Monday, July 23, 2007

Book Review: The Case for Christ

A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Though I found his other book, The Case for Faith, inconsistently persuasive (both because of the difficulty of making a rational case for super-rational beliefs and also because of the weakness of some of the arguments), I figured a study of the textual, historical and archaeological evidence from the time of Jesus was a worthier, more interesting goal.

Alas, Strobel’s “case” is porous and badly argued. He makes much of his decades-long career as a reporter for The Chicago Tribune, which lends a veneer of objectivity and academic rigor to transparently agenda-driven and poorly supported claims masquerading as “research.”

Much of the problem lies with the book’s format. As with Case for Faith, Strobel selects a series of questions or objections skeptics raise about Christianity, and then assigns an expert of his choosing (always male, always an Evangelical) to form an argument in rebuttal; one question, one expert. For example, he queries a coroner to determine if Jesus could possibly have survived the crucifixion. (The answer is, “No.”)

Strobel pretends doubters have only inane questions (“Could Jesus have faked his death?”), not well-formed arguments. He fails to note that they aren’t just ill-informed atheist strawmen, but intellectuals who have been alienated from faith by patronizing, simplistic “answers” such as these.

Chapter 1 is, “Can the Biographies of Jesus Be Trusted?” Whole books have been written on the chronological and geographical inconsistencies of the Gospels, as well as the inherent difficulties created by translation, concerns that are not easily dismissed by merely insisting on the their general agreement. His argument misrepresents the aims of the Gospel authors; these are not “biographies,” in the modern sense. The concept of writing down a purely fact-based, “this happened, then this happened” summary of a historical personage’s existence was unknown in the ancient world. Each individual Gospel is a portrait of Christ that grew out of the traditions of a specific community in a specific time and place in the first decades after the crucifixion, and it is those historical and literary variations that best account for what read like inconsistencies when you try to line each Gospel up side by side for comparison.

Strobel notes that there is no comparable literary work from the ancient world in which modern scholars have so much confidence in the accuracy of their translations. There is significant evidence (in the form of thousands of corroborating manuscripts from different parts of the Levant in different languages) that modern renderings are faithful to the lost originals. But this testifies only to textual, not historical, reliability.

He points out that much of what researchers have pieced together about ancient history comes from single, often fragmentary sources, whereas we have an enormous body of contemporary literature concerning the existence of Jesus; for example, much of what is known about Alexander the Great is single-sourced. What Strobel chooses to leave out, however, is that historians tend to discount the sources that are implausible or fantastical: notably, one of the pervasive, contemporary legends about Alexander was that his was a virgin birth. The ruins of Troy don’t point to the existence of Zeus.

Similarly, it does not seem particularly controversial among historians to assume that there really was a radical Jewish preacher in first-century Palestine who hailed from Nazareth and was crucified by the Romans, whose teachings inspired a cult that grew into the world’s largest religion. It’s not even controversial to attribute many of the sayings in the Gospels to this man. Making the leap, however, to saying that what seems unlikely or impossible (immaculate conception, miracles, resurrection) must be true because portions of the Gospels are plausible is specious. One could well argue that based on the astonishingly accurate depictions of real locations and the proven existence of antimatter technology and some guy called “the Pope” that Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons is a true story.

Strobel is preaching to the choir; there is nothing in this book to help a Christian seriously engaged with his doubts, let alone anything an atheist would find satisfactorily conclusive. The truth is, there is only a smattering of circumstantial evidence that Jesus actually lived, and it would take a genuine historian and researcher to even begin to make that case. Strobel is too easily won over by infuriatingly facile dismissals of difficult questions to take on that job.


The promised new Richard Dawkins post is on hiatus for re-tooling. I think I want to take it in a different direction.


Gary said...

I think, if you are really looking for solid arguments and research on the historicity of the Gospels, you would be better served by either of these books:

The Historical Reliability of the Gospels

Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

I haven't read the latter yet, but I have been (slowly, and painstakingly at times) going through Blomberg's book.

little-cicero said...

I read The Case for Christ before The Case for Faith, and I think that, since the former was written first, he was certainly sold on Christianity before the second book. I could tell, in reading the Case for Faith that he was anything but objective, but I sensed ample doubt in The Case for Christ. Maybe I was bamboozled, but he seemed almost eager to pounce on contradictions in The Case for Christ at times- like a good reporter should. I think you're being a bit unfair on this one, though I generally agree with you on the second book.

Of course, as I said in the post on the latter book, when a book is published by Zondervan, you shouldn't expect it to raise serious doubts against religion.

Andy said...

I'm not, really. I'm trying to make the point that for people who think that the resurrection didn't happen -- couldn't have happened, because it's an impossibility -- it doesn't matter how many other historical details the Gospels get right, they're not going to be convincing. As much as we might wish that the Gospels were four independent, objective confirmations of historical events, they're not going to be read that way by skeptics. That's why they call it faith.

little-cicero said...

Oh, sorry- I meant "you" in the general sense of the word, not "you" as in "Andy"

kr said...

Andy, I love you :).

Andy said...

Is that...I love you, you're amazing! or, I love you, but you're an idiot?

kr said...

If you were being an idiot, there would be followup ;). This is me we are talking about ;).

This was the "You rock" kind :).

kr said...

(and, I am honored to be your friend, and that sort of thing)