesn’t mean that everything else will be ignored or belittled or something like that. But, after doing the study, what are the results? I’m not impressed by the Gospel of Thomas. I’m not impressed by the Gospel of Peter. I think that book has no credibility at all. And some of the other writings.
Evans: Well, I could give you a grocery list of items that are serious problem with the Gospel of Peter. The Gospel of Peter contains fantastic and bizarre elements that smack of the second century. The Gospel of Peter has ruling priests and members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Sanhedrin, sleeping over in a cemetery. Anybody who knows anything about Judaism and their concern with corpse impurity and that sort of thing–a sleep-over in a cemetery! You’ve got to be kidding me! That’s in the Gospel of Peter. And Dom Crossan says this contains the earliest account of the Resurrection. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are dependent upon it? Give me a break! That just won’t wash. Sorry, Dom.
Ankerberg: That’s right. But that’s exactly the truth. Anything else?
Evans: Well, the non-canonical Gospels have been carefully studied. Almost all scholars view them as secondary and inferior to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I know that the Jesus Seminar in recent years have made them in vogue. The Gospel of Peter, though, contains anachronistic things. The author of the Gospel of Peter isn’t really sure who rules Judea. He seems confused with who Herod is, with Pilate. He doesn’t understand Jewish customs and traditions. There’s a touch of Gnosticism, I think, or something like that which shows up in Peter. All of these things. The very description of the Resurrection itself. Two angels who are giants whose heads reach up into the heavens. They go into the tomb. They bring Jesus out. His head goes above the heavens. This is the NBA “Dream Team.” And what comes out following them is the cross? What is this cross doing? Is it a pogo stick, boing, boing, boing, following these three? And then a voice from Heaven says, “Have you preached to them that sleep?” And who answers the question? The cross. Not one of the angels. Not Jesus. The cross does. And we’re told, “Oh, yeah, this could date back to the 50’s of the first century and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are dependent on it.” I don’t believe that. And most scholars don’t either.
15. The Jesus Seminar does not speak for biblical scholarship.
Ankerberg: What is the opinion of the European scholars, many of them that we’re going to interview in Europe, concerning our American Jesus Seminar group?
Evans: The opinion is not very good, to put it mildly. Continental scholarship, they either haven’t heard of the Jesus Seminar or if they have, they dismiss it derisively. British scholarship, it’s just the same way. They…. “They Jesus Seminar! Oh, you must be kidding. Does anybody take them seriously?” That’s the European response. I’ve seen that firsthand.
Ankerberg: What about in scholarly circles in our own country? When you go to your meetings with the other scholars, do they lead the way?
Evans: No. They do not. They try to be influential and they’ve had positions of leadership; but I’m an active member of the Historical Jesus section of the Society of Biblical Literature. Three, four hundred show up typically at their meetings. That’s about 10 times what typically show up at a Jesus Seminar meeting. And the Jesus Seminar guys, when they present their distinctive views–like a non-eschatological Jesus, or the Gospel of Peter as a primary source for the other Gospels–those views are simply–to put it with slang–”blown out of the water.” These are minority opinions and they do not hold sway in the larger cross-section of Gospel scholars throughout North America.
Ankerberg: Then are the scholars astonished that they get such great press?
Evans: I think they are, but then I think they look at that as that’s the way the media operates and they’re not impressed.
16. Jesus was a complicated person.
Ankerberg: Okay, we’re going to come back to this thing of, there are so many different Jesuses that are being written about. You’ve got the Spirit Jesus, the Exorcist Jesus; you’ve got the Revolutionary Jesus; the Peasant Jesus. You know? What’s going on here in terms of methodology? How do you get to these different Jesuses and what’s also wrong with just coming out with the specific kind of Jesus: the Peasant Jesus, the Spirit Jesus, etc.?
Evans: Well, part of the problem is, there’s a grain of truth in all of it. Jesus was called Rabbi. So to refer to Him as “Rabbi” I think is legitimate. He refers to Himself as a prophet and is regarded by others, we are told, as a prophet. So I think that’s true, too. He is a healer and He is a man of the Spirit, and so a lot of these categories are, to some extent, accurate. The least accurate, in my view, is that Jesus is to be regarded as a philosopher. And what is terribly inaccurate is to compare Him to a cynic. And so I think what happens with scholars is they get hold of a particular facet, they find it fascinating, and they pursue it. And sometimes to the expense of other legitimate categories. The truth of the matter is, Jesus was a complicated person. He was an unusual individual and incorporated many, many of these dimensions within His own person and in His ministry.
Now, part of the problem with the “cynic” for hypothesis–if I may pursue that one–is the archaeology does not support it. A number of years ago, archaeology at Sepphoris, a town which is just four miles away from Nazareth, so Jesus grew up, you might say, in shadow of Sepphoris, a city on a hill nearby. And it’s a city that was very urbanized and scholars thought, “Hey! This is a Greco-Roman city and Greco-Roman cities have cynics in them. So perhaps Jesus was influenced by a cynic.” The problem is that now that they’ve pretty well completed their work, it turns out that Sepphoris was a very Jewish city prior to the year 70. How do they know that? There’s no pig bones in the dump. It’s interesting how archaeology can do these things. After 70, it then becomes a heavily Gentilized city. There’s a Greco-Roman presence. And we find pig bones in the dump. In fact, one third of the bones are from pork and swine and so on. And so we realize, Hey, this was a Jewish city. There weren’t any cynics in this city. There weren’t any cynics there in Sepphoris to influence Jesus in nearby Nazareth.
17. Jesus’ “revolutionary” cry was for national repentance.
Ankerberg: All right in talking there let’s talk about environment shaping Jesus’ views. He’s living next to Sepphoris and you’ve got other towns, and the Romans have done things to the Jews down through the years. Bring me up to speed here in terms of Jesus’ period of time when He lived, how much influence was there from the Romans on the Jewish people that would have influenced Jesus’ life. Could it have made Him into a political revolutionary?
Evans: Well, yes, I suppose so. Jesus, depending on how you define revolutionary, Jesus was a revolutionary. Why? He wanted the Old Testament laws to be observed: taking care of widows and orphans and that sort of thing. That’s why He faults the Temple establishment. They’re oppressing these people; they’re not helping them. So is that the message of a revolutionist? Yes. In a sense it is. But His message went far beyond that. His was a call for national repentance in view of the coming judgment of God.
18. The phrase “the Kingdom of God” holds more than political overtones.
Ankerberg: Kingdom of God. The Jesus Seminar says the Kingdom of God is a political term. Tell me the truth and falsity of saying that.
Evans: Well, it’s a political term in the sense that “Kingdom of God” has a major impact on politics, on life, on social circumstances. So that’s not entirely wrong. But it’s more than that. It’s a spiritual concept. It’s an eschatological concept. It means big change is coming. It means the power and reign of God that will impact all of human life and experience.
Ankerberg: Was this a phrase that the Jewish people would have been familiar with or was it introduced by Jesus?
Evans: It’s a phrase that the Jewish people would have been familiar with. We know that now because we have constant references to God as King and His Kingdom in some of the scrolls as Qumran; also in the Aramaic paraphrase of the Bible in Jesus’ day there is reference to the Kingdom of God. And so this would have been known in Jesus’ day. So Jesus is using a phrase that people understand but He’s telling them, “It’s fulfilled now” and He’s demonstrating it in His own ministry through miracles, exorcisms and so forth.
Ankerberg: Okay, make it unique for Jesus. In other words, segment the usual understanding. How did Jesus make that unique?
Evans: Well, I think Jesus gave His own spin to “Kingdom of God” because He personalized it: It’s right here; it’s in your midst. And when He casts out a demon or heals someone, it’s evidence that the Kingdom of God has come powerfully right within the human sphere. And that was new. People had not heard of that before.