BA: Hello, this is Brian Auten of Apologetics 315. Today’s interview is with David Instone-Brewer, Senior Research Fellow in Rabbinics and the New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge. He is a specialist in the area of early Rabbinic Judaism, and his latest book is entitled The Jesus Scandals which we’ll be exploring a bit today. The purpose of this interview is to take a closer look at the historical Jesus through the lens of a first century context, explore some of the Jesus scandals, and see how these topics relate to Christian apologetics.
Thank you for joining me today, David.
DIB: Hi, great to be with you and everyone who’s listening.
BA: Well can you first introduce yourself to our listeners, and tell us a bit about your background and what your current work is?
DIB: Well I’m a Baptist minister. I was trained in a Baptist college in Wales, and I spent about ten years in the ministry. And then I came into the academic world. I’m still a Baptist minister. I’ve been seconded into the academic world to support the Church by studying the Bible and by producing Bible affirming studies.
BA: Well very good. One of your areas of expertise is in early Rabbinic Judaism, and I’m curious to know what attracted you to that area of study and what you may find fascinating about that subject.
DIB: I’m fascinated because Jesus was a Jew, and He walked around talking to Jews and to understand the New Testament we have to understand who He’s talking to. I got into that in Bible studies at University and seeing what the background was for Jesus’ teaching. And when I went to do a PhD, I ended up reading everything virtually that the Pharisees wrote. And they’re a great bunch of people. They’ve been maligned, and I count them among my friends.
BA: I know that you’re an author of a number of books, but today I want to explore a bit of your latest which is entitled The Jesus Scandals. So launching right in, what’s the goal of that book and how did the concept come about for it?
DIB: Well the best way to find out the truth about someone is to see what their enemies are saying. And even when their friends talk about the bad things about them, you know they’re not lying because they’re the things that they’d rather not talk about. So I purposely looked at all the bad things about Jesus outside the Gospels and also in the Gospels, and it’s surprising how much there is about bad about Jesus in the Gospels which they have to admit because otherwise people would say “Hey! This isn’t the real picture of the Jesus I know about,” so yep that’s where the truth lies. Perhaps not the truth we want to know about.
BA: Well maybe someone sees the book, they see the cover, they see the Jesus Scandals and they think “wait, is this another anti-Jesus book, some sort of skeptical thing?” What do you mean by scandals? For many people, they may see Jesus as this good teacher who wants us to love our neighbors as ourself, turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies. So what’s this word “scandal,” and how are you using it in the title and the theme of the book?
DIB: Well of course one reason for putting Jesus Scandals in the title is to get people to read the book, because if you call the book “The Nice Things About Jesus,” no one’s going to read it. But the serious thing is, scholars have something they call the criteria of embarrassment. That is, if an author is writing something which is embarrassing to themselves, then you know they’re telling the truth. And I just relabeled that as The Jesus Scandals, because scandals is more or less what that embarrassment is. So I identify things like the alcoholism that Jesus was accused of. Accused of being a bad citizen. Accused of being crucified. Of course that’s not an accusation. That happened to Him. All sorts of scandals that which would make the people at the time think bad of Jesus, so that we can look at those and say “Yep. Those things have much more certainty to them than other things.”
BA: Well you can go online, and you can see some of the shorter extracts from your book. And when someone starts reading it, immediately I think they’ll find that this is really an easily readable sort of engaging way that you’ve written. It seems to me like you take a lot of your background in Rabbinics and are able to unpack and unfold all of the sort of cultural aspects of Jesus’ day, and show how people perceived Him, and what He was doing, and maybe really illuminate our understanding of just how against the mainstream that Jesus was. Can you kind of talk about that?
DIB: Yeah. First of all, I’d like to give credit where credit is due. Its’ so easy to read, because I’ve got a wonderful editor who turns my academic jargon into prose which is as easy to digest as chocolate. It’s wonderful. You turn the pages and you think “Hey, I want to know what’s on the next page.” And that’s me. I want to know what’s on the next page, because although I wrote the words they’re not necessarily in the same order that I wrote them. I deliberately kept the chapters short, so that you can read each chapter over a cup of coffee and you’d be finished with a chapter by the time you finished your coffee. And I’ve also made sure that every chapter can be converted into a talk so that you could present it in a pub to your friends and say “Hey! Did you know that this is something surprising that such and such?” Or to a youth group or a men’s group or whatever. There are surprising things in every chapter.
BA: Well each one seems to lay out how Jesus basically shocked or made everyone around Him kind of freak out about what He was doing, what He was saying, or what He was teaching, or the things that were happening to Him—very unexpected in the cultural context. So one thing I want to pull out are just a few various extracts, topics that may also have a particular apologetic value or aspect to them. One of them you look at is Jesus’ execution in the book. So I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about crucifixion. What was the normal practice for that sort of punishment, and what did it take for someone to actually be punished in that way?
DIB: We just don’t understand how shameful crucifixion was. We’re used to carrying gold crosses, putting crosses outside our churches as if they’re something wonderful, but can you imagine putting up a picture of an electric chair outside your church? Then you get an idea of what it’d feel like in the first century to advertise the fact that…your candor was…yeah, crucifixion was reserved for the worst criminals possible. A roman citizen couldn’t be crucified. Only a slave could be crucified, and you’re only crucified for the worst possible crimes. And it was a horrible death. It was a way of shaming that person utterly. In the pictures they usually put a loincloth on Jesus, but they were crucified naked. It was a long, long painful process as I’m sure you’ve heard in many sermons, but we don’t think about what really happens. Luther I think got to the closest of it where he says that Jesus was surrounded by flies at His death. It’s almost impossible to be crucified without defecating, cause the pain at the time you’re there. And it’s just taking humanity down to the worst possible state and doing it as publicly as possible. Absolutely terrible.
BA: Well when Jesus predicted His death, He said anyone who comes after me must pick up His cross and follow Me. And in light of how crucifixion was practiced in Jesus’ day, what would that sort of statement have meant to His disciples as they heard that?
DIB: It always makes me think of soldiers going off to the front in Iran in the days when they had the Iranian and Iraqi war. People were just going to the front as cannon fodder like in the first and second World Wars. It was terrible. And they would wear their funeral shroud on the way to the front. They knew they were going to die, so they put their white funeral shroud around them and walked to the front. That’s the sort of picture that Jesus is giving. You take your cross. You’re going to follow me to death.
BA: I mean when Jesus was crucified, how do you think that was perceived by His followers and His disciples? You talk about how these are things that are shameful and embarrassing obviously, but what kind of shock to their systems do you suppose that they were experiencing?
DIB: I think you can see the shock in the absence of the cross. In the first few centuries of Christianity, you’ve got this wonderful symbol of two lines. It’s the best logo in the world, but no one used that for many centuries because it was just too shameful to admit. You have the little fish sign, but you don’t have the cross sign. And the only time you find the cross in ancient images is that of graffiti where you have “Alexamenos worships His God.” And you have an ass on a cross. And you have a little graffiti of a man worshipping this ass on the cross. In other words, it was used by anti-Christians—not by Christians. You see it also in Paul’s writings when he refers to the cross, he’s referring to the shame of it. And how in Deuteronomy, it says that God curses someone who’s hung on a tree and yet somehow deals with that by saying yes it is an absolute shame. It is an absolute curse, but that just shows that Jesus took that whole curse of our sin on Him when He went to the cross. So there’s no getting around that shame, and somehow they have to bring, I wouldn’t say a positive spin, but a positive value to it. That Jesus is taking every last bit of our shamefulness on Himself.
BA: It’s just shocking that the most horrendous, painful, torturous, embarrassing thing possible is the last thing that you would invent for someone you would worship. That to me is the scandal of it is that you wouldn’t make that up.
DIB: Nowadays you talk about having a martyr, and when you martyr someone you end up with more followers, but there’s no way that you’d end up with more followers after a person’s been crucified because that’s just frozen out of good citizenship of society. They’re just trash after that. It’s very difficult to have a following if a person’s been crucified.
BA: Now let’s talk about the uniqueness of the resurrection now, because in the Jesus Scandals you show how the Romans, and the Greeks, and the Jews all had serious issues with the idea of this resurrection in various different ways. So how is Jesus’ resurrection completely different from what, say a Jew in the first century, would have imagined?
DIB: No one was expecting the resurrection. Jews knew that there would be a resurrection in the end, but they weren’t expecting anything before that. Romans of course, they just count it laughable. I find it very believable when Paul has to explain his religion to Festus and as soon as he gets to the resurrection, he just laughs out loud. He says you’re either the best comedian on the earth, or you’re mad. It’s so ridiculous to a Roman that there should be a resurrection. And you even get this sort of embarrassment about the resurrection in Corinthians. A long, long chapter in 1 Corinthians 15 clearly trying to bolster up the idea of the resurrection to Corinthians who just couldn’t accept it. They wanted it to be something spiritual, something mysterious, something…not…anything but a physical resurrection. And Paul has to explain well, this whether you like it or not, is what happened and we’ve got to live with this theology. It was a hard sale, and it’s not the sort of think you’d invent to try start a new religion.
BA: Well that’s one thing I like about the book is that it gives so much perspective of that first century context. As I said, it really illuminates the uniqueness of Jesus and His teachings. You also talk about the people around Jesus, His friends and His acquaintances, his disciples. Some of the scandalous things about them, be it Mary Magdalene, or you know…other things like the virgin birth and stuff. What about Judas? Some people would talk about Judas and they would say for instance that, he had these certain things that really forced him into the position he was in. That in the Gospels there’s a blame put on Judas for something he doesn’t really deserve. How do you approach that sort of element in the book?
DIB: Yeah. Judas… we love him because he’s the underdog, and you have my reinterpretations of what Judas is like. We have new versions of Judas in musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and then T.V. presentations of the gospel accounts. And Judas normally gets some sort of reasoning we’d like to have a gray person rather than a black person, so we get some sort of psychological reason as to why Judas would betray Jesus. Because he was disappointed that Jesus wasn’t leading a revolution, or because he didn’t understand Jesus, or because he thought he was helping Jesus. But I can’t see any of that. Judas was the person who had the money. His was interested in money and in the end he betrayed Jesus for money. I think we’ve got to accept that Jesus picked a bad one, but then we have to say did Jesus know that He was picking a bad one? There’s Judas along with the other disciples healing people and casting out demons, and yet he was the one that turned out betraying Jesus. Whether or not Jesus knew ahead of time what was going to happen; from the outside it would look disastrous. Someone from the inside betrayed Jesus, and you’re not going to invent that because it’s just a bad advertisement for a rabbi to say that he picked such a bad disciple.
BA: Another element from an apologetic perspective that some people would want to have a look at is the account of Judas’ death. Some would say, “Well, he commits suicide by hanging himself.” Yet you look at another passage and it says that he just fell headlong, and his body burst open. You’re also a New Testament guy, so how can we reconcile those two accounts that are dissimilar? Some people saying, “Which one was it? One or the other?”
DIB: To me I glory in these contradictions or apparent contradictions, because it shows that the Gospels aren’t a put-up job. It’s not a bunch of witnesses outside the court saying, “Now let’s make sure we get the story right. You say this, and you say that.” When they write down the gospels they just write down the facts as they remember them or the facts that they’ve been told and they write it down. And when later Gospel writers come along or a later scribe come along, they don’t say I better check this fellow and put it right…better resolve it. They leave it as it is. They’re eye witness accounts, and they see different things and remember different aspects. Then Judas’ death isn’t too difficult to put together. One account says he fell headlong, and his guts spilled out. Another one says he hung himself. Well if you hang yourself and the rope breaks, then you fall down and your guts spill out. Not a big deal trying to put those two accounts together. But someone has come along to the courts, and seen him lying on the ground… so he fell down. Someone saw him hanging himself and so he gives such an account. The wonderful thing is there are two different accounts that haven’t been reconciled. Haven’t been smoothed over. These are eyewitness accounts.
BA: Moving on, you look at some of Jesus’ teachings. One of the things you talk about in the book is God-sent disasters. Basically the idea that God is to blame for killing apparently innocent people using natural disasters. Many will say that the victims of natural disasters haven’t done anything wrong, so why did God kill them? Does God use disasters to punish those who have secret sins or something? So what does Jesus say about this? How was that accepted by His hearers?
DIB: You know I find it heartbreaking when there’s a great disaster, and people say, “Oh, it’s because that city was so sinful, or that those people there were so sinful.” You know, the people of New Orleans, were they more sinful than the people living up on the hill who didn’t get drowned out? It’s terrible when people are blamed for the disaster that they’re suffering. It’s a double-whammy to them. It’s no way to help anyone. When people came and asked Jesus, “Hey, were these people more sinful than others; the ones who were killed when the wall fell on them in Siloam?” Jesus says, “No!” But He doesn’t say they weren’t sinful. He says all of us, all of you, should be ready for the judgement. For the real judgement. The real disaster, and if we’re not ready for that, then these little disasters are nothing compared to the eternal disaster that’s going to meet you.
BA: Well, one more of the scandalous teachings from Jesus. That’s His views and teaching on eternal torment or Hell. And from an apologetic perspective, so many people find this idea of an eternal conscious punishment to be simply unthinkable. How could this loving God condone such a thing? And they even go so far as to say Hell doesn’t exist then, or perhaps its temporary, or someone’s annihilated, or maybe just God just wins everyone over in the end and no one ends up in Hell. So what’s so scandalous about Jesus’ teaching of Hell?
DIB: Well the way that we put it nowadays is certainly scandalous in the way that you described it. There’s no justice there. And that everyone gets the same punishment whatever their sins were. And somehow the evil people don’t get punished anymore. The semi-good people don’t get punished any less. And it’s just the people who are “in on the know”. That is, the people who know the right formula. They get to heaven. It doesn’t quite sound like justice.
You have to remember when Jesus was speaking, that was a new teaching on the block. There were some Jews who were going around saying there are three classes of people. There are the ones who are good. They go straight to Heaven. There are the ones who are bad, and they go to Hell. There’s the majority in the middle who are sort of good, sort of bad. Well they’ll fall down to Hell, and as soon as they touch the flames they’ll go “Ouch!” and jump up in the air and they’re up in heaven. There is a nice little picture, and it illustrated their idea. That’s that Hell for most people was just a staging post like the early pictures of purgatory. You get a little bit of singeing and then that’s your sins over, and you go off to Heaven. That certainly would be so for all Jews. All Jews are going to Heaven. And there was no problem.
And Jesus comes along and tells Jews, “You’re going to Hell.” Hmm. That’s a problem. And He also uses a language that we hear in the Qumran that you’re going to Hell forever, and there’ll be no remnant to rescue from Hell. It’s an eternal punishment. But it’s interesting, when Qumran is saying those things, they’re also talking about annihilation. They say that they are going to Hell for eternity where they will be annihilated. And you see that language as well in Jesus. You see that language of eternal punishment and also annihilation. In our favorite verse: “You will not perish. John 3:16.” Perish doesn’t refer to ordinary death, because we all die. But those who believe in Jesus will not perish; will not be destroyed. The same word that Paul uses for destruction in Hell. You have a double concept of both destruction in Hell and also torment. And suddenly we’ve got problems because we’ve got this picture of eternal torment, but we’ve also got a picture of destruction. How does that work? I turn to a parable which we don’t preach on very often in Luke where Jesus says when the person comes to see to his house and his servants are carousing and messing up the house. He punishes them, and He punishes those who are doing lots of wrong with many stripes, and He punishes those who are doing not so much wrong with fewer stripes. And also those who knew that what they were doing was wrong, He punishes with many stripes. There’s a picture of punishment with degree according to how much wrong you’ve done and also how much you knew it was wrong. And then He says, and this is like Hell. Perhaps not quite what we normally preach that Hell has degrees of punishment, but that’s the way Jesus puts it. And if you’re going to put that together with destruction, you have to say well there is torment and torment depending on how much ill that you have done. And then destruction.
That’s how I square the circle. That takes into account all of Jesus’ teaching accept for one verse. You have that one verse in Matthew 25 where it says about being in torment or being punished forever. Is it in torment, or is it being destroyed forever? It’s a funny word because that word can be used both as punishment and also as destruction. And in one verse in the Apocrypha you have it being used in both ways; even in the same verse. So the killer verse for eternal torment in Matthew 25:46 suddenly isn’t a killer verse anymore. It can refer to eternal punishment being either annihilation or torment, and it looks like Jesus is talking about both of them.
BA: Alright. We’ve talked about some of the things that Jesus did, some of the things He taught, the people that were around Him, that were even part of the scandalous elements around His life. David, when you were researching this content, I wonder what particular scandals, if you will, stick out the most in your mind and why.
DIB: I think about Jesus being a bastard. I’m using that in a legal sense. He was born to a couple who had not conceived Him in wedlock. Everyone knew that, and one way in which we can see everyone knowing that was that He just couldn’t get married. Pretty well every Jewish male, as far as we know every Jewish male, did get married when they got to a marriageable age, and yet Jesus doesn’t. He couldn’t because someone who doesn’t have two Jewish parents can only marry another what they call a “mamzer”; the Jewish word for a bastard. A mamzer can only marry another mamzer. Jesus wasn’t an official mamzer. To be an official mamzer, you had to have two witnesses witnessing the act of illegal conception. I’m not sure how you ever got two witnesses to do that. But it shows the way in which they didn’t want Jews to be official mamzer, because that meant they couldn’t go into Temple. They couldn’t take part in normal Jewish worship. They couldn’t marry another Jew. It was a big deal to be labelled as a mamzer, but Jesus was an unofficial mamzer because everyone knew you know that when Joseph and Mary got married that Joseph took on the legal niceities of being the father of Jesus but everyone can count. They could count that it wasn’t nine months from the time of the marriage to the time when Jesus was born. He was an unofficial mamzer, and no one would give his daughter to be married to such a man. There’s Jesus. Everyone can see. He is single. Everyone knows that. In Matthew and Luke, they come up straight from the front and they say “Yep. We know this is true. You’ve heard of it, this about Jesus, and we’ll explain why with special birth narratives.” John does something different. He let’s a heckler come along and talk about this. The heckler says, “Well at least we weren’t born in ‘bastardy’.” It doesn’t quite say that in any of our translations, but that’s what he’s saying. And Jesus has to cope with that. Everyone who went to hear Him, there would have been whispers in the audience saying “Yeah, yeah, but you do know about Him, don’t you?” Jesus took our scandals and lived them out throughout His life.
BA: Very good. Now at the beginning you talked about how the criterion of embarrassment is strong evidence that attests to the truthfulness of the account, that you wouldn’t make something up that embarrasses yourself. If it’s embarrassing, it’s more likely true. Can you talk about maybe the cumulative power that all of these different scandals have when taken together as one large picture?
DIB: You know the scandals of course tell us an awful lot about Jesus. Like that scandal of His birth. That tells us that there was something very strange about His birth, and they had to make something of it. Even the miracles. The miracles are not things that you would invent. When new religions came along in the first century, and religion was a big money spinner in the Greco-Roman world. People did invent religions. They steered away from miracles, because these were seen as toys of the scam artists. That they wouldn’t have miracles being part of the main selling point of a religion. And yet they had to record Jesus’ miracles. They had to record His feeding of thousands because if they didn’t include that, there’d be people who knew people who said, “Hey, hang on. He’s supposed to have done this stupid thing, isn’t He?” They had to put these things into the Gospels though the early church fathers tried to underplay the miracles because that wasn’t the way in which to promote a religion in the first couple of centuries when people were so skeptical. All the time, the scandals point in a sideways way to the fact of the Gospels that we’re trying to get across. His resurrection, the passover, the time in Gethsemane, His disciples, all these details are there as negative points which have to be got across in the Gospels. And because they’re embarrassments, they’re believable.
BA: Well, David the book style is really readable as we’ve mentioned there, and the content is absorbing. I think it really provides that fascinating kind of window into the first century traditions in the context of the life of Jesus. You cover all these topics. Is there somewhere online where you’d like to point people where thy could find out more about the book?
DIB: Yeah, if you go to biblescandals.com, you end up with samples of all the chapters, with the first couple of pages from all the chapters. And you can see immediately that hey, you want to read the rest of it. It’s got lots of details there.
BA: Well, finally one more thing before we close. David, from your experience in studying the New Testament and giving lectures and talks, answering people’s difficult questions, and objections sometimes; what kind of advice would you want to give to those who are looking to be better defenders of the faith , or better apologists?
DIB: I think, be polite. People who have other viewpoints, have thought about these things, and they honestly come to these opinions. So be polite to them when you disagreeing with them. And base your answers on the text. We sometimes are very precious about a particular interpretation that we have, not realizing that someone else’s interpretation is also based on the text. If the interpretation is based on the text, well then it might be right then. You might be wrong. And when we’re presenting Jesus to people who just doesn’t know anything about Him, point them to the text. Say hey well here’s the evidence. Go and see what you think of it. Quite often all they’ve heard about Jesus is what they’ve seen on the T.V. and they’ve never actually read a Gospel. So give them a Gospel in modern English and say tell me what you think about it. And listen to their opinion before you answer back. Take their opinion seriously.
BA: Well, thanks so much for that advice, David. I commend people to your book, The Jesus Scandals. And thanks so much for taking the time to do the interview.
DIB: Oh, it’s been great talking to you, Brian.