An Atheist Reads The Case for Christ
PART 1: Examining the Record
Chapter 5: The Scientific Evidence — Does Archaeology Confirm or Contradict Jesus’ Biographies?
The Jeffrey MacDonald Story
- Strobel describes his lunch with Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who was accused of murdering his wife and two daughters. Incredulous at the man’s apparent calm, Strobel asks MacDonald if he’s worried he’ll be convicted. No, MacDonald says; he’s confident he won’t be convicted — he’s innocent, he insists unconvincingly. MacDonald is eventually found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
- MacDonald’s story — that drug-crazed intruders had broken into his house and murdered his family, stabbing him in the process — did not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Investigators found no signs of struggle at the scene, and used blood-typing and microscopic analysis of fibers from MacDonald’s pajamas to determine that there had been no intruders that night, and that MacDonald himself was the most likely culprit.
- Scientific evidence can help determine whether the New Testament’s depiction of Jesus is accurate — specifically that discovered by the science of archaeology. By studying artifacts, archaeologists can learn what life was like in first century Palestine, to find whether or not the gospel accounts are trustworthy. Strobel wonders whether archaeological finds confirm or contradict the claims of the Bible. And he asserts his own skepticism, claiming to not want “more of the same” exaggerated claims of what archaeology can prove about the life of Jesus.
The Fourth Interview: John McRay, Ph.D.
- Author of the textbook, Archaeology and the New Testament. Advisor on A&E’s Mysteries of the Bible series. Professor of New Testament and archaeology at Wheaton College. Former research associate and trustee of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, former trustee of the American Schools of Oriental Research, on the editorial boards of Archaeology in the Biblical World and the Bulletin for Biblical Research. Has supervised excavations in Israel and ancient Roman sites in England and Wales, and retraced much of Paul’s journey through the Roman Empire.
- Strobel settles in to the “cozy couch” in McRay’s office to begin the interview.
- McRay asserts that archaeology can only confirm or refute the accuracy of the New Testament’s setting and incidental details. “[McRay:]‘. . . it doesn’t confirm that what Jesus Christ said is right. Spiritual truths cannot be proved or disproved by archaeological discoveries.’” (Lee Strobel, THE CASE FOR CHRIST, p. 95)
Digging For the Truth
- Strobel explains the value of confirming the details of testimony: “If . . . the person was wrong in those details, this casts considerable doubt on the veracity of his or her entire story. However, if the minutiae check out, this is some indication — not conclusive proof but some evidence — that maybe the witness is being reliable in his or her overall account.” (p. 96)
- McRay on how the New Testament stands up to archaeological scrutiny: “[McRay:]‘Oh, there’s no question the credibility of the New Testament is enhanced.’” (p. 96)
Luke’s Accuracy as a Historian
- McRay puts over Luke as an accurate historian — educated and eloquent. McRay cites an example of how scholars once doubted the accuracy of one of Luke’s details — that Lysanias had been the tetrarch of Abilene in A.D. 27 — only to see Luke’s account vindicated when archaeologists discovered evidence of two government officials named Lysanias — one the tetrarch of Abilene, one the ruler of Chalcis in the previous century. Other archaeological finds confirmed Luke’s use of the term “politarchs”, and suggested a possible solution to the contradiction of Luke depicting Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus on his way into Jericho, while Mark has that healing taking place on Jesus’s way out of Jericho: the city had been destroyed and resettled multiple times, so there were at least four separate locations known as Jericho, meaning both Luke and Mark could have been correct.
- Strobel suggests that since Luke has been shown to be reliable in details like these, he should also be seen as a credible source for the more incredible portions of the Jesus story, including the resurrection.
The Reliability of John and Mark
- Citing similar examples of objections being explained away (or at least given enough space to permit a rationalization), the gospels of John and Mark are also held up as reliable in their geographical and other local details.
- The reliability of Luke and John and Mark certainly does nothing to hurt the case for the authenticity of the New Testament. But it seems like a lot of work just to keep from behind pushed off the starting line. Even if I grant that the New Testament is accurate in every incidental detail, that the towns were all right where the gospel writers say they were, and the government officials were all who they said they were, those arguing for the supernatural claims about Jesus are still at zero.
- Skepticism about the divinity and miracles and resurrection of Jesus doesn’t come from how the gospels handle the details — it comes from the far-fetched nature of the claims themselves. Luke may have been a very intelligent man and a very scrupulous historian. But does that mean we should believe him when he tells us a man rose from the dead? I’m a pretty down-to-earth guy. I don’t have a reputation among my friends as someone who makes up stories or exaggerates. So if I go to hang out with my buddies Matt and Rob and I tell them I was abducted by aliens on the way over, should they believe me? Of course not. The fact that I’ve been reliable in the past is irrelevant. The outrageousness of my claim demands skepticism, regardless of my track record.
- It’s also entirely possible for someone who is as McRay describes Luke — eloquent and erudite — to say and believe things that aren’t true. Take as an example Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, one of my favorite writers. Just a brilliant man, fantastic writer, educated, intelligent, great respect for the scientific method. He believed in fairies.
Puzzle 1: The Census
- Luke, that old reliable historian who was careful to get every detail right, writes that Joseph and Mary were required to travel to Bethlehem to take part in a worldwide census:
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.” (Luke 2:1-5)
- Strobel questions McRay on the practice of the government forcing citizens to return to their birthplaces for a census. McRay reads a passage from a government order dated A.D. 104: “Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments.”
- McRay claims this as verification that the Roman Empire carried out the census in this way. He cites another document from A.D. 48 which establishes that the entire family was required to participate, which would have included the pregnant Mary in Joseph’s case.
- McRay then argues that the census referred to in Luke was the Census of Quirinius, which took place in the year A.D. 6 or 7. Strobel ends the section saying, “I could conclude with confidence that censuses were held during the time frame of Jesus’ birth and that there is evidence people were indeed required to return to their hometowns — which I still thought was odd!” (p. 102)
- Not so fast, Lee. Look at the passage from Luke again. He describes a census that did not merely require people to return to their hometowns, as in the government order McRay cited, or to their birthplace, as Strobel himself describes it early in this section. The census described by Luke requires Joseph, who was living in Nazareth, to Bethlehem. And why? “Because he was of the house and lineage of David.” David lived a thousand years before the lifetime of Joseph. David is not Joseph’s father or grandfather or great-grandfather — David is Joseph’s ancestor. The government order read by McRay requires citizens “residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes.” In other words, if you’re traveling, if you’ve been out of town, come home. Time for the census. Joseph’s home was in Nazareth, and that’s where this census would have required him to be. There is no record, anywhere, of a census that required people to return to the homes of their ancestors from a thousand years before. The census described by Luke is not the Census of Quirinius. No census like that described by Luke ever took place.
- Strange how a historian as erudite and reliable as Luke would get something like that wrong . . .
Puzzle 2: Existence of Nazareth
- Strobel notes that many skeptics question whether or not Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus, even existed during Jesus’s lifetime. He notes that Nazareth isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament, or by Paul, or in the Talmud, or by Josephus, or by any other historian before the fourth century.
- McRay’s explanation: references to Nazareth exist dating back to A.D. 70, when the temple at Jerusalem had been destroyed. There are no first century references to it outside the gospels because it was a very small settlement.
- This is a very fine argument, it seems to me. The only problem with it, at least from where McRay and Strobel are standing, is that it contradicts how Nazareth is presented in the gospels. Observe:
- “But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee: And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:22-23)
“And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1:26-27)
“And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; because he was of the house and lineage of David:” (Luke 2:3-4)
“And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:39-40)
- Nazareth is always described as a “city.” Not a “town,” not a “village” — two words that appear often in the New Testament, so it’s not as if every place was just generically described as a city. And not only is the Nazareth of the New Testament a city, it’s well known in the region. Take a look at John 1:45-46: “Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see.” (John 1:45-46)
- So either Nazareth is as the gospels describe it — a city with the sort of reputation that led Nathanael to scoff at the notion of anything good coming from it — or it’s the insignificant little settlement that McRay describes. It can’t be both. In order to refute the claim that Nazareth didn’t exist in the time of Jesus, McRay has to contradict the gospels.
Puzzle 3: Slaughter at Bethlehem
- The gospel of Matthew is the only reference to the slaughter of the innocents by Herod the Great: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.” (Matthew 2:16)
- Strobel questions whether or not this event ever happened, since there is not a single reference to it anywhere other than Matthew 2:16. McRay answers with a variation of the argument he just used for Nazareth. The slaughter of the innocents is nowhere to be found in history, McRay claims, because it just wasn’t that big of a deal. “[McRay:]‘First, Bethlehem was probably no bigger than Nazareth, so how many babies of that age would there be in a village of five hundred or six hundred people? Not thousands, not hundreds, although certainly a few.’” (p. 104) The estimate I’m familiar with is a few dozen, based on what would have been the population of Bethlehem at the time.
- McRay describes Bethlehem as being “no bigger than Nazareth.” And yet Bethlehem wasn’t totally ignored by history for four hundred years after the time of Jesus. Interesting. Good luck to anyone trying to construct a consistent view of Nazareth based on what John McRay says in this chapter.
- Let’s not forget the context in which we find the massacre of the innocents in the gospels: the Magi, the wise men, have gone to visit the baby Jesus and been warned by an angel not to tell Herod where Jesus was. Herod doesn’t hear from the Magi, gets pissed off and orders the slaughter, which Baby Jesus escapes thanks to Joseph being warned by an angel in a dream. Matthew’s account of the slaughter reads more like myth than history.
- If you weren’t starting with the assumption that the gospels were reliable, would you really conclude that this act of state-sanctioned mass-infanticide, for which there was no evidence other than a lone reference in one of the gospels — a reference that also describes the involvement of angels in the event — had actually happened? The only reason for McRay to make this argument — the only reason to make most of the arguments presented in The Case for Christ — is if he has already eliminated the possibility that the gospels are wrong. And the gospels just aren’t worthy of that level of trust.
Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls
- Though the Dead Sea Scrolls contain no information about Jesus, they do, says McRay, tell us something about who Jesus was claiming to be.
- McRay mentions Matthew 11:3, where Jesus is asked directly by two disciples of John the Baptist if he is the Messiah. And instead of just saying yes: “Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)
- Jesus is paraphrasing Isaiah 35, but he adds the bit about the dead being raised himself. At least he appears to — a manuscript discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls includes a section of Isaiah that includes the phrase “the dead are raised.” So, according to McRay, this confirms that Jesus’s answer to John the Baptist’s disciples was really a long-winded way of saying “Yes, I’m the Messiah, what the hell do you think?”
- Strobel: “It was staggering to me how modern archaeology could finally unlock the significance of a statement in which Jesus boldly asserted nearly two thousand years ago that he was indeed the anointed one of God.” (p. 107)
- Why would this be of interest to anyone other than someone seriously interested in Biblical scholarship? Well before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it was apparent that the Jesus of the gospels believes himself to be the messiah and expects others to believe it, too. It’s an interesting discovery from a certain perspective, but it changes absolutely nothing.
“A Remarkably Accurate Source Book”
- Strobel compares the archaeological evidence for the New Testament to that for the Book of Mormon — this is his lengthiest reference to another religion so far. He notes, correctly, that there is no archaeological evidence to confirm anything in the Book of Mormon — no evidence of cities or people, no Mormon artifacts, no ancient Mormon inscriptions — no evidence that the Book of Mormon is anything other than something Joseph Smith made up.
- The New Testament, on the other hand: “Archaeology’s repeated affirmation of the New Testament’s accuracy provides important corroboration for its reliability.” (p. 107)
- So let’s review what archaeology affirms about the New Testament, according to McRay and Strobel: It affirms that the people who first told these stories were familiar enough with the region to get the details of place generally correct. Cities and towns that are mentioned did actually exist. Rulers and other government officials mentioned also were real people. And as I said before, this doesn’t hurt the case for the reliability of the gospels, but it doesn’t help it, either. What about what archaeology doesn’t confirm? There is no archaeological evidence of Jesus himself — no artifacts, no tomb (empty or not), no references to Jesus anywhere that date to his own lifetime. There is no archaeological evidence of his birth, his youth spent in Egypt, his ministry, his miracles, his death or his resurrection. Everything we think we know about Jesus comes from sources that are second-hand at best. This wouldn’t be as important if not for the incredible nature of the claims about Jesus. Without better evidence for the man himself and the feats he supposedly performed, there is no reason to believe any of those miraculous events actually happened, no matter how good the evidence is for the incidental details — and that evidence isn’t nearly as good as McRay and Strobel would have us believe.
- JJPHILLYLG, a commenter on my previous video in this series best sums up this argument, I think: “New York is real therefore Spider-Man is real.”
- Strobel doesn’t ask McRay how his work has affected his personal faith. I’ll go out on a limb and assume that McRay’s work has strengthened his personal faith. Just a feeling I have.
Next: Chapter 6: The Rebuttal Evidence – Is the Jesus of History the Same As the Jesus of Faith?