An Atheist Reads The Case for Christ
PART 1: Examining the Record
Chapter 2: Testing the Eyewitness Evidence – Do the Biographies of Jesus Stand Up to Scrutiny?
The Michael McCullough Story
- Another anecdote, this one about 16 year-old Michael McCullough, who testified from his hospital bed against the two youths who shot and paralyzed him. The defendants claimed it was an accidental shooting, but McCullough’s testimony helped convince the jury that it was a deliberate act, and they were sentenced to 50 years in prison. McCullough died soon after his shooters were sentenced.
- Strobel’s point: Eyewitness testimony by the prosecution withstood the scrutiny of the defendants’ lawyers. True and accurate testimony will withstand scrutiny, while false or misleading testimony will be exposed as such.
- Again displaying his bias in favor of the reliability of the gospels, though in a subtler way than usual, Strobel focuses on McCullough’s testimony withstanding scrutiny, while ignoring the fact that testimony and other evidence offered by the defense must have been subjected to similar scrutiny and discredited. Instead of presenting us with both and inviting us to make up our minds over which is the better metaphor for the gospels, Strobel attempts to lead us by the nose by addressing only the testimony that withstood the test.
The Intention Test
- The first of eight tests to which Strobel and Dr. Blomberg (returning from Chapter 1) will be subjecting the gospels. The intention test determines whether the writers of the gospels were even trying to preserve an accurate history.
- Blomberg: We can assume the gospel writers intended to record accurate histories because Luke’s gospel opens with a statement to that effect, and Matthew and Mark are similar enough to Luke that we can assume they had the same intent.
- In other words, because they say so. If a lawyer asks a witness at a trial, “Do you intend to tell the truth?” and the witness answers “Yes,” should we then assume everything the witness says is true, no matter how incredible or contradicted by other evidence it might be?
- Recall from Chapter 1 that the Gospel of Luke is the only gospel which, according to Blomberg’s own sources, is not based on the testimony of any eyewitness, but on the preachings of Paul. The statement of the intention to record a true and factual account comes from the writer who neither witnessed nor spoke to witnesses of the events he is writing about. And, again, this also assumes that Luke actually wrote the gospel, which he quite probably didn’t.
- Blomberg cites John 20:31 (“These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”) as another, similar statement of purpose. Strobel helpfully objects that this is more of a theological statement, and Blomberg explains that it still counts since the theological beliefs of the gospel writers must have flowed from accurate histories, or else they would not have believed as they did.
- Does this mean Blomberg considers it impossible to sincerely believe something that is not true?
- Blomberg also claims that the gospels are written “[Blomberg:]‘in a sober, responsible fashion, with accurate incidental details, with obvious care and exactitude. You don’t find the outlandish flourishes and blatant mythologizing that you see in a lot of other ancient writings.’” (Lee Strobel, THE CASE FOR CHRIST, p. 40)
- Blomberg mentions the “incidental details” the gospels get right, and ignores the many instances where we know they got things wrong (the non-existent census prior to Jesus’s birth, the contradictory genealogies of Jesus, the conflicting reports of the time of day of the crucifixion, etc.)
- Examples of Outlandish Flourishes and Blatant Mythologizing in the Gospels:
- Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22: Following his baptism, a voice from heaven addresses Jesus, saying (according to Matthew): “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
- Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13: Jesus goes to the desert and is tempted by the devil, who takes him to the top of a mountain high enough to see all the kingdoms of the world and promises him power over them. After the devil leaves, angels come and nurse Jesus back to health. There is no possible eyewitness to any of this.
- Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36: Jesus is transfigured, shining with bright light, with the figures of Moses and Elijah appearing next to him.
- Matthew 27:51-53: Following the death of Jesus, Jerusalem is struck by an earthquake, and dead saints rose from their graves and appeared to many throughout the city.
- Added to these, consider the mythic universals present in the gospel narratives: the birth of Jesus foretold in the stars, Jesus miraculously conceived and born of a virgin, the descendant of royalty, the Son of God, Jesus dying under unusual circumstances, dying on top of a hill, visiting the underworld — all elements common to mythology, all examples of precisely the kind of “blatant mythologizing” which Blomberg ludicrously claims are not found in the gospels.
- Answering Objections: Strobel challenges Blomberg’s claims by proposing “a competing and contradictory scenario.” In this scenario, the followers of Jesus were convinced of his imminent final return and therefore took no pains to preserve any records of his life and ministry.
- Blomberg says the premise that the first followers of Jesus expected his return soon is overstated, since the gospels record teachings of Jesus which mostly suggest there will be a significant amount of time to come before the end of the world. Also, Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism, which had long been in the habit of recording and preserving the words of its prophets while continuing to wait for the coming of the messiah.
- Once again Blomberg’s answer to this challenge is basically “Well, that’s not what the gospels say they did.”
- If Strobel seriously wanted to scrutinize this testimony, there are surely more challenging scenarios he could have proposed. The possibility that the gospels were largely or entirely invented long after the time of the supposed events is never mentioned, nor are the opinions of the scholars who believe this is precisely what happened.
Strobel challenges Blomberg with another scenario: Since early Christians believed that Jesus continued to speak through them after his death, and these “messages” were considered to be just as authoritative as the words of Jesus during his life, it is impossible to know when the gospel writers are actually quoting Jesus.
- Blomberg counters that the New Testament always makes a clear distinction between the quoted words of Jesus and messages received through prophecy. He cites Paul making this distinction in 1 Corinthians, and Revelation where “[Blomberg:]‘. . . one can clearly distinguish the handful of times in which Jesus directly speaks to this prophet — traditionally assumed to be John the apostle — and when John is recounting his own inspired visions.’” (p. 42)
- Blomberg cites Paul’s criteria for evaluating prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14: “[Blomberg:]‘Drawing on [Paul’s] Jewish background, we know that the criteria for true prophecy would have included whether the prediction comes true and whether these new statements cohere with previously revealed words of the Lord.’” (p. 42)
- Revelation recounts events that would have taken place long after the death of Jesus. Blomberg claims there is a clear distinction made between John’s visions and “the handful of times in which Jesus directly speaks to this prophet,” ignoring or forgetting the fact that any time Jesus directly speaks to John in Revelation, these are the words of John’s vision of Jesus, not the living, historical Jesus. Jesus is dead in Revelation.
- If whether or not the prediction comes true is a criteria for testing prophecy, then not only are the prophecies of John’s vision of Jesus in Revelation suspect, but also the prophecies supposedly shared by Jesus while he was alive. Luke 21:32: “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled.” This was supposedly said 2,000 years ago.
The Ability Test
- Even by most conservative standards, at least thirty years went by before the gospel accounts were written down. Is it reasonable to assume the life and teachings of Jesus were accurately preserved for that interval?
- Blomberg argues that committing the oral tradition of the gospels to memory and preserving it until it was written down would have been no big deal, since learning back then was done mostly by word of mouth, as books were relatively rare. Aiding this process is the fact that most of Jesus’s words were in poetic form, making memorization so much the easier. Also, the amount of variation between the gospels — between 10 to 40% — matches the rate of variation in the telling of other orally preserved sacred traditions. But certain fixed points were carefully maintained, preserving the accuracy of the stories.
- Blomberg argues against comparing the oral tradition which preserved the gospels to the telephone game, stressing that the process was self-correcting, that the community hearing the stories would ensure they were being told properly.
- Does this mean Blomberg considers other forms of traditional information to be historically reliable, as well? If, as Blomberg says of cultures with oral traditions, “[Blomberg:] ‘. . . there were always fixed points that were unalterable, and the community had the right to intervene and correct the storyteller if her erred on those important aspects of the story.’” (p. 43), doesn’t that mean the hadith, the collection of words and actions of Muhammad, preserved by early Muslims through oral tradition before being written down, is entitled to the same respect as the gospels? What about the oral traditions of other cultures, such as the myriad tribes of Native Americans, whose creation myths and legendary heroes were carefully passed down by word of mouth from parents to children for generations? Would Dr. Blomberg claim that the ancient stories of the Cherokee or the Iroquois are historically reliable as well? I suspect he would not, particularly when those stories contradict the stories found in the Bible. So the question then becomes, what reason is there for giving special privilege to the oral traditions preserved by the gospels?
The Character Test
- Were the gospel writers truthful? Or is there evidence of dishonesty and deceit?
- “[Blomberg:]‘We simply do not have any reasonable evidence to suggest they were anything but people of great integrity[.]’” (p. 45)
- As evidence for their character, Blomberg also cites the “grisly deaths” which met eleven of the disciples, thus further demonstrating their stellar characters.
- Once again Blomberg brazenly relies on circular reasoning. Even assuming traditional authorship, we have no information about the gospel writers (including the circumstances of their deaths) other than that which we find in the Bible itself and in church tradition. The argument boils down to “The people who wrote the gospels were of honest and reliable character because the gospels say they were.” This is laughable.
The Consistency Test
- Aren’t the various accounts in the gospels too contradictory to be trusted?
- Blomberg acknowledges disagreements among the gospels “all the way from very minor variations in wording to the most famous apparent contradictions.” However, he believes that, once the expected variations resulting from the gospels first being oral traditions are considered, the gospels are actually extremely consistent with each other.
- Strobel, the objective journalist who just wants us to make up our own minds, points out that if the gospels were in total agreement, that would have been used as an argument against their authenticity as well. He and Blomberg then agree that the disagreements between the gospels actually make it easier to accept them as reliable history.
- Blomberg dispenses with two relatively minor inconsistencies raised by Strobel: Matthew and Luke disagreeing over whether a centurion personally asked Jesus to heal his servant, or sent the Jewish elders to ask; and whether the site of Jesus sending the demons into the swine was Gerasa, as found in Mark and Luke, or Gadara, as found in Matthew.
- Aren’t these minor disagreements on incidental, ultimately unimportant details just the sort of variation Blomberg has already told us to expect? Why does he bother trying to refute them at all? Why not just chalk them up to the oral tradition?
- Blomberg then attempts to dispense with the disagreement between Matthew and Luke on the genealogy of Jesus. He suggests two possible explanations: first, that Matthew is tracing Joseph’s lineage, while Luke is tracing Mary’s; second, that Luke is referring to Joseph’s human lineage, while Matthew is referring to Joseph’s legal lineage. Blomberg also reminds us that names might have been omitted from the genealogies, which would have been acceptable by the standards of the time, or misspelled or mistranslated.
- At the end of the section, Strobel acknowledges that the explanations for the contradictions “might not be airtight,” but “. . . there are at least some rational explanations.” (p. 48) That is not the point. “Some rational explanations” will not do — to find the truth, we must seek the best explanation. And what is the best explanation for the contradictions in the genealogies of Jesus, for example? Is it one of Blomberg’s explanations, neither of which would seem to suggest themselves except for the desire to establish the gospels as true and reliable? Or is it that the gospels simply got it wrong?
- Blomberg suggests we should give the gospels the benefit of the doubt on this one, since he has examined the gospel texts in other areas and “found them to be trustworthy.” But using the methods and standards by which Blomberg has established the trustworthiness of the gospels, we can also establish the trustworthiness of the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, the sacred traditions of various American Indian tribes, the scriptures of the various forms of Buddhism, the Vedas, the Upanishads and the other Hindu scriptures, and the list goes on — does Dr. Blomberg give these texts the benefit of the doubt when they exhibit contradictions? Does he make excuses for why we should accept their incredible claims, their questionable history? Again, I suspect he does not. He unfairly privileges the gospels.
The Bias Test
- Did the gospel writers have any biases or vested interests that would have compelled them to skew their accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus?
- Blomberg concedes that the sort of love and devotion which the followers of Jesus had for him could potentially result in an unreliable account. But he says that same devotion could also compel the gospel writers to record the life of Jesus with great accuracy in order to preserve what actually happened. “That’s what I think happened here,” Blomberg says. And again, he brings up the martyrdom of the disciples as evidence of their trustworthiness.
- But why does Blomberg think their love and devotion to Jesus compelled the gospel writers to make an accurate account? It’s not enough that it’s possible they did; we need a reason to think that that is what actually happened. Why should we believe their devotion drove the followers of Jesus to write accurate histories, but not believe the same about the followers of Muhammad? Or the members of Heaven’s Gate (who, like the disciples, were willing to die for their beliefs)?
- Speaking of the martyrdom of the disciples, there is little evidence outside of the New Testament and church traditions that these martyrdoms even took place. Blomberg and Strobel first have to make a convincing case for the historicity of the martyrs before their martyrdom can be made a compelling part of the case for Christ.
The Cover-Up Test
- People giving testimony will often shade it to place themselves in the best possible light, or attempt to omit or gloss over difficult to explain details. Is there evidence the gospel writers did this, thus casting doubt on their accounts?
- According to Blomberg, the gospels are filled with difficult and embarrassing details that the writers, had they felt at liberty to alter or omit the facts, might have been better off leaving out. For example, Blomberg cites passages in Mark and Paul’s Letter to the Philippians that limit the power of Jesus, which a church interested in promoting an all-powerful Jesus might have been better off deleting from the text. He also cites the baptism of Jesus, and Jesus calling out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” on the cross. Hardboiled reporter Strobel them helpfully prompts Blomberg to also mention the sometimes less than flattering depictions of the disciples.
- “[Blomberg:]‘But here’s the point: if they didn’t feel free to leave out stuff when it would have been convenient and helpful to do so, is it really plausible to believe that they outright added and fabricated material with no factual basis? . . . I’d say not.’” (p. 50)
- So the fact that Joseph Smith didn’t invent a more plausible explanation for where the Book of Mormon came from, when he obviously could have, means that we should believe the story about him being visited by the angel Moroni and finding the engraved gold plates and the magic stones that allowed him to translate them? Afterall, a total of eleven witnesses other than Joseph Smith swore that they saw the golden plates, eight of whom actually handled the plates, and three of whom were shown the plates by an angel and heard the voice of God testifying to the authenticity of the plates. Why would these witnesses testify to these occurrences if they weren’t true? Early Mormons often faced persecution and hardship as a result of their beliefs — can we really be so quick to dismiss their faith when so many of them were willing to suffer for it?
- As to whether or not the gospel writers deliberately added material to the gospels with no factual basis: why is willful fabrication the only explanation for the presence of fabricated material? Blomberg sets up this either-or proposition where either the gospel writers intentionally lied, or their accounts are totally trustworthy. But this is a false dichotomy. What about the possibility that fabricated material found its way into the gospels over time, as a result of legend and folklore creeping in, innocent and unintentional mistakes by those re-telling the stories or re-copying the texts, additions to the texts by writers other than the original authors (we have very good reasons to believe things like this happened with the account of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, one of the most well-known stories in the Bible, where Jesus says “let he that is without sin cast the first stone.”). Given that we know things like these happen, that we are susceptible to these kinds of corruption and legend-making even today, when preserving accurate records of events is far easier than it was in the time of Jesus, and that we can identify specific passages in the gospels where things like mythology, errors and late revisions or additions are probably present, isn’t this a better explanation than either side of Blomberg’s false dilemma? The gospel writers — whoever they were — weren’t necessarily willful liars. But that doesn’t mean we should assume the gospels as we have them today should be treated as reliable truth. The phenomena I’ve just described not only could account for the gospels — I think they make for a much more plausible explanation than either of Blomberg’s possibilities.
The Corroboration Test
- Do the people, places and events mentioned in the gospels check out with historical facts when they can be independently verified?
- Blomberg claims archaeology has repeatedly confirmed details mentioned in the gospels. He admits that sometimes archaeology creates problems, but claims these are a tiny minority compared to the number of instances when archaeological finds have corroborated the gospels.
- Blomberg also claims there are non-Christian sources that can verify many details about Jesus and his followers, despite the fact that they do not fall into one of the categories traditionally valued by ancient history: political rulers, military battles, official religious leaders, major philosophical movements.
- Blomberg glosses over the times when archaeology has disproven the gospels, and the serious obstacles to accepting the gospels as historically reliable that remain. For example, as mentioned before, the census that was the motivation for Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem is not found in any historical records of the time and there is no reason to think it ever occurred except for the gospels. There are also no records outside of the New Testament of Herod’s massacre of the infants in Bethlehem, no records of Jesus’s trial before Pontius Pilate, no mention in contemporary accounts of the earthquake that supposedly shook Jerusalem after the death of Jesus, and no mention of the Jewish saints rising from the dead and being seen throughout the city.
- None of the non-Christian sources mentioned by Blomberg date to the time Jesus was alive, therefore none were eyewitnesses to the events of his life, and most of them merely describe things that Christians were known to believe, and offer no independent verification of the life or teachings of Jesus.
The Adverse Witness Test
- Were there others present who could have contradicted or corrected the gospels had they been distorted or false?
- Blomberg says that many had reason to want to discredit Christianity in its early years, and would have if it were possible to do so. Jewish writings refer to Jesus as a sorcerer, but also acknowledge that he worked miracles. Strobel asks, “Could this Christian movement have taken root right there in Jerusalem — in the very area where Jesus had done much of his ministry, had been crucified, buried, and resurrected — if people who knew him were aware that the disciples were exaggerating or distorting the things that he did?” Blomberg replies, “[Blomberg:]‘I don’t believe so. . . . If critics could have attacked it on the basis that it was full of falsehoods and distortions, they would have. . . . But that’s exactly what we don’t see.’” (p. 51)
- The opinions of later Jewish writers are irrelevant. They were not witnesses to the life of Jesus, therefore what does it matter whether they thought he was a miracle-worker or not? They lived in a time of overwhelming ignorance and superstition — believing that a miracle-worker was empowered by the devil rather than by God was perfectly reasonable to them, and has absolutely nothing to say about whether miracle-workers, the devil, or God actually exist.
- As to the question of how Christianity would have caught on if it had been based on false information: Again, we can dispose of this by transferring Blomberg’s argument from Christianity to another religion. Supposed Strobel had asked this question of Blomberg instead: “Could this Latter-Day Saint movement have taken root right there in the state of New York — in the very area where Joseph Smith was known to be a con-artist and had even been brought to trial for fraud — if people who knew him were aware that he and his followers were exaggerating or distorting the things that he did?” If the answer to this question does not persuade you of the truth of Mormonism, why should Blomberg’s answer to Strobel’s question persuade you of the truth of the gospels?
A Faith Buttressed By Facts
- Strobel wraps up the chapter by reiterating how convincing Blomberg’s evidence was, then asking Blomberg how his work has affected his own faith. Blomberg says that his faith has been strengthened, and that even though evidence cannot compel faith, “[Blomberg:]‘There are plenty of stories of scholars in the New Testament field who have not been Christians, yet through their study of these very issues have come to their faith in Christ.’” Strobel places himself in that category, calling himself “a skeptic, an iconoclast, a hard-nosed reporter on a quest for the truth about this Jesus who said he was the Way and the Truth and the Life.” (p. 53)
- There are also plenty of stories of scholars in the New Testament field who were very devoted Christians, who eventually came to reject their faith as a result of their research. Bart Ehrman is an example.
- The number of non-Christian scholars persuaded to become Christians by studying the New Testament is irrelevant for another reason: Think of the scholars who, after careful study, have decided that 9/11 was an inside job, or that the Moon landings were a hoax, or that someone other than Lee Harvey Oswald murdered John Kennedy, or that there is no law in the United States Code requiring people to pay federal income tax, or that climate change is not occurring, or accepted any of countless other conspiracy theories. There are not many such people, relatively speaking, but they do exist. Does the fact that they have been persuaded speak to the truth of their claims?
- If evidence cannot compel faith, of what use is faith?
Next time: Strobel interviews another expert in Chapter 3: The Documentary Evidence: Were Jesus’ Biographies Reliably Preserved for Us?