The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth
S. G. F. Brandon
(Stein and Day, 1979) $4.95
The problem with which Brandon has been wrestling for many years is this: The gospel account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion indicates that Jesus was killed by the Jews for blasphemy, whereas the historical situation implies that he was killed by the Romans for sedition. Brandon concludes in this work that Roman Christians rewrote the historical accounts, explaining away anything that would suggest that Christians, like contemporary Jews, were saboteurs in the Empire. Brandon argues that Pilate was a strong, responsible Roman leader who had Jesus crucified for leading a revolt against Rome. Some arguments Brandon uses to make his case are: 1) Jesus probably continued the movement of John the Baptist; 2) Jesus seems to have opposed giving tribute to Caesar; 3) the “cleansing” of the Temple seems to have been a military attack against the nation’s citadel and treasury; 4) a messiah or king of the Jews would have been a guerrilla leader; 5) at least one disciple was a zealot, one a terrorist, and possibly others came from suspicious backgrounds; 6) Roman rule blocked the establishment of the kingdom of God; 7) the disciples at Gethsemane were armed; 8) the entrance into Jerusalem signaled an open revolt against Rome.
Brandon strengthens his conclusions with additional evidence from Josephus, Eusebius, the church fathers, and early Christian art. He sometimes draws more forceful conclusions than the evidence justifies; nevertheless, he makes a closely reasoned argument that demands scholarly consideration and will be interesting reading for the non-scholar as well.
Jesus: An Historian’s View of the Gospels
(Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977) $4.95
Michael Grant’s book is mis-named. Rather than a historical analysis, Grant has presented in an attractive, novelistic style, an apologist’s defense of his own favorite beliefs. Completely dependent upon secondary sources, Grant has chosen explanations of gospel problems which were popular in liberal circles in the 19th century. He is unacquainted with Near Eastern sectarian customs and thought forms, and supposes, for example, that “the poor” were beggars asking for alms rather than communal sectarians. He thinks “the harlots” were prostitutes instead of Jews who mingled with Gentiles socially and in business. Grant holds that Jesus’ offense was in over eating and drinking, being unaware of Jewish rules against eating and drinking with unorthodox Jews, like tax collectors.
He believes that titles like ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’ were non-political. Unaware of the “fifth-column” nature of early Christianity, he believes Jesus told parables to make the disciples think. Ignoring the understood authority of kings to pardon criminals and political offenders, Grant thinks Jesus’ authority to forgive sins was a claim to be God. A genuine historian like Brandon would have seen the political implications of the Kingdom of God, but Grant holds that Jesus did not consider himself a messiah and was in no way related to military activity or politics.
Grant has no consistently applied historical method for distinguishing historical events from additions of the later church. Ignoring all the synoptic scholarship of the last 25 years, he bases his arguments on the shifting sands of Marcan priority.
Although it is not historically sound, many traditional “liberals” will find comfort and reassurance in re-reading 19th century conclusions in a contemporary style.
Michael Grant has held university positions in England, Ireland, and Scotland, and has published The Twelve Caesars, The Army of the Caesars, and St. Paul.
Jesus the Magician
(Harper and Row, 1978) $12.95
Morton Smith, Professor of Ancient History at Columbia University and author of The Secret Gospel, Clement of Alexandria and The Secret Gospel of Mark, among other titles, knows more about ancient magic than any other living scholar. In this book Smith applies the fruits of a lifetime of scholarship to the subject of the historical Jesus. He compares the pagan prayers of magicians with Old Testament psalms and Old Testament miracles with Near Eastern magic. The evidence he cites demonstrates rather convincingly that magic was in common use in the Near East and was practiced alike by pagans, Jews, and Christians: Jesus lived in a world of magic; he was called a magician, and his name was used in magical chants that are recorded in ancient Egyptian papyri. Against this background Smith presents Jesus as a magician who was principally a miracle worker, and only secondarily a teacher and political leader. In assuming that Jesus performed most of the miracles attributed to him, Smith overlooks some significant questions. But if the miracles are accepted, then Smith is correct in holding that Jesus, like Moses, Elijah, Elisha and others, functioned as a magician in performing them.
Scholars may disagree here and there with emphases and conclusions, and some readers may even regard the questions Smith raises as offensive, but those interested in New Testament times and the historical Jesus will want to study this book carefully. Agree with it or not, this book is an important contribution to New Testament scholarship.
(BAR is grateful to Dr. George W. Buchanan of Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington D.C. for his reviews of this month’s Books in Brief selections.)
The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth