Brian Bruce on CloseUp: Not close enough

Mike Hosking interviewed Brian Bruce on CloseUp this Easter Friday for 10 minutes on the question Who killed Jesus, and why? Bishop Patrick Dunne, head of the Catholic Church in Auckland was there to represent “a more orthodox view.”

Brian Bruce looks like a conservative iconoclast; a fair-minded, respectable intellectual. He, in fact, is not an authority in biblical or historical Jesus scholarship. He is a film-maker whose research in the historicity of Jesus extends as far back as one full year.

What he argues for is that the Jews were not responsible for killing Jesus, but that it was Pilate. He builds his case on the idea that the gospel narratives are unreliable, hearsay and stories spun with an agenda. His words are the gospels are “war-time propaganda.”

What can we say in response to this? First and most importantly, what he presumes is that the gospels do in fact blame all the Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion. Bishop Patrick Dunne was hampered by the time constraints and the pressure of being put on the spot, so any short comings of his response are easily forgiven. He did well to quote Tom Wright in response to a particular qualm of Brian Bruce’s about a verse in John blaming the “Jews” for Jesus’ death. His mistake though was to only counter the example Brian Bruce used to illustrate his claim, rather than attacking the claim itself.

To counter the claim itself one could point out anti-Semitism in the gospels is ridiculous. Jesus was a Jew, and all the writers of the New Testament – including the gospels – were Jews themselves. The majority of the earliest Christian converts were Jews. Paul’s missionary mode-of-operations was to first preach in the synagogue to the Jews in hopes they would turn to Christ. The Bible in the past may have been used later to justify anti-Semitism, but it was used wrongly. There are no grounds theologically for blaming the Jews for Christ’s crucifixion. A close reading of the gospels will reveal that Jesus always remains in control of the situation: a masterful manipulator in the storm of controversy stirring about him. Jesus willingly submitted himself, in obedience to the will of God, to crucifixion. At any stage of the unfolding drama he could have escaped had he wished it.

Bruce thinks it ridiculous that the judicial murder of Jesus was orchestrated by the Sanhedrin in the middle of the night on one of the most holy days of the Jewish calendar when such an act was forbidden in Jewish law. He thinks it unbelievable that the only person to stick up for Jesus in the crucial hours of his trial was Pilate. This and evidence like it leads him to suggest that the gospels have it wrong – the Romans actually were responsible for Jesus’ death.

One could easily deal with the examples he uses to undermine his case. A little bit of knowledge of the religious and cultural backdrop would take the legs he stands on right out from under him. One could point out (1) the serious reason why Jesus was on trial in the first place – for claiming to stand in the place of, and be equal with God, (2) that no Jewish person would stand for something like that, or (3) the religious politics involved that made Jesus a stone of contention for the religious elite, or (4) the danger of siding with Jesus in such a volatile situation, etc.

It is easier however to remove the floor his legs stand on. A moderate position that Brian Bruce could have taken is this; the lack of information is insufficient to render these events plausible (i.e. we can’t know if these things were the actual things that took place). Instead of remaining unconvinced of the veracity of the gospels claims regarding who actually was responsible for the death of Jesus, he argues from what information he can garner that these events are implausible, and that something more plausible happened instead (i.e. we shouldn’t believe it because we can’t imagine how it could be true, instead we should believe something completely different which we can imagine). A philosopher of history would wrap him over the knuckles.

He makes other mistakes. He says basically that the gospel narratives cannot be trusted, for they were written between 40-80 years after Jesus’ death. Brian Bruce apparently does not know that in cultures with strong oral traditions that three generations of telling and re-telling is not enough for legendary accretion to wipe out the historical core. Neither does he appreciate that 40 years, a very late estimate of the gospel’s date of authorship, is still a very early source of information on the historical Jesus. In terms of ancient history, a source 40 years removed from the events is to die for. To have four such detailed accounts, so closely matched in their details, is unprecedented.

It seems as if he does understand that the earliest evidence for Jesus does not come from the gospels but from Paul, writing no more than 25 years after Jesus’ death. But he adds that it is suspicious that Paul didn’t know about such things as Judas’ betrayal and the Last Supper, yet he apparently spent several days with Peter and John, checking and investigating the details. Now, raise your hand if you find it suspicious that Brian Bruce is an expert on what Paul didn’t know. What’s more, these may be details that are not demonstrable true, but they are details which we have no reason to disbelieve if they are true.

Further, even if Judas’ betrayal and the Last Supper are not true, these are details that do not effect the veracity of the historical core of information regarding Jesus’ death, burial, post-motem appearances, and the disciples belief that God raised Jesus from the dead. You get the impression that apart from key facts such as there was a person called Jesus, he did something wrong, he got killed for it, that Brian Bruce is calling the whole Easter story a fiction. If that is true he finds himself not only outside the broad mainstream of historical research concerning Christ, but far-and-away to the extreme right of the most liberal Liberal.

Even the most dedicated sceptic has to admit that something happened to those disciples that was powerfully transformative. For fishermen, after the disaster of seeing their Rabbi crucified – what they would have understood to mean he was literally accursed by God, condemned as a blaspheming heretic – to then go on, and in the face of tremendous persecution preach the gospel – that Jesus is God – shows that something very unusual took place that first Easter Sunday.

There are other mistakes of Brian Bruce’s that could be countered. In fairness he didn’t have much time in the interview to develop a strong and convincing case, such as the one he apparently presents in his writing. But such a poor interview bodes not well at all for the quality of scholarship in Brian Bruce’s investigative reporting of Jesus.

You can see the interview for yourself here.

13 replies
  1. Rose
    Rose says:

    I’ll go with Bryan Bruce’s version. The underlying point he makes is that you cannot rely on anything written at anytime. Unless you were there personally you cannot prove what is credible and what is not. Only a Christian would refuse to accept any other version of the story of the Christ. Having been raised as a brain washed Catholic, unable to think for myself until I was about 45 I have since done considerable research myself and the whole story of Jesus being the son of God (who is God anyway?) is the biggest hoax ever.

  2. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hello Rose,

    Thank you sharing your thoughts.

    I realise that expecting philosophical precision of everyone is too much to ask for, but its worth pointing out that the following statement:

    The underlying point he makes is that you cannot rely on anything written at anytime.

    … is self-defeating. If you truly believed this, then why would you write it in the first place?

    You should note that Brian Bruce was not arguing against Jesus being the Son of God. Rather, he was arguing that the Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus. I do think, however, that the way in which he went about making his case does undermine the foundation people usually pin their case of Christ’s deity to.

    I’d be interested in the reasons you have come up with that show Jesus as the Son of God is a hoax. If it is for the reason you have implied (that the gospels, indeed any written source, cannot be relied upon to provide trustworthy information), then that should pose no problem, as the case for a high Christology does not rely on the gospels (or any book of the NT) being inspired or reliable. Further, if that is the case, then no alternative hypothesis that takes stock of the historical data can be advanced with greater or equal probability than the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead providing confirmation of his radical personal claims to deity.

  3. Kevyn
    Kevyn says:

    My complaint with the comments Bruce made was his contention that Paul knew nothing of Judas or the Communion the point being these were later constructions. However, a reading of 1Cor would have helped Bruce there as we read the words commonly used at the Lord's Table…"on the night night h ewas betrayed…Jesus took bread…after supper he took the cup…this is my body/this cup the new covenant in my blood". he hasn't done his homework at all but will comfort others who are as careless.

  4. Hazel
    Hazel says:

    Dose it really mater? We will answer to our own convictions at the end of our livers. What we feel is right or wrong

  5. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hi Hazel

    Our livers?

    Of course it matters. The truth is important. And though what Brian Bruce is advocating may seem trivial it has profound consequences for how we view the Bible as God's word and treat the message of hope provided by Jesus Christ. Yes, we will answer for own conviction at the end of our lives. We will also answer for the false things that we teach.

    You say "what we feel is right or wrong" That is right, and it is wrong. It is right in that every proposition we feel has a truth-value. It is wrong in that what we feel does not determine if a proposition is true (unless that proposition is about your feelings of course.) As an example, does your feelings about the warning label on a bottle of rat poison determine if the poison of which is warns, is harmful to ingest? Of course not. :-)

  6. Chris
    Chris says:

    I've read Bryan Bruce's book and found it very compelling and convincing.

    The author of this article, Stuart, thinks it amazing that anyone could think the whole Easter story is a fiction (extreme right of the most liberal Liberal?). What I find even more amazing is that anyone with any reasonable level of intelligence could possibly believe that any truth exists in this quaint little fairytale at all.

    It's just more of the continuing evidence of the powerful delusional effect that religion has on the human psyche.

    As for the claims that the story is true because of the strong oral traditions of the time, what a joke. Is he expecting us to believe all far fetched and fanciful stories from around those times about anything are true because people said so and talked about them to the next generation who handed them down and so on without any real evidence to back it up. Next he'll be saying that Noah and his Ark actually existed because of the strong oral tradition of the times!!

  7. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hi Chris,

    Let me correct you on a few things of your analysis of me and my article above.

    … with any reasonable level of intelligence could possibly believe that any truth exists in this quaint little fairytale at all.

    Perhaps you are overstating your case for rhetorical effect, but if you really do mean this it would undermine Brian Bruce's historical hypothesis as well just as much as the traditional Easter story. It would therefore constitute a contradiction your first sentence.

    As for the claims that the story is true because of the strong oral traditions of the time, what a joke

    This claim I did not make. A careful reading of my article will tell you what claim I did put forward. Let me clarify what I was saying. That because of the strong traditions of oral translation in the culture, (1) 40 years (indeed up to 2-3 generations) is not enough to wipe out the historical core of information, and (2) the gospel narratives (if not "trustworthy" as Brian Bruce said) are a generally reliable source of historical information.

  8. Michael
    Michael says:

    To Stuart,

    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis. I heard Mr Bruce on National Radio. Despite claiming to have conducted an impartial 'investigation', Mr Bruce seemed intent on taking particular Gospel passages out of context in order to 'debunk' the entire story. He then pointed out details of Mel Gibson's 'Passion' film that were not in the 'canon Gospels', as he called them. The irony of nitpicking a piece of dramatic art, while not applying the same academic rigour to his own purportedly serious account, has obviously not occurred to Mr Bruce.

    To Rose,

    You said: 'The underlying point [Mr Bruce] makes is that you cannot rely on anything written…Unless you were there personally'.

    Well, I guess I'll have to stop believing in the Soviet Union!


  9. Tania
    Tania says:

    I use to think Bryan Bruce was an “educated man” and good at his job. However after watching his so called “documentary” last night, I could not believe how one-sided his “investigation” was and how uneducated he is in the Bible.
    He talked at the beginning of how the Bible was just hearsay and yet I completely lost count of the number of times the words “I think, chances are, probably…” continued to come out of his “experts” mouths.
    He took some Biblical texts out of context and completely disregarded others and even made stuff up – where in the Bible does it refer to Jesus’ parents thinking he was mad? and where does it say in the bible that Jesus” “attacked” the sellers in the market?
    His reasons for not wanting to believe in events stretched as far to say that because certain things were only mentioned 3 times rather than 4 times, then it therefore must not be true.
    And as for his number one argument of the scenario with Pilate. No one debates that he was a harsh man in history but what was neglected to be mentioned was his wife coming to him beforehand because of a dream she had had. Even a harsh man in those days took dreams very seriously – but gee, what a surprise, Bruce didn’t mention that??
    Now he says that Christians are to blame for what happened to the Jews. I find that very ironic because Bryan Bruce himself is preaching hatred for the Christian people which seems very Hitlerish to me!
    His entire “research” is based on theories with massive holes in them. He chooses only to listen to the people he knows are going to agree with him and in no way is a professtional investigator with this story – I centertainly wouldn’t want him working on any of my cases!

  10. Richard
    Richard says:

    A few points to consider

    The Bible never mentions that there were three wise men,.
    Mark was not one of the 12 disciples,
    Jesus died because of mankind’s sin, in order to reconcile man to God. (the greatest event to have ever occurred in the history of eternity). It wasn’t the Jews or the Romans – it was God according to his eternal plan which determined the death of His Son. The key tools God used in bringing about His plan was Satan, the Jews and the Romans.
    Just because some of the gospels don’t mention certain events that the other gospels mention, doesn’t mean that they never happened.
    Bryan’s arrogance in determining what is truth and what is fiction in the gospel accounts is blasphemous and bigoted.
    Tania – there is verse in one of the gospels, where His family try and take him away because they perceive him to be besides himself – this is what Bryan is referring about their perception of Jesus’sanity. They did doubt His sanity.
    The tourist attractions are not necessarily the site of the actual events. There is a far more credible site for Golgotha elsewhere in Jerusalem.
    Jesus was probably born circa 6BC not 0BC, which makes him born within Herod the Greats reign.
    What motivation did the gospel writers have to lie? They believed lying to be a serious sin. What did they get for preaching the gsopel. Stonings, cruxifictions, imprisonment, tortures, fed to the beasts. Come on! These people staked their lives on the truth of the divinty of Jesus Christ. The tomb of Jesus was sealed and guarded by Roman soldiers. Jesus did in fact rise from the dead.
    Jesus Christ is returning soon to restore sanity to this world. If you feel the call of God on your life, repent now and live a sanctified life. If you want to continue your life rooted in lies, carry on, with a clear understanding that there will be a judgement.

  11. muzza
    muzza says:

    heres some investigating i did, Most ancient historians believed the apostle john wrote revelations in the latter part of the 1st century (96 ad),Papius in the ist part of the 2nd century wrote that it was of apostolic origin, Justin Martyr 2nd century wrote in his “Dialogue with Trypho,a jew”lxxx1 “there was a certain man with us whos name was John, one of the apostles of christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him”. Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Tertulian of the late 2nd and early 3rd century also speak of john being the writer, So do we dismiss these witnesses as unreliable so close to the event? So much for ist century christians only living to around 38yrs according to the documentary, john was well into his 90s and was literate and an eyewitness to all jesus said and did, being one of the 1st deciples

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