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Jesus, the Cold Case

On Sunday evenings in New Zealand on TV ONe, the 8:30pm timeslot is for fiction. Certainly that will be the case this evening.

They will be showing Investigator Special – Jesus, the Cold Case. Bryan Bruce, well-known contemporary cold case television documentary maker, attempts to apply his skills to an area outside his expertise: the death of Jesus two millennia ago.

I read the book, Jesus: the cold case, and found it riddled with errors and contradictions that I would expect anyone with good secondary-school Religious Education knowledge to pick up. But hey – this is New Zealand, where 85% of the population have not had such an education. The perfect country to sell this book! TV One‘s programming, however, may lose it some regular Sunday evening viewers. There is much better fiction this evening on Māori Television where they are showing Amélie.

click for my review of the book Jesus: the cold case

Update: Hard to keep up with the errors while I’m watching (later clarification – these lines are copies of some of the tweets I was sending at the same time as the programme was showing. People were following the tweets during that showing. Hence the unusual genre of some of the following lines)

  • The Gospel of Mark says “third hour” Bruce thinks this means 3 o clock in the afternoon.
  • Bruce says “Luke claims 3 wise men…” LOL! That’s Matthew & he does not mention 3 persons – just 3 gifts (this you would learn in Year 9 Religious Education! ie a 13 year old is expected to know this…)
  • Bruce’s attempt to demonstrate errors in the passion accounts from the variants of the cutting of the ear in Gethsemane is a very weak starting point. Nothing is demonstrated by his example. Could do better.
  • So Crossan and Vermes disagree whether Jesus could read. Shouldn’t Bruce conclude that we be very wary about any scholarship of the period? And that his own attempt might be as far off as one of these experts clearly must be…
  • Bruce says, “Aramaic is an ancient form of Hebrew” LOL!
  • Bruce: the buried Lazarus with cymbals in case a person was buried alive & that’s the origin of “saved by the bell”. Anyone know if this has any veracity?
  • Spong now has Judas as a construct to image the Jews!
  • Bruce has Mark’s story of the trial before the High Priest being against the Torah. Where in the Torah please Bruce?
  • Geering: “all his followers had fled” hmmm… clearly hasn’t read the gospels…
  • “Mark was written during the war” – Bruce seems unsure whether to go with this or not…
  • Sadly Bruce cannot distinguish “Jew” and “Judean” because, I suspect, he cannot read Greek?
  • So now Bruce has Marcion as the first anti-semitic? I thought Bruce said the New Testament was rewritten to be antisemitic?

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30 thoughts on “Jesus, the Cold Case”

  1. Having read the book I agree that there are errors and contradictions within it. However these pale in comparison the the contradictions and absurdities found in the Bible.

    1. Thanks for your comment and honest appraisal of this book, Damian. You are rigorously damning it with the faintest of praise and not the greatest of sales pitches: “This book has less errors, contradictions, and absurdities than the Bible”.

  2. I am in the middle of watching ‘Investigator special: Jesus the Cold Case’ and I find it almost laughable, saying that stories were made up along the way…I mean seriously…All that is said during the time I have watched so far is “I think”…”probably”…”possibly” it’s so opinionated it truly is laughable, give me facts to follow on the show!?

  3. As far as I know the phrase “saved by the Bell” is from boxing. i.e. when the bell at the end of a round interrupts the count. This seems to be backed up by – http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/saved-by-the-bell.html

    “The earliest reference to this that I can find is in the Massachusetts newspaper The Fitchburg Daily Sentinel, February 1893:

    “Martin Flaherty defeated Bobby Burns in 32 rounds by a complete knockout. Half a dozen times Flaherty was saved by the bell in the earlier rounds.””

  4. As the programme’s page has gone down, I’ll vent my partial spleen here… (dealing with the first half of the programme only, really)

    Jesus – The Cold Case
    A [partial] Review

    I’ve been waiting to see this so-called “documentary”, after learning it had been funded by NZ On Air and not shown – I subsequently viewed a YouTube video of a Close Up interview with Director/Producer Bryan Bruce (in which he made comments whose apparent ignorance made me wonder about the quality of his work).

    Let me lay my cards on the table, something we don’t see from Bruce. I’m an Anglican Priest, generally orthodox in matters of theology, liberal in matters of praxis. I’ve studied formally only to B.D. level, but with a focus on New Testament, especially Second Temple Judaism.

    Bryan Bruce is a generalist. While promoting his role as a “cold case” specialist, his background is wide. Not history, not textual criticism, not socio-cultural. This, I’m afraid, allows him to be captured and rather shown up by small but significant misunderstandings. And his emotive final stand against anti-Semitism, while something all of us would want to whole-heartedly endorse, is simply not – in the strictest sense – relevant to this purported “documentary”.

    I’d have to say, too, that – as police/prosecutors before him, he’s captured from the outset. He’s pretty clear about where he’s going and what he believes, and … quelle surprise … it’s what he finds and believes in the end.

    Let’s start with some of the details of the programme’s presentation:

    Bruce presents Rev Sir Prof. Lloyd Geering as a New Testament scholar. Geering has never held a position of that kind. In fact, he was Professor of Old Testament Studies at Knox College in Dunedin, and of Religious Studies at Victoria. Geering is a significant figure in NZ scholarly life and history, but in latter years a “progressive” theologian, and hardly a figure to call on for New Testament comment as “expert witness”.

    The first of a number of misreadings and confusions about the sources (which Bruce admittedly dismisses as sources) comes early on. Looking at Mark’s account of the crucifixion, Bruce denotes “the third hour” (Mark 15:25) with “three o’clock (pm)”. Absolutely incorrect: the third hour after dawn was around 9am.
    He suggests that Luke’s Gospel talks about the three wise men coming to Bethlehem. Unfortunately, that is Matthew: Luke has an entirely different account with shepherds and angels – all of which may support his thesis, but undermine any sense of carefulness and credibility.
    Bruce is careless with language. King David, he said, “united the tribes of Israel”. Not really true, but he was the great and archetypal King who expanded the Jewish empire.
    He talks of “King Antipas” (actually Tetrarch Herod Antipas): the whole point of the sign above Jesus’ head at crucifixion is that Judea doesn’t at that point have a “king”. Had one once, isn’t allowed one now: to crucify Jesus as “King of the Jews” is twisting the knife in Jewish nationalism!

    Bishop John Spong is (rather predictably) brought into play. He is a “progressive” Theologian, and not a New Testament scholar, as suggested. He speaks on the birth narratives of Jesus, which are generally understood by scholars to be – as the parts of the narrative furthest removed from the central event of the Resurrection – perhaps the latest parts of the story to be assembled.

    The Qumran – so-called Dead Sea – Scrolls are referenced, as if “Jesus might have studied them”. What we do know from the Qumran texts is the remarkable accuracy of biblical texts in transmission – which is not in any way acknowledged as possible viz a viz New Testament texts – but also, that this was a separatist group, and not typical of Second Temple Judaism as a whole. The non-canonical texts noted needed to be treated in this light.

    The dating for Mark’s Gospel was a little late: c.64-70 is a widely held date (although some argue for a 50s origin). The dating for Matthew and Luke may have been a little early. The unaddressed question, though, is that of (largely) pre-literate oral culture. Enormous amounts of material, gospels, sagas, the whole Koran, have been memorised by people who did not necessarily write things down. We must be careful not to judge other generations and witnesses by our own expectations.

    As for the contention that the Gospel of John had a Greek author… clearly it was written by someone who could use a moderate level of Greek very well: it is the most straight-forward of the Gospels to read. This hardly suggests a sophisticated native-speaker, and there are many more hallmarks within to support the idea that this is a (formerly) Jewish community suffering persecution and exclusion – and that the short-hand use of “the Jews” throughout actually is to “the Judeans”, i.e. the powerful Jewish leadership/community which excludes them.

    Bruce blurs the issue of the differences between the Latin Vulgate and Codex Sinaiticus (which he – I think – inaccurately inflates as “significant”, as if they said different things, rather than had small scribal and other divergences) into talking about the parallel texts of the different canonical Gospels. These are certainly different, although it might be argued, not dissonant, and to be expected if more that one set of eyes and ears had seen and heard things. Again, the dynamics of oral tradition come into play, and whether details were added or taken away at various points is a perfectly valid point.

    Choosing to use John Dominic Crossan as a “leading world expert” is perhaps a slight overstatement, but the audience should be aware he comes from the same theological stable as Geering and Spong, and is a witness for the prosecution (as are they all). This is one of the real issues in Bruce’s work: where has he sought out or spoken to anyone who doesn’t support his thesis?

    Crossan’s dissection of the crucifixion narrative – suggesting that older texts like Psalm 22 were later put in Jesus’ mouth, “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” – fail to make the quite obvious leap that these are exactly the words a pious, expectant Jew (whatever else you might think about Jesus of Nazareth) might have found in their minds and on their lips, at whatever level of consciousness.

    No comment is offered about the unique nature of Galilee. Right on the outskirts of Judea, Galilee had a certain reputation for trouble, for being (in the eyes of the Jerusalem types) backwards. Whether Jesus was, as in Joseph’s household, a tekton – carpenter – among “the poorest of the poor”, is open to interpretation. Shimon Gibson, who Bruce goes on to interview, suggests in The Final Days of Jesus that he is in fact not poor.

    Describing Judea as being “invaded first by the Greeks, then by the Romans” neglects rather a lot of biblical history, including the two most cataclysmic events in Jewish history before the destruction and diaspora after the Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66-73AD, namely the loss of the Northern Kingdom in the 8th Century BCE, and the Babylonian Exile in the 6th Century BCE.

    The question of literacy in First Century Judea is an issue to be debated, but I would be inclined to follow Géza Vermes’ reputation (as against Crossan) in asserting that even among peasant Jewish communities, religious reading and writing was common. It is hard to imagine the title of Rabbi/Teacher (or its appropriate precursor) being applied to Jesus without a detailed knowledge of the Scriptures, presumably not just oral.

    Prof Elaine Pagels from Princeton is again mis-indentified as “an historical Jesus expert”. She is no such thing. She is a significant writer on Gnostic Christianity, a movement (eventually seen by the Church as heretical) in the early 2nd – early 4th centuries. Another witness for the prosecution.

    As to Jesus’ travelling to Jerusalem for Passover – the mandate and motivation for that is quite evident: hundreds of thousands of Jewish pilgrims did that every year.

    The dating of the “raising of Lazarus” from death is mis-dated. It is certainly not connected with the night before Passover in John’s Gospel.

    Bruce speaks about Lazarus’ story as a precursor to the phrase “saved by the bell”. While there was a widespread fear of being buried alive, and one could read this incident in that light, as does Shimon Gibson – one of the reasons embalming with spices took place after burial in caves was to acknowledge this – there is nothing about cymbals or bells to be inserted in First Century thinking – and the expression “saved by the bell” does NOT come from this source! While the anxiety concerned existed from early on, the expression itself dates from the era of boxing, namely the latter half of the nineteenth century. A symptom, one fears, of the kind of “research” used throughout this supposed “documentary”.

    More interesting territory is the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, on a donkey – or even a donkey with a colt. Why no reference was made to the Old Testament imagery Jesus would have been drawing on was in itself odd: in Jesus and his contemporaries’ eyes, this would have been significant in its fulfilment. It seemed difficult for Bruce to imagine more than one “box” in which this event might be placed: was it not possible that here we get a kind of pacifist lampoon (of both Pilate AND High Priestly authority) AND of this happening in the midst of an enormous pilgrim gathering? The fact that the crowds use Ps. 118 “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”, make a pilgrimage scenario the likely overarching context.

    Pt 1 ends…

  5. It is apparently true that because of fear of live burial, there were a few occasions on which a person was buried with the means to signal for help if they had been alive; in particular this seems to have happened in the United States and parts of Western Europe during the 19th and 20th century – *not*, as far as I can determine, in Roman Judea during the first.

  6. I will gladly lend Mr. Bruce my copy of The Historical Figure Of Jesus, by E.P. Sanders. Just to show the difference between a crime investigator and an actual historian.

  7. Am very glad to have found this link. Watched this program last night and I was left feeling very angered and upset expecially by the Holocaust section at the end of the documentary. I kept an open mind about things until this section, but found myself feeling extremely appalled by what I heard coming out of the mouth of Bruce’s mouth.
    Thank you everyone above for your comments.

    1. Thanks, Alison. I think there is no denying appalling Christian responsibility in anti-Semitism. We need to acknowledge terrible things done in the name of religion. This documentary just lost its way, however. Bruce had the early church condemning Marcion for attempting to distance early Christianity from its Jewish roots, yet moved without a blink to concluding this same early church was intentionally, consciously anti-Semitic. [He similarly moved from differences between different biblical manuscripts to differences between Gospel accounts.] There just wasn’t any rigour to his approach.

  8. I am not religious, so his various findings regarding inaccuracies in the bible are not going to upset me. In fact it could be intriguing. But I felt the ending, at WWII, where he almost (or does?) effectively blame Christianity for the holocaust, and then stopping there, just seemed to me like an easy and cheap cop out. They are not new ideas, and in fact used to guilt-trip the rich Western predominantly Christian countries into supporting what I see as just more of the same in the mid-East now. Apart from the potentially contentious religious aspects, I have a suspicion that NZ On Air was tricked into funding “subtle” piece of political propaganda, and that is at least one of the reasons why TVNZ sat on it. You have to ask, why is the state broadcaster putting this on? They even requested changes, and I wonder what parts were changed? The ideas in the documentary aren’t entirely new, the political tricks aren’t exactly new either. To be fair, there is an attempt to point out the absurdity of killing under the name of one or another’s God, but it stops short of tackling where that is used right now and right under our noses, in truth it could be used to trick populations into overlooking more of the same, and for that reason I find it suspect.

    1. Thank you so much for your contribution, Fred. I was unaware of TVNZ “sitting on it” until comments arrived about that. That it asked for changes is also news to me, and I would be interested in any links about that, or any further information about that. The funding of something with scholarly pretensions delivering something with so many obvious errors is of concern – both in misinforming the average Kiwi, and also about modelling quality research. The anti-Christian agenda was tiresome. I am pleased you highlight the political point. ps. I am sure I can find more biblical inaccuracies than Bruce can – the problem was when he got his biblical inaccuracies wrong! 😉

        1. Thanks so much, Fred. It is astonishing that what we saw was the revised documentary, still riddled with so many basic errors. Did Bruce not show the completed revised documentary to someone with reasonable knowledge of Christianity? I can imagine Bruce’s sources laughing at some of his statements. The much-criticised Spong would laugh to think of the 3 (sic) wise men being in Luke. For Luke the story of the shepherds in the infancy stories fits with his purpose, as do Magi in Matthew. The infancy stories are, of course, late in the development of the Gospels and each functions as an overture to the two larger works.

  9. Fabulous analysis here guys – thank you so much. I was so appalled by this program last night that I immediately submitted a written complaint to TVNZ.

    I should like to believe that their inbox will be flooded with complaints on a scale never seen before.

    It always amazes me how easily people miss the reason why Christ died. I am so thankful for Godly parents that allowed me to discover the truth of salvation through Christ’s sacrificial offering. Not a whisper of this in the program, so the point was completely missed even though told 4 times over in the Bible.

    Only the Holy Spirit can open their eyes. We pray in earnest for them meanwhile.

    Once again thank you guys for excellent analysis.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Brian. Bruce’s website was gone after the programme aired. I put a comment on it before the end of the programme – but the site had errors just as the programme did. So, interesting it is gone, and my comment is not visible. Bruce wrote appreciatively of himself, “Bryan Bruces ‘Jesus the cold case’ was an amazing revelation. He was able to wade his way through centuries of history and theology in a way that no one else has ever done. Incredible. Bruce alone understands the truth and has proved centuries of scholars and researchers wrong. He has also single handed, shaken the…”!!!


  10. “Sadly Bruce cannot distinguish ‘Jew’ and ‘Judean’ because, I suspect, he cannot read Greek?”

    In Greek, they are the same word, genius. Because in fact, the word Jew is merely an English shortening of the word Judean. They are called Jews because their version of Israelite religion is the one that developed in Judea as opposed to Samaria. Who’s stupid now.

    1. Thanks, Rey, for your invitation to expand my point. Those lines in that post were copies of tweets I was sending at the same time as the programme and trying to keep up, and also pasting them into the blog post which was being followed by many (I have the second largest twitter following in New Zealand, 76000, I don’t know if you are in NZ and were watching the programme with me – if not, I hope that clarifies the genre of those lines)

      You are correct, Ioudaioi (Ἰουδαῖοι) can be translated both as Judeans and as Jews. That is exactly my point. I am wondering if Bruce realises that what he is terming “Jews” may actually originally have referred to “Judeans”. Certainly, if you translate the Gospels with “Judeans” where it has regularly been rendered “Jews”, you result in quite a different dynamic and understanding. You mention Judea and Samaria, but neglect Galilee – precisely where Jesus and his followers centred. Clearly they were not “Judeans” (but they were “Jews”). As I note in my book review, the Judean-Galilean rivalry played a significant part in this story. I don’t know who’s stupid now, but I think that neglecting this dynamic and subtlety unacceptable in the context of the conclusion that Bruce wants to head towards. Blessings.

  11. I too watched this and found it quite good. Sure there a few errors, but I don’t think you should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I have always found it odd that the New Testament was so screwed up, and the story’s of Mark, Luke, Matthew and John were so different. It does make sense that they were changed over time, as one would expect. Remember these are just stories, they are not historical eye witness accounts. Also always found it odd that some people put so much faith into a collection of stories that were edited together 1700 years ago by a bunch of guys who for political expediency decided on what goes in to the novel and what stays out (why no gospel of Judas?) Just look how hard we today have to work to put a well known historical figure like Shakespeare together 300 years later.
    The bible is just a collection of short stories, it is not an accurate historical account of anything.

    1. Thanks for your points, Wayne. The stories of Jesus were retold and retold by word of mouth within different communities. The stories were polished and drew on other Hebrew Bible stories. Like jokes or well-worn sayings they developed polished form. It appears that a collection or collections of written sayings of Jesus may have circulated. Four artists drew up four works out of this context, each with their own particular purpose. It appears Mark was the first, and Matthew and Luke each expanded Mark’s scroll inserting material from the collection of sayings and other stories that they each knew. I hope this helps you understand why you find the New Testament “so screwed up” and the gospels “so different”.

      In your comment you say “it does make sense that they were changed over time” – I’m not sure if you mean the stories as they were retold and retold of the events of Jesus; or if you mean that the gospel manuscripts were changed after they left the hands of the author. The former I have explained – there was some element of the latter, but nothing like what those who have not studied this might think.

      The development of the canon (“why no gospel of Judas?”) is really a whole other scholarly area. There are plenty of good resources to research that. It is certainly not simple – and there are disputed points.

      As to your last sentence, I am always wary of words such as “merely, just, only, solely”. Much in the Bible has been shown to have good historical accuracy by archaeology and other disciplines.

      The Bible is a collection of short stories (and other genres). As you say – don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.


  12. Its interesting that most commentors of this production found it inaccurate, poorly reseached and anti Christian, personally I found it inaccurate, poorly researched and pro Christian (maybe with the exception of the holocaust bit).
    Come on Christians, support Bryan he’s one of you, modern historical study backed up by archaeology shows that most of the Bible is outright fiction probably more so than Amelie which is indeed delightful.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Hans. It is a little difficult to know what to make of it. You suggest Bryan is a Christian. If his position was not clear to you in the documentary, it was certainly clear in the accompanying book. He is not.

      As to the historical accuracy of the Bible – a collection of works covering about a millennium of development – my understanding is that its historical accuracy is of a quality at least akin to other works throughout that period. These works have been used, as other documents during those ages, for archaeological and historical research. So I am not quite sure, again, what your second sentence means.


  13. I noticed Wayne said “The bible is just a collection of short stories…” and that set me thinking about the threads going through all these “short” stories that add up to longer ones. I wonder if there is a list of them somewhere.

    An example is the recurring servant character from the first book onwards who is usually unnamed (e.g. in Ruth) but some commentators identify with the Holy Spirit – threads like this can be viewed simply as part of the story in which they are found, or something more significant in the overall scheme of things. I view it a little like the “Babylon 5” TV SciFi series that was envisaged as a large story from the beginning by JMS, unlike (say) Star Trek and many others which are mostly without character development or long-term plot. In B5 there was a character called Vir, whose name (like Eleazer’s) seems to have been selected from the start to fit in with where the story would be ending up.

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