An Atheist Reads The Case for Christ
PART 1: Examining the Record
Chapter 6: The Rebuttal Evidence — Is the Jesus of History the Same As the Jesus of Faith?
The Richard Moss Story
- Richard Moss on trial for murder of 19-year-old outside a tavern. Ed Passeri, longtime friend of Moss, is called to the witness stand by the defense. Asked to describe what happened the night of the shooting, Passeri confesses that he, not Moss, is the killer. Moss later takes the stand and agrees that, yes, it was Passeri who was the shooter. Prosecutors were not persuaded, and sought rebuttal evidence. Three more eyewitnesses testified that Moss, not Passeri, was the shooter, and eventually Moss was convicted by the jury.
- “Prosecutors did the right thing. When the overpowering strength of the evidence clearly pointed toward the guilt of the defendant, they were wise to be skeptical of an essentially unsupported assertion made by someone with a vested interest in helping his friend.” (Lee Strobel, THE CASE FOR CHRIST, p. 111)
Can the Jesus Seminar Be Refuted?
- Strobel turns his focus to the Jesus Seminar, “a small group of academics who have been the subject of a whirlwind of news coverage.”
- True at the time this book was first published, though the Jesus Seminar has since largely faded from the limelight.
- The Seminar generates media coverage “vastly out of proportion” to its influence on New Testament scholarship. Its “publicity savvy participants” courted the media by voting on the authenticity of Jesus’s sayings in the gospels using colored beads — because we all know how much the media loves colored beads, eh? They ultimately concluded that Jesus did not say 82% of the sayings attributed to him in the gospels, and that only 2% of his sayings to be called truly authentic.
- The Seminar published The Five Gospels — the four canonical gospels plus the Gospel of Thomas, printed in color-coded text to indicate the authenticity of particular passages.
- Strobel wants to “go beyond the headlines” to find the truth about the Jesus Seminar and their claims. He seeks rebuttal evidence for the claims of the Jesus Seminar.
- Hang on — so the “rebuttal evidence” referred to in the chapter title is not rebuttal evidence for Strobel’s claims so far, but rebuttal evidence for the claims of those who disagree with Strobel and his experts? Well, I wonder which member of the Jesus Seminar he’ll interview first, to present their arguments so the readers of the book can have a balanced perspective on them before he attempts to refute them? John Dominic Crossan? Robert Price? Marcus Borg?
- “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 the arguments of the Jesus Seminar will be presented by one of its most outspoken critics. Seems fair.
The Fifth Interview: Gregory A. Boyd, Ph.D.
- Gregory A. Boyd, Ph.D., author of Cynic Sage or Son of God?, Jesus Under Siege, et al. Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from University of Minnesota, master of divinity from Yale Divinity School, doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary.
- Boyd is “not a stereotypical ivory tower intellectual.” Which is good — remember back in the introduction when Strobel blamed university professors for his supposed atheism?
- Like Howie Mandel, Boyd is “pure kinetic energy.”
- Like Strobel himself, Boyd is a pastor — at Woodland Hills Church, in Boyd’s case. He’s also debated atheists and Muslims, with his “deep reservoir of biblical and philosophical knowledge” making him a formidable debate foe.
- “His casual and colloquial style (what other biblical scholar gets away with words like ‘funky’ and ‘wacko’?) quickly made me feel at home as we squeezed into his second-floor office.” (p. 113)
Writings From the Radical Fringe
- Boyd stresses that the Jesus Seminar do not represent the mainstream of New Testament scholarship, despite the media attention they’ve received.
- Boyd sneers at the “seven pillars of scholarly wisdom” described by the Seminar in The Five Gospels: “[Boyd:]‘They give “seven pillars of scholarly wisdom,” as if you must follow their methodology if you’re going to be a true scholar. But a lot of scholars, from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, would have serious reservations about one or even most of these pillars.’” (p. 114)
- The obvious question, which Strobel does not ask and which Boyd never addresses, is “What are the Seminar’s seven pillars of scholarly wisdom?” Since you won’t learn this from The Case for Christ, and since Boyd and Strobel will be critiquing the Seminar’s arguments for most of this chapter, those seven pillars are:
- Distinguishing between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the gospels.
- Distinguishing between the synoptic gospels and the Gospel of John, with the synoptics being more historical and John being more spiritual.
- Identifying Mark as the first gospel.
- Identifying the Q source.
- Questioning the portrayal of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet.
- Distinguishing between the oral culture of Jesus and the print culture of later generations.
- Reversing the burden of proof by requiring proof for the historical authenticity of the events depicted in the gospels rather than assuming the gospels to be historically reliable.
Discovering the “Real” Jesus
- According to Boyd, the Jesus Seminar wants to popularlize a view of the Bible that is apart from fundamentalism, and a conception of Jesus that is relevant for today. Strobel pretends to be intrigued by the idea of “a new Jesus, a new faith, a new Christianity.”
- Boyd claims the Jesus Seminar’s members find the Jesus they want to find. “[Boyd:]‘Some think he was a political revolutionary, some a religious fanatic, some a wonder worker, some a feminist, some an egalitarian, some a subversive — there’s a lot of diversity.’” (p. 115)
- Can’t you argue the same thing about the various gospels? Matthew focuses on the Jewish aspect of Jesus, Luke on the miracles of Jesus, John on the divinity of Jesus, etc.
- The Jesus Seminar requires a naturalistic Jesus.
Giving Evidence a Fair Hearing
- Boyd criticizes the Seminar’s assumption that Jesus was not supernatural. Strobel asks why this doesn’t make sense — don’t we live our lives every day without seeking supernatural explanations for our experiences? “[Boyd:]‘Everyone would agree that you don’t appeal to supernatural causes if you don’t have to . . . But these scholars go beyond that and say you don’t ever have to. They operate under the assumption that everything in history has happened according to their own experiences, and since they’ve never seen the supernatural, they assume miracles have never occurred in history.’” (p. 116)
- Boyd suggests not looking for supernatural explanations when a natural one will suffice. “[Boyd:]‘But what I can’t grant is the tremendous presumption that we know enough about the universe to say that God — if there is a God — can never break into our world in a supernatural way. That’s a very presumptuous assumption. That’s not a presumption based on history; now you’re doing metaphysics.’” (p. 116)
- The man arguing in favor of a supernatural Jesus is accusing those arguing for a naturalistic Jesus of doing metaphysics.
- Isn’t the tremendous assumption that Jesus was supernatural? Boyd says to first look for a natural explanation. I agree, this is the best way to explain things. But when, then, do you ever have to appeal to the supernatural? Suppose the claim is that Jesus rose from the dead. We know that people who have been dead and buried for three days don’t return to life. This is not a natural phenomenon. So is the best explanation for this claim a natural one — that the story was invented by someone at some point — or the supernatural one — that Jesus was miraculously resurrected? The only reason to assume the supernatural explanation is if you are already assuming that the gospels are to be taken literally and that Jesus is the son of God.
Critiquing the Criteria
- Strobel wonders about the criteria used by the Jesus Seminar to determine whether or not Jesus spoke the sayings attributed to him in the gospels: were they reasonable, or unfairly weighted to yield a desired result?
- Strobel and his experts would know something about that.
- Boyd criticizes the Seminar’s practice of reversing the burden of proof and requiring evidence for a particular saying of Jesus rather than just assuming Jesus said it until it’s demonstrated otherwise. “[Boyd:]‘Historians usually operate with the burden of proof on the historian to prove falsity or unreliability, since people are generally not compulsive liars. Without that assumption we’d know very little about ancient history.’” (p. 117)
- Boyd is arguing that we should treat the gospels like historical records, which they aren’t. It makes sense for historians to be more skeptical when attempting to extract factual information about history from documents like the gospels, which are filled with myth and legend — and if anyone still wants to argue, like Strobel and his first expert, Craig Blomberg, that the gospels were written too early to have been corrupted with legend, I refer you to two chapters ago when we discussed the crucifixion darkness and how the gospel writers took a solar eclipse with a maximum totality of four minutes and turned it into a darkness that covered the Earth for three hours.
- Boyd criticizes the criterion of double dissimilarity used to evaluate the sayings of Jesus. A saying attributed to Jesus is suspected of being invented if it sounds like something a rabbi or a later Christian leader would have said. Boyd argues that it shouldn’t be surprising that Jesus sounds Jewish (since he was Jewish) or Christian (since, in Boyd’s words, he founded the Christian church).
- Boyd’s criticism ignores the reason the Seminar included this as one — and I stress one — of their criteria when evaluating the sayings of Jesus in the gospels: because we know — Strobel’s own experts in this book have said this repeatedly — that verses were inserted into the gospels much later by early Christians who had their own agendas. This criterion is designed to filter out those late additions.
- Boyd also criticizes the criterion of multiple attestation, meaning the Seminar favored sayings found in multiple sources. Boyd argues that the gospels are reliable enough to be trusted as a source without outside attestation.
- Boyd must be reading some other gospels than the ones I’m familiar with.
- “Boyd started to go on, but I told him he had already made his point: loaded criteria, like weighted dice, inevitably bring the results that were desired from the beginning.” (p. 118)
- Loaded criteria like rejecting the possibility that the stories about Jesus in the gospels are filled with legend and embellishment, because you don’t want Jesus to get mad at you?
Jesus the Wonder Worker
- Boyd rejects the comparison of Jesus to other rabbis who claimed to be able to work miracles, saying that the scale of Jesus’s miracles are beyond any other works claimed in Jewish history, and that the authority claimed by Jesus and the large role played in his life by the supernatural make him unique.
Jesus and the Amazing Apollonius
- Strobel brings up the comparison of Jesus to Apollonius of Tyana, a Greek contemporary of Jesus who was also a wandering teacher with the ability to work miracles. Boyd argues that the story of Apollonius is probably largely legend, while the story of Jesus is not, because the main source for information about Apollonius, the biography by Philostratus, was written long after the life of Apollonius (approximately 120-130 years). Plus, Philostratus was commissioned to write his biography by an empress who wanted to build a temple to Apollonius, establishing a motive to embellish the story and give his patron what she wanted. Plus, Philostratus was writing late enough that any borrowing that was done would have been done by him, from Christianity, not the other way around.
- Did Strobel mention anyone arguing that the Jesus story is borrowed from Apollonius? I don’t think he did. The argument isn’t that Jesus was adapted from Apollonius. The argument is that the same reasons people have for chalking Apollonius’s miracles up to legend also apply to Jesus.
- Finally, Boyd says, “[Boyd:]‘I’m willing to admit that Apollonius may have done some amazing things or at least tricked people into thinking he did. But that doesn’t in any way compromise the evidence for Jesus.’” (p. 120)
- Again, who is arguing that it does? Most critics of Christianity who bring up Apollonius aren’t arguing that we should believe the stories about him. They’re using the fact that we don’t believe the stories about him to argue that we shouldn’t believe the stories about Jesus, either.
Jesus and the “Mystery Religions”
- Strobel asks about the parallels between the stories of the life of Jesus and ancient mystery religions. Boyd dismisses these parallels for similar reasons as he dismissed Apollonius: any borrowing that took place would have been from Christianity, not the other way around.
- Strobel asks about the stories of gods dying and rising from the dead. Boyd says these stories all were linked to themes of nature and life cycles, and took place “once upon a time,” whereas Jesus’s story is of an actual person who lived in an actual place, and was killed and resurrected rather than dying naturally and returning as part of a cycle. The resurrection is more closely tied, Boyd says, to Jewish beliefs about the resurrection of the dead.
- Boyd also dismisses similarities between Christian baptism and the baptismal practices of the Mithra cult, since the specific rites are very different and Jews wouldn’t have been attracted to the Mitrha cult’s ritual, which involved being bathed in animal blood rather than water.
- Boyd disputes these parallels by citing specifics. This is the same thing my Christian friend and fellow YouTuber bossman103 did when he and I debated the mythical aspects of the Jesus story last year. He argued that the themes in the Jesus story that we also find throughout ancient mythology aren’t evidence that the Jesus story is embellished with legend because the specifics are different — the circumstances of the death and resurrection of Jesus are unique to that story, for instance. Which isn’t the point — the point is, the theme, the idea of a god dying and returning to life is very much older than Christianity, and found in a great many stories other than in the New Testament — stories which are universally accepted as mythical rather than historical. The concept of divine resurrection is a mythic universal, and it is present in the Jesus narrative. To some of us, that is an indication — not a conclusive proof, but an indication — that the Jesus story is, at least in part, mythical.
Secret Gospels and Talking Crosses
- Strobel and Boyd rehash the Gospel of Thomas and Q — Thomas doesn’t deserve to be considered with the four canonical gospels, Q is only an hypothesis.
- Strobel finally names a specific member of the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, when asking Boyd about Secret Mark, a lost gospel hypothesized by Crossan. Boyd dismisses it, says we don’t have it and its existence is only assumed on the basis of a single quote from a single source that is now also lost. Boyd also dismisses Crossan’s consideration of the so-called Cross Gospel.
- Again, they dismiss the Cross Gospel without saying what it is, so I’ll tell you: the Cross Gospel is a possible source hypothesized by John Dominic Crossan for the non-canonical Gospel of Peter. It would have been a passion-resurrection narrative written very early, perhaps as early as ten years or so after the crucifixion. The Cross Gospel portrays the Jewish people taking a much more active role in the crucifixion of Jesus, includes the crucifixion darkness and the post-crucifixion earthquake and rending of the curtain of the temple, and depicts Jesus exiting his tomb after three days flanked by two men and followed by “a cross.” A voice from Heaven asks if Jesus has proclaimed his message to those who have died, and the cross, not Jesus, answers “Yes.”
- Boyd cites the “outlandishly legendary” material in the Cross Gospel, like the talking cross, as evidence that the Cross Gospel has no credibility compared to the “much more sober gospels.”
- Two things: First, Crossan argues that “the cross” referred to in the Cross Gospel is not the literal wooden cross on which Jesus was crucified, but rather a cruciform procession of figures from Jewish history who Jesus has redeemed and brought back with him from Hell. Interpreted this way, the Cross Gospel portrays the resurrection as a shared event meant to unite Israel by bringing together the dead, now redeemed holy ones from history with the present generation. Very different from a talking cross. (See, this is the problem with allowing someone else’s argument to be presented by someone only interested in discrediting it.)
- Second, let’s just say the Cross Gospel does mean for us to believe that a talking cross came out of the tomb with Jesus. Is it really that much more outlandish than the “sober gospels,” which depict a voice from the sky talking to Jesus after his baptism, and Jesus going into the desert to be tempted by the devil and nursed back to health afterwards by angels? And angels warning Joseph and Mary to flee the massacre of the innocents? And a magic star guiding the Magi to the scene of the Nativity? Boyd talks about the gospels as though they read like a court transcript.
History Versus Faith
- The Jesus Seminar believes there is a gulf between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith. “[Boyd:]‘Generally speaking, they define the Jesus of faith this way: there are religious symbols that are quite meaningful to people — the symbol of Jesus being divine, of the cross, of self-sacrifcial love, of the Resurrection. Even though people don’t really believe that those things actually happened, they nevertheless can inspire people to live a good life, to overcome existential angst, to realize new potentialities, to resurrect hope in the midst of despair — blah, blah blah.’” (p. 124)
- Right, because those things couldn’t be really important or meaningful to people if they don’t also have a literal belief in the divinity of Jesus . . .
- Boyd argues that Jesus can only be a symbol if he is also historical, that the theology is based on the history. “[Boyd:]‘Take away miracles and you take away the Resurrection and then you’ve got nothing to proclaim.’” (p. 125)
- Nothing to proclaim? How about “Love thy neighbor as thyself”? Treat others as you would have them treat you — or better yet, as they would have you treat them. In what way is this simple moral teaching — which is attributed to Jesus but certainly didn’t originate with him — dependent on the Resurrection?
- But of course, when he says “nothing to proclaim” he’s referring to salvation. Here’s the problem: You might argue that the theology is based on history, but the evidence says otherwise — and theology does not prove history.
- “[Boyd:]‘I don’t want to base my life on a symbol. I want reality, and the Christian faith has always been rooted in reality. What’s not rooted in reality is the faith of liberal scholars. They’re the ones who are following a pipe dream, but Christianity is not a pipe dream.’” (p. 125)
- Whether you want to base your life on a symbol or not is irrelevant. The historical and scientific evidence says you have. The members of the Jesus Seminar have merely attempted to reconcile their Christianity with that undeniable fact.
Combining History and Faith
- Boyd asserts that his Jesus is one of both history and faith. He admits that Christianity makes some hard to believe claims about Jesus, but says he’s glad there is “incredibly strong evidence” to show that those claims are true.
- “[Boyd:]‘The evidence for Jesus being who the disciples said he was . . . is just light-years beyond my reasons for thinking that the left-wing scholarship of the Jesus Seminar is correct.’” (p. 126)
- When do we get to see that evidence?
A Chorus of Criticism
- Strobel closes the chapter by reiterating the minority status of the Jesus Seminar, and claiming once again that he has found good evidence that the Jesus of the gospels is, in fact, the Jesus of history.
- Last week I said this was the most dishonest chapter in the book. And it is — if you want to read a single chapter that will tell you everything you need to know about the credibility and the methodology and the true intention of Lee Strobel in writing The Case for Christ, read Chapter 6: The Rebuttal Evidence.
Next week: Chapter 7: The Identity Evidence – Was Jesus Really Convinced He Was the Son of God?
- First, it cherry picks its rebuttal evidence. Strobel focuses on the Jesus Seminar as if it’s the main opposition to the traditional Christian viewpoint — and yet, strangely, he also continually denigrates its position within New Testament scholarship, calling it small, insignificant, a tiny minority of scholars. There are 150 members of the Jesus Seminar. Yes, they are a minority, yes their positions have been questioned and argued against by many in the New Testament scholarship community for a variety of reasons. But Strobel and Boyd make it sound like the Seminar is like five guys sitting around tossing beads into a jar. It’s 150 people. And, they represent but one school of thought that rejects the traditional Christian interpretation of the gospels as a reliable source for information about Jesus. Boyd calls them “left-wing” and “liberal,” but they aren’t even the most liberal New Testament scholars. What about those who argue — seriously and, it seems to me, persuasively, even though I don’t share their view — that there was no historical Jesus at all? By Strobel and Boyd’s reckoning, wouldn’t they be even further out on the radical fringe? And yet those arguments aren’t even addressed — aren’t even mentioned.
- Second, it doesn’t present rebuttal evidence to its own case — it presents rebuttal evidence to someone else’s case, without first presenting that case. Strobel could easily have interviewed John Dominic Crossan — he wasn’t a hard guy to find in the late ‘90s when this book was written. If he had questions about the Cross Gospel or any of the other controversial ideas of Crossan or the Jesus Seminar as a whole, he could have asked Crossan himself about them. He still could have interviewed Greg Boyd to get his side of things, but at least the arguments they were refuting would have been heard first. Strobel and Boyd take the Jesus Seminar to task for loading the dice in their favor, but what the fuck are they doing throughout this chapter?
- Presenting rebuttal evidence to your own case is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. In fact, it’s something that everyone who actually cares about whether or not they’re argument is correct, and who wants people to perceive their argument as strong and persuasive, should do. I used to have a little book called Five Logical Proofs for the Non-Existence of God, or something like that. And that’s just what it was — five logical arguments for why God does not — and in fact, cannot — exist. And at the end of every chapter was a section titled “Problems with This Argument” where the writer would highlight the potential reasons why this argument might be wrong. That’s something that honest people making serious arguments do all the time, and it really would have helped Strobel’s non-existent credibility as an objective truth seeker if he had done that here. Instead, he did the opposite — and if there was an iota of lingering doubt as to whether Strobel was a full-blooded, agenda-driven, biased-as-fuck apologists, this chapter has blown it away.