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Gospels tell of true Jesus, says Canadian scholar

Gospels tell of true Jesus, says Canadian scholar

Joe Woodard
Calgary Herald

November 6, 2004

Mainstream academics are increasingly confident about the historical portrait of Jesus in the gospels, says a prominent Canadian scholar -- despite the skeptical headlines generated by a few celebrity theologians.

"If you bracket off the Jesus Seminar -- and they grab all the headlines -- the work of the last 30 years has given us much greater confidence that the gospels can yield a coherent, historically accurate portrait of Jesus," said Craig Evans, Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.

"The half-dozen leaders and three-dozen members of the Jesus Seminar create the impression the scholarship is seriously divided. But I've been at annual meetings of the Institute for Biblical Research, with hundreds of scholars, and no one can take their outrageous claims seriously any more.
"The trend -- from archeology, new literary discoveries and reassessing the cultural context -- is to see the gospel as essentially reliable. Our understanding of Jesus is more nuanced, more Jewish and more unpredictable."

Evans, the author of 14 books (including the Dictionary of New Testament Background), was delivering the University of Calgary's annual Bental Lecture on Education and Theology, Monday, at Northmount Baptist Church. Before a packed house of over 250 academics, students and laymen, he addressed on the topic, "What Are They Saying About the Historical Jesus?" -- the "They" being scholars.
Evans began his lecture with a slap at Dan Brown's blockbuster The Da Vinci Code; for all Brown purports to use modern scholarship, "some of his facts are at best dubious and some are demonstrably mistaken," Evans said. However, Brown can be credited with stirring up renewed interest in the historical Jesus -- including the 10 new books refuting him.

Scholars' new confidence in the historical accuracy of the gospels has resulted largely from a new appreciation of Jesus' Jewishness, said Evans. This came initially from Jewish scholars like Geza Vermes, with his trilogy, Jesus the Jew. Jesus' Jewishness discredits the theory of celebrity academics John Dominic Crossan and Burton Mack, that he was a cynic philosopher.

Though few of the Dead Sea Scrolls are devoted to First century Jewish messianic hopes, the scrolls have clarified those expectations, said Evans, who helped found Trinity Western University's Dead Sea Scrolls Institute in the mid-1990s. And Jesus clearly expressed those hopes. Scroll 4Q521 (fourth Qumran cave, fragment 521), from 100 BC, prophesizes, "when the messiah comes, the good news will be preached to the poor, the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the dead will be raised" -- exactly the message the gospel says Jesus sent to John the Baptist in prison to confirm his messianic identity (Matt 11:3-5).

Seeing Jesus as the Jewish messiah must influence how Christians see their saviour, Evans said in a later interview with the Herald: "He wasn't saying, 'Come on, fellows, it's time to go to heaven.' He was saying, 'God's reign is breaking into the world. And God can't abide sin, so it's time to return to the ways of righteousness.' "

Both archeology and an appreciation of Jewish culture also discredit Crossan's theory that a crucified criminal would never have been buried -- that Jesus' body would have been thrown to the dogs. The preserved remains of a crucified Jew proves Jewish burial laws applied to criminals.

There is cultural credibility in the gospel stories of Jesus' use of Passover imagery for his impending execution, the interaction of Roman and Jewish officials, the Jewish council taking charge of the body, and the women finding the empty tomb -- "careful attention to the tomb would have been exactly what we expected."

Addressing the controversy over Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ -- particularly the issue, who killed Jesus? -- Evans said the consensus is, "Roman and Jewish authorities working together" in standard imperial procedure. Gibson, however, was "too soft on Pilate," whose hesitation to condemn the troublemaker was simply cynical political caution.

The full text of Evan's lecture will be available by mid-November at the website of the Chair of Christian Thought, www.christchair.ucalgary.ca


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