An Atheist Reads The Case for Christ
PART 2: Analyzing Jesus
Chapter 10: The Fingerprint Evidence – Did Jesus — and Jesus Alone — Match the Identity of the Messiah?
The Thomas Jennings Story
- Thomas Jennings was the first man convicted of murder in the United States on the basis of fingerprint evidence — in 1912 he was hanged for the murder of Clarence Jennings. That’s right! 2012 is the centennial of fingerprint evidence being used to hang people in the U.S.A. How’d we miss that one?
- Strobel suggests that the “fingerprints” we need to match up to determine whether or not Jesus was the Messiah are the life of Jesus and the prophecies about the Messiah found in the Old Testament. So if the back of the Bible matches the front of the Bible, that means the Bible’s true. And who could possibly argue with that?
The Ninth Interview: Louis S. Lapides, M. Div., Th.M.
- The first (and only) expert interviewed in this book to not hold a doctorate, I want to note, given Strobel’s tendency to demean colleges and universities and the people who teach at them.
- Louis S. Lapides, bachelor’s degree in theology from Dallas Baptist University, master of divinity and master of theology in Old Testament and Semitics from Talbot Theological Seminary, teacher in the Bible department at Biola University.
- Is there another department at Biola University?
- Lapides is Jewish, originally from Newark, New Jersey. He converted to Christianity as an adult, became a pastor and has been active in talking to Jewish college students about Jesus.
- “I didn’t want to begin by debating biblical nuances; instead I started by inviting Lapides to tell me the story of his spiritual journey.” (Lee Strobel, THE CASE FOR CHRIST, p. 173)
- And, Jesus Christ, does Lapides ever avail himself of that invitation. The majority of the chapter is devoted to the story of Lapides’s “spiritual journey” from Judaism to evangelical Christianity. Strobel devotes five sections of the chapter to relating Lapides’s conversion to us in reverent detail. Those five sections are titled
A Spiritual Quest Begins
“I Can’t Believe in Jesus”
“Piereced For Our Transgressions”
The Jewishness of Jesus
Epiphany in the Desert
- I’m going to break with my usual format here and just summarize the content of all five of those sections in relatively short order, since it’s filled with irrelevant personal details and amounts to emotionally manipulative filler to pad out the chapter on prophecy.
- So here we go. Quickly:
- Lapides was raised in a Jewish family, though the faith was never stressed as anything important except during the High Holy Days when they attended an Orthodox synagogue. When Strobel asks what he was taught by his parents about the Messiah, Lapides, to the astonishment of Strobel, replies that the subject never came up.
- “‘Never,’ [Lapides] reiterated. ‘I don’t even remember it being an issue in Hebrew school.’” (p. 174)
- Jesus, he says, was mentioned only derogatorily — which would seem to contradict the claim that the Messiah was never discussed, since it’s strange to think of the most famous example of a false Messiah being discussed by Jews in any other context. But what do I know?
- Lapides got his image of Jesus from Catholic iconography, the crucified Christ, the crown of thorns, etc. He was cautioned as a child to be wary of Gentiles, since they were the source of anti-Semitism. He also eventually developed negative attitudes toward Christians, and assumed the New Testament was a how-to manual for oppressing and massacring Jews.
- “I shook my head, saddened at the thought of how many other Jewish children have grown up thinking of Christians as their enemies.” (p. 174)
- Are you sad at the thought of the two-thousand years of organized Christian-led persecution that gave those Jewish children a reason to think of Christians as their enemies? Or are you sad that their Jewish parents and teachers told them about all that, thus making it even harder for people like you to convince them to relinquish their superstition for yours?
- Lapides’s parents divorced when he was seventeen, he underwent a spiritual crisis, eventually rebelled against Judaism and western religion in general, was drafted to Vietnam in 1967, saw some pretty heavy shit as you might imagine, experienced anti-Semitism among his comrades, some of whom even once burned a cross for his, um, benefit.
- So he comes home from ‘Nam, he flirts with Buddhism, gets depressed, considers suicide, smokes a lot of weed, tries LSD, and eventually gets into an discussion with a street preacher on the Sunset Strip who had chained himself to an eight-foot cross to protest being evicted from his storefront ministry. He argues with some Christians he meets there, and one of them points out that Jesus, like Lapides himself, was Jewish. Someone mentions the Old Testament Messianic prophecies. Lapides is handed a Bible and encouraged to read the Old Testament — the Jewish parts — and ask that God to show him if Jesus is the Messiah. So Lapides, his brain still addled from the insane amount of drugs he was doing, perhaps, goes home and starts reading the Bible.
- He starts encountering Messianic prophecies almost immediately. He is, of course, most impressed by the passage in Isaiah 53, the “He was despised and rejected by men . . . he was pierced for our transgressions . . .” passage.
- “Instantly, Lapides recognized the portrait: this was Jesus of Nazareth! Now he was beginning to understand the paintings he had seen in the Catholic churches he had passed as a child . . .” (pp. 178-179)
- Yes, Lapides, whose understanding of Jesus was virtually non-existent — by his own admission — instantly recognized that Isaiah 53 had to be about Jesus.
- So Lapides starts reading the New Testament and is struck by how identifiably Jewish Jesus and many other figures are. He detects all kinds of references to Jewish scriptures, and is flabbergasted by the Books of Acts, where the Jewish followers of Jesus bring the gospel to the Gentiles, in contrast to today, when things are the other way round.
- He goes out into the Mojave desert with some friends, has this spiritual experience where he feels God speaking to his heart, is made whole, etc., etc. He prays for a wife and meets Deborah, a fellow converted Jew who introduces him to her church, and they get married and have babies and start their own ministry focused on whacking Jews over the head with the New Testament. The End!
- Here are a couple of reasons why this story, which takes up 8 pages of a 15-page chapter, is wasted space:
- First, it’s anecdotal evidence. Louis Lapides is a Jewish man who was converted to Christianity by what he perceived to be fulfilled Jewish prophecies in the story of Jesus. He’s not the only one with such a story — there are many Messianic Jews, and many former followers of Judaism who have converted outright to Christianity. But there are also many Jews, including scholars and rabbis, who know just as much about those prophecies as Lapides does, and don’t see a convincing case for Jesus as the Messiah.
- Second, some of what Lapides considers the most compelling evidence actually works better in making the opposite case to his. For example, the wealth of Jewish details in the New Testament. Lapides is amazed at how many references to the Old Testament, particularly to the major prophets, he finds in the gospels. He takes this as evidence that the people writing the account were familiar with the prophecies, and therefore would have known whether or not Jesus had truly fulfilled them. But it makes just as much, if not more, sense to assume that the authors of the gospels used that knowledge to tell their stories accordingly, to ensure that their versions of Jesus, not necessarily the historical Jesus on which their stories were based, fulfilled the prophecies — doesn’t it?
Responding to Objections
- Strobel asks why more Jews aren’t convinced, if the prophetic evidence is so undeniable. (I think you just answered your own question, Lee.) Lapides’s incredibly condescending and insulting response: most of his fellow Jewish people are too ignorant and stupid to get it.
- “‘Plus you have countermissionary organizations that hold seminars in synagogues to try to disprove the messianic prophecies. Jewish people hear them and use them as an excuse for not exploring the prophecies personally. They’ll say, “The rabbi told me there’s nothing to this.”’” (p. 182)
- It’s all the Jews’ fault, isn’t it?
- So more Jews don’t become Christians because they aren’t critical enough of the religious instruction they receive in their synagogues — and that’s bad. But what if I claimed — as I often have — that more Christians don’t become atheists because they aren’t critical enough of what they hear in their churches? I wonder how Lee Strobel would like the sound of that.
- Wait, I forgot — it’s not the same thing, because Christianity is “true.”
- Strobel and Lapides (since he’s finished telling us his fucking life story) address four alternative explanations to Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies.
- The Coincidence Argument. Maybe Jesus just fulfilled all those prophecies by accident, without actually being the Messiah. Lapides says the odds of that happening are astronomical. Someone did the math — Strobel informs us it was Peter W. Stoner; it doesn’t seem important to Lapides — and figured out that the chances are about one in a hundred million billion (or one hundred quadrillion, if you prefer, I think — I’m awful at simple math, and all other kinds of math) that someone could fulfill just eight of the prophecies it’s claimed Jesus fulfilled by accident. In fact, the odds are so big that Lapides suggests fulfilling all those prophecies would be impossible. And yet Jesus did it. Hmm . . .
- The Altered Gospel Argument. Strobel asks if the gospel writers might not have fabricated details to make it appear that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies. Lapides disposes of this one with an asinine argument we’ve heard before: that the people living at the time would have corrected any errors or fabrications in the stories being circulated. Right, just as people in the early 19th century corrected the inaccuracies in Parson Weems’s book The Life of Washington, so that nobody to this day has ever believed that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and then confessed to his father with the words “I cannot tell a lie.” Right? Airtight, this one.
- The Intentional Fulfillment Argument. Might Jesus have been familiar with the messianic prophecies and simply contrived to fulfill them to bolster his claim to be the Messiah? Lapides admits this might be possible for some of the prophecies, but not for all:
“[Lapides:]‘For instance, how would he control the fact that the Sanhedrin offered Judas thirty pieces of silver to betray him? How could he arrange for his ancestry, or the place of his birth, or his method of execution, or that soldiers gambled for his clothing, or that his legs remained unbroken on the cross? How would he arrange to perform miracles in front of skeptics? How would he arrange for his resurrection? And how would he arrange to be born when he was?’” (p. 184)
All of those can be explained by the Altered Gospel Argument, which Lapides addressed and failed to refute.
- The Context Argument. Perhaps those messianic prophecies weren’t really messianic prophecies? Nope, says the guy who was compelled to convert to Christianity by messianic prophecies, they’re all legit. And furthermore:
“[Lapides:]‘So here’s my challenge to skeptics: don’t accept my word for it, but don’t accept your rabbi’s either. Spend the time to research it yourself. . . . And one more thing: sincerely ask God to show you whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. That’s what I did — and without any coaching it became clear to me who fit the fingerprint of the Messiah.’” (p. 185)
Again, talking to Jewish skeptics, not non-religious skeptics. Though it’s still a silly argument: Go ask God to show you if Jesus is the Messiah. Don’t most Jews believe that’s exactly what he did? He inspired their scriptures, they read what their scriptures had to say about the Messiah, looked at Jesus and said, “Mmm . . . nah, not the guy.”
Here’s the thing: you should have an argument. A real argument, a strong argument that will be compelling to people who don’t already agree with you. If my kid — if I had a kid, which thank fuck I don’t — if my kid came to me and said, “Dad, I don’t believe in flying reindeer,” I’d better have a better argument than “Well, why don’t you write to Santa Claus and ask him if there’s such a thing as flying reindeer?” That’s if I wanted my kid to believe in flying reindeer, which . . .
“Everything Must Be Fulfilled . . .”
- Strobel ends the chapter by piling on the anecdotal evidence, citing several other people known to him who came from a Jewish background and eventually accepted Jesus as the Messiah. He closes by mentioning Peter Greenspan, a Jewish doctor who was convinced to accept Jesus by studying the Torah and the Talmud.
- “For him, the more he read books by those trying to undermine the evidence for Jesus as the Messiah, the more he saw the flaws in their arguments.” (p. 186)
- Swap out “Jesus as the Messiah” for “evolution as the explanation for life on Earth” or “atheism as the most rational conclusion about the existence of gods,” and I know just how the good doctor feels.
Next: Chapter 11: The Medical Evidence — Was Jesus’ Death a Sham and His Resurrection a Hoax?