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.