Review: The Case For Christ

Back in January, I agreed a book-swap with US-based Christian blogger, Clark Bunch. I suggested that he read Dan Barker’s Godless and he recommended Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ.

So I’ve read The Case For Christ, although it’s taken me quite a while as I was distracted by other books and spent some time reading up on certain points, not least from Earl Doherty’s cross-examination, “Challenging the Verdict”. Clark and I have already had some discussion of Lee Strobel’s book, but as far as I know he hasn’t yet got around to reading Godless. I’ve sent him another email reminder when I published this post, so hopefully he’ll respond.

Strobel is a journalist and accomplished writer. The Case For Christ has a narrative, rather than academic style, which no doubt adds to its accessibility. Each chapter begins with an anecdote, presumably from his journalistic coverage of criminal trials and investigations, to illustrate the point of the chapter. These introductions set the scene and certainly make the book more readable. Next follows the introduction of the interviewee, a page or two listing their qualifications, publications and academic posts, that kind of thing. All very impressive-sounding, but the author is also keen on including little details about their appearance, the photos in their office and so on, to turn these scholars into fully-rounded characters. I said it was a narrative style. Presumably this is to build the reader’s trust and establish the credibility of the interviewees. I’m sure many readers love it, but at least a third of the book is not making the case for Christ and the curious skeptic in me is yelling, “Get on with it!”.

When we get to the meat of the arguments, Strobel and his interviewees consider the various kinds of evidence for Jesus in keeping with the courtroom trial theme. I’m no expert on these matters so I can only comment on what has been included, not what has been left out. To be fair, skeptical objections and ideas from groups such as the Jesus Seminar are also considered, but never too deeply. There is always a quick and confident reassurance provided that these arguments don’t amount to much nor cast any doubt on the historicity of Jesus. However, I think this approach sometimes backfires. For example, when considering the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus who allegedly referred to Jesus in his writing, Edwin Yamauchi admits that there are phrases unlikely to have been written by a Jewish historian and that these are likely to be “interpolations” by Christian copyists [Specifically that Jesus was more than human, that Jesus "was The Christ" and that Jesus was resurrected]. The final reassurance is less than convincing,

“What’s the bottom line?”
“That the passage in Josephus was probably originally written about Jesus, although without those three points I mentioned. But even so, Josephus corroborates important information about Jesus: that he was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem and that he was a wise teacher who had established a wide and lasting following, despite the fact that he had been crucified under Pilate at the instigation of some of the Jewish leaders.”

Now for me this section only casts more doubt on the historicity of Jesus. At the very least the writing of Josephus has had convenient insertions by Christian copyists, presumably with the intention of bolstering the case for Christ. This shows that they were not above this kind of corruption of the evidence. It makes me wonder what else may have been tactically edited by the earliest Christian copyists. Further reading in Challenging the Verdict thoroughly reviews the issue, and shows that Josephus’s “Antiquities of the Jews” arguably reads more smoothly without the quoted paragraph mentioning Jesus. The entire thing could have inserted.

Obviously there’s little certainty here, as all the evidence is so old, but Lee Strobel’s interviewees regularly take a simple passage or ambiguous Biblical cross-reference and proclaim it as very impressive evidence. Invariably this seems to be a case of reading too much into some text with a certain agenda in mind.

The main example is the reading of 1 Corinthians 15 – which speaks of Christ being raised and appearing to people – as if it refers to a physical person. Earl Doherty points out that this assumption comes from the gospels, which were written after Corinthians. He suggests that there’s no reason to suppose Paul’s use of “raised” refers to a physical resurrection.

What does all this show? At the very least it shows that there’s more complexity and uncertainty to this issue than I have the time or patience to grapple with. However, you’d never guess it from the confidence with which Lee Strobel and his carefully-chosen scholars assert their claims.

“All of the gospels and Acts evidence – incident after incident, witness after witness, detail after detail, corroboration on top of corroboration – was extremely impressive. Although I tried, I couldn’t think of any more thoroughly attested event in ancient history.”

In fact, when compared for example to the accounts of the destruction of Pompeii in 79 CE, there a great deal of tampering with the evidence, uncertain dating and insertions/interpolations in Biblical history leaving much room for doubt over what Jesus did or didn’t do.

The Case For Christ is well written and, for the most part, I am not knowledgeable enough to check out all it’s claims. However, the few places where the obvious problems are confidently swept aside reveals the unrelenting agenda to promote the authenticity of the Bible above all.

12 thoughts on “Review: The Case For Christ

  1. Those are excellent points you make and highlight (and clarify to myself) my primary objections to Strobel’s writing. It is one thing strongly assert relatively unsubstantiated claims — all apologists do that. But to so quietly gloss over the problems with the claims just sounds smug to me. And that he claims to be a hard-nosed, objective reporter…

    Good pickup to on the little homely personal details he adds. They are bothersome, I think exactly for the reason you state, that they are added to gain the readers trust. Disingenuous.

  2. Thanks atimetorend.
    I wasn’t seriously bothered by his back stories and other stuff as much of it was interesting. But you’re quite right, it takes it out of the league of “serious investigation” and firmly into, “reassuring pat on the back for the faithful”.

  3. robthehall,

    Ebon is reviewing a different book – The Case For A Creator, in great detail that I barely have the time to even read, let alone write. He covered The Case for Christ briefly quite a while ago. I get the impression that Strobel has a Case For… theme going.

  4. One interesting thing I’ve read about Strobel’s book – via Chris Hallquist‘s and his book – is that Strobel isn’t necessarily offering a completely accurate recounting of the interviews he conducted. Hallquist contacted one of Strobel’s experts, Craig Blomberg, who complained that Strobel heavily paraphrased, redacted, and oversimplified their conversation for the sake of apologetic expediency. In fact, he says Strobel’s retelling introduced so many inaccuracies, he gave up on trying to get them all corrected.

  5. Thanks Ebon. I vaguely remember reading that.
    Although it doesn’t directly ruin Strobel’s case, it casts a lot of doubt on his integrity and does make you wonder what else he was willing to bend or twist for the sake of his argument.

  6. For anyone who’s interested, I’ve heard back from Clark Bunch who tells me he’s still up for the book swap and will be getting back to me as soon as he can. To be fair to him he’s had quite a hectic year.

  7. How did I miss this post? I’ve been going through interesting stuff in my life of recent, and I neglected my regular blog reading.

    It is an excellent review. I read the book in 2004. It was the last Christian book I ever read, and it put the last nail on my Christian coffin.

    The book bothered me, but I couldn’t put the annoyance into words. You have helped me realize what it was that I found so suspicious. I remember being annoyed by too much scene setting. I remember thinking, “This reads like a novel.”

    It also bothered me that he made his subject-matter experts look like ultimate authorities, as if they knew it all, and I had to believe just because those “great” people did.

    In sum, the book relies too much on the ethos of the so-called experts, who in my opinion, were only experts in that they studied and believed what others said in the past.

    The book resembles a Sunday morning sermon, where the pastor says all kind of stuff and devotees mostly believe because they’re convinced he knows what he’s talking about. In that sense, Strobel did a good job of preaching to the converted.

  8. Good observation. Yes, ethos is a big part of it.

    I think he does a little more than a pastor, as he does mention counter arguments that would never be brought up in church, I guess. However, he then sweeps them aside with sometimes as little proper explanation as if he’d said, “But that’s just ridiculous, no one really believes that”. Perhaps it’s not that he’s really more thorough than a pastor, he just has more time/space.

  9. Lorena, I forgot to say that it’s interesting that the book didn’t stop your doubts. I wonder how many people are persuaded by Strobel’s book. Perhaps if they’re reading the book, then they’re already asking questions, which for some may be the biggest step. I’m speculating again, I’ll stop now.