Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ

Bock, Darrell L. and Daniel B. Wallace.

Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ

Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007. Pp. xii + 256. Hardcover. $21.99.

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Thank you to Le Orsbon at Thomas Nelson for this review copy!

(All page numbers refer to the reader copy and may differ from the published hardcover edition.)

Dethroning Jesus is the latest work of scholars and fellow bloggers Darrell Bock and Dan Wallace, both of Dallas Theological Seminary.  This book is another round of ammunition in the already full clip of popular Christian apologetics.  The authors here seek to dismantle various claims (six in all) posed by liberal scholars about the Biblical Christ, the New Testament, and Early Christian history.  Anyone who is familiar with Bock’s and Wallace’s various contributions to the fields they speak on in this book will find little in terms of new material.  Large sections of this work are simply reorganized parts of previous books (The Missing Gospels — Bock; Reinventing Jesus — Wallace) in which they have addressed the same or similar subjects.

The book begins by asserting that Judaism was a “culture of memory” [p. 3] so we should rest assured that the picture of Jesus the New Testament presents is more accurate than not.  This is a point that James McGrath criticized in his review of the same volume.  While I’m not nearly as well read on the subject as these men, I believe it a safe assumption that ancient cultures were more accustomed to memorization than modern day Westerners are.  Bock then sets out the thesis of the book, which is that there is a vast difference between Christianity and what Bock calls Jesusanity.  He defines them as follows:

Christianity involves the claim that Jesus was anointed by God to represent both God and humanity in the restoration of a broken relationship existing between the Creator and his creation. [. . .] Jesusanity is a coined term for the alternative story about Jesus. Here the center of the story is still Jesus, but Jesus as either a prophet or a teacher of religious wisdom. [. . .] He is one among many–the best, perhaps, and one worthy to learn from and follow. [p. 4]

Bock goes on to show the various portraits of Jesus painted by different scholars, all of which paint a different picture.  E.P. Sanders’ Jesus is an eschatological prophet while Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s Jesus is an egalitarian (God forbid!).  Borg’s Jesus is a spirit person and Crossan’s is a peasant.  On the other end of the spectrum we have N.T. Wright, John Meier, and Ben Meyer whose Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and “operated in a more messianically inclined direction.” [p. 14]  This is enough to push these authors towards Christianity.  Somewhere in the middle sits Paula Fredriksen with her Jesus who developed over time into a Messianic figure. Various points are considered and discussed before moving into addressing Claim #1 which is that the original New Testament has been corrupted so badly by copyists that it can’t be recovered.

Of course Daniel Wallace, text critic extraordinaire, fields this claim.  To be quite honest, I was disappointed with this chapter largely because it targeted text critic and self-proclaimed “happy agnostic” Bart Ehrman and treated him as a whipping boy throughout.  This wouldn’t have been a problem if Ehrman was actually guilty of the things that were attributed to him.  For example, at one point Wallace takes Ehrman’s claim that we don’t have third or fourth generation NT manuscripts and compares this to the telephone game.  He says that the “telephone game is a poor analogy for New Testament copying practices” yet goes on to admit that “Ehrman never makes this analogy, but when he speaks of our lack of ‘copies of the copies of the copies of the originals,’ the impression that one gets is that the telephone game is comparable.” [p. 47]  That this is a straw man argument is self-evident, but I also regret Wallace’s presuming to know what impression people get when reading Ehrman’s work.  I personally didn’t get such an impression when reading Misquoting Jesus.

This chapter is riddled with similar caricatures of Ehrman and criticisms for his not saying something that Wallace felt he should have said.  At one point he says, “it’s not what Ehrman puts into the book that is so troubling, but what he leaves out” [p. 51], and then continues to talk about the impression that one may get from Ehrman.  Wallace is also guilty of taking Ehrman out of context when he quotes him saying:

Elsewhere he [Ehrman*] gives vent to the despair: “Given these problems [of corrupt manuscripts**], how can we hope to get back to anything like the original text, the text that an author actually wrote? It is an enormous problem. In fact, it is such an enormous problem that a number of textual critics have started to claim that we may as well suspend any discussion of the ‘original’ text, because it is inaccessible to us” (Ehrman 2005, 58). [p. 53 - * brackets mine, ** brackets theirs]

To take a page from Wallace’s book, it’s not what Wallace put into the quote that is so troubling, but what he leaves out.  Ehrman goes on to say, This may be going too far, but a concrete example or two taken from the New Testament writings can show the problems” (Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 58, bold mine).  Ehrman says elsewhere in the book that we can get “back to the earliest attainable version” and that the “oldest form of the text is no doubt closely (very closely) related to what the author originally wrote” (Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 62).

Even with all the mischaracterization, this chapter isn’t completely lost.  Wallace goes on to point out some very useful information for anyone who might fear that the multitude of textual variants that exist in our manuscripts somehow makes the NT untrustworthy.  But again, this is nothing that Wallace hasn’t said before either on his website, the blog he posts on, or in previous books.

Bock goes on in the next two chapters to address the Gospels of Judas and Thomas.  He gives a point by point summary of the Gospel of Judas before concluding that it “teaches a great divorce between God and the creation that neither Judaism nor Christianity embraces. In Christianity as in Judaism, the creature is responsible to a Creator who directly created.” [p. 102]  He contends that it is “historically false” to claim that these Gnostic gospels “are evidence of a very early, legitimate alternative Christianity…” [p. 103]  He characterizes such claims as “an anachronistic attempt to write a revisionist history” and on this point I am inclined to agree.  The Gospel of Judas doesn’t tell us anything of value about Jesus, it’s date is too late to be valuable for determining anything of the earliest Christian communities, and it doesn’t appear to be built on any older, pre-existing foundation that would lead us to believe otherwise.

The chapter on Thomas is par for the course as far as conservative Christian apologies go.  He dates the gospel somewhere between the early to mid-second century, acknowledges that some of the sayings may be authentic, and points out that it departs from the canonical Gospels in many respects concerning its portrait of Jesus.  One would do better to read Bock’s The Missing Gospels for a more thorough treatment, but I’d recommend Criag A. Evans’ Fabricating Jesus above and beyond them both.

They also challenge the view of some scholars (Borg and Crossan) that Jesus was some sort of a radical/revolutionary whose mission was merely social and political reform. They acknowledge that this was part and parcel of what Jesus came to do but the greater mission was proclaiming the kingdom of God and calling people back to right relationship with God.  In this chapter they go through the Passion Week day by day and examine it in light of Crossan and Borg’s take on it.  Space prohibits me from detailing their conclusions from each day but this one jumped out at me.  They said:

Borg and Crossan portray Jesus as a prophet who points to the arrival of God’s challenge to the world through a program that tackles values. Christianity argues beyond this program-oriented picture that Jesus presents himself in actions that show his role. These actions reveal a spiritual dimension that informs Jesus’ revolutionary values; indeed, this spiritual dimension is the core of Jesus’ purpose in coming to earth. More than being a “decisive Jewish voice” (Borg and Crossan 2006, 30), Jesus is the turning point figure in this drama who reveals by his actions in Mark that he is the King with a humble but decisive calling. [p. 137]

The next chapter singles out James Tabor and his recent work The Jesus Dynasty.  Bock notes that Tabor’s historical work is mostly sound but he approaches it with some faulty assumptions (e.g., naturalism) and draws some faulty conclusions (e.g., that a Roman solider named Pantera was Jesus’ father).  They summarize Tabor’s view of early Christianity as basically him saying that Peter,  James, and John represent the Jewish school of Torah observance and works , whose Messiah had died but succeeded nonetheless because he would be vindicated in the end.  Paul showed up and de-emphasized the works aspect and “went his own way with a more mystical, visionary faith, which eventually won out and became orthodox Christianity.” [p. 182]

Bock gives place to “some variation within the new faith” [p. 183] saying that Paul shows serious conflict with those who taught that Torah observance was required for salvation.  He notes however Paul and James’ agreement of the law being fulfilled in love (see Gal. 5:14, cf., Jas. 2:8) and asserts that there’s no contradiction between their seemingly opposing statements  on justification because they are asking different questions.  “James is asking about how justification looks by considering its product after time has passed, while Paul is asking what justification involves coming into it at the start.” [p. 184]  He concludes that “what Tabor’s study represents is a type of reverse Marcionism.” [p. 191]  While Marcion wanted to remove the Jewishness from Christianity Tabor seemingly wants to downplay Paul and Luke-Acts.  The irony of it all as Bock rightly notes is that, “Tabor, who in seeking to maintain the Jewishness actually excludes the contributions of the of the most Jewish-instructed of all the apostles, Paul.” [p. 191]

The final chapter examined the Talpiot Tomb finding.  One gets the impression that the Talpiot Tomb is more significant than it actually is from all the attention it has received from Christian apologists.  They examine the statistical problems, the mitochondreal DNA problems, the historical problems, the problems with the names, and last but not least, the contrary testimony of the New Testament.  All in all, they say the same things that we’ve heard Ben Witherington, Craig Evans, James White, Gary Habermas, and just about every other NT scholar and apologist (to include Bock who was present for a post documentary discussion on the Discovery Channel when it originally aired, and Wallace who discussed the issue on an internet radio broadcast Converse with Scholars) have said since the book was released and the documentary aired back in Feb. — Mar. 2007.  I didn’t understand why it received so much attention then and I can’t understand why it has received even more now.  In my opinion this chapter was the appendix of the book that would not have been harmful to remove.

I give this book 3 out of 5 stars 3.0 out of 5 stars because it is more of the same.  I’ve come to expect a very high level of writing and argument from both authors and while there is much of that here, I don’t feel it measures up to their previous work.  In the last 2-3 years there has been no shortage of apologetic works written for laypersons which argue against the likes of the Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, et. al. and this just adds to the stack.  In the end I find myself agreeing with their conclusions on the majority of issues addressed, although I found myself less than impressed with their methodology at times.  I would recommend this title to anyone who hasn’t already read The Missing Gospels, Reinventing Jesus, Misquoting Truth, or Fabricating Jesus.  However, if you have read these titles then I can’t see that this one will add much to what you’ve already encountered.

B”H

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8 thoughts on “Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ

  1. Very interesting. I’m reading “Misquoting Jesus” now. You have added some nice points that I can keep in mind as I continue his book. I guess I tend more to his way of looking at things, and those of similar ilk. It is important to read both though as the only proper way to make an informed choice as to what you think is more correct. It’s fun to watch these heavyweights take pot shots at each other in any case. I just finished reading E. Schussler Fiorenza’s new book “The Power of the Word” and the sniping at apponents is amusing. And yes, I do think of Jesus as an egalitarian! Good post!

  2. spirit,

    Thanks for the comment. I think you’ll enjoy Ehrman’s book, I know I did. I didn’t find it nearly the threat to the faith that everyone claimed it would be.

    As far as Jesus being an egalitarian, I think that much is clear… I mean c’mon, the first person he sent to preach the Gospel was a woman! (Jo. 20:16-17) ;)

  3. Nick, I appreciate your detailed review of Dethroning Jesus. I’d like to respond to some of your criticisms if I may.

    First, we never said who wrote what chapters. Your attribution in at least one place was incorrect. So, be careful about what you’re assuming.

    Second, you said that we treated Ehrman as a whipping boy in the first chapter. But since the explicit objective of the book was to address scholars who have made a contribution to biblical studies on the side of Jesusanity, this charge seems to miss the point of what the book is all about. However you go on and say that we created straw men by mentioning the telephone game and by speaking about the impression that Ehrman leaves on people. I think your characterization of what we’ve done is incorrect. Ehrman strongly, though implicitly, does relate TC to the telephone game in many respects–but not nearly as much as some folks think he is doing. Nevertheless, without working this point over, let me just address the whole issue of the impression he leaves with readers: please see the epilogue to that chapter to see precisely how he has ignored virtually ever opportunity to correct any misimpressions about Misquoting Jesus. My charge against Ehrman is that he is creating Chicken Littles, especially in his follow-up interviews to Misquoting Jesus. And, again, I carefully make a distinction between what Ehrman believes and the impression he gives, which seems to show that the straw man argument you are raising is irrelevant, for a straw man argument presupposes that I have misread what Ehrman believes, rather than the impression that he produces. I for one thought Misquoting Jesus was pretty good, though overstated in many places. Ehrman has come out much stronger in his post-production interviews though, and that has only fed the misimpression.

    Third, I think it’s a careless reading to say that there’s nothing new in this chapter over what was in Reinventing Jesus. Ehrman’s book came out while RJ was in production; we only commented briefly on his book. Now, if you’re reading DJ as treating Ehrman as a whipping boy, this shows that you do see this book as doing something different. Therefore, it seems that you have either too casually read these books, too poorly remembered RJ, or intentionally misrepresented DJ. I refuse to believe the final option, which would impugn your character. But it raises the question: how could you have done this unintentionally?

    Let me illustrate. I can’t speak for you, Nick, on this, but I can speak for me and other professors. When students are assigned a particular essay for a course, the worst thing that can happen to a student is to have his or her paper graded last. As the professor grades every paper, he or she begins to see the best arguments with a composite effect. That is, these arguments would have come from more than one good paper, but would almost never all be found in a single paper. Say there are 100 papers to grade. And there are ten really solid arguments at most on the subject. By the time the prof gets to the 100th paper, the student might have only given seven of the ten arguments. The prof might view it as a C paper because of what is missing. But what he or she might not realize is that NO ONE gave all ten; in fact, the very best paper in the lot might have given only 8 of the arguments, and several other papers that gave 6 or 7 were given A’s. I began to notice this very early on in my teaching career, and decided to take breathers when grading, and deliberately comparing the later papers with the earlier ones to rid myself of bias. And that’s when I really noticed the trend! You are an excellent bibliographer, who reads a great amount of material on Christology, apologetics, etc. However, I wonder if perhaps you have succumbed to the composition effect by attributing something to one source (e.g., Reinventing Jesus) and thus denying much value to a later one (e.g., Dethroning Jesus).

    I would say that DJ has an entirely different focus, is compatible with the books by Evans and Witherington and Reinventing Jesus, but makes its own unique contribution.

    Fourth, regarding chapter 3, there is new material here on Thomas, not found in the earlier books. And it is hardly a typical evangelical response in that it addresses specific texts in some detail. And although Evans’ Fabricating Jesus is far more detailed, Evans agrees with Perrin’s late date of Thomas. We struggled with that particular issue quite a bit. What you see in one or two sentences in Dethroning Jesus at times represents a few days of wrestling with issues. Again, I think the composite effect has colored your review.

    Fifth, we pitched this book at a different level than Reinventing Jesus was pitched at. On the one hand, we dealt with high visibility Jesusanity scholars; on the other hand, we decided not to use endnotes or footnotes and we deferred to other books rather than give the detailed arguments here. Reinventing Jesus was a bold experiment in treating laypeople to a feast that had extensive documentation, assuming that they were hungry for that sort of work. Many were, many weren’t. Dethroning Jesus followed an older formula of deliberately pitching the book at those who didn’t care much for notes but wanted to hear someone with real authority (i.e., other than a ranting pastor) speak to the issues that troubled them. Please recognize that this book was not intended for readers like you; to you, everything in it will seem like old hat. But to many readers, it was a real eye-opener.

    Sixth, both Darrell and I believe that Evans and Witherington have made substantial contributions to this whole discussion of how we are to view the historical Jesus. We have learned much from them, and I hope that they have learned something from us, too. But that’s precisely the point: I don’t believe that everything that’s in DJ can be found in either Witherington’s writings or Evans’, or both of them together. All of us have a contribution to make. What I liked about the concept of DJ from the initial stages was that it targeted six major Jesusanity arguments (‘major’ in the sense that it focuses on scholarly arguments that have crossed over into the public square). I don’t think that other books do this, so in one book the reader who just wants to get acquainted with the issues and see how evangelicals are responding can get it.

  4. Dan,

    Thank you for your detailed response and the spirit in which you delivered it. I pray that my response is equally as cordial.

    (1) My copy does attribute certain things to you and Dr. Bock. For example:

    “I (Darrell) remember a discussion I had about memory…” (p. 2)

    “…though I (Dan) have dealt with it elsewhere…” (p. 69)

    Elsewhere I (Darrell) have already taken a detailed look…” (p. 78 )

    “In February 2007 I (Darrell) did a radio interview…” (p. 185)

    “This claim is one in which I (Darrell) was directly invloved.” (p. 193)

    “I (Darrell) have dealt with this argument in detail…” (p. 204)

    “The audio tape of this interview can be accessed on my (Darrell’s) Bock Blog…” (p. 208 )

    I do apologize if I’ve wrongly attributed anything to either you or him in the review and I would be more than happy to make the necessary corrections if you will point out where I have done so.

    (2) I appreciate what you are saying with respect to Ehrman but I find myself unconvinced. A straw man argument is simply attributing something to someone that isn’t their original argument. I think that the ‘telephone game impression’ you spoke about did exactly that, especially since you admitted that he does not make this argument.

    And I understand your frustration with his wasting opportunity after opportunity to be clearer in what he teaches, but at the same time, he’s correct in that he can’t help it if people misunderstand him. Sure, he could do better to not be misunderstood, but you and I would both agree that he is not reporting false facts.

    (3) Also, I think you’ve misread me when saying that I was careless in saying that there’s nothing new in this chapter over and against RJ (which by the way was one of the greatest apologetic books I’ve ever read if that helps to make up for this review ;) ). I was saying that there’s nothing in this chapter that people who have read your website, blog, and previous book haven’t already come across with regards to overturning the conclusions that Ehrman draws. You’ve labored for years to give us confidence in our New Testament and that was the point I was trying to make. Perhaps I was unclear.

    I’ll be honest in saying that I think a reason I was as disappointed with this chapter as I was, was because it seemed like a departure from the wonderful full length review you wrote back in 2006. I thought you did well to challenge his conclusions and I would agree with you in the end that his conclusions are incorrect. I very much appreciated the second half of this chapter, but I felt like Ehrman wasn’t represented fairly (at least according to my reading of him).

    With respect to your illustration, you might be right. It is entirely possible that I have succumb to something like that. I do like to believe that I gave this book a fair reading though (I hope I did), and I was super excited when I received my review copy. That might have also played a part in that my expectations might have been a little too high (I am very much a fan of both of your guys’ previous works and as you know I frequent your blog posts regularly).

    (4) I agree with the chapter on Thomas. But I didn’t really see anything new or innovative in it. In fact I really had no criticisms of this chapter which is why I moved on rather quickly. And I don’t for one second think that anything in your book was written haphazzardly and I pray that I didn’t give that impression. I know from both of your previous works in these fields that you have been studying and engaging these issues for some time now.

    (5) Point taken.

    (6) I think that you covered in this one book much (and a little more with the Talpiot Tomb although I think that whole thing was a big waste of time as I’m sure you can tell) of what was covered in the others I mentioned. That’s why I’d recommend this to anyone who hasn’t read the others. But all of them together honestly seems to me like more of the same.

    Thanks again for your response. I really did appreciate it. :)

  5. Nick:

    Thank you for the review. I also want to put in my short note on the claim this is more of the same.

    The Gospel of Judas was just released when the Missing Gospels was published. Thus it got a short note at the end of the book as an appendix. That note could not respond to the reaction to the work in any detail as the time had not yet passed to have that yet. So everything here is new. In Dethroning, we went through it in some detail as representative of this type of literature. As I explained in Dethroning, no where in Missing Gospels could we analyze a work from the start to the finish.

    With regard to Borg and Crossan, the book we evaluated (THE LAST WEEK) also was new. So working through how they handle specific passages tied to the Passion week is something that could not be done, since this work also was new. I am not aware of a study that works through specific passages of theirs like this.

    Tabor’s work on Jesus is a similar situation.

    I agree with you that on reflection the Jesus bones chapter could have been left out. Of course this story broke in the months we were writing, so there was no way to gauge for sure what its impact would be long term.

    FYI, the standard used to address these issues were that the books in question had to have made a significant public impact. So this was not a guild book, but one orienting itself to discussion where the average Joe or Jane would have likely heard about the ideas discussed. That also dictated the style of documentation.

    Thanks again for taking the time to review this and going through the book a claim at a time. All the best in this new year.

  6. Darrell,

    Thanks for your comments as well! I really do feel honored to have both of the authors engaging me here. I understand about the Gospel of Judas and I quite agree with your conclusions. The chapter on Borg and Crossan’s book was probably my favorite. I would have liked to have been more detailed in reviewing it but space wouldn’t allow it. And yeah, that whole tomb fiasco was a bit ridiculous — it’s just something that I felt was over before it ever really started.

    Let me just say this guys… I didn’t mean to make it seem as if nothing you wrote was original or that this book isn’t good in its own right. I think it’s a good book, but I didn’t think it was a great book, especially when comparing it against your others. But I think Dan’s point #5 was valid. I have to remember that there are those readers who might not be as interested in these issues as I am and who haven’t read as extensively as I have. I probably should have been more sensitive to that factor.

    Thank you for your comments and I look forward to further interaction through the blogs. And a happy new year to you as well! :)

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