Several months ago I read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ for the first time. I went into the book expecting to see a lot of familiar content and for the most part that was true. There were a few things I hadn’t heard before but overall it served primarily as a refresher. In that sense, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I came away from the book little more inclined toward the Christian view.
As a whole, this book has been hailed among evangelicals as one of the more accessible and forceful arguments for the divinity of Jesus. Given the popularity of the book, and the breadth of the evidence purported by it, I felt like it would be worthwhile to walk back through the claims of the book and see if I can explain why it did little to alter my current view. That’s what this series of posts is intended to be, something like a log of my initial reaction to the claims. These aren’t detailed, scholarly investigations. They’re short, simple responses based on the information I’ve encountered over time.
The book is split into three main parts and within each of these are sub-sections to support the broader claim. I started by thinking I could write one post for each of the larger sections but it didn’t take long to realize that I needed to break it up into smaller chunks. So, I’ve decided that I will write one post for each sub-section. This is the first in the series.
Part 1: Examining the Record
Section 1: The Eyewitness Evidence
Argument #1: There is no good reason to discount the traditional assignment of the gospel authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). These assignments are uniformly asserted in early sources. If we accept these assignments, then the text can be traced to first or second-hand eyewitness accounts.
My Response: The discussion does nothing to consider the timeline and interdependency of the sources which assign authorship and makes it sound like there are multiple independent confirmations of authorship. The agreement can be more reasonably viewed as the result of later writers repeating (and often adding to) the claims of earlier sources. So the question, then, is whether the earliest claims of authorship should be considered to be accurate. There are several reasons why those claims are questionable:
- The earliest source we know of is Papias, who probably wrote his claim regarding Mark and Matthew at least 40 years after the first writings appeared. It seems likely that all other claims of authorship are in some form building upon the tradition that Papias’ documents, and adding Luke and John. So, at best, we have one source whose claims regarding two of the books come from at least 40 years of oral tradition.
- The patristic sources infer a single, unadulterated authorship in describing the origin of the gospels. This assumption faces numerous challenges in light of the textual criticism that has been applied to those texts.
- Widespread redaction is readily acknowledged in the early writings. For example, the church fathers attest to numerous variations of Matthew. Why should we believe that we currently have the right one?
- These writings are coming from a culture with a long standing tradition of producing texts that are assigned to somebody other than the actual author. This is evident in both pre-Christian Jewish texts and early Christian texts.
Despite these qualifications, I would not be surprised if there were some truth in the traditional assignment of authorship. The named parties may very well have been in some way connected to some of the source content. I would not be at all surprised if the book of Luke, as we have it, was largely composed by Luke and, on his own admission, drawn from multiple prior sources. Matthew might have provided some of Jesus’ sayings somewhere along the line and these were then merged with other sources to produce his book (note that Papias referred to Matthew’s writing as “the oracles”, written in Hebrew). The gospel of Mark may very well have originated with something that was produced by John Mark and may have been rooted in accounts given by Peter. However, it is a very big jump to go from accepting that these parties may have in some way been involved in the original source material to saying that they faithfully wrote everything according to reliable eye witness accounts and that we now have at least a good approximation of their original text. If you want to dig further into the earliest authorship claims, there is a great collection of these at http://www.textexcavation.com/gospelorigins.html.
Lastly, I’ll just note that any view which finds it probable that Jesus was a historical figure (as I do) then implicitly agrees that the gospels have their origin in eye-witness accounts in some sense. The real question is whether the accounts we have are a fully accurate representation of the truth.
Argument #2: The gospels do not deal with anything except a very small portion of Jesus’ life because that is the portion which is most relevant. Ancient authors were not interested in producing full biographies but instead wanted to present key ideas and the most important aspect of Jesus’ life – the death and resurrection.
My Response: I don’t think it’s odd that the gospels exclude Jesus’ early life since his time as a public figure was clearly limited to this short period before his crucifixion. Of course, one can’t help but wonder how the creator of the universe slips under the radar for 30 years. Regardless, it does feel like Strobel is picking and choosing when he completely fails to discuss the accounts we do have. The virgin birth and other aspects of the nativity are never discussed despite the fact that these accounts in Matthew and Luke, among all the gospel material, bear the greatest resemblance to myth and legend and contain multiple apparent contradictions. If Strobel was really trying to play the role of the skeptic then he missed a gold mine here.
Argument #3: Markan priority is not a problem. Matthew only borrowed from Mark to help fill in the details from the perspective of Jesus’ inner circle, on the assumption that Mark is based on information from Peter.
My Response: Though not irrational, this explanation for the borrowing is complete speculation. I’m planning a separate post regarding the implications of borrowing in the synoptic gospels, so I’ll address this in more detail later. Here again, it seems like Strobel backs off from digging into a controversial area. How does the doctrine of inspiration fit into this borrowing? Was it inspiration when passages were copied verbatim? Doesn’t the accepted order here (Mark then Matthew) contradict the patristic claims of authorship (Matthew then Mark) that were considered to be reliable earlier in the discussion?
Argument #4: John does not reflect an evolution of the divinity of Jesus. The synoptics present ample evidence of Jesus’ divinity. Jesus’ use of “son of man” in the synoptics does not infer that he was a mere mortal.
My Response: Let me start by addressing the “son of man” topic, which is treated for a couple pages. I agree with the dismissal of Armstrong’s interpretation from A History of God that this infers human weakness. I agree with the assertion that this is an allusion to Daniel 7 – but it is also more than that. It is also found in other apocalyptic second temple writings (e.g., Enoch, 4 Ezra) which appear to be influential in the communities which bear the closest resemblance to early Christianity. The term reflects a brand of Judaism that emphasized the imminent realization of the prophecies of Israel’s restoration at the end of the age. Furthermore, Jesus’ use of the term in direct reference to Daniel implies a future event that contradicts the most likely explanation for the prophecy.
With respect to the lack of theological development in the gospels, I cannot agree. It is clear the Mark offers the lowest Christology, followed by Matthew and Luke, followed by John with the highest Christology. That this sequence coincides with the most likely chronology for the origin of the texts implies an evolution in the view of Jesus.
Argument #5: The distinct theological agendas of the gospels do not detract from their reliability but rather bolster their historicity because they require careful reporting to ensure acceptance of their claims.
My Response: While I appreciate the acknowledgement of the different ideologies in the gospels, I find it preposterous to suggest that “the very ideology that Christians were trying to promote required as careful historical work as possible”. This is so contrary to everyday experience and a wealth of psychological research that I’m not sure I need to say anything else. It is also interesting that Blomberg compared the extraction of truth from the gospels with the extraction of truth from other ideological texts. Does this mean that we should treat the gospels as we do those other texts; that we should not accept them at face value and instead sort through the propaganda to uncover the truth? I’m sure he would not agree.
Argument #6: The amount of time that passed between the events recorded by the gospels and the actual composition is insignificant compared to most other historical documents, which are generally accepted to be trustworthy (e.g., biographies of Alexander the Great from more than 400 years after his death).
My Response: I haven’t investigated this much but I get the impression that the comparison in the time differences is relatively accurate. It doesn’t follow, however, that the gospels are thus reliable. For one, there is a big difference between writings which claim to describe normal, human events which are generally supported by archeology and the records of outsiders, versus writings which claim to describe supernatural, religiously charged events with no hope of verification and come entirely from insiders. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed if the account is distorted in the first place. Furthermore, I find no reason to accept the claim that hundreds of years are required for unexceptional events to be contorted into exceptional stories, particularly when these stories have been nurtured by groups which are devoted to an apocalyptic and supernatural frame of reference. Lastly, this argument raises the same question as before: by comparing the reliability of the gospels with other historical works, are we then allowed to subject the gospels to the same scrutiny and to repudiate the questionable elements? This argument carries no weight unless we are also willing to adopt the same level of acceptance. While Blomberg infers that historians view other texts as generally reliable, I’m sure he knows full well that they are also littered with details that are not accepted as true.
Argument #7: By dating Acts to about the time of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, we can infer that the synoptics were more likely written in the 40-60’s range rather than the 60-80’s range. Also, by reviewing the claims in Paul’s letters we can trace the original claims of the death, resurrection and appearances to as little as two years after the events themselves.
My Response: I’ll admit that I don’t fully appreciate all the methods used to estimate the dates of the gospels, so I will for now defer to the consensus. It does seem a bit shaky to pin the earlier dates on the fact that Acts ends while Paul is in Rome. I also have no problem with the idea that Jesus’ death and resurrection was accepted very early. I’m inclined to believe that some of the apostles genuinely believed in the resurrection in short order, but that’s a topic for another day. In short, I don’t see why long periods of legendary development are required before we should begin to suspect that the stories of the resurrection of God incarnate may not be true.
The portrait that Strobel paints in this first section is that in the four gospels we have a record that was originally produced with the utmost integrity for the expressed purpose of presenting an accurate historical account of Jesus. I fail to see how this high-level view has been adequately supported. The link to eye-witnesses is tenuous, the problems in the nativities are avoided, synoptic borrowing is accepted without consideration for its implications on the doctrine of inspiration, the issues of theological evolution and bias are unfairly dismissed and the claims are deemed truthful on the premise that very long periods of time are required for false or legendary material to develop.
Many, if not most, will accept the general outline of the gospels; that there was a man Jesus who developed a following, who purportedly performed miracles, who encouraged a life of humility and poverty, who proclaimed the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God, who was killed for disrupting the status quo and who was believed to have been resurrected. This extraction of the general story from the details of the specifics given by the gospels is the type of history that we similarly extract from other historical texts. To assert that the gospels should be treated with no less skepticism than is given to other ancient texts implies that, at the least, we must be willing to concede the improbable in the same way. Despite the implication that this level of scrutiny would be acceptable, I very much doubt that Christian orthodoxy is willing to take that step.
In the next post I’ll look at Part 1, Section 2: Testing the Eyewitness Evidence.