Book Review: Justin W. Bass, The Bedrock of Christianity

Bass, Justin W.  The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Facts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2020. 238 pp.; Pb.  $13.99  Link to Lexham Press    Link to Logos Bible Software

In this short apologetic text, Justin Bass seeks to establish the basic facts of Christianity. Alluding to the introduction to John Meier’s historical Jesus study, The Marginal Jew, Bass imagines a meeting during which Protestants, Catholics, Jews, atheists and agnostics scholars evaluate evidence and determine what basic facts about Christianity everyone can agree on. In his introductory chapter he disregards the mythicist position represented by Richard Carrier. He cites Bart Ehrman description of the view as “foolish,” compares the “handful of mythicist hecklers” to Holocaust deniers (p. 5-7).

In the first chapter, Bass outlines his historical method. Following Bart Ehrman, he says historians want early dating, multiple eyewitnesses, corroboration of those eyewitnesses, and unbiased sources (p. 28). He then asks what we can know about Tiberius Caesar, the Jewish War, Socrates and John the Baptist using these four historical measures. In each case, scholars agree on a historical bedrock based on a variety of sources. With Tiberius, his reign is well known from four literary sources that date long after his death. Comparing this to what we can know about the apostle Paul, Bass argues scholars have an abundance of trustworthy sources for Paul’s life, especially compared to Tiberius and Socrates. However, Bass omits archaeology from his list. Hard evidence for the reign of Tiberius is abundant if archaeology, inscriptions, and numismatics (coins) are allowed as evidence. This kind of evidence is unavailable for characters in the New Testament.

The Apostle Paul is therefore Bass’s “Bedrock Eyewitness.” Chapter 2 sketches a biography of the apostle Paul drawing only on his epistles. He uses Acts for his chronology of Paul’s life, working backwards from Paul’s hearing before Gallio (A.D. 51/52; Acts 18:12-17). Having established that Paul is an early eyewitness, he presents his “Bedrock Source,” 1 Corinthians 15:3–7 (ch. 3). Bass argues this is a pre-Pauline creedal tradition delivered to Paul by the apostles (p. 74). He follows James Dunn who suggested the beginnings of this creedal statement may go back to the first few months after the resurrection (p. 82). But at the very least Paul must have received it during his brief visit to Jerusalem in A.D. 37 (Gal 1:18-19).

Having established the creedal statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 constitutes early eyewitness evidence from multiple sources, Bass then examines the three key claims of the creed. First, the creed establishes the bedrock fact that Jesus was crucified: “Christ Died for our Sins and He was Buried” (ch. 3). After a short discussion of crucifixion in the Roman world, he draws together several texts from Paul’s early letters which demonstrate that Jesus was not just crucified, but that his crucifixion was “for our sins.” Bass argues these statements are based on the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 and he suggests  the historical Jesus may be the origin for the idea his death is in some ways like the servant of Isaiah 53. Here Bass goes to another tradition Paul received from the apostles, the inauguration of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25. Although he considers the crucifixion of Jesus under Pontius Pilate as a historical bedrock fact, he does not think the phrase “he was buried” can be counted as a bedrock fact. For Bass, it is likely Jesus was buried as recorded in the Gospels, but the evidence is not clear that someone named Joseph of Arimathea buried the body of Jesus.

The second element of the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is the claim Jesus was “raised on the third day.” Bass shows that there were no traditions drawn from the Hebrew Bible to indicate a belief in the first century that the Messiah would be die and rise from the dead. Although there is a hint of resurrection in Daniel 12:2-3 and 2 Maccabees 7:9-14, a dying messiah is unknown. Bass argues there are three innovations from the earliest Christ followers. The first innovation is a positive interpretation of a crucified Messiah. There is no other crucifixion in the Greco Roman world seen in a positive light. The second innovation is the claim this crucified Messiah had been raised from the dead. This claim is unanticipated in Second Temple period Judaism. Third, that this crucified Messiah who God raised from the dead is the divine Lord of the world is an unparalleled innovation. Here Bass cites another early Christian tradition passed along to the apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 8:6. This is the almost shocking insertion of Jesus into the Jewish shema. Bass cites Larry Hurtado, “this worship of the risen/exalted Jesus comprises a radical new innovation in Jewish monotheistic religion” (129).  Bass is using the so-called criterion of dissimilarity used in historical Jesus studies. Essentially, this criterion argues that if something is different than the Judaism of the Second Temple period, it is more likely to be authentic. In this case, the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah is not something that a group of Jewish theologians would have created.

The third element of the creed is the list of post-resurrection appearances. That Jesus appeared to Peter, the Twelve, more than 500 at one time, and James is a wide range of witnesses. Bass recognizes that Paul has added himself to the list. He quotes skeptics Bart Ehrman and Paula Fredriksen as saying they might not know what Paul saw, but Paul believed he saw Jesus (p. 162). Bass argues Paul was not lying by using Paul’s “foolish speech” in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27. This speech lists various ways Paul has suffered for his preaching of the Gospel. If he was lying about the resurrection of Jesus, then his life after his Damascus Road experience is inexplicable. In the conclusion to his book, Bass cites E. P. Sanders, “That Jesus is followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know” (Historical Figure of Jesus, 279-80). Bass’s challenge to this agnostic view of the resurrection is to push past agnosticism and “give the risen Jesus welcome” (p. 207).

Paul’s suffering serves as a transition to the final piece of Bass’s argument, the fast rise of the Nazarenes. For Bass, it is difficult to account for not only the persistence of followers of Jesus from the days just after the crucifixion, but also the willingness of those followers to suffer and die for their faith in a resurrected messiah who is the Lord of the world. This is a common apologetic strategy, but it may fail because there are many other movements that encouraged martyrdom from their adherents, yet they were based on horrible distortions of the truth (Jim Jones and David Koresh, for example). This chapter includes sections on Christianity’s unique origins, continuing influences, and skeptics who have converted to Christianity throughout history. Similar to the willingness to die for one’s beliefs, someone might suggest Islam has had a similar influence on the world, and no one wants to argue Christianity has always had a positive influence. This strategy is typical in apologetic textbooks, but I’m not sure how it contributes to the bedrock of Christianity as defined in the first chapter of the book.

Bass often cites skeptical scholars who agree with him such as Bart Ehrman or Paula Fredriksen; even Crossan and Bultmann make a few appearances. This is a rhetorical strategy designed to show these are in fact “bedrock facts” of Christianity. The book is richly footnoted and includes an extensive bibliography which will point interested readers to more detailed studies. The book will reaffirm the beliefs of committed Christians and perhaps encourage Christians who have some doubts. I’m not sure it will convince skeptics, but that’s the nature of apologetics. Bass’s book supports the contention the bedrock of Christian faith is reasonably historical.

NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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