An Atheist Reads The Case for Christ
PART 1: Examining the Record
Chapter 1: The Eyewitness Evidence – Can the Biographies of Jesus Be Trusted?
The Leo Carter Story
- Leo Carter is an informant known to Lee Strobel. He witnessed Elijah Baptist murder a grocery store owner, survived a murder attempt by Baptist that killed Carter’s brother and a friend, and eventually testified against Baptist at trial, helping to put him and his accomplices behind bars for life.
- As in the James Dixon story with which he opens the Introduction, Strobel shares an anecdote that ultimately works against his intended point. He means to impress upon us the importance of eyewitness testimony — delivered without bias or ulterior motives. But he only invites skeptics to recall that the gospels, the “eyewitness testimony” he will consider in this chapter, are anything but unbiased and objective. They are also, as Strobel and his expert will admit, not eyewitness accounts.
Testimony From Distant Time
- Eyewitness testimony can be compelling and convincing evidence, and it is crucial when evaluating the claims about Jesus Christ being the “unique Son of God.”
- Questions floated about the gospels, or the “biographies of Jesus.” Are they eyewitness accounts? Were they written by people who personally interacted with Jesus and witnessed his ministry, miracles, death and resurrection? Are there records of any contemporary writers who considered the gospel accounts to be trustworthy?
- Strobel introduces his first expert, Dr. Craig L. Blomberg: smart and smart-looking (tall, short brown hair, bearded, thick glasses), high school valedictorian, National Merit Scholar, graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, author of The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Described as honest and tough, not the time to rationalize or gloss over inconsistencies.
- Most suspicious thing about Blomberg to Strobel: Blomberg is a Cubs fan who hopes to see a World Series championship in his lifetime.
The First Interview: Craig L. Blomberg, PH.D
- Re-introduces Blomberg, mentions his office (adorned with carefully framed artwork by his children), describes him as speaking with “the precision of a mathematician.”
Eyewitnesses to History
- According to Blomberg, there is ample support for the claim that all four gospels were actually written by their traditional authors — Matthew actually wrote Matthew, Mark actually wrote Mark, etc. This was uniformly accepted by the early church and there are no competitors for their authorship, with the exception of some mild, ultimately unimportant confusion regarding which John wrote the Gospel of John.
- Does the fact that there are no known competitors for the authorship of the three synoptic gospels mean that it’s perfectly reasonable to assume they were actually written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke?
- Blomberg concedes that there are indications that portions of John were “finalized by an editor.” Blomberg says, [Blomberg:]“Personally, I have no problem believing that somebody closely associated with John may have functioned in that role, putting the last verses into shape and potentially creating the stylistic uniformity of the entire document.” (Lee Strobel, THE CASE FOR CHRIST, p. 24) Evidence for this? Why is a trusted ally editing for John the best explanation for the verses which don’t fit with the rest of the book? Could these verses have been added later?
- All the gospels “obviously based on eyewitness material.”
- Except for the ones that aren’t.
Delving Into Specifics
- Papias, writing around A.D. 125, affirms the accuracy of Mark and Matthew’s gospels.
- Papias was writing nearly 100 years after the purported events. On what basis does he judge the accuracy of Mark and Matthew’s gospels?
- Irenaeus, writing about A.D. 180, claims that Matthew wrote his own gospel based on his experience, that Mark based his on the preachings of Peter, and Luke based his on the preachings of Paul. John also wrote his own gospel, based on his experience.
[Irenaeus:]“Matthew published his own Gospel . . . 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 . . . himself produced his Gospel while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.” (p. 24)
- If we accept the account of Irenaeus as reliable, it leaves us with only two of the four gospels as first-hand eyewitness accounts: Matthew and John. Mark’s gospel is not based on his experience, but on Peter’s account of his own experience. And Mark’s account was written from memory, presumably, since Irenaeus puts Mark’s writing as after the “departure” of Peter and Paul, meaning either their departure to Rome or their deaths. Luke’s gospel is based on the preachings of Paul, who never knew Jesus, so Luke’s account, according to Blomberg’s own source, cannot be considered eyewitness testimony at all.
Ancient Versus Modern Biographies
- The gospels are not biographical in the modern sense, and this is why they omit vast portions of the life of Jesus, skipping most of his childhood and all of his adolescence, and only picking up his adulthood during his ministry, the final years of his life. The gospel writers dwell on the portions of Jesus’s life which they felt were the most important and instructive.
- This style provides another reason for believing that the supernatural claims about Jesus, particularly the resurrection, are true, since if these events were not historically factual, the gospel writers would not have centered their narratives around them.
[Blomberg:]“. . . Christians believe that as wonderful as Jesus’ life and teachings and miracles were, they were meaningless if it were not historically factual that Christ died and was raised from the dead and that this provided atonement, or forgiveness, of the sins of humanity. . . .” (p. 26)
- Neither Strobel nor Blomberg address the many contradictions between the four gospels: the contradictory lineages for Jesus in Matthew and Luke, the disagreement between Mark and John over what time of day Jesus was crucified, the disagreement between Matthew and Luke (author of the Book of Acts) over the circumstances of the death of Judas Iscariot, the discrepancy between the synoptic gospels and John over the length of Jesus’s ministry (one year vs. three years). If details of this period of Jesus’s life were so important, why do at least some of the gospel writers get them wrong?
The Mystery of Q
- The Q document purely hypothetical, may have once existed as a collection of the sayings of Jesus, the Biblical equivalent of a greatest hits album.
- The picture of Jesus one gets from considering only the presumed Q material is much the same as that one gets from considering the gospels in their entirety. The claims about his own divinity, and the knowledge of his miracles, can all be found in Q.
- Is this really in dispute? Strobel and Blomberg spend most of the section on Q establishing that its version of Jesus is the same as the Jesus found in the totality of the gospels. If it’s to establish an earlier source for the gospels, closer to the life of Jesus, why does Blomberg dismiss Q so quickly and unequivocally as “merely a hypothesis”?
- It makes sense for Matthew, an eyewitness, to base some of his account on that of Mark, who wrote from the recollections of Peter, because Peter was a part of the inner circle of Jesus. Matthew cribbing from Mark only shows Matthew’s concern for accuracy.
- In case you didn’t notice, that means that Matthew’s supposed eyewitness account is partially based on Mark’s second-hand account. By Blomberg’s own reckoning that leaves us with John as the only gospel which was written entirely by an eyewitness. John’s gospel was also written last, and, again by Blomberg’s own admission, was at least “put into shape” by someone else.
The Unique Perspective of John
- John’s gospel is so different from the synoptic gospels because John consciously chose not to repeat them, but to supplement them. John’s gospel was written independently and later than Matthew, Mark and Luke.
- Again, as with their considerations of the incompleteness of the gospels’ accounts of the life of Jesus, and the unknown second author who helped “put into shape” the book of John, only Christian-friendly explanations are offered for why John is so different from Matthew, Mark and Luke. Other possible explanations that might throw the historical reliability of the gospels into question are not even mentioned.
Jesus’ Most Audacious Claim
- Though most explicitly made in John, claims of the divinity of Jesus are found in the synoptic gospels as well.
- In the original Greek, Jesus refers to himself as “I Am,” the divine name of God, at the conclusion of the account of his walking on water in Matthew and Mark.
- The title “Son of Man” is a reference to the Book of Daniel, where the Son of Man is a figure who comes to be worshipped and rule an everlasting kingdom.
- Jesus claims throughout the gospels to have the authority to forgive sins, and encourages his followers to pray to him and worship him, all things that would be inappropriate if he were not claiming to be God.
- Again, as with the discussion about the picture of Jesus drawn by the Q material, this seems like a waste of time. So the claims of Jesus’s divinity are found in all four gospels. And? I have never argued otherwise, nor do I consider it at all relevant to how I regard the claims about Jesus, nor can I think of anyone who does.
The Gospels’ Theological Agenda
- The fact that the gospel writers had obvious theological agendas does not cast doubt on the accuracy of their accounts. In the first century unbiased historical chronicles were unheard of; events were not recorded unless they were considered instructive.
- Strobel opens the chapter by stressing the importance of unbiased, objective testimony, and now bias doesn’t matter, even when the account you’re reading was ostensibly written by a person who is an avowed follower of the subject, claims the subject was a miracle-worker who rose from his own death, and is writing for the expressed purpose of passing on the teachings of the subject so that others may have eternal life through their belief in him?
- A parallel suggested by Blomberg is the evidence for the Holocaust, largely preserved and curated by Jewish scholars and organizations. This evidence disproves theories by some that the Holocaust never occurred, and it is not doubted merely because those responsible for bringing it to light have an obvious ideological agenda.
- Blomberg obviously wants to posit the gospel writers as analogs for the Jewish scholars who have preserved the evidence for the Holocaust, when actually it makes more sense to associate the gospel writers (and the apologists who continue to defend them) with the Holocaust deniers, since they both continue to ignore the mountains of evidence challenging their claims.
- Also, the Holocaust is much easier to believe than the Biblical claims about Jesus. Though concentrated in a briefer span of time, and conducted with a cold, systematic efficiency not seen before, mass-genocide was nothing new to human history in the 1940s. And this sadly credible event is firmly established by tons and tons of evidence. A human being actually returning from his own death, on the other hand, is an extraordinary, unprecedented claim for which there is no evidence beyond the supposed testimony of some of Jesus’s most devoted followers.
Hot News From History
- The supernatural elements of the gospels (the miracles and resurrection of Jesus) should not be assumed to be corruptions of the factual account because they were written soon enough after the life of Jesus to prevent such folklore from taking root.
- Arrian and Plutarch’s histories of Alexander the Great were written four hundred years after his death, and it wasn’t until after these histories were written that legendary material begins to enter the stories about Alexander. By contrast, the gospels were written only a few decades after the death of Jesus.
- The gospels were written early enough that living witnesses to the events they describe would have been able to correct any inaccuracies.
- Blomberg claims that by using the Book of Acts and the death of Paul (which he places at A.D. 62) as anchor points, the gospels can be dated to no later than A.D. 60, and perhaps as early as the late 50s.
- Should we assume, then, that George Washington had wooden teeth, threw a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River (or was it the Potomac?), chopped down a cherry tree and admitted it to his father later, saying “I cannot tell a lie?” Afterall, the 400 years required by Blomberg hasn’t passed yet, so these bits of information about Washington, considered folklore by most serious historians but still widely accepted by many, many people, must be true, eh?
- What about the story of Muhammad’s night journey, which depicts him flying a winged horse from Mecca to Jerusalem, then ascending into Heaven to meet with Moses and God before returning to Earth? Clearly this story dates back to the time of Muhammad, there was no time at all for any legend to have contaminated the story. Plus, any living witnesses who knew otherwise would have quickly corrected any errors in the story. Right?
- And I suppose it’s not even worth trying to dispute Joseph Smith’s account of how he found and translated the Book of Mormon. This occurred in the 19th century, and in our very own United States of America! Why would all those Mormons believe it if it weren’t true — if there was any reason to doubt it?
Going Back to the Beginning
- Certain creeds found in the letters of Paul, the earliest writing in the New Testament, refer to the divinity, the salvation, the death and resurrection and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. If Paul received these creeds soon after his conversion, this means that the notion of Jesus’s divinity dates to as early as a few years after the death of Jesus, leaving little time for folklore to have grown up around the life of Jesus.
- The notion that it takes multiple centuries for legend to corrupt historical accounts is bogus, as the examples I just cited of George Washington, Muhammad and Joseph Smith show. The claim that the followers of Jesus believed him to be divine, believed he had come back from the dead right from the start, if true, only tells us what a small group of people in first century Palestine believed. It doesn’t tell us what actually happened. And the only evidence Blomberg offers that Paul is passing on this information from the early church rather than just making it up is that Paul says so.
A Short Recess
- Having laid the necessary groundwork, Strobel and Blomberg take a break from their conversation before subjecting the eyewitness evidence to further scrutiny in Chapter 2.
- Strobel’s style really is grating — and manipulative. Look at this passage, starting with the end of Blomberg’s rationalization of Matthew plagiarizing Mark:
“As you’ve said yourself, Peter was among the inner circle of Jesus . . . So it would make sense for Matthew, even though he was an eyewitness, to rely on Peter’s version of events as transmitted through Mark.”
Yes, I thought to myself, that did make some sense.
Strobel then recounts an anecdote from his career as a journalist that reinforces Blomberg’s argument. He uses this technique repeatedly, showing us how convincing he finds the argument. He’s like a guy trying to convince his wife to buy an expensive flat screen TV by reacting to everything the salesman says with awe and excitement – “Wow, that monthly payment does sound reasonable!” It’s crude and insulting to attempt to lead people by the nose in this way.
- Strobel shows himself not to be easily but eagerly persuaded by Blomberg’s arguments. He even helps out! He breaks format, leaving the “scene” of their interview in order to drop in a quote from William Lane Craig explaining why “Son of Man” is actually a claim to divinity rather than a description of Jesus’s humanity in the pointless discussion over whether or not Jesus is seen as divine in all four gospels. I wonder if he will ever break format to offer uncontested evidence against the factuality of the Biblical Jesus . . .
Next week: Strobel continues his interview with Blomberg, as they subject the eyewitness evidence to even greater scrutiny in Chapter 2: Testing the Eyewitness Evidence – Do the Biographies of Jesus Stand Up to Scrutiny?