The Case for Christmas: Chapter 2

Or: Michael Murphy Defends Baby Jesus.

Actually: The Scientific Evidence: Does Archaeology Confirm or Contradict Jesus’ Biographies?

The criminal story to start the chapter: Some asshole killed his family, and evidence from bloodstains and clothing fibers convicted him.

Hundreds of archaeological findings from the first century have been unearthed, and I was curious: did they undermine or undergird the eyewitness stories about Jesus?

Shucks, I wonder what answer Lee Strobel is hoping to find?

To find his pre-approved answers, Strobel interviews John McRay, who wrote Archaeology and the New Testament.

This chapter can be summed up very simply: McRay tells us that archaeology can’t prove the Bible is true, then tells Strobel that some details of Bible places are accurate, and Strobel takes away from this that the Bible is true.

More specifically:

“Archaeology has made some important contributions,” [said McRay] “but it certainly can’t prove whether the New Testament is the word of God.  If we dig in Israel and find ancient sites that are consistent with where the Bible said we’d find them, that shows that its history and geography are accurate.  However, it doesn’t confirm that what Jesus Christ said is right.  Spiritual truths cannot be proved or disproved by archaeological discoveries.”

Okay, that makes sense.  After all, just because the Avengers fight alien invaders in the middle of New York City, a real place that exists in reality, doesn’t mean there is really a team of extremely attractive heroes who band together to fight threats to the Earth.

And let’s face it, the fact that there are no Avengers is much sadder than the fact that Jesus never rose from dead.


McRay describes several minor details that were proved accurate in the gospels.  (Coincidentally, McRay appears to share Strobel and Blomberg’s opinion that the gospels definitely were written by the guys whose names are on them.)

Another example is Luke’s references in Acts 17:6 to “politarchs,” which is translated as “city officials” by the New International Version, in the city of Thessalonica.  “For a long time people thought Luke was mistaken, because no evidence of the term politarchs had been found in any ancient Roman documents,” McRay said.

“However, an inscription on a first-century arch was later found that begins, ‘In the time of the politarchs…’  You can go to the British Museum and see it for yourself.  And then, lo and behold, archaeologists have found [sic] more than thirty-five inscriptions that mention politarchs, several of these in Thessalonica from the same period Luke was referring to.”

So, because Luke (or whoever wrote it) was accurate in some details, Strobel does the very thing McRay said he should not do: he concludes that Luke (or whoever) was accurate about everything he wrote:

…like the resurrection of Jesus, the most influential evidence of his deity, which Luke says was firmly established by “many convincing proofs.”

And then there’s John (or whoever), who wrote about the Pool of Bethesda having five porticos.

So, John is accurate about some little details, which obviously means it is accurate in all details, like that little detail about Jesus being the son of God!

And there are other Bible stories that we are told are historically accurate, like calling everyone to go to their hometowns for a census, or…Nazareth existing.

But, as with the last chapter, I just don’t care too terribly much.  Yeah, some of these things are interesting in themselves, but they no more prove that Jesus existed, let alone was the son of a god, than the existence of Bath proves that Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney were real people.

We’re on chapter two our of four, but I’m inclined to already call this chapter the weakest of them all: you really, really have to want to believe something to consider that geographical details constitute complete accuracy of an entire group of books.

Oh, and check this out:

I decided to ask McRay a broader question: had he ever encountered any archaeological finding that blatantly contravened a New Testament reference?

He shook his head.  “Archaeology has not produced anything that is unequivocally a contradiction to the Bible,” he replied with confidence.

-The Case for Christmas, Chapter 2


“And yet, to date, not one piece of evidence has been unearthed that disputes the Bible’s authenticity.” [said Michael Murphy]

“Whoa!  That’s impressive!” someone called out from the back [of the lecture hall].

-Babylon Rising, Chapter 7

They really do all work out of the same playbook, don’t they?


Posted on November 30, 2012, in Christmas, The Case for Christmas. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Part of this issue is that Christians are raised with an idea that everything is a dichotomy – it’s the other side of “If one piece is false, it’s all false!” Well, when you flip that around, you get this – the calls of “If one piece is true, it’s all true!” I was given that line growing up. This sort of proves that Strobel was a Christian(or at least, had been raised by and thought like them) before he ever started writing.

  2. He shook his head. “Archaeology has not produced anything that is unequivocally a contradiction to the Bible,” he replied with confidence.

    There’s that word again!

    Someone may want to tell these people that “speaking with confidence” does not automatically make the words coming out of your mouth true.

    • Someone may want to tell these people that “speaking with confidence” does not automatically make the words coming out of your mouth true.

      But he’s so passionately sincere! And sincerely passionate! And, as any good reader of fundagelical fiction knows, SINCERITY + PASSION = TRUTH. (Which is how we can tell those members of other religions are not really passionate or sincere, since we know a priori they’re wrong.)

  3. Can someone with more knowledge of the exact Bible texts think of any potential find that could prove beyond a doubt that the New Testament is false? The writers of the gospels presumably at least lived in the general area around Israel, so they wouldn’t get the city names wrong. And you can expect them to get the names of the rulers that lived slightly before their time right. So what does that leave us with that can be dug up that could possibly be said to undeniably contradict the scripture.

    I see that no mention has been made of several fairly prolific Biblical events that have no evidence found whatsoever. Such as slaughtering all the infants in Bethlehem. Which is explained away as not being important enough for any secular sources to bring them up. Yeah, that makes it real easy to claim no evidence you ever found contradicts the Bible.

    • Actually, he DOES mention the slaughter of the infants.

      Now, what is funny is that this is an event that is described in only one gospel out of four (Matthew), so already it is not exactly well-documented.

      McRay explains away the lack of any other evidence for this event as follows:

      1. Bethlehem was really small, so there weren’t that many babies to slaughter, and

      2. Herod was an asshole king who was always slaughtering somebody, so this wasn’t all that newsy, and

      3. No TV, no radio.

      Now, I know everyone will be shocked by this, but this explanation satisfies Strobel, who becomes “even more convinced about the overall accuracy of the New Testament.”

      Check this out–even Josephus didn’t cover the “event”:

      • To be fair, Josephus was born about 40 years after the alleged Slaughter of Bethlehem. It’s like me, being born in the mid-eighties, covering the Hiroshima massacre. It can be done, but without primary sources, it can’t really be considered authoritative.

        • But that’s just it, isn’t it: there aren’t any primary sources. The slaughter is covered only in Matthew. That’s it. And Matthew (if indeed it was Matthew who actually wrote it, which is by no means certain) wasn’t there.

      • Yes because to Strobel “I can think of a reason why there is a complete lack of evidence for this Bible passage.” is just as good as “I have convlncing evidence of this Bible passage.”

    • We could say that at least one of Matthew or Luke are definitely wrong in that Matthew says Herod was king of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth, and Luke says that Quirinius was governor of the same region. Archaeologists are quite certain at this time that Herod died 7-10 years before Quirinius was installed as governor.

      Maybe Jesus was born again…?

  4. And there are other Bible stories that we are told are historically accurate, like calling everyone to go to their hometowns for a census…

    Nope! Not historically accurate.

    • Exactly. I bring this up every time someone insists that the Bible is 100% historically accurate. It isn’t. Not only was there no census that could’ve occurred at the right time (Herod being almost certainly dead by any reasonable date for Jesus’ birth, for one) but it’s ridiculous beyond belief to displace everyone for a census. You aren’t going to send them home every year to tax them, you’re going to tax them where they live now, so that’s what you need to know.

      It’s pretty obvious that it was an attempt to justify why “Jesus of Nazareth” was really born in Bethlehem, and thus met one of the criteria to be the messiah. It’s telling that, much like the massacre, only one gospel account mentions any census, while two of them don’t mention Jesus’ birth at all and the other just has his family randomly in Bethlehem.

      • I can’t find it, but one of the other progressive Christian bloggers at Patheos had a decent post about several instances where ‘Mathew’ seems to descibe Jesus fulfilling mistranslated prophecies from the old testament. Such as Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and a colt, because the old testament prophecy mentions both of them. That this is almost certainly a poetic repetition is supposedly easy to tell in the original language, but not in a translation that “Mathew” had read. The blogger considered it troubling to see one of the gospel books rather openly walking its shots to make sure Jesus fullfilled all the prophecies. If due to a translation error Jesus is supposed to ride two different animals simultaniously, then damnit that’s what Jesus did. The Bible says it, that settles it.

      • And just to complicate matters, there were TWO Bethlehems in the early first century A.D. Which, praytell, was the one in which the Messiah was supposed to be born?

  5. “Whoa! That’s impressive!” someone called out from the back [of the lecture hall].

    Okay, no author who puts that sentence in a book in a completely straightfaced fashion should be allowed near a keyboard, typewriter, Sharpie, or let’s just say written communication in general ever again. I hope you enjoyed your dalliance with literacy, Messrs. LaHaye and Dinallo; its doors are now shut to you forever.

  6. has some interesting things to say.

    bificommander, the Gospel of Mark apparently gets various details about Judea during the time of Christ… different from all other indications we have about that time and place (i.e. wrong).

  7. The fact that the area aroun Nazareth was dug up pretty extensively by arcaelologists and the only occupation found at the time of Augustus’ rule was a single farm would, I opine, be pretty strong archaeological evidence against the gospels’ veracity (well Matthew anyway).

    But if you look at the whole canon of biblical arcaeology it pretty quickly boils down to “in Iudea we have evidence of jewish people doing jewish stuff at the right time. And we have evidence of some of the major locations existing. Therefore the whole of the bible is 100% accurate and true. Therefore goddidit. QED!!!”.

    Last year’s (2017) christmas edition of Nat Geo is a perfect distillation of this type of thinking.

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