Investigator Bryan Bruce’s new book re-opens the 2000-year-old case file on Jesus of Nazareth’s death.
It’s an image that sticks with you. Bryan Bruce, New Zealand documentary filmmaker, is in Israel with his camera crew, on his way to the River Jordan to film a scene at the spot where Jesus of Nazareth was baptised by John.
“I have to be taken under armed escort by the Israeli army,” he tells me over the phone, “with a tank behind me and an armoured personnel carrier in front of me, through a minefield, to get to the River Jordan. I get to the river on this spot, and on the other side are Jordanian tanks and armoured personnel carriers. And the Israelis shout across to the Jordanians, ‘If you don’t want to have your tanks filmed, you might want to move them slightly to the left.’”
This jarring contrast between Biblical mythology and political reality is the challenge of Jesus: The Cold Case (Random House, NZ$39.95), Bruce’s third book and its accompanying documentary. Drawing on his experience as a true crime investigator, Bruce takes on the New Testament narrative of Jesus’ death and comes to a grim conclusion about the role it has played in the religious and ethnic conflicts of the last 2,000 years.
The book analyses Jesus’ life story as if it’s an unsolved crime for Bruce’s show The Investigator, with a fast-paced, suspenseful format and a wry sense of humour. Beginning with “the deceased’s background” including place of birth and next of kin, it presents detailed evidence from religious scholars, archaeologists and ancient texts to reconstruct the series of events that led to Jesus’ execution in Jerusalem.
While designed to stir up controversy, Bruce’s investigation seems well researched, at least from my non-theology-major point of view. He gives a concise summary of the background of the Bible, along with analysis of its errors and contradictions. For an outside perspective, he cross-references the four Gospels with the writings of Josephus, the prolific first-century Jewish historian.
He does a pretty good job of presenting all of this in a way the average reader can appreciate. “Many of the things in my book are making accessible 2000-something years of quite turgid Biblical history,” he told me. “I don’t use words like ‘eschatological exegesis’.”
Throughout the book, he’s careful to stick to the crime investigation angle and avoid the maze of theological and metaphysical debate. “What you do is you go through the documents and go ‘Where are the inconsistencies? What seems reasonable? What seems logical?’” he said. “You argue it as you would a case in court. There can be no absolute proof here because the documents are so old. But what you can do is argue the most logical argument that you can think of.”
Of course the classic Sunday school images of a doe-eyed, fair-skinned Saviour get pummelled in the process, which will be fun or shocking depending on where you’re coming from. Personally I was intrigued by Bruce’s re-imagining of who Jesus was, right down to an artist’s rendition of a short, intense Middle Eastern man with close-cropped hair.
“The reality is, we probably know more about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a peasant from a nowhere town, than we do about Julius Caesar—which is extraordinary,” he said. “Particularly when you’re walking around the desert going, ‘It all started here, and this is just a wilderness.’”
As the book progresses through Jesus’ discipleship with John the Baptist, the growth of his spiritual following and his journey to Jerusalem, the historical, political and even geographical details diverge further and further from the storytelling of the Bible. The question we’re meant to ask is why the Gospel writers rewrote history the way they did. What message were they really trying to send, and to whom?
Bruce’s background in television puts an interesting spin on the subject. As a director, he has a fair amount of insight when it comes to setting a scene, establishing the motivations of actors and using extras and props, and he doesn’t hesitate to analyse the New Testament from this perspective.
Take the behaviour of the crowds of pilgrims in Jerusalem during Passover. Bruce points out that they have a way of appearing and disappearing to suit the story. On Palm Sunday, there are multitudes of people waving palms and casting their garments before Jesus as he approaches the city on a donkey. But by the next morning they seem to have gone missing.
“I remember when the Beatles came to New Zealand,” he said. “Magnify that thousands of times. I mean, this guy was supposed to be the Son of God, the Messiah. There would have been people hanging around just waiting to get a glimpse of him. What do the Gospels tell us? Next morning, he went to the Temple with his disciples. Where have they all gone?”
Things seem even more suspicious when the crowd goes from worshiping Jesus as the Messiah to demanding his execution by the Romans in less than a week. “Six days, from hero to zero. This has to be the biggest PR disaster in history.”
While this makes for an entertaining and thought-provoking read, my concern is that we’re dealing with a 2,000-year-old story told by people from a culture entirely different to the Western world. At times I was worried that the Gospels were at the very least oversimplified by Bruce’s 20th Century scepticism.
At one point, for example, he scoffs at the idea that ancient Christians, largely uneducated and illiterate, would grasp the symbolism of the story of Jesus killing the fig tree. “Okay, I get that,” he writes, “but then I’ve got a university education and I’ve struggled with Kafka and Kierkegaard.” Given that the stories of the Old Testament are full of symbolism, I wondered if Bruce was selling the oral tradition of the Bible a bit short.
When I asked him how he avoided cultural bias, he readily admitted that you can’t approach this subject with a completely open mind. “You go in with the inculcation you grow up with. You can’t just say ‘I’m going to forget everything I learned as a kid and put all of that to one side’.”
All the same, he argues that Biblical figures are as open to analysis and scrutiny as any society in history. “Has basic human behaviour changed between the First Century and the 21st Century? I think not. The morals and ideals of the Jewish Torah are the fundamentals of our law. ‘Thou shalt not kill’—seems like a good idea. ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.’ Well…” he laughed, “okay, we’ll agree to that one too. If you read the Old Testament, the reality is they don’t behave a lot different to people today. They get jealous, they do bad things, they do good things.”
Which comes back to the central question: How do the Gospels add up with what we know about the history and culture of Jerusalem? Bruce argues that we need to see the Gospels in the context of the time, 40 to 80 years after Jesus’ death, when Christianity was a small sect of Judaism that was being persecuted by the Pharisees. He thinks the Gospel writers were trying to gain favour with the Roman authorities and turned the story into propaganda that shifted blame away from Pontius Pilate.
As evidence, Bruce points to the way the Gospels depict Pilate as an indecisive leader who tries several times to let Jesus go before giving in to the public’s demand that Jesus be crucified.
“It doesn’t add up with what we learn about Pilate from Philo and Josephus,” he said. “He was a thoroughly nasty man. He ambushed and killed people. He wasn’t put off by Jewish crowds. The idea that everybody in Palestine turns against Jesus except the Roman governor who said ‘I can’t see any fault in this guy’ is just a nonsense.”
Then there’s the moment when Pilate offers to release Jesus with a traditional pardon and the crowd demands the release of the murderer Barabbas instead. “There’s no historical basis for any kind of amnesty in any Roman literature anywhere. They didn’t suddenly go ‘Oh, it’s Tuesday and a religious day, why don’t we let one of our top criminals go’. It never happened.”
For Bruce, the real significance of the Pilate story occurs at John 18:31: ‘Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death.”’ Here, Bruce argues, is the precise moment when John shifts the blame from the Pharisees to “the Jews” as a whole—the moment when anti-Semitism worked its way into the Bible and contributed to centuries of oppression and genocide.
This isn’t a new argument by any means. Much of the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (a film that earns particular contempt from Bruce) was centred around this issue, and the maze of translations and interpretations hasn’t become any clearer since then.
What makes me sympathetic, if cautious, toward Bruce’s conclusion is the personal, humanitarian way in which he reached it. In the preface, he writes that he set out to do a straightforward investigation of Jesus’ death but changed direction after discovering the book Jesus and Israel by French philosopher Jules Isaac, whose wife and daughter were murdered in Auschwitz during World War II. From there, he learned of the anti-Semitic writings of Martin Luther and the reference to “the perfidious [treacherous] Jews” in the prayer recited by the Catholic Church on Good Friday—language that was ultimately removed by Pope John XXIII after he met with Isaac in 1960.
After his experience at the River Jordan with tanks and soldiers lurking just off the range of the cameras, Bruce is convinced that the greed and prejudice of the Church—and religious leaders in general—have left the world divided and obscured Jesus’ message of love and compassion.
“A man who went to a Jewish temple at around the year 30 and got angry about what the authorities had done to God’s house has been replaced by exactly the same thing,” he said. “That’s the Christian message: You can only get to God through the Church and the priesthood. There are new guardians at the gate—that’s all that’s happened. And I think Jesus would be absolutely appalled to see what has been done in his name.”
At the very least, Jesus: The Cold Case will encourage debate about the legacy of Christianity—a debate that’s particularly relevant in today’s world. “I want people to look at the book and argue with it, by all means,” Bruce said. “But in the end, you need to look at the lie that is told here. I want Christians to stop telling the lie and affirm a gospel of love instead of spreading a theology of hate.”