When I was a young Christian seeking answers to questions of faith and struggling with challenges to my beliefs, The Case for Christ was the first recommendation I received that seemed like it might fit the bill. Back cover promises of taking on big issues like the reliability of the New Testament, the historical evidence for Jesus, and the reasons for believing in the resurrection appealed to my sense of curiosity about the confidence one could have in the Christian religion. The tagline of the book as an ‘atheist’ journalist’s investigation into Christianity that resulted in his conversion practically sealed the deal for me. Yet upon finishing my reading, I was left disappointed and disillusioned, because The Case for Christ is investigative writing at its worst.
Lee Strobel is one of the best known names in Christian apologetics, and the author of other bestselling books such as The Case for a Creator, The Case for Faith, and The Case for the Real Jesus. Strobel holds a Law degree from Yale Law School, worked as a journalist for The Chicago Tribune, and served as pastor at Willow Creek Community Church from 1987 to 2000 and at Saddleback Church from 2000 to 2002. The Case for Christ was a breakthrough in success and popularity for Strobel, and it is arguably his most well-known work.
Setting the Stage
Before we begin, a few important matters must be addressed. First, Strobel’s pre-Christian persona is suspect, but ultimately irrelevant. Since atheism is merely the rejection of theism, simply being an atheist does not tell us anything about why someone is an atheist. Being a former atheist who converted to Christianity earns Strobel no credibility by itself; his reasons for changing his mind are what should be of interest. Even so, when we look at what’s brought to the table in The Case for Christ, it strongly suggests that Strobel was not a very informed atheist. As he says himself in the book, “I had read just enough philosophy and history to find support for my skepticism – a fact here, a scientific theory there, a pithy quote, a clever argument.”1 It sounds as if he was less concerned with knowing why he didn’t believe and more concerned with countering the advances of others who wanted to evangelize to him.
Secondly, Strobel’s inspiration to convert may have been less about the evidence and the investigation than he lets on. What did bring him to faith in Christ? It wasn’t reading Josephus or talking to bible scholars, it was his wife’s own conversion. Although initially scoffing at the decision of his wife, Strobel describes being “pleasantly surprised – even fascinated – by the fundamental changes in her character, her integrity, and her personal confidence” (p. 14). A difference of opinion as radical as that between an atheist and a Christian can be tumultuous in a relationship, but love for a significant other can put great pressure on reconciling that difference, even if conversion seems to be the only viable option. It is certainly not unheard of for a spouse to change his/her religion in accordance with their partner. Did Strobel really want to study Christianity to learn about the shifts in his wife’s behavior or did he want to find a reason to stay with the woman he loves?
Finally, we can see these issues reflected in the sincerity and objectivity with which Strobel conducts his investigation. When I say The Case for Christ is investigative writing at its worst, I mean that it presents a terribly one-sided view of the discussion. Of all the scholars, historians, and experts that could have been interviewed, every single one of the thirteen featured in the book is an Evangelical Christian. Strobel hand picks statements from a few skeptics to present to his conservative scholars, but much of the time the opposing view is given by the author himself, who often throws soft balls and sets up strawman arguments. We will see all of this and more as we examine Strobel’s case, chapter by chapter.
To begin, there are some statements worth noting in the introduction that will be referred to elsewhere in this critique. These statements demonstrate great confidence on the part of the author, who seems to believe firmly in the strength of his case. We are first met with the story of James Dixon. The facts of the case all seem to point toward Dixon being guilty, but when new evidence comes to light, the verdict drastically changes. I find this to be very indicative of a problem most apologists appear to suffer from – one which Strobel and his pals frequently fall into throughout the book. The time to believe a proposition is when the evidence supports it, not before, not even if initial presumptions turn out to be wrong. As Strobel explains, “the key questions were these: Had the collection of evidence really been thorough? And which explanation best fit the totality of the facts?” (p. 12)
If the collection of evidence was not thorough, Dixon would have been wrongfully convicted. But this is not a reason to believe in spite of evidence, it’s merely a reason to be meticulous and diligent in one’s investigation – it’s a reason to value evidence all the more! Approaching things as thoroughly as possible is the only way to get the totality of facts, and successfully determining the best explanation is more difficult without the complete picture. Strobel has set a good standard with this, which he thinks his case for Christ lives up to. He even charges atheists – under the guise of his former self – with ignoring such standards:
I could see some gaps and inconsistencies, but I had a strong motivation to ignore them: a self-serving and immoral lifestyle that I would be compelled to abandon if I were ever to change my views and become a follower of Jesus. (p. 13)
This myth is entirely reliant on Christian dogma, however. There is nothing preventing an atheist from being selfless and moral, nor does being a follower of Jesus mean one is living free from sin. The difference between a Christian working on being a better person and an atheist working on being a better person is that the atheist does it only for their benefit and the benefit of those around them, whereas the Christian also does it as part of an obligation to god. Strobel doesn’t tell us what horrible things he did as a non-Christian, but his remark is a common evangelizing practice too, making it hard to buy that he was as devoted to self-serving immorality as he pretends. On the other hand, we see religious devotees ignore the facts quite often when they conflict with cherished beliefs. From faith healers to young earth creationists, ‘god’s truth’ is frequently placed above any naturalistic evidence found disconcerting.
And what of the scholars consulted in The Case for Christ? Do they show an openness to all the facts or an aversion to uncomfortable ones? As already mentioned, all thirteen of them are Evangelical Christians, which provides a very narrow scope to begin with. But what’s more is that Strobel assures us they are “leading authorities who have impeccable academic credentials” (p. 14). No attempt to justify this is made, perhaps because these are scholars of one particular denomination among the thousands within Christianity. Strobel tries to give the impression of his book being based on cutting edge information given by the top experts speaking for the majority in biblical and historical scholarship, but don’t be fooled. Even if this were true and we were not being given such a biased sliver of opinions, the arguments and evidence are what matter most. With that said, let’s see what Strobel and company have to offer.
Strobel kicks off his investigation by looking at the four gospels, specifically who wrote them, when they were written, and how trustworthy they are. When researching a historical person and trying to get to the core of who they were and what they were about, it seems that we should start at the very beginning, looking at the hard evidence of archaeology and the historical record. Instead, our author saves this approach for chapters four and five, after extensive discussion of the gospels. Why go about it that way? Strobel hopes to persuade his readers of the reliability of the gospels first and foremost, so that by the time history and science come into the picture, they will merely be adding support to a pre-existing conception of Jesus. What we are being given here is not exactly the case for Christ, but the case for the Christ of the gospels. Considering the value of the gospels to Christians and the amount of faith Evangelicals invest in them, this is not so surprising.
Eyewitness testimony is very valuable in investigations, Strobel tells us, and it can even be useful for the issue of “whether Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God” (p. 20). Although eyewitnesses can add some additional information or credibility to a case, their testimony is not nearly as trustworthy as Strobel – who I will remind you is a seasoned journalist and Law school graduate – tries to make it seem. False memories can be introduced by a third party, by language cues, or by even retelling a story, as studies have shown. In a talk given at Stanford Law School, professors Barbara Tversky and George Fisher explain that “when misleading information is given, witness confidence is often higher for the incorrect information than for the correct information.”2 Bias is a big influence on how we report an event, they also noted, and unfortunately it often “creeps into memory without our knowledge, without our awareness.” Thus, even if the gospels are eyewitness accounts, that does not promise any greater sense of reliability, especially with their overt bias.
For his first interview, Strobel talks to Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar with an affinity for writing about the gospels. Blomberg admits that, “strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous,” yet he goes on to cite “the testimony of the early church” in defending traditional authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (p. 22). These members of the early church, such as Irenaeus and Papias, wrote their comments 60 to 100 years after the gospels were allegedly written, and more interestingly, they don’t actually do much in telling us what gospels were by which authors. As an example, consider Irenaeus’ comment, which Strobel also quotes in the book:
Matthew published his own Gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on his breast, himself produced his Gospel while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.3
All the information Irenaeus really provides is that these four men supposedly each wrote a gospel. How does he know this? Although he doesn’t disclose his source, further insight may be gained from another passage where Irenaeus speaks of the gospels. Explaining why there are only four authentic gospels, he states in Against Heresies 3.11.8:
It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the ‘pillar and ground’ of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh.
Obviously, Irenaeus was prone to inventing explanations to settle the heresies against which he was fighting. Writing in the late 2nd century C.E. against Marcion and others who had created their own canons of ‘unacceptable’ gospels and scriptures, Irenaeus had to find some way to justify his position. His account of the four gospel authors is the earliest we have, when only 30 years before, Justin Martyr had felt comfortable leaving the gospels in anonymity, referring to them simply as the Memoirs of the Apostles. Other problems also exist in Irenaeus’ comment. As Bart Ehrman and other New Testament scholars have pointed out, the gospel of Matthew that we possess today is in Greek, not Hebrew, and there is no evidence that it has been translated from Hebrew.4 Ehrman additionally states that there is nothing in Mark’s gospel to indicate a reliance on Peter. It’s even more puzzling to note that Irenaeus suggests that Mark composed his gospel after Matthew composed his, which cannot be the case, since the text of Matthew very clearly borrows elements from Mark.
The two-source hypothesis holds that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source in their writings, as well as a lost sayings gospel named Q. Not surprisingly, Blomberg writes off the theory as “nothing more than a hypothesis” and attempts to argue that Matthew used Mark because Mark used Peter as a source (p. 26,27). The two-source hypothesis is strongly supported in an article by New Testament scholar Daniel B. Wallace,5 and it ought to be asked why an alleged eyewitness like Matthew would use Mark even out of deference to Peter, rather than giving his own unique testimony. Blomberg’s theory makes far less sense than accepting the anonymity of the gospels and considering other authors aside from the traditional four, yet it’s a good example of the mental gymnastics that conservative apologetics are often forced into.
To embark on a brief tangent about Q, Blomberg claims that the hypothetical gospel contains miracle stories, such as Luke 7:18-23 and Matthew 11:2-6 (p. 27). The early circulation of miracle stories for Jesus would not be unusual, but neither would it provide any support to the belief that miracles were actually performed. New Testament scholar Burton Mack has suggested that miracle stories were among the early traditions ascribed to Jesus,6 and an interesting fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls known as 4Q521 may serve as evidence that some ancient Jews believed the coming messiah would be a miracle worker. What makes it interesting is the similarity in structure to what Jesus says of himself in the Luke and Matthew passages that Blomberg cites. These miracle stories in Q may just be another case of messianic fulfillment attributed to Jesus by the movements that sprang up around him, as Mack argues.
In perhaps the most absurd portion of the chapter, Strobel asks about the uniformity of belief among the early church fathers regarding the authorship of the gospels, to which Blomberg responds that there “are no known competitors.” Having seen this touted as an argument for traditional authorship before, I feel the need to emphasize just how ridiculous it is. When we can examine a text and determine if it’s a forgery based on the language, style, the subject matter, the author’s description of his environment, knowledge of history, and so many other factors, we do NOT need to know the forger’s actual name to rest assured that it is a forgery. Blomberg would also not accept this rationale for non-canonical gospels like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, or the Gospel of Judas, despite the fact that we know of no competitors for their titles, either.
Next we find Blomberg trying to show that Jesus didn’t just make divine claims in John’s gospel, but in the synoptic gospels too. The use of “I am” in Mark 6:50, he argues, is Jesus equating himself with god, whose name is “I Am that I Am” in Exodus 3:14 (p. 29). Amusingly, though, the Greek word Jesus uses for “I am” in Mark 6:50, eimi, is elsewhere used by men who Christians would certainly not consider to be making divine claims, such as Paul in Romans 1:14 and even a Roman centurion in Matthew 8:8-9! If those men could make “I am” statements without being found guilty of blasphemy, then maybe eimi was simply common language that wasn’t seen as a claim of divinity in itself. In similar fashion, Blomberg contends that “son of man” was a divine title (p. 30), as an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14, yet he conveniently omits the use of the term in Psalm 144:3, Numbers 23:19, Job 25:6, and other passages where mortals are called sons of man.
Mark’s gospel may be some 40 years after the supposed death of Jesus, but there is still reason to think it’s reliable, according to Blomberg, because “hostile eyewitnesses… would have served as a corrective if false teachings about Jesus were going around” (p. 33). I’m somewhat astonished and dismayed at how common this line of argument is among Christians. As numerous historians have observed, the early Christian movement was not particularly notable in the midst of Judea. To think the small sect that formed around Jesus would have stood out among other messianic figures like Judas of Galilee, Theudas, and Athronges, during the intense upheaval among Jews and Romans during the first century seems to be imaginative thinking. It’s like suggesting that Sathya Sai Baba really did all those miracles his followers attributed to him, or else skeptics would’ve been able to disprove them. In such confined cases, there’s just not usually any interest in bothering.
Blomberg makes another fallacious assertion that seems to be common among Christian apologists. He dates the book of Acts to sometime before 62 C.E. on the grounds that it does not mention the death of Paul, and, as he argues, that must mean Acts was composed before Paul’s death (p. 33). While the author of Acts may not have specifically described how Paul met his end, there is reason to think he knew about it. In Acts 20:25, Paul tells his followers that “none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.” The final encounter with Paul is part of the author’s plan for the narrative, as New Testament scholar Joseph A. Fitzmyer elaborates:
…it may seem strange that the reader is not told anything about the death of Paul, the hero of the second half of Acts. Yet the ending, such as it is, may not be as puzzling as some think, because it does record that Paul continued to preach the kingdom of God, even in Rome, ‘with all boldness and without hindrance’ (28:31). That is the note of triumph on which Luke wanted his story to end. The gospel was thus being preached at Rome, the ‘end of the earth’ (1:8), ‘and without hindrance’ (28:31). The reader of Acts already knows that Paul’s personal end was not far off; the Lucan Paul intimated as much in his speech at Miletus, and so Luke felt no need to recount it.7
Fitzmyer’s argument appears quite persuasive, but we need not even go as far, actually. Perhaps the text of the Acts of the Apostles that we have is an unfinished version. Perhaps the author simply saw no reason to report Paul’s death, because the focus was on the spreading of the gospel, not the life and death of every apostle. Or perhaps the author of Acts intended to publish another volume that would cover the death of Paul, but he unfortunately died himself before he could write it. This last explanation has some support on the idea that Luke authored Acts, as well as the gospel attributed to him. If Acts was already a second volume, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to suppose that a third volume might have been planned and never realized. The important point, though, is that the absence of Paul’s death in Acts is no sufficient grounds for hastily concluding that Acts must have been written before Paul died. Blomberg needs to contend with these other explanations and build a better case for his own view before such a conclusion would be warranted.
Since Blomberg uses the presumption about an early dating of Acts to try and date the gospels even earlier, his argument crumbles when the presumption is undermined. Nonetheless, he proceeds with three so-called “early creeds” in Paul’s writings that support an early tradition of resurrection, he believes (p. 34-35). One of the creeds is from a disputed epistle, Colossians, which features stylistic differences from the authentic letters of Paul, and even theological differences such as the belief that Christians were already “raised with Christ” by baptism (Col. 2:12-13), in contrast to Paul’s insistence that believers are not raised until some future event (1 Corin. 15:50-54). Given that some scholars have dated Colossians as late as 80 C.E., it cannot be assumed to be an early creed. The other two creeds cited are Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. While each has its peculiarities (the “emptying” of Jesus in Phil., the 12 in 1 Corin. after Judas died and his replacement had not been named yet), the critical thing to consider is what evidence there is that any of these passages are early creeds. No church fathers or early Christians name these scriptures creeds, and even if they are pre-Pauline in origin, determining exactly when they date from is another matter not likely to be definitively settled.
Having attempted to establish the traditional authorship of the four gospels, Blomberg moves on to arguing in favor of their historical reliability. Why is Luke to be trusted as a historically accurate picture of events, for example? Well, because Luke says he “carefully investigated everything” (Luke 1:3), and this appears to be enough for Blomberg (p. 39-40). Regarding the other two synoptic gospels, Blomberg uncritically says “it seems reasonable that Luke’s historical intent would closely mirror theirs” (p. 40). How can this be a reasonable supposition when Matthew’s gospel shows a clear agenda of fitting Jesus to the Old Testament and Mark’s gospel presents a perspective that has been called the messianic secret? Each of the four gospels has its own unique bias, but Evangelicals like Blomberg are fond of downplaying these differences and mashing the texts together to argue for agreement among them.
In a stunning display of nonsense, Blomberg claims that if one is to be “convinced enough to believe, the theology has to flow from accurate history” (p. 40). Beliefs defy the evidence of history all the time, however, and some groups like the Mormons seem to have no trouble being convinced to the point of believing in theology that is rooted in significant historical errors. Contrasting his statement to the gospels, Blomberg asserts that the gospels do not have the “outlandish flourishes and blatant mythologizing” of other ancient writings (p. 40). What about the virgin birth, the star over Bethlehem, the miracles performed by Jesus, the opening of the graves at his crucifixion, the resurrection of Jesus, the angels at his tomb, and the postmortem appearances where he suddenly materialized in locked rooms, just to name a few? It’s not as if these aren’t common mythological devices, either. Blomberg’s statement is clearly special pleading.
Blomberg doesn’t seem to have any problem with accepting that the gospels came from earlier oral traditions, but he’s not so inclined to accept the errors that naturally come from such a format of transmission. If the Jews could commit to memorizing the Torah, he ponders, then maybe the early Christians did the same with their stories. Ancient practices of memorization allowed for 10-40% variation, Blomberg states, and this is about the same variation that the synoptic gospels have between each other (p. 43-44). No sources are provided for either of these statistics, but it’s worth noting that Blomberg is admitting to faulty memories accounting for the inconsistencies in the synoptics, even if he does regard this is as the result of standard memorization practices in the ancient world. 10-40% variation is not an insignificant range of differences either, yet the strength of the two-source hypothesis really makes memorization a superfluous notion without good evidence.
The telephone game is very often used as an analogy against the reliability of passing on information by word of mouth. It is perhaps the most effective way to emphasize the errors and mistakes that can be made, typically through no intentional deception. But in his quest to vindicate the conservative view of the gospels, Blomberg is forced to fight the telephone game. “The [Christian] community would constantly be monitoring what was said and intervening to make corrections along the way,” he states (p. 44). This response presumes that there was one unified community of believers all with the same goal of reporting and preserving the historically accurate occurrence of events in Jesus’ life and ministry. However, in the earliest documents we have from those ‘in the community,’ like Paul, we see tensions and factions coming into conflict with one another. Paul intervenes with his ‘corrections,’ James intervenes with his (Gal. 2:12), and through the reprimands of Paul we find other Christians passing on other ideas, like spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14), the timing of Christ’s return (1 Thessalonians), the need for circumcision (Galatians 5), and more. There is no reason to think the early Christians had unified enough to lay down any system of checks and balances like Blomberg believes they had.
We simply do not have any reasonable evidence to suggest [the gospel authors] were anything but people of great integrity. (p. 45)
Blomberg bases the above statement on Christ’s calling for his followers to be of good integrity, as well as “ten of the eleven remaining disciples being put to grisly deaths, which shows great character.” Jesus’ calling to the disciples is totally irrelevant, since instruction is not always followed, even by disciples of an esteemed leader. I have written about the martyrdom of the disciples in a separate article, Did the Disciples Die For a Lie?, and I am amused and puzzled by where this “ten of the eleven” figure comes from (of course, Blomberg doesn’t bother to cite his source), when the earliest sources on the deaths of the disciples report that four of them died of natural causes. Even so, dying a grisly death, or a martyr’s death, does not show character or integrity by default. It only shows conviction, which can be either praiseworthy or condemnable.
Moving on to address some of the alleged contradictions in the bible, Strobel begins by tossing a couple of ridiculously weak examples at Blomberg which I have yet to see on skeptic’s lists (p. 46-47). For the third and final example, Strobel brings up the conflicting genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. Our ‘expert’ scholar attempts to dismiss the contradiction with the tired old proposal that one genealogy traces Jesus’ lineage through Mary and the other traces it through Joseph. But Mary is mentioned nowhere in Luke’s gospel and only incidentally in Matthew’s, as the wife of Joseph. Luke specifically says, “Jacob the father of Joseph” and Matthew says, “Joseph, the son of Heli”. Additionally, Numbers 1:18 explains that genealogies were assembled, “by ancestry in their families, by their fathers’ households,” and there is no genealogy traced through the mother anywhere in the entire bible. The Mary lineage explanation just doesn’t fly.
Next, Blomberg issues a whopper of a comment, explaining that if we’ve reconciled contradictions in the vast majority of a text, “we can give [it] the benefit of a doubt when we’re not sure on some of the other details” (p. 48). The overwhelming amount of Christian reconciliations of contradictions involve possibilities and speculation. It could be that Mary’s lineage is one of the genealogies. Maybe Luke 7:3 says the centurion sent the elders because it was common to attribute actions to subordinates in those days. Perhaps Gerasa was a town in the province of Gadara (all these ‘solutions’ are proposed by Blomberg in p. 46-47). If we could trust a text based on speculative reconciliations like these, we could make up excuses to consider any document as historically reliable. The other problem with this comment lies in presuming the accuracy of OTHER details based on the ability to reconcile some separate contradictions. This is poor scholarship. Each individual claim needs to be examined on its own merits. An apparent resolution of one contradiction cannot be expanded to blind trust in the rest of the text.
Strobel asks Blomberg if the gospel authors “included any material that might be embarrassing” or if they covered it up “to make themselves look good” (p. 49). With such an obvious leading question, one wonders how Strobel got his law degree. Embarrassment is relative – what you find embarrassing, I may not, and vice versa. This means that Blomberg’s answers will certainly boil down to speculation once more, and he comes up with three grand ones: (i) the hard, ethically challenging sayings of Jesus; (ii) apparent limitations on Jesus’ power; and (iii) the depiction of the disciples as dim-wits. For (i), we need only point out the same in Buddhism, Judaism, and other religions that value piety. In fact, piety seems a common element of concern for nearly every religion, as it is generally a part of the sacred. Living up to high moral standards was probably neither unusual nor embarrassing to first century people. (ii) can be better understood with the context of each gospel author’s unique agenda, i.e. Jesus crying out Psalm 22:1 suits Mark’s recurring theme of tragic irony. If authors used these ‘limitations’ to fit their agendas, they obviously were not embarrassed by them. The same goes for (iii), in addition to the fact that the role of the disciples depends on which gospel is read (Mark portrays them as more aloof than in John).
In later Jewish writings Jesus is called a sorcerer who led Israel astray – which acknowledges that he really did work marvelous wonders, although the writings dispute the source of his power. (p. 51)
Although not stated in the book, this appears to be a reference to a passage in the Jewish Talmud. The information provided is vague, mentioning a man named Yeshu who was stoned to death and then hung from a tree for the crimes of witchcraft and idolatry. In the Talmud alone, there are numerous references to men named Yeshu, each quite different from the others. Blomberg’s suggestion that condemning a man for sorcery acknowledges that he works miracles is also premature. The central concern in the Talmud appears to be with Yeshu enticing Israel to idolatry, and “practicing witchcraft” does not imply that someone was successfully working miracles, only that they were trying. Regardless, the passage notes that Yeshu was “close to the government,” which sounds very unlike the Jesus of the gospels.
Throughout the first two chapters, Blomberg makes frequent appeals to the hostile witness argument – that the enemies of Christianity could have easily exposed the religion as a lie if it was in fact a lie. I’ve already pointed out that Christianity was a fairly small sect in its early days and it was often fighting battles against itself with the various opinions circulating in Paul’s time. But it’s also important to realize the lateness of the Christian mission, which Blomberg doesn’t seem to appreciate. As we find in Acts 2, the disciples did not begin preaching the risen Christ until seven weeks after his ascension. At such a late point, digging up and producing a body to dispel a fledgling religion would have been fruitless. Even the earliest writings of the Christian movement come 20-25 years after the death of Jesus. There is just no reason to think the Romans or Jews would have had the motive to hound Christians over something with which they were not exactly forthcoming in the first place.
Closing his lengthy interview with Blomberg, Strobel asks him whether his years of research have helped or hindered his faith. This concluding question is posed to all of Strobel’s interviewees, reinforcing the idea that people will believe if they only know the evidence. Predictably, Blomberg says his faith has been strengthened, and he goes on to say that there are “plenty of stories” of non-believing bible scholars converting through the course of their studies (p. 53), though he doesn’t name a single one. Of what use is this little comment, other than misleading people into thinking that the evidence is so convincing as to compell conversion? With other scholars losing their faith through study of the bible, like Bart Ehrman, Robert M. Price, Michael Goulder, and John W. Loftus, Blomberg’s implication here is devoid of any real substance.
For chapter three, Strobel interviews Bruce Metzger, a renowned New Testament scholar from Princeton Theological Seminary. Strobel’s purpose here is to establish the textual reliability of the gospels, or show that the text of the gospels has not been corrupted. As both men admit, copies of copies of copies are all that we currently have of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Have these copies been altered or are they still as accurate as the originals? Even the more conservative bible translations like the NIV now recognize that certain familiar stories like Jesus forgiving the adulteress in John and the miraculous ending of Mark’s gospel (16:9-20) are not in the earliest manuscripts. There have been changes to the bible, but what Strobel and his fan club are wanting to know is how significant these changes have been.
One of the most popular ways to endorse the textual reliability of the New Testament seems to be by simply citing the number of manuscripts in existence. Josh McDowell has done this in too many apologetic propaganda pieces to count, and Metzger lays out the same information in The Case for Christ, noting that there are around 24,000 manuscripts of the New Testament. To his credit, though (and unlike McDowell), Metzger illuminates the fact that the majority of these come from later times. Uncial manuscripts, of which we have 306, date to the 3rd century C.E. and later (p. 62-63). Minuscule manuscripts, of which there are 2,856, came into use around 800 C.E., Metzger states. Then there are 2,403 lectionaries, which started to emerge by the 8th century, and 8,000-10,000 Latin manuscripts, and 8,000 more in Ethiopic, Slavic, and Armenian, all of which originated from the medieval era and later. Although not mentioned in the book, there are 127 New Testament papyri, the oldest dating to 125 C.E.8 Altogether, these account for the 24,000 manuscripts Metzger refers to. This provides a very different picture, for if we want to keep things within the first three or four centuries of Christianity, we are left with a mere 433 manuscripts at the most.
With this new number, it’s not so impressive to stack up the New Testament next to The Iliad‘s 650 Greek manuscripts. By the time of Constantine, canons of scripture were being commissioned, and with the expanse of Christianity through the world, an increased demand for copies of the bible meant more manuscripts would be produced in the medieval era than any other period of Christian history before. Perhaps why the bible’s overall count of manuscripts drowns out most other texts is simply because it carried an ideology with it that grew by conquest, as opposed to other literary works of the ancient world that had no such ideology attached to them. This has devastating implications for a quote Strobel gives of Norman Geisler:
The New Testament, then, has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book – a form that is 99.5% pure. (p. 65)
It is arguably misleading to contrast the New Testament to other works of antiquity that did not experience the high demand for copies and fell out of production until the modern era. One should also bear in mind that certain pagan texts deemed heretical would possibly even have been prohibited from production in the Middle Ages (Odysseus is found in the eighth circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno). The circumstances surrounding the creation of manuscripts for the New Testament are vastly incomparable to those surrounding most other ancient texts. As for the “99.5” purity, it’s not clear what constitutes purity of the text in this case, but Daniel B. Wallace has taken on Geisler’s downplaying of the New Testament variations in an article where he reveals a difference of 200,000 versus 8 million variants.9
However, the textual reliability of the New Testament adds nothing to the case for Christ in the first place. I might even agree with Frederic Kenyon that “the scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written” (p. 63). But all that this proves is that the text of the New Testament has not changed much since it was originally written – it does not vouch for the historicity or truth of the content, only for the mode of its transmission. The authors of the Christian canon could have written false information into the original writings, and all the copies and internal consistency in the world wouldn’t make a difference.
When I was first introduced to apologetics, the criteria used in constructing the canon was of great interest to me. Why did the church exclude certain texts but allow others? Was the process fair or had the Christian council “squelched equally legitimate documents because they didn’t like the picture of Jesus they portrayed,” as Strobel puts it (p. 65)? Metzger offers three criteria by which the texts that made it into the canon were evaluated: (i) it had to be written by an apostle or the follower of an apostle; (ii) it had to be congruent with what the church and Christians believed; (iii) and it had to have had continuous acceptance and usage by the church at large. There should be little doubt that these criteria did indeed squelch unwelcome documents, regardless of their legitimacy. (i) filters out non-apostolic and non-Christian testimony by default; (ii) excludes texts that are not supported by the majority opinion; and (iii) rules out all but the books that were popular and approved by the church. The New Testament seems more like a greatest hits compilation than the divinely-inspired ‘word of god.’
Strobel proceeds to ask Metzger about the Gospel of Thomas, which Metzger dates to 140 C.E. (p. 68). The primary reason for giving it a later dating is its incompatibility with the canonical gospels, but this seems to be a biased kind of filtering, given that John’s gospel so differs from the other three that Mark, Matthew, and Luke earned the synoptic title to distinguish them. For an alternate opinion supporting an earlier dating, Stephen J. Patterson writes:
While the cumulative nature of the sayings collection understandably makes the Gospel of Thomas difficult to date with precision, several factors weigh in favor of a date well before the end of the first century: the way in which Thomas appeals to the authority of particular prominent figures (Thomas, James) against the competing claims of others (Peter, Matthew); in genre, the sayings collection, which seems to have declined in importance after the emergence of the more biographical and dialogical forms near the end of the first century; and its primitive christology, which seems to presuppose a theological climate even more primitive than the later stages of the synoptic sayings gospel, Q. Together these factors suggest a date for Thomas in the vicinity of 70-80 C.E.10
Metzger’s argument for a late dating of Thomas really isn’t an argument so much as it’s religiously-based intuition. “[The Christian believers] could hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in the gospel of John,” he says, “they could hear it only in a muffled and distorted way in the Gospel of Thomas” (p. 69). This is not the critique of a thoughtful scholar – at best it’s stating the obvious: the early Christians didn’t feel that Thomas was inspired. Of course, that’s one reason why it didn’t become part of the canon. Metzger may be a renowned bible scholar, but his contributions to The Case for Christ are mundane and disappointing, especially his remark that Syrian churches “impoverish themselves” by not accepting the intensely paranoid and violent book of Revelation as canonical scripture (p. 69)!
In closing chapter three, Strobel comments on the pseudepigrapha, or falsely attributed writings that were not included in the canon, such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Gospel of Bartholomew, and others. Having accepted Metzger’s ‘challenge’ to read them, he dismisses the texts over their “mythical qualities” that “disqualify them from being historically credible” (p. 70). But why is a talking cross mythical and disqualified from historical credibility, while a talking snake is just fine? Why is it mythical for Jesus to talk figuratively about making Mary into a male in the Gospel of Thomas, and yet it’s natural for Jesus to talk figuratively about eating his body and drinking his blood in the canonical gospels?
After building up the gospels as believable eyewitness accounts, Strobel at last turns to the testimony of the historical record to try and further establish the reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. His third interview is with Edwin Yamauchi, a scholar of biblical languages and Mediterranean studies. For the first extra-biblical evidence of the New Testament, Yamauchi brings up the two passages in Josephus, one known as the Testimonium Flavianum, and the other an alleged reference to James the brother of Jesus (p. 79-80). Yamauchi freely concedes that the Testimonium has been interpolated, as the vast majority of scholars believe, but Strobel does not bother to interview or quote any of the scholars who argue against partial authenticity. The most he gives is a statement by Michael Martin, who questions why Josephus would go into such detail on John the Baptist and not Jesus (p. 81).
Yamauchi dismisses the Jesus myth theory as “a lost cause,” “vacuous and fallacious,” and claims that Josephus reported more of John because he was considered a bigger threat to Rome than Jesus was (p. 81). Josephus does state that Herod Antipas had John executed because “he feared John’s teachings could lead to unrest”,11 however, there is another facet to the Jesus passages to be contemplated. The Testimonium breaks into the text amidst discussion of Pontius Pilate’s unfavorable interactions with the Jews. According to the New Testament, the Jews were not so receptive of Jesus’ teachings, and even appealed to Pilate for him to be executed. This is an unusual shift in tone in the interaction between Pilate and the Jews in Josephus’ writing, which may point to the entire Testimonium being an interpolation, as some skeptics have claimed. But if authentic, it seems to indicate that Jesus was enough of a trouble-maker among the Jews to be considered a political threat, making Yamauchi’s response on John the Baptist look like a weak excuse.
Tacitus, Pliny, and Thallus are raised as extra-biblical evidence for the gospels too (p. 82-85). I cover each of these accounts in detail in my article on The Extrabiblical Sources on Jesus, so they will not be scrutinized here. What is worth saying is that all of the passages cited by Yamauchi may be mere commentaries on the early Christian sect and its beliefs, not necessarily testaments to the historical person named Jesus. This seems to be true especially in the case of Tacitus, where Pilate is incorrectly labeled a “procurator,” when he was actually Prefect of Judea.12 Tacitus, as a historian and member of the senate, would have known the difference, and so it is likely that his account relies on reports other than Roman records, possibly even the Christians’ own legends.
At this point, it’s important to note that Yamauchi and Strobel have introduced nothing to corroborate the central theological claims about Jesus, like his divinity, miracles, or resurrection. The most that the ‘corroborating evidence’ can offer is support for the historicity of a Jesus who had disciples and was crucified. Whether or not this Jesus was the same one as we find in the gospels is not discernible from these extra-biblical sources.
How can you explain the spread of a religion based on the worship of a man who had suffered the most ignominious death possible? …alternative explanations, which try to account for the spread of Christianity through sociological or psychological reasons are very weak… (p. 82,90).
No attempt is made to demonstrate the weakness of these alternative explanations, but Yamauchi’s question is phrased to mislead. The death of Jesus may not have been appealing in itself, yet the promise of eternal life, the notion of equality in the eyes of god, and other factors would certainly have drawn interest. The Greeks had the idea of the noble death long before Jesus, and Jews did not seem to mind their heroes having flaws (David being an adulterer and murderer, for example), so it is not necessarily true that Jesus’ death would have put off people in the first century. The “alternative explanations” are backed by the experiences of many, the evidence of the historical record, and basic logic. Christianity spread by missionary work at first, but it really began to grow when Constantine adopted it as the official religion of the empire. There is nothing supernatural about a message spreading by preaching and spreading by imperial endorsement and conquest.
Finally, after four chapters of analyzing the gospels, we get to learn the archaeological evidence. But don’t expect this to be evidence for Christ, despite the book title. What we get instead is more ‘confirmation’ of the gospels, in background areas that bear extremely little relation to Jesus. Nonetheless, John McRay, Strobel’s fourth interviewee, starts off on a good foot. “Spiritual truths,” he states, “cannot be proved or disproved by archaeological discoveries” (p. 95). Unfortunately, Strobel insinuates the exact opposite only four pages later, asking, “[i]f Luke was so painstakingly accurate in his historical reporting, on what logical basis may we assume he was credulous or inaccurate in his reporting of matters that were far more important” (p. 99). As previously noted, a claim needs to be evaluated on its own merit, not assumed true on the basis of other claims. The time to believe in something is when the evidence supports it, not before. If we grant Strobel his insinuation, then the supernatural claims of Islam could be trusted based on the historical accuracy of trivial details in Muslim scriptures, and somehow I doubt Strobel or McRay would appreciate such a conclusion.
As the first bit of archaeological evidence, McRay points to Lysanias the tetrarch mentioned in Luke 3:1. According to McRay, scholars initially balked at this passage – because the only Lysanias known at the time was the ruler of Chalcis from half a century prior – until it was later discovered that there were two government officials named Lysanias (p. 97). McRay is not providing the full story, though. Josephus speaks of a Lysanias that ruled a tetrarchy centered on a town called Abila,13 yet the dating of his reign is 40-36 B.C.E., decades before the Lysanias in Luke’s gospel, who is a contemporary of Herod the tetrarch. The discovery McRay refers to is a temple inscription naming “Lysanias the tetrarch,” and some have dated it to the time of Tiberius (14-29 C.E.) because of the title “August lords” in the inscription. However, this title, or a similar one, seems to have also been used to refer to Augustus and Livia, as a coin from 10 B.C.E. indicates.14 Thus, this ‘discovery’ of a second Lysanias that vindicates Luke’s gospel is a hasty conclusion that is still open to debate.
Moving on, McRay cites the term “politarchs” in Acts 17:6 as another case of an unsupported assertion that was initially doubted by scholars (p. 98). But, as I’ve said, the time to believe a claim is when there is evidence for it, not before, and an inscription using the term “politarchs” was found in the 19th century. The evidence McRay and Strobel cite is quite outdated. How many skeptics were challenging the bible on this point prior to the discovery? It’s hard to say, since archaeology of the 1800s was very different from modern archaeology, and the early days of the field were plagued with Christian adventurers like William F. Albright, rather than liberal skeptics, like Strobel and McRay imagine. This contention is, therefore, another suspect one, not in the corroboration, but in the implications it is framed with.
Next, Strobel prods McRay to defend the historical reliability of John’s gospel, specifically against the charge that “John must not have been close to the events of Jesus’ life” (p. 99). McRay names the Pool of Bethesda, the Pool of Siloam, Jacob’s Well, and other historical sites to counter this charge, but I fail to see how this accomplishes anything. That archaeologists have found these sites still in existence today means that they were certainly around in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries, when John’s gospel is thought to have been written. The author of the text could have been writing a hundred years or more after the death of Jesus and still reported accurately on these artifacts! If McRay wants to argue for an earlier dating of John’s gospel using archaeology, he should at least find examples that were no longer existing after a given time, like by the end of the first century.
To top off the investigation of the ‘scientific evidence,’ Strobel and McRay look at three significant challenges to the historical credibility of the gospels: (i) the census of Quirinius found in Luke; (ii) the absence of Nazareth from early sources; and (iii) Herod’s massacre of the innocents in Matthew. Regarding (i), McRay produces a document from 104 C.E. to argue that Roman censuses required citizens to return to their ancestral homes. The document reads:
Gaius Vibius Maximus, Prefect of Egypt [says]: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments. (p. 101)
This does not say what McRay wants it to say, however. The document encourages citizens “residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes” for the census, where they can also “attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments.” The Prefect of Egypt is not ordering a citizen to return to his/her birthplace, but only to return to where they currently live, if they are not residing there at the time. Further indication of this is observed in the remark about tending to land and allotments. What would Egyptian citizens have had to cultivate in their ancestral home of Macedonia, for example? That neither Strobel nor McRay pick up on this is evidence of either dumbfounding ignorance or an agenda to mislead.
In an attempt to resolve the dating conflict between Matthew’s birth of Jesus during the reign of Herod (who died in 4 B.C.E.) and Luke’s birth of Jesus during the census of Quirinius (taken in 6/7 C.E.), McRay claims that an archaeologist named Jerry Vardaman discovered “micrographic letters” on Roman coins that speak of a census of Quirinius from 11 B.C.E. until after the death of Herod (p. 101). At the outset, this should raise suspicion, because microscopic lettering has never been found on any Roman coinage and seems out of place for minting practices of the time. Richard Carrier, a historian well versed in ancient studies, has exposed the bizarre claims of Vardaman and thoroughly disputed his micrographic letter theory in an article in The Skeptical Inquirer available online.15
Going on to (ii), McRay mentions a list of various towns that Jerusalem priests relocated to after the fall of the temple, and among this list is allegedly Nazareth (p. 103). But unfortunately, no source is given for this information, and neither is any date attached to the mysterious list. Strobel and McRay are well aware that there is no mention of Nazareth before the 4th century C.E., not in the Old Testament, not in the Talmud, and not in Josephus. Yet all we get in response is a non-descript reference to a list that does mention Nazareth, without any comment on the antiquity of the list itself. This makes it quite comical when McRay says that the burden of proof “ought to be on those who dispute [Nazareth’s] existence” (p. 103). Although I’m willing to grant that Nazareth could well have been such a tiny village in its time that it simply slipped under the radar of contemporary history, this does not change the fact that the burden of proof for its existence has not been satisfactorily met.
Finally, for (iii) McRay tries to argue for the historicity of Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem. That the majority of biographies on Herod the Great reject this myth does not seem to matter to McRay.16 No one would’ve seen the use in reporting the murder of a few babies in a small town by a bloodthirsty king, he suggests (p. 104). Silence in the historical record is no argument for the historicity of something, though, so at most McRay’s theory serves as speculation on the possibility of the massacre. But even Strobel finds it “difficult to imagine” that Herod sanctioning the mass murder of infants would’ve slipped the interest of historians and writers of the time (p. 105). Indeed, if Josephus saw fit to report on Herod’s murder of his own two sons, it seems that McRay’s explanation won’t suffice.
As important as these challenges to gospel historicity are, I would’ve liked to see Strobel include a few more that pack a bigger theological punch. In a chapter on biblical archaeology, it’s disappointing (but not so surprising) to see that no attention is given to the fact that we still have not found the tomb of Jesus. The opening of the graves during Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:52-53) is also not covered, nor is the global darkness, the casting out of the money lenders from the temple, and other arguably major details in the gospel narratives. Most of what McRay and Strobel discuss as archaeological evidence is very loosely related to Jesus. As such, none of it can be taken as confirmation of the divinity of Jesus, or even the gospel portrait of him. The archaeological corroboration of the reference to the Pool of Bethesda in John’s gospel cannot tell us anything about who Jesus really was or what he did. All this chapter actually does is try to answer some historical challenges to the gospels. We are still not any closer to a case for Christ.
Chapter six of The Case for Christ is devoted entirely to criticism of a group of scholars known as the Jesus Seminar. Founded in 1985 by Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan, and comprised of around 150 members, the seminar has drawn substantial heat from conservative critics over its rejections of biblical inerrancy, the divine view of Jesus, and other faith-based doctrines. Gregory Boyd, Strobel’s fifth interviewee, attacks the Jesus Seminar as “radical-fringe scholars who are on the far, far left wing of New Testament thinking” (p. 114). This chapter is the epitome of Strobel’s poor investigative writing. Not a single member of the Jesus Seminar is interviewed, but worse still, none of their arguments are quoted either. Conclusions are quoted and paraphrased without even a summary of the arguments behind them. Solidifying the bias, we have Boyd – a ferociously outspoken enemy of the Jesus Seminar.
Boyd begins his tirade against the seminar by arguing that they “rule out the possibility of the supernatural from the beginning, and then they say, ‘Now bring on the evidence about Jesus'” (p. 116). Continuing, Boyd argues: “I think there should be a certain amount of humility in the historical investigation to say, ‘You know what? It is just possible that Jesus Christ did rise from the dead.'” Interestingly, most of the assertions made by Strobel and Boyd about the methods of the Jesus Seminar are completely unsourced, and – not surprisingly – appear to be contradicted by the members’ actual statements. Robert Funk has stated that “Nothing is impossible, unless we exclude logical impossibilities, such as square circles”,17 while Crossan has likewise said, “I leave absolutely open what God could do.”18
Proceeding, Boyd attempts to dispute the criteria for authenticity used by the Jesus Seminar, but first we are given a particularly intriguing statement. “Historians usually operate with the burden of proof on the historian to prove falsity or unreliability, since people are generally not compulsive liars,” Boyd explains. “Without that assumption we’d know very little about ancient history” (p. 117). The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t appreciate the biases that we all have, nor does it take into account the faulty nature of memory, which I elaborated upon in my critique of the first chapter. The job of the historian is to gather data, examine the facts, and then piece things together in a way that best fits those facts. Recall the questions Strobel pondered during the Dixon case in the introduction: “Had the collection of evidence really been thorough? And which explanation best fit the totality of the facts?” (p. 12). We may be justified in accepting some natural and unexceptional claims without resorting to such rigorous standards of evidence, but, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, the more extraordinary a claim, the more extraordinary the evidence should be. As incredible as the truth behind the Dixon case was, it was nothing but the wild pleas of a desperate man until the supporting evidence came in to verify the story.
The criteria used by the Jesus Seminar are portrayed by Boyd as definitive rules for assessing the reliability of the gospels, yet they are more like rules of thumb or helpful tools in increasing or decreasing the case for authenticity. For example, the criterion of multiple attestation simply states that the more independent sources there are for something, the more likely it is to be part of the early, original tradition. Boyd seems confused on this and asks, “why argue in the other direction – if it’s only found in one source, it’s not valid?” (p. 117). The criteria for authenticity are like a gauge of probability, though, and so the existence of a story in only one source does not absolutely mean the story is invalid, it just means the story is not as reliable as other stories that are multiply attested. Christian apologists use this criterion all the time when citing extra-biblical sources for the historicity of Jesus (Strobel does it in chapter four). The more independent confirmations of his existence, they think, the better.
“[A]n increasing number of scholars are expressing serious reservations about the theory that Matthew and Luke used Mark,” Boyd tells us on page 118. But yet again, no sources are provided and no explanation is given for why the two-source hypothesis should be rejected. Boyd makes numerous appeals to majority consensus in his attacks on the Jesus Seminar, even going so far as to use the two words that every critical thinker hates hearing: “Everyone concedes that [the Gospel of Thomas] has been significantly influenced by Gnosticism” (p. 123). What’s worse is that there are many scholars who do NOT concede to these blanket statements made by Boyd. As one example, there are reputable scholars like Stephen J. Patterson, Stevan Davies, Ron Cameron, and Paterson Brown who argue against Gnostic influence in the Gospel of Thomas. At the very least, Boyd should refrain from fallaciously appealing to consensus and making gross exaggerations to the same effect.
…the radical nature of [Jesus’] miracles distinguishes him… we’re talking about blindness, deafness, leprosy and scoliosis being healed, storms being stopped, bread and fish being multiplied, sons and daughters being raised from the dead. This is beyond any parallels. (p. 118)
Ironically, many of these miracles were performed centuries before Jesus by prophets of the Jewish faith, according to the Hebrew scriptures. Elisha healed a leper in 2 Kings 5, Moses parted the Red Sea in Exodus, Elisha multiplied twenty loaves in 2 Kings 4:42-44, and Elijah and Elisha each raised someone back from the dead (1 Kings 17:8-23, 2 Kings 4:25-35). The parallels go deeper than the surface too, with entire Greek phrases shared between the Septuagint passages and the stories of Jesus in the gospels (i.e. “kai edoken auton te metri autou” is found in both the LXX version of 1 Kings 17:23 and Luke 7:15). The miracles of Jesus were not radical, they were very Jewish, and that’s exactly what the gospel authors were counting on their audiences to notice – that Jesus had an authority equal to, if not greater than, the Jewish prophets of antiquity.
Boyd tries to distance Christianity from parallels with other myths and cults based on datings, dissimilarities, and even ridicule. If anything, the 3rd century reports of Apollonius of Tyana being a miracle-working savior would have been inspired by Jesus, he argues, not the other way around (p. 120). This is a post hoc fallacy; because reports of Apollonius’ miracles are later than Jesus’, they must have been inspired by Jesus’ miracles. This conclusion does not follow, for it could be that these legends of Apollonius were already circulating in his time and simply not written down until later. And what about the miracle-workers reported in Josephus that pre-date Jesus, like Onias? Ought we to assume, based on Boyd’s reasoning, that these figures inspired the stories about Jesus? Mystery religion parallels are dismissed as “once upon a time” stories that have “nothing in common” with the mythologized stories of the gospels, and the occasional variance of certain details of the myths is wielded as an excuse to ignore any similarity whatsoever (p. 121).
Wrapping up the chapter, Boyd draws an analogy of loving someone in a way that goes beyond the facts, but is still rooted in the facts about the person (p. 125). This he compares to his relationship with Christ. I find this fitting in how it communicates something else, though. When we feel very strongly about a person, we are often prone to misperceiving the facts, or even refusing to acknowledge them. Boyd has demonstrated this tendency in his interview with Strobel, as he rails against people like the Jesus Seminar who, in his mind, slander his beloved. Like an infatuated lover, he won’t face the real facts, and when others try to inform him of his delusional perspective, he strikes back at them with pointed accusations – “highly questionable,” “left-wing scholars,” “following a pipe dream,” with “their own brand of fundamentalism,” “blah, blah, blah.” Someone has an axe to grind. One wonders how Boyd would respond to a critique of his work that does not interview him, does not quote him, inaccurately summarizes his conclusions without stating the arguments, and coats the entire thing in similarly derisive rhetoric. Thus far, we have found the worst interview in The Case for Christ.
Chapter seven begins a new section in the book called “Analyzing Jesus.” This section proceeds on the assumption that the reader has found the arguments for the reliability of the gospels to be persuasive, and so the focus can shift to considering the implications of the gospel portrait of Christ. In the style of C.S. Lewis’ famous trilemma argument, Strobel wants to establish that Jesus was not a liar or a lunatic. The reliability of the gospels hardly counts for squat if Jesus was a mere madman or impostor. So, interviewing a theologian by the name of Ben Witherington III, Strobel investigates to find out what Jesus might have thought of himself. According to our author, Witherington consults the earliest sources, “unquestionably safe from legendary development,” to determine the matter (p. 134). Considering that the earliest report of a postmortem sighting of Elvis was only two days after his death,19 it seems unlikely that any source, no matter how early, would be “unquestionably” free from mythicizing.
Witherington first cites Jesus’ place among the 12 disciples as evidence of his status. “He’s not just part of Israel, not merely part of the redeemed group, he’s forming the group – just as God in the Old Testament formed his people and set up the twelve tribes of Israel” (p. 134). Disciples would not be disciples without some sort of teacher or figurehead discipling them, though, and it would be ludicrous to suggest that every leader with disciples must have thought of himself as god, the messiah, or anything similar. But perhaps the symbolism of 12 disciples is a part of the argument for Witherington too, as he notes the connection to the 12 tribes of Israel. Yet the number of 12 disciples seems to be a literary motif of religious importance that may not have been the truth of the matter. Inconsistencies pop up at several junctures, such as the 1 Corinthians 15 ‘creed,’ wherein Jesus is said to have appeared to 12 disciples, though Peter is named separately and Judas had died before the resurrection, with Matthias not chosen as his replacement until later. Jesus’ remark about the 12 disciples sitting upon 12 thrones in Matthew 19:28 is also suspect, since Judas arguably would not have inherited a throne.
That Jesus used the word “Abba,” for father, in prayer is another indication of his divinity, according to Witherington (p. 137). But as Strobel notes, the disciples also prayed in the same way and were not considered divine. Witherington attempts to weasel out of the problem by observing that Jesus initiated the practice, but this kind of speculation doesn’t offer any real support to his contention.
Witherington further argues that Jesus was considered divine by citing Matthew 16:15-17 and a string of early Christian sources (p. 137-138). The problem with all of this evidence is that none of it is capable of telling us who Jesus believed he was. These accounts only tell us who other people thought he was – and why take them at their word? Strobel put five entire chapters worth of effort into arguing for their credibility, but even if every point in my rebuttal fails to convince, nothing has been introduced that gives the slightest support to the supernatural and divine claims of the New Testament. And this will remain the case even after we look at the arguments for the resurrection in chapters twelve and thirteen.
Perhaps the most interesting comment made by Witherington is a question that he answers himself:
Why, of all first-century figures, including the Roman emperors, is Jesus still worshiped today, while the others have crumbled into the dust of history? It’s because this Jesus – the historical Jesus – is also the living Lord. That’s why. (p. 141)
These three sentences perfectly summarize The Case for Christ. It is Evangelical Christianity framing and answering its own questions about the historical Jesus. The concern is not on cutting to the truth, following the evidence where it leads, or promoting critical reflection on a controversial subject. The purpose is to confirm the presuppositions of Evangelical believers, plain and simple. Hardly even an attempt at pretense is made, as we can see from the transparency of such arguments. Jesus is worshiped still today because Christianity had three important things on its side that few, if any, other messianic cults of the time had: the gospels, Paul’s letters, and the power of the Roman empire under Constantine. With the proliferation of documents rather than oral traditions, the work of diligent propagandists like Paul, and the subsequent adoption of the beliefs into the official religion of Rome by one of its emperors, it would be an understatement to say Christianity gained significant advantage. That Witherington, fully knowledgeable of these things, prefers to attribute the success of Christianity to the supernatural shows that I am not mistaken about the purpose of this book.
The charge that Jesus was mentally insane has not been leveled against Christianity by any serious critic for a long while, but this is what Strobel seeks to ‘debunk’ in chapter eight. As ridiculous as the bombardment on the Jesus Seminar is in chapter six, the premise of evaluating the psychological state of a man who lived 2,000 years ago makes for a far more absurd chapter. Though Strobel begins by referencing the over-use of the insanity plea in courtcases, and agrees that psychology is “an inexact science,” he and his interviewee, psychologist Gary Collins, act as if there is a concrete definition for madness, when there is not. That we are expected to believe Collins – who is president of the American Association of Christian Counselors – will be unbiased and objective in determining Jesus’ mental state is yet another part of the farce.
Much of what Collins has to say in evaluation of the psychology of Jesus presumes the historical accuracy of the gospels. “He spoke clearly, powerfully, and eloquently,” Collins believes (p. 147). This comes after Strobel notes that “people suffering from delusional psychosis may appear rational much of the time yet can have grandiose beliefs that they are superlative individuals” (p. 146). So what does it matter if Jesus was well-spoken or seemed to be a rational being? Clear, powerful, and eloquent speech has come from countless figures thought to suffer from some form of mental illness, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Hans Christian Andersen. Collins continues: “[Jesus] didn’t have a bloated ego, even though he was surrounded by adoring crowds” (p. 147). If Jesus thought himself to be god, and believed he had the authority to forgive and punish people for things they hadn’t done against him, his ego would seem to be quite bloated. Of course, Collins and Strobel presume that Jesus really was all those things, so it ‘doesn’t count.’
In a bizarre comment, Collins says he has “no problem” with the possibility that Jesus used the placebo effect in his miracles, or cured people by the power of suggestion. However, he’s quick to clarify that, “regardless of how he did it, Jesus did heal them” (p. 149). According to this logic, Benny Hinn really heals people too. But the placebo effect seems misunderstood here. When a person is given a sugar pill and they ‘recover’ from an imagined condition, we can say that the placebo worked, but the sugar pill itself was not the reason for the recovery. To downgrade Jesus’ miracles to interactions with suggestible people with imagined illnesses seems like it would strip the power of his healings of any value. Nonetheless, Collins argues that not all of the miracles in the gospels could be chalked up to the placebo effect. I won’t disagree on that, but there’s still no evidence that miracles were performed in the first place.
Concluding the chapter, Strobel and Collins move into discussing demonic possession. Although Collins has never encountered a demon, he states, he does have “friends” – who are skeptics, of course – that have encountered “demons” in their clinical work (p. 152). Despite there being no arguments or evidence of any kind for the existence of demons in the chapter, and despite Collins never having seen a demon, he adds that, “People who deny the existence of the supernatural will find some way, no matter how far-fetched, to explain a situation apart from the demonic” (p. 152). There’s just something ironic about a Christian psychologist declaring the reality of demons he’s never witnessed, while trying to maintain a professionalism and objectivity in his advocacy of Jesus Christ’s mental health. Collins dismisses the opinion of the Jews, who thought Jesus to be “demon-possessed and raving mad,” according to John 10:20. Their opinion is “hardly a diagnosis by a trained mental health professional,” he quips (p. 148). I wonder why Collins trusts that the New Testament authors believed their messiah was sane, then, since they were no more ‘qualified professionals’ than first century Jews.
Strobel begins chapter nine by asking, “if we examine Jesus carefully, does his likeness closely match the sketch of God that we find elsewhere in the Bible?” “If it doesn’t,” he explains, “we can conclude that his claim to being God is false” (p. 156). Here Strobel attempts to show that Jesus had all the divine attributes of god, and therefore was god. But things don’t get far before significant problems are revealed in that endeavor. How could Jesus be omnipresent if he was limited to being in one place at a time? How could he be omniscient when Mark 13:32 implies that even he didn’t know the hour of judgment day? How could he be omnipotent when Mark 6:4-5 plainly states that he could not work many miracles in his hometown?
Our author presents all these questions to D.A. Carson, a Christian theologian and the eighth interview in The Case for Christ. Carson offers two responses: (i) the separation of divine and human traits by Benjamin Warfield, and (ii) the kenosis, or emptying, of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-8. As Strobel points out for (i), the picture such a theory creates is one of a schizophrenic Jesus, and “you want to avoid a solution in which there are essentially two minds,” Carson concedes (p. 159). The separation of divine and human traits is also a case of cherry-picking done to make the challenges to Christ’s divinity seem less problematic. With (ii), Carson argues that Jesus had emptied himself of “the independent use of his attributes,” and only “functioned like God when his heavenly Father gave him explicit sanction to do so” (p. 160).
To his credit, Carson notes that “there is a sense in which the eternal Son has always acted in line with his Father’s commandments” (p. 160), and so this explanation doesn’t offer much at all. The incarnation has long been one of the great mysteries of Christianity for theologians, and in postulating these kinds of speculation as a response to challenges against the omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence of Jesus, Carson is simply addressing questions with a mystery that only yields more questions. All of this seems to rest on the doctrine of the Trinity, too, which is a controversial subject not accepted by all Christians. Thus, neither of Carson’s replies provide any actual solution.
How can a loving god send people to hell? Carson paints god as a caring father who we have defied out of a desire to be “the center of the universe” (p. 165), and it is this desire that consigns us to the flames. Christianity has so distorted the portrait of an ideal father that most believers don’t seem to recognize that a truly loving dad would not punish his children for going their own way. Quite the opposite, a responsible father wants to raise independent, self-reliant children who are capable of carrying on without him. This is not to say that a good father pushes his kids out the door or abandons them, but that he teaches and respects independence, and when his children eventually come to him of their own accord, it is all the more meaningful. The god of the bible is a father who threatens his children if they don’t utterly depend on him and follow his every instruction.
Christians often draw things to the extreme when discussing the morality of hell, and Carson makes this mistake himself in the chapter:
What is God to do? If he says it doesn’t matter to him, God is no longer a God to be admired… if God took his hands off this fallen world so that there were no restraint on human wickedness, we would make hell. (p. 165).
Are the only two options really eternal torment or hands-off chaos? This is a false dilemma that so many believers construct because there is no way to justify the punishment of hell. It’s often said that, like a loving father, god has to discipline his children to reinforce good behavior, but discipline comes in many forms, and physical abuse is not the most common or the most effective. For a brief lifetime of sin, we face an eternity of suffering? It’s hardly a punishment that fits the crime, which is how responsible parents usually go about disciplining their kids. Could god not effectively discipline by some temporary, non-abusive means? Humans do it all the time, with far more success than punishment that is cruel overkill.
Lastly, Strobel takes on slavery as an incompatibility with “God’s love for all people” (p. 167). This is strange, given that god gave instructions for buying and owning slaves in the Old Testament (Leviticus 25:44-46). If god loves all people, why would he allow the Israelites to enslave their fellow human beings – to own others as property? Carson mentions that the Hebrew Law commands the freeing of slaves every seven years, but how is the enslavement of someone for seven years justifiable from a god that loves all people? Furthermore, Carson neglects to cite the source of this law, which is Exodus 21:2-6. Reading the passage, we get a fairly different picture than Carson provides, as it instructs that only male Hebrew slaves are to be freed every seven years. Women and Gentiles could be kept indefinitely.
Carson additionally credits abolitionism to Christianity (p. 168). Having covered this in a separate article on Christianity and Slavery, I won’t discuss it here, except to call attention to the ridiculous hypocrisy of making a case from abolitionist Christians while ignoring the numerous Christians who used the bible to fight abolitionism (George Whitefield, Reverend Richard Furman, and George Fitzhugh, for example).
Next up, Strobel speaks with Louis Lapides, a Jewish convert to Christianity, about Jewish objections to Jesus and the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures. In the sort of nonsense we’ve come to expect from Strobel by now, the messianic prophecies are compared to fingerprint evidence. Although Strobel believes these prophecies are like ‘fingerprints’ of the messiah that only Jesus fits, the analogy is awful when considering the strength and reliability of actual fingerprint evidence, versus the vague and disputable nature of the so-called bible prophecies. Lapides also doesn’t seem very qualified for such a subject, since he admits that he wasn’t even told about the messiah when he was a Jew (p. 173), and he somehow developed some heavily anti-Christian beliefs (p. 174).
Several factors appear to have influenced Lapides’ loss of Jewish faith. He describes the impact of the divorce of his parents, his experiences in the Vietnam war (and the anti-Semitism he encountered even from his fellow G.I.s), and his descent into drug use (p. 174-176). Lapides then began exploring other religions, he says, and his reasons for rejecting certain ones are interesting. “Chinese Buddhism was atheistic, Japanese Buddhism worshiped statues of Buddha, Zen Buddhism was too elusive… Hinduism believed in all these crazy orgies that the gods would have and in gods who were blue elephants” (p. 176). These disturbingly simplistic reductions make it hard to believe that Lapides honestly investigated those religions. The way he frames it, it sounds more like he was shopping at a buffet of spiritual flavors, for something that would satisfy his personal appetite.
Lapides later encounters street preachers who challenge him to read the Old Testament prophecies about the messiah. Coming upon Isaiah 53 [Why Isaiah 53 is Not About Jesus], he’s “stopped cold” (p. 177-179). What I find especially suspect about this is how a Jewish child, who was never really taught anything about the messiah, could read Isaiah 53, which he had apparently never read before, and immediately recognize Jesus in it. It seems like Lapides knew more about Christianity than he knew about Judaism! Amusingly, Lapides speculates that the reason why more Jews don’t accept Jesus is because “there’s a lot of ignorance” about Christianity among them (p. 182). One could easily say the same about why Lapides didn’t remain a Jew – perhaps he had a lot of ignorance about his own religion at the time.
Strobel raises four categories of objections to the prophecies of Jesus: (i) coincidence; (ii) fabrications in the gospels; (iii) intentional fulfillment; and (iv) out of context distortions. (i) is unlikely for the volume of prophecies and how some were ‘fulfilled,’ so I will agree with Strobel and Lapides that this objection doesn’t fly. For (ii), Lapides argues that the early community would have prevented fabrication, he asks why Matthew would’ve let himself be martyred over a lie, and notes that the Jews would’ve “jumped on any opportunity to discredit the gospels” (p. 184). I have dealt with the ‘checks and balances’ argument already, and there’s just no evidence that opponents were concerned enough to call out Christianity, nor is there evidence that early believers were organized enough to control accuracy of the reports. Hippolytus, the earliest source on the disciples’ deaths, states that Matthew died of natural causes, not from martyrdom.20 And lastly, the Jews likely did not know some of the narratives or stories of Jesus were intended as prophetic fulfillment, since Christians had developed alternate intepretations of those passages that differed from Jewish understanding (Origen reports as much on Isaiah 53). There is also no evidence that the Jews “jumped” to discredit any messianic movement in the first century.
(iii) is another unlikely objection, though it is plausible in some cases. Lapides mentions Daniel 9:24-26 as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth (p. 184), but neglects to inform his audience that we do not know the actual date of Jesus’ birth, and the gospels give two different answers that have not been reconciled, as we saw in chapter five. Nonetheless, I don’t find it probable that Jesus lived his life with the purpose of pretending to fulfill prophecies, so I won’t defend this contention. By far, the most compelling objections are (ii) and (iv). I’ve just shown that Lapides’ responses to (ii) don’t hold up, but amazingly, nothing but a bald-faced assertion is offered for (iv). “[T]he prophecies,” he declares without elaboration, “have stood up and shown themselves to be true” (p. 185). I have debunked 60 so-called prophecies of Jesus used by apologists like Strobel and Lapides, and I have also written separate articles analyzing Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. In numerous cases, there is no remote indication that these passages are intended as prophecy. The ‘out of context’ objection to messianic prophecies is powerful, but Lapides can’t even be bothered to deal with the arguments in The Case for Christ.
Chapter eleven begins a new section called “Researching the Resurrection.” After defending the reliability of the gospels and the divine view of Jesus, Strobel again shifts the tone to focus on the resurrection. Presuming that his readers now believe the gospels are trustworthy and that Jesus was a sane individual who made extraordinary claims about himself that stand up to scrutiny, the final puzzle piece is put into place: the “linch-pin,” Strobel calls it, that seals the deal and closes his case.
Alexander Metherell, M.D., is Strobel’s tenth interviewee, and the purpose of this chapter is to determine that Jesus really died by crucifixion. If he had not died, how could he be raised from the dead? The “swoon theory” – that Jesus only fainted on the cross and was revived later by the cool air of the tomb – is the major issue here, and Metherell addresses it by crafting a picture of the severity of crucifixion, the detail of which would please Mel Gibson. There’s not much worth saying here, except that I do not find the swoon theory remotely probable, and so I agree with Strobel and Metherell, that if Jesus was in fact crucified, it’s extremely unlikely that he somehow survived.
Metherell makes a couple of questionable comments, though, as he explains what Jesus might have experienced, based on the gospels. In an attempt to provide a scientific basis for the sweating of blood in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44), Metherell states that, “This is a known medical condition called hematidrosis” (p. 195). Though case studies have been done on this phenomenon, it has not yet been confirmed scientifically.21 Hematidrosis is also reported to be extremely rare, with only a few examples in the clinical literature. Jesus sweating blood in the gospel of Luke is most likely a literary device to emphasize the stress he was under and foreshadow the redeeming value of his blood. Chalking it up to a case of hematidrosis is sheer speculation.
Metherell also speculates on the blood and water that comes out of Jesus when his side is pierced by the spear in John’s gospel. This, he argues, is evidence of heart failure from hypovolemic shock (p. 199). However, this explanation ignores the much more likely meaning that blood and water had as symbols of life and spirit. Passages like 1 Corinthians 10:4 and 12:13 show that water was a symbol of the holy spirit and the spirit of Christ, whereas blood is the symbol of life, which is necessary for the remission of sins, according to Hebrews 9:22. That the early Christians reading John 19:34 would recognize the blood and water as symbolic of the power of Christ’s sacrifice and redemption is far more plausible than a ‘coded’ reference to heart failure.
Regardless, there is nothing in Metherell’s medical explanation of the crucifixion to give the impression that the gospel authors had miraculous or advanced knowledge. As common as the punishment of crucifixion was in Roman times, all of the information in the gospels could easily be gained from simply witnessing crucifixions and observing the standard process of death.
To build a case for the resurrection, Strobel interviews William Lane Craig, an apologist and well-known Christian debate star. Strobel’s introduction of Craig is less than objective journalism, as he mentions first seeing him in action at a debate where he “dismantl[ed] the arguments for atheism” and won by “no contest,” causing forty-seven nonbelievers to leave as Christians (p. 206). Curiously, we’re not told the specifics about this polling, but since debates generally tally up votes for which side performed the best, and don’t actually gather information on changes in belief, Strobel’s conclusions are misleading.
William Lane Craig likes to pretend that he holds the most rational position, that he defends a ‘reasonable faith.’ He assures us in The Case for Christ: “I find it’s prudent to base my arguments on evidence that’s most widely accepted by the majority of scholars” (p. 212). Yet Craig is more than willing to cast aside evidence and reason when they don’t support the presuppositions of his faith:
Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.22
This is very relevant to Craig’s attempt at establishing the resurrection as the best explanation for the evidence of the tomb, the earliness of the reports, etc. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile”. Strobel and Craig both believe the resurrection is the cornerstone of Christianity, the “fundamental truth of the Christian faith”. Craig’s explanation of the evidence is that Christ was raised from the dead, and this is an explanation that Craig is unwilling to see falsified. Any evidence or reasoning that undermines Craig’s explanation – which is the fundamental truth of the Christian faith – ought to be discarded, according to Craig. Real debate and open discussion cannot be had with someone who holds such an irrational position. And not surprisingly, Craig’s case for the resurrection is built on shifting sands.
What is the evidence for the empty tomb? Craig names six pieces: (i) the 1 Corinthians 15 ‘early creed’; (ii) detractors’ knowledge of Jesus’ tomb; (iii) the earliness of Mark’s passion narrative; (iv) the primitive nature of Mark’s empty tomb story; (v) the embarrassing detail of the women at the tomb; and (vi) the presupposition of the empty tomb’s historicity in the “earliest Jewish polemic” (p. 220-221).
I have discussed the 1 Corinthians 15 ‘creed’ many times by now, but aside from uncertainty on its earliness, there is also no empty tomb in the passage. The closest it comes is in a short note that Jesus “was buried,” and somehow Craig finds this enough to presume that the gospel’s empty tomb story was what Paul had in mind. But Paul doesn’t say anything about an empty tomb or any of the characteristics of it that we find in the gospels (no women, no angels, no stone). Quite simply, there is nothing in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 that indicates knowledge of the empty tomb legend. Craig has to look outside the bible for support of his presumption, and he finds it in the idea of a physical resurrection had by the Jews (p. 211). Yet even if this means Jesus was physically raised, according to the creed, it does not tell us where or how he was buried. What’s more important is that the passage, while it may imply an empty tomb, could also mean that the empty tomb was not witnessed by any, hence the absence of it in the creed. That the creed refers to Peter as the first to encounter the risen Jesus may be of interest too, given that Peter did not meet Jesus at the empty tomb in any gospel story, but met him elsewhere.
(ii) has been covered to death throughout this review, so I will simply say that the disciples lateness in proclaiming the resurrection (seven weeks after his supposed ascension, as Acts tells us) would have made it a moot point for the Jewish or Roman authorities to exhume the body in order to disprove the rumors coming from a small sect of fanatics. (iii) and (iv) focus on the alleged antiquity of Mark’s empty tomb story and passion narrative, but Craig doesn’t justify the earliness of these reports – which he believes come from before 37 C.E. – beyond vague references to language, grammar, and style of the text, as well as the simplicity and the fact that they are “unadorned by theological reflection” (p. 220). The crucifixion in Mark’s gospel shows a fair amount of theological adornment, though, such as the darkness, the veil in the temple tearing, the centurion’s statement, and other symbols. All that Craig points out for the empty tomb story may merely be the evidence of a legend that was in the process of developing.
(v) is an interesting feature in Craig’s evidence line-up, since women are not mentioned in the 1 Corinthians 15 creed. Their presence in Mark (and in the subsequent gospels that used Mark as a source) may be part of the recurrent theme of tragic irony that helped to conceal the messianic secret (Mark 3:21, 4:13, 6:1-6, 15:34). Embarrassing details surrounded Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but this was god’s plan, to save the secret of his messiah for only the chosen (8:27-30). This puts a very different spin on the appearance of women at the tomb, as a device intentionally used by Mark, not an embarrassing fact included for accuracy’s sake. That the entire gospel of Mark seems to conform to this style doesn’t help Craig’s theory. The “earliest Jewish polemic” that Craig speaks of in (vi) is actually from Matthew 28:11-15, and Matthew’s gospel is certainly not unbiased or friendly in its portrait of the Jews, having them cry out for Jesus’ blood to be upon them and their children (Matthew 27:25). Craig’s “earliest Jewish polemic” is highly suspect, then.
On the issue of the inconsistencies between the empty tomb accounts in the gospels, Craig makes the extremely redundant argument that the “core of the story” remains the same (p. 215). I’ve never understood why Christians seem to think this is an adequate response. If the core of a story changes, we are no longer talking about the same story. The film Apocalypse Now is based on the story The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and because the setting, characters, and other elements were altered enough, the stories diverged into different tales. Christianity structured itself around the resurrection of Jesus, and so any change to this core of the story would result in something arguably not Christian. Seeing how Christians were the primary, if not exclusive, distributors of the Jesus story at first, it’s not surprising that the empty tomb story is in all the gospels, but neither does this mean the empty tomb was more reality than myth.
Despite all of this, and even if we concede all his points for the sake of argument, William Lane Craig’s evidence for the empty tomb is not best explained by resurrection. Jeffery Jay Lowder has written an erudite essay that proposes a natural, alternative explanation for the empty tomb accounts and everything in Craig’s arsenal.23 The truth is that an empty tomb has many possible explanations, most of which are unextraordinary and thus more probable than resorting to extraordinary and non-falsifiable claims of the supernatural. All of Craig’s arguments in favor of an early tomb tradition assume the reliability of the New Testament authors and the factual accuracy of their reports. These assumptions were ‘dismantled,’ as Strobel might say, in my critique of the first five chapters, and Craig has offered no additional defense of them here.
…the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead… [is the] best explanation for what happened… [it] doesn’t contradict science or any known facts of experience. (p. 222)
Experience will tell us, at the very least, that people are not usually raised from the dead. It will tell us that many false claims of resurrection have been made before. It will also tell us that people who are deeply emotionally invested in leaders, movements, and beliefs are often susceptible to confirmation bias. Science will tell us that a corpse that has been brutally beaten and crucified and buried in a tomb for three days will not return to life after the brain has died and decay has begun to dissolve away organs like the heart and lungs. It will tell us that supernatural explanations have been supplanted by natural ones many times, but never the other way around. It will also tell us that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the extraordinary claims of religion have not once met their burden of proof. But one wouldn’t expect Craig to admit to any of this. Against the fundamental truth of the Christian faith reality can never prevail.
Because “by itself an empty grave does not a resurrection make,” Strobel’s next endeavor centers around the postmortem appearances of Jesus. Yet this has trouble of its own too, since reports of sightings after death do not a resurrection make either. Gary Habermas, Strobel’s interview subject for the chapter, relies primarily on the earliness of the stories, but there are problems with such a simplistic approach that can best be illustrated by referring to the king of kings. As I previously noted, the earliest reported postmortem sighting of Elvis Presley was a mere two days after his death. The ‘witness’ believed they saw Elvis filling up his car at a gas station in Georgia – nothing fantastically mythical or legendary. Do the earliness and primitivity of this report make it likely that Elvis really did survive death? Apologists may protest on the grounds that the king’s grave is not empty, but this fact simply goes to show what people are willing to believe. Earliness and primitivity are not sufficient to establish the reliability of a report of a postmortem appearance.
That said, let’s have a look at Habermas’ performance anyway. Strobel introduces him in a very unjournalistic fashion similar to his introduction of William Lane Craig. A debate between Habermas and Antony Flew is commented on, with a number of quotes from questionably biased personalities. As one example, a judge of the debate stated, “Since the case against the resurrection was no stronger than that presented by Antony Flew, I would think it was time I began to take the resurrection seriously” (p. 226). Debates are not a contest to determine the truth of a proposition, despite the way many of them are formatted. A representative of one side of the argument engages a representative of another side of the argument in discussion, and most intelligent folks understand that these representatives do NOT speak for all the people on their side, but do try their best to accurately reflect the gist of the position. To conclude based on one debate that the case against the resurrection is no stronger than the delivery of it given by the representative is a grossly under-informed presumption.
Habermas explains how he fashions an argument for the resurrection:
First, did Jesus die on the cross? And second, did he appear later to people? If you can establish those two things, you’ve made your case… (p. 228)
Unfortunately for Habermas, there’s no way to actually establish that Jesus appeared to people. The best he can offer are reports of appearances, and these are suspect by nature of the fact that “dead people don’t normally [appear to others after their death],” as he says himself. So what does he provide to defend these reports? First on the list is the ‘creed’ in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, which Strobel finally asks for his guest scholar to support. Claiming the passage as an early creed, Habermas gives us five arguments: (i) the words “received” and “delivered” are ‘technical rabbinic terms’ used for holy traditions; (ii) the text’s parallelism and stylized content; (iii) the use of the Aramaic name “Cephas” for Peter; (iv) primitive phrases like “the Twelve,” “the third day,” and “he was raised”; and (v) the “use of certain words is similar to Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew means of narration” (p. 229).
Though not sourced, (i) bases itself on the work of Joachim Jeremias, who is quoted by Habermas for another purpose on page 230. The connection of “received” and “delivered” with rabbinic practices of passing on traditions comes from the assumption that the Greek word paralambano, for “received,” is associated with the Hebrew qibel, which is taken as always referring to the reception of a tradition. However, as Hyam Maccoby has shown, this is not always the case, as the Mishna uses qibel in stating that “Moses received the Torah from Sinai”.24 Obviously, Moses was not handed down the Torah as a tradition, but he was given it through a revelation from god himself, as the story tells. This also corresponds to Paul’s own profession in Galatians 1:12 that he did not receive [paralambano] his gospel from any man, but by a revelation from Jesus Christ. Habermas’ first argument holds no water.
(ii) is given no elaboration, and it’s difficult to rebut a vague statement that has no examples or details to support it. Even so, grammatical structure just means that Paul was well-educated in Greek composition, which shows in many of his writings. There’s no reason to assume this means a greater chance of antiquity or reliability. For (iii), why should use of the Aramaic name for Peter mean anything other than that Paul knew Peter’s Aramaic name? This is unexceptional, and the fact that the later gospel of John uses “Cephas” (1:42) also makes this irrelevant as an argument for an earlier dating. With (iv), Habermas claims that the three phrases listed above are ones “Paul would not customarily use” (p. 229). But how is this an argument for anything? We only have seven undisputed epistles from Paul to judge his vocabulary by, and every writer will occasionally use words that are not common to the rest of their writing. (v) is almost too pointless to bother with. Paul certainly knew Aramaic, and Mishnaic Hebrew was a dialect in use until at least the 4th century C.E.
To summarize, Habermas’ case for the 1 Corinthians 15 passage being an early creed is built on faith more than any conclusive evidence. A couple of additional problems with his view are touched upon by Strobel, such as the 500 witnesses that aren’t mentioned in the gospels and the absence of women from the appearances in the ‘creed.’ In defense of the five hundred, Habermas claims that Paul was “inviting people to check it out for themselves,” (p. 232) though I don’t see how they could’ve done this when Paul didn’t name any names, not to mention the difficulty of traveling and researching such a thing in the first century. As apologists are so fond of doing, he also argues that the passage doesn’t say Peter was “first” to see Jesus, so the women are invisibly implied, especially because women were not allowed as witnesses in those days (p. 233). It’s interesting, then, that “sisters” are mentioned among the 500 witnesses, who Habermas believes Paul intended for people to investigate.
I want to look at one last statement Habermas makes before moving on to the final chapter:
Legend can’t explain those initial eyewitness accounts. In other words, legend can tell you how a story got bigger; it can’t tell you how it originated when the participants are both eyewitnesses and reported the events early. (p. 238)
So often this seems to be the thinking of apologists, but the truth is that legend is not the only way of saying that a report has left the realm of factual reality and become something else. Historical facts don’t suddenly spring up into an assortment of colorful mythic distortions. The first step in that direction is usually very small, and disconfirming events – like the death of a beloved figure – are translated into spiritual experiences by followers all the time (for a recent example, Harold Camping responded to his failed doomsday prediction by reinterpreting it as a ‘spiritual’ judgment day25). It also deserves to be noted that we don’t have multiple accounts of postmortem appearances. We may have Paul’s testimony, but we do not have the testimonies of Cephas, James, the 500 witnesses, or anyone else until Matthew’s gospel, some 30-50 years after Paul. What we have, then, for the earliest postmortem appearances is one man’s statement about his own experience and the experiences of others. It hardly constitutes reliable evidence for a resurrection.
Strobel attempts to bolster the appearances with five pieces of evidence for the resurrection “that are not in dispute by anybody” (p. 246). J.P. Moreland, the final interview in the carnival of Evangelical affirmation, gives the five pieces: (i) the disciples died for their beliefs; (ii) skeptics like James and Paul were converted; (iii) changes to key Jewish social structures were made; (iv) communion and baptism celebrate Christ’s resurrection; and (v) the emergence of the church (p. 246-255). Scholars do dispute some of these ‘facts,’ though, like James being a skeptic26 and the disciples being martyred,27 but we may grant Moreland these claims and still find his argument lacking.
In their discussion of (i), Strobel observes that “people won’t die for their religious beliefs if they know their beliefs are false” (p. 247). In my article, Did the Disciples Die For a Lie?, I point out the difficulty of assessing who among the disciples could have known it if they were following a lie. Strobel claims that they were in a position to know, having lived with Jesus, but this presumes the accuracy of the gospel stories, and ignores the truth that we have NO accounts of martyred apostles who were eyewitnesses to the resurrection, as I explain in the article. That Moreland paints the disciples as “eleven credible people with no ulterior motives, with nothing to gain and a lot to lose” (p. 247) should cast suspicion on his own motives. How he can judge the credibility of eleven people, most of whom we have not a single preserved account from, is truly phenomenal, not to mention his knowledge of their unique minds and the motives they might have had (or rather did not have, according to Moreland). But most importantly, there is no reason to think the disciples died for beliefs they knew to be false.
On (ii), Moreland tries to claim that the conversion of alleged skeptics James and Paul makes… some sort of case for… something. “Remember,” he says, “it’s not the simple fact that Paul changed his views. You have to explain how he had this particular change of belief that completely went against his upbringing” (p. 249). As someone who made a change of belief that went against his Evangelical Christian upbringing, I find Moreland’s comment to be especially amusing. A drastic change of mind does not imply the truth of one’s position, nor does it suggest the involvement of the supernatural.
(iii) through (v) also cannot get us anywhere close to an inference of resurrection. Regarding (iii), Jews were already beginning to change their social structures before Christianity came on the scene, as the presence of various sects like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes can testify. Some of Moreland’s ‘evidences,’ like the end of sacrifices, have a very simple natural explanation too, such as the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. – the only place where sacrifices were allowed under Jewish Law. For (iv), rather than strict symbols of resurrection, communion may represent commemoration and baptism may represent rebirth or cleansing. Such practices could be part of a belief system that saw Jesus’ resurrection as non-physical, so this piece of the evidence is irrelevant to Moreland’s aim. Lastly, on (v), the emergence of the Christian church was no special event, as I’ve explained before. It does not demonstrate the truth of Christianity anymore than the emergence of the Mormon church demonstrates the truth of Mormonism.
As “the final confirming proof,” Moreland cites the “ongoing encounters” of Jesus by people of various backgrounds living throughout the world today (p. 255). I have addressed The Argument From Religious Experience in more detail in a video that is available on YouTube, but I will say that even if we were to suppose that these individuals have good reasons for believing in the experiences they’ve had, their experiences do not demonstrate the truth of the resurrection. The diversity of religious experience also builds a strong case against the use of such experience to support any specific religion. Yet this final ‘proof’ is saved until the last point of the last chapter for a reason of its own. Strobel and crew prime the reader for conversion by getting him/her to think about the experiences of the numerous believing Christians. With so many people claiming to have experienced something, they can’t all be wrong, can they?
In the book’s conclusion, Strobel finally reveals that The Case for Christ is his recounting of his conversion some seventeen years ago. But even more than this, he explains that during his actual experience, he “primarily studied books and other historical research instead of personally interacting with scholars” (p. 259). This puts to rest the rumor that Strobel was an atheist when he began work on the book, and since we don’t know what “books” and “historical research” he studied in 1981, it also certainly calls into question the reasons for his conversion. The Case for Christ is a mass-marketed propaganda piece of Christian apologetics, intended to inspire conversion. It purports to be a journalistic investigation of the evidence for Christianity, but it is far from that. Nonetheless, Strobel claims that in light of the case he presents, it would’ve taken more faith for him to remain an atheist than to trust in Jesus (p. 265). Let’s return to the questions Strobel asked of the Dixon case.
Has the collection of evidence really been thorough? The only honest answer can be: absolutely not. Strobel fails to interview a single skeptic – atheist or of some belief besides Evangelical Christianity. Though quotes of dissenting parties are sometimes offered, they seem cherry-picked for Strobel’s scholars to knock down, and often times they don’t accurately summarize the opponent’s position, such as with the chapter on the Jesus Seminar. Some of the known, relevant evidence is also omitted, like the studies on the unreliability of eyewitness evidence, the Pilate stone with his actual title of “Prefect,” the accounts of anti-abolitionist Christians who relied on the bible for support, and other details that would drastically challenge, if not entirely overturn, several of the statements made in the book. As said of the Jesus Seminar in chapter six, the results of The Case for Christ were “already determined ahead of time,” and the cast of characters, the arguments, and the structure were all chosen with that conclusion in mind. “This is not responsible, or even critical, scholarship. It is a self-indulgent charade” (p. 127).
Which explanation best fits the totality of the evidence? Even if taken at face value, the arguments made by Strobel and his 13 scholars do not establish the divinity or resurrection of Christ. Perhaps Jesus did claim to be god and perhaps he sincerely believed he was. Perhaps the apostles did claim shortly after Jesus’ death that he had risen from the grave and perhaps they sincerely believed he had. The problem with using any of this to endorse resurrection or divinity is that belief claims, no matter how sincere, are not testaments of actuality. Even if we had no alternative explanations of these claims, no rebuttals of them, and so forth, the fact remains that belief does not always correlate to what is real. Resurrection is not the only possibility for an empty tomb, and as a miraculous event, it is improbable by its very nature. But since we don’t have an actual empty tomb – just believers’ stories of it – the apologists are back at square one. Josephus, the Pool of Bethesda, and other such arguments are insufficient to support the divinity or resurrection of Jesus, yet no one in The Case for Christ provides anything of greater substance.
Thus, Strobel’s case is an abject failure in journalism and scholarship. However, the real intent of the book is to provide some semi-intellectual basis for believing the claims of Christianity, and that is perhaps the only audience that will find the case compelling. For those who are interested in the truth or in hearing both sides of the debate, Strobel’s work will likely hold nothing of value, other than possible entertainment.
1. Strobel, L. (1998) The Case for Christ. p. 13. Zondervan: Grand Rapids.
2. Fisher, G. & Barbara Tversky. (1999) The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony. The Stanford Journal of Legal Studies.
3. Irenaeus. Against Heresies. 3.1.1.
4. Ehrman, B. (2011) Forged: Writing in the Name of God. p. 227. HarperCollins: New York.
5. Wallace, D. The Synoptic Problem. Bible.org. Retrieved May 29, 2011.
6. Mack, B. (1995) Who Wrote the New Testament? p. 64. HarperCollins: New York.
7. Fitzmyer, J. (1998) The Acts of the Apostles. p. 791-792. Doubleday: New York.
8. List of New Testament papyri. Wikipedia.org. Retrieved June 1, 2011.
9. Wallace, D. The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation. Retrieved June 1, 2011.
10. Patterson, S. (1994) The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus. p. 120. Polebridge Press.
11. Josephus. Antiquities. 18.2-9.
12. Wroe, A. (1999) Historical Notes: Pontius Pilate: a name set in stone. The Independent. Retrieved June 1, 2011.
13. Josephus. Antiquities. 19.5,1; Jewish War. II. 12:8.
14. Anonymous. Augustus & Livia AE21 of Ionia, Smyrna. Wildwinds.org. Retrieved June 1, 2011.
15. Carrier, R. (2002) “Pseudohistory in Jerry Vardaman’s magic coins: the nonsense of micro graphic letters.” The Skeptical Inquirer.
16. Maier, P. (1998) “Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem.” Chronos, Kairos, Christos II. p. 170. Mercer University Press.
17. Funk, R. (1996) Honest to Jesus. p. 60. HarperCollins: San Francisco.
18. Crossan, J. (1996) Who is Jesus? p. 76. HarperCollins: New York.
19. Anonymous. Elvis Sightings. The Jailhouse. Retrieved June 2, 2011.
20. Hippolytus. “On the Twelve Apostles of Christ.” Ante-Nicean Fathers. Vol. 5.
21. Rapini, R.; Bolognia, J. & Joseph Jorizzo. (2007) Dermatology: 2-Volume Set. Mosby: St. Louis.
22. Craig, W. (1994) Reasonable Faith. p. 36. Crossway: Wheaton.
23. Lowder, J. (2001) Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig. The Secular Web. Retrieved June 3, 2011.
24. Maccoby, H. (1991) Paul and Hellenism. p. 91-92. Trinity Press International.
25. Herbert, G. (2011) Harold Camping says May 21 was a ‘spiritual’ Judgment Day... Syracuse.com. Retrieved June 5, 2011.
26. In James the Brother of Jesus, Robert Eisenman argues that passages like Mark 3:21 and John 7:5 were added by the Pauline community to smear the image of the historical James.
27. Robert M. Price questions the martyrdom of the apostles in an article: Would the Apostles Die for a Lie?