Dethroning Jesus Detailed Book Summary

Title: Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ
Authors: Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace

TLDR: This book debunks popular claims seeking to redefine Jesus as just a teacher or prophet (Jesusanity), upholding the historical evidence for his unique, divine status as the Christ (Christianity).

Introduction: A Tale of Two Jesus Stories—Christianity Versus Jesusanity

The introduction lays the foundation for the book’s central argument by contrasting two dominant narratives surrounding Jesus: Christianity and Jesusanity.

Christianity centers on the belief that Jesus is the divinely appointed Christ, a unique bridge between God and humanity tasked with restoring their broken relationship. It emphasizes Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as divine endorsements of his special status and his enthronement at God’s side.

Jesusanity, a term coined by the authors, portrays Jesus as a wise prophet or teacher, a guide on the path to God, but without the unique, divine status attributed to him in Christianity. It highlights Jesus’ social and political teachings, emphasizing his wisdom and moral example, while downplaying his claims of messianic identity and the supernatural elements of his life.

The introduction explores twelve factors contributing to the rise of Jesusanity’s popularity, categorized into four main areas:

1. Historical Skepticism:

  • Skepticism about institutional religion: Centuries of religious conflict and hypocrisy have fueled distrust in religious institutions, leading many to question traditional Christian claims.
  • Rise of higher criticism: This method of biblical analysis often adopts an anti-supernatural bias, leading to skepticism towards the Bible’s divine claims and emphasizing a stark distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.

2. New Information:

  • Archaeological discoveries: Finds at Nag Hammadi and Qumran have provided fresh perspectives on early Christianity and Judaism, prompting some scholars to call for a reassessment of Christian origins.

3. Cultural Changes:

  • Shifting views of history: Postmodern thought has led to skepticism towards traditional historical narratives, often favoring a revisionist approach that seeks to reclaim the perspective of the marginalized and “losers” of history.
  • Selective use of evidence: Modern ideological agendas often lead to selective cherry-picking of ancient evidence, distorting the complexity of historical realities to fit contemporary narratives.
  • Narrow perspectives in academia: Dominance of certain viewpoints in university religious studies programs often results in a skewed representation of Christianity, leaving many students feeling their faith is under attack.

4. The Desire to Seek, Cope with, and Understand the Spiritual:

  • Media saturation: The 24/7 availability of religious information and opinion through the internet and cable channels has significantly impacted the dissemination of both traditional and alternative viewpoints on Jesus.
  • Rise of crossover novels: Religious themes are increasingly explored in popular fiction, sparking public engagement with religious ideas in a new way.
  • Intrigue of spiritual journeys: In a world dominated by material pursuits, many seek meaning and purpose through spiritual exploration, prompting interest in alternative religious figures like Jesusanity’s Jesus.
  • Desire for religious diversity and peace: Emphasizing the commonalities across religious traditions and minimizing the uniqueness of any one faith is seen by some as a path to tolerance and peace, leading to a preference for a less controversial, more generic portrait of Jesus.
  • Recognition of religion’s motivating force: The growing understanding of religion’s power in shaping events and motivating people has led to increased attention towards religious figures like Jesus.
  • Reaction against rigid fundamentalism: Disillusionment with inflexible interpretations of the Bible and inconsistencies between biblical teachings and the practices of conservative churches have pushed some individuals away from traditional Christianity.

The introduction further identifies four “divorces” that illustrate the chasm between Christianity and Jesusanity:

  1. Creator and creature: Jesusanity often minimizes the significance of the Creator-creature relationship, reducing faith to an ethical call devoid of personal accountability to God.
  2. God and revelation: The authority of Scripture is questioned, leading to a distrust of the biblical portrayal of Jesus and a reliance on reconstructed historical narratives.
  3. Jesus and history: The historical Jesus is seen as fundamentally different from the Christ of faith, leading to skepticism towards the Gospels’ authenticity and a reliance on extrabiblical sources.
  4. Jesus’ message and the church’s practice: Critics argue that the church’s practices often contradict Jesus’ teachings, highlighting inconsistencies in areas like social justice, materialism, and the use of violence.

The introduction concludes by proposing a framework for navigating this debate. The book will examine:

  • The sources: Analyzing the reliability of biblical and extrabiblical texts, their historical context, and their connection to the historical Jesus.
  • Criteria for assessing events: Establishing standards for evaluating the historical credibility of events described in these sources.
  • Apostolic roots: Investigating whether the earliest accounts of Jesus can be traced back to those who knew him firsthand.

The authors aim to determine whether we can truly bridge the gap between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, ultimately uncovering which narrative – Christianity or Jesusanity – offers a more accurate portrait of the real Jesus.

Claim One: The Original New Testament Has Been Corrupted by Copyists So Badly That It Can’t Be Recovered

Chapter one addresses the claim, popularized by Bart Ehrman in his book Misquoting Jesus, that the New Testament text has been irreparably corrupted by copyists over the centuries, leaving us with a distorted picture of the original message. The authors meticulously dissect this claim, demonstrating its flawed foundation and highlighting the vast resources available for reconstructing the original text.

Ehrman’s argument rests on three main points:

  1. Late copies: We only possess copies of the New Testament made long after the originals were written, raising doubts about the text’s faithfulness to the original wording.
  2. Countless textual variants: The vast number of differences among the existing manuscripts suggests sloppy copying and uncertainty about the original text.
  3. Orthodox corruption: Scribes deliberately altered the text to align it with their theological agendas, fundamentally changing the message of the New Testament.

The authors respond to each point with detailed evidence:

Late copies: While acknowledging that the original manuscripts are lost, the authors emphasize the vast number of early New Testament manuscripts available to scholars. Compared to other ancient literature, the New Testament enjoys a wealth of early copies, standing closer to the original and offering greater confidence in its textual reliability. Additionally, the practice of repeated copying from earlier manuscripts, the existence of multiple lines of transmission, and the use of patristic commentaries provide further assurance that the original wording can be recovered with a high degree of accuracy.

Countless textual variants: While the sheer number of textual variants (estimated at 400,000) may seem alarming, the authors explain that the vast majority are inconsequential, encompassing spelling variations, minor differences in wording that do not affect translation, and unique readings found in isolated manuscripts with little likelihood of reflecting the original text. Less than 1% of the variants are both meaningful (affecting the verse’s meaning to some degree) and viable (potentially reflecting the original wording). Crucially, none of these variants impact core Christian doctrines.

Orthodox corruption: While conceding that scribes did intentionally alter the text in some instances, the authors demonstrate that these alterations are identifiable and do not affect the core message of the New Testament. Ehrman’s examples of significant theological changes are critically examined, revealing either dubious textual decisions or interpretations that go beyond the evidence. The authors conclude that Ehrman’s claim of doctrinal corruption is overstated and that the text has been recovered in all its essentials.

The chapter concludes by highlighting the work of Bruce Metzger, a leading textual critic and Ehrman’s own mentor, who maintained that decades of meticulous scholarship had strengthened his faith in the reliability of the New Testament text. The authors emphasize the robust nature of New Testament textual criticism and its ability to recover the original wording with a high degree of confidence, assuring readers that the core message of the Christian faith remains intact.

Claim Two: Secret Gnostic Gospels, Such as Judas, Show the Existence of Early Alternative Christianities

Chapter two tackles the claim, often associated with Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, that newly discovered Gnostic gospels, particularly The Gospel of Judas, provide evidence for a diverse and pluralistic early Christianity. The authors analyze The Gospel of Judas in detail, demonstrating its late origin, its distinctive and un-Christian theology, and its incompatibility with the beliefs of the earliest Christians.

Ehrman argues that The Gospel of Judas offers an “alternative vision” of Christianity, reversing traditional teachings and highlighting the existence of competing Christianities in the first century. He further suggests that orthodox Christianity emerged later through a power struggle, suppressing alternative viewpoints and rewriting history to establish its dominance.

However, the authors demonstrate that Ehrman’s claims are historically flawed. Their analysis of The Gospel of Judas reveals several key points:

  • Late origin: The Gospel of Judas most likely dates to the second century, making it too late to reflect the beliefs of the earliest Christians.
  • Deviant creation story: The Gospel of Judas presents a creation narrative radically different from the Genesis account accepted by both Judaism and early Christianity. The text portrays the God of Israel as a fourth-rate deity, subordinate to a series of higher spiritual beings. This deviant cosmology would have been unacceptable to early Christians, disqualifying The Gospel of Judas as a legitimate expression of the faith.
  • Limited historical impact: There is no evidence that The Gospel of Judas or its teachings enjoyed widespread acceptance in the first century. It represents a later, sectarian expression of Gnosticism, not a rival version of Christianity competing for dominance.

The authors emphasize that while The Gospel of Judas provides valuable insights into second-century Gnosticism, it offers no evidence for a diverse and pluralistic first-century Christianity. The text’s distinctive and un-Christian theology demonstrates why it was never considered a legitimate expression of the faith and ultimately undermines the claims of revisionist scholars seeking to rewrite the history of early Christianity.

Claim Three: The Gospel of Thomas Radically Alters Our Understanding of the Real Jesus

Chapter three examines The Gospel of Thomas, another key text from the Nag Hammadi library, often cited by scholars like Elaine Pagels as offering a more authentic and historically reliable portrait of Jesus than the canonical gospels. The authors analyze The Gospel of Thomas in detail, highlighting its unique features, its potential dependence on the New Testament, and its theological inconsistencies with the Judeo-Christian worldview.

Pagels argues that The Gospel of Thomas presents a Jesus who emphasizes inner enlightenment and the discovery of the divine spark within each individual, contrasting with the New Testament’s focus on Jesus as the external savior. She further suggests that this “secret gospel” represents a suppressed form of early Christianity, marginalized by the dominant, orthodox tradition.

The authors offer a nuanced assessment of The Gospel of Thomas, acknowledging its significance as an early Christian text while critically examining claims regarding its date, authenticity, and theological implications. They highlight the following points:

  • Date and dependence: While some scholars argue for a first-century origin, the evidence suggests that The Gospel of Thomas was most likely written in the early second century, potentially after the completion of the canonical gospels. Numerous parallels between Thomas and the New Testament suggest literary dependence, with Thomas likely borrowing from or adapting material found in the canonical texts.
  • Unique features: The Gospel of Thomas is a “sayings gospel” lacking a narrative framework, making it difficult to verify historically. It emphasizes knowledge over faith, presents a cryptic and esoteric Jesus, and portrays Thomas as the recipient of secret teachings withheld from the other disciples.
  • Theological inconsistencies: While not a full-blown Gnostic document, The Gospel of Thomas reflects Gnostic tendencies, minimizing the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, downplaying the role of God as Creator, and rejecting prophetic pronouncements about the end times.

The authors conclude that while The Gospel of Thomas offers valuable insights into early Christian thought, its late date, potential dependence on the New Testament, and theological inconsistencies with the Judeo-Christian worldview make it a dubious source for reconstructing a more authentic portrait of Jesus. Its emphasis on esoteric knowledge, its rejection of key elements of the Christian faith, and its promotion of Thomas over the other apostles raise serious questions about its reliability and historical value.

Claim Four: Jesus’ Message Was Fundamentally Political and Social

Chapter four addresses the claim, championed by scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, that Jesus’ message was primarily focused on social and political transformation, challenging oppressive structures and advocating for distributive justice. The authors analyze Borg and Crossan’s interpretation of Jesus’ last week, demonstrating its tendency to overemphasize the political dimension of Jesus’ teaching while downplaying his unique claims and his focus on personal transformation.

Borg and Crossan argue that Jesus’ passion was the kingdom of God, a utopian vision of social and economic equality challenging the “domination systems” of his day, particularly the Roman Empire. They interpret key events in Jesus’ last week – his entry into Jerusalem, the temple cleansing, the controversies with religious leaders, his pronouncements on the end times, and his crucifixion – as primarily political acts aimed at dismantling oppressive structures.

The authors acknowledge the social and political implications of Jesus’ teaching while arguing that Borg and Crossan’s interpretation oversimplifies the complexity of Jesus’ message and distorts its core focus. They demonstrate that Borg and Crossan consistently employ two interpretive strategies to support their thesis:

  1. Divide and conquer: Related themes are separated and isolated, creating artificial distinctions between early (authentic) and later (inauthentic) elements of Jesus’ teaching. For instance, they separate Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God from his own messianic claims, arguing that his focus was solely on the program, not on himself as the king.
  2. Difference equals disagreement: Any variation in emphasis or perspective between Jesus and the early church is interpreted as evidence of fundamental disagreement, reinforcing the notion that the church distorted Jesus’ original message. For example, they suggest that the church imposed a sacrificial understanding of Jesus’ death onto his teachings, despite the fact that Jesus himself used sacrificial language at the Last Supper.

The authors argue that Jesus’ message was multifaceted, encompassing both social and personal dimensions. While he certainly challenged oppressive structures and advocated for justice, his primary focus was on transforming individual hearts, leading people into a right relationship with God through repentance and faith. Borg and Crossan’s “either-or” approach creates a false dichotomy, ignoring the “both-and” reality of Jesus’ teaching and its impact on both individuals and society.

The authors conclude that while Jesus’ message has significant implications for social and political engagement, his central concern was not reforming political systems but transforming individual lives. His teachings about the kingdom of God, forgiveness, and eternal life point to a deeper spiritual reality, offering a path to personal transformation that transcends the political realm.

Claim Five: Paul Took Captive the Original Movement of Jesus and James, Moving It from a Jewish Reform Effort to a Movement That Exalted Jesus and Included Gentiles

Chapter five examines James Tabor’s claim, presented in his book The Jesus Dynasty, that Paul hijacked the original, Jewish-centered movement of Jesus and James, transforming it into a Gentile-inclusive faith that exalted Jesus to divine status. The authors analyze Tabor’s reconstruction of early Christian history, revealing its reliance on dubious textual interpretations, its exaggeration of tensions within the early church, and its ultimately unconvincing portrayal of a “Jesus dynasty.”

Tabor argues that Jesus and his brother James were focused on reforming Judaism, calling Israel back to faithfulness to the Torah and proclaiming the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom. He claims that Paul, inspired by his own mystical visions, introduced a new gospel that rejected the Torah, exalted Jesus to divine status, and opened the faith to Gentiles, fundamentally altering the original message and creating a distinct, Gentile-dominated Christianity.

The authors acknowledge the existence of tensions within the early church regarding the inclusion of Gentiles and the role of the Jewish law, but they argue that Tabor overstates the significance of these disagreements, creating an artificial chasm between Paul and the other apostles. They highlight several problems with Tabor’s theory:

  • Dubious textual interpretations: Tabor relies on selective and questionable readings of biblical and extrabiblical texts to support his claims. For instance, he suggests that references to Jesus as “the son of Mary” in Mark indicate an unnamed father, ignoring the cultural context and Mark’s consistent portrayal of Jesus as the Son of God.
  • Exaggerated divisions: Tabor overemphasizes the differences between Paul and the other apostles, presenting them as leaders of irreconcilably opposed movements. He ignores evidence of agreement on core doctrines and downplays Paul’s own affirmation that the gospel he preached was received from the church, not invented by him.
  • Unconvincing dynastic theory: Tabor’s claim of a “Jesus dynasty” passing leadership from Jesus to James lacks historical support. There is no evidence that James held a leadership role above Peter and John or that he was viewed as a dynastic successor to Jesus.
  • Misrepresentation of Jewish Christianity: Tabor presents James, Q, and the Didache as representing a “Jewish Christianity” that did not exalt Jesus. However, these sources clearly affirm Jesus’ unique status and his relationship to God, contradicting Tabor’s claim that this branch of early Christianity was solely focused on Jewish reform.

The authors conclude that while Tabor accurately highlights the Jewish context of Jesus’ ministry and the early church, his portrayal of Paul as a theological innovator and his dynastic theory lack historical credibility. The early church, while grappling with the challenges of including Gentiles and defining the role of the Jewish law, remained unified in its core confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the resurrected Lord. Tabor’s attempt to deconstruct this unified picture and create an artificial divide between Paul and the other apostles ultimately fails to convince.

Claim Six: Jesus’ Tomb Has Been Found, and His Resurrection and Ascension Did Not Involve a Physical Departure

Chapter six addresses the controversial claim, promoted in a 2007 Discovery Channel documentary and accompanying book, that the family tomb of Jesus, including his own ossuary, has been discovered in Talpiot, a suburb of Jerusalem. The authors meticulously analyze this claim, revealing its reliance on dubious historical arguments, flawed DNA evidence, and misleading statistics, ultimately demonstrating its lack of credibility.

The documentary’s central argument rests on four main points:

  1. Unusual cluster of names: The ossuaries found in the tomb bear inscriptions with names closely matching those associated with Jesus of Nazareth: Jesus, Mary, Mariamne (a variant of Mary), Matthew, Jose (a variant of Joseph), and Judas, son of Jesus. The documentary suggests that the statistical probability of finding this specific combination of names in one tomb is extremely low, implying a connection to the historical Jesus.
  2. DNA evidence: Non-matching mitochondrial DNA found in the ossuaries of Jesus and Mariamne is interpreted as evidence that they were married, not biologically related.
  3. Mariamne as Mary Magdalene: The documentary attempts to link the name Mariamne to Mary Magdalene, relying on a questionable identification found in the fourth-century Acts of Philip to support its claim of a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
  4. Missing ossuary: The documentary suggests that a missing tenth ossuary from the tomb is the “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ossuary that surfaced in 2003, further strengthening the connection to Jesus of Nazareth.

The authors dismantle each point with detailed evidence and arguments:

Burial issues and names: The documentary fails to account for cultural and historical realities surrounding Jewish burial practices. It is highly unlikely that Jesus’ family, who were from Galilee, would have possessed a family tomb in Jerusalem at the time of his death. Moreover, the claim that Jesus’ body was secretly moved from its original burial site and re-interred in the Talpiot tomb is implausible and contradicts the earliest Christian accounts. Further, the names found in the tomb, while seemingly unusual in their combination, are actually extremely common in first-century Jewish society, making the statistical argument for a connection to Jesus of Nazareth highly suspect.

DNA issues: The documentary’s use of DNA evidence is misleading. The non-match between the DNA of Jesus and Mariamne only proves that they were not biologically related; it offers no evidence for a marital relationship. Furthermore, the documentary fails to test the DNA of Judas, son of Jesus, against the other individuals in the tomb, leaving a significant gap in its analysis.

Statistics: The documentary’s statistical calculations are flawed. They fail to account for the common practice of repeating names within families, particularly variations of the same name (e.g., Joseph/Jose, Mary/Mariamne). This repetition significantly alters the statistical probability of finding these names in one tomb, making the connection to Jesus of Nazareth far less likely.

James ossuary claim: The documentary’s assertion that a missing tenth ossuary is the “James” ossuary is easily disproven. The tenth ossuary was documented in the original archaeological report, and its measurements do not match those of the “James” ossuary.

Resurrection claim: The documentary’s suggestion that Jesus’ physical remains were buried in the Talpiot tomb contradicts the core Christian belief in a bodily resurrection. The authors emphasize the historical evidence for the physical resurrection, both in the New Testament accounts and in the broader Jewish context of resurrection beliefs. They highlight the central importance of the bodily resurrection to the Christian faith and its incompatibility with the Jesus tomb hypothesis.

The chapter concludes by exposing the weaknesses in the Jesus tomb theory and highlighting the dangers of promoting sensational claims without thorough scholarly scrutiny. The authors demonstrate that the documentary’s attempt to “dethrone Jesus” by denying his bodily resurrection ultimately fails to convince, revealing its reliance on flawed arguments, incomplete evidence, and a misunderstanding of the historical context.

Conclusion: A Look at Some Popular Claims About Jesus

The conclusion reiterates the book’s central argument: while the public square is flooded with various depictions of Jesus, ultimately two dominant narratives emerge – Christianity and Jesusanity. While both may share common ground in their appreciation for Jesus’ ethical teachings and social impact, they diverge sharply in their understanding of his identity, his role in God’s plan, and the meaning of his death and resurrection.

The authors summarize their refutation of the six claims promoted by Jesusanity, demonstrating that the historical evidence for a unique and exalted Jesus is more compelling than the revisionist attempts to portray him as a mere prophet or teacher. They conclude that the earliest Christian communities, rooted in the testimony of those who knew Jesus firsthand, proclaimed him as the Christ, the Son of God, the resurrected Lord, and the mediator of salvation.

The book’s final message emphasizes the importance of carefully scrutinizing popular claims about Jesus, particularly those seeking to deconstruct the traditional Christian understanding of his identity and significance. The authors urge readers to engage with the historical evidence and to critically assess the interpretations offered by scholars promoting alternative narratives. Ultimately, the question of whether to “enthrone” or “dethrone” Jesus is not merely an academic exercise but a matter of profound significance for understanding the Christian faith and its relevance for the world today.

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