An Atheist Reads The Case for Christ
PART 1: Examining the Record
Chapter 4: The Corroborating Evidence – Is There Credible Evidence for Jesus Outside His Biographies?
The Harry Aleman Story
- Aleman was a mob hitman in Chicago in the 1970s. Suspected of multiple murders, he had escaped conviction due to no one being willing to testify against him. An associate of Aleman, Louis Almeida, agreed to testify against him in the case of the murder of a Teamsters Union shop steward, in exchange for leniency. To strengthen their case around this testimony, the prosecutors sought corroborating evidence.
- At this point Strobel takes two entire paragraphs to define and explain what “corroborating evidence” is. Again I have the unpleasant feeling of being condescended to. How dumb does Strobel assume his readers are?
The Power of Corroboration
- Prosecutors found another witness, Bobby Lowe, to corroborate Almeida’s testimony. Despite the eyewitness testimony, Aleman was found not-guilty by a bribed judge. Once the bribe was uncovered, however, prosecutors brought the case against Aleman a second time, and this time won a conviction and saw him sentenced to 100 to 300 years in prison.
- Corroboration is important, then. What evidence is there from outside the gospels to support their claims about Jesus?
The Third Interview: Edwin M. Yamauchi, Ph.D.
- Entering the building at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, to interview Yamauchi, Strobel passes under an arch inscribed with the phrase “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
- Edwin Yamauchi: Born in Hawaii, son of immigrants from Okinawa. Bachelor’s degree in Hebrew and Hellenistics, masters and doctorate degrees in Mediterranean studies from Brandeis University. Awarded fellowships from Rutgers Research Council, National Endowment for the Humanities, American Philosophical Society, et al. Studied twenty-two languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Egyptian, Russian, Syriac, Ugaritic, Comanche. Delivered papers before learned bodies, served as chairman and president of the Institute for Biblical Research, and also president of the Conference on Faith and History.
- Participated in the first excavation of the Herodian temple in Jerusalem in 1968, revealing evidence of the temple’s destruction in 70 A.D. Written books including The Stones and the Scriptures; The Scriptures and Archaeology; and The World of the First Christians.
- Born a Buddhist, Christian since 1952. Strobel wonders whether Yamauchi’s Christianity will affect his judgment. “In other words, would he scrupulously stick to the facts or be tempted to draw conclusions that went beyond where the evidence warranted?” (Lee Strobel, THE CASE FOR CHRIST, p. 76)
- Well, that sort of thing has been known to happen, Lee . . .
Affirming the Gospels
- Not wanting to suggest that going outside the gospels for evidence was even necessary, Strobel begins by having Yamauchi reaffirm the gospels as good and reliable sources for information about the life of Jesus. “[Yamauchi:]‘[The gospels] are the most trustworthy, complete, and reliable sources for Jesus.’” (p. 76)
- Which, as I’ve said previously, doesn’t say much for our knowledge of Jesus.
- Strobel asks Yamauchi how much information there is for Jesus outside the Bible. Yamauchi mentions Josephus and Tacitus right away, and claims that Jesus made more of an impression than other contemporary figures like Herod the Great and Pontius Pilate. “[Yamauchi:]‘[Jesus] certainly did make an impression on those who believed in him. . . . He did not, of course, among those who did not believe in him.’” (p. 77)
- If his miracles and resurrection were true and actually happened, wouldn’t he have made a much larger impression than he did? Why would he only have made an impression on his followers?
Testimony By a Traitor
- Yamauchi describes Josephus: an important first century Jewish philosopher, born A.D. 37, wrote most of his important works toward the end of the first century. Josephus surrendered to the Romans during the Jewish-Roman War and became a defender of the Romans, despite many of his colleagues choosing suicide over surrender to the Romans.
- Because he was seen as a collaborator, Josephus wasn’t well regarded by his fellow Jews. But his references in his writings to Jesus and James, the brother of Jesus, made him popular with Christians.
- In his book The Antiquities Josephus describes how Jewish high priest Ananias called a meeting of the Sanhedrin and had James, brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, stoned to death. Yamauchi trumpets this passage, which he says has never been successfully disputed by any scholar, as a reference to the brother of Jesus and a corroboration of the fact that some people believed Jesus to be the Christ, or “the anointed one” or “the Messiah.”
“There Lived Jesus . . .”
- Yamauchi comes to the reference to Jesus in Josephus known as the Testimonium Flavianum. Strobel asks whether this passage is authentic, or has been doctored by others to sound more favorable to Jesus. Yamauchi calls the passage fascinating but controversial.
- The passage in question from Josephus:
“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, The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3:3, A.K.A. Testimonium Flavianum)
- Yamauchi describes the current scholarly consensus: “[Yamauchi:]‘. . . the passage as a whole is authentic, although there may be some interpolations.’” In other words, writers other than Josephus inserted words into the original text.
- For example, Yamauchi cites the phase “if indeed one ought to call him a man” as a probable interpolation. Other interpolations in the text, by the reckoning of Yamauchi:
- “He was the Christ.”
- “On the third day he appeared to them restored to life.”
- Yamauchi affirms the reliability of the passage, minus those three interpolations, and claims it as an important corroboration of Jesus as a martyred religious leader and a wise teacher with a lasting following, despite his crucifixion.
- Without the three interpolations, the passage of Josephus only corroborates the existence of Jesus and the following that surrounded him. It does nothing to corroborate the most incredible claims found in the gospels.
- What it does establish very nicely is the willingness of early Christians to falsify documents in order to promote their beliefs about Jesus. Doesn’t say much for their reliability as sources, does it?
- “Interpolations” = “lies”. Early Christians inserted phrases into the work of Josephus to make it appear that Josephus wrote something he didn’t write. That makes those phrases lies, and the people who inserted them into the text were liars.
The Importance of Josephus
- Strobel wonders why Josephus doesn’t mention Jesus more if Jesus was such an important figure. Yamauchi’s answer: Josephus was more interested in politics and the struggle against Rome, so Jesus was less important to him than someone like John the Baptist, who Josephus judged to be more of a political threat to the Romans.
- Strobel tosses Yamauchi a fat pitch, asking whether or not Jesus was a Zealot, or at least sympathetic to the Zealots, which Yamauchi handles easily (just as Strobel intended), pointing out that Jesus was not a major political opponent of Rome (he even told his followers to pay their taxes!) and he and his followers posed no immediate political threat to Roman rule.
- Nevertheless, despite the fact that the references to the miracles and resurrection of Jesus are fabrications, and the fact that Josephus himself wasn’t even that interested in Jesus, Yamauchi calls the references to Jesus by Josephus “highly significant.”
“A Most Mischievous Superstition”
- Strobel and Yamauchi move on to Tacitus. Yamauchi describes the reference in Tacitus as “[Yamauchi:]‘. . . the most important reference to Jesus outside the New Testament.’” (p. 82)
- The passage in question, written by Tacitus circa A.D. 115:
“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome. . . . Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.” (Tacitus, The Annals, Book 15, Chapter 44)
- Yamauchi claims that the passage from Tacitus establishes that crucifixion was “the most abhorrent fate that anyone could undergo, and the fact that there was a movement based on a crucified man has to be explained.”
- “[Yamauchi:]‘How can you explain the spread of a religion based on the worship of a man who had suffered the most ignominious death possible? Of course, the Christian answer is that he was resurrected. Others have to come up with some alternative theory if they don’t believe that. But none of the alternative views, to my mind, are very persuasive.’” (pp. 82-83)
- Note how Yamauchi shifts the burden of proof onto the people who don’t claim Jesus rose from the dead. If he wants “some alternative theory” to explain Christianity if Jesus wasn’t resurrected, how about this one: People believed that Jesus had been resurrected, and that he was coming back again. Followers of religious movements aren’t always as easily dissuaded as Strobel and Yamauchi would have us believe. Harold Camping still has followers despite repeatedly wrongly predicting the end of the world. Televangelist Benny Hinn still has enough followers to make a kingly living off of donations, despite being proven a fraud on multiple occasions. What is the explanation for this?
- Yamauchi calls it significant that Tacitus reports “an immense multitude” were willing to die for their belief in Jesus.
Chanting “As If to a God”
- Moving on to Pliny the Younger: Pliny the Younger was governor of Bithynia, a province of Turkey, in the early second century. Much of his collected correspondence survives today (the Epistulae). Some letters to Emperor Trajan contain references to early Christians. Yamauchi shares one, probably written in A.D. 111:
“I have asked them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished . . .
“They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery . . .
“This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they called deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.” (Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, Book 10, Letter XCVII)
- According to Yamauchi, this reference is very important because it attests to the rapid spread of Christianity, establishes that Jesus was worshipped as a god, and that Christians “maintained high ethical standards” and held strongly to their beliefs.
- I’ll leave it to you to judge whether abstaining from theft, robbery and adultery constitutes “high ethical standards.”
The Day the Earth Went Dark
- Strobel brings up the claim in the gospels that the sky went dark for three hours. He and Yamauchi discuss a quotation of Thallus by Julius Africanus in A.D. 221: Thallus attributes the crucifixion darkness to an eclipse, but Africanus argues that it couldn’t have been an eclipse. Yamauchi reads a quote from Paul Maier’s book Pontius Pilate that cites references from Tertullian and Phlegon (both writing over a century after the fact) that mention an eclipse of the Sun that was seen throughout the region. Yamauchi’s conclusion: “[Yamauchi:]‘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)
- References to an eclipse visible from the Middle East around the year A.D. 33 make sense, since there was a total solar eclipse in A.D. 33. But unlike the darkness described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, which lasted three hours, that eclipse lasted a maximum of 4 minutes. An actual event that lasted 4 minutes, depicted in the gospels as lasting 24 times longer than the maximum possible duration for a solar eclipse? Sure sounds like some of that legendary invention that the gospels were supposedly written too early to contain.
A Portrait of Pilate
- Yamauchi reconciles the “obstinate and inflexible” Pilate of other historical accounts with the weaker figure portrayed in the gospels by pointing out that Sejanus, Pilate’s patron, had fallen from power two years before the estimated date of the crucifixion, leaving Pilate in a vulnerable position where he would have wanted to appease his Jewish subjects.
Other Jewish Accounts
- Strobel asks Yamauchi about Talmudic references to Jesus. Yamauchi mentions the Talmud describing Jesus as a false messiah who practiced magic and was put to a just death, and speculating that Jesus was the child of Mary and a Roman soldier (which Yamauchi takes as a confirmation that there was something unusual the birth of Jesus — talk about your confirmation bias).
Evidence Apart From the Bible
- Strobel asks why there aren’t even more references to Jesus outside of the New Testament. Yamauchi first hedges his bet by saying that often religious movements didn’t have people recording things about them until many generations after they begin, then claims that the references to Jesus are actually much better than those referring to other ancient religious figures. He mentions the long intervals between the lifetimes and the recording of the scriptures or biographies of Zoroaster, Buddha, and Muhammad, compared to the relatively short interval between the life of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament.
- Didn’t Craig Blomberg argue that oral traditions are reliable?
- Strobel asks what information we could glean about Jesus without the New Testament using the non-biblical references. Yamauchi says, relying only on Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and the Talmud, we would know:
- Jesus was a Jewish teacher
- People believed that he performed miracles and healed the sick
- People believed he was the Messiah
- He was rejected by Jewish leaders
- He was crucified under the authority of Pontius Pilate
- His followers remained faithful after his ignominious death and believed he was still alive
- People from all different walks of life worshipped him as God.
- In other words, we would know only the most general facts about Jesus himself, and a few more, equally general details about the people in the cult that grew up around him that eventually became the Christian church.
Corroborating Early Details
- Strobel prompts Yamauchi to talk about the Pauline Epistles, which he also presents as important evidence for Jesus from outside the gospels. They mention Paul’s focus on the resurrection of Jesus and not making reference to the parables or the miracles. To Yamauchi this indicates that the atonement and resurrection of Jesus were of the most importance to Paul.
- Couldn’t it also indicate that Paul was unaware of the stories of the parables or the miracles, perhaps because he was writing too early for them to have been popularized?
- Yamauchi talks of Paul’s corroboration of Jesus’s humility, obedience, love for sinners, and deity — Paul calls him “the Son of God” and “the image of God.”
- Paul’s worship of Jesus is especially important, Strobel says and Yamauchi agrees, because of Paul’s Jewish background.
Truly Raised From the Dead
- Yamauchi mentions the letters of early church leaders, the “apostolic fathers” who wrote after the New Testament, affirming basic facts about Jesus: the teachings, the crucifixion, the resurrection. Singled out by Yamauchi: Ignatius, bishop of Antioch whom the Romans fed to the lions in A.D. 117. Ignatius “emphasized both the deity of Jesus and the humanity of Jesus” and wrote in one letter that Jesus had been “truly persecuted”, “truly crucified”, “truly raised from the dead,” and that those who believed in him would be raised from the dead, too.
- Why should the hearsay of any of the early church leaders mean a thing to me? Are these the same people who falsified Josephus and added to the gospels to suit their purposes?
- Another example of Strobel’s tough, objective journalism: “Put all this together — Josephus, the Roman historians and officials, the Jewish writings, the letters of Paul and the apostolic fathers — and you’ve got persuasive evidence that corroborates all the essentials found in the biographies of Jesus. Even if you were to throw away every last copy of the gospels, you’d still have a picture of Jesus that’s extremely compelling — in fact, it’s a portrait of the unique Son of God.” (p. 89)
- Do we really need to continue this? Not even halfway through and it sounds like Strobel’s already made his mind up . . .
- As with the other experts, Strobel asks Yamauchi what his research has meant for his personal faith. Yamauchi says his studies have greatly strengthened his faith in Christianity and enriched his spiritual life. “[Yamauchi:]‘This doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize that there are some issues that still remain . . . But these issues don’t even begin to undermine my faith in the essential trustworthiness of the gospels and the rest of the New Testament.’” (p. 90)
- That you can recognize that there are “issues” with the authenticity of the New Testament, yet these issues “don’t even begin to undermine” your faith testifies to how absolutely worthless the knowledge you claim to know by your faith is.
Truth That Sets Us Free
- Strobel reiterates how convincing the corroborating evidence for Jesus is to him, referencing The Verdict of History by Gary Habermas, which cites seven secular sources in making the case for the authenticity of the gospels and the divinity of Jesus. Strobel calls Habermas’s conclusion, that the sources claiming the divinity of Jesus ought to be trusted, “stunning corroboration for the most important assertion by the most influential individual who has ever lived.”
- Strobel ends the chapter as he began it, by passing under the sign that reads “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
- Those words are appropriate in ways Strobel doesn’t seem to realize. By studying the Bible, and the unimpressive arguments made by people like Lee Strobel in defense of its claims, you can come to know the truth: that the Bible is a book just like any other book, that it holds no divine truth, no superior morality, that you are not bound to follow its commandments or believe its claims. And I and lots of other former Christians can tell you, that is a very freeing truth.
Next time: Chapter 5: The Scientific Evidence – Does Archaeology Confirm or Contradict Jesus’ Biographies?