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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