Scandal in Sandals: a book review

The Jesus Scandals: Why He Shocked His Contemporaries (and Still Shocks Today) by David Instone-Brewer

David Instone-Brewer has made scandal his business. He is a Baptist minister, biblical scholar and Senior Research Fellow at Tyndale House, Cambridge. As scandalous as ministry and academia may be, it is not his profession which provides scandal. Scandal is his professional interest. In particular, he reads the Gospels with an eye for what sort of scandals are evident in the life of Jesus, his followers and his teaching.  Why? Because scandals self-authenticate Christian truth claims. As Instone-Brewer writes:

Scandals are the best guarantee of  historical truth in the Gospels. When disgraceful, embarrassing and shocking details about Jesus are recorded by his friends and supporters, it is much harder to disbelieve them.
Jesus was accused of being a bastard, blaspheming, abusing alcohol, partying with prostitutes, being mad and working for Satan–in other words, scandal followed him. And a huge part of his teaching and ministry tackled head-on the scandals that pervaded society and would therefore have been regarded as scandalous by his audience (11).

Many of these ‘coffee-break-length’ chapters first appeared as columns in Christianity magazine (the rough UK equivalent to Christianity Today).  So while Instone-Brewer is a scholar by day, this book is written for a popular audience. I will enthusiastically recommend this book for anyone interested in Jesus (i.e. Christians, seekers, apologists, evangelists, exegetes, the Doobie Brothers, etc.).  I found it eye-opening.

The book’s three parts discuss the different realms of scandal which surround Jesus: his life, his friends, and his teaching.  Instone-Brewer brings his knowledge of first century Judaism and Roman culture to bear on New Testament texts and is able to uncover scandal in texts which contemporary readers may miss, which reveals fresh insights. For example, Instone-Brewer discusses how Jesus’ illegitimate birth actually made him an ineligible bachelor, or nearly so.  He also discusses the ways in which his healing miracles, his table manners, his ‘alcohol abuse,’  and  the way his triumphal entry was socially suspect by the religious establishment,  his confrontation of the temple money lenders and the events surrounding his crucifixion.  I especially liked his discussion of Jesus’ arrest warrant (preserved in Jewish literature) and the ways in which subsequent Jewish generations censored and rewrote the warrant. Instone-Brewer makes the case that the original warrant, describing the execution of Jesus on Passover for sorcery and enticing Israel, has the ring of truth to it but various additions by the rabbis seek to alleviate the scandal of it being an illegal trial, on one of Judaism’s high holy days, and ways in which a charge of sorcery added validity to claims that Jesus’ miracles were genuine.

Instone-Brewer’s insights into Jesus’ scandalous friendships were likewise revealing. Yes he talks about the way Jesus was friends with tax collectors and sinners (i.e. prostitutes) and he spills some ink clarifying Jesus’ relationship to Mary Magdalene (not a prostitute but formerly possessed or possibly mentally ill).  One aspect which I found interesting was his comparison of Jesus’ disciples (who were at best second rate) with the disciples of the great rabbis which were extolled for their virtue and understanding.  The way in which Jesus conducted his ministry  and those with whom he spent time, was at complete loggerheads with the religious establishment of his day.

David Instone-Brewer

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this book for me is Instone-Brewer’s discussion of Jesus’ teaching.  Two aspects of Jesus teaching with Instone-Brewer illuminates are his teaching about divorce and abuse.  Instone-Brewer argues that when the religious leaders ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause? (Matt. 19:3),” they are using coded legal language. Divorce for ‘any cause’  is roughly equivalent to the modern concept of a ‘no-fault’ divorce.  Jesus rejected these grounds and arguing that marriage should be a life long commitment;  however this does not, and should not mean that a neglected or abused spouse should stay in a marriage (Jesus was not discussing the case of abuse but the idea of a ‘any cause’ divorce.

However Jesus does appear to address child sexual abuse when he says, “It would have been better for them if they’d had a millstone hung around there neck and cast into the sea than to have caused one of these little ones to stumble. (Matt. 18:6, Mark 9:42). The word stumble (skandalizo) most often refers to sexual sin within Jewish Greek literature.  According to Instone-Brewer, Jesus is decrying sexual abuse of children, because of its long term consequences (a sexually abused youth becomes an abuser or continues to be abused).

As may be evident from the sample of topics I just profiled, Instone-Brewer is great at drawing comparisons between Jesus and his contemporaries. There are a lot of other  aspects which Instone-Brewer explores (there are 29 chapters to his book). The short stand alone chapters makes this an easy book to read and it also means that you cover a lot of ground. Click here if you are interested in reading an excerpt.

Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

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