Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Evidence for Jesus, by R.T. France

This was a mildly interesting book that could have been better if France’s discussion of the New Testament itself was more illuminating. This is a popular level book written in the mid-eighties so it is kind of dated. He emphasizes the important point that a lot of the writing from the 1st century have not survived. He then goes on to discuss the non-Christian evidence for Jesus. This analysis, like his analysis of the New Testament, is critical and evenhanded. After reading so much blatant Christian apologetics, this approach is both more honest and credible.

Tacitus is the main Gentile writer who mentions Jesus. There are others but to France, Tacitus is the most important. Tacitus states that Jesus was a Jew from the Roman province of Judea who was crucified under the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. Interestingly, France does not take this as ‘independent testimony’ since Tacitus could just be getting his information from what the Christians thought about their own origins. He gets this opinion from G.A. Wells who argues that Jesus was a mythic creation and not a historical figure. I tend to think that while Wells might be correct on Tacitus, I find it hard to believe that this information is not from some credible source since Tacitus was no friend of the Christians and would probably not accept whatever they claimed uncritically. However, Wells could be right.

The Jewish historian Josephus also mentions Jesus. France notes that the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus, as a Christian leader in 62 A.D. is generally agreed upon as historical. It is true that this mentioning of Jesus was embellished by Christian scribes, but most scholars believe that Josephus really did mention Jesus, but without the obvious Christian sympathies. Thus, the debate is about how Josephus mentioned Jesus rather than if he really did. The later Rabbis also referred to Jesus in a very veiled manner in the Talmud. Basically, the claim that he was a heretic that led Israel astray.

France spends far too much time on the non-Christian evidence. His discussion of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic second to third centuries writings are thorough but pretty much irrelevant since they were written much later than the NT documents and don’t really contain any apparent real historical evidence about Jesus.

Finally, when we get to the NT, France does a decent job of defending the fact that the claim that Jesus rose from the dead dates to very early from the crucifixion. The creed of 1st Corinthians 15 is key here. When the discussion turns to the gospels, he notes the bias inherent in the form-criticism of Bultmann who a priori discounts miracles. The rest of the discussion of the NT is pretty conservative and predictable. Since I’ve heard it all before I didn’t think it was that interesting. Overall, the book was informative but quite dry.

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