A common practice in many popular books today is the examination of Jewish works in order to shed light on the New Testament in general and Jesus in particular. Some do this better than others. Unfortunately, much of it is poorly done with little consideration to the dating of sources used. One author you can trust is David Instone-Brewer. I started reading his new book The Jesus Scandals and I’m finding it very compelling. Why scandals? He explains in the chapter “Why Look for Scandals?” which you can read here.
Scandals are our best guarantee of historical truth in the Gospels. When disgraceful, embarrassing and shocking details about Jesus are recorded by his friends and supporters, it is much harder to disbelieve them.
Jesus was accused of being a bastard, blaspheming, abusing alcohol, partying with prostitutes, being mad and working for Satan – in other words, scandal followed him. And a huge part of his teaching and ministry tackled head-on the scandals that pervaded society and would therefore have been regarded as scandalous by his audience.
Scandals are the inconvenient truths which the Gospels could not omit without being dismissed as fiction by their first readers. If there had been no scandals, the Gospel writers wouldn’t have invented them – why create potential reasons for people to dismiss Jesus? And if there were scandals, the original readers would remember, so the Gospel writers had to mention them and make a reply.
These scandals supply inadvertent confirmation for Christian claims. The fact that Jesus was charged with blasphemy indicates that he did claim divinity. The fact that he was stigmatized as illegitimate gives at least some credence to the stories of a miraculous birth – though sceptics would say it was a reason for inventing such stories. The fact that he spent time with prostitutes and gangsters indicates that he really did teach that anyone could have their life transformed. And the fact that he was charged with doing miracles by Satan’s power demonstrates that even his enemies believed his miracles were real.
The first two chapters on “Illegitimate Birth” and “Inelligible Bachelor” were excellent and I’ll share a couple of things with you in a future post. But today I want to focus on chapter ten: “Censored Arrest Warrant.”
Apart from the many book burnings many of the Jewish writings were purged of any references to Jesus. One passage in particular remains and may refer to the arrest warrant of Jesus. The passage is found in Sanhedrin 43a (Munich Manuscript) and reads as follows: (the bold part is what Instone-Brewer believes is the original with the later additions in normal type which he believes were added to remove problems involved by the text).
“On the Eve of Passover they hung Jesu the Nazarine. And the herald went out before him for 40 days [saying]: ‘Jesu the Nazarine will go out to be stoned for sorcery and misleading and enticing Israel. Any who know [anything] in his defence must come and declare concerning him.’ But no-one came to his defence so they hung him on the Eve of Passover.” (66)
He concludes the chapter by saying:
“For scholars, the scandal of Jesus’ arrest warrant is that this important ancient text was almost lost forever. If it really does include a record of what happened at Jesus’ trial, it helps confirm some details in the Gospel record. For Jews, the scandal lies in the rather clumsy cover-up of three inconvenient and embarassing truths. And for Christians, the scandal lies in the false charges made against Jesus.”
“The episode is also a scandal for the church because, in forcing Jews to censor their religious texts, it almost lost this valuable piece of history about Jesus which it could have trumpeted as another confirmation of Jesus’ divine role. But far worse than that, it continued and encouraged the anti-Semitic sentiments which have led to so many atrocities. In our reactions to Islma and to many modern faiths, it’s worth remembering that restrictions of any religion can lead to evil consequences on both sides.” (69)
Of course there are difficulties surrounding this text. For a more detailed treatment see a pre-publication copy of a full-length essay Instone-Brewer did on this passage here.
The Jesus Scandals is from Monarch Books and is a paperback with 192 pages and sells for $12.99.