The Case for the ‘Real Jesus’

The Case for the Real Jesus is the title of a book by Lee Strobel, published in 2007. Strobel has written a series of books on apologetics, driven by his own conversion from hot-headed atheism to evangelical Christianity. In The Case the author addresses six of the currently popular accusations against the Biblical record of just who Jesus is . . . or was.

Lee Strobel

Strobel’s The Case for . . . books are enjoyable reading. Individual chapters recount his interviews with scholars who have demonstrated expertise and published serious works on the relevant topics. As a former investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Lee isn’t shy about asking tough questions and looking for weakness in one’s arguments. I like the guy. It’s too bad he got caught up in the Bill Hybels branch of evangelicalism, but that’s not the subject of this blog. What I hope to do in the following paragraphs is to pull some interesting nuggets from the book to illustrate how skeptics attempt to discredit Scripture . . . and how such arguments fall woefully short.

Challenge #1 is that scholars have uncovered more ‘gospel’ accounts that are at least as credible as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The ‘Jesus Seminar’ of the 1990s published The Complete Gospels which interleaved the New Testament gospels with sixteen other ancient texts. These other gospels go by such names as the Gospel of Thomas, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Mary, with stories about the Lord Jesus that contradict the Biblical accounts in dramatic and deadly ways.

Lee addressed this topic by interviewing Craig Evans, a Ph.D. scholar, professor, and prolific writer in defense of the New Testament. Lee asked why some scholars are coming up with such novel portraits of Jesus.

“One reason,” Evans replied, “is many of them lack training in the Semitic background of the New Testament . . . (which) deals with Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and various sources written in those languages, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and early rabbinic writings.” A consequence is that many ill-equipped scholars – or worse, popular writers with a skeptical agenda – miss context or nuance and derive connections with various Greek and Roman philosophies that are unwarranted.

Craig Evans

For example, the Jesus Seminar missed the meaning of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God, which Jesus meant quite literally and tied to His own presence and ministry. The Seminar skeptics preferred to tie ‘kingdom’ to a Greek philosophical concept. “They made a similar mistake with the ‘Son of Man’ title that Jesus repeatedly applied to himself. They didn’t know how it was linked to the Son of Man figure in Daniel 7, where there are divine implications. Instead, they pursued a bizarre Greco-Roman understanding, translating ‘Son of Man’ as ‘Son of Adam,’ which doesn’t clarify anything.” Evans points out that 90 percent of the world’s Gospel scholars severely criticized the Seminar’s work.

Considering the four NT Gospel accounts, which have a clear agenda in affirming that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, they can be analyzed for cultural and historical accuracy and whether they were written in time and place close to the life of Jesus. The four Gospels do, in fact, stand up favorably to such analysis. The other gospels don’t. They were written too late to be historically reliable and in places with strange cultural contexts. Inaccuracies abound and sometimes a philosophy like Gnosticism is clearly being promoted.

The four Gospels hold up to historical analysis even more favorably than the secular histories of Suetonius, Tacitus, or Thucydides, because those historians were much further removed from the events they wrote about.

I’ll comment here on one serious weakness in the apologetics of Lee Strobel and his evangelical friends. They consistently treat the Bible as if it is merely history and should be treated on a par with other historical documents. Yes, they argue that the history is accurate, that it does recount the truth of the virgin birth of Christ, His resurrection, His other miracles, etc. But the Bible is more than a valid human record of God’s supernatural work. The Bible itself is inspired by the Holy Spirit. And so it can be trusted far more deeply than any human history. When you fall short on this issue you lose the ground of inerrancy and wind up with watered down versions, contributing to the pitiful spiritual weakness of modern evangelicalism.

Back to The Case . . . Some scholars claim that there was a ‘multiplicity of Christianities’ in the first century, differing in doctrines and practice. Evans argues that this view is the product of politically correct multiculturalism. The fact is that there was only ‘one Christianity.’ All first century Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah, that he was God in the flesh, that He died on the cross as a payment for sin, and so on. Modern skeptics look at the diversity of heresies in the second century and beyond and illegitimately ‘read them into’ a revisionist account of the first century.

The Evans interview is a useful summary of the fallacies of the bogus gospel accounts. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, quotes or alludes to over half of the books of the NT. Other ancient documents that make use of so much of the NT material are dated no earlier than AD 150. And so it is ‘late,’ not written in sync with the events recorded by the canonical Gospels. Liberal scholars have claimed that ‘Thomas’ was written between AD 50 and AD 80. But it includes material from the Gospel of John, which had to be written in the 90s.

Doctrinally, ‘Thomas’ is in trouble. It teaches that salvation comes from self-knowledge, recognizing where you fit into the cosmos, and by not getting caught up with this world. The flavor is Gnostic, not New Testament salvation by repentance and faith.

Evans goes on to discuss in some detail the issues with the Gospels of Peter, Mary, Mark’s secret gospel, and Judas. It’s a useful summary of the methods and reasoning of historical criticism and a good shorthand reference for the problems with the bogus gospels.

Challenge #2 is that the Bible cannot be trusted because the early church tampered with the text. Lee interviews Daniel Wallace, a professor of NT studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, and an authority on textual criticism.

Lee asks Wallace to define and distinguish the concepts of inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility with respect to the Biblical text. To say that the Bible is inspired means “. . . that it’s both the Word of God and the words of men. Lewis Sperry Chafer put it well: ‘Without violating the authors’ personalities, they wrote with their own feelings, literary abilities, and concerns. But in the end, God could say, That’s exactly what I wanted to have written.’

Daniel Wallace

I think that’s a little weak. You would get the impression that God shows up at the end of the process, relieved that it all worked out ok. No, Scripture is clear (see Psalm 119, for example) that God’s word is timeless, in fact pre-existent. The diversity in style among the human authors certainly reflected the diversity in personalities prepared by God in their mothers’ wombs.

On inerrancy, “They mean a number of things. For some, it’s almost a magic-wand approach, where the Bible is treated like a modern scientific and historical textbook that’s letter perfect . . . The other view is to say the Bible is true in what it touches. So we can’t treat it like a scientific book or a twenty-first-century historical document.”

He’s in even more trouble here. Such definitions are used by modern evangelicals to allow such heresies as theistic evolution and a denial of Noah’s flood. Note also that his perspective elevates modern scientific books and histories above the Bible. In contrast, I’ll observe that science books continually change as old theories are discarded and new speculations pop up. And the more modern the history, the more likely you will find a modernist . . . or post-modernist . . . agenda.

I would define inerrancy by saying that I can put a Bible in my very own hands that is precisely the word (and words) of God, without mistake, with neither addition nor subtraction nor substitution. The Old Testament would be the Masoretic Hebrew and the New Testament would be the Received Text. Since I can’t read Hebrew or Greek, my position is that my KJV is an accurate translation of those inerrantly preserved texts and so I have an inerrant Bible in English in my very own hands.

If you say that only the original autographs were inerrant, then there never was an inerrant Bible and you certainly don’t have one now. All of the modern versions of the NT are based on the so-called ‘critical text,’ compiled by heretics in the 19th and 20th centuries, ever changing, never settling down, and claimed by NO ONE to represent God’s inerrant words. Now this is a big subject, and so I refer you to Section #8 of my “10 Heresies” essay and the cited references.

Wallace’s definition of infallibility is that the Bible is true in what it teaches. Overall, he does a good job defending the Biblical text using the principles of secular criticism, which is, unfortunately, a foundationally flawed approach. He agrees with a scholar who said, “We should treat the Bible like any other book in order to show it’s not like any other book.”

I know of no one who ever got converted when starting with the presupposition that the Bible is an interesting historical record. However, starting with the presupposition that the Bible is the word of God, one can then explore whether what you learn is consistent with your starting point. As knowledge grows, so does confidence and faith. Creation vs. evolution develops the same way. Everyone starts out with some presupposition. If you start with Biblical creation and then explore biology, geology, astronomy, etc., you will discover that everything you learn fits within your foundational model. People do get converted with this approach.

Wallace deals appropriately with the overwhelming ‘embarrassment of riches’ regarding the thousands of ancient texts that correlate highly with the Bible we have today. But because he’s coming from a woeful ‘critical text’ point of view, I won’t pull nuggets. I’d rather recommend the references in my ’10 Heresies’ essay.

Challenge #3 asserts that there are alternative explanations for the resurrection of Jesus. Lee interviewed Michael Licona, a scholar whose research has focused on historical evidence for the resurrection. Lee asked him about the assertion of once-evangelical, now anti-Biblical heretic Bart Ehrman, who insists that historians can only address what probably happened, and since a supposed miracle is highly improbable, the historian can never affirm it.

Michael Licona

Licona replied that Jesus rising from the dead by natural causes would be improbable, of course. But the Biblical claim is that God raised Jesus from the dead. So if God exists and God chose to raise Jesus, there is nothing at all improbable about that. The real problem in the mind of the skeptic is that he doesn’t believe in the existence of God. Everything is just molecules in motion. It’s a worldview issue. But given Genesis 1:1, the resurrection of Jesus is not incredible. The only issue is whether it happened.

Another skeptic, James Tabor, denies the possibility of a virgin birth, and so Mary was either raped or had an affair. Licona points out that this is just methodological naturalism, a philosophical decision against the possibility of the supernatural. If you buy into that, a woman cannot conceive a child without a natural father.

To extend the thought, the origins of galaxies and stars and planets and the nanotechnology of petunias and people must be explained by natural processes. But of course there are no natural processes that produce such things, nor are there any to explain the existence of the universe itself, or matter or time.

A quick comment: Isn’t it interesting how WEAK the objections of skeptics are?

Licona summarizes the methods of historians in their search for the best explanation underlying historical accounts. Aesop’s fables, for example, were not meant to be interpreted literally. Plus, there are no credible eyewitness accounts or corroboration from independent sources. But with the resurrection there are multiple independent sources, eyewitnesses, and affirmation by outsiders who were not sympathetic, not least of which was Saul of Tarsus.

A quick aside . . . In this area, as in creation vs. evolution, I have observed that skeptics’ objections are often visceral – emotional – deriving from a reaction like, “But that’s incredible!” As if there is a non-incredible “default position.” WHATEVER the truth is, it actually is incredible. God speaking the universe into existence . . . that’s incredible! But the universe and matter and space / time popping into existence from nothing . . . that’s ridiculous! When you extend the investigation to the intricate design of cellular processes, it’s far more incredible to presuppose origins by random chemical processes than to infer brilliantly intelligent design. So, hey, skeptic . . . get over it. The truth is incredible, but your objections must be rooted in a worldview that’s simply ridiculous. I prefer incredible to ridiculous.

Licona goes on to describe the enormous historical support for the resurrection. Even skeptical scholars agree that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written in the first century, within a few decades of Jesus’ lifetime and while multitudes lived who were cognizant of the events of the time. In contrast, the two best sources on the life of Alexander the Great weren’t written until at least 400 years after his life. Nobody argues that Alexander didn’t exist or accomplish what he did. Regarding Caesar Augustus, generally considered to be Rome’s greatest emperor, there are only five chief sources: a brief funeral inscription, a source written between 50 and 150 years after his death, and three other sources written even later.

On Jesus life and death, beyond the four Gospels, sources from the period include the historian Tacitus, the Jewish historian Josephus, the Greek Lucian, and the pagan Mara Bar-Serapion, in addition to the Jewish Talmud.

Licona also describes the early history of Christianity as evidence for the truth of the resurrection. This is a big subject. One element is that many disciples were martyred for what they knew to be true. Many will die for what they believe. But many of Jesus’ disciples gave up their lives for the profession of what they saw and knew. People simply don’t submit to torture and death when they could simply admit that they had been lying about what they saw.

Challenge #4 is that Christians’ beliefs about Jesus were copied from pagan religions. Lee interviewed Edwin Yamauchi, a prolific author, linguist, professor, and historian specializing in ancient religions and culture. Yamauchi summarized for Lee some of the history of 20th century scholarship, in which skeptical scholars and popular writers continually recycled bogus claims that the key elements of Christian faith were derived from Egyptian or Mesopotamian or other Middle Eastern mystery religions.

Edwin Yamauchi

“Mystery religions” are essentially cults which insist that salvation is possible only within the group and that certain secrets must be kept within. (Nothing has changed with regard to modern cults, has it?) Mithraism, for example, was a Roman mystery religion which rivaled Christianity in the second century and later. Mithras was a Persian god mentioned as early as the 14th century B.C. An early 20th century scholar’s work suggested that Mithraism influenced Christianity. Other scholars in the 1970s refuted such assertions, showing evidence that Mithraism didn’t show up in the west until too late to have influenced Christianity.

Specifically, the earliest reference to Mithraism in the Roman empire is A.D. 90. No Mithraic temples were found at Pompeii, which was destroyed in A.D. 79. Most Mithraic texts are dated after A.D. 140 . . . and so on. As Lee summarized, “The timing is wrong.” The flowering of Mithraism occurred well after Christianity and the Biblical canon were firmly established.

Some of the bogus claims . . . Some popular writers claim that Mithras was born of a virgin. Yamauchi reports that Mithras was actually born out of a rock . . . which, I observe, is the ancestry claimed by evolutionists, who insist that once upon a time rocks were dissolved by rainfall, minerals diffusing into the oceans, which magically congealed into the nanotechnology of life. It would be fair to accuse atheistic evolutionists of deriving their religion from pagan Mithraism.

Mithras was born on December 25th, a supposed parallel to the birth of Christ. But Biblical Christianity makes no claim on a birth date for Jesus. December 25 was adopted in “Christendom” by Constantine in 336, the pagan emperor who worked to combine Roman paganism with Christianity. It was the Roman Catholic Church which brought not only December 25th, but many elements of paganism into its system.

Mithras was supposedly a great teacher, like Jesus. Yamauchi says, “No – he was a god, not a teacher.” Mithras allegedly sacrificed himself for world peace. Yamauchi says, “That’s reading Christian theology into what’s not there. He didn’t sacrifice himself – he killed a bull.”

Finally, Mithras was supposedly buried in a tomb and rose after three days. But that’s urban legend. The fact is that nobody knows anything about the death of Mithras. One scholar insists that there was no death of Mithras and so there cannot be a resurrection.

Lee and Edwin go on to discuss the details of many other bogus claims that purport to tie Christianity to paganism. This chapter is a wonderful reference on this subject . . . worth the price of the book all by itself.

Challenge #5 is that Jesus was an impostor who failed to fulfill the Messianic prophecies. The interviewee is Michael Brown, a former orthodox Jew who became a Christian and a scholar, focused on the evidence that supports Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. This chapter is terrific, also.

One of Brown’s compelling points is that Jesus is the last great prophet that speaks to Israel, specifically predicting the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Since then, for over 1900 years the Jews have been without a blood sacrifice. The Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament, make it crystal clear that blood is required for atonement. Yet the Jews have no temple, no priesthood, and no sacrifices. If Jesus was not the Messiah, the fulfillment of all the prophecies, the very embodiment of the Passover Lamb, then there will be no Messiah for the Jews. “It’s Him or no one.”

Michael Brown

Since the life of Jesus, perhaps hundreds of millions of Jews and Gentiles (their salvation also a Messianic prophecy) have given Messiah Jesus their total allegiance. His reign is already far greater than that of King David. And when He returns He will rule over all nations. If we can see how He fulfilled all the prophecies connected to His first coming, it does not take much faith to trust the rest of future history.

Challenge #6 is that of postmodernism – People should be free to pick and choose what to believe about Jesus. This chapter is a beautifully constructed and concise refutation of moral and philosophical relativism. Philosopher Paul Copan summarizes the issue this way:

“We may have subjective preferences about what doctrines we like and don’t like. But our subjective preferences can’t change the objective reality that Jesus is God’s unique revelation to mankind. If we want to sync up with reality, we need to sync up with Him. We can’t change reality just by refusing to believe certain doctrines that Jesus affirms. We may not like the doctrine of Hell, but that can’t change the objective reality of whether Hell exists. We can’t wish it out of existence. It either exists, as Jesus affirms, or it doesn’t . . . If Jesus really was resurrected from the dead, then this vindicates His claims that he really is the unique Son of God. And if He’s the unique Son of God, then we can rely on His teachings being true. And so when we add things or subtract things from his teaching, we’re in error, because we’d be believing something that doesn’t correspond with reality.”

Paul Copan

Copan goes on to discuss why people love to invent their own religions. Reincarnation, for example, is a destructive burden within Hindu culture. If you’re a low caste Hindu, you’re stuck at that level because that’s what you deserve from a previous life. And so people shouldn’t reach out to help you, because that might endanger their own karma. Millions in poverty are accordingly mired in poverty without recourse or even sympathy.

Regarding New Age ideas about our alleged divinity, Copan says that we tend to choose beliefs that elevate our status and diminish personal responsibility. If you’re a little god, you get to call whatever you do ‘good,’ even if the Bible makes clear that what you do is ‘sin.’

I like what Dave Hunt has written about this. Imagine that we all embrace our ‘divinity’ and develop the latent powers we supposedly have. Then billions of little gods, each with his own little divine will, will strive for supremacy, possibly hurling lightning bolts at all the other little gods who defy him or her. You think the world is a mess now? Just wait.

One thing I particularly like about Copan comes from this quote:

“Jesus is not seeking to marginalize anyone. We read 2 Peter 3:9 that God isn’t willing that any should perish, but that all would come to repentance. It’s not God that marginalizes people; actually, it’s people who marginalize God. What prevents universal salvation is human freedom – a rejection of God’s salvation. It’s human beings who push God away and who want to keep Him at arm’s length. God makes His salvation available to all people, but not all choose to embrace it.”

Ah . . . he’s not a Calvinist. Of course. If you’re a Christian and a student of philosophy and logic, it’s essentially impossible to be a Calvinist. TULIP indoctrination typically comes early in life, before much knowledge of the Bible is acquired and before thinking skills are developed.

Finally . . . I recommend this book for the library of every student of apologetics. It can serve as a concise reference to address the most prevalent . . . albeit weak and illogical . . . objections of modern skeptics. The chapter on Messianic prophecy could serve as a template for a multi-week small group study. The chapter on postmodernism would be useful to review before an evangelistic foray to a college campus. But you’ll also enjoy reading Strobel’s book.

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