The Case for Christmas: Chapter 1

Or: How I Learned to Stop Thinking Critically and Accept the Gospels at Face Value.

I’m not sure that has much of a ring to it.

The for-real title is The Eyewitness Evidence: Can the Biographies of Jesus Be Trusted?

It begins as all of the chapters of The Case for Christ/mas apparently do: Strobel relates a story of some horrible crime, and how a certain type of evidence solved it.  In this case, several murderers were put behind bars because of the testimony of an eyewitness.

And eyewitness testimony is just as crucial in investigating historical matters—even the issue of whether the Christmas manger really contained the unique Son of God.

Okay, let’s see where this gets us—after all, Strobel is investigating the issue, right?  Says so right on the cover of the book.  So there is no doubt that he will go about this investigation in a detached and objective manner, right?

Well, he interviews one person.

So…maybe not.

Yep, one guy.  But hey, he’s a guy who will give Strobel the answers that he wants to hear, so that’s kinda like doing a real investigation and examining the competing viewpoints!

Strobel interviews Craig Blomberg, Ph.D., professor of the New Testament at Denver Seminary.  Blomberg’s credentials are breathlessly recited, to make sure we sign on to Strobel’s appeal to authority.

Hey—I know all about the Gospels, too!  I recently listened to three out of the four Jesus Chronicles by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins!*

Anyway, there is no reason to doubt Strobel’s objectivity:

“Tell me this,” I said with an edge of challenge in my voice, “is it really possible to be an intelligent, critically thinking person and still believe that the four gospels were written by the people whose names have been attached to them?”

See, he’s serious about this!  His voice has an Edge of Challenge!

Edge of Challenge would be a great name for a sword.

Blomberg set his coffee cup on the edge of his desk and looked intently at me.  “The answer is yes,” he said with conviction.

Well, I’m sold.  He looks with intensity and speaks with conviction.  That’s like passionate sincerity, right?

He sat back and continued.  “It’s important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous.”

Dude.  Not so sure that’s what Strobel wants to hear.

And it isn’t; Blomberg goes on to say that “the uniform testimony of the early church” (and if you can’t trust the early church, who can you trust???) is that the gospels are properly attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and that the gospels are “obviously based on eyewitness material.”

Well, second- and third- and fourth-hand material, written decades after the fact, in accounts that contradict each other.

Strobel goes on to make a couple of weak-assed points that Blomberg easily counters—such as that the gospels do not read like modern biographies.  As an evil atheist myself, this is not exactly the kind of point that makes me question Christianity.

But I’m getting the feeling that this is what we’re in for—tiny and largely pointless issues being presented as Major Criticisms of Faith…until the softballs are hit out of the park by experts who have the answers Strobel already wanted to hear.

As I said, Blomberg is the only expert consulted in this chapter.  Strobel interviews no one else about the authorship or veracity of the gospels.  At a couple of points, he reads very brief passages out of books like Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, and Blomberg responds to them, but this hardly strikes me as proper investigative technique.  Strobel certainly doesn’t speak to Armstrong personally, or anyone else who might disagree with Blomberg.

But don’t worry, because when Strobel quotes Armstrong’s book, Blomberg’s “expression turned sour,” his “eyes narrowed, and his voice took on an adamant tone.”  So we know right away that there is only one way to think, and that interviewing people with other viewpoints would simply clutter up the “investigation.”

With an “air of triumph,” Blomberg explains how he thinks the gospels were written earlier than some people say they were.  But even if that’s true, I can’t find myself caring very much, because that doesn’t make them any less mythological.

Honestly, this is my issue: whether or not the gospels were written by the guys whose names are on them, ARE THEY TRUE?

Hell, the title of this chapter is not “Who Wrote the Gospels?’ but “Can the Biographies of Jesus Be Trusted?”

Guys, this first chapter is not instilling confidence in me for the rest of the book.

But hey, next up, we are back in Michael Murphy’s wheelhouse: biblical archaeology!

* If you’re wondering if they will ever appear on this blog: no.  Not in a million years.  If they were the last books on Earth and I was the last blogger on Earth, I still would not critique them.  They are excruciating, and not in fun ways like Christiano Brothers movies and Soon and Babylon Rising.  I have rarely been so bored as when I listened to these books.  I know it’s a cliché, but they are a cure for insomnia.  If anyone wants to give them a try, well…you’ve got guts.

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Posted on November 28, 2012, in Christmas, The Case for Christmas. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Honestly, this is my issue: whether or not the gospels were written by the guys whose names are on them, ARE THEY TRUE?

    The converse has apparently been a big deal in Bible “proof” for some time – Thomas Paine, in Age of Reason, bases a substantial part of his argument on proving that various chunks of the Old Testament were not written by the guys whose names are on them. His argument boils down to “these writings present eyewitness testimony of highly unlikely events, and eyewitness testimony cannot be credible unless the eyewitness’s identity is known.”

    It’s a weird, flawed argument, but elevating it for disproof is probably a lot more palatable than dealing with some of the other big complaints about the Bible; Paine also really hated all the slaughter and oppression that the Old Testament glorifies, and Age of Reason does not hesitate for a moment to bring up all the gory details about who the Israelites killed and who they carried off into slavery, and ask the reader how they’d feel if their family was treated in such a fashion.

  2. It begins as all of the chapters of The Case for Christ/mas apparently do: Strobel relates a story of some horrible crime, and how a certain type of evidence solved it. In this case, several murderers were put behind bars because of the testimony of an eyewitness.

    And how many of those “murderers” were innocent, because the eyewitnesses were passionately, sincerely mistaken?

    And for that matter, even if we could establish that the gospels were written by Really, Truly Eyewitnesses, how could we judge how trustworthy their testimony is? I can recall MSNBC and Discovery — admittedly both Evil Liberal Media — both airing shows that illustrate how badly our memories can fail us, even only five minutes after the incident. Especially if the incident is a traumatic one.

  3. Plus, of course, one of the biggest failings of modern judicial systems is their endorsement of eyewitness testimony as solid evidence. In some situations it absolutely is: If you know everyone involved but aren’t very emotionally involved with the events that occur then your description will probably be pretty accurate, but reliability drops sharply the further you move away from that ideal.

    Now then, on to more specifics about this: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John almost certainly didn’t write the gospels. That…doesn’t matter at all when it comes to their veracity. Was this really something Strobel got hung up on when an “atheist”? I doubt it, somehow.

    But lets say that the gospels were directly transcribed by the apostles: They’re writing them down decades after the events described occurred. That’s a bad start, but even if it wasn’t, they’re biased. These are people who gave up everything to follow Jesus, would you expect any of them to seriously write a “tell all” story about how he was a big fraud?

    What I think Strobel is doing here is indeed deliberately setting up easy questions that can be dismissed almost out-of-hand. Perhaps the idea is to give himself a dozen easy victories early on so that he seems more likely to be right when it comes to the later stuff.

  4. “But I’m getting the feeling that this is what we’re in for—tiny and largely pointless issues being presented as Major Criticisms of Faith…until the softballs are hit out of the park by experts who have the answers Strobel already wanted to hear.”

    Stuff like this is what makes me skeptical of Strobel’s claim that he’s a former atheist. If he were a former atheist (or even bothered to ask actual atheists about this) he’d be addressing bigger things, like the total lack of evidence for his (or indeed any) god. Since, you know, most atheists don’t think the Bible is true, nevermind the names of the people who wrote it.

    • Since, you know, most atheists don’t think the Bible is true, nevermind the names of the people who wrote it.

      Yep. I’ve been an atheist all my life; I have never believed. And when I was a kid and read the Bible, I just assumed that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the books with their names on them. It had nothing to do with my lack of faith, and still doesn’t—my question is, regardless of who wrote them, are they correct?

  5. While not an answer to the question this chapter was supposed to be about, there is something I would have liked to ask this great scholar.

    Consider that the old testament view of the messiah is that he will become ruler who instantly rids the world of all ills. Then consider that jesus christ was grizzly executed before such things could happen, did not become a ruler, and allegedly came back to life, showing himself only to a handful of diciples before departing the world anyway as if he had simply died. Is it really so plausible that this is totally the first part of the messianic age, and the we just have to wait thousands of years before he comes back to finish the job? Is it not more probable that his followers saw their supposed divine ruler die, and decided to rationalize it by saying that he totally meant to do that, no, it was neccesary for him to totally die. And he totally came back to life and said it was okay now. Then he had to leave again to heaven, but that’s totally different from being dead. And all that paradise on earth, yeah, he’ll totally get around to that. Sometime.

  6. Oh snap, I just discovered I own a copy of The Case for Christ! I helped a friend’s parents move during the summer, and as payment they gave me a tub full of Christian literature they didn’t feel like shipping to the new place. Also pizza. The books included the entire Left Behind series plus some miscellaneous extras, of which Case is one. Maybe I’ll read along with Ruby as we go.

    But in the meantime: Yes, hell yes to what everyone else here has said. Eyewitness evidence and the question of gospel authorship are two completely separate issues, and in any event establishing such authorship is at cross purposes to whatever point Strobel seems to be making. Matthew and Luke were not at the manger in Bethlehem, so even if you could prove that Matthew and Luke wrote their respective books, it would only confirm that their Nativity story is not an eyewitness account.

    As for the validity of eyewitness testimony itself, I would remind Strobel that “bearing false witness” is a thing. In fact it’s a common enough thing that I’m pretty sure God made a rule about it somewhere. The Story of Susanna is all about false witnesses, and it doesn’t have nice things to say about self-professed “eyewitnesses” whose stories don’t synch up. Too bad Strobel probably regards Susanna as apocryphal.

  7. Well, one person whose livelihood depends on a widespread acceptance of the authority of the Gospels speaks out in favour of the authority of the Gospels. I’m terribly surprised. (For “the authority of the Gospels” read “the good intentions of Fox News”.)

    GDwarf, talk to any good investigator, and they’ll tell you they hate having to rely on eyewitness testimony – because while it’s usually given in good faith, people say what they subconsciously think they should have seen rather than what they did see. Smart cops try very hard to get some real evidence as well.

    Loquat, I wonder if it’s a logical inversion error. If the Gospels were not written by the claimed authors, they can’t be regarded as authoritative in any other way. So, the RTC says, if they were written by the claimed authors, they can! (All non-black things are not crows. This is a black thing. Therefore it is a crow.)

  8. Re: eyewitness testimony:

    People can be wrong and it not necessary be because they’re lying. They can just be passionately and sincerely wrong. See the book “Picking Cotton” for an example as to how eyewitness testimony (in this case, a victim testified that a man had raped her, only for DNA test to later exonerate him) can be flawed.

    Does it say what Karen Armstrong quote he gave? I’d be a bit curious to know what he used.

    • Two quotes: one where Armstrong says that when Jesus called himself “Son of Man,” he was referring to his own mortality as a human, not to god-like qualities. The second is where she says:

      “We know very little about Jesus. The first full-length account of his life was St. Mark’s gospel, which was not written until about the year 70, some forty years after his death. By that time, historical facts had been overlaid with mythical elements which expressed the meaning Jesus had acquired for his followers. It is this meaning that St. Mark primarily conveys rather than a reliable straightforward portrayal.”

      • That seems kind of… uncontentious, to me. How sad it would be to have based my entire life on believing something that could be so easily be shown to be wrong, so that every time I went out of my bubble I had to stick my fingers in my ears and shout “la la la I can’t hear you” (or possibly “stop the baby murder”) in case someone should mention the truth.

    • It’s fascinating how human memories of an event can change after the fact. A few years back, I read a news story about a woman who’d been raped by a stranger and made an effort to memorize his face, but when the police showed her a lineup of suspects that didn’t happen to include the actual rapist but did include a fellow who resembled him, her subconscious decided that guy was the rapist. DNA evidence later proved him innocent and turned up the real rapist, but by that time her brain was convinced that that innocent man was her attacker, so she’d get flashbacks looking at him but nothing looking at the actual guy.

  9. All noted problems with being passionately, sincerely wrong are good points, but I would also call out an additional problem, inherent in the chosen medium: This is a written interview, meaning we are relying on our interviewer to describe our professor here as speaking passionately sincerity, or intensity or conviction or whatever.

    In a television or maybe radio inteview we might have been able to confirm this, but here we must rely on the narrator, our eye-witness if you will, to inform us how utterly convincing this guy sounds and looks. And for those of us who are not convinced of our narrator’s neutral starting point for his investigation, those qualifications just make him look even more like a man who really, really wants to believe that there’s a great case for Christ, and therefor everyone who makes an supporting argument gets described as doing so with an ‘air of triumph’.

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