By DOUG SHAVER
Revised 2004, 2005, 2009
Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ, is a former newspaper reporter. So am I. He is a former atheist turned Christian. I am a former Christian turned atheist. This book purports to be an account of his skeptical investigation into the truth about Christianity. According to a cover blurb, it tells of Strobel's "spiritual journey from atheism to faith."
The reader is led to believe that Strobel began his investigation as a hard-core skeptic whose reportorial objectivity enabled him to rationally evaluate the evidence he found during a two-year search for the "real story" about Jesus. The book is a favorite among evangelical Christians. It is among the references most frequently cited on Internet forums where believers confront nonbelievers. To hear the Christians tell it, the book is a must-read for anyone skeptical about the gospel stories.
As we shall see later, Strobel was anything but skeptical when he began working on The Case for Christ. His journalistic credentials seem in order, and his legal training (graduate degree from Yale Law School) adds to his credibility. This is not, however, the true story of Strobel's own search for the truth. It is a cataloguing of the views of other Christians who have the academic and publication credits to intimidate those with less evidence of intellectual prowess. What Strobel fails to include in this book is any evidence that he understands the scientific method of testing hypotheses or theories. He ostensibly treats evangelical claims as though they were being contested in a court of law. Even by that standard, he fails, but even if his evidence would prevail in court, it is scientifically worthless.
We'll examine The Case for Christ chapter by chapter.
Strobel starts with the story of a crime he covered during his newspaper career. A man was accused of shooting a police officer during a scuffle. The evidence against the defendant seemed incontrovertible, and furthermore he had signed a confession. It was very nearly a "dog bites man" story, barely worth any mention in the newspaper.
Responding to a tip from a trusted source, however, Strobel did some more digging and learned that the accused man was innocent. The officer had been shot with an illegal firearm that he was carrying when the scuffled happened. The accused, having already spent almost a year in jail awaiting trial, had signed the confession during a plea bargain under which he would have been released almost immediately. Had he continued to claim innocence, the trial would have proceeded and resulted almost certainly in a conviction followed by many more years behind bars.
Strobel then explains the point of this anecdote.
For much of my life I was a skeptic. In fact, I considered myself an atheist. For me, there was far too much evidence that God was merely a product of wishful thinking, of ancient mythology, of primitive superstition.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
As far as I was concerned, the case was closed. There was enough proof for me to rest easy with the conclusion that the divinity of Jesus was nothing more than the fanciful invention of superstitious people.
Or so I thought. (p. 13)
[Unless otherwise indicated, all citations are from Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, 1998, Zondervan, paperback edition.]
Very well, but the divinity of Jesus is not a legal issue. It is a factual issue and, as such, ought to be amenable to scientific analysis. If it is strictly an issue of faith, then proof is irrelevant. If it is treated as a scientific issue, then proof is not a matter of convincing 12 randomly chosen people that Jesus was divine. Merely by raising the question of proof, legal or otherwise, Strobel is saying in effect that we don't need faith to believe in Jesus' divinity, that we need only examine all the evidence, thoroughly and impartially.
Now, let us examine this claim itself a bit more closely. Strobel admits that a casual examination of the evidence would lead one to doubt the divinity of Jesus. Strobel's own "closer look" took him two years. A rational person might well wonder why, if belief in Jesus is necessary to escape eternal damnation, the evidence for this belief requires such an effort to discover while the evidence against it is obvious to the casual observer.
If the evidence is so compelling, why do so few people agree with Strobel about what it demonstrates? The conventional response of evangelicals is that skeptics do not wish to be convinced, that we have closed our minds to what the evidence implies. Space precludes a thorough response here, but let us see whether Strobel himself conducted an impartial investigation.
Strobel is reporting a trial, as it were. If we presume that the trial was fair, is The Case for Christ a book that might have been written by the judge or by an unbiased reporter? Or is it instead a summary of the arguments presented by one of the attorneys? One need not be a hardened skeptic to see that this book does not report a skeptical inquiry for the truth about Christianity. Strobel thought he had discovered the truth before he conducted the first interview, and of all the interviews he tells us about, not one was with someone holding an opinion contrary to his own.
Strobel evidently did spend two years investigating Christianity, initially as a skeptic, but he shows us in the introduction that his investigation was probably not impartial. He seems to have been well motivated to be converted, rather like an alcoholic atheist who starts attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Strobel began his research after his wife became a Christian. Still an atheist himself, he expected unpleasant consequences from her conversion. "Instead," he says, "I was pleasantly surprised—even fascinated—by the fundamental changes in her character, her integrity, and her personal confidence. Eventually, I wanted to get to the bottom of what was prompting these subtle but significant shifts. . . ." (p. 14)
So, his wife became a Christian, and he liked the changes that he saw in her. It must have occurred to him that if he became a Christian as well, it might be good for him personally. It must have occurred to him that it would almost certainly be good for his marriage if he became a Christian. Surely he was aware of Christianity's claim that he could expect to live forever if he became a believer.
All he had to do was get over his skepticism. I think it is reasonable to suspect that he was powerfully motivated to get over it.
Strobel himself asks the pivotal questions: Do we have the testimony of anyone who personally interacted with Jesus, who listened to his teachings, who saw his miracles, who witnessed his death, and who perhaps even encountered him after his alleged resurrection?
Strobel then offers evidence that, he says, demonstrates that the answers are all yes. In fact, though, Strobel's evidence demonstrates nothing of the sort. All it proves, at most, is that certain people during the late first century believed that a man known as Jesus of Nazareth had preached and been executed and then had risen from the dead. There is no evidence that anyone espousing those beliefs had ever had a personal encounter with Jesus, either before or after he died.
Strobel tells us how he gathered his evidence: "To get solid answers, I arranged to interview the nationally renowned scholar who literally wrote the book on the topic: Dr. Craig Blomberg, author of The Historical Reliability of the Gospels." (p. 21)
This is Strobel's method throughout the book. His entire case is based on what would, in a courtroom, be called expert testimony. In logic, this is called the Argument from Authority. There are good reasons why it must be allowed in a courtroom. As a means of settling scientific disputes, however, it is worthless. If the evidence does not logically support a particular conclusion, it does not matter who says that it is supportive. Conclusions from evidence should be reached by reasoning, not by asking for people's opinions. Not even if they are expert opinions.
Strobel does go through the motions of cross-examining these experts. He asks a few of the questions that skeptics have been asking for centuries. It should surprise neither believers nor skeptics that he gets the same answers that Christian apologists have been giving all along. Strobel, unlike real skeptics, apparently decides that because the answers come from people with lots of doctoral degrees and publication credits, they must be correct.
Here is how Strobel began the account of his interview with Blomberg.
"Tell me this," I said with an edge of challenge in my voice, "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?"
Blomberg set his cup of coffee on the edge of his desk and looked intently at me. "The answer is yes," he said with conviction.
He sat back and continued. "It's important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous. But the uniform testimony of the early church was that Matthew, also known as Levi, the tax collector and one of the twelve disciples, was the author of the first gospel in the New Testament; that John Mark, a companion of Peter, was the author of the gospel we call Mark; and that Luke, known as Paul's 'beloved physician,' wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles."
"How uniform was the belief that they were the authors?" I asked.
"There are no known competitors for these three gospels," he said. "Apparently, it was just not in dispute." (p. 22-23)
For starters, it is not to my knowledge disputed by many skeptics that "an intelligent, critically thinking person" could possibly believe that the gospels were written by the men to whom authorship is attributed. A better question would be whether such a person ought to believe this, considering all the known evidence.
And what is that evidence? Blomberg, a professor of New Testament studies at Denver Seminary, presumably gave it his best shot when he told Strobel that "the early church" held such a belief. That is, at best, hearsay evidence, and it is transparently biased hearsay at that.
What do we actually know about what "the early church" believed? What do we know about why they believed it?
Blomberg tells Strobel that the earliest known attribution of gospel authorship was in a document written by "a Christian writer named Papias, dated about A.D. 125." (p. 23) That is only sort of true. What we actually have are fragments of Papias's writings appearing as quotations in later books by other authors. Statements attributed to him include endorsements of the belief that Matthew and Mark recorded the words and deeds of Jesus, and that Mark was relying on the testimony of Peter.
What evidence did Papias have for any of this? Blomberg does not tell us, but Papias himself does. He claimed to have known people who claimed to have known some of the apostles.
Papias's sources, by the way, apparently did not get the same story about Judas's demise as did the authors of the gospels. According to Papias, "Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out"http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/papias.html.
As evidence of who wrote the gospels, Papias's testimony is worth little, and even for what it is worth, it comes to us secondhand. His actual writings have not survived.
The first Christian writer whose own writings we have and who attributes the gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is Irenaeus. Blomberg quotes to Strobel the following from Irenaeus's Against Heresies, written around 180 CE.
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.
According to Blomberg, Irenaeus "confirmed the traditional authorship," but this assumes that there already was a tradition. We cannot tell, from reading Irenaeus or any writer before him, how widespread among Christians was the belief that those four men wrote the gospels. Indeed, we cannot tell from the documentary record whether anybody believed it before Irenaeus wrote it.
Neither can we tell, from reading Irenaeus or anyone else, how the belief arose. Neither Irenaeus nor anyone contemporary with him could have had firsthand knowledge of first-century authorship of those books.
What does Irenaeus actually tell us? Only that it was his opinion that the gospels were divinely inspired. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia,
Irenaeus, in his work "Against Heresies" (A.D. 182-88), testifies to the existence of a Tetramorph, or Quadriform Gospel, given by the Word and unified by one Spirit; to repudiate this Gospel or any part of it, as did the Alogi and Marcionites, was to sin against revelation and the Spirit of God. The saintly Doctor of Lyons explicitly states the names of the four Elements of this Gospel, and repeatedly cites all the Evangelists in a manner parallel to his citations from the Old Testament. From the testimony of St. Irenaeus alone there can be no reasonable doubt that the Canon of the Gospel was inalterably fixed in the Catholic Church by the last quarter of the second century.
There is, in sum, no direct evidence that any gospel was written by an eyewitness or in reliance on eyewitness testimony. We have only the assertions of certain early Christians that the gospels were so written. Did Papias ever meet Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, so that any of them could say to him, "Yes, I wrote that"? By practically his own admission, he did not.
Exactly what, then, would be a reasonable inference from the evidence that we do have? What belief is logically consistent with what we know to a reasonable certainty? We may reasonably believe that by the late second century, the canonical gospels had been written and had been circulating among Christian leaders long enough to create a consensus regarding their authorship.
There is no direct claim of authorship in the gospels themselves. By scholarly consensus, the documents probably appeared sometime in the late first century—a generation after the events they supposedly record. By the time Papias wrote his document in the early second century, the belief had arisen—we don't know how—that Matthew and Mark had written two of them, and Papias agreed with that belief. Almost 60 years later, Irenaeus declared his agreement regarding Matthew and Mark, and declared his belief also that Luke and John had written the gospels now bearing their names.
While none of this contradicts traditional belief about gospel authorship, neither is it inconsistent with a belief that the gospels record nothing but legends about a charismatic but otherwise ordinary preacher who lived during the early first century.
For that matter, it not inconsistent with a belief that neither the preacher in question, nor any of his disciples, were even real people. I am not attempting in this essay to argue against Jesus' historicity. I am noting only that Strobel, at this point of his investigation, has discovered nothing that actually proves even that Jesus was a real person, let alone that he was God incarnate.
This renders most of the book's remaining 13 chapters almost irrelevant. Every person he interviews seems to take it for granted not only that the gospels present eyewitness testimony, but also that the eyewitnesses were gifted with perfect recall of the events they saw and the conversations they overheard. Strobel does not raise the inerrancy issue at any point, but neither at any point does any of his interviewees concede even the barest possibility that any New Testament writer could have made any mistake, no matter how trivial.
Strobel, who supposes that Blomberg has just proved that the gospel writers were in fact Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, next asks him, "Were these first-century writers even interested in recording what actually happened?" Blomberg, unsurprisingly, answers in the affirmative.
And how do we know that they really were doing their best to record the truth about Jesus and what he said and did? According to Blomberg, we know because (a) Luke said that it was his intention to do so, (b) Matthew and Mark wrote in a style similar to Luke's and so must have had the same intention he did, and (c) although John admitted to trying to persuade his readers of certain theological issues, he surely realized that in order to do this, he had to be conscientious in presenting his historical information. (p. 40)
Well, Blomberg's opinion notwithstanding, we don't even know who these men really were. We have no evidence for supposing them to be either conscientious or otherwise. Luke's declaration about his intentions amounts to nothing but a "Trust me" plea. As for Matthew and Mark, the notion that similar styles imply similar intentions is a simple non sequitur. And, it is not irrelevant to point out, a great many New Testament scholars do not agree with Blomberg that their styles were similar.
The argument about John, if valid and if applied to Joseph Smith, would prove that Joseph Smith actually believed every word in the Book of Mormon. And perhaps he did. Nevertheless, a person's belief that he is telling the truth does not prove that he is in fact telling the truth. We can give the gospel writers plenty of benefit of doubt regarding their intentions, but this tells us nothing about how well they fulfilled their intentions.
If one already believes everything in the gospels, one probably also believes that the writers were divinely inspired and thus protected from human error. Strobel, though, is trying to persuade us that we can, without assuming divine inspiration, trust the gospels to be historically accurate. That is a tall order for books of unknown authorship.
Strobel asks Blomberg whether we should expect the writers to remember, in correct detail, events that happened so many years before they wrote anything. Blomberg asserts that we should, because in a semiliterate society where most culture is transmitted orally, at least a few people necessarily have developed memories that would astound most of us today.
There is of course no evidence that any of the disciples had undergone the training necessary to acquire this talent. And, even Blomberg seems to acknowledge the tenuousness of the memorization argument.
I'm saying that it's likely that a lot of the similarities and differences among the synoptics can be explained by assuming that the disciples and other early Christians had committed to memory a lot of what Jesus said and did, but they felt free to recount this information in various forms, always preserving the significance of Jesus' original teachings and deeds.(p. 43-44)
Let us see, with an example, where this leads us.
The author of John reports a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. John does not say that anybody was there except Jesus and Nicodemus. We first ask: Was the author of this report John the disciple, or somebody else? Well, Irenaeus, nearly a hundred years after the book was written, said it was written by John the disciple.
Very well, suppose we take Irenaeus's word for it. Next question: Where did John get his information if he was not there to transcribe the conversation? Answer, without assuming divine inspiration: Either Jesus or Nicodemus must have told him about it. When was the gospel written? Answer: 50 or 60 years later. How accurate was John's recollection? Answer, according to Blomberg: It is "likely" that John "committed to memory" whatever he was told by Jesus (or Nicodemus).
Relying on this kind of evidence, we are supposed to be convinced that if we doubt that Jesus died for our sins, then we will burn in hell for eternity.
Strobel next goes on to what he calls the "character test."
This test looks at whether it was in the character of these writers to be truthful. Was there any evidence of dishonesty or immorality that might taint their ability or willingness to transmit history accurately?
Blomberg shook his head. "We simply do not have any reasonable evidence to suggest they were anything but people of great integrity," he said.(p. 45)
Actually, we don't have any reasonable evidence to suggest anything at all about them, good or bad. They could have been men of impeccable character or they could have been charlatans, for all that we can infer from any hard evidence.
We do not even know who they were. Early church leaders said that they knew, but we know nothing about their justifications for claiming such knowledge. We may reasonably assume that the authors of the gospels were believers in the Christian religion. We cannot reasonably assume any more than that.
Strobel continued questioning Blomberg about the writers' credibility. Blomberg says the writers' love of Jesus would have motivated them to be truthful, again begging the question of whether the writers ever even knew Jesus.
Blomberg also says the writers include accounts of incidents embarrassing to the disciples—incidents that a fabricator seeking to glorify Christianity would presumably not have included.
This argument rests on a false dichotomy, supposing that either the gospels were written by the purported authors or else the authors fabricated their stories out of whole cloth. There are other plausible scenarios consistent with the evidence. We can easily suppose that the writers believed every word they wrote without assuming that what they wrote was true in fact.
Besides, even in the first century it might well have occurred to a sufficiently clever fabricator that a good way to enhance his credibility would be to portray his heroes with feet of clay. The notion of "too good to be true" was not invented in the 20th century.
Strobel concludes this interview by asking about adverse witnesses—people who were in a position to refute the gospel claims and presumably would have done so if they could have. He quotes Blomberg:
We have a picture of what was initially a very vulnerable and fragile movement that was being subjected to persecution. If critics could have attacked it on the basis that it was full of falsehoods or distortions, they would have.
But . . . that's exactly what we don't see. (p. 51)
That's partly true. We don't see such attacks in secular historical records until Christianity is well enough established to be considered a nuisance by powerful people. However, very early in the second century, Ignatius was arguing against people who denied Jesus' humanity. We don't know whether those people had good reason for their disbelief, because their writings have not survived and Ignatius provides no quotations.
What's more, Blomberg's implication that Christians were persecuted from Day One is based on evangelical dogma, not historical evidence. Christianity's detractors in the first century would have had no compelling reason to document their objections to it, and even if they had done so, it would hardly be incredible if those documents had somehow gotten lost after Christianity became the Roman Empire's official religion.
No matter who wrote the gospels or when they did so, how well do we know what was in the original documents? The oldest copies we have are, in Strobel's own words, "copies of copies of copies." Are the copies we have good copies—do they accurately reproduce what was in the originals? Strobel goes to his next expert witness, Bruce M. Metzger, for this information.
Metzger, New Testament scholar and professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary, assures Strobel that the extant copies of the gospels are essentially unchanged from the originals.
It so happens that there are plenty of scholars whose credentials are as good as Metzger's and who disagree strenuously with him on that point. We don't have to recap that controversy here, though. Even if Metzger is correct, it means only that if the originals were historically accurate, then so are the copies we have today. By the same token, if we can prove a factual discrepancy in extant copies, then according to his argument that discrepancy almost certainly existed in the originals.
Evangelicals tend to believe in scriptural inerrancy. According to this belief, the Bible, being the message of a perfect God to humanity, is not wrong about anything. Whatever it says or logically implies must be true.
This forces evangelicals to deny the existence of any contradictions in the Bible, since by definition it is impossible for any two contradictory statements to both be true. Since the Bible contains numerous apparent contradictions, inerrantists have compiled numerous explanations that purportedly resolve them. In some instances they appeal to copying errors for resolution: the original authors wrote inerrantly, but those who copied their works might have made mistakes. Obviously, any argument that we have reliable copies of the original documents contradicts this argument.
This all sidesteps the issue of divine inspiration. Strobel so far is claiming only to have found evidence that the gospels are historically reliable, not necessarily inspired and not necessarily inerrant.
He quotes Metzger as acknowledging that the modern New Testament contains some material that was not in the original writings—"not part of what the author . . . was inspired to write," as Metzger puts it (p. 65). However, Metzger also says,
The more significant variations do not overthrow any doctrine of the church. Any good Bible will have notes that will alert the reader to variant readings of any consequence. (p. 65)
Very well, but since the church existed long before the New Testament canon was compiled, the congruence of the New Testament with church doctrine hardly proves the accuracy of the New Testament.
Notice that Metzger does not say the passage "was not written by the original author." That would imply that the importance of the passage lay in who wrote it. Evangelicals do not really believe that the New Testament is trustworthy because it was written by conscientious men. They believe that it is trustworthy because it was divinely inspired. According to their actual thinking, if it is in the Bible, then in effect God said it. If God said it, then we must believe it without regard to what any skeptic has to say to the contrary. If God said it, we do not need evidence to back it up.
And if God said it, then contrary evidence need not be refuted. Contrary evidence can simply be ignored.
Very well. If I could be persuaded that an omnipotent omniscient deity has told me that the Earth is shaped like a cube, then I might agree that I should disregard all evidence to the contrary. That is a very big if, though. First I would want proof that the deity existed. Then I would want proof that the statement about the Earth's shape came directly from him.
Fortunately for evangelical Christians, the Bible nowhere asserts that the Earth is cubical. It does say, though, that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God who rose from the dead, and that anyone who doubts this will suffer eternally in hell. This is, on the face of it, almost as contrary to ordinary reason as a cube-shaped Earth. It would be nice, before we wonder whether Jesus really rose from the dead, to have proof that there is a God whose son he could have been.
Strobel and Metzger, of course, take the existence of their God for granted. What The Case for Christ attempts to argue, though, is not that the reader should take it for granted. It argues, rather, that the gospels in effect prove that the evangelical Christians' God must be real.
Strobel's argument may be paraphrased like this. We have these books that tell of the son of God dying and rising from the dead; those books are absolutely trustworthy; therefore, God exists.
We have already established that early Christian writers assured their readers that the books are trustworthy . . . but why did the writers think so? Strobel finally gets around to asking Metzger about that.
"How did the early church leaders determine which books would be considered authoritative and which would be discarded? I asked. "What criteria did they use in determining which documents would be included in the New Testament?"
"Basically, the early church had three criteria," he said. "First, the books must have apostolic authority - that is, they must have been written either by apostles themselves, who were eyewitnesses to what they wrote about, or by followers of apostles. . . .
"Second, there was the criterion of conformity to what was called the rule of faith. That is, was the document congruent with the basic Christian tradition that the church recognized as normative? And third, there was the criterion of whether a document had had continuous acceptance and usage by the church at large." (p. 66)
This is, quite simply, nothing but an argument from authority: So-and-so said it, therefore it is true. So-and-so, in this instance, is the leadership of the early church. We are asked to believe that the church fathers could not have been mistaken in proclaiming the four gospels to be true accounts of the Jesus' life and teachings.
Let us look again at their reasons for proclaiming this.
They appealed to apostolic authority, i.e. the gospels were written by apostles or their immediate followers. We still are not told how the church fathers decided who really wrote which book.
Next, the "rule of faith" is intriguing for its admission that Christian beliefs preceded the canonization of books supporting those beliefs. That being so, it is hardly surprising that the only way for a book to be considered genuine was for it to support what the church had already decided was the truth.
As for "continuous acceptance and usage," this amounts to proof by consensus: Everyone agreed they were genuine, therefore they were genuine.
This apparently was good enough for Strobel. An expert had assured him that the church fathers knew what they were doing when they selected the New Testament canon. If early Christians believed the gospels to be historically accurate, then apparently we don't need to inquire any further.
Strobel, however, knows that his readers are going to have a few more questions. Some of us, after all, think the world might have learned a thing or two in the nearly 2,000 years since the church fathers made their decisions.
If every copy of the New Testament and its source documents should vanish, and every Christian were stricken with amnesia, what evidence would remain for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth and what he did during (and perhaps after) his lifetime? Was the son of God revealed to the world, in any way that we can know about today, other than through the testimony of believers including the authors of the New Testament?
Strobel took that question to Edwin M. Yamauchi at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
This time, Strobel drops even the pretense of pre-interview skepticism. He thinks his first interview proved the gospels to be the only evidence anyone needs, and he wants Yamauchi to know that he thinks this.
"Because of my interview with Blomberg," he tells the reader, "I didn't want to suggest [to Yamauchi] that we needed to go beyond the gospels in order to find reliable evidence concerning Jesus. (p. 76) And, when asked whether Christians needed any extra-biblical validation, Yamauchi agreed that they do not.
"On the whole, the gospels are excellent sources," he replied. "As a matter of fact, they're the most trustworthy, complete, and reliable sources for Jesus. The incidental sources really don't add much detailed information; however, they are valuable as corroborative evidence." (p. 76)
In fact, the "incidental sources" add nothing informative, detailed or otherwise. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, in an article quite sympathetic to Christianity, mentions the same secular sources that Yamauchi discusses while noting:
This knowledge of Jesus, however, was dependent on familiarity with early Christianity and does not provide independent evidence about Jesus.
(Encyclopaedia Britannica Premium Service. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=109559
[Accessed January 12, 2004])
We know that by the late first century, at least some Christians believed that Jesus was a real man who died and rose from the grave. But did anybody in the first century besides Christians have any firsthand awareness of Jesus' existence, never mind the resurrection? Not so far as we can tell.
The gospels are at least said to have been written by eyewitnesses or by people who knew eyewitnesses. There is no extra-biblical testimony that is even alleged to have been written by anyone who was alive when Jesus was alive.
The closest we get are a couple of references attributed to Josephus, who was born in 37 CE. If Jesus lived when the gospel authors say he lived, and died as they say he died, then he was crucified in 30 CE or thereabouts. In the last decade of the first century, Josephus finished writing a history of the Jews titled The Antiquities. His own manuscript is long gone and there are no extant copies from earlier than about the 10th century. Those copies include two references to Jesus that were quoted by Christian writers in the fourth century but not earlier. They are believed by many historians to be interpolations by Christian copyists attempting to fabricate secular testimony for Jesus.
We shall not attempt to resolve that debate here, but Strobel asks Yamauchi about it, and Yamauchi acknowledges that a controversy exists.
The less disputed reference is to the execution of "a man named James, the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ. . . ." Strobel reports Yamauchi's assessment:
"I know of no scholar," Yamauchi asserted confidently, "who has successfully disputed this passage. . . . So here you have a reference to the brother of Jesus . . . and corroboration of the fact that some people considered Jesus to be the Christ, which means 'the Anointed One' or 'Messiah.'" (p. 78)
Yes, here is a reference to the brother of Jesus, but does Josephus say he met the brother of Jesus, or that he talked with anyone who had met the brother of Jesus? No. We do not know where Josephus got his information about this James, and it appears in no other first-century document. If Josephus did write this, it corroborates the existence of Christianity prior to 90 CE—and nothing else.
And what does it mean that no scholar has "successfully disputed" the passage?
It is true that scholars who question the James reference are a minority, but so what? What does a scholar who disputes something have to do to be successful? Is he successful if his opinion becomes the majority opinion among scholars?
Or is he successful if, and only if, evangelical Christians agree with him? There are evangelicals who will assure you that in 2,000 years, no one has ever succeeded in proving that the Bible contains even one factual error.
The more controversial passage has come to be called the Testimonium Flavianum. A common English translation renders it:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
(Josephus, Jewish Antiquities,18:3.3 sect. 63.)
Yamauchi acknowledges that at least some of Testimonium cannot credibly be attributed to Josephus. In the following, the Testimonium is repeated, but with underlining to indicate those passages conceded by Yamauchi to probably be interpolations by Christian copyists.
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
We should keep in mind that quite a few scholars consider the entire Testimonium a Christian forgery, but we can give Yamauchi the benefit of doubt on this point. This is his take on it, as reported by Strobel, with emphasis added. Yamauchi believes:
That the passage in Josephus probably was originally written about Jesus, although without those three points [interpolations] I mentioned. But even so, Josephus corroborates important information about Jesus: that he was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem and that he was a wise teacher who had established a wide and lasting following, despite the fact that he had been crucified under Pilate at the instigation of some of the Jewish leaders. (p. 80)
Even assuming that Josephus actually wrote some of the Testimonium, Yamauchi has nothing to say about how Josephus came across the information. We can be quite certain that he was not himself a witness to any of it, because it all happened before he was born. There is controversial evidence that, if the Testimonium is mostly genuine, then Josephus based it on a Christian document, no longer extant, that also was a source for some of Luke's gospel (G.J. Goldberg, "The Coincidences of the Testimonium of Josephus and the Emmaus Narrative of Luke," The Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha13 (1995) pp. 59-77. http://www.josephus.org/GoldbergJosephusLuke1995.pdf). Regardless of how that theory pans out, the fact remains that Josephus's testimony, if real, is only hearsay. Josephus, at most, can tell us nothing about Jesus except that there was a religion using his name during the late first century.
The next best candidate for independent corroboration of the gospels tells us nothing more than Josephus does. It is from the Annals, written probably in the early second century by the Roman historian Tacitus, reporting Nero's alleged persecution of a certain religious sect almost 50 years earlier. Tacitus notes that the sect took its name from one "Christus," who had been executed by Pontius Pilate.
Strobel and other apologists often suggest that a high-ranking Roman unsympathetic to Christianity (Tacitus called it a "mischievous superstition") would not have mentioned the founder's martyrdom if he didn't have good reason to believe that founder really had lived. That might depend, however, on the point he was trying to make.
If you lived in the second century and knew about Christianity, then you probably knew that Christians believed their founder had been crucified by Pontius Pilate. It was also common knowledge, we can assume, that crucifixion was a punishment reserved for the most heinous (as perceived by the Romans) offenses. Tacitus's comment might have been the equivalent of someone today saying of a new religion, "It was founded by a convicted child molester." If this was the impression Tacitus wished to convey, he might well have not been very critical of his sources.
No apologist has ever explained why, if Tacitus wanted to disparage a religion, he'd have preferred to prove the founder nonexistent rather than to prove the founder was morally decrepit. But let us suppose that Tacitus was compulsively honest. Let us also suppose, as some apologists do, that he went so far as to check the government archives in Rome for a document signed by Pontius Pilate attesting to the crucifixion of one Jesus of Nazareth.
Well, Tacitus did not call him Jesus, but Pilate certainly would have. Tacitus called him "Christus," but Pilate would not have. We can therefore seriously doubt that Tacitus was relying on government records for his information about how Jesus died. All he had, if anything, was Christian testimony.
Strobel and Yamauchi then discuss a report by Pliny the Younger, from which Yamauchi concludes:
. . . it attests to the rapid spread of Christianity, both in the city and in the rural area, among every class of persons, slave women as well as Roman citizens. . . .
And it talks about the worship of Jesus as God, that Christians maintained high ethical standards, and that they were not easily swayed from their beliefs. (p. 84)
But Yamauchi still has not independently corroborated anything in the gospels. He says Pliny wrote this item "probably" in 111 CE, which was more than half a century after Paul began writing his epistles. Pliny's letter might possibly indicate, as Yamauchi says, that Christianity was widespread by the early second century, but that does not substantiate any of the religion's beliefs. At most, it substantiates only those belief were popular in the region that Pliny was governing in the early second century.
Yamauchi and Strobel then talk about Thallus, whose writing has not survived but was allegedly referred to by Julius Africanus, a Christian historian of the third century. According to Africanus, Thallus testified to the occurrence of a period of darkness at the time of the crucifixion. Africanus goes on to say that Thallus attributed the darkness to a solar eclipse. Africanus disputes the eclipse theory on grounds that the crucifixion occurred at Passover, which is celebrated only during a full moon, at which time eclipses cannot occur. The point being made by evangelicals who cite the testimony of Thallus is: (A) the sun did darken during the crucifixion; (B) the darkening could not have been due to an eclipse; (C) therefore, it was a miracle corroborative of the gospels.
Now, did Thallus actually say that the darkness was coincident with either Jesus' crucifixion or a Jewish Passover? Not so far as we can tell. Africanus does not actually quote Thallus, but paraphrases him. Here, in context, is all we know about what Thallus said:
On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. (Julius Africanus, A History of the World, 5.50.)
Now, we do not get this from any extant manuscript by Africanus, either. The passage is a quotation attributed to Africanus by a ninth-century monk named George Syncellus. Thallus's testimony therefore is not just hearsay but second-hand hearsay.
In any case, if there was any eclipse visible in the eastern Mediterranean anytime during the early first century, it should stretch nobody's credulity to suppose that it got worked into stories of Jesus' death. Strobel has not yet uncovered any evidence that the gospels themselves contain any information from eyewitnesses. The gospel authors say that Jesus was crucified on the day before Passover. We do not know that this actually happened. We know only that they say it happened. The authors say that there was a mid-day darkening during the crucifixion. We do not know that there was. We know only that they say there was.
Thallus was perhaps not the only person to report a Mediterranean solar eclipse. According to Yamauchi, other witnesses included Tertullian and a Greek writer named Phlegon.
Tertullian was a Christian theologian born in the latter second century. He could hardly have been a witness to an eclipse in 30 CE. What he does is attribute testimony of an eclipse to a Greek writer named Phlegon, whose writings, like Thallus's, have not survived.
But Phlegon could not have been a witness, either, since he did his writing around 140 CE.
Yamauchi now comments: "So there is . . . non-biblical attestation of the darkness that occurred at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. Apparently, some found the need to try to give it a natural explanation by saying it was an eclipse." (p. 85)
Notice the dig at skeptics. Evangelicals can rarely discuss the evidence for Christianity without sooner or later impugning the motives of people who find the evidence unconvincing.
The "attestation" that Yamauchi is claiming might well be non-biblical, but it is not independent of the Bible. The testimony he cites is from Christian sources who manifestly were reaching for evidence to support their belief in literal truth of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion.
The remainder of the "corroborative evidence" that Strobel presents in Chapter 4 is no better than what we've already discussed. None of it confirms anything in the gospels. It confirms only that Christians believed what was in the gospels. Aside from Josephus, the earliest known Jewish reference to Jesus is in a document written about 500 CE, and Strobel treats it as if it were as good as an affidavit from Pilate's own hand.
In Strobel's mind, the two Josephus passages alone constitute a "wealth of corroboration for Jesus" (p. 79). He apparently thinks there are only two kinds of evidence: nonexistent and overwhelming. Here, he has discovered the testimony of one man, born after Jesus died, who apparently agrees with a few details of what the gospel authors said about Jesus, and for him, that is a "wealth of corroboration."
In the next chapter, Strobel tackles what is almost a straw man. Many evangelicals believe that skeptical scientists have failed, despite decades if not centuries of effort, to disprove the gospels. It is not the case, however, that the gospels must be presumed totally right so long as no one has proved any detail wrong.
The gospels contain extraordinary claims, and those claims require extraordinary evidence. Proving that Pilate ruled Judea when the gospels say he did does not prove even that he ordered Jesus' execution, let alone that Jesus rose from the dead.
Strobel's chapter title here is referring to archeological evidence. For this topic, he interviewed University of Chicago archeologist John McRay. McRay assured him that archeological discoveries have repeatedly refuted some skeptics' objections about certain details recorded in the gospels. Strobel offers one example as particularly telling in this regard.
For instance, in Luke 3:1 he refers to Lysanias being the tetrarch of Abilene in about 27 CE. For years scholars pointed to this as evidence that Luke did not know what he was talking about, since everybody knew that Lysanias was not a tetrarch but rather the ruler of Chalcis half a century earlier. If Luke could not get that basic fact right, they suggested, then nothing he has written can be trusted.
That's when archeology stepped in. "An inscription was later found from the time of Tiberias, from A.D. 14 to 37, which names Lysanias as tetrarch in Abila near Damascus - just as Luke had written," McRay explained. "It turned out there had been two government officials named Lysanias!" (p. 97)
And so it goes. This is akin to saying that Gone with the Wind cannot be a work of fiction because Margaret Mitchell was demonstrably correct in identifying Sherman as the Union general who burned Atlanta.
But suppose we had two versions of Gone with the Wind, and we wished to prove that the two authors were both telling a true story. In one version, by Mitchell, a certain incident occurs while Rhett and Scarlett are leaving Atlanta. In the other version, by Jane Doe, the same incident occurs while Rhett and Scarlett are entering Atlanta. We would naturally think one was mistaken. We do not ordinarily assume, when two people disagree, that they both have to be right.
Strobel asks McRay about a similar inconsistency between Luke and Mark.
An objection popped into my mind. "Yes, but in his gospel Luke says that Jesus was walking into Jericho when he healed the blind man Bartimaeus, while Mark says he was coming out of Jericho. Isn't this a clear-cut contradiction?"
McRay wasn't stung by the directness of my question. "Not at all," came his response. "It only appears to be a contradiction because you're thinking in contemporary terms, in which cities are built and stay put.
"Jericho was in at least four different locations as much as a quarter of a mile apart in ancient times. The point is, you can be coming out of one site where Jericho existed and be going into another one, like moving from one part of suburban Chicago to another part of suburban Chicago." (p. 98)
Well, if Jericho had had suburbs, and you went from one to another, you would be traveling neither into nor out of Jericho, so that analogy won't work.
Now, let us suppose that Luke was correct in reporting that Jesus was walking into the city of Jericho where it existed during his lifetime. Would Mark in that case really say that Jesus was walking out of Jericho, intending to mean that Jesus was leaving the place where Jericho had existed sometime in the past? Is there any evidence at all to indicate that people during the first century often said that a man was walking into or out of a city according to where that city used to be instead of where it was at the time the man was doing the walking?
One may well ask just how important this is. Does it really matter in which direction Jesus was walking on this occasion? What difference could it possibly make?
It makes no substantial difference at all—unless you are committed to a dogma that neither Luke nor Mark could possibly have made any mistakes of any kind. If you must insist that the gospel authors had to be infallibly correct in every detail, no matter how trivial, then you are compelled find some way, no matter how far-fetched, to explain how Jesus could have been walking into Jericho at the same time that he was walking out of Jericho.
According to evangelical Christians, those who question the resurrection will burn forever in hell. Most of us ask—sensibly, we think—what evidence there is for the resurrection (or for hell, for that matter). If the only evidence we have is that four men 2,000 years ago wrote that the resurrection happened, then we'd like some evidence that they could not have been mistaken. If it turns out that one of them said Jesus was going toward Jericho on a certain occasion, and another that he was going away from Jericho on the same occasion, then we have pretty good evidence that at least one of the writers was in error at least one time.
None of this is to suggest that just because we can catch them in an occasional mistake, we therefore can trust nothing at all that they wrote. All it means is that the argument "If they said it happened, then it must have happened" will not work.
(More commentary on contradictions: "Just Our Imagination?")
Then there is Mark 7:31: "Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis." As Strobel points out, this is a strange itinerary.
As any map of that region shows, Sidon is not on the way from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee. The sea is almost due south of Tyre, while Sidon is to the north. Mark's report is like someone saying that they left Baltimore and went through Boston down to Atlanta and the Gulf of Mexico. We might wonder whether such a person had ever lived in the United States. We would certainly question any claim by this person to have spent a few years living in Baltimore.
There actually happens to be a plausible explanation for Mark's report. People on journeys do sometimes go out of their way for any of countless reasons. Perhaps Jesus, having finished whatever business he had in Tyre, wanted or needed to do something in Sidon before returning home to Galilee. It would be odd, but not entirely incredible, if Mark had felt it unnecessary to go into that much detail about what was on Jesus' mind. Maybe he just did not know why Jesus went to Sidon first but felt obliged for some reason to mention that he did go there.
Evangelicals have a problem with that theory, though. They maintain that the gospels are not only inerrant but complete: No critical information is missing. They further maintain that the gospels cannot be misleading. Whatever seems to have happened is what did happen.
McRay has to prove, then, that Jesus was not actually going out of his way. Here is Strobel's account of McRay's explanation:
"What these critics seem to be assuming is that Jesus is getting in his car and zipping around on an interstate, but he obviously wasn't," he said.
Reading the text in the original language, taking into account the mountainous terrain and probable roads of the region, and considering the loose way "Decapolis" was used to refer to a confederation of ten cities that varied from time to time, McRay traced a logical route on the map that corresponded precisely with Mark's description. (p. 100)
First question: Why the reference to the original language? How does the original language clarify any of this? Strobel does not tell us. Something about the Greek language, in which Mark's author wrote, is supposed to help us understand why Jesus would go north en route to a southern destination. And perhaps it does, but we don't even know whose word we are supposed to take for this. McRay might be fluent in New Testament Greek, but is Strobel?
Next: What does the vagueness of "Decapolis" have to do with any of this? Granted that the "Gulf of Mexico" provides a lot of latitude for our hypothetical U.S. traveler's itinerary, we still know that Boston is not en route from Washington to Atlanta, no matter where he went after getting to Atlanta.
As for mountainous terrain, anyone who has lived in mountains knows that roads in them do not go straight between any two places. Nevertheless, there is a limit to how far out of one's way they make a traveler go. Mountains do not force a road from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee to go through Sidon.
And so, what made the route that McRay traced on the map "logical"? Strobel does not tell us. He does not tell us even what the route was.
It is as if Strobel had written the following.
Knowing that Mark had quoted Jesus as saying that two plus two equals five, and knowing that some skeptics had used this statement to impugn Mark's credibility, I asked McRay about it.
"What those skeptics seem to be assuming is that Jesus carried a pocket calculator with him everywhere, but obviously he didn't," he said.
After reading the text in the original language, McRay picked up a notepad. Taking into account the operational intricacies of the abacus and the difficulties of doing arithmetic with Roman numerals, he scribbled on the pad for a few minutes and then showed me the results. I saw there an elegant proof that under certain circumstances, two plus two does equal five.
Strobel, having implied that we really should just take his word for it when he says McRay showed him the logic of Jesus' itinerary, then asks about Luke's assertion that Joseph and Mary had to go to Joseph's ancestral village of Bethlehem because of a Roman census.
It has long seemed odd to skeptics that the Romans would have required everyone in Palestine to return to their ancestral homes in order to participate in a census. There is no secular record that they ever did, although McRay says there is one. He has a copy of a document reporting that in 104 CE, the prefect of Egypt ordered everyone in his jurisdiction to be in their homes at a certain time when a house-to-house census was to be taken. There is not, however, any indication that the prefect wanted everyone to be in the town where they or any of their ancestors had been born. (p. 101)
McRay suggests that even the Dead Sea Scrolls confirm the gospels, even though Jesus is nowhere mentioned in any of the scrolls. Strobel tells us how he does it.
McRay unfolded the mystery. The gospel of Matthew describes how John the Baptist, imprisoned and wrestling with lingering doubts about Jesus' identity, sent his followers to ask about whether Jesus really was the long-awaited Messiah.
Through the centuries, Christians have wondered about Jesus' rather enigmatic answer. "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor" (Matt. 11:4-5).
Jesus' response was an allusion to Isaiah 61. But for some reason Jesus included the phrase, "the dead are raised," which is conspicuously absent from the Old Testament text. (p. 106)
Very well, and how do the Dead Sea Scrolls resolve this puzzle? They include a manuscript, dated to about 30 BCE, in which there is that same passage from Isaiah 61, which however does include "the dead are raised." After telling Strobel about this, McRay reads him a commentary by a scholar named Craig Evans, who interprets the discovery as proof that Jesus was telling John, not enigmatically but unambiguously, that he indeed was the Messiah. Strobel describes his reaction to this revelation:
I sat back in my chair. To me, Evans' discovery was a remarkable confirmation of Jesus' self-identity. It was staggering to me how modern archaeology could finally unlock the significance of a statement in which Jesus boldly asserted nearly two thousand years ago that he was indeed the anointed one of God. (p. 107)
When I first read Strobel's book in early 2000 and wrote the original version of this critique, I had no idea who Craig Evans was. I had never heard the name, and I still have not encountered it anywhere outside of Strobel's book and a few Web pages I found through Google. That doesn't mean Evans doesn't know what he is talking about. His credentials seem to be in order. Perhaps Evans is famous in evangelical circles, and perhaps Strobel was quite familiar with him and his work. But Strobel does not say so in the book. In the book, Craig Evans is just a name, nothing more.
Let us now look more closely at what Strobel tells us.
First, Evans could have been as unknown to him as he was to me. Strobel was getting Evans's observation second-hand, through McRay. Next, McRay presents Evans's observation as an "interpretation" of what the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us about Isaiah. But then, to Strobel, it becomes a "discovery," and this discovery is a "remarkable confirmation" that Jesus really believed himself to be the messiah.
The only remarkable thing in all of this is Strobel's instant respect for Evans's interpretation. It would seem that when a scholar says something that confirms evangelical doctrine, that scholar's opinion attains the status of fact.
For skeptical scholars, though, the bar gets set quite a bit higher, as Strobel shows us in his next chapter.
Strobel knows, of course, that the academic community is not unanimous in its support of evangelical Christianity. Furthermore, most of the evidence, both for and against Christianity, has been around for at least centuries. Recent discoveries, however enlightening on peripheral issues, neither confirm nor refute the substance of the New Testament. Neither skeptics nor believers are introducing any new evidence for anyone's consideration.
This does not mean that there are no new arguments. Fundamentalists in recent years have attempted to reinterpret certain geological and other data to support a literal interpretation of Genesis. They call this reinterpretation "creation science." The argument is new, or at least is expressed in new terminology, but the evidence is not.
So it is with the arguments and evidence presented by skeptics.
In Chapter 6, Strobel leads the reader to think he is about to examine the evidence against evangelical Christianity and prove the inadequacy of that evidence. He also suggests that hardly any reputable scholar takes any of this evidence seriously. In the following passage, he tells us who he thinks does take it seriously.
Now that I had heard powerfully convincing and well-reasoned evidence from the scholars I questioned for this book, I needed to turn my attention to the decidedly contrary opinions of a small group of academics who have been the subject of a whirlwind of news coverage.
I'm sure you've seen the articles. In recent years the news media have been saturated with uncritical reports about the Jesus Seminar, a self-selected group that represents a minuscule percentage of New Testament scholars but that generates coverage vastly out of proportion to the group's influence. (p. 111)
So much for Strobel's journalistic impartiality. The experts he has interviewed for the book are "scholars" one and all. Those who disagree with them are mere "academics." He also seems to think that their minority status proves something about the validity of their arguments, and that journalists should have taken this into consideration when deciding how much coverage to give their story.
It may be noted here that the seminar members apparently did not question the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Strobel has yet to discover conclusive proof of Jesus' historicity, but we can leave that issue in abeyance. Even if there were no dispute whether Jesus did live in Palestine during the early decades of the first century, we could still wonder whether his teachings were accurately recorded in the gospels. The seminar concluded that they were not. As Strobel reports,
In the end they concluded that Jesus did not say 82 percent of what the gospels attribute to him. Most of the remaining 18 percent was considered somewhat doubtful, with only 2 percent of Jesus' sayings confidently determined to be authentic. Craving controversy and lacking the expertise to scrutinize the Seminar's methodology, journalists devoted fountains of ink to the story. (p. 111)
Having been a journalist myself, I know a thing or two about the craving for controversy, and I could not agree more with Strobel's assessment of the average reporter's expertise. How well does Strobel himself, though, "scrutinize the Seminar's methodology"? If I had covered this story, I would first have interviewed a seminar member to find out what that methodology was and why they considered it appropriate. Then I would have interviewed a dissenter, and the story I would then have written would have included comments from each.
Did Strobel interview anyone involved with the seminar? Apparently he did not, so far as we can tell from reading his book. What he tells us about the seminar is no more than one could have learned from reading news magazines or watching television.
Indeed, for all he tells us, he himself knows nothing about the Seminar except what its detractors have told him about it. He gives no indication of even caring what the Seminar members have to say for themselves or their methodology.
I wanted to go beyond the headlines. . . . Were the Jesus Seminar's findings solidly based on unbiased scholarly research, or were they . . . well meaning but ultimately unsupported?
For answers, I made the six-hour drive to St. Paul, Minnesota, to confer with Dr. Gregory Boyd, the Ivy League-educated theology professor whose books and articles have challenged the Jesus Seminar head-on. (p. 112)
So, he wants to really understand these heretics, but did he interview the heretics? Nope. He interviewed someone who specializes in attacking the heretics.
There is a throwaway line in their conversation that reveals much about Boyd's and (presumably) Strobel's perception of skepticism. Boyd is discussing a man he was attempting to convert, and he says, "He was very skeptical by nature and quite inebriated with New Age ideas." (p. 114)
Boyd doesn't seem to understand skepticism. I've known a lot of New Agers who claim to be skeptics, but in the Internet skeptic forums where I hang out, "skeptical New Ager" tends to be regarded as oxymoronic. New Agers might be skeptical of orthodox Christianity, but that does not make them "skeptical by nature."
The essence of skepticism is not in what you doubt, but why you doubt it. Strobel might be admitting that it's difficult to be both a Christian and a real skeptic. Whether that be true or not, it does not follow that any non-Christian who calls himself a skeptic is a real skeptic.
Strobel and Boyd begin with a discussion of the Jesus Seminar's assumption of naturalism—the supposition that no belief in supernaturalism is warranted and that therefore none of the miracle stories in the gospels should be taken seriously. Naturalism supposes that Jesus was human, not divine and not a messiah, and did not rise from the dead. Strobel then puts on his impartial reporter's hat for a moment.
I stood and strolled over to his bookshelf as I formulated my next question. "OK, but you personally have faith that Jesus was resurrected, and maybe your faith taints your viewpoint too much," I said. "The Jesus Seminar paints itself as being on an unbiased quest for truth, as compared with religiously committed people - people like you - who have a theological agenda."
Boyd turned in his seat to face me. "Ah, but that's not what's really going on," he insisted. "The participants of the Jesus Seminar are at least as biased as evangelicals - and I would say more so. They bring a whole set of assumptions to their scholarship, which of course we all do to some degree. (p. 115-16)
Well, even if the seminar members were more biased than they would admit, that proves them to be hypocrites, but it does not refute any argument they make. The soundness of an argument has nothing to do with the personal integrity of those who make the argument. To point out an opponent's bias, however justifiably, is simply a type of ad hominem argument. It evades the only relevant issue, which is whether the opponent's argument can stand on its own merits.
Fortunately, Boyd does not stop there. He proceeds, legitimately, to question the seminar's assumption of naturalism. Before we examine his critique, let us ensure that we know what he is critiquing. Here is an excerpt from the American Heritage Dictionary.
nat-u-ral-ism. . . . 3. Philosophy. The system of thought holding that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws without attributing moral, spiritual, or supernatural significance to them. 4. Theology. The doctrine that all religious truths are derived from nature and natural causes and not from revelation.
Does naturalism, so defined, deny the possibility of miracles? It depends. If a miracle is, by definition, a suspension by God of natural law to allow his intervention in human history, then naturalism does assume that this never happens. This is not, however, the same as denying the possibility of an event that would appear miraculous.
Suppose a Christian friend of mine has cancer, and her doctor has stated that she will die from it within a month. If she belongs to a church that believes in faith healing, her pastor might visit her, lay his hands on her and pray to God to spare her life. Suppose that a month later, instead of dying, she walks out of the hospital in good health, leaving the doctor scratching his head in bewilderment. She might say to me something like, "Doug, you saw what happened. How can you still deny the power of God?" Well, what I deny is the assumption that her recovery cannot be explained except by attributing it to supernatural intervention.
Spontaneous remissions from cancer do occur, with or without prayer. They happen to skeptics as well as believers. Do we know exactly how and why they occur? No, we have not yet learned everything there is to know about cancer. Most doctors freely admit that their understanding of how the human body works to heal itself is incomplete. There is a name for the argument that if we do not know how something happened, then God must have caused it to happen. It is called the argument from ignorance.
In the case of my hypothetical friend, I have not proven the impossibility of miracles. I have not proven that her recovery occurred by natural means. What I have proven is that a natural recovery was not, in her particular case, an impossibility.
Let us now see how Boyd attempts to slip the argument from ignorance into his discussion of the Jesus Seminar. Strobel quotes him:
"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. It's just possible that his disciples actually saw what the gospels say they saw.' And if there's no other way of accounting adequately for the evidence, let's investigate that possibility.
"That, I think, is the only way to give the evidence a fair hearing." (p. 116)
(Additional commentary on this quotation: Is the naturalistic assumption unwarranted?)
Very well. Back to the analogy for a moment. What was my friend's evidence for a miracle? Her doctor had said she would die, and when she did not die but instead recovered, her doctor could not tell her how this happened. All right, but does any doctor know enough about cancer to state infallibly that spontaneous remissions are impossible? No. To the contrary, doctors know that they are possible, because they do happen.
Who, now, is exercising "a certain amount of humility"? The doctor, who says "I don't know how it happened," or my friend, who says, "No matter what all the doctors say about spontaneous remissions, I know they're wrong"?
If one has two or more proposed explanations for a given body of evidence, there are ways to decide scientifically which explanation is probably the best one. It is legitimate for a proponent of one theory to attack the adequacy or logical rigor of an opponent's explanation. It is something very different to suggest that the opponent does not even have an explanation.
Given all the evidence—all the relevant facts—that we have about Christianity's origins, one possible explanation is that Jesus was the son of God, that the gospels accurately record his teachings and accurately report his death and resurrection. But is there in fact "no other way of accounting adequately for the evidence"? Actually, there are several other ways to account for the evidence. Whether the other ways account for it adequately is another question, but those alternative explanations do exist. The point for now is that neither Strobel nor any of his experts demonstrate their inadequacy.
Boyd claims that historians ordinarily presume ancient documents to be accurate until proven otherwise, "since people are generally not compulsive liars." (p. 117) In fact, historians do not make such a presumption about all documents, and the alternative to that presumption is not a presumption that the document writer was a compulsive liar. Aesop's fables are not true stories, but he was not lying when he told them. Nor was Shakespeare lying when he wrote his plays, notwithstanding that even his histories are not factual in every detail.
The notion that the gospel writers were either telling the truth or telling lies is a false dichotomy. It is possible that they devoutly believed every word they wrote but were mistaken in that belief. To suppose that they were sincere but wrong is entirely consistent with all known evidence about the origins of the New Testament.
It is also possible that although the stories were invented, the inventors never expected anyone to think they were true. Jews of the time had a tradition of creating a form of fiction called midrash—stories intended to illustrate theological or ethical principles.
Boyd would have us believe that the story of Jesus was too unique to have been a product of legend or imagination. When Strobel raises the issue of pre-Christian stories of miracle-working saviors who rose from the dead, Boyd says they could not have been a model for any fabrications about Jesus.
"Actually, the parallels break down quickly when you look more closely. . . . For one thing, the sheer centrality of the supernatural in the life of Jesus has no parallel whatsoever in Jewish history.
"Second, the radical nature of his 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.
"Third, Jesus' biggest distinctive is how he did miracles on his own authority. . . . He does give God the Father credit for what he does, but you never find him asking God the Father to do it - he does it in the power of God the Father." (p. 118-19)
I have never seen any evidence that any of these elements is truly unique to the gospel Jesus. All I have ever seen is apologetic allegations that they are unique. But so what if they are? Boyd tells us that the gospel stories say Jesus, compared with his predecessors, did more miracles and more fantastic miracles, and that he did them without needing God's prior approval. For these reasons, we are asked think it impossible that anybody could have made these stories up.
Well, of all possible stories about miracle workers, some worker's miracles had to be more numerous or more fantastic than anyone else's. As for Jesus' doing miracles on his own authority, it simply is not obviously impossible for a storyteller to have made that up. It is not obvious to me why it is even particularly unlikely. Boyd seems to be making a remarkable assumption about the limits of human imagination.
Many Christians have argued that the Jesus of their faith need not be the same person as the Jesus of history. This position, to oversimplify it, suggests that one can believe the teachings of the gospels without assuming the books to be literally true in their biographical details about Jesus of Nazareth.
For evangelicals, however, the historical Jesus is necessarily identical to the Jesus of their faith, because their faith is in the writings of the New Testament. Their faith, one might say (and some have said), is not so much in Jesus as in a book about Jesus.
As Boyd explains to Strobel, "Paul said that if Jesus wasn't raised from the dead, our faith is futile, it's useless, it's empty." (p. 125)
Boyd seems oblivious to the circularity of Paul's reasoning. Why do we have faith? Because Jesus rose from the dead. How do we know he rose from the dead? Because our faith says he did.
If that really were sufficient reason to believe in the resurrection, we would hardly need to ask anything else about the credibility of the gospels. However, Strobel is trying to convince people who do not have faith that there are logical reasons to believe the gospels, and so he continues his search for evidence of their reliability.
In this chapter, Strobel asks whether Jesus himself believed in his divinity. Did he actually claim to be the son of God?
If he did, then according to Strobel we must confront the Lord-Liar-Lunatic trilemma. According to this argument, apparently first proposed by C.S. Lewis in his apologetic Mere Christianity, given that Jesus said he was God, we must conclude (1) that he spoke truthfully, (2) that he spoke falsely and knew it, thereby making himself a liar, or (3) that he spoke falsely but did not know it, in which case he must have been insane.
In fact, the argument proves nothing if we may reasonably doubt that Jesus said any such thing in the first place.
We should recall once again that Strobel has failed—through six chapters, at this point—to find good evidence that Jesus really said even one word that the gospel authors attributed to him. But, Strobel thinks he has proved the gospels to be historically accurate, and so let us see where this thinking takes him. His next expert is Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary.
Few people dispute that Jesus, according to the author of John's gospel, made claims to divinity. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, though, are not so clear on the matter, portraying a Jesus who responds ambiguously to questions about his divinity. Strobel starts by asking Witherington: "Was that because he didn't think of himself in those terms or because he had other reasons?" Witherington responds:
"If he had simply announced, 'Hi, folks; I'm God,' that would have been heard as 'I'm Yahweh,' because the Jews of his day didn't have any concept of the Trinity. They only knew of God the Father - whom they called Yahweh - and not God the Son or God the Holy Spirit.
"So if someone were to say he was God, that wouldn't have made any sense to them and would have been seen as clear-cut blasphemy. And it would have been counterproductive to Jesus in his efforts to get people to listen to his message." (p. 133)
Let's take another look at that. God visits humanity in the flesh in order to sacrifice himself to save people from eternal torment. But while he's here, he doesn't tell people he's God because he knows nobody will believe him and he will be accused of blasphemy.
One really must wonder about the power of a god who cannot convince people in a face-to-face conversation that he is standing before them in the flesh.
Furthermore, Witherington acknowledges that the Jews had good reason to have questioned Jesus' claim to be God if he had made the claim straightforwardly. God had not yet revealed his triune nature. On the contrary, he had made quite a point of insisting, through Moses and the prophets, on his singularity.
Now, do we today have any better reason to believe in Jesus' divinity than the Jews who talked with him and watched his behavior? All we have are books that purport to tell us what he said and did, and we don't even know who wrote those books.
This interview raises another problem. If Jesus did in fact say he was God, why does Withington need to find a reason for him not to have said it?
If we assume that all the gospels are accurate, then he did claim divinity, because John's gospel says he did. The question then is not why Jesus evaded the issue but why the synoptic authors made it seem that he evaded questions about his divinity.
Many people think that even in John's gospel, Jesus' claims to divinity are ambiguous or amenable to other interpretations. And, it is a fact that he never says outright "I am God." Furthermore, Witherington in effect concedes that Jesus never said in so many words that he was God.
But in that case, Lewis's trilemma falls completely apart. If the gospels nowhere represent Jesus as claiming to be the Lord, then it is at least barely possible that that is because he never did, as a matter of fact, claim to be the Lord.
According to apologists, though, he must have claimed to be God, notwithstanding the gospel authors' waffling.
There is evidence, not disputed by many, that Christians believed in the divinity of Jesus long before the gospels were written. Strobel asks Witherington whether this would have occurred if Jesus had not himself claimed divinity.
Witherington was adamant. "Not unless you're prepared to argue that the disciples completely forgot what the historical Jesus was like and that they had nothing to do with the traditions that start showing up twenty years after his death," he said. (p. 139-40)
This assumes much that is not yet in evidence. Strobel has not proved yet that there was a historical Jesus, or that any of the men called the 12 disciples ever lived. For secular documentation of Jesus, we at least have Josephus and Tacitus asserting (from hearsay) the existence of Jesus. Neither of them says a word about Matthew, or Peter, or any of the other disciples, except possibly Josephus with his reference to James. With that possible exception, not one non-Christian writer of that age has one word to say about a single follower of Jesus who was named in the New Testament.
We don't have to decide whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Lord, or was a liar, or was a lunatic, until we know for a fact that he said he was the Lord. Strobel thinks he has proved that he did say so, and that he believed what he said. He thinks he must therefore disprove the possibility that he was insane, and he undertakes that task in his next chapter.
Having proved to his own satisfaction that Jesus really said he was God and believed it, Strobel looks for proof that he was of sound mind.
Few psychologists, I should hope, would presume to diagnose a person based on what other people said about him 2,000 years ago, but Strobel knew where to find one. He went to the American Association of Christian Counselors, where he interviewed the association's president, Gary R. Collins.
Collins also is editor of Christian Counseling Today and a contributing editor for the Journal of Psychology and Theology. He, like all of Strobel's experts, believes the gospels to be accurate and therefore does not question Jesus' divinity. The reader may decide whether this could have affected his clinical judgment in any way.
Here are excerpts from his assessment:
. . . psychologists don't just look at what a person says. They'll go much deeper than that. They'll look at a person's emotions, because disturbed individuals frequently show inappropriate depression, or they might be vehemently angry, or perhaps they're plagued with anxiety. But look at Jesus: he never demonstrated inappropriate emotions. . . .
Jesus was obviously in contact with reality. He wasn't paranoid, although he rightfully understood that there were some very real dangers around him.
Or people with psychological difficulties may have thinking disorders - they can't carry on a logical conversation, they'll jump to faulty conclusions, they're irrational. We don't see this in Jesus. . . .
Another sign of mental disturbance is unsuitable behavior, such as dressing oddly or being unable to relate socially to others. Jesus' behavior was quite in line with what would be expected, and he had deep and abiding relationships with a wide variety of people from different walks of life. (p. 146-47)
Strobel notes that according to the author of John's gospel, some people did accuse Jesus of madness.
"Yes, but that's hardly a diagnosis by a trained mental health professional," Collins countered. ". . . . They were reacting because his assertions about himself were so far beyond their understanding of the norm, not because Jesus was truly mentally unbalanced." (p. 148)
So, according to Collins, Jesus was surely not sick, but he might well have been misunderstood. This raises the question of how an omniscient, omnipotent god could fail to make himself correctly understood, but we need not follow that tangent right now.
Strobel, having gotten a credentialed psychologist to testify to Jesus' sanity, next asks about the hypothesis that Jesus was an unusually skilled hypnotist. At least one writer (Strobel cites Ian Wilson) has speculated that Jesus made his followers think he was a miracle-worker by hypnotizing them, even using a post-hypnotic suggestion to make them hallucinate about him after he died. This again assumes the truth of every detail of the gospel accounts, in which case we might as well believe that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
Strobel apparently does not see this, but even if he did, there could be another point to his raising and attacking such a hypothesis. He would have his readers to think that skeptics don't have any good arguments on their side and therefore are driven to embrace ludicrous theories to explain how the gospels got written.
It is indeed the case that some doubters have concocted bizarre scenarios to account for what the gospel writers said, but this proves no more than that some who doubt Christianity think bizarrely. If some so-called skeptics think Jesus convinced a crowd of 5,000 people that he fed them with a basketful of bread and fish without actually doing it, their problem is not fanatical skepticism. The secular world is full of pots calling the Christian kettle black.
There is nothing in the gospels to be explained until we have good evidence that the thing to be explained really occurred. Without that evidence, the best response to a question like "How did Jesus walk on water?" is another question: "Why should we believe he did?"
Jesus' claims of divinity demand no explanation until we are sure that he made them. We need not explain even the crucifixion, let alone the resurrection, until we know that they really happened.
At this point, the only thing to be explained is how and why the stories got written. "Those things really happened" is one possible explanation, but it is not the only one.
Strobel's next interview is with theologian D.A. Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Here he claims to be seeking evidence that Jesus of Nazareth actually exhibited divine characteristics as one would expect a deity to do.
Although the Bible assures us that God is beyond human understanding, Strobel thinks he knows a thing or two about what a god has to act like. He says Jesus could not have been divine unless he exhibited the following characteristics: omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, love, holiness, righteousness, wisdom, and justice. And, he assures us, Jesus did exhibit them.
The evidence will again, of course, come strictly from the gospels, since there is no other evidence, and will therefore beg the question of the gospels' factual accuracy.
Strobel claims to be demonstrating that a reasonable person who examines all the evidence should have no difficulty believing in Jesus. That is all very well for anyone who reads his book, but according to evangelical dogma, every person in the world faces eternal damnation unless they believe, and few of them have access to the evidence, such as it is, that Strobel has set out.
In any case, he begins his interview with Carson by asking: "What did he say or do . . . that convinces you that he is divine?"
"One could point to such things as his miracles," Carson said as he learned back in the comfortably upholstered chair, "but other people have done miracles, so while this may be indicative, it's not decisive. Of course the Resurrection was the ultimate vindication. . . . But of the many things that he did, one of the most striking to me is his forgiving of sin." (p. 153)
The significance of this, according to Carson, is that while anyone can forgive a sin against himself, only God can forgive one person for sinning against another. Since Jesus did just this, he must be God.
All right. Let us do a thought experiment. Withholding judgment only on whether he rose from the dead, let us assume for the moment that Jesus said and did everything else attributed to him by the gospel authors. We shall assume that he did claim to be the son of God, that he did perform miracles including walking on water, and that he said to people, "Your sins are forgiven." Next, let us suppose for this experiment that I manage to do the same things—all of them. Now, what would Carson say to me?
First, I claim to be the son of God. To this, Carson would reply along the lines of, "Yeah, right. Prove it."
Then I feed 5,000 people with a few loaves and fishes, I walk on water, and I make a dead person come back to life. Carson would say, "What? Is that supposed to prove something?"
So far, fair enough. My claiming to be a god certainly doesn't make me one. And, although gods do miracles, not all miracle-workers are gods.
Finally, I say to Carson: "Your sins are forgiven." According to what he just said, that is supposed to convince him more than any miracle could convince him that I really am God.
Now I would imagine that in fact Carson actually would say something like, "Of course you haven't proven you're God. Anybody can say, 'Your sins are forgiven.'"
And his objection would be well taken. But then, how did Jesus prove his divinity by forgiving sins? Strobel and Carson do not address that question, but we may suppose that they say: When Jesus forgave people of their sins, their sins really were forgiven.
And how do we know that?
The gospel authors record that Jesus told people their sins were forgiven, but they do not tell us how they confirmed that anybody's sins actually got forgiven. Jesus himself, according to the author of Matthew's gospel, comments on the difficulty of verifying the actual forgiveness.
Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven."
At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, "This fellow is blaspheming!"
Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?
"Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'?
"But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...." Then he said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your mat and go home."
And the man got up and went home.
When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men. (Matthew 9:1-8)
Which indeed is easier to say? If I say to a paralytic, "You are healed, get up and walk," his failure to walk would seriously hurt my credibility. If I tell him his sins are forgiven, though, what possible outcome would prove that his sins remained unforgiven? By Jesus' own admission, we have no way of knowing whether the sins of anyone he forgave were in fact forgiven.
Strobel soon afterward gets to the issue of reconciling Jesus' apparently human limitations and the divine transcendence of natural law.
"Dr. Carson, how in the world could Jesus be omnipresent if he couldn't be in two places at once?" I asked. "How could he be omniscient when he says, 'Not even the Son of Man knows the hour of his return'? How could he be omnipotent when the gospels plainly tell us that he was unable to do many miracles in his hometown?"
Pointing my pen at him for emphasis, I concluded by saying, "Let's admit it: the Bible itself seems to argue against Jesus being God."
While Carson didn't flinch, he did concede that these questions have no simple answers. After all, they strike at the very heart of the Incarnation - God becoming man, spirit taking flesh, the infinite becoming finite, the eternal becoming time-bound. It's a doctrine that has kept theologians busy for centuries. And that's where Carson chose to start his answer: by going back to the way scholars have tried to respond to these matters through the years. (p. 158-59)
Carson reviews these attempts in turn, admitting in each case that the proposed answers are logically deficient. In due course, he concedes:
"So part of Christian theology has been concerned not with 'explaining it all away' but with trying to take the biblical evidence and, retaining all of it fairly, find ways of synthesis that are rationally coherent, even if they are not exhaustively explanatory. (p. 160)
That is to say: "We Christians haven't really figured this one out yet."
Strobel himself observes, "If the Incarnation is true, it's not surprising that finite minds couldn't totally comprehend it." (p. 160)
Perhaps not, but I would observe in return that if no mind can comprehend the incarnation, it would not be surprising if that was because it is a logically incoherent concept. And if it is logically incoherent, then any effort to rationally justify belief in it is doomed to failure.
The mere fact that theologians have failed, despite 2,000 years of effort, to rationalize the incarnation does not prove that it cannot be rationalized. At the very least, though, rational people can certainly feel justified in considering at least the possibility that it has not been rationalized because it cannot be rationalized because it logically cannot be true.
Strobel and Carson go on to discuss other apparent inconsistencies between Jesus' divinity and other New Testament passages, with Carson appealing to translation problems or contextual issues to resolve them. Then Strobel gets to what some consider the greatest contradiction of all: eternal punishment ordered by a benevolent god.
According to Carson, the grounds for our punishment lie not in our rejection of certain beliefs but in our insistence on usurping God's own place in our universe. Hell, he says, "is not a place where people are consigned because they were pretty good blokes but just didn't believe the right stuff. They're consigned there, first and foremost, because they defy their Maker and want to be at the center of the universe." According to Carson, God would diminish himself if he overlooked such attitudes and declined to punish them. (p. 165)
Strobel then asks about proportionality. Assuming punishment to be necessary, why should it be eternal for a finite amount of sin? Carson replies that the Bible justifies a supposition that not all of the condemned will suffer equally - apparently unaware that an infinite amount of mild punishment is still infinite punishment. Carson then does a variation on the apology that "God knows what he's doing and we must not question him."
"One of the things that the Bible does insist is that in the end, not only will justice be done, but justice will be seen to be done, so that every mouth will be stopped."
I grabbed ahold of that last statement. "In other words," I said, "at the time of judgment there is nobody in the world who will walk away from that experience saying that they have been treated unfairly by God. Everyone will recognize the fundamental justice in the way God judges them and the world."
"That's right," Carson said firmly. "Justice is not always done in this world; we see that every day. But on the Last Day it will be done for all to see. And no one will be able to complain by saying, 'This isn't fair.'" (p. 165-66)
Let's take a closer look at that argument.
It says we have some evidence for God's love: Jesus suffered an agonizing death in order for us to escape punishment for our sins. Well, actually, we do not know that, exactly. We know that some people say that Jesus did this. But we also have some evidence against God's love: We have the assertion that if we do not believe he loved us enough to die for us, we will spend eternity burning in a lake of fire.
The same people make both of these assertions, and they reconcile them with one more assertion: The apparent contradiction will be resolved to everyone's satisfaction, but not in this life. We shall have to wait until the next life to become convinced that God is as just as his followers think he is.
It all boils down to a variation of: "You'd better believe us Christians now, because you will believe eventually, only then it will be too late to do you any good."
It is a very, very odd concept of justice that evangelicals embrace. If it is so important to their god that we love him in this life, why is the reasonableness of hell (never mind the certainty of its existence) not revealed to us in this life?
Carson does not say, and Strobel does not ask.
What Strobel does ask next is why Jesus never condemned slavery.
Carson's response is twofold. He first asserts that slavery as it existed in the Roman empire was relatively benevolent compared with America's antebellum version of it, and he reminds us that in any event, Jewish law required slaves to freed every seven years. He also incidentally points out that there was no racial discrimination attendant on Roman slavery.
At this point, one wonders whether Carson means to imply that slavery is not wrong in principle, but only as it was once practiced in America. According to what he just said, antebellum slaveowners might have had God's blessing if (1) they had freed their slaves every seven years and (2) they had practiced some affirmative action with regard to whom they enslaved.
But this apparently is not what Carson meant to suggest. He says instead that slavery is implicitly condemned in the fundamental message of Christianity.
Look at what the apostle Paul says in his letter to Philemon concerning a runaway slave named Onesimus. Paul doesn't say to overthrow slavery, because all that would do would be to get him executed. Instead he tells Philemon he'd better treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ, just as he would treat Paul himself. . . .
The overthrowing of slavery, then, is through the transformation of men and women by the gospel rather than through merely changing an economic system. (p. 167-68)
Carson then credits Christianity for the abolition of slavery after the Industrial Revolution, which was more than a millennium and a half after the founding of Christianity.
We might make allowances for human fallibility here to explain why it took Christians so long to perceive the inconsistency between loving people and enslaving them. We still need, though, to consider the suggestion that Jesus did not need to condemn slavery outright because his message implicitly condemned it.
Jesus evidently did not think it a waste of time to explain that loving one's neighbor obliged one to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, feed the hungry, visit prisoners, and comfort the afflicted. He apparently thought that his followers would not necessarily make the connection between loving their neighbors and doing those things. He found it advisable to spell it out for his disciples.
He had to point out that love is inconsistent with letting hungry people starve, but it never occurred to him to point out the inconsistency between love and slavery. Is it just possible that the men who wrote the gospels put no anti-slavery words in Jesus' mouth because it never occurred to them that slavery might be immoral?
As for the early Christians' own opinions about slavery, we might learn something by reading Paul's instructions to Philemon, to which Carson referred.
No one that I know of has suggested that Paul should have preached to the Romans about the evil of slavery. But even if it were suggested, of what relevance would the threat of execution be?
According to evangelical dogma, Christians were told by Jesus himself to expect persecution merely for affirming their belief in the risen Christ. Paul supposedly was knowingly risking his life just by telling people "Jesus died for your sins." If that were so, would he have balked at adding "And by the way, one of those sins is owning slaves"?
Anyway, the puzzle is not that Paul failed to tell the Romans to abolish slavery, but that he failed to tell Christians not to own slaves. He did not say to Philemon, "Look, you're a Christian now. Think about it brother: WWJD? Do you really think Jesus wants you to enslave another Christian?"
Instead, he said this:
Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
I am sending him - who is my very heart - back to you.
I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.
But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.
Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good - no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.
If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. (Philemon 11-18)
There is an obvious hint that Paul would approve of Philemon's freeing the slave, but Paul has taken pains to avoid giving Philemon anything that could be construed as a moral commandment. He is certainly not saying, "If you don't free this man, you will burn in hell."
Why does Paul think Philemon should set the slave free? Because slavery is wrong? There is no such implication. If Paul thinks the slave should be freed, it is only because the slave has been such a good man since his conversion. He has been good enough to deserve special treatment from his master. He has been so good that he might even deserve to be freed—but that is for his master, not Paul, to decide.
Why? Because in the minds of Christian leaders of that time, during the generation immediately after Jesus' death, the ownership of slaves was not a sin. Nobody had told them it was a sin, and they did not infer its sinfulness from anything Jesus had said about the moral primacy of loving one's neighbor.
And so, what does Strobel actually discover in the way of evidence for Jesus' omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, love, holiness, righteousness, wisdom, and justice?
Regarding the first three, the gospel evidence appears negative, but Strobel assures us that this evidence is deceiving, a mere artifact of the Mystery of the Incarnation.
As for reconciling love and justice with a determination to torture people forever, we get only an assurance that at some future time, we will be persuaded that there is no contradiction there.
With those issues disposed of so cavalierly, it is no surprise that the remaining characteristics of holiness, righteousness, and wisdom are scarcely even addressed during the interview.
In other words, the evidence that Jesus acted like God is to be found, if anywhere, only in the New Testament, and we are still lacking evidence that any part of the New Testament was written by anyone who knew Jesus personally. The gospels themselves portray Jesus as lacking certain divine characteristics, but we are told that we must overlook these discrepancies, because they are not true discrepancies.
And for what reason must we believe that the discrepancies are not real? Because people who believe in Jesus say we must believe it.
This is not evidence of Jesus' divinity. This is evidence that we are expected to believe whatever evangelical Christians tell us about Jesus because they assure us that we will burn in hell if we don't.
Strobel's next topic is messianic prophecies. Believers say that there were many such prophecies in the Old Testament, and that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled every one of them.
Strobel attempts in this chapter to demonstrate that Jesus must have been the messiah because he and he alone fulfilled messianic prophecies.
In the Jewish Scriptures, which Christians call the Old Testament, there are several dozen major prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, who would be sent by God to redeem his people. In effect, these predictions formed a figurative fingerprint that only the Anointed One would be able to match. (p. 172)
To find out whether Jesus fulfilled those "several dozen major prophecies," Strobel interviewed a Jewish convert to Christianity, Louis S. Lapides, at the Beth Ariel Fellowship in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
Strobel asks whether the New Testament writers might have written the story of Jesus so as to make him meet messianic expectations. Lapides assures him that this could not have happened.
"In God's wisdom, he created checks and balances both inside and outside the Christian community," Lapides explained. "When the gospels were being circulated, there were people living who had been around when all these things happened. Someone would have said to Matthew, 'You know it didn't happen that way. We're trying to communicate a life of righteousness and truth, so don't taint it with a lie.'" (p. 183-84)
This argument rests depends on a stack of assumptions a mile high, including the truth of the traditions about who wrote the gospels. Yes, if we assume the gospels were written by men who had known Jesus, then of course other people who had known him could have set them straight on the facts. But to suppose on this account that they must be true is to argue in a circle.
This is distressingly typical of evangelical apologetics. They boil down to a convoluted way of saying "Christianity must be true because if it were not true, then it would not be true."
Strobel then reminds Lapides of the skeptics' observation that many of the of Old Testament prophecies allegedly fulfilled by Jesus are not, on the face of them, obvious references to the Messiah.
Lapides sighed. "You know, I go through the books that people write to try to tear down what we believe. That's not fun to do, but I spend the time to look at each objection individually and then to research the context and the wording in the original language," he said. "And every single time, the prophecies have stood up and shown themselves to be true.
"So here's my challenge to the skeptics: don't accept my word for it. . . . Spend the time to research it yourself. . . . There are plenty of books out there to help you.
"And one more thing: sincerely ask God to show you whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. (p. 185)
We're back once again to the dogma of skeptical pigheadedness. The unbeliever is assured that if he will only devote the time and resources to learn what the prophecies said in their original language, it will then be obvious that the prophecies really were messianic predictions. And if he is still not convinced, then he should pray until he is convinced. And if prayer does not work, then that proves he never really wanted to know the truth in the first place.
And just where in the Old Testament, by the way, are those "several dozen" messianic prophecies that Strobel referred to? Strobel does not tell us. This chapter is not about demonstrating that Jesus fulfilled any prophecies. This chapter instead is about Christians saying he did and insisting that anyone who thinks he did not is just being stubborn.
Since Strobel didn't say what those prophecies were, I went googling for them. I found a Christian Web site listing 52 of those alleged prophecies. But before we examine a couple of them, let us think about what is required before we can reasonably infer that a particular prophecy has been fulfilled by a particular event.
We must first remember that in virtually every instance, a New Testament writer said that a certain event X in the life of Jesus fulfilled a certain prophecy Y in the Scriptures. Since Strobel has not yet proven that anything reported by the gospel writers actually happened, it hardly matters how many messianic prophesies there were. We won't know whether Jesus fulfilled any of them until we know whether the gospels are historically accurate.
However, we may proceed for the moment on the assumption that the gospels are factual at least in some general way. We must then ask, regarding each prophecy, whether the passage in question was in fact intended to predict something about the messiah.
It would have helped greatly if a single prophet had said, "Hear this, O Israel. You will recognize your messiah as follows. (1) He will be born of a virgin in the city of Bethlehem. (2) The king will murder all the children in that city in a futile attempt to kill the messiah. (3) The child's parents will take him to Egypt for his safety, and then after the king has died will return to Nazareth, where the child will grow up. . . ." and so on down the list of 52 prophecies.
But that did not happen.
Let us consider the case of Jeanne Dixon's alleged prophecy of the John F. Kennedy assassination. In 1956, Dixon predicted that the 1960 presidential election would be won by the Democratic candidate and that the winner would die in office. Could this have been merely a lucky guess?
Why not? When she made the forecast, President Eisenhower was reasonably popular and seemed assured of re-election that year, which meant no incumbent would be running in 1960. The White House would be essentially up for grabs, and so Dixon probably had roughly a 50 percent chance of being correct in her forecast of a Democratic victory.
As for the victor's dying in office, there was a superstition in those days that any president elected in a year divisible by 20 was fated to die in office. It had happened ever since William Henry Harrison, winner of the 1840 election, died shortly after his inauguration. The pattern continued with Lincoln (winner in 1860), Garfield (1880), McKinley (1900), Harding (1920), and Roosevelt (1940). Anyone who was the least bit inclined to believe in omens surely expected that whoever won the presidency in 1960 was doomed. Dixon was hardly being adventurous, then, in her prediction.
But was she merely guessing, or did she actually know something? Well, during the 1960 campaign between Kennedy and Richard Nixon, she predicted that Kennedy would lose the election. This flatly contradicted her 1956 prophecy.
Now, she did not predict in 1956 that John F. Kennedy would win the 1960 presidential election and that he would die in office, but she did say, in 1956, that a Democrat would do these things. We have seen that this did not require extraordinary prescience. It required only a lucky guess.
One could have polled the American electorate in 1956 and asked them two questions: (1) Which party will win the presidency in 1960? (2) Will the victor die in office? The result would have been thousands of individual predictions of what actually did happen. America would have been a nation of prophets.
To be credited with supernatural insight, a purported prophet must be so specific as not only to rule out guesswork, but to eliminate the possibility that any event other than the one in question would have fulfilled the prophecy. Dixon's 1956 prophecy would have been fulfilled no matter which Democrat had been elected president in 1960, if that Democrat had died in office, no matter how he died. She did not predict the election of a senator from Massachusetts or any other state, and she did not predict an assassination. She predicted only that the 1960 presidential winner would be a Democrat and would die in office.
Another condition of prophecy fulfillment is that the prophecy be unambiguous. It was perfectly obvious that Jeanne Dixon was not forecasting the death in office of the British prime minister or of any state governor. She was talking about the president of the United States, and not just any president, but the one who would be elected in the year 1960. This fact was obvious, not only in hindsight, but at the time she made the prediction.
In examining messianic prophecies, we must ask whether someone who heard the prophet, at the time he spoke, would have thought, "Obviously, he's talking about the messiah." Retroactive interpretations prove nothing beyond the imagination of the interpreter.
The Old Testament messianic prophecies are nowhere near as specific as Dixon's presidential prophecy. They say nothing about when the predicted event would occur. Most of them suggest nothing about whom they actually are referring to. If they do suggest anything, the context clearly implies that some individual other than the messiah is being discussed. Let us now look at some examples.
According to evangelicals, the prophetic utterances begin with Genesis 3:15, which states that a descendant of Eve would bruise the serpent's head and in turn be bruised on the heel. Could anyone but Jesus have fulfilled this prophecy? Yes. It has probably happened literally hundreds of times throughout human history that some person has injured a snake by stepping on its head and bruised their heel in the process. It never got into the history books because nobody who saw it happen thought "Aha! Prophecy fulfilled!"
Next is Genesis 12:3, where God tells Abraham, "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." This is so murky as to be meaningless. Any number of Jewish scientists have, it could credibly be argued, fulfilled this prophecy.
And so it goes, on and on. Nowhere in Genesis is there a prediction such that anyone who heard it at the time would have construed as a messianic prediction unless someone had said to them: "This is about the messiah."
The first prophecy after Genesis that a naive listener might have thought messianic is Numbers 24:17-19: "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth."
Then there is II Samuel 7:12-13, in which the prophet Nathan is instructed to tell David, "When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever."
Still, in none of these does the writer say, or even hint, "and this person will be the Messiah." They are not, therefore, specific enough to count as fulfilled prophecies.
Let us now consider Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. This was prophesied by Micah, or so Matthew says.
It seems unlikely that anyone listening to Micah would have guessed as much. In the King James Version, the verse (Micah 5:2) referenced by Matthew is: "But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting."
Here it is again, in context, from the NIV:
Marshal your troops, O city of troops, for a siege is laid against us. They will strike Israel's ruler on the cheek with a rod.
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.
Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.
And he will be their peace. When the Assyrian invades our land and marches through our fortresses, we will raise against him seven shepherds, even eight leaders of men.
They will rule the land of Assyria with the sword, the land of Nimrod with drawn sword. He will deliver us from the Assyrian when he invades our land and marches into our borders.
And here, in context, is what Isaiah had to say about a virgin birth:
Then the LORD said to Isaiah, Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Washerman's Field. Say to him, 'Be careful, keep calm and don't be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood - because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah's son have plotted your ruin, saying, "Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it."
'Yet this is what the Sovereign LORD says: "It will not take place, it will not happen, for the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is only Rezin. Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people. The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah's son. If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.'"
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, "Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights."
But Ahaz said, "I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test."
Then Isaiah said, "Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right.
"But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah - he will bring the king of Assyria."
In that day the LORD will whistle for flies from the distant streams of Egypt and for bees from the land of Assyria. They will all come and settle in the steep ravines and in the crevices in the rocks, on all the thornbushes and at all the water holes. In that day the Lord will use a razor hired from beyond the River—the king of Assyria—to shave your head and the hair of your legs, and to take off your beards also.
Where is the contextual hint that this any of this was about the messiah? It is not there, except by retrospective interpretation.
There are no explicitly and unambiguously messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. Jewish expectations of a messiah seem to have arisen after the Roman conquest of Palestine. Those who held this expectation found Old Testament passages with which they could defend it, usually by taking those passages out of context, as the gospel authors obviously did.
According to Lapides, we are being misled by our ignorance of the original Hebrew texts. I cannot refute that, since I don't know Hebrew, but I do know of at least two instances in which knowledge of the original language undermines the messianic interpretations of Matthew and Luke.
The context of Micah's passage about the ruler from Bethlehem makes Jesus of Nazareth seem a poor match, but more to the point is what one learns about the original meaning of "Bethlehem Ephrathah." It seems to refer not to the city of Bethlehem but to a clan descended from a man named Bethlehem and a wife of Caleb, named Ephrathah, all of whom are mentioned in the second and fourth chapters of I Chronicles. Several modern translations, including the conservatively translated NIV, render the passage to say "clans of Judah" rather than "thousands of Judah."
As for the virgin birth, its context indicates that whatever birth was being predicted, Ahaz was going to see it, because it was a sign intended for Ahaz regarding the outcome of a situation he himself was facing, not for a future generation of Israelites regarding the ultimate destiny of their nation. Further, the Hebrew word translated as "virgin" in the KJV was not the word used by Israelites themselves to denote a woman who has never had sex. That word was bethulah. Isaiah used the word almah, which signifies only that the woman in question is of marriageable age.
Space precludes a detailed examination of every Old Testament passage that evangelicals have ever claimed as a messianic prophecy fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. I have already presented more evidence refuting their prophetic nature than Strobel offers in support of his claim. Lapides, Strobel's expert witness, offers no evidence that any prophecy was fulfilled. He only asserts that it happened and then questions the intellectual integrity of anyone who dares to disagree with him.
Having satisfied himself that dozens of details about Jesus' life had been predicted by Old Testament writers, Strobel next seeks to demolish a theory first proposed by seventh-century Muslims and revived during the 19th century. It is still, apparently, taken seriously by a few people today, but one rarely encounters it except when evangelicals set it up for target practice.
Most skeptics take it for granted that Jesus of Nazareth actually did die by crucifixion. According to the theory Strobel wishes to refute, though, that never happened. Instead, Jesus only went into a coma that the Roman executioners mistook for death. He came out of his coma while in the tomb and departed it, appearing to some of his followers occasionally over the next few weeks. His disciples, believing like everyone else that he really had died, presumed that he must have risen from the dead. Jesus then disappeared for reasons unknown and spent the rest of his life somewhere in obscurity while the disciples proceeded to convince thousands of people that they had witnessed his resurrection.
To prove that this is not what really happened, Strobel finds a Christian physician, Dr. Alexander Metherell, who besides his M.D. has a doctorate in engineering.
I sought out Metherell because I heard he possessed the medical and scientific credentials to explain the crucifixion. But I also had another motivation: I had been told he could discuss the topic dispassionately as well as accurately. That was important to me, because I wanted to let the facts speak for themselves, without the hyperbole or charged language that might otherwise manipulate emotions. (p. 193)
Strobel starts his interview by going off on a tangent. Is it possible, he asks Metherell, that Jesus literally sweat blood during his prayer in Gethsemane? Metherell assured him that there is a medical condition, rare but real, caused by severe stress which can cause perspiration to be slightly bloody. (p. 195)
(Strobel does not ask, and Metherell does not say, how an omnipotent, omniscient being could be under that kind of stress.)
Metherell's description of this condition (called hematidosis) and of the clinical effects of Jesus' subsequent flogging and crucifixion, could have been a paraphrase of a 1986 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. That article, "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ," was jointly written by a pathologist and a clergyman. The authors concluded that, assuming Jesus was flogged according to standard Roman practice, and that he was immediately thereafter crucified, it is essentially certain that he died of cardiac arrest brought on by asphyxiation. (http://www.cfpeople.org/Apologetics/page51a024.html)
"There was absolutely no doubt that Jesus was dead," Metherell tells Strobel. (p. 200)
As we have noted, practically nobody does doubt that he was dead. It may also be noted, though, that this conclusion assumes that the accounts of what happened to Jesus on that day are accurate in every detail with the possible sole exception of the assertion that he died. It seems strange that anyone, skeptics especially, should question only that single detail.
The evidence that he did in fact die is identical in credibility to the evidence that he was flogged and crucified, as well as to the evidence that his disciples saw him alive two days later. The gospel writers say it all happened. I would not suggest, as some fundamentalists do, that we are obliged to believe either all of it or none of it. However, if the mere fact of "Matthew said so" is proof enough for any of it, then logically "Matthew said so" is proof enough for all of it.
As Metherell observes, the coma hypothesis is hardly more believable than the resurrection itself.
Do you see what I'm saying? After suffering that horrible abuse, with all the catastrophic blood loss and trauma, he would have looked so pitiful that the disciples would never have hailed him as a victorious conqueror of death; they would have felt sorry for him and tried to nurse him back to health.
So it's preposterous to think that if he had appeared to them in that awful state, his followers would have been prompted to start a worldwide movement based on the hope that someday they too would have a resurrection body like his. There's just no way. (p. 202)
And, with this observation, Metherell effectively admits that he has just defeated a straw man. To question the credibility of the gospels, it is in no way necessary to claim that Jesus did not die on the cross. Neither is it necessary to claim that the gospels are entirely false. It is necessary only to demonstrate that we have no good reason to assume that they are entirely correct. The question of whether Jesus actually died in the manner described is largely irrelevant. If it could be proven that he did not, then of course Christians lose their claim of gospel inerrancy, with disastrous implications for all their other beliefs, but the coma theory was never anything but pure speculation to begin with. It is not and never was a plausible alternative to Christian orthodoxy. But there are plenty of other alternatives, and some of them are very plausible.
There is a similar irrelevancy to Strobel's next issue: Was Jesus really buried in a tomb, and did the disciples really find the tomb empty on the Sunday morning after the crucifixion?
Strobel next interviews theologian William Lane Craig about the hypothesis that the resurrection stories were symbolically but not literally true. Did Jesus' followers really discover an empty tomb on Sunday morning, or did he rise from the dead only in some figurative or allegorical sense?
Strobel opens the chapter with a reminiscence of a previous meeting he had with Craig, during a debate between Craig and an atheist. Strobel informs us in an endnote that the debate was recorded on a videocassette produced in 1993. Since Strobel's book was published in 1998, this interview and the others apparently took place during the mid-1990s. By this time Strobel had been a believer for more than a decade, since he also informs us that his own conversion occurred in 1981. (p. 269)
Early in the book, he informs us that his two-year investigation of Christianity's claims began after his wife's conversion in 1979. The Case for Christ, then, is not actually an account of that investigation, although the book is often promoted as if it were.
In any case, the question of whether the tomb was really empty, like practically every other question Strobel raises, is irrelevant until it has been established that what the gospels say happened actually did happen.
But let us go ahead and suppose that Jesus did die by crucifixion as reported. Was he given a proper burial afterward? As Strobel acknowledges, the Romans ordinarily left crucifixion victims on the cross to rot or be eaten by scavenging animals, or else they buried the bodies in a common grave.
"Based on these customary practices," I said to Craig, "wouldn't you admit that this is most likely what happened?"
"If all you looked at was the customary practice, yes, I'd agree," came his reply. "But that would ignore the specific evidence in this case." (p. 208)
The "specific evidence," as usual, consists solely of the assertions of New Testament authors.
Craig's first exhibit is Paul's declaration to the church in Corinth that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again the third day. Craig then declares: "This creed is incredibly early and therefore trustworthy material." (p. 209)
He then asserts that the gospels, although written later than the epistle to the Corinthians, constitute "multiple, independent attestation of this burial story, and Joseph of Arimathea is specifically named in all four accounts." (p. 209) In other words, we can believe that Paul knew what he was talking about because other Christians, writing several decades later, assert the same thing with additional details.
Strobel then asks about the numerous discrepancies in the gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb—the number of women, their names, when they arrived, what they saw upon arrival, and what they did immediately afterward. He summarizes the contradictory details by reading Craig a passage written by Michael Martin of Boston University. Martin's conclusion, he reminds Craig, is that "the accounts of what happened at the tomb are either inconsistent or can only be made consistent with the aid of implausible interpretations." (p. 214)
Craig very nearly admits that Martin's argument effectively does prove that the four gospels cannot all be inerrant in their accounts of the first Easter. He explains to Strobel:
"For a philosopher, if something is inconsistent, the law of contradiction says, 'This cannot be true, throw it out!' However, the historian looks at these narratives and says, 'I see some inconsistencies, but I notice something about them: they're all in the secondary details.'
"The core of the story is the same: Joseph of Arimathea takes the body of Jesus, puts it in a tomb, the tomb is visited by a small group of women followers of Jesus early on the Sunday morning following his crucifixion, and they find that the tomb is empty." (p. 215)
Actually, a rationalist, be he philosopher or historian, does not respond to contradictions among narratives by inferring that nothing in any of the narratives is true. He concludes only that if the narratives are inconsistent in a particular detail, then at least one of the narratives is incorrect in that detail. There is no logical or philosophical principle according to which inconsistent narratives must be declared entirely false.
Craig's hypothetical historian, before he could conclude that the consistent portions were proven true, would first have to demonstrate that the narratives were written by eyewitnesses or were based on eyewitness accounts. Craig is the 11th person that Strobel has interviewed for this book, and so far not one has offered any better evidence for eyewitness authorship than the belief of a few second-century Christians to that effect.
Strobel later asks why no early Christian writer besides the gospel authors mentioned the empty tomb. Even Peter, in his first sermon after the event as reported by the author of Acts, does not offer it as proof of the resurrection.
According to Craig, this is simply untrue.
"The empty tomb is found in Peter's speech," Craig insisted. "He proclaims in verse 24 [of Acts 2] that 'God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death.'
"Then he quotes from a psalm about how God would not allow his Holy One to undergo decay. This had been written by David. . . ."
Craig looked up from the Bible. "This speech contrasts David's tomb, which remained to that day, with the prophecy in which David says Christ would be raised up. . . . It's clearly implicit that the tomb was left empty." (p. 219)
Implicit, maybe, but the fact remains that Peter did not say to his audience, "If you don't believe me, you can go look at the tomb yourselves like I did." Neither, for that matter, does Peter tell his audience on this occasion about having talked with Jesus of Nazareth after his resurrection. Instead of telling them what he has seen, he quotes scripture to prove his point.
We can also wonder why the existence of David's tomb is even significant. Jesus' tomb, according to evangelicals, also was still there. The significant fact, relative to the resurrection, was not the presence of a tomb. It was the absence of a body in the tomb. If Peter had been trying to prove the resurrection with a contrast of tombs, he would have said something like: "David's tomb is still with us—and David's bones are still in it. Jesus' tomb is empty." But he did not say that.
When Strobel asks Craig to summarize the positive evidence for believing in the empty tomb, the response is six items.
1. The early church believed in it, as evidenced by I Corinthians 15, which Craig declares to be a "reliable source of historical information about Jesus." Actually, if it is a reliable source about anything, it reliably informs us about Paul's understanding of Christian doctrine.
2. The site of Jesus' tomb was common knowledge in Jerusalem. If it had not been found empty, Christianity would never have gotten started. This argument assumes the historical accuracy of the gospels, which has not been established yet.
3. Mark's gospel, apparently the first one written, was based on a still earlier document, which must have been written too soon after Jesus' death to have contained any legendary material. This assumes the existence of a historical Jesus about which legends might have arisen.
Anyway, it is demonstrably not true that legends cannot arise about a person almost immediately after they have died. They have in fact arisen while the person was still alive. During the 19th century there were legends galore about famous people in the American West while those people were still living. Davy Crockett, Wild Bill Hickock, and Buffalo Bill Cody are just three examples.
4. The gospel stories are too simple and unembellished to be early legends. In fact, they are no simpler and no less adorned than the story of Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag or of George Washington confessing to his father about the cherry tree.
5. If the story had been fabricated, it would have had the empty tomb being discovered by men, not women, because the Jews of the time were too misogynistic to put women into such a flattering role. This is hardly persuasive. Even misogynists are capable of believing that some women, sometimes, can do good deeds.
Besides, the story does not really flatter the women that much. None of Jesus' followers, male or female, expected the tomb to be empty. The women allegedly were there only to anoint the body, a task evidently too trivial for the men to perform. The women apparently did not consider the fact that in order to get to the body, they'd have to persuade the guards to let them into the tomb. Having gotten the guards to cooperate, they then would still have the problem of moving the stone away from the entrance.
It is understandable that in their grief, they would not be thinking clearly. On this issue, the only difference between me and a misogynist is that a misogynist would say that women, whether in grief or not, never think clearly.
6. Craig asserts, "The earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the historicity of the empty tomb (p. 221)."
Craig does not say to what Jewish polemic he is referring. He does not identify any document in which it appears. He does not say when it was written or who wrote it. He offers no quotation from it. He does nothing but imply that there was one.
Craig goes on to say: "In other words, there was nobody who was claiming that the tomb still contained Jesus' body (p. 220-21)."
Let us assume that there exists an anti-Christian document written by a first-century Jew. Let us also assume, as Craig asserts, that does not contain any statement to the effect of "There is still a body in that tomb." What could explain that? Well, one possibility is that nobody could point to any tomb that was known ever to have contained Jesus' body.
Having proved to his own satisfaction that Jesus actually died on the cross and was buried in a tomb, and that the tomb was found empty three days later, Strobel must confront the implication that a miracle must have occurred. He asks about the plausibility of this, and Craig replies,
"I would argue that the hypothesis of God raised Jesus from the dead is not at all improbable. . . . What is improbable is the hypothesis that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. That, I would agree, is outlandish. Any hypothesis would be more probable than saying the corpse of Jesus spontaneously came back to life.
"But the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead doesn't contradict science or any known facts of experience. All it requires is the hypothesis that God exists, and I think there are good independent reasons for believing that he does. . . . As long as the existence of God is even possible, it's possible that he acted in history by raising Jesus from the dead." (p. 222)
I am unaware of anyone who would argue that an omnipotent being could not perform miracles. The question we are asking is whether we have any good evidence that this particular miracle happened and that every detail of its occurrence was reported without error. So far, the answer is still no. It is all hearsay, and not even good hearsay at that. We do not know who the witnesses were or whether there even were any witnesses. We know only that Christians of the second century said that there were witnesses and said that they were reliable. Until we have some good reason to take their word for it, doubt is reasonable. The evidence, so far as Strobel has given us any, might allow belief, but it does not compel belief.
Having proved to his own satisfaction that Jesus rose from the dead as the gospels say he did, Strobel now seeks to convince his readers that he appeared to his disciples just like the gospels say he did. To do this he interviews Gary Habermas, author of several books defending the historicity of the resurrection.
Habermas begins not with the gospel accounts but with Paul's claim in I Corinthians that Jesus had appeared to him as well as about 500 other people, some of whom he identifies by name. Strobel, pretending again to be a skeptic, then goes through the motions of attempting to discredit Paul.
"But," I protested, "it's not really a firsthand account. Paul is providing the list [of other witnesses] second- or thirdhand. Doesn't that diminish its value as evidence?" (p. 230)
Not to Habermas. "Keep in mind," he tells Strobel:
"Paul personally affirms that Jesus appeared to him as well, so this provides firsthand testimony. And Paul didn't just pick up this list from strangers on the street. The leading view is that he got it directly from the eyewitnesses Peter and James themselves . . . ." (p. 230)
Strobel and Habermas then review the gospel accounts of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, and then they move on to Acts. Habermas notes that according to the author of Acts, Peter told some of his audiences that he had met with Jesus after the resurrection. And, according to the same author, Paul affirmed, "For many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem." (p. 235)
But why should we believe the men who wrote the gospels or Acts? Strobel has yet to give us a good reason.
Strobel asks Habermas about the legend hypothesis, and we get a recycling of Craig's argument. Stories of the appearances, like those of the resurrection itself, supposedly arose too early to have been fabrications.
Then there is the hallucination hypothesis. A few skeptics have suggested that the disciples actually did see Jesus, but only as a hallucination. As apologists generally do, Habermas gets his critical-thinking act together very well when it is time to refute an argument that almost no skeptic actually makes. I for one will readily concede how implausible it is that Christianity arose because dozens of people experienced similar hallucinations over a period of several weeks.
Previously, after establishing to his own satisfaction that the gospel accounts of Jesus' life were accurate, Strobel tried to find corroborating evidence from secular history. In his next chapter he attempts to corroborate the resurrection the same way, looking for evidence of it outside of the Bible.
Strobel next interviews J.P. Moreland, philosophy professor at the Talbot School of Theology.
So I began our interview with a point-blank challenge: "Can you give me five pieces of circumstantial evidence that convince you Jesus rose from the dead?"
Moreland listened intently to the question. "Five examples?" he asked. "Five things that are not in dispute today?"
I nodded. (p. 246)
1. The disciples died for their beliefs.
Moreland starts with the argument from martyrdom: Jesus' followers were willing to die for their belief in his resurrection.
This is not entirely undisputed.
But it is a favorite of evangelicals, and Strobel is ready with the skeptics' favorite rebuttal: Followers of other religions have died for their faiths, too, and our own generation has witnessed the martyrdom of people for manifestly erroneous beliefs. According to Moreland, the difference is that Jesus' disciples were in a position to know their faith was false, if indeed it was false.
"They were in a unique position not just to believe Jesus rose from the dead but to know for sure. And when you've got eleven credible people with no ulterior motives, with nothing to gain and a lot to lose, who all agree they observed something with their own eyes—now you've got some difficulty explaining that away."
I smiled because I had been playing devil's advocate. . . . I knew he was right. In fact, this critical distinction was pivotal in my own spiritual journey.
It had been put to me this way: People will die for their religious beliefs if they sincerely believe they're true, but people won't die for their religious beliefs if they know their beliefs are false. (p. 247)
One might question even that assumption, but we can let it slide. It seems more to the point that people who know a proposition to be false will not believe that proposition. If the disciples knew that Jesus did not rise from the dead, then whatever they died for, it was not for their belief in the resurrection. They would have had no such belief.
We know from secular sources that a few Christians in some places were being persecuted within a generation after the purported resurrection. But were any of the disciples mentioned in the New Testament among them? We cannot tell from secular history, because secular history nowhere names any first-century persecution victims—with the possible exception of Josephus's reference to James. And even there, Josephus does not say that James was killed on account of anything he said or believed about Jesus. He gives no reason at all for James's murder. All he says is that it happened.
Aside from Josephus, the only non-Biblical information we have about the disciples is church tradition—stories that arose during Christianity's early years and were transmitted orally until someone got around to writing them down.
Not one document reporting the martyrdom of any New Testament figure is even purportedly written by a witness. Except for Peter, there is no proof that any of the 12 disciples was even a real person. We have solid evidence only that by sometime during the second century, some Christians thought there had been 12 disciples known by the names that we know them by.
In sum, contrary to Moreland, it is not undisputed that numerous men who were followers of Jesus of Nazareth were willing to die for their belief that he had risen from the dead. It is widely believed, perhaps, but not undisputed.
2. Skeptics became believers.
Moreland's next item of circumstantial evidence is the "conversion of skeptics" argument. As examples, Moreland cites James the brother of Jesus and Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul the apostle after his conversion. Strobel asks him:
"Do you really have any credible evidence that James had been a skeptic of Jesus?"
"Yes, I do," he said. "The gospels tell us Jesus' family, including James, were embarrassed by what he was claiming to be. . . . In ancient Judaism it was highly embarrassing for a rabbi's family not to accept him. Therefore the gospel writers would have no motive for fabricating this skepticism if it weren't true." (p. 248)
Once again, Strobel looks for evidence of the Bible's truth and finds it only in the Bible itself.
It is the same with Paul's conversion. The only firsthand information we have about it is Paul's own account. Since Paul is widely believed even by most skeptics to have been the actual author of many (though not all) of the epistles attributed to him, Strobel wins this point.
Which means that we have exactly one reliably documented case of a hard-core skeptic's conversion to Christianity within a few years of when Jesus is said to have lived. All other stories of skeptics' conversions during that period are hearsay.
3. Thousands of Jews were converted.
Moreland's next item of alleged evidence is a variation on the conversion argument. After discussing the tenacity with which first-century Jews clung to their cultural ideals, he observes,
"Now a rabbi named Jesus appears from a lower-class region. He teaches for three years, gathers a following of lower- and middle-class people, gets in trouble with the authorities, and gets crucified. . . .
"But five weeks after he's crucified, over ten thousand Jews are following him and claiming that he is the initiator of a new religion. And get this: they're willing to give up or alter all five of the social institutions that they have been taught since childhood have such importance both sociologically and theologically."
"So the implication is that something big was going on," I said.
Moreland exclaimed, "Something very big was going on!" (p. 250)
Moreland does not say where he gets 10,000 converts within five weeks of Jesus' death. The gospels themselves report no conversions anytime after the resurrection. In Acts, which begins six weeks after Jesus' death, the author reports the conversion of "about three thousand" Jews in response to Peter's inaugural sermon. (Acts 2:41) At an unspecified time later, according to Acts' author, "the number of men grew to about five thousand." (Acts 4:4)
We might grant that the conversion of even 5,000 Jews within several months was remarkable enough; however, the author of Acts was writing many years after these events and does not claim to have been present to witness them. Strobel is still using the Bible as evidence for the Bible's authenticity.
4. Sacraments evolved.
Moreland then asserts that the early institution of communion and baptism are evidence that Jesus actually rose from the dead. In his effort to defend this assertion, he succeeds only in proving that the early Christians believed Jesus' death to be theologically significant enough to have evolved a ritual around it, and that by baptizing in his name they were declaring their belief in his divinity.
5. Christianity survived.
Moreland next argues that the rapid growth and continued existence of Christianity itself is evidence for the historical accuracy of the gospels.
"OK, then let's think about the start of the Christian church. There's no question it began shortly after the death of Jesus. . . . Not only that, but this movement triumphed over a number of competing ideologies and eventually overwhelmed the entire Roman empire.
"Now, if you were a Martian looking down on the first century, would you think Christianity or the Roman Empire would survive? You probably wouldn't put money on a ragtag group of people whose primary message was that a crucified carpenter from an obscure village had triumphed over the grave." (p. 254)
What there is no question about is that Christianity got started no later than within a few years of 30 CE. To assume that it could not have started a few years or even several decades earlier assumes the conclusion of Jesus' historicity.
Whenever it began, its triumph over competing ideologies is hardly unique, and whatever it did to the Roman empire, it was not to overwhelm it.
What a visiting Martian would have thought during a first-century visit would surely depend in part upon Martian history. We can hardly just assume that intelligent beings on another world would have experience with anything even remotely analogous to either religions or empires.
One really must wonder, too, how strongly Moreland really wants to push the presumption that the truth of a religion's fundamental teaching can be measured by the facility with which it achieves some kind of hegemony over a large portion of the world.
Addendum: Christianity changes people.
Finally, Moreland appends the argument that belief in Jesus has changed people's lives. Strobel knows that skeptical readers will object.
But, I protested, people experience life change in other religions whose tenets contradict Christianity. "Isn't it dangerous to base a decision on subjective experiences?" I asked.
"Let me make two things clear," he said. "First, I'm not saying, 'Just trust your experience.' I'm saying, 'Use your mind calmly and weigh the evidence, and then let experience be a confirming piece of evidence.' Second, if what this evidence points to is true - that is, if all these lines of evidence really do point to the resurrection of Jesus - the evidence itself begs for an experiential test."
"Define that," I said.
"The experiential test is, 'He's still alive, and I can find out by relating to him.' If you were on a jury and heard enough evidence to convince you of someone's guilt, it wouldn't make sense to stop short of the final step of convicting him. . . .
"So," I said, "if the evidence points strongly in this direction, it's only rational and logical to follow it into the experiential realm."
He nodded in approval. "That's precisely right," he said. "It's the final confirmation of the evidence." (p. 256)
Moreland is playing with ambiguities here. He begins by asserting that the changed lives of Christian believers confirm the validity of their belief. Strobel points out that the same implicit premises lead to other, contradictory conclusions. Moreland then backs off and suggests that one ought to have logical reasons for believing before making a potentially life-changing decision based on that belief.
So far, so good, but the contradiction is not yet resolved. Many followers of religions contradictory to Christianity would doubtlessly assure Moreland that they did use their minds calmly and weigh the evidence before they came to believe in those religions.
Moreland then offers what he calls the "experiential test." Before examining it, we should note that "test" can mean one of two things scientifically, depending on context. A test can be definitive or confirmatory.
An example of a definitive test would be one that checks for the presence of a particular chemical, such as oxygen. It's one of the first that chemistry students learn to perform. If you have a container filled with an unknown gas that you suspect is oxygen, you can do the following to find out, unambiguously, whether it is or is not oxygen. After igniting the tip of a small piece of wood, you blow the flame out. While the tip is still glowing, you insert it into the container. If the tip reignites, the gas in the container is oxygen. You know this for certain, because no other gas will cause the tip to ignite. When a chemist says that a certain procedure is "a test for X," he means that the procedure will tell you with certainty whether a substance subjected to the procedure is or is not X.
A confirmatory test is the kind applied to theories. It can tell you if a theory is not correct, but it cannot tell you with certainty if the theory is correct.
A theory will predict that certain outcomes will be observed under certain conditions. Such a prediction is said to be a test of the theory. If the conditions are set up, and the outcomes are observed, then the theory is confirmed.
This does not mean that we know the theory is correct in every detail. No matter how often or for how long our observations confirm the theory, it remains subject to revision, or replacement with a new theory, whenever observations contradict a prediction.
Theories are created to explain particular observed facts. There is always a possibility that another theory could explain the same facts better, but whenever an alternative theory is proposed, there are established methods for evaluating which one provides the better explanation.
Moreland seems to imply that the experiential test for a religious belief is confirmatory. You examine the evidence in favor of the religion's teachings. The evidence suggests that if you believe the teachings, your life will improve in certain ways. You then believe and act on those beliefs. If your life then improves as predicted, you have confirmed the religion's teachings.
As Strobel notes, other religions (competing theories) make similar predictions and have similar confirmatory outcomes. Moreland has acknowledged this, and so the experiential test cannot be a definitive test. But, does Moreland really assert that experience can confirm belief? Strobel seems to think so, but let's take a closer look at Moreland's statement.
Moreland says, "The experiential test is, 'He's still alive, and I can find out by relating to him.'" Well, no, that is not a test. It is an assertion. A test would be: "If he is alive, then I can find out by relating to him."
If this seems to be mere semantic nitpicking, we can examine the remainder of Moreland's remarks—his jury analogy—to see whether he was speaking loosely and intended the if-then meaning. It turns out that the rest of his statements do not support this interpretation, even if it was intended. The jury analogy illustrates how it is logical for a person to act on a belief if he honestly thinks he has good reason to have that belief.
If I wish to undertake an ocean voyage, and I have good reason to believe that a certain vessel is seaworthy, then it would be logical for me to board the vessel and let it take me to my destination. The test of my belief, however, is not in my getting aboard.
By getting aboard, I prove only the sincerity of my belief. I do not prove that my belief is justified. The test of my belief is in whether or not I arrive safely at my destination.
If the vessel sinks en route, then my belief is proved wrong. On the other hand, if I do arrive safely, my belief has been confirmed, but not actually proved. Perhaps, unbeknownst to me, the ship was leaking during the entire voyage and the crew had to engage in heroic efforts to keep it afloat.
Moreland essentially is arguing, though apparently without intending to, that if a jury convicts a defendant, then we can reasonably infer that the evidence on which they convicted him was conclusive. We all sincerely wish that such an inference were invariably valid, but we know that it is not. It is perhaps usually valid, but certainly not always.
Strobel begins his summation with a list of the main questions he has asked:
Strobel claims that he discovered, during an open-minded inquiry, that the answer to each question is yes. What he actually found was some people with respectable resumes who gave him answers that he wanted to get.
His experts could give the reader no reason to believe that the gospels were reliable biographies of Jesus of Nazareth—no reason, that is, aside from the fact that by the middle of the second century certain church leaders were saying they were. The earliest surviving manuscripts of the gospels contain no indication of who wrote them. The earliest pronouncements of their authenticity offer no rationale for believing them to be authentic. We might as well argue that the story of George Washington and the cherry true is true because almost everybody who read Parson Weems's book believed it.
The scrutiny, as he calls it, to which Strobel subjected the gospels during his interviews was practically meaningless. Without evidence that they were written by eyewitnesses or in reliance on eyewitness testimony, he can prove nothing by quoting from them.
As for extra-Biblical evidence of Jesus, this much is incontrovertible:
Strobel's next question—does archeological evidence confirm or contradict Jesus' biographies?—is less significant than he would have us believe. The evidence to date confirms no detail that has any significance to the gospel narratives. The gospels are supported by archeology to the same extent that Gone with the Wind is supported by 19th-century newspaper accounts of the American Civil War.
Continuing, Strobel recaps his answers to:
And Strobel's answers are yes, yes, no, yes, and yes.
Since Strobel has not yet produced any solid evidence that there was a Jesus of history, let alone what he said or did, the Jesus of faith is all we have.
There are those who assert that faith is sufficient reason for believing, but if we are to believe Strobel, faith is not necessary. It is his declared purpose to demonstrate that the tangible evidence available to us is sufficient to justify the beliefs of evangelical Christianity. According to him, the evidence is compelling. If we examine it with an open mind, we must believe.
The "Jesus of faith" is the Jesus of the gospels—a man who clearly did believe he was the son of God, who was not crazy, and who fulfilled the attributes of God. The question is not whether the gospels so portray him. The question is whether the gospels portray a man who actually lived and, if so, how accurate their portrayal is. It hardly matters whether the man in the stories fulfilled messianic prophesies if the man in the stories never really lived.
Strobel then wraps it up with:
The gospels say that he really died and was buried, and that he rose from the dead and was seen by his disciples. If you believe the gospels, then you believe that those things happened. But Strobel has not produced a good reason for believing the gospels.
This, then, is the case for Christ. Four books, written perhaps during the late first century and possibly later, three of them probably not written independently, report that a man known as Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God, that he was crucified and died, was buried, and then rose from the dead. During the second century a consensus arose, among those who already believed the stories, that these books had been written by men who were Jesus' disciples or were acquainted with Jesus' disciples.
Does the poverty of this evidence prove that the gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? No, it does not. Does it prove that the authors, whoever they were, wrote inaccurately? No, it does not. Does it prove that there was no resurrection? No, it does not. In this essay, I have not presented and do not claim to have presented any proof that Christianity is wrong.
But we can still ask whether doubt is justified. Is it reasonable to remain skeptical?
In the words of the late Carl Sagan, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Taken at face value, the gospels surely do present an extraordinary claim. Absent extraordinary evidence, doubt is justified.
What kind of supporting evidence may we reasonably insist upon? What kind of evidence must Christians present before they are justified in saying that only fools can disbelieve?
For one thing, the case for Christ should not depend on facts that are seen only by people who already believe. To use eyewitness testimony, you must first establish the existence of eyewitnesses. To establish the existence of eyewitnesses, you must prove the actual occurrence of an event to be witnessed. Anyone who believes with certainty that the gospels constitute eyewitness testimony must already believe that the gospels are true.
For another, all evidence pertinent to an extraordinary claim should support the claim. If any contrary evidence exists, then doubt is justified. If some facts say that Jesus rose from the dead and other others say he did not, then a reasonable person may surely remain undecided if nothing else.
The evidence should be conclusive. It should be of such a nature that anyone who doubts the truth of the gospels must by logical necessity believe a contradiction.
Finally, the evidence in its entirety should be such that no less-extraordinary claim is consistent with it.
Suppose my neighborhood has been plagued by vandalism recently—broken windows, graffiti, slashed tires, and such. If I wake up one morning and find that a tree in my back yard has been uprooted, I might for some reason suspect that vandals had stolen a bulldozer from a nearby construction site and pushed it over. If I saw no bulldozer tracks in the vicinity, I could explain their absence by supposing that the vandals had carefully obliterated all evidence of the bulldozer.
The hypothesis that common vandals would steal a bulldozer to push a tree over just for kicks is a bit extraordinary, but it is plausible. But now let's bring in one more piece of evidence. During the night, a tornado went through my neighborhood. Considering that fact, it would be far more reasonable for me to believe that the tornado uprooted the tree than to blame the vandals.
Even if we had indisputable evidence that the gospels were written by men personally acquainted with Jesus of Nazareth, it would be more reasonable to believe that they got some of their facts wrong than to infer that a man rose from the dead. The evidence of eyewitness authorship, though, is in fact disputed. Many scholars are convinced that the gospels are not eyewitness accounts of anything.
Of course those scholars could be mistaken, but their credentials are as good as those of Strobel's scholars, and Strobel's scholars are as fallible as their detractors. The dispute exists. And therefore, doubt is justified.
More commentary on Strobel's apologetics: The Case for Faith: Trust (Not God, But) Me
(This page last updated on February 5, 2016.).