Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Case for the Real Jesus by Lee Strobel (Book Review #27 of 2015)

The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God

I wanted to read an Easter-related book since this Sunday marks the holiday that is the central tenet on which all of Christianity stands or falls. Christianaudio.com gave this out as a free audio download in March, and I found it to be a great refresher on where scholarship currently stands on the resurrection, the reliability of the Bible, and the identity of Jesus. Strobel simply puts his interviews into print, mostly verbatim, so it's not really like reading a book or an article. You sort of get the full firehose from the interviewee, although Strobel probably edits it for brevity and content.

Valid criticisms of this book are that Strobel doesn't interview Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, and other skeptics whose claims he is investigating. He is also a professing Christian who asks questions he hears from skeptics or that he thinks skeptics would ask, but it comes across as not authentically questioning (Strobel chronicled his own investigations that led him from atheism to Christianity in The Case for Christ). Strobel tries to come across in his interviews as naive or unaware, but he would have already encountered much of the information while writing The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. I don't know that Strobel lobs "softballs," but he's often asking questions he already knows their answer to. There are plenty of Bible difficulties that are not addressed. It's not clear exactly how Strobel chose his sources, but their CVs speak for themselves. You are essentially getting summaries of their books, which they sometimes pick up and quote from, in this book. That's a good value of this book, it leads you to read a lot of other sources.

To the critics, I would say that watch the interviewees debate the skeptics yourself, often found on YouTube. It would make no sense for Strobel to be a go-between on the arguments. He's essentially doing that from the critics' written works and interviews. There's no getting around his bias, but no one on the other side seems to be willing to take the time to interview the same scholars. My criticism are the details that Strobel puts in about the interviews themselves, what they're eating, drinking, the clothes they're wearing. I guess trying to bring the reader into the office with him, but it's a bit amateurish in nature.

Craig A. Evans is generally respected by conservatives and liberals and is Strobel's first interview.
Evans' interview, in part, is to counter many claims made by Bart Ehrman in his book Misquoting Jesus. Evans wrote a response called Fabricating Jesus, and other works. In the interview, Evans provides details to back up the following which I've pasted from the book's description:
"Fact: The Gospel of Thomas is late, not early; secondary, not authentic. Contrary to what a few scholars maintain, the Gospel of Thomas originated in Syria and probably no earlier than the end of the second century.
The Gospel of Peter, which describes a talking cross, is late and incredible. In fact, the fragmentary document that we have may not be the Gospel of Peter at all. The document that we have may date to the fourth or fifth century.
The 'secret' version of the Gospel of Mark, allegedly found in the Mar Saba Monastery, is a modern hoax. Analysis of the hand-writing betrays the tell-tale signs of forgery.
The distinctive conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are rejected by most scholars in North America and Europe.
There is absolutely no credible evidence that Jesus had a wife or a child.
The evidence is compelling that the New Testament Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--are our best sources for understanding the historical Jesus. The New Testament Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony and truthfully and accurately describe the teaching, life, and death of Jesus.
Jesus was not a Cynic; in all probability he never encountered a Cynic. No killer monks (albino or otherwise) number among the membership of Opus Dei."

Evans notes that the Jesus seminar and 19th century biblical critics were weak on Hebrew, interpreting Jesus improperly into Greco-Roman thought. They take "Jesus out of (his Hebrew) context," and make him fit into a mold not given by anything actually recorded. New ideas get headlines, but confirmation of old ideas do not, which is why the Jesus Seminar are often chosen when PBS or other make a documentary. John Dominic Crossan is "on his own" maintaining certain positions on the gnostic texts that no other scholars take. Evans examines each of the Gnostic "gospels," demonstrating their authors' clear infamiliarity with burial practices and other Jewish customs.

The Gospel of Thomas appears to be quoting from Tatian's Diatessaron-- the first harmony of the four gospels-- giving it a much later date than what the Jesus Seminar claims. Its Syriac translation appears to be a second century biblical memorization aid. The "Gospel of Mary" likely dates to 150-200 a.d. The Gospel of Judas was also late and already mentioned as false by Irenaous early in the second century.

Throughout the book, the interviewees often act astonished or become quite "animated" or "emphatic," saying words like "ridiculous," or "completely false," etc. As Evans sets out to demolish Erhman's ideas, you're not left with much else than sympathy for Erhman.

Next up is Daniel B. Wallace at Dallas Theological Seminary, who has devoted his life to digitizing all the known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament via photograph. He has an interesting biography in that he became a Greek expert, writing seminal textbooks, then forgot all of his Greek in a bout with viral encephalitis. He re-taught himself Greek using his own textbooks. (see this interview at TGC.)

Wallace has also debated Ehrman. His discussion of exegesis and textual criticism were very good. He had some interesting, if not controversial, thoughts on inerrancy-- seeing it as an external doctrine protecting the infallibility and other more central tenets inside an imagined concentric circle of doctrines. Inerrancy need not precede faith, he states. He notes the mass volume of Greek manuscripts and that we're finding new ones from the 2nd century and even late first century. These dates are important because they are closer to the historical events and the original autographs, and found more frequently, than one can find for other historical documents. (He relates that the earliest written history of Caesar Augustus is as late as the 2nd century.)

He walks through an exercise in biblical translation that he does with his students. The differences in the manuscripts don't affect meaning. There is often one letter difference, a mispelling in Greek. He discusses several known scribal errors, and debates the significance of a few. (Aside: Ehrman and Gordon Fee both hold that scribal editions in 1 Corinthians has affected the church's hermeneutic of the epistle in relation to women and authority.) The fact that we can identify those discrepancies is important when getting the original idea. "Ehrman didn't prove that any doctrine is jeopardized." The Dan Brown Da Vinci Code-inspired conspiracy theories that Diocletian destroyed manuscripts is false, we have much earlier ones. Textual criticism is "tedium" because researchers rarely find any notable differences between the thousands of documents. "I think the church got it right" (at Nicea and since).
Another interesting factoid, the earliest manuscript of Revelation (from 3rd century?) has the number of the beast as 616, as do a number of other manuscripts.

Bruce Metzger is one New Testament expert who is respected by Ehrman. Strobel interviewed him in The Case for Christ, where he said that "scholarship has built my faith."

But Strobel writes this book to look at updated and more popular objections to the resurrection since Case for Christ was published. This brings him to Mike Licona, who wrote his dissertation on the resurrection, wrote Paul Meets Muhammad, co-authored The Case for the Resurrection with Gary Habermas, and has debated Muslim scholars.
(Note, in writing this review I found that Norman Geisler, Paige Patterson, and Al Mohler have recently been quite critical of several experts in this book over their positions of inerrancy, including Paul Copan and Mike Licona. Licona has written on his response to the charges, raising some valid questions about Geisler's methods, motives, and consistency: http://www.risenjesus.com/chicagos-muddy-waters. Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig are other giants in the field of Christian apologetics who have come under fire for defending Licona. )

I appreciated the brief tangent on problems using Bayes' theorem to disprove the existence of Jesus or the resurrection in this interview. Licona points to five agreed-upon facts that are enough to make a rational, probabilistic case for an authentic resurrection:
1. Everyone largely agrees that Jesus was crucified. Even Crossan and various skeptics attest this is not problematic.
2. Early tradition agrees on the account. The earliest manuscripts we have from Paul's epistles to the gospels agree on the death and resurrection of Jesus, and what came before and after.
3. The conversion of Paul, a former enemy of Christians. The Reza Aslan and J.S. Spong books I've read both have a hard time discounting Paul's conversion. It's clear he believed what he believed quite strongly.
4. James' conversion. James' and Jesus' other siblings are documented as not believing he was the messiah when Jesus was alive. Licona admits that this point is troubling even for himself. How would the brother of Jesus not have heard of the virgin birth from his mother? But as William Lane Craig has pointed out, if your brother claimed to be divine, what would he have to do to convince you? You know him, after all. Probably be raised from the dead.
The earliest creeds we have says Jesus appeared to James after his resurrection, then to many others. We know that James later believed because he is recorded as a leader of the church in Jerusalem and was later martyred for his belief that Jesus was the Christ.

5. Jesus tomb is empty. "75% of scholars agree on this." No body was produced by the Romans or the Jews. Licona walks Strobel through the various scenarios put forth, including the "healing" hypothesis, the fake Jesus on the cross that the Koran purports (Licona points out that if this were true it would make Allah a deceiver), and others that have already been covered by Evans above.

Licona addresses the Koran, Michael Baigent's The Jesus Papers, and other works. It's clear that he has gained a lot of inspiration from Gary Habermas as well.

Strobel then considers the more popular claims that a God who lives on earth, dies, and is resurrected is simply plagiarism from Greco-Roman, Zoroastrian, and other regional sources available to the Gospel authors. Is the Bible simply plagiarism of myths?

Bruce Metzger did research decades ago debunking much of what seems to be regurgitated today. Strobel interviews Edwin Yamauchi who is an expert on Gnostic texts, near eastern languages, and mythology. He asks specifically about whether the Mithras legend could have contributed to a Jesus myth. Yamauchi contends that Mithraism appears too late in the region to have contributed to the Gospel authors, or to be part of some secret underground religion. It is more probable that the opposite happened-- the Gospels influenced the Mithras legends, as similarities appear to have been developed in 1st-4th centuries AD. Yamauchi points to research that debunked these theories long ago.

If the Gospels are reasonably accurate and Jesus was most likely resurrected, then why don't Jews widely accept him? Strobel probes Dr. Michael Brown, of "Jews for Jesus," for his answers. Brown walks through the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah and how they could be fulfilled by Jesus. Strobel presents various objections by modern rabbis-- the Messiah could not have been divine, was supposed to usher in the eternal earthly kingdom, etc. and Brown refutes them like Jewish Christians have been doing since the resurrection. Brown further purports that the messiah had to fulfill prophecies before the second temple was destroyed by the Romans, and Jesus is the only one that did so. He has the highest probability of being one to fulfil the prophecies. Now that the second temple is destroyed, it's not possible for there to be another. Brown walks through the "suffering servant" of Isaiah passages in a neat way and explains the difficulties of Old Testament exegesis. Whole volumes have been written on the problematic nature of OT use in the NT.

The last interview is with Paul Copan, author of True for You, But Not for Me. Copan is arguing against postmodernism. He defines truth as "a belief that matches up with reality." Certain truths are absolute and knowable. He discusses the important of getting a postmodern skeptic to accept reason before one can argue from historical evidences and such.

Strobel's conclusion recaps the major points of the interviews and contains a compendium of quotes by experts on Dead Sea scrolls, Eastern religions, etc. Larry W. Hurtado, Richard Baucum, C.S. Lewis, and more. Lewis wrote that Christianity is difficult to accept because it requires us to "Hand over the whole natural self..." Surrender is scary. Our modern culture and groups like the Jesus Seminar try to make Jesus our equal, which we would prefer to have instead of someone we need to actually submit to and rely on for eternal life. Sin, likewise, is something we'd rather delete-- along with hell. Once you accept the evidence suggesting the resurrection is true, it requires you change your life.

Overall, I give this book 4 stars. I highly recommend it to anyone researching apologetics.

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