This post is the second in a series on Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ. In this post I offer my thoughts on the content of the book’s second section, Testing the Eyewitness Evidence. In the second section Strobel evaluates the gospels according to eight tests that are intended to check the integrity of the accounts. These tests are:
- The Intention Test (did the authors want to be accurate)
- The Ability Test (did the authors have the ability to report the truth)
- The Character Test (did the authors have a history of truthfullness)
- The Consistency Test (are the authors consistent in their claims)
- The Bias Test (is there reason to believe that the claims are biased toward a certain view)
- The Cover Up Test (does it appear that the authors withheld relevant information)
- The Corroboration Test (do the claims agree with external information)
- The Adverse Witness Test (do we have other claims which are contrary to the author’s claims).
Within each of these tests there are sometimes multiple arguments, so I have arranged my discussion to address each argument rather than just each test.
Part 1: Examining the Record
Section 2: Testing The Eyewitness Evidence
Argument #1: We can trust that Luke intended to write an accurate history because he tells us in the opening sentence that he had carefully examined the events. Matthew and Mark can be considered to be equally reliable due to the similar nature of their texts. Despite the admission in John that the text was intended to evangelize (20:31), this book can still be considered truthful because it is necessary to provide an accurate history if the author hopes to find acceptance for his message.
My Response: I’m inclined to believe Luke when he says that he researched the events, but that doesn’t mean he obtained accurate information or intended to uncover the truth at all costs. It seems most likely that his was an exercise of drawing from source texts and documenting oral traditions. It’s clear that Luke was an insider, not some objective investigator that was critically examining the information to arrive at the truth. His goal was to compile the stories circulating about Jesus and present them for a gentile audience. Apologists like to present Luke as if he was a modern day detective or some hyper-critical historian who’s primary concern was the integrity of his work, but there’s little reason to think this is the case and many reasons for questioning such a view.
Given that the synoptics used common source material, it should be obvious that they would then be similar. It doesn’t entail that they were intended to be wholly accurate histories. One of the more apparent counter-examples is the way that Matthew repeatedly takes Old Testament verses way out of context to map them to Jesus. One can’t help but feel that this is in some sense dishonest.
With respect to the Gospel of John, Blomberg again argues that an evangelistic purpose requires dutifully accurate reporting. Again, this is absurd. We don’t say that “history is written by the victors” to imply that the account is thus trustworthy. The implication is just the opposite, that we should wary of bias in the records produced by those in support of a cause or an allegiance.
Argument #2: The gospels were not composed as a response to the fact that Jesus had failed to return in the first few decades after his ascension. We know this because Jesus’ teaching actually suggest a long time span before his return and because his followers were accustomed to the long delayed fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.
My Response: I had never before considered that Jesus’ failure to return in short order had actually been a catalyst for the authoring of the gospels. The long delayed rise of God’s eternal kingdom through the nation of Israel certainly does give the Jews a track record of faithfully waiting for prophecies to be fulfilled. However, I must disagree with the assertion that Jesus’ teachings actually infer a long period time before his return. There are clear indications that the events are to occur in the near future and Blomberg offers nothing to support his claim that this is not the case. Furthermore, it seems that the Jews had began to grow impatient and this was in part responsible for the apocalyptic culture of the day. Nowhere in those Old Testament prophecies do we see an indication of two comings separated by a long period of time. Therefore, the earliest followers who believed Jesus to be the messiah almost certainly expected the complete fulfillment of all the prophecies as an immediate consequence of his arrival; and this is exactly what we see in their writings. As to whether Jesus’ lingering absence was an impetus for the introduction of the gospel accounts, I do not see this to be an outlandish claim but I also see no reason to hold that it is true.
Argument #3: We know that the earliest church did not put words into Jesus’ mouth because of the care taken in the epistles to avoid and condemn false teachings and because of the abundant controversies in the early church that could have just as easily been resolved by back-editing the solution into the gospels.
My Response: When it comes to religious doctrine and unverifiable claims, how do we define false teaching? Without a presupposition that certain people have been accurately bestowed with a divine revelation, the identification of false teaching is entirely subjective. As such, an author may be genuinely opposed to false teachings yet actively propagating ideas which do not reflect the truth. The propagation of falsehood does not require blatant deceit, it requires only an ignorance of the truth and it will be spurred on even more by the boldness of one who believes that they have the truth. If proclamations against false teaching are considered an earmark of a trustworthy author then the same standard must also be applied to the Qur’an and other religious texts.
The presence of controversy in the early church in no way precludes the injection of ideology into the gospels. Conversely, it appears likely that this in fact did occur. For example, Mark gives us little indication of Jesus’ divinity and so we see that this is incrementally expanded in the later gospels. To say that controversies still existed even after the gospels had reached general acceptance is only to say that attempts to clarify and defend a particular view were not comprehensively and cohesively implemented across all of the gospels. It is ludicrous to suggest that the injection of ideology would have resulted in a perfect harmonization of the texts. This argument only serves to distract from the theologically driven redaction that did occur.
Argument #4: The reproduction of sayings and events by the eye-witnesses is credible because they were sourced by a culture that stressed the preservation of oral tradition through memorization. The variation in the synoptics is comparable to what we would expect from a group that memorized the key points. This culture of memorizing oral traditions is self-correcting because the collective memory of the community would override the faulty recollections of any one person.
My Response: There’s a lot I could say on this topic but I’d like to focus on one thing in particular. A key implication of this section is that the similarities in the synoptics are not due to plagiarism but rather due to memorization of a common source. Among other issues, there is one gigantic problem with this. Jesus and his followers almost certainly spoke Aramaic. The synoptics are in Greek. In order for the textual similarities to have arisen only due to a common oral tradition, we also have to assert that the translation of those traditions into Greek often produced the same words, sometimes verbatim, but more commonly with a few additions, subtractions or replacements. This claim also requires that events (not just sayings) were recounted with a common phrasing. If this seems a bit far fetched then you can appreciate why nearly all scholars agree that the best explanation for the commonalities in the synoptic gospels is that they were composed by authors who had common source texts on hand.
It’s difficult to describe the nature of the textual similarities that we find in the synoptics. The best way to understand this is by reviewing the side-by-side comparisons, so I encourage you to review the comparisons available at http://www.textexcavation.com/synopticlistedinventory.html. The color highlighting does a great job of demonstrating how words and phrases were added, removed or changed within the scope of a larger common text.
Argument #5: It is unlikely that the gospel sources would put forth dishonest claims because they were devoted to a life of integrity, as taught by their leader, Jesus, and evidenced by their willingness to die for their beliefs.
My Response: First, there is little evidence that the authors of the gospels died for their beliefs. At best, Mark may have been martyred but the others more likely died of old age. Second, I agree that the authors believed the majority of their text to be truthful. As humans engrossed in a religiously charged atmosphere there were almost certainly instances of embellishment, unchecked bias and unquestioning repetition of memes but, as a whole, I see no reason to think that the writers were being deliberately deceitful.
Argument #6: The variations and apparent contradictions in the gospels are actually a testament to their veracity because they demonstrate that the texts were not the result of collusion.
My Response: …except when it’s clear that the text was borrowed (see argument #4). That said, John does appear to be largely independent of the synoptics and this is good evidence of at least two separate but similar traditions. However, this claim completely dismisses the possibility that the apparent contradictions and differences between the texts could be due to:
- Actual differences in the veracity of the claims, and
- The introduction or revision of claims toward an ideological end.
I agree that the gospels are not a perfectly harmonious testimony that reeks of collusion, but it doesn’t follow that the differences are then thoroughly virtuous and can be dismissed. When we encounter incongruous statements, is not the best explanation that at least one of the delegates is wrong? Or that the parties are partially mistaken and the truth is a selective composite?
Argument #7: Discrepancies between the gospels can be typically explained under careful examination. Strobel raises several examples for which Blomberg then provides an explanation.
My Response: I’ve opted not to look at each of the contradictions individually because, as Strobel indicates in the book, you could go on forever reviewing the possible discrepancies and proposed solutions. Here’s my problem: when you put aside the presumption that the text is inerrant, it is nearly always the case that the proposed solution seems less likely than simply admitting that the author was wrong. We have thousands of years and a wealth of personal experience that confirms the fallibility of humans. These inconsistencies are just what we should expect if the bible was written by humans without some divine guidance that ensured its veracity. The cognitive dissonance created by the mountain of peculiar explanations that are necessary to prop up the doctrine of inerrancy is easily relieved by one simple explanation: sometimes the authors were wrong, just like every other author that has ever existed.
Argument #8: The gospel writers did not present a biased account because they honored and respect Jesus so much that they were prompted to record his life with integrity. The social pressures would have, if anything, influenced them toward downplaying Jesus.
My Response: To be fair, Blomberg only asserts that “I think that’s what happened here”. This is more or less just repeating his opinion than providing an argument. In addition to understating the possibility that the gospel authors intentionally embellished or injected bias, this claim also ignores the unintentional bias that colors everybody’s writing. This subconscious bias is very likely to produce inaccuracies and should not be overlooked.
Argument #9: The hard sayings and embarrassing details that are retained in the gospels are evidence that the authors were not hiding or changing anything because otherwise they would have left those out.
My Response: This is a close cousin to argument #3 and so my response is similar: on what basis should we assume that the inclusion of some unsightly details then necessarily infers that all troublesome passages were not refined or excluded? We cannot claim that this kind of “cover up”, as Strobel calls it, didn’t happen at all just because there are some instances where it would have made sense from our perspective to have glossed over the truth.
It may seem speculative to suggest that maybe there were liberties taken for which we are not aware, but this possibility is not without merit. The gospels reveal several instances where it appears that the later authors (Matthew and Luke) modified the content borrowed from an earlier source (Mark) to make the end result less difficult. For example, Blomberg mentions Mark 6:5 as an example of one of these embarrassing passages but fails to mention how it appears that there actually was an attempt to correct it. Mark says that Jesus could not do miracles in Nazareth and was amazed at their unbelief, whereas Matthews says that he did not do miracles there because of their unbelief. Luke goes a step further and leaves it out altogether.
Argument #10: The archeological corroboration of people and places in the gospels attests to their authenticity and veracity.
My Response: It is to be fully expected that the gospels would reference actual people and places if Jesus is a historical figure. This argument seems to be primarily targeting a mythicist view of Jesus. Regardless, the claims of corroboration exclude any discussion of historical discrepancies, such as the inconsistency between Matthew’s dating of Jesus’ birth in the reign of Herod (before 4 BC) and Luke’s placement of Jesus’ birth during the census of Quirinius* (6 AD). The most lucid explanation is that one or both were mistaken. Instead of facing these, Blomberg suggests that we should consider situations like this to be insignificant because they are overwhelmed by the number of times where the gospel account corresponds with the historical record. This, however, is simply a tactic to divert attention away from the fact that the gospels look just like other texts from the period – texts which are written by humans and contain normal human mistakes.
* Strobel does deal with the census later, in Chapter 5.
Argument #11: The lack of antagonistic efforts to expose the falsehoods in the teachings of the early church serve as evidence that the claims of the early church were authentic. The Jewish recognition of Jesus as a sorcerer is evidence that he did in fact work miracles.
My Response: My initial reaction is that it’s not clear why we should think that the early Christian movement rose to the level which would warrant public opposition (preserved for us) by those who were able to dispute its claims. The only account we have of the local church is in Acts, which very likely inflates the numbers. The most successful evangelist by far, Paul, focused his efforts outside of Israel. So, from the Jewish perspective, the threat had been squelched with the death of Jesus and nothing more was necessary. One could even turn this argument on its head and contend that the lack of opposition is the result of Jews knowing that they didn’t need to do anything because Jesus was dead. I do not wish to defend such a view, due to it’s highly speculative nature, but it doesn’t appear to be much weaker than the apologist’s claim that the opposition was silent because they knew that the Christians’ claims were true.
It is also quite a stretch to assert that the Jewish description of Jesus as a sorcerer somehow authenticates his miracles. First, the remarks in the Talmud come hundreds of years after Jesus, so they are not based on first hand knowledge but are rather a response to the Christianity known in that day. Second, the culture readily accepted the authenticity of sorcery and this was a perfectly acceptable, if not preferred, explanation for the claims that somebody performed miracles.
For the most part, this section is arguing against a very particular brand of skepticism which asserts that the gospels are predominantly fairy tales and were intentionally constructed as such. The arguments presented may serve to combat such a view, but they do nothing to diminish a more moderate view in which the gospels are largely based on actual events that were cumulatively filtered over the years through the lens of a believing community with a predisposition for accepting both the theological and supernatural claims of others.
On the whole we are presented with a false dichotomy. The general inference of this section is that there are two options: either the gospels are reliable or they are a complete fabrication. By presenting a case that they are not a complete fabrication, the apologist claims victory and accepts that the gospels are wholly reliable. There is a blatant disregard for the myriad of possible views in the middle, views which I suspect offer the most probable reconciliation of the data.
In the next post I’ll look at Part 1, Section 3: The Documentary Evidence.