Review by Craig Blomberg.
Craig Evans, the Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity School in Nova Scotia, is one of the foremost evangelical New Testament scholars in our world today. Regularly interviewed for major network documentaries and author of countless articles and several fine monographs, particularly in the area of historical Jesus studies, Evans here makes a huge amount of complicated and controversial material understandable and readily accessible to the educated layperson and introductory theological student.
Evans’ main objective throughout this concise volume is to debunk the claims of radical, unrepresentative scholarship about Jesus and the Gospels. Chapters 1-10 each treat, in turn, scholarly cul de sacs and carefully explain why these dead ends develop. Chapter 11 then helps the reader piece together the true insights that have emerged from each previous chapter and more systematically addresses who the real Jesus was.
Chapter 1 points out how C. S. Lewis’ famous “liar, lunatic or Lord” triad of options excludes at least two main approaches of contemporary skeptics–those who see him as a prophet, sage or other significant historical figure because they sift through the Gospels to find a smaller core of truly authentic material and those who portray him as quite different from historic Christian claims because they reject all or nearly all of the canonical accounts as reliable. Using the published autobiographical reflections of Robert Funk and James Robinson to illustrate the first category of skepticism, and of Robert Price and Bart Ehrman as examples of the second, Evans highlights one recurrent problem–the all-or-nothing approach that leads some people to think that, if they cannot accept strict biblical inerrancy or harmonize every last detail in the Gospels, they must reject most or all of them (a mistake, I might add, sadly perpetuated by many very conservative evangelicals, too, who thus unwittingly send more hesitant skeptics over the edge).
Chapter 2 addresses the need for having valid criteria of authenticity in order to determine if the main contours of the Synoptic tradition of Jesus are indeed trustworthy. Evans believes that such standard historical criteria as that which is multiply attested, fits an early first-century Palestinian environment, would have proved embarrassing to the early church, or coheres with material authenticated by other reliable criteria, and so on, are the right tools for the task.
Evans next devotes two chapters to later extra-canonical “Christian” texts that paint a dramatically different picture of Jesus than the canonical Gospels present. Spending an entire chapter on the well-known Gospel of Thomas, and a second on the Gospel of Peter, Papyrus Egerton, the Gospel of Mary and the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark, Evans provides solid reasons for viewing all of these as no earlier than second century in origin and rarely, if ever, preserving reliable information about Jesus of any kind, much less data that should be viewed as more reliable than that found in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. The one anomaly is Secret Mark, which is, in all probability, not an ancient document at all but entirely a modern hoax perpetrated by Morton Smith, as several recent studies have virtually conclusively demonstrated.
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