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Jesus cold case

jesuscoldcaseJesus: The cold case by Bryan Bruce (Random House New Zealand Ltd 2101) 272pages $40

Warning: don’t read this book at the breakfast table. If you know anything about the subject at all you will be constantly in danger of either choking on your corn flakes or spraying them all over the table! As I began to read this book, nearly every page at the start has a factual error on it.

And I’ve already read a two-page newspaper article about this book that is supposedly going to revolutionise our understanding of Jesus and of religion.

Here’s the spin description:

The book behind the documentary. For true crime investigator Bryan Bruce the death of Jesus of Nazareth is the ultimate cold case. The two deceptively simple questions, Who killed Jesus? And Why? serve as the starting point for his landmark re-examination of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of the most famous person in history. His conclusion is that the Gospels’ account of the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus is so flawed that the traditional Easter story in which the Jews set Jesus up to be executed by the Romans simply does not make any sense. He argues that it is based on a lie told in the first century by Christian writers and copyists trying to spin-doctor their new religion to appeal to the Romans. In the process they laundered the character of Pilate and darkened the character of the Jews. The terrible outcome of this lie takes us right to the gates of Auschwitz. This deeply researched book is a remarkable achievement, and an extraordinary contribution to the many-layered fascination with life and death of Jesus.

Spot the pattern: well-known antitheist, well-qualified in a specific area, now suddenly regards himself as an expert in religion, produces a book which will once-and-for-all rid the world of this evil thing called religion. If you are really skilled and knowledgeable in one area, this now gives you the right to present yourself as really skilled and knowledgeable in what the general public, pretty unthinkingly, sees is a related area.

Bryan Bruce is a well-known award-winning documentary maker and author. He’s run a TV One series, The Investigator, in which he sets out to throw new light on what are called cold criminal cases, such as the Bain case. So he’s clearly got excellent contemporary skills.

So Bryan Bruce is going to apply his contemporary skills to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. He is not going to try and apply his skills to other ancient cases first – that would demonstrate too clearly that they just don’t apply. They would demonstrate too clearly that Mr. Bruce obviously hasn’t got the needed skills or knowledge.

He’s not going to apply it, say to Alexander the Great. We’re not certain of the date of Alexander’s death. We don’t know if Alexander died from poisoning, assassination, or one of any number of infectious diseases. He’s not going to practice his skills on the assassination of Julius Caesar. And see if he recognises that every school student’s rendition from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1 “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar” isn’t at all likely to be historically accurate. No, without testing his skills elsewhere to show how inadequate they are, Bryan Bruce is, tiresomely, going to go straight for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And he will of course sell books, in a country where Religious Education is a subject the vast, vast majority of our population are pretty ignorant about (only about 15% have received Religious Education as teenagers).

So Bryan Bruce is shocked to discover that not every detail of the birth stories of Jesus is historically accurate. Shock, horror… yawn. And therefore he goes on to say that the gospels aren’t always historically 100% accurate… yawn – nothing someone who has studied Religious Education wouldn’t have been able to tell him. Nothing that anyone who had actually read the gospels seriously wouldn’t have been able to tell him.

He has reputable scholarship stating that most people in Jesus’ day were illiterate (page 47). And he has reputable scholarship stating that most could read (page 47). In his breathless attack on Christianity, he doesn’t pause to reflect on this contradiction and what it might tell us about difficulties in reconstructing some of the historical facts.

Some errors are so appalling it is astonishing they got through to publication. That Jesus died outside the walls of Jerusalem, not inside them as his map indicates (p. 202) I hope would be picked up by everyone of my 13 year old students. Martin Luther did not nail the 95 theses starting the Reformation in 1520 (caption photo 17, opposite page 65). I would expect every one of my 15 year old students to know the 1517 date. By 1520 the Inquisition had met, the Papal bull Exsurge Domine had been issued, and Luther had burnt it. By January 3 1521 Luther was excommunicated.

Mr Bruce uses sources such as Bishop John Spong and Lloyd Geering. Spong, for example, is given as stating that Mary’s husband, Joseph, never existed – he is merely a literary construct.

The problem with my post is that there is no such thing as bad publicity and controversy can encourage rather than discourage sales. Kiwis, not having any religious education, can add Bryan Bruce to Dan Brown (whom, incidentally, Mr Bruce mocks!) as a significant source of their knowledge of Christianity. No doubt when the documentary arrives it will also be a great success.

When the book appears to not be able to find an interesting conclusion, it suddenly finds a good emotional last quarter. Anti-semitism. Let’s be clear: Christians have an appalling history of anti-semitism. But, Mr Bruce’s attempt to shift the blame totally to Pontius Pilate and so lay the blame for Auschwitz on the gospel authors is nothing short of disingenuous. “The Jews” in John’s Gospel are οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι. This can also be translated as “the Judeans”. It does not take much thinking to realise the suggestion that early Christianity was anti-Jewish, when Jesus and all the early followers were Jewish, is obviously laughable. Far more likely is that there is in John’s Gospel evidence of Judean-Galilean rivalry. Many Judeans will have been suspicious of the Jewish prophet from Galilee.

Mr. Bruce gives his readers no help to distinguish “the Jews” opposing Jesus from the Jesus movement which is composed, in many cases, of just other Jews who happen to have accepted Jesus’ identity as Messiah.

If you do, however, want a “cold case” type book on Jesus, why not purchase Ian Wilson’s book, Murder at Golgotha, instead. He also is a populariser, but at least his work is not so riddled with errors as to make its reliability on anything it says unsafe.

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16 thoughts on “Jesus cold case”

  1. I think this is great! It means that, as a biblical scholar, I’m completely qualified to work as a crime investigator due to the demonstrable transfer of skills…!

  2. I suggest Mr. Bruce study Paul. Mr. Bruce may find himself thrown on the ground and blinded. Wouldn’t that be cool?

  3. Well, this review certainly has no scholarly merit. If the reviewer is so solid in the errors of the book, I am wondering where he learned his biblical scholarship. There are no hard and fast historical data for the death of Jesus. All the New Testament texts were written for the edification of the Christians and to bolster their faith and love of God. They were written long after any facts may have happened and are not historical documents. To base a review on the texts of the New Testament and say that the book is in error and to take a huge leap. Not a scholarly review. Just opinion.

    1. Your opinions are welcome here, Gayke. In answer to your question, my biblical scholarship was “learned” in different tertiary institutions around the world, including time in the biblical lands, and a five year theology degree as a post-graduate student with the Melbourne College of Divinity. Please can you point to where I “base a review on the texts of the New Testament” – I was quite clear that the New Testament is not composed of simply historical documents. Did you actually read the post? Please can you comment on particular points, then, rather than making your sweeping comment.

  4. It is commonly accepted that the correct way to do research on any topic is to look at the information gathered in an unbiased way, thereby hopefully finding the truth. This documentary did not do this and therefore does not hold up to scholarly scrutiny.ie cannot be accepted as truth. To state that Herod was an important man and did not feel threatened by Jesus birth and then to declare it a lie that babies were killed by Herods decree is a huge jump in terms of facts.This and the many other statements where Bryan Bruce theorizes what may have happened in the life of Jesus and goes on to state it as a fact or a lie crossses the fundemental line of all detectives stick to the facts. Or does Bryan base his findings on a leap of faith? like christians do?

  5. kia ora Bosco,

    i am glad that you had already made a response to Bryan Bruce’s work. I saw the documentary last night and i found it well presented. Geza Vermes contradicting John Dominic Crossan as whether Jesus could read or write was something to ponder over. Even though there was nothing presented that was new to me that i didn’t already know, i am sure that there is much we can learn from last night’s documentary. What did stand out is the fact that Jesus will never fade with time, he will always continue to fascinate us regardless where we stand in our beliefs of him.

  6. It’s interesting that as soon as the scholarly consensus is put before the people in an accessible way, this site resorts to ad hominem attacks and belittling the protagonist. That doesn’t seem very consistent with ‘spirituality that connects’. Demeaning Spong and Geering does not undermine the largely agreed view that Bruce represented so well in the documentary. Neither does the majority view Bruce represented depend on their testimony alone.

    1. Thanks for your contribution, Bill. If you read my book review, and paid attention to the actual programme, you will realise that what there often is not is “scholarly consensus”. Certainly, there is realisation that not everything in the gospels can be treated in the manner of a contemporary historical biography – to do that is to misunderstand the genre of the gospels. This IMO one ought to be covering by Year 9 Religious Education. To treat that particular scholarly consensus as shocking and surprising is only to show up either the low level of understanding of the presenter or the audience. I apologise if I appear to demean Spong or Geering. I have a lot of their writings on my shelf – do you? I have met Spong and appreciate much of what he writes, as I do with Geering. But, as a commenter has already pointed out, Bruce seems incapable of seeing where their particular expertise lie and so clips together pieces to come to conclusions that the scholarship doesn’t support. Why, conclude that Jesus’ death is solely the responsibility of Pilate? Following Bruce’s “methodology”, surely an encounter between Jesus and Pilate is even less likely than between Jesus and the Judean (whom Bruce mistranslates as “Jewish”) leaders – an encounter that Bruce discounts?

      1. Once again, I’ve got to deal with the aggressive style of debate here first. Yes, I was paying attention to the programme and yes I have read your review. And yes, I have read Spong and Geering and have their books on my shelves. Geering, as it happens, was the supervisor for my Religious Studies PhD. Hopefully we can debate the issues now. Yes, of course there’s disagreement on all sorts of issues, whether Jesus could read and write beign one of the less important. But I think it’s fair to claim a consensus on things like the Jewishness of Jesus, the Christian need to distance themselves from the Jews leading to felt need for a New Testament, the progressive divinising of Jesus with each passing gospel, and so on. Far from wandering off topic, as Christopher asserts, the move to anti-semitism in thedocumentary is an essential part of understanding how the New Testament came about. Constantine’s Sword goes through all that in detail. The problem is not so much religious illiteracy among the general public, but the unwillingness of so many Christians to comprehend where Jesus scholarship has gone, and its full implications. This is what Bruce has illustrated so well.

        1. Thanks for your contribution and clarification, Bill.

          I am conversant and comfortable with the Jewishness of Jesus, the Christian need to distance themselves from the Jews, the progressive divinising of Jesus with each passing gospel, and so forth. I am not as convinced as you that the “need to distance themselves from the Jews” led “to felt need for a New Testament”, I think there were other stronger dynamics at work that led to the formation of the New Testament. Now that we’ve established agreement on these points, and clarified where we differ, as you say can we debate the issues now? I think Christopher (who also holds a doctorate in Religious Studies) presents scholarly consensus well. Can you pick up some actual specifics of the book and the programme that are being criticised and indicate where you see those criticisms are in error and why? Thank you and blessings.

  7. I had watched some of the previous Investigator programs and found they raised interesting questions. Therefore, I was looking forward to the Jesus program (having never read the book which I now see exists).

    As someone who has degrees in both science and theology I obviously have grounding in both, and don’t mind having my understandings examined and challenged. I regard it as healthy.

    For example, I accept evolution exists and try to listen to both conservative and liberal Christian theological ideas. I also try to look into the historical contexts that may have influenced the development of those ideas, going back to the original communities that produced the various books of the Bible.

    Personally I have no doubt that many books of the Bible evolved out of oral traditions and often had multiple layers of authors over a period of time who built on the previous. I think that often what we are left with in the Bible is heavily influenced by the agendas of the final authors and the various communities to which they belonged or were speaking to.

    Anyway, there I was expecting some intellectual rigor in Bryan Bruce’s documentary on Jesus. My conclusion, having seen it, is that Mr Bruce clearly wasn’t coming from a neutral position and just following the evidence.

    He was clearly biased against believing the Bible stories relating to Jesus and went so far as to justify some of his “beliefs” by making things up which I am not aware of having any historical evidence. (Some of the previous commentators have already mentioned some of these points.)

    Really it was disappointing. To my mind Mt Bruce joins a long queue of other mediocre investigations on the subject of Jesus that have started from their own position of faith, rather than the facts.

    Bob Boardman

    1. Thanks, Bob, I also have a Science and a Theology degree. We can learn from Science, and the academic approach to History and to the Scriptures. Especially in our new (internet) context, we need to provide the skills to discern the quality of information provided. It is too easy now to stitch together pieces of varying quality and end up supporting unreliable conclusions. Blessings

  8. I have not read Bryan Bruce’s book on Jesus since I already have so many books and articles by specialists on the subject of the historical Jesus quite accessible to non-specialists that I am reluctant to spend time or money on amateur popularisers. Anyway, as you say, Bosco, there is little in common between the public execution of Jesus and recent murders – or the skill sets required for investigating these totally different events. However, as I watched the documentary last night, I found it much better than I expected. It was good to have footage of Palestine and interviews with scholars like Vermes and Crossan.

    As you wrote of the book, Bosco, the documentary lost its way with a focus on Christian anti-Semitism and the Sho`ah. But given the religious illiteracy in this country, it still made a worthwhile contribution. Sure, it exaggerated the role of Pilate: Jesus was no doubt a victim of the Jewish elite’s collaboration with the Roman administration. Both feared popular disturbance especially at the time of the Passover. But it cannot be denied that the gospels seek to blame the notoriously rebellious Jews/Judeans – evidently in an effort to show that Christians were loyal to Rome, despite the fate of their leader.

    The NT does not clearly distinguish between Jews and Judaeans. Surely Jesus attracted followers from Judaea (such as Martha, Mary, and Lazarus), while even Diaspora Iudaioi shared this ethnic-religious identifier. Were not Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus Jews/Iudaioi? When Mt 27:25 presents the crowd saying “His blood be on us and upon our children”, it does not refer just to the descendants of Judaeans as distinct from Galileans or Diaspora Jews.

    On the whole, the documentary presented an interpretartion of Jesus that reflects contemporary scholarship. My main complaint is that it gave Crossan the last word on the teaching of Jesus concerning the kingdom. Vermes is more reliable on this topic. Jesus the apocalyptic prophet seems to have caused a minor disturbance in the Temple with an acted-out parable to illustrate the coming divine intervention that would overturn the political and religious status quo and establish God’s reign.

    1. Thanks, Christopher. You may be interested in the documentary thread. Like you, I appreciated seeing some of these scholars, and re-seeing some of the Palestine/Israel sites. I think Sephoris is a helpful part of the story – though I’m astonished he did no work on translating τεκτων (tekton) better – yes, Jesus might have been a carpenter, but he could have been a stone-mason, or even a poet. Your second paragraph makes sense to me, and I have no idea what makes Bruce reject the involvement of Judean leaders, but quite happy to have an involvement of Pilate in what he described as a minor skirmish.

      I am not as convinced by your third paragraph. The balance of scholarship appears to be towards Ioudaioi (Ἰουδαῖοι) being applied as you describe to the Diaspora. But when you come to Mt 27:25 I think the meaning is not so clear as you suggest. In the context of this and the previous chapter of Matthew, I would suggest the most straightforward reading is that it applies precisely just to the Judaeans and to the immediate next generation, their children. And that it refers to the destruction of Judaea/Jerusalem and the Temple, within four decades of Jesus’ death. However, I obviously acknowledge there are other interpretations – none, of course, justifying the anti-Semitism that some have drawn from it.

  9. lis10truth2noledge

    “none are so blind as those that refuse to see” for me that applies to both sides of the fence, some believe in God but refuse to see more or look into it deeper, and some refuse to see the evidence that God exists.

    but regardless of whether God exists the book sounds terribly unaccurate, which i fully believe and which the article was in essence about

    1. Thank you for your contribution, lis10truth2noledge. The culture of this site requires people to give their ordinary name, please. Not a pseudonym.

      As you indicate, this is not a discussion about God’s existence (that discussion is available elsewhere on this site). This is an examination of the scholarly quality of a book and the documentary that goes with it. Blessings.

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