Comments on the authenticity of Strobel's journalism in The Case for Christ

July 15, 2010

I once remarked in an apologetics forum where I hang out that Lee Strobel's journalism in The Case for Christ was a sham. A respondent said it looked like real journalism to him, and he asked me to defend my claim. Here is an edited version of my response. Anyone who is interested can find the original here: (Update March 20, 2017: Broken link.)

(Citations in the following refer to Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, 2000, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI.)

Here is what Strobel says about the purpose of his book:

In effect, I'm going to retrace and expand upon the spiritual journey I took for nearly two years. I'll take you along as I interview thirteen leading scholars and authorities who have impeccable academic credentials.

I have crisscrossed the country . . . to elicit their expert opinions, to challenge them with the objections I had when I was a skeptic, to force them to defend their propositions with solid data and cogent arguments, and to test them with the very questions that you might ask if given the opportunity [emphasis added]. (pp. 14-15)

Surrogacy — anticipating readers' questions and providing the answers — is one of the things journalism is all about. It was always on my mind when I was a reporter. I had to cover a lot of stories that I had no personal interest in, but it was my job to act as if I were interested. That meant doing my best to imagine what sorts of questions would be asked by someone who actually was interested. I had to ask myself: If I really cared about this subject, what would I want to know? and I was obliged to ask the right questions to get those answers from the people I interviewed.

Obviously, being the readers' surrogate is a lot easier if you actually are interested, because in that case you don't have to guess what questions an interested reader will have. Strobel claims that this was his situation: He was himself a skeptic, and so he assures us, by clear implication, that whatever skeptics want to know is what he wanted to know.

Also obviously, Strobel was satisfied with the answers he got, but real journalists don't write stories that ignore relevant questions that they know their readers have. Journalism isn't just about getting answers to satisfy your own curiosity. It's also about informing your readers as to what those answers are — particularly when you lead your report with a personal assurance that the purpose of your investigation was to get those answers for them.

But was he even claiming to do journalism? Some apologists have said in effect, "He never said he was actually doing journalism. All he said was that he had once been a journalist." Very well, but what he indisputably did claim, in the above quotation, was that he undertook a search for answers to skeptics' questions about Jesus. And immediately following that quotation was this assertion:

In this quest for truth, I've used my experience as a legal affairs journalist to look at the numerous categories of proof . . . . (p. 15)

I construe that to mean, "This book is a work of journalism." That could, conceivably, be a misconstrual, but in any case, in what follows, I'll just be addressing the question of whether Strobel did what, in his own words, he said he was going to do. If he did not, then, for those who agree with me that he was claiming to do journalism, he failed. And, if he failed, then we can infer one of two things: (1) His claim was disingenuous or (2) his work as a journalist, in this particular instance, was incompetent.

So then . . . I'm a skeptic, and the question is: Did Strobel ask his interviewees "the very questions" that I would have asked them "if given the opportunity"? No, he did not. Certainly not all of them, and not even most of them. Once in a great while, he did ask something that I myself would have asked, but by and large, the questions I would have had for the people he talked with never came up in his interviews — or, if they did, those portions of the interviews got edited out of what went into the book. In either case, I am without answers to my questions — answers that Strobel in effect promised to get for me.

A complete defense of this claim would have to be as long as the book itself, so we'll have to make do with some examples. I take them from the first two dozen pages.

Strobel tells us that he began his quest by asking, among other things, "But what eyewitness accounts [of Jesus] do we possess?" (p. 20). And in order to answer questions of this sort, he says, "I was searching for an expert who wouldn't gloss over nuances or blithely dismiss challenges to the records of Christianity" (p. 21).

OK. What challenges? What did Strobel think those challenges were? He doesn't have a lot to say about that, but he provides a hint in the book's introduction:

But that's all I had ever really given the evidence: a cursory look. 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. Sure, 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).

Very well. There are skeptics who think that way. They are ignorant and foolish, and if that was actually Strobel's thinking before he began his investigation, then — at least with respect to Christianity — he was an ignorant fool, no matter how many awards he might picked up for his newspaper work.

There are plenty of experts who not only "wouldn't gloss over nuances or blithely dismiss challenges to the records of Christianity," but who are convinced that those challenges are well founded, and Strobel either knew about those experts before he began his investigation or would have learned about them during any competent investigation. Those experts would have assured him, if he had interviewed them, that his skepticism was justified, although not for the reasons he had. They would have given him some intelligent reasons to be skeptical.

Of course, he might in due course have reached the conclusion that the skeptical experts were wrong. And maybe he did interview them and reach that conclusion. That's fine. But if he was writing his book for skeptics like me and not just for ignorant fools like he started out being, then he needed to say so.

Then we get: "I was told Blomberg was exactly what I was looking for . . . ." (p. 21). Uh huh. Told by whom? Did this anonymous source tell Strobel that all the experts agreed with Blomberg, or did the source tell him that he should ignore all the experts who happen to disagree with Blomberg? Throughout the book, Strobel has some comments about preconceptions and assumptions, and about how important it is not to let them prevent you from finding evidence that might be relevant to the questions you're trying to answer. So, he apparently asked somebody a question like, "Who should I interview to find out the truth about Christianity?" It should have occurred to him, as it would have occurred to any knowledgeable skeptic, that he should have asked several people this question to see whether they would all give him the same answer.

According to Strobel, his first question to Blomberg was: "Is it really possible to be an intelligent, critically thinking person and still believe that the four gospels were written by the people whose names have been attached to them?" (p. 22)

Well, quite a few skeptics are aware that there can be a difference between the truth and what it is possible for "an intelligent, critically thinking person" to believe. And if it is the truth that you're after, then you don't care what smart people are capable of believing. What you want to know is what smart people ought to believe. The question I would have asked Blomberg is: "What do we know about the authors of those books, and how do we know it?"

We do get an answer to that, sort of. It is: We don't know who wrote them. According to Blomberg, "It is important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous" (p. 22). Indeed? Speaking how strictly? Ordinarily, in a scholarly discussion about the authorship of any document, "anonymous" means "unknown." If Strobel had done his investigation the way most skeptics would have done it, he would have learned that the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars, when they say the gospels were written anonymously, mean to say that we don't know who wrote them.

But in some contexts, "anonymous" means only "the author didn't identify himself," which leaves open the possibility that we have nevertheless figured out who he was. This could be what Blomberg meant, but we can't be sure because Strobel didn't get any clarification. A serious skeptic would have gotten some clarification.

In defense of the traditional authorship, Blomberg appeals to "the uniform testimony of the early church" (p. 22). I would then have responded along these lines:

I assume you're referring to the extant patristic writings, since we have no other testimony as to the beliefs of the early church. When you say that that testimony, as it pertains to the authorship of the gospels, is uniform, you must mean that, of those patristic writers who named the authors, they agreed on those names. But they didn't all name the authors, did they? They didn't even all say that there were any biographies of Jesus, did they?

Strobel says he confronted Blomberg with: "Excuse my skepticism, but would anyone have had a motivation to lie by claiming that these people wrote these gospels, when they really didn't?" (p. 23). That is not skepticism, though. That is rank cynicism. Most skeptics would have asked: "OK, so we have some documents whose authors tell us that those men wrote those gospels. How did those authors know who wrote the gospels? What kind of information did they have access to? Do they even say how they knew what they claimed to know?" Intelligent skeptics do not assume that whatever is not true is a lie. They allow for at least the possibility, if not even a high probability, that it's just a mistake.

Strobel quotes Blomberg thus: "So to answer your question, there would not have been any reason to attribute authorship to these three less respected people if it weren't true." No reason at all? Not even human error? Is it ever possible for people simply to make a mistake? Skeptics want answers to questions of that sort, and Strobel doesn't provide them.

Moving on, Blomberg says, "And interestingly, John is the only gospel about which there is some question about authorship" (p. 23). Note that he said "is some question," not "was some question." He is obviously referring to current opinion, not the consensus of patristic writers. I would have asked: "Question in whose minds? Are you trying to tell me, Dr. Blomberg, that there is no question in the mind of any New Testament scholar as to who wrote the synoptic gospels, that the only disagreement within the scholarly community is over who wrote John's gospel?"

But of course it would have been a rhetorical question, because I cannot imagine Blomberg's having meant to deny that there is scholarly debate on that issue. What he apparently means is that, insofar as the debate considers any evidence other than the patristic testimony, that other evidence is irrelevant. If there was no question in the minds of the church fathers, then there just is no question, as far as Blomberg is concerned. Skeptics, though, have some questions about the reliability of patristic testimony, questions that Strobel never asked. Or, if he did ask, he's not telling us what answers he got.

Anyway . . . What is this question in the patristic literature about the authorship of John? Blomberg says, "You see, the testimony of a Christian writer named Papias, dated about 125 A.D., refers to John the apostle and John the elder, and it's not clear from the context whether he's talking about one person from two perspectives or two different people. But granted that exception, the rest of the early testimony is unanimous that it was John the apostle — the son of Zebedee — who wrote the gospel."

OK. Blomberg says Papias is ambiguous as to whether he's talking about one John, the apostle and elder, or two Johns, one the apostle and the other the elder. But whether he's talking about one or two, does Papias say that somebody named John wrote any gospel? If I'd been doing the interview, I'd have wanted to know. And I would have had some other questions as well, which Strobel apparently never asked. How do we know that Papias was referring to the documents that we now know as the gospels? How did Papias know who wrote them? What was his source of information? What about the fact that we don't have Papias' testimony firsthand but only in a few fragmentary quotations from later writers? How much confidence can we justifiably have in the accuracy of those quotations? And, assuming the quotations are accurate, what do we know about whether the later writers had good reason to trust anything Papias said? Do any of them even give their reasons for regarding Papias as reliable? And if they don't, why should we trust their judgment?

Then we come to Blomberg's saying, "Irenaeus, writing about A.D. 180, confirmed the traditional authorship" (p. 24). But, what traditional authorship? Did he confirm the tradition or create it? Assuming there was a tradition before him, what could he have confirmed besides its existence?

Yes, Irenaeus does say that the four gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but he does not say where he got this information. He is writing nearly a century after the last gospel was written, according to the scholarly consensus, and a tradition certainly could have evolved in that length of time, but Irenaeus does not say it had. Strobel should have known that and known what it might have suggested about Irenaeus's credibility. Skeptics want to know why we should take Irenaeus's word for it that those four men wrote those four books, because his word is all we have. He gives us no evidence for his claim, just his personal assurance that it is so. Perhaps, in the course of his investigation, Strobel discovered some good reason why we should trust Irenaeus, but he doesn't say he did.

I could go on at great length, but I think I've made my point. This is the sort of thing I'm referring to when I say that Strobel was just pretending to do journalism when he wrote The Case for Christ.

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