Despite its status as one of the best-selling books of all time, the Bible is a largely unknown text even among many who regard themselves as Christian.
New Testament scholar Craig A. Evans of Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, finds that a regrettable fact. A graduate of Claremont McKenna College, he received his doctorate in biblical studies from Claremont Graduate University in Southern California.
Evans is author and editor of more than 60 books and hundreds of articles and reviews, and has given lectures at Cambridge, Oxford, Durham and Yale, among many other universities and colleges. His documentary appearances have aired on the BBC, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, History Television and others. He also has served as a consultant for the National Geographic Society and for The Bible miniseries.
He spoke with Vision publisher David Hulme about the challenge posed by declining public knowledge of the Bible.
DH How would you characterize the general public’s view of the Bible’s reliability today?
CE I think the Bible, in the public view, is an unknown book. A generation ago, you could assume that the general public had a basic understanding of the biblical narrative, the basic story of the Bible. You cannot assume that now. Not only in the general public but in most church congregations the biblical illiteracy is simply amazing. People who regard themselves as Christians hardly know what is in Scripture. That is the big change, in my view, from the last generation to where we are today.
“It’s taken a generation, but we now have people sitting in the pews who honestly don’t know what is actually in the Bible.”
DH How has it come to be that way?
CE I believe the situation has developed for a lot of reasons. One thing is just a change of emphasis in what churches do in terms of preaching and education; the emphasis falls a little more on problem-solving, such as in marriages and family. And to get people to come to church when they could go to a sporting event or stay home and watch television, there’s a little more emphasis on music and entertainment and what critics sometimes call pop psychology: have a better marriage, get along better with your kids. This is at the expense of theology, Bible content, understanding what Scripture teaches. So it’s taken a generation, but we now have people sitting in the pews who honestly don’t know what is actually in the Bible.
DH What about the role of the skeptic today? We have them in all walks of life. What’s their impact on this situation?
CE Well, another thing that’s developed in the last generation is postmodernism. I grew up and went to school in the modern, where evidence and logic were priorities and were appreciated. We are in the highly subjective postmodern era. There is sort of a personal pragmatism: if it works for you, then do it. That means the skeptic can be very subjective in his complaints or his challenges. He doesn’t have to have evidence, doesn’t need to know the subject very well, because it’s really his own story. It’s a lot like Christian testimonial and apologetic: “This is how it has worked for me, or has not worked for me. Let me share my story with you.” People find that persuasive, but there isn’t any evidence behind it—and precious little logic either.
DH Why should we listen to the skeptic more than the believer?
CE I don’t know; the skeptic doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The sad thing is a lot of believers don’t know what they’re talking about either, so it’s a toss-up between two groups arguing about things they don’t know very well. But the skeptic, I find, is often arguing from a personal, autobiographical perspective—a problem relationship with a parent, a personal tragedy, a divorce; but it’s not well rooted in evidence or facts, or it’s not well argued. Unfortunately, a lot of Christians can’t see through that, and the way they respond is hardly better, and that concerns me. That’s why I believe we’ve got to get past this postmodern, irrational, subjective thinking and get back to the idea that it’s good to be informed—to know what’s really going on, what the evidence is.
“Jesus is not some rube who grows up in rustic isolation. He’s cosmopolitan to a surprising degree. I reject this idea that He is a simple, illiterate peasant.”
DH You have written a book in which you make a distinction between archaeology and biblical archaeology. What’s the difference?
CE Archaeology is the attempt to recover material culture from the past. It could be just a generation ago; it could be thousands of years ago. It’s unearthing and looking at what our human predecessors left behind. Biblical archaeology narrows the field to excavating and examining places and times that relate to the biblical story. That means the Middle East, today’s Israel, but also places like Jordan, Egypt, Greece, Turkey and so on, where people that the Bible talks about lived. The goal for what we unearth is to ask, Does this shed light on some place in the Bible? Some story? Some event? Or, does the biblical text shed light on what we have found? They become mutually clarifying, and for me that’s very satisfying.
DH Can archaeology provide proof of Jesus’ existence?
CE Archaeology usually clarifies things. If Jesus didn’t exist and the Gospels are fictions, then how is it that they get so much right? Why, at every place where they can be tested, do we find they are talking about real people, real events, real things that we can unearth? If we are talking about a nonexistent person who grew up in a nonexistent village, as some people actually allege, there was no Nazareth. Yet when we dig there, we find it. Historians are very interested in that. If you have an old document, one of the first tests is to ask, Does it really reflect life back then as we know it? If it does, the historian takes it seriously. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the book of Acts—these are the basic narrative books of the New Testament. They talk about real people, real events, real places, and the archaeologist can show that; so a fictional, nonexistent Jesus makes no sense of the actual hard data we have.
DH You mention solid first-century evidence of Jesus. What does it consist of?
CE Well, it says He goes to a synagogue at a certain place. The place exists, and there is a synagogue there. He talks about being in a fishing boat with His disciples and crossing the Sea of Galilee. We have pictures of fishing boats and we actually have a fishing boat that probably was old and out of service in the time of Jesus; it would hold the disciples. So what we find is that every time the Gospels say something, it coheres with the way it was. You also have sources outside the Bible talking about Jesus. Historians know who He is. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, explains to his readers who He is and what happened to Him and how He was crucified by the Roman governor. If you are not willing to listen to those sources and take them seriously—Christian ones, Jewish ones, pagan ones—then you are not interested in doing history. You are not open-minded at all. You really don’t want to hear what the evidence has to say.
DH You are very much against biblical minimalism, the movement within archaeology that denies the factual existence of biblical people and places. Why?
CE The biblical minimalist says, “I don’t care what the Old Testament says, or maybe even the New. I don’t think it happened; I don’t think those people existed; those events did not occur.” If other historians did that we would have nothing to say about Alexander the Great. We wouldn’t even know if he existed. We wouldn’t have anything to say about Julius Caesar. We would have no history from antiquity. That kind of historical minimalism only occurs in biblical studies. And they continue to maintain a minimalist view even when archaeological evidence comes to light that supports the biblical narrative. I think that exposes minimalism for what it is: a dogmatic philosophy or agenda, an ideology.
DH How reliable is the New Testament in terms of its original documents?
CE The New Testament documents are very reliable. We have over 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts. Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now have over 200 Old Testament manuscripts as well. And the pattern is quite consistent. We see that the scribes were very careful in what they did. Of course, they did make mistakes when they were copying things, but we can see where changes were made accidentally because of a slip of the eye, or perhaps intentionally to make the text conform to expectation. But when you have multiple copies, you can compare them and see that that’s the original reading and here is the mistake over here. Most scholars, unless they have some kind of an agenda, say the text we have is either identical to the original or very, very close to it.
DH How do later gospels such as Thomas and Peter compare with the New Testament documents?
CE The later gospels—some of the Gnostic gospels and so on—are very poorly attested. We usually have only a single copy, so we are not in a position to know how well preserved they are. These gospels were written usually in the second century. In the gospel of Thomas, Jesus says strange philosophical things and doesn’t sound much like the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If all we had was the Gospel of Thomas, would we even know Jesus was Jewish? We would have no sense of His ministry, where He went, what He did. So when I look at the gospel of Thomas, I see this lack of match with the way it really was.
Same thing with the gospel of Peter. Whoever wrote the gospel of Peter in the second century was very confused about who actually administered Jerusalem. Was it Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, or was it Herod the Tetrarch? The author also imagines that Jewish elders would do a sleepover in a cemetery to keep an eye on Jesus’ tomb. Who is writing this? Doesn’t he know that no Jew would do that? Then he gives us this fantastic story: two tall angels go inside the tomb and pull Jesus out, and Jesus is even taller—his head reaches the clouds. This is the stuff of second-century apologetic. I don’t understand why some scholars look at this text and think it could be really early. It isn’t. In comparison to the New Testament Gospels, it’s fantastic and doesn’t show connections with the realities of the first century.
“I believe we’ve got to get past this postmodern, irrational, subjective thinking and get back to the idea that it’s good to be informed—to know what’s really going on, what the evidence is.”
DH You mention Sepphoris quite a bit in your book. What’s the significance of that city?
CE Sepphoris, which Josephus calls the Jewel of Galilee, is just four miles from Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. That raises fascinating possibilities. In the early years of the first century, Sepphoris underwent massive expansion and building. So we must wonder if Jesus and other family members—Joseph the carpenter, for example—traveled or even commuted to Sepphoris to work. Did Jesus work as a carpenter or a builder there? Another thing is that Jesus grew up under the shadow of a cosmopolitan city. The idea that He grew up place-bound, in rustic isolation, is a thing of Christian piety but not of history, geography or archaeology. I think Jesus had a real sense of what was going on in Galilee and of Israel’s place in the Roman East. You can see that in some of His teaching. Jesus is not some rube who grows up in rustic isolation. He’s cosmopolitan to a surprising degree. I reject this idea that He is a simple, illiterate peasant. He is educated. Maybe it’s self-education, but how is it He can say things like “Have you not read . . . ?” or “You are mistaken because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God?” to the teachers and the learned men of His world? If Jesus can’t read, if He has no education, if He is some rustic hick, how can He talk this way? How can He persuade people? Why does He have a following? Why do the educated people and the elite fear Him so?
DH And why would He have followers in the royal household?
CE Precisely. I think the idea that Jesus is illiterate is very faulty and unpersuasive. Jesus knows the Scriptures. He quotes them, He refers to them, He talks specifically about reading, and no one ever challenges that. It’s not controversial. They may not like how He reads and understands the Scriptures, but no one ever suggests that He cannot read. If Jesus were illiterate, why would He pose any particular problem for scribes, Pharisees and ruling priests, who had formal education and could read? I would find it strange that Jesus would engage them with scriptural arguments and beat them in public and send them away ashamed and annoyed and plotting against Him. That just doesn’t sound like an illiterate teacher.
DH It’s been suggested that before 70 C.E. there were no synagogues, yet there are many references to synagogues in the New Testament. What is your take on this?
CE That’s a very curious theory that was advanced 15 years ago in New Testament studies, and it’s very much in step with minimalism. It says that even though we know of at least four or five synagogues, these were just public meeting places, nothing to do with worship or anything like that.
Archaeologists took that as a challenge. We now know of at least seven, perhaps as many as nine synagogues that predate 70. We actually have two inscriptions in stone that refer to people who donated money to expand or repair a synagogue. One of them has a date right on it: the second year of the reign of Nero, and it even gives a month and a day. That’s 14 or 15 years prior to the destruction of the temple. So archaeology has confirmed the truthfulness of what the Gospels say, and so has Josephus. Josephus says there were many synagogues.
The study of synagogues is very important. If we understand the first-century synagogues—what they were, how many there were, and what happened within them—we have a much better idea of the context in which the historical Jesus was nurtured.
DH There has been a lot of controversy over the discovery of the supposed “family tomb” of Jesus. What’s your conclusion?
CE The claim was made that the family tomb of Jesus was discovered at a place called Talpiot, a few miles south of the Old City, in 1980. What was discovered there gives me and most (maybe all) archaeologists no reason to think it’s the family tomb of Jesus at all. Names like Jesus and Mary were common; in fact, one fourth of Jewish women in the first century were named Mary. That doesn’t narrow it down very much. And the DNA evidence is actually quite silly, because ossuaries often contained two or more skeletons, so whose DNA are we even talking about? But for me, the most convincing element that says this is not the tomb of Jesus’ family is this symbol that looks like an upside down v with a little circle underneath. It’s a common symbol and refers to the temple. It was popular with people very dedicated to the temple, perhaps members of the aristocratic priesthood. I find it very strange that Jesus’ followers would bury Him and then other family members in a tomb with that symbol over the door. These are the people who put Jesus to death, the people affiliated with the temple establishment that opposed Jesus and His movement!
The other point is that on the ossuary in which these bone fragments were found there is an x, and they say that’s really the cross, just tilted over a little bit. No, it isn’t. It’s a stonemason’s mark, an x, and it shows you which end of the ossuary matches which end of the lid. The lid has an x on one end; the box has an x on one end. It’s not a sign of the cross, it’s not an indication that the box has anything to do with Christians. Archeologists know that, but lay people and sensationalists may not, and so they spin these theories that lack archaeological and historical merit.
“The Gospel writers are not distracted, as some Christians later would be; when you get into the second and third century, they want to know things like what Jesus was like as a little boy. Was He a wonder worker? A great carpenter? A healer? A great athlete? Trivial stuff!”
DH It’s interesting that in the New Testament itself you don’t get much evidence of an interest in things like that, or even in places. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, for example, comes much later.
CE Yes, one of the things that encourages me to think that the Gospels are reliable and are committed to relating accurately Jesus’ teaching and His activities is that they are not distracted by trivial interests or legends about what He looked like. These are common features that show up in biographies from antiquity. The Gospels don’t have any interest in that. They are completely caught up with what Jesus teaches and what He does, and the way it impacts people. The Gospel writers are not distracted, as some Christians later would be; when you get into the second and third century, they want to know things like what Jesus was like as a little boy. Was He a wonder worker? A great carpenter? A healer? A great athlete? Trivial stuff! But the New Testament Gospels are very much focused on His teaching and on His amazing deeds—not for the sake of the miracles but because of what they teach and the insight that those events or deeds or teachings give us about who Jesus really is and why He is important. That impresses me about the Gospels and encourages me to take them very seriously.