More than blogging, I enjoy a good online discussion, which I’ve continuously engaged in since the days when Usenet was pretty much the only game in town for that sort of thing. In fact, I probably post more on other peoples’ blogs than I do my own, simply for the debate.
A couple months ago, I came across a Christian, Ron, who apparently found Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ so undeniably compelling, he decided to give it a fuller airing on his blog. Unusual for a Christian, however, Ron practically invited skeptical responses to his posts.
A little background: Lee Strobel is very popular among some Christians who are not entirely comfortable taking their religion’s claims wholly on faith. His books, which have sold very well, provide a seemingly solid rational defense of Christianity. Skeptics and freethinkers, acknowledging this popularity, have reviewed Strobel’s works and have come away…less than impressed. Their main criticism is that, while Strobel strives to position himself as a skeptic by posing questions to experts a skeptic would allegedly ask, the fact of the matter is, Strobel is an unabashed advocate who’s presenting his case on its best possible terms. This is crystal clear by the soft-ball questions he asks – and doesn’t ask – but also by the “experts” Strobel interviews, who almost without exception share the exact same beliefs he does. An excellent recent demolishing of an example of the Strobel façade was recently concluded by Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism.
I don’t think Christians are aware of how poorly Strobel’s works are viewed by outsiders. They’re often recommended to us by Christians who cannot see the works’ inherent fallacies and obvious bias. Demonstrating this to Ron, it seemed to me, would be a worthwhile pursuit.
Although for various reasons it’s taken Ron a little longer to respond than he intended, he’s finally posted a lengthy, point-by-point rebuttal to my first set of brief objections to The Case for Christ. Because Ron has obviously put in a significant amount of time and effort into his rebuttal, I think it only proper I respond in kind. My conclusion is that Ron doesn’t significantly refute or materially address my objections. He’s also mistaken on more than a few matters, as I will show.
My first objection was to note that the omission of full disclosure about Strobel’s first expert, Dr. Blomberg. I regarded this as important information in assessing Blomberg’s credibility. For instance, say someone recommends you buy a new product. Very well, lots of people – from friends to strangers – do this. But then you discover this person is a paid salesman for the product’s manufacturer. This information will naturally cause you to treat that person’s recommendation with heightened skepticism. You know that person has special motives, in this case, a financial interest, in you following their advice. Further, you highly suspect that person will give you only the most positive information about the product and not any negative. This is why full disclosure is so important.
I noted to Ron that Dr. Blomberg is an evangelical Christian (as is Strobel), and this should have been mentioned. Why? Because evangelicals stress “conversionism” and “activism”, according to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. Essentially, they’re Christianity’s aggressive salesmen.
Ron dismisses this objection on the following grounds (summarized):
1) It’s irrelevant
2) Everyone has an agenda
By raising this objection, Ron accuses me of committing the fallacy of “Circumstantial Ad Hominem”.
Referencing that last link will show why Ron’s rebuttal is invalid. To be a true fallacy, I would have to dismiss Dr. Blomberg’s claims based on his background, but this is not something I ever did. Instead, I merely noted that he’s not a neutral expert, but “one who’s trying to put the best possible spin on the evidence, by both highlighting certain things, and also not disclosing other things.” As the nikzor.org citation states:
There are times when it is prudent to suspicious of a person’s claims, such as when it is evident that the claims are being biased by the person’s interests.
And this is precisely the basis for why I object to the failure to disclose all of Dr. Blomberg’s background. He has a personal commitment in getting you to believe what he believes, and therefore we should greet his claims with some suspicion.
Moving along, I charge that Strobel is either ignorant of New Testament (NT) gospel problems, or does not raise them because he’s an evangelical, primarily due to the failure to raise the synoptic problem. To the second charge, Ron repeats the accusation that I’m committing the fallacy of circumstantial ad hominem. I already dealt with this accusation, showing that it misunderstands what the fallacy actually is. As to the first charge, Ron dismisses it as “just a baseless personal attack”.
Why is the failure to address, let alone discuss, the synoptic problem significant? Because Strobel and Blomberg attempt to bolster the credibility of the gospels by claiming they’re based on eyewitness testimony. Yet, if eyewitnesses actually wrote the gospels, then why do the synoptic gospels “share a great number of parallel accounts and parables, arranged in mostly the same order, and told with many of the same words”? (emphasis mine) This is extremely strange – inexplicable, in fact — if they’re truly independent, eyewitness accounts as Blomberg and Strobel would have us believe.
Curiously, Ron includes a lengthy, meandering discussion of the synoptic problem—not so much what it actually is, mind you, but over whether the synoptic problem is a problem in and of itself. That Ron felt the need to discuss the topic in depth, of course, only demonstrates just how important the question is, thus supporting my point that to exclude it bespeaks an agenda, not scholarship. Perhaps Ron didn’t read carefully all of what he posted, but the conclusion of his discussion practically proves this. As he quotes from a Christian scholar:
The issue is not a matter of believing or not believing the Bible; it is a matter of believing, and then seeking to understand as best we can that which we believe (“faith seeking understanding”).
In other words, don’t follow the evidence to arrive at a belief, but believe first, and then find the evidence to support your belief. This, I submit, is the real purpose of The Case for Christ: to provide that “understanding,” no matter how flimsy or biased, to bolster a pre-existing belief.
Next up, I noted a rare, critical concession by Blomberg. As he admits, “strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous.”
Perhaps after his long discourse on the synoptic problem, it was getting late and Ron wasn’t thinking clearly, because he replies, “While it is true the gospels are strictly speaking anonymous, it does not logically follow we do not know who wrote them.”
Sorry, but not knowing who wrote something is the very definition of anonymous. He cites another source explaining how we would know, say, the Gospel According to Matthew was in fact written by Matthew (Levi). But if true, that would no longer make the gospel anonymous, would it? Thus, Ron’s own authorities are in disagreement.
Continuing on the subject of authorship, I’m not impressed with Blomberg’s claim that there was “unanimous testimony” in the early church that the gospels were written by their putative authors. The question of authorship didn’t arise until well into the second century (long after their real authors were dead), and when it did, just how the church fathers ascribed authorship shows how much it was based on guesswork and conjecture. Perhaps Ron overlooked it, but on his own blog, in a reply to someone who challenged my objection, I linked to an article by Dr. Richard Carrier titled “Ignatian Vexation” showing how truly muddled the question of authorship and dating of the gospels actually is. Blomberg actually weakens his argument by noting the uncertainty over the authorship of John, but falls back on the “unanimous testimony” defense. What he doesn’t mention – and Strobel fails to follow-up on – is that this uncertainty is a result of historical critical scholarship of the NT conducted over the past couple centuries. Clearly, then, the early church was more interested in attaching names to works than finding out just who its authors were.
To my point that, even if assuming the gospels were written by their putative authors, Mark and Luke are not eyewitnesses, and so their gospels would in truth be hearsay, Ron concedes. But he says I imply by this that “second hand information or hearsay should not be admitted to the conversation or is not worthy of belief”.
Not really. My real point is to undercut the whole notion that the gospels are “eyewitness evidence,” which is the chapter heading in Strobel’s book. Second, I mention it to attack their credibility, that we should treat their claims with greater suspicion. After all, they were not at the scene of the events they described. They relied on someone else’s recollections, which, in the case of the gospels, were finally written down many decades later (can you remember with any specificity a conversation you had last month, must less 40 years ago?). This hardly makes for accurate history. And then there are the problems with poor copying, redaction, embellishing and so forth, which we have indisputable proof occurred over many centuries. For a riveting elaboration of this subject, I highly recommend the Evans/Ehrman debate on whether the New Testament misquotes Jesus.
I realize Ron is simply repeating an old Christian chestnut when he references the ancient documents rule in support of gospel reliability. This rule, which modern NT scholars, even Christian ones, no longer reference, holds that if a document is “at least twenty years old; in a condition that makes it free from suspicion concerning its authenticity; and found in a place where such a writing was likely to be kept,” it is deemed authentic. Only the first condition applies to the gospels. There is no single document of any of the gospels. The earliest versions of the gospels are fragments. These fragments are copies, of copies, of copies, etc., of the originals. And finally, the originals don’t exist. In other words, the ancient documents rule cannot possibly apply to the gospels.
On the topic of dating, I fault Case for glossing over just how unsettled the subject is among scholars, and reference the site earlychristianwritings.com for a more balanced discussion. Ron, unsurprisingly, doesn’t agree, but then launches into an attack on this website. For example, he says that some documents are dated to 30 AD, which “can not possibly be correct” because 33 AD is the actual year of Jesus’ death. Also, some of the documents are “not Christian at all” but heresy.
I mention these objections because they show critical gaps in Ron’s understanding of some basic history. The reason for the 30 AD date is because NT scholars cannot precisely pin down the year of Jesus’ death, due to an irreconcilable dispute between the gospels of Matthew and Luke over just when Jesus was born. This comes out in Case (pg. 42), where Blomberg says, “If Jesus was put to death in A.D. 30 or 33…” Also, it’s indisputable that early Christians were utilizing a wide variety of gospels and other writings that didn’t make it into the canon. Calling them “heresy” is an ad hoc charge from the perspective of the victorious Christian sect which had eliminated all its rivals after many centuries. See Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities for more.
Ron doesn’t like that I called the mention of “hostile witnesses” in the discussion about gospels dating a red herring. First, Ron says Blomberg actually stated “hostile eyewitnesses”. True, he does, but “hostile witnesses” is the phrase that Ron used in his original post. No biggy. To the meat of my objection. Inclusion of hostile eyewitnesses in the subject of gospels dating is irrelevant because there’s no evidence provided such eyewitnesses existed. It’s also irrelevant because the presumed existence of hostile eyewitnesses is germane to the topic of gospels accuracy, not dating. Blomberg and Strobel would likely answer there’s no record of hostile eyewitnesses because the gospels were accurate; thus, such witnesses would have nothing to write about, presumably having verified the accuracy of gospel “facts” ( then wouldn’t they have written that too?). But I have a better explanation: history doesn’t record any hostile eyewitnesses because no one cared about such a tiny religious sect, among the thousands of others existing in that part of the world.
Ron replies that of course some cared: local Jewish authorities opposed Christianity from the beginning; within 30 years of Jesus’ death the Romans were persecuting it, putting to death Peter and Paul.
Putting aside the accuracy of these claims, Ron is sidestepping the issue. Our discussion is about gospel accuracy. When I say no one cared, I mean, no one cared about the veracity of a tiny religious sect’s theological claims. Political and religious authorities of course would care if citizens went around spreading “heresy” or undermining the official religion—which was the basis for Christian persecution.
Someone else who didn’t seem to care much about gospels “facts” is, ironically enough, the Apostle Paul himself. Nothing in his epistles references any of Jesus’ supposed sayings, miracles, travels, parables, key sermons, prophecies, exorcisms, his divine birth, or even the location of his crucifixion and resurrection! Ron, argues that this objection is a fallacious argument from silence, since Paul’s silence is taken as evidence of his ignorance. What Ron doesn’t realize, however, is that the argument from silence is valid when two conditions are met: “the writer[s] whose silence is invoked in proof of the non-reality of an alleged fact, would certainly have known about it had it been a fact; [and] knowing it, he would under the circumstances certainly have made mention of it. When these two conditions are fulfilled, the argument from silence proves its point with moral certainty.” (Gilbert Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method, pg. 149). To use one of Ron’s own examples to show the many instances in which these conditions were met, when the Thessalonians inquired of Paul as to the timing of Christ’s return, it was not for wont of Jesus’ own predictions on the question that Paul cited none of them (cf. Mark 13:24-31, Matthew 16:28, Luke 9:27). How better to reassure the Thessalonians than to harken back to the words of the Son of Man himself? Earl J. Doherty has compiled a list of 20 compelling silences which provide even further validity to this argument from silence.
A favorite Christian apologetic is to claim there wasn’t enough time for legendary development to occur from the time of Jesus’ death to the writing of the gospels, thus supporting their historical authenticity. I objected that’s bunk, because history records other indisputable examples of legendary development which occurred even faster. Ron chides me for providing no such examples, and true enough, I didn’t — at the time I wrote that. But in a follow-up post on his own blog, before Ron crafted his lengthy reply, I did provide such examples:
Alexander the Great – Within 30 years after his death, “remarkable” legends appeared.
Sabbatai Sevi – A “dizzying whirl” of legends appeared in the very first year of his seventeenth century messianic movement.
The Angel of Mons – WWI legend developed over a period of just months.
These are a few examples of mythical growth from the book Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened Inside the Black Box?
I’m not at all clear about Ron’s point in his mention of verses from the Pauline epistles 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, and Colossians. It’s not my contention that Christianity emerged from a completely blank slate, nor is it my view that theology requires legendary development. Yes, some things mentioned in the gospels are also mentioned in the epistles. So what?
Ron seems not to appreciate my point about how much the NT authors relied on the Old Testament (OT), for he merely replies that they cited it insofar as to show how Jesus fulfilled prophecy. No, no, no. It goes much deeper than that. There is so much of Jesus’ “life” that has an OT parallel or reference that some scholars, such as Robert M. Price, wonder whether any of it is authentic at all (see esp. his book The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man).
I thank Ron for taking such effort to advance the debate and answer criticisms. I’ll continue to post objections to Case on his blog and defend my views here.