Book Review: James McGrath, The Burial of Jesus

McGrath, James. The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have To Do With Faith? Englewood,Col.: Patheos Press, 2011. $12.99, pb. Kindle $2.99.

I bought this Kindle book in February mostly because it is written by James McGrath, author of the Exploring our Matrix blog. His blog is an enjoyable mix of the serious and humorous, but this book is intended as a contribution to the discussion of Historical Jesus from a serious scholar.  Since the Easter season usually brings out the Historical Jesus scholars on the Discovery Channel, this is a timely book.  McGrath does a better job introducing Jewish burial practices in the first century that the media will over the next month.  He has a brief section on tombs and ossuaries and a short comment on the Talpiot tomb, although the book was finished before the latest wave of media attention.

My other motivation for reading the book was to experience how a short Kindle Book reads. This is not a lengthy work and is inexpensive even in paperback. The book is well worth $2.99 for a Kindle version. The text is properly formatted for Kindle, unlike several other books I have recently read that are obviously designed as physical books. Since this is not a long book written without footnotes, it works well as a Kindle book. Patheos is doing a good job bringing short works of scholarship to Kindle and other eBook formats, such as Scot McKnight’s Junia Is Not Alone. One frustration for me is that Kindle does not have real page numbers, making citation of a particular page impossible. I suppose I could cite pages by locations, but that will be inconsistent from reader to reader. Perhaps I ought to say “at about the 22% mark of the book, McGrath says….” The bottom line is that eBooks are not quite ready to be cited in the same way traditional books are.

The title of the book is intriguing, although the subtitle reflects the main theme of the book better than The Burial of Jesus. The book is really about historical method and the integration of history and faith. McGrath wants to study what can be known on a historical level about the death and burial of Jesus, but he also wants to explore how this historical work impacts one’s Christian faith in the resurrection of Jesus. McGrath rejects the fundamentalist version of innerancy, pointing out that even “modest claims of Biblical accuracy are often coupled with dismissal of the results of historical and scientific investigations.” But that does not mean that this book is a Jesus Seminar style rejection of the gospels. In his investigation, McGrath reaches historical conclusions about the crucifixion and burial of Jesus which are consistent with the story of the gospels.

McGrath points out that the gospels develop the story of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus from the rather simple version in Mark to the more complex and theological version in John. The fact that his own disciples cannot provide their teacher a proper burial is another “shame” for Jesus. In Mark, Jesus is simply placed in a tomb with minimal care, but in Matthew he is buried in a rich man’s tomb. By John’s Gospel, Joseph of Arimetha and Nicodemus are secret disciples who care for the body of Jesus as one might bury an honor, wealthy man. This trajectory attempts to re-tell the story of Jesus to make the burial more honorable than it originally was.

But the fact that Jesus was buried seems clear, and the fact that the tomb was empty after the burial can be judged as historical. McGrath moves through several claims of the Gospels and concludes that any development “should be taken to indicate that the Gospels are anything but honest when they say that the disciples were too late, that when they got to the tomb the body was no longer there.” But he is quick to point out that the empty tomb does not necessarily mean that Jesus was raised from the dead. In fact, it is not even the same sort of question. “What happened to the body” cannot be answered by historical investigation, it is a theological question.

This theological question is the topic of the final part of the book. McGrath does a good job explaining Jewish views on resurrection at the end of the age. It is this resurrection which was used to explain what happened to Jesus’ body. McGrath concludes that resurrection faith was not “born from historical deductions regarding the whereabouts of a body, but from life-transforming religious experiences.” Some of the disciples, Jesus’ brother, and even Paul of Tarsus encountered the risen Jesus and this transformed their lives. But this experience is not subject to direct historical investigation.

In conclusion, this is a study on a rather controversial aspect of Historical Jesus research.  McGrath explains the historical problems well and does a fine job placing the burial of Jesus into a proper historical context.  While some of his comments will bother more-conservative readers, others will annoy less-conservative readers.  The book wrestles with important problems of history and faith, and while these are often thought of as rivals, McGrath shows that they are quite complementary as long as the right questions are asked.  If I had any frustration with the book, it was the lack of interaction with scholarship via footnotes, but that was not the point of the book, nor does the format allow for the sort of scholarly citation that I personally look for in a book of this kind.  Perhaps a way around this is to add a “Reading List”  at the end of each chapter point readers to more on each topic.

As a Kindle book it is about the cost of of cup of coffee at Starbucks,  so there is little reason not to buy McGrath’s book.

Book Review: Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His World

Evans, Craig A. Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence. Minneapolis: Westminster John Knox, 2012. 208 pages, $25. Amazon.

Craig Evans’ new book on the historical Jesus targets a popular audience bombarded with sensational reports in the media claiming to have “found” the real tomb of Jesus or some artifact which “proves” the origins of Christianity to be invalid. The timing of the publication of this book is interesting. It is scheduled to be released on March 16, at the height of the Easter season. Other publishers are already released their “tomb of Jesus” books and the Discovery Channel will undoubtedly begin to show repeats of the Gospel of Judas or Tomb of Jesus “specials.” Even news programs will interview biblical experts like John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar to describe the “real burial” of Jesus. Given all of the hype about the Tapliot Tomb in the last two weeks, perhaps WJK Press should get this book into the stores more quickly.

Evans’ book provides a brief moment of sanity during all this Easter hype. Evans is a distinguished scholar and author or editor of dozens of books on Jesus, the Gospels, and the general background of the first-century. While most of his writing has been for the scholarly community, this book is clearly aimed at laymen and pastors who are looking for a solid historical evaluation of the evidence being twisted by popular media. In the introduction Evans says that “this book was not written to prove Jesus really existed or that he was really Jewish after all,” but rather to show “what light contemporary archaeology sheds on Jesus teaching and the world.”

This is true, but  is clearly aiming at people he calls “internet skeptics” and other popular level books on Jesus. He interacts with Crossan (Excavating Jesus) and the rather fringe idea that Jesus was more like a Cynic philosopher than a Jewish rabbi. Several times he seems to be taking shots at the Naked Archaeologist Simcha Jocobovici, especially in the appendix on the Talpiot tomb. While his tone is generally kind, he is quite dismissive of this sort “pop-scholarship” (and rightly so!)

The book is divided into five chapters, although the topics are quite varied. Chapter 1 describes the city of Sepphoris as a model for a typical Roman city in the first century. There are two goals in this chapter. First is to demonstrate that Nazareth was not a sleepy little village isolated in the Galilean hills. It was a village only a half day’s walk from Sepphoris and on the main road from Caesarea to Tiberius. In fact, the whole of Galilee was far more intergreated into the Roman empire than is usually thought. Second, this chapter interacts at length with Crossan’s theory that Jesus encountered Cynic philosophy at Sepphoris. In order to defuse Crossan’s evidence, Evans marshals a great deal of evidence that Sepphoris was a thoroughly Jewish town prior to A.D. 70, but more Greco-Roman after A.D. 70. One example of this comes from the garbage dump. Prior to 70, there are no pig bones, after 70 30% of animal bones come from pig. This means that the Sepphoris Jesus might have visited was not a hotbed of Greco-Roman philosophy, but a fairly observant Jewish community.

Chapter 2 deals with the presence of Synagogues in the first century. Far more evidence for first century synagogues exists now than even 40 years ago, it is somewhat simply not possible to claim that the Gospels are anachronistic when the portray Jesus teaching in a synagogue. Chapter 3 deals with literacy in the world of Jesus. Here Evans argues rather persuasively that even the Galileans were far more literate than is usually thought (or claimed by Crossan). Evans says that he finds “an illiterate Jesus harder to explain than a literate one.” Chapter 4 concerns the ruling priests in Jerusalem, dealing with the archaeology of Jerusalem prior to A.D. 70. In his final chapter, Evans provides a wealth of data on Jewish burial practices. The bottom line in this chapter is that the Gospels describe the burial of Jesus quite typically, there is nothing anachronistic or strange about these stories. In fact, they have the “ring of truth” to them.

This is the first book I have reviewed by reading it entirely as a Kindle book. Rather than a Kindle device, I used the Kindle app on my iPad. For the most part this is not difficult, but for a scholarly book there are some problems with Kindle. First, there are no real page numbers. Some of my students are using Kindle and citing by “location,” which is impossible to track since I have no idea how large / small their text is. In addition, I do not receive copies of textbooks for class use in both physical and Kindle format. Second, footnotes are unavailable as I read. This book had end notes, but there is no easy way to jump to the note and return to your place in the text. I have read books with footnotes, and they are inserted in odd places, disturbing the flow of the text. Third, while I could view the photographs in the book, the text accompanying the photo looked as if it was part of the main text. One I caught on to this I could figure out the difference between caption and regular text, but it was not always easy. Perhaps some of these format issues are a result of the pre-publication nature of this book, but I suspect that reading scholarly books on the Kindle is not yet a viable option for most people.

But none of this should distract from the quality of this book. It is easy to read and covers a wide variety of topics of interest to laymen and pastors as they studying Jesus. I think that pastors especially will find this book helpful as they deal with questions from their congregation which begin “I saw a show on the Discovery Channel last night that said….”

[NB: This review is based on the Kindle version of a pre-release of the text. WJK Press offered the text to me via Netgalley.]