Fabricating Jesus by Craig A. Evans – Book Summary

Fabricating Jesus by Craig A. Evans

Review by Jeff Stauffer

Chapter 1: Misplaced Faith and Misguided Suspicions

            In this opening chapter, Evans introduces us to four biblical scholars who started out as conservative Christians, but have since moved to a skeptic or agnostic position regarding the Gospels. Focusing largely on Bart Ehrman (due to his cultural popularity), Evans draws on common themes with their academic and personal upbringings. Using their own biographies as a guide, Evans suggests that each of the four former Seminary students seem to have been trained in a “rigid, fundamentalist” environment, allowing little wiggle room for some of the textual variants admittedly found in biblical manuscripts. (Evans uses Luke 22:41-45, John 7:53-8:11, and Mk 16:9-20 as examples of textual variants).

Chapter 2: Cramped Starting Points and Overly Strict Critical Methods

            A popular project in the 1980s called “The Jesus Seminar” wrapped up in 1993 by attributing a meager 18% of quotes from Jesus as actually being said by him. He lists four “cramped starting points” that were used as assumptions to draw many of their conclusions, followed by his rebuttal. Evans presents each of these starting points as an unwarranted assumption that overly narrows where one can follow the evidence:

            1. Was Jesus illiterate? Evans critiques the use of generic literacy levels among the Roman Empire to imply anything about a particular person, let alone a Jew raised in the rabbinic tradition. Jesus is often spoken of as reading from scrolls, exhorting others to do so, and is called “teacher” and “learner” by his followers.

            2. Was Jesus interested in Scripture?  The Jesus Seminar maintained that Jesus wasn’t concerned with Scripture, but his followers were. And as a result, many of the quotes in the gospels were the early church speaking, not Jesus himself. But Evans points to an abundance of passages where Jesus quotes from the majority of the books from the Hebrew Bible as evidence to the contrary.

            3. Was Jesus interested in Eschatology? The phrase “kingdom of God” is often misunderstood, both by Bible teachers as well as the Jesus Seminar. If a correct meaning of this phrase is applied (not speaking just of end times or the millennium, but instead the rule of God, both now and forever), Evans maintains that Jesus was deeply concerned with Eschatology.

            4. Did Jesus understand himself to be Israel’s Messiah? Many skeptics make the argument that Jesus did not proclaim himself to be Messiah. Instead, they claim this doctrine was developed later by his followers after his death. Evans uses fairly recent discoveries in the Dead Sea Scrolls to support the traditional, orthodox claim, drawing from an expanding understanding of terms including “Messiah,” and “Son of God” from those texts.

Chapter 3 & 4: Questionable Texts – Parts 1 and 2

            These two chapters discuss several popular texts that some scholars claim should be considered gospel accounts on equal footing with the four gospels in the Bible. These include the gospels of Thomas, Mary, Peter, the “Secret Gospel of Mark,” and the Egerton Gospel.  Evans provides some historical background on each of these texts, such as where they were found and under what circumstances. He also provides a summary of Gnosticism, which is especially relevant in the case of the gospel of Thomas. Each is evaluated and Evans provides an abundance of direct quotes from them to provide a flavor of their style and meaning. Drawing on evidence from archaeology, historians, and biblical scholars, he evaluates each one and provides the following conclusions:

–          They are late 2nd century writings at best (Which would be over 100 years after Matthew, Mark, and Luke)

–          They often contain quotes from one or several other New Testament books, supporting a late date and that they drew from previous writings

–          One is even a 20th century hoax! (The secret gospel of Mark)

Chapter 5: Alien Contexts

            Evans points out that Jesus has been portrayed by many groups in many different ways. Historically, the Romans saw him as a troublemaker. The Greeks saw him as a magician and the Jewish Rabbis as a false prophet who practiced magic. Modern portraits vary as well, from a great moral teacher, to philosopher, to a charismatic leader. One other viewed held by some scholars sees Jesus as a cynic. The Cynics began as a Greek philosophy that spilled over into Roman culture. They are described as “nature lovers” and “known for flouting social custom and etiquette, such as urinating, defecating and engaging in sexual intercourse in public.” One historian coined this group as “hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies”!

            Those who hold to this view attempt to draw parallels between this philosophy and the writings of Jesus, but Evans argues that the connections based on the gospels are weak at best. Archaeological digs in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth have shown there to be no Roman cultural influence, which would have been critical for Jesus to have developed this worldview during his upbringing. There are also no firsthand accounts of Cynic literary works or influences from this time period.

Chapter 6: Skeletal Sayings

            Without context, quotes can be used to mean almost anything. Our popular culture is filled with such examples. In this chapter, Evans makes the point that this is no different in ancient times. He argues that without proper context, scholars can take parables and sayings of Jesus to mean whatever their biases want them to mean. He questions how modern scholars, 2,000 years removed from the events they are studying, can somehow provide a more accurate context than that provided within the Gospel accounts themselves.

            As a specific example, Evans spends some time discussing the parable of the wicked tenant found in Mark 12:1-12. While some try to suggest this passage is about “God turning from the Jews to the Gentiles,” or that it’s about a “falling kingdom whose inheritance is in doubt,” Evans argues for a much clearer interpretation if we let the context of the Gospel writings provide the backdrop: Jesus is speaking of himself, his coming death, and that the religious leaders of the time are in danger of being replaced for their treatment of Israel (the vineyard).

Chapter 7: Diminished Deeds

            Often overlooked by scholars is Jesus’ works of healing and miracles, according to Evans. Here, the author makes a significant point: “Today, scholars are more open to talking about the miracles of Jesus because they rightly recognize that the task of the historian is to describe what people reported and recorded. It isn’t the historian’s task to engage in science and metaphysics.” Evans doesn’t attempt to prove miracles occurred, but instead looks at their purpose. Several reasons include to fulfill prophesy, to display his authority, and as a proclamation that the kingdom of Satan had collapsed. 

Chapter 8: Dubious Uses of Josephus

            Josephus was a Jewish historian who was born shortly after Jesus’ death in A.D. 37. He is often quoted as an extra-biblical source of information regarding this time period. Some scholars have used his writings to become skeptical about the claims in the four gospels due to their “apparent lack of agreement with narratives related by Josephus.” This chapter reviews two biblical characters, John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate, and explores why Josephus’ account of their stories is different than that of the four gospels.

            In the case of John the Baptist, the New Testament depicts John’s death due to his criticism of King Herod Antipas for divorcing his wife. But Josephus writes that his death was due to his popularity and influence among the city. After reviewing texts from both perspectives, Evans concludes they are both “telling the same story, but emphasizing different elements of it.” As for Pontius Pilate, the gospels portray Pilate as a weak, uncertain ruler who is having a difficult time condemning Jesus for any reason. The Jewish crowd takes the blame for his death. Critics look at the writings of Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, who both write of Pilate in a much harsher tone. They conclude that Christians wanted to distance themselves from the Jews at the time, and as a result wrote the story so that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death, which would serve the Christian cause. However, Evans spends some time reviewing texts from all available sources and comes to a different conclusion: Pilate was not as harsh as he was made out to be, but was simply a wise politician, able to weave his way gently through a hostile time period for a Roman governor in Jerusalem.

Chapter 9: Anachronisms and Exaggerated Claims

            A common modern theory deals with the idea that there were many different forms of Christianity floating around, and over time through a power struggle the current version of the faith emerged. In the popular novel The DaVinci Code, one of the characters makes a claim that more than 80 gospels were in circulation in the first century alone! Evans says this is “simply preposterous.” He argues that all of these extra-biblical documents have a late 2nd-century origin at best. “This whole confusion is made worse,” Evans begins, “when scholars attempt to smuggle second-century writings into the first century, thus ‘proving’ that Christianity was indeed quite diverse from the beginning.”

            Even within the New Testament, there is widespread agreement over the core message: that of the death and resurrection of Jesus and a need to respond in faith for salvation. Evans walks through passages throughout the NT pointing to this unity. He then points out that the early writers were quite open to “air the church’s dirty linen.” While there were disagreements over such items as the place of faith vs. works, or the struggle between Jews and Gentiles and what to do with the Old Testament law, neither of these issues are irresolvable, and furthermore, do not sway the central focus of the message of Jesus.

Chapter 10: Hokum History and Bogus Findings

            Evans recounts numerous “speculative reconstructions of the historical Jesus and Christian beginnings,” walking through each claim and providing a response. Some of these stories include:

–          Jesus marries Mary Magdalene and their descendants reached southern France

–          Jesus travels to Egypt and is influenced by Buddhist teachings

–          The “Holy Grail” from which Jesus drank at his last supper survived and is well hidden

–          Manuscripts exist that prove Jesus was still alive in 45 A.D. , thus not dying on the cross

–          Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier

       Each of these is reviewed and is found to have no credible evidence to back their claims, according to Evans. In summary, he shows that each is either based on mystical experiences, hearsay, evidence unsupported by any credible scholar of history, archaeology, etc., or is even a downright modern fraud. 

Chapter 11: Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

            Evans concludes his book by reviewing the traditional understanding of the life of Jesus and the early church. Despite attempts to prove the contrary, Jesus accepted all the major tenets of the Jewish faith, and accepted the authority of the Jewish law. He made claims to be a prophet, the Messiah, and even the son of God. The book is probably best summed up by some of his concluding statements: “Criteria of authenticity, which are remarkably vigorous in their application to the Gospels, confirm the essential core of Jesus’ teaching.” …..  “But claims that the Gospels are unreliable, full of myth and legend, and so biased that knowledge of what Jesus really said and did cannot be recovered are excessive and unwarranted.”