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Jesus rocks the boat

Reading the New Testament, as we do, two thousand years after the events it describes, we are liable to miss some of the meaning that would have been obvious to a first-century reader. This book sets out to show how shocking many of Jesus’ statements in fact were. It is The Jesus Scandals: Why he shocked his contemporaries (and still shocks today) by David Instone-Brewer (Monarch Books, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-85721-023-4).

The author divides the book into three sections: (1) Scandals in Jesus’ life; (2) Scandals among Jesus’ friends; and (3) Scandals in Jesus’ teaching. Each short chapter is concise and self-contained. Chapter titles include: Illegitimate Birth; Fraudulent Miracles; Exposing Temple Scams; Contemplating Suicide; Mary Magdalene; The Unchosen; Prostitutes; Child Abuse; No-fault Divorce; Marital Abuse; Oaths And Curses; God-sent Disasters; and Unforgivable Blasphemy.

I love books like this, where a competent scholar opens up for us aspects of the Scriptures’ meaning that we would otherwise remain unaware of. Instone-Brewer is a fine biblical scholar with a deep respect for Scripture as the Word of God, but he shows himself willing to address some thorny and controversial topics head-on.

You may recognise his name as the author of ground-breaking works on divorce and remarriage in the Bible. He touches on this subject in a couple of chapters here, too, but you can see my review of one of his dedicated books on it here.

[I read this in the Kindle edition, so the numbers are Location numbers, not Page numbers.]


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. (126)

It would be understandable to think that the Gospel writers reported Jesus’ miracles so often because they gave him such credibility and were something that people really wanted to hear about. In fact, quite the opposite was true. (341)

Leonardo da Vinci painted Jesus eating the Last Supper with twelve men. But where are the women and servants who cooked the meal, and where are their children? Unless Jesus stopped in the middle of the meal to throw them out, they would still have been there. I think that Jesus deliberately chose this meal so that everyone would be included. (575)

It is estimated that the Temple collected more than a million shekels per year, which was enough to pay the wages of three Roman legions. (673)

Jesus was by no means the only Jew to be crucified. The Romans regularly executed a few of the worst criminals in this way as a powerful deterrent to others. They were mostly “insurrectionists” (i.e. terrorists), so the two criminals crucified with Jesus shouldn’t be described in translation as mere “thieves”. (980)

Although the New Testament made positive theological points about the scandal of the cross (Galatians 5:11; Hebrews 12:2), early Christians were publicly quiet about it. Early church writers emphasized the teaching and example of Jesus rather than his death on the cross. The symbol of the cross is totally absent from Christian art at that time; we find pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, as a teacher, and as a sacrificed lamb, but never as a crucified man. (995)

If the Gospels were a movie, Peter would more often than not provide the comic relief. (1291)

Why is it that “tax collectors” are linked so often with these “sinners” (i.e. “prostitutes”)? And why are they usually mentioned in the context of Jesus eating with them? (See Matthew 9:10– 11; 11:19; 21:31–32.) The reason is that Roman-style banquets usually included prostitutes for the after-dinner entertainment—lap dancing without any restrictions. And as tax collectors were the nouveaux riches, trying to keep up with the Roman fashions, of course they provided all the customary dining “facilities”. (1501)

Jesus is talking about child sex abuse, which he hated with more ferocity than he expressed for any other sin. (1590)

Does God give financial rewards? The Jews of Jesus’ day thought so; they believed that if you lived a righteous life your good deeds were stored in heaven as treasure (i.e. capital) and that God paid you interest by giving you good things on earth. (2032)

Most Christian thinkers…are moderate theists. They believe that God works in the world alongside the laws of nature, while allowing limited human freedom; that he occasionally interrupts normality by doing something which we regard as a miracle; and that he often works in the background in ways we usually don’t notice. Jesus, too, appears to have been a moderate theist. (2201)

They asked how many times they had to forgive a repentant person. Jesus said seventy times seven—that is, 490 separate occasions (Matthew 18:21–22)! We could regard this as simply a very large number, but Jesus said this because it was the number of years that God had forgiven Israel before they were sent into exile. (2147)

His most audacious claim to divinity goes almost unnoticed by modern readers, when he said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). Any first-century Jew would immediately recognize that Jesus was referring to a famous rabbinic saying: “When two or three sit to study Scripture, the Shekhinah is in their midst”. When he quotes this saying, Jesus replaced the words “the Shekhinah” (i.e. “the glory of God’s presence”) with “I” – something that would have been regarded as blasphemous by any Jew. (2316)


Also by David Instone-Brewer, reviewed on this website:

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