This is a continuation of my attempt to summarize the believing scholars interviewed in Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. In my last post I summarized the internal Biblical evidences considered. In this post I’m going to look at the outside evidences.
A few points to consider. First, I have my own concerns with this book’s approach. I’m trying to not be critical of it yet, but to save that for later posts when I have presented enough alternative points of view to be able to look at the real strengths and weakness of the believing Christian arguments.
However, my criticism are more of the nature that these ‘proofs’ aren’t really proofs at all. I do, however, think they represent a fairly good ‘narrative fallacies’ that takes many data points and makes a good plausible story out of it and I suspect that is the most that could have been realistically asked of them. In short, I like these arguments even if I am fully aware they aren’t rationally coercive. So I think believing Mormons will be interested in much of what is presented in the book. Second, I admit that Lee Strobel is not a scholar. This seems to really bother some of the commenters on my last post. However, I would like for us to keep in mind that Lee Strobel is collecting interviews from some fairly good scholars. Does anyone really doubt that, for example, Craig Blomberg isn’t a good scholar? Third, I feel less certain about this part of the argument than I did on the internal evidences, so don’t expect me to defend any of it in the comments just because I summarized it in the post.
That being said, I’m am very curious which of these arguments non-believing Biblical scholars would accept and which they would reject and what their reasons would be.
Let’s consider the theory that Jesus did get put on the cross, but did not actually die. The Roman soldiers then took him down and he revived and that is why the rumors started that he had been resurrected. But this theory has numerous problems to overcome. First, the Roman soldiers were experts in killing people on the cross. Their lives depended on it. But even if Jesus had survived, He would have been a piteous creature in need of serious help, not someone ready to inspire a whole new religion to spring into existence because he had returned from the dead. And certainly he wouldn’t have been walking around on roads three days later. (p. 200-202)
Extra-Biblical Historical Sources
While there are not many references to Jesus in historical sources outside the Bible, there are some and they are significant when taken as a whole. Josephus, as we currently have him, mentions Jesus in two places. One of those references, the so-called Testimonium Flavianum, is questioned by some scholars as having been modified to be laudatory of Jesus. But the other reference to Jesus, while mentioning the death of his brother James, is not in significant dispute. It merely says that Ananias “convened a meeting of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ…” There is nothing in this passage that is in any way laudatory of either Jesus or James. It merely mentions the fact that some people thought Jesus was the Christ (i.e. the anointed one or Messiah.) (p. 78-79)
Other extra-Biblical reference include Tacitus, the Roman historian and Pliny the Younger, who both mention the Christians and a bit about their beliefs about Christ, including such gems as that Christ was killed by Pontius Pilate, that their heresy had spread in large numbers even to Rome, that the Christians ‘chant verses’ to ‘in honor of Christ as if to a god’ and they “bind themselves by oath… to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery…” (p. 82-83)
Even the darkness and earthquakes at the time of the crucifixion receive some extra Biblical evidence in Julius Africanus quoting Thallus who wrote a history in A.D. 52 and in Phlegon who reports that in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e., 33A.D.) there was “the greatest eclipse of the Sun” and that “it became night in the sixth hour…” and that “there was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea.” (p. 84-85)
The Jewish traditional literature mentions Jesus sparingly but does mention that Jesus was born of a Roman solider and Mary (suggesting that there was something unusual about his birth) and that he was a false messiah who practiced magic and was justly condemned to death. (p. 86)
Taken as a whole, the extra Biblical evidence, while sparse, does confirm just about everything a Christian would want: “that first, Jesus was a Jewish teacher; second, many people believed that he performed healings and exorcisms; third, some people believed he was the Messiah; fourth, he was rejected by the Jewish leaders; fifth, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, sixth, despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed that he was still alive, spread beyond Palestine so that they were multitudes of them in Rome by A.D. 64; and seventh, all kinds of people from the cities and countryside… worshiped him as God.” (p. 87)
More important corroboration comes from the ‘apostolic fathers’ which were writings of contemporaries of the Apostles by people who knew the Apostles. These very early letters date back to last first century and early second century and emphasize both the deity and humanity of Jesus. (p. 89)
Bias of the Jesus Seminar
The theological liberal explanations for Jesus, as typified by the Jesus Seminar, come up short by comparison and ultimately have to rely on questionable scholarship. Their top assumption, which is not a product of unbiased research, is that the Gospels are generally unreliable. “They conclude this at the outset because the gospels include things that seem historically unlikely, like miracles – walking on water, raising the dead.” (p.114 – 116) They are able to support this non-scholarly assumption by coming up with rules that they will follow that ‘load the dice’ from the outset. For example, they assume that unless there are multiple attestations of something Jesus said, that it is assumed to not have been said by Jesus, but instead the later Church put the words into his mouth. (p. 117) But they do not count the synoptic Gospels as multiple attestations, but of only one. Another rule is ‘double dissimilarity’ where if they decide a saying seems wrong for a Jewish Rabbi to say that it must be a later saying. In short, it is an assumption from the outset that Jesus would not teach ground breaking new doctrines at odds with traditional Jewish beliefs.
Given these rules, very little or any of what Jesus said could ever pass muster. The result of this is that they’ve flipped the “regular rules” of history on their head where the historical sources (our only source of knowledge) must be proven reliable rather than proven unreliable. Given that approach, little or nothing in ancient history can be considered ‘knowledge’ at all. (p. 117)
Indeed, the Jesus Seminar doesn’t even bother to hide its biases. Some of its members have made it clear that it’s intentionally seeking to reinterpret Jesus to appeal to modern beliefs and morals thereby give us ‘a new fiction.’ (p. 115)