Book Review - The Case for Christ

(note: This is the first part of an exercise that I did with some Christian friends. In a nutshell, we agreed to examine and comment on the media presented as evidence by the other side. I'll post a different one each day, or you can find a link to the whole series below if you do not wish to wait. Once again, I'll post them all here - I do not wish to skirt the blog guidelines).

(one more note - I didn't have the time to translate the external references mentioned in this blog. Please see the link at the bottom if you'd like to see the references)

The book being reviewed is The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. My friends were positive that this book would end this challenge before it even began. The quotes are taken directly from the book.

First thoughts

I have read a few chapters in this book. The first thing that struck me is the tone of the book. In short, Strobel is anything but a skeptic. He asks very leading and softball questions in the interviews and takes great care to tell the reader when the commentator showed confidence in his words. Worse, he poses a semi-tough question and then tells the reader that the commentator took a few moments before issuing a truthful statement. I can't tell you how condescending this is. It is very obvious that this was meant to satisfy and placate those that want to feel good about their beliefs no matter what came out of the commentator's mouth. The book speaks as though the author is trying to maintain plausible deniablity to the skeptics rather than building a case for the belief. Start with the assumptions and then insert flimsy evidence to illustrate that the claims could be true. It is not unlike what a defense lawyer would present to try to beat the prosecution. Strobel should be building a case.

It was also obvious from the beginning of the first interview that Strobel had absolutely no interest in applying any kind of skepticism to the claims made by the apologists. Claims were made without references. For example, the first interviewee, Craig Blomberg, repeatedly made sweeping statements such as "historians now agree" or "the record clearly shows" without justifying his claims.

Speaking of Blomberg, he is the first expert interviewed by Strobel. This is an important interview as Strobel relies on Blomberg to validate the truthfulness of the Bible based on the historical record. Once this validation has been made Strobel will then infer other truths based on the writings themselves.

And this is where the problems start. Blomberg does start off by saying that the Bible was written by anonymous and unknown authors. He then says that this is ok because Papias confirmed the authors were Mark, Mathew, Luke and John. In 125 A.D. Iraneus did the same in 180 A.D. He goes so far as to say that the two confirmed that the authors "carefully and accurately recorded the events of Jesus' life and made no mistakes". Huh? Can someone explain this to me? How could either of them have done this? Even if Papias did in fact talk to the authors (and he did not), so what? They said that they were accurate so that was good enough for him? This is like you or me validating the authenticity of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's words and actions.

I can't tell you how important the last paragraph is. Strobel uses these "truths" to validate the accuracy and truthfulness of the Bible. The vary base of his argument is in these claims.

It gets sillier from there. Blomberg goes on to state the following:

- Because the apostles held varying occupations (including Paul, the "sort of" journalist) we can be assured that the direct or indirect testimony is true. Wow.

- It must be true because they had no reason to lie. I kid you not. First, yes, they did. There have been thousands of religions on this planet - even if one were true the others would be lies. Second, this argument could be made for any other religion that is based on divine inspiration and the like (as they all are).

- The Bible is true because there are no contradicting texts. I have never understood this argument. First, Jesus (if he existed) was Jewish. His own people would be the most likely to go along with his claims of being divine. Of course, no such event happened. Second, the Christians decided what was to be in the Bible in 325 A.D. at the First Council of Nicaea. The church then ordered all contradicting texts (and even many supporting texts) to be burned. Sadly, this included many great works of the Greek philosophers (their works only exist if they made it to other civilizations). Finally, the Middle East was a hotbed or religious activity at that time and many people claimed to be the Messiah.

- Even though the accounts of Jesus' life were not written down for 70+ years after his death, they must be accurate because the message was so important. People would tell each other the whole story and then ask a third party to make sure that they got it right. If someone did not get it right, the community would let them know. I kid you not - this is what Blomberg states. Were people in the first century really that much different? Of course not. This has never been true at any time in our existence. Blomberg goes so far as to say that Rabbis have been known to commit whole books to memory so therefore it is plausible.

- Jesus' life wasn't documented immediately after his death because they thought he was coming back soon. Once again, this is a huge stretch.

- The vast majority of Jesus' life was left out because it didn't matter. Really? I think a little more detail would have gone a long way. The one story from his teen years that is in the Bible has been shown to be historically inaccurate.

- People like Alexander the Great were documented well after their deaths and nobody questions them. Sure, becase 'ol Alex never claimed to be the Son of God. I think the burden of proof is a wee bit higher for Jesus. And unlike Jesus, ATG was referened in this history books of other countries.

- Blomberg says that we have no reason to believe that "the writers" (his term) did not have integrity. Once again, he admitted that the the writers were anonymous so how could he make this claim? Even if we knew who they were, how can he say this about someone that lived 2,000 year ago? Nothing more is said about this - it is taken as fact in the book.

- Contradictions between the apostles are due to translations. Once again, this is not true for many of the main stories in the book. Here is a good list of contradictions.

- The apostles wouldn't have died if they didn't believe the Bible to be true. Once again, there is no evidence that any of these people existed. Second, people have given their lives in the name of hundreds of other Gods. Surely they believed their God to be the right one.

- It must be true because the Apostles layed out some details of other Apostles that weren't flattering. So?

- Archaology confirms the details of the Bible more and more every day. Once again, no details offered behind this sweeping statement. See the previous link for many things that were completely incorrect in the Bible. You can also check out this one for the discrepancies found in the oldest known bible.

And so it went. I urge you to read the book for yourselves to see that I am not taking the worst of what was written or twisting it in any way. These are the main claims made by Blomberg. I have to say one thing and I mean it with all of my heart and ...errr.... soul. The interview with Blomberg was laughable at best. I have read and seen a lot of arguments for the existence of God or the validatity of the Bible that were layed out better than this book. Once again, it was aimed to make the faithful feel good about their beliefs and nothing more. I would be embarassed if an atheist wrote a book with the same lack of reason and honesty.

I think that I am most surprised because there are *some* better arguments for God and Jesus. I hope that the later chapters are more credible than what I have read so far. I fear that one may get the impression that I went in to this looking to rip it apart.

One more thing: the "skeptic" Lee Strobel did not interview one skeptic or non-fundamentilist in his book.

Yamauchi on Corroboration

Having already proven the historical accuracy of the Bible in his interview with Blomberg (Strobel's words, not mine), Edwin M. Yamuachi, PH.D. is brought in to discuss the corroborating evidence from outside of the Bible.

Yamauchi points out Josephus up as the best corroboration of Biblical events. Now I must point out that the works of Josephus have always been in doubt (see the wiki) for the sake of the argument I will go along with what he said as fact (I know, I'm breaking my own rule here). Josephus mentioned Jesus in a single paragraph in his writings. One paragraph! He did write more extensively about other characters of the day.

At this point Strobel puts on his skeptical hat (finally) and points out that many prominent scholars have pointed out that one would expect that Josephus would have mentioned quite a bit more about the Messiah. It seems like the obvious question, right?

So what is Yamauchi's response? "From time to time some people have tried to deny the existence of Jesus, but this really a lost cause. There is overwhelming evidence that Jesus did exist, and these hypothetical questions are really very very vacuous and fallcious."

Stroble did not push him on the point. So lets get this straight - Yamauchi brings up Josephus as his best example (dubious as his references may be), only to toss him aside and reference unnamed other "overwhelming" evidence that Jesus did exist when he was asked about skepticism of Josephus' account?

Yamauchi did go on to point out two other writings that corroborated the Bible. Both accounts were written well after the death of Jesus (64 A.D. and 111 A.D.) and mentioned people claiming to be Christians. Well, yes, I would expect that there were people that claimed to be Christians. The Church didn't come from thin air. As with any othe religion, it had to start somewhere.

What is curious is that Yamauchi also referenced an obscure Jewish writing that mentioned Jesus in passing. It basically said that Jesus was a crackpot that claimed to be supernatural. Yamauchi says that while this is not flattering it still corroborates the fact that he lived. And the bar gets even lower.

I promise, I am really trying with this book but it reads like a satire. The dialogue between the interviewer and the interviewee is at times laughable, as if written for a Monty Python skit. I do have to admit that the book has filled in some of my gaps of knowledge on characters like Josephus. But it reminds me of the famous Mark Twain quote: "It ain't the parts of the Bible that I don't understand that bothers me, it is the parts that I do". Even if I give Strobel and his guests the benefit of the doubt, they sink themselves with their own words. And these are the best and the brightest of the people that he could have interviewed?

McRay on Scienctific Evidence

Strobel then takes his show on the road in an effort to show that archaelogy backs up the bible. He calls upon John McRay to help. McRay wastes no time in pointing out that archaeology can't make any story true. He then goes on to contradict that very statement.

- McRay states that because many of the sites mentioned by Luke appear to exist that he must therefor be given more credibility. As he initially said, I'm not sure why this is impressive. The authors of the Bible (whoever they are) had to have lived in that general era. I wonder if he would say the same thing about Homer.....
- A huge criticism of the story of Joseph in Mary is the census that supposedly put them on the road. There is no historical record of any such roll calls taking place during that time. McRay points to a second century census form as "proof". Of course, this was enough for Strobel.
- McRay tackles a contradiction between the different accounts of the Bible about who was governing Syria and at what time. His answer? There must have been two different men named "Quirinius" during that era that ruled at different times. Must be, right?
- Strobel asks about the non-existent evidence of the existence of Nazareth. McRay's quote: "The burden of proof ought to be on those who dispute its existence". Strobel's direct response? "That seemed reasonable". Reminder: the title of the book is "A Case for Christ", not "Prove that Christ Didn't Exist". Yikes.
- According to the good book, King Herod knew that the messiah had been born and ordered the execution of all children two and under. One little problem: this isn't mentioned anywhere outside of the bible. Boyd claims that it wasn't newsworthy so nobody wrote it down. All the kids are doomed to death and that isn't news? Even Strobel had problems stomaching this one.

Boyd on the Jesus Seminar

At this point Stroble says he is ready to bring in a real skeptic. Hallelujah!! It is about freaking time. FINALLY, someone that is trying to build a case from the ground-up rather than trying to start with an assumption and then connecting the dots.

Of course, this was too good to be true. The skeptic is Greg Boyd. He's a skeptic - of the Jesus Seminar. For the unitiated, this seminar was made up of various scholars that were critical of the traditional view of Jesus. In a nutshell, they see Jesus as a sage and strip away his supernatural claims (miracles, resurrection, etc). They believe in a more "natural Jesus", if you will.

Boyd, like the others in this book, is a fundamentalist and thus disagrees with the results of the seminar. At this point the book takes a very curious turn. Strobel suddenly goes into "show me" mode towards those that follow the findings of the seminar. That's right - instead of providing alibis to the bible as he has for the first half of the book, he sounds like an atheist when he asks for evidence from the liberals. They believe that Jesus was "just" a priest (as he may have claimed) and that others put words in his mouth later. How does that sounds unreasonable? It is up to them to prove that he wasn't supernatural?

- Strobel spends over a page minimizing the scholars that make up the Seminar. He then spends a page and half telling you how smart Boyd is.
- Not one of the people in the Seminar is interviewed for a rebuttal.
- Boyd says that their conclusions are not based on fact and evidence. And this is different from Boyd's opinion... how?
- Boyd states that Jesus had to exist because of the extreme miracles that he is said to have performed, such as raising the dead. So outrageous claims relate to validity? I guess Barnum was right. By the way - whatever happened to all of the many raised dead?
- Strobel asks Boyd about the story of Apollonius. 'Ol App claimed to have performed all of the same miracles that Jesus did and some think that Jesus was a myth created in the likeness of Apollonius. Boyd brushes him off because they didn't write about him for a century and a half. I completely agree with him, and that is why I think the Bible is also a fraud. Greg, how about a little consistency here?

I'll say it again. I am not cherry-picking through these interviews - these are the core points of the chapters. I could easily dig up all kinds of articles that refute much of what is claimed but that isn't necessary as the book falls apart on its own.

One other general observation: Strobel and his interviewees are constantly referring to "good work" done by other Christian scholars in proving various points. However, they never tell you to what they are referring. You're just supposed to assume that what they are saying is true. You know, take it on faith (coughing). This practice is even more dubious when you consider the "evidence" that they do present in details is at best flimsy.

The Jesus Profile

The rest of the book is an attempt to profile Jesus the man. Since we don't know who wrote the Bible and there may not be a single accurate word of his in there, I'm not sure how one would do this but I'll put my doubts aside for a minute. At this point I'll condense the various interviews into one section. And I'm sorry, it is time to be a little more critical than I have been.

- The raising of the dead was a real miracle and Jesus was not a master hypnotist. This reminds me of a point I wanted to make: notice that for you to believe this stuff you have to believe the least likely scenario at every turn. There are no exceptions to this rule.
- He was definitely able to exorcise demons. This means that not only can he make demons go away, it also means there are demons. But if he is God, can't he just make all the demons go away and be done with it? Once again, you need to come up with a creative answer to these questions. Or you can just give the blanket "we don't know his will" response.
- He is god so he can forgive sin. I'll talk about this more in the morality section but this really irks me. What kind of morality is that? If I go out and blow up a school bus, he speaks on behalf of the victims? How very... generous... of him.
- He didn't talk about being God because he didn't want peole to focus on him. Wasn't that the whole point of him coming down here? Or was it that (simpler answer alert) he never claimed to be god and wasn't god.
- A loving god would send people to he11 only if they want to be at the "center of the universe". At that point the scholar gave his own best guess as to what he11 is, because he's a scholar and good at making guesses. That's his only recourse as there isn't any definition or proof.
- One of the criticisms of the Bible is that it openly advocates slavery. One scholar tackles this head-on. He says that in ancient times slavery was accepted. Jesus goal on earth was "not to free people but to free people from their sins". Wow, where to start here. First, according to the Bible slavery was not a sin so I guess in a way he was right. Why anyone would follow such a belief system is another question. Anyway, the scholar goes on to say that by teaching love and compassion we wold hope that slave holders would give up their sins. But wouldn't this be contradicting God's will? Once again, the Bible clearly advocates the possession of other people (see here). And wouldn't the loving Jesus that everyone talks about make freeing people his goal? Either way, something stinks here.
- One scholar was raised a Jew but in his late teens gave up that belief because the detached voice of God atop Mt. Sinai wasn't personal enough for him because that God couldn't understand his struggles. Ah, ain't cafeteria-style religion grand? I'm sure a preacher that lived 2,000 years ago has a better chance of relating to his self-centered world. Of course, he found Jesus when he was at his low point.
- The same "scholar" said that the Bible must be true because people that lived with Jesus were around and would have corrected the inconsistencies. Really? Even the other scholars admitted that this was not remotely true. He then goes on to say that the fact that Jewish scripture mentions Jesus in a negative light but doesn't say he wasn't the messiah and that this is a good thing. It didn't say he that he wasn't Santa either - so what? His own people thought he was a regular/crazy man - I think that is far more telling.
- There is another debate about the resurrection. I can only point to this link and wonder how people believe this. The book actually mentions many more inconsistencies than that link. How are they answered? The scholar says that not everything is contradictory so therefore there must be some truth. Talk about seeing the sunny side of things....
- Another scholar admits there were no witnesses to the resurrection and the only real witnesses were those that have seen him since his death. I'll touch on this more later but nobody in Iran sees Jesus, just as no Christian sees Allah. We see what we wish to see.
- Paul wrote that 500 people saw the resurrected Jesus but nothing anywhere else (secular or otherwise) mentions this. How does the scholar respond? Well Paul's account is very well authenticated (once again, doesn't say where or how) so the lack of secular verification doesn't matter. Once again (for the hundredth time), wouldn't someone else have mentioned that they saw the son of god? What bigger event could possibly happen?
- The same scholar goes on to use different parts of the Bible to corroborate other parts of the Bible (standard practice in this book) while completely ignoring the contradictions mentioned above.
- The disciples died for their beliefs and that is proof of the story. Yes, and so did David Koresh and countless numbers of followers across hundreds of religions. I'll say it again - I'm sure they all thought that they had backed the right horse also.
- Many skeptics have changed sides. I'm sure some have, and based on the recent polls many more people are leaving religion. That doesn't make either side "right".

My Conclusion

One of the things that I have admired in the truth-seeking people that I have come across is that they are constantly looking for... well.. truth. While doing some background searches I came across this article. The author recognized that a fellow atheist's argument had flaws in it and pointed them out. And that is the difference between looking for truth and seeking to connect dots to get to the conclusion that you had started with. By definition, if a truth seeker can find flaws in an explanation then it isn't the right answer and he will have to continue his trek. More importantly, a truth seeker is never convinced by gut feeling. That would make him a comfort seeker.

And that is the problem with this book and others like it. Because there is no real evidence and because the author is trying to prove a point, the author ends up sounding like a defense attorney and not a case builder. This could be an effective approach if I were trying to prove that Jesus did not exist. However, the burden of proof is not on me. There have been countless other holy books written long ago by unknown scribes - it is not up to me to prove that you don't have the right one.

At the end of the day this did nothing to make me consider the other side. I promise you, not one passage made me scratch my head and ask "wow, that's interesting". If anything I would HIGLY recommend this book to anyone that isn't sure about their faith and has the ability to consider evidence. This book may be better than just about any atheist book I have read since Strobel went to the so-called best scholars on the planet and they gave their best evidence. He often mentioned how his scholars would regularly route atheists in debates yet does not mention the atheist or the debate. I watch a lot of them online - they almost always go the other way and rarely is the Bible defended.

I really am shocked by the downright ineffectiveness of this book. I'd like to think that some Christians pulled Strobel aside and said "surely you can do better", just as the aforementioned atheist did to another atheist. A bad argument should always be pointed out no matter who said it. Still, based on the reviews on the comfort seekers were thrilled by this book. The truth seekers? Um, no.

The blog with reference hotlinks here
The entire series here

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Comment by James on July 19, 2010 at 9:54pm
Very nice review. Thanks for posting this.


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