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Evangelical Textual Critic Debunks Common New Testament Reliability Myths

James E. Snapp Jr. makes some quite candid points with respect to the reliability, preservation and transmission of the New Testament in a response to some of these misconceptions being part and parcel of the recent movie, “The Case for Christ” based on the book sharing the same name by Lee Strobel. Here are some of those points:

He starts off with pointing out the obvious, having a single early partial manuscript of one book of the New Testament does not mean we can misjudge all of the New Testament’s book as being equally as early as that one fragment. Rather, it is judged book by book:

For example, the earliest New Testament manuscript is probably either Papyrus 52 or Papyrus 104 – but they are both small fragments.  They tell us nothing about the accuracy of the transmission of the books of the New Testament that they do not represent.  So, comparisons between “the New Testament” collectively, and single compositions from the ancient world, are sort of unfair; it would be better to separate the individual New Testament books, and go from there when making  comparisons.

The number of manuscripts rarely matter, as I have duly pointed out before, on more than one occasion. The current reconstruction of the New Testament isn’t based on which manuscripts agree with each other the most. It’s a very common misconception to say the least:

Most English translations of the New Testament are based on minority-texts at points where the Byzantine and Alexandrian text-types disagree with one another.  The New International Version, the English Standard Version, the New Living Translation, and the New Revised Standard Version are all based primarily on editions of the Nestle-Aland compilation, which, despite being compiled via a method called “reasoned eclecticism,” almost always rejects the majority-reading (that is, the Byzantine reading) in favor of the reading in the flagship manuscripts of the Alexandrian family of manuscripts.

My point being that it is inconsistent to argue for the reliability of the New Testament by an appeal to the existence of 5,843 manuscripts, and then turn around and reject 85% of those manuscripts by consistently favoring minority-readings, which is precisely what one does when using the NIV, ESV, NLT, etc.

Furthering his point, he then goes on to critique Lee Strobel’s misuse of the number of manuscripts argument, as well as the argument that the differences are, “as minor as a few typos in a few insignificant words”:

In his book, Strobel states that the differences between New Testament manuscripts are “as minor as a few typos in a few insignificant words in an entire Sunday newspaper.”  That is simply not true.  He also compares the transmission of the New Testament text to a game of telephone in which, at the end of the game, 29 out of 30 telephone-game players say the same thing.  The problem is that the illustration does not hold, as far as the base-text of the NIV is concerned:  in the base-text of the New International Version New Testament that Lee Strobel uses, 29 out of 30 manuscripts are routinely rejected in favor of Alexandrian minority-readings.

He then goes on to debunk the very common misconception, that given we possess early partial manuscripts from the 2nd century that it means they must have been written during the 1st century CE several decades after Jesus, and that the New Testament’s books are the earliest between extant (still surviving) manuscripts and their initial date of composition. He indicates that this is probably not true:

The relatively recent claim that the New Testament’s manuscript-support is closer to its composition-date than any other literary work of ancient times is probably not true.  When Papyrus 52 (also known as John Rylands Greek Papyrus 457) was identified by C. H. Roberts as a fragment of the Gospel of John, some apologists began crowing about how this new discovery confirms that there is only a 40-year gap between the production of the New Testament, and its earliest extant manuscript – a gap far less than there is for any other work of ancient times.  However, this is not all that significant.

Papyrus 52 was assigned a production-date in the first half of the second century due to palaeographical considerations – that is, via a comparison of its script to the scripts used in other manuscripts in various eras.  But if we reckon that a copyist’s handwriting stayed relatively the same, and that we have no means to deduce how old a copyist was when he made a particular manuscript, and if we also reckon that a copyist might live another 50 years after the beginning of his career as a copyist, then there is potentially a 100-year swing, 50 years each way, built into palaeographically assessed estimates of when a manuscript was made.  That is, when other factors are not in the picture, a production-date deduced exclusively from palaeographic evidence could be off by 100 years.  So in the case of Papyrus 52, saying that it was made “in about 125” could mean that it was made 50 years earlier (although that is precluded by the point that the Gospel of John itself is traditionally given a production-date around AD 90), or 50 years later.

With the crux of his argument being one I have previously espoused and argued many times upon:

Thus, while Papyrus 52 might have been made just two or three decades after the Gospel of John was composed, it is also true that Papyrus 52 might have been produced in the 170’s.  To ask for greater precision in the estimate is like asking researchers to tell us the age of the copyist.

Very recently, Br. Yahya Snow shared a very impactful quote regarding the traditional Christian history of the Gospel attributed to Mark and the disparity between that history, our current reconstructions and its earliest manuscript 𝔓45.

and God knows best.

Answers to the “Questions For Reflection” in “The Case For Christ” by Lee Strobel

Note: The following is an article by Br. Andrew Livingston, regarding one of the most popular Christian works in recent times,“The Case For Christ” by Lee Strobel. Br. Andrew’s writings can be found at taqwamagazine.com. In this article, Br. Andrew takes an honest and critical look at the ‘questions for reflection’ included in the book.

Answers to the “Questions For Reflection” in “The Case For Christ” by Lee Strobel

cc-2015-thecaseforchristleestrobel

I haven’t read Lee Strobel’s original book “The Case for Faith”. I *have* skimmed large chunks of it and read reviews and what not. What I can tell you is that “The Case for Faith” chronicles Lee Strobel’s going on what he still believes to this day was a genuine journey of discovery ultimately leading to his embracing Jesus (meaning, of course, the Jesus of modern day western evangelical Protestant Trinitarian Christianity). In actual fact what he did was hold a series of interviews exclusively with Christians of the aforementioned stripe, over and over and over again, until he was convinced. A true journalistic investigation would have involved Strobel alternating between different kinds of interview subjects: now you’re interviewing a Christian, now a Muslim; now a Christian, now an atheist; now a Christian, now an agnostic; and now one of those awful “liberal” Christians people will often complain about in the book I’m here to discuss now, the follow-up: “The Case for Christ”. [1]

If Strobel had any excuse for his lopsided approach before, he certainly doesn’t now. Once again we find him holding interview after interview with scholars who seem carefully selected to tell Christian readers exactly what they want to hear. That is all the book consists of. Strobel will pose a new issue (the Gospels’ reliability, the empty tomb, et cetera) to a different person in most every chapter, and it’s always an evangelical Christian. No voice of opposition is allowed at any point except in the form of quotations (generally from one person, Michael Martin), which in each case serve strictly as a set-up for the inevitable apologetic takedown. And with no exceptions whatsoever Strobel *always* cedes the point, no matter how minor the issue. If nothing else proves how stacked the deck is this passage from page 108 should:

“…The case for Christ, while far from complete, was being constructed on solid bedrock. At the same time, I knew there were some high-profile professors who would dissent. You’ve seen them quoted in ‘Newsweek’ and being interviewed on the evening news, talking about their radical reassessment of Jesus. The time had come for me to confront their critiques head-on before I went any further in my investigation. That meant a trip to Minnesota to interview a feisty, Yale-educated scholar named Dr. Gregory Boyd.”

I don’t know whether it’s already obvious but Strobel was referring to the Jesus Seminar. He wanted to confront their critiques head-on!—so he…interviewed an apologist who doesn’t like them. What, he’s not going to interview a *member* of the Seminar? Of course not. Because then the book wouldn’t be so one-sided. What we’re looking at here is *anything* but an “investigation”—which was exactly Strobel’s intention from the start.

Indeed, there are passages that suggest to me that the book could be an outright work of deceit. A coldhearted cash grab intended to sucker Christians into thinking that they’re going to read about a journey toward conversion (i.e. the first book or something much like it) before they actually make the purchase and read the whole text, or in case they don’t read carefully enough. It’s unlikely that anyone casually picking up this book in a store and skimming through a few pages here and there will know that it comes from someone who’d already become a Christian years before—and sometimes the book looks like it’s deliberately written so as to give the opposite impression. For example, why would Strobel ever say that anyone was “offended” by his “admittedly barbed remark” (page 230)? Why would he ever feel “a bit chastened” after hearing a rebuttal (page 195)? Why would he “demand” anything “in a tone that sounded more pointed than he had intended” (page 208)?

Whatever the intentions behind the book there are certainly few surprises—for anyone familiar with Christian apologetics, anyway. After a while you get to where you can recite the contents of the old broken record in your sleep: why-would-the-apostles-have-been-martyred-for-something-they-knew-to-be-a-lie-lord-lunatic-or-liar-First-Corinthians-fifteen-this-scholarly-majority-that.

I’ve decided to answer some of those “questions for reflection or group study” included at the end of each chapter. I originally set out to answer *all* of the questions—and then I quickly realized that I’d wind up with a twenty-thousand-word article. I’ve therefore decided to keep to a selection of six questions which are centered on the identity of Jesus (bless him), and which should collectively show you a few interesting things.

1. “How have your opinions been influenced by someone’s eyewitness account of an event? What are some factors you routinely use to evaluate whether someone’s story is honest and accurate? How do you think the gospels would stand up to that kind of scrutiny?” (Page 36)

A face-to-face encounter with someone who’s briefly describing a recent occurrence is very different from a detailed, pages-long recounting of a conversation that took place fifty years ago. The latter is more the sort of thing we find in the Gospels. Craig Blomberg, in his interview, predictably argued that oral tradition in ancient times had a baffling capacity to preserve details accurately (pages 43-4). In that case you should find more agreement between the Gospels. There is more on this subject below but for now let me give an example. The book of Mark frequently depicts Jesus as performing miracles privately, telling people not to reveal who he is, that sort of thing. John, on the other hand, has him never hiding his identity: indeed each time he performs a miracle he gives an elaborate speech explaining the theological significance of it. Compare Mark 8:27-30 to John 4:5-41. This does not look to me like the result of everybody faithfully remembering everything. *Someone* must have gotten it wrong. Yet it’s not mutually exclusive for two sources to *both* be wrong at the same time.

2. “Overall, how have [Craig] Blomberg’s responses to these eight evidential tests affected your confidence in the reliability of the gospels? Why?” (Page 53)

Those “eight evidential tests” being referred to (“the ability test”, “the character test”, et cetera) aren’t any sort of real and mainstream method of historical assessment. As far as I know Strobel may have made them up. This kind of thing is quite commonplace. [2] To be sure, Blomberg did touch on the normal criteria of biblical scholarship: specifically, he referred to the Gospels’ inclusion of embarrassing material. So what did he *do* with the data? Now this is interesting. He said, “Mark 6:5 says that Jesus could do few miracles in Nazareth because the people there had little faith, which seems to limit Jesus’ power.” (Page 49) (He added that this is perfectly fine because of Philippians 2:5-8. I thought we were talking about the Gospels?) Yet what happens when you consider the Markan verse in isolation is less relevant than what happens if you compare it to the Matthean parallel. As the commentary in The New American Bible explains:

“Matthew modifies his Marcan source (Mt 6:1–6). Jesus is not the carpenter but the carpenter’s son (Mt 13:55), ‘and among his own kin’ is omitted (Mt 13:57), he did not work many mighty deeds in face of such unbelief (Mt 13:58) rather than the Marcan ‘…he was not able to perform any mighty deed there’ (Mt 6:5), and there is no mention of his amazement at his townspeople’s lack of faith.” [3]

This is but one demonstration of many: the earlier the version of a narrative the more human Jesus seems to get.

3. “What, do you think, are some reasons why Jesus was evasive in disclosing who he was to the public? Can you imagine some ways in which an early proclamation of his deity could have harmed his mission?” (Page 142)

*Was* he evasive? As I’ve explained, it seems to go either way. Personally I’m beginning to wonder about the “mission” part too. *What* mission? If Jesus’s role was to die for our sins, why would it be necessary for him to spend any time as a prophet beforehand? There had already been a slew of those. Or perhaps I have it backwards. If God’s going to be His own prophet, why then send any others at all? Wouldn’t Jesus be enough? What, we’ve got God Incarnate as a prophet and we *still* need all of these other guys too? Seems superfluous to me. In any case there’s no need for an incarnate Deity to play both roles: prophet *and* self-sacrifice. If he was here to die for our sins then couldn’t he have simply appeared in human form, gotten himself crucified, risen from the dead and left it at that? [4]

Could it not simply be that Jesus *was* in fact only a prophet and it’s the dying for our sins part that got tacked on later?

4. “What are some of the differences between a patient in a mental hospital claiming to be God and Jesus making the same assertion about himself?” (Page 154)

I doubt very much that mental patient would refer to “my Father and your Father…my God and your God” (John 20:17). [5] Unless, that is, he suffers from multiple personalities. Of course all I did was merely quote a Bible verse without first establishing its accuracy—but then that seems to be a nasty habit of the interview subjects in this book too.

Nobody out there, as far as I know, is actually saying that Jesus was a madman, any more than they’re saying that the early Christians were willingly living a lie. Why do Christian apologists always bring up these straw men?

5. “As [William Lane] Craig pointed out, everyone in the ancient world admitted the tomb was empty; the issue was how it got that way. Can you think of any logical explanation for the vacant tomb other than the resurrection of Jesus? If so, how do you imagine someone like Bill Craig might respond to your theory?” (Page 223)

Craig did indeed *try* to establish that everyone knew the tomb was empty et cetera, but his arguments were rooted in that frustratingly inevitable belief that it takes a vast amount of time for legendary embellishment to develop. This claim gets reiterated all throughout the book and even made quite a point of in the conclusion (pages 264-5). Human communication simply does not work that way. The Bible itself concedes that during Jesus’s own ministry there was mass confusion over his identity due to word of mouth creating all sorts of different views (Mark 8:27-8). If Craig honestly believes that “Mark [getting] his…whole passion narrative…[from a source] written before A.D. 37” makes it “much too early for legend to have seriously corrupted it” (page 220) then he needs to spend more time reading Snopes. (Of course this is assuming that the whole “before A.D. 37” thing is true in the first place but what have you.)

During his interview Craig appealed or referred to the idea of following the scholarly majority five times. I may have missed one or two. So that probably should give you a sense of how he’d respond to me.

6. “What are your most cherished beliefs? What would it take for you to abandon or radically rethink those treasured opinions—especially if you truly believed you were risking the damnation of your soul if you were wrong? How does your answer relate to the historical fact that thousands of Jews suddenly abandoned five key social and religious structures shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus [as J.P. Moreland explained]?” (Page 257)

One way or another you’d have to do more than Moreland, or anyone in any of these interviews, did. Throughout the book people baldly assert things to be historical fact and do very little to explain why I should believe them. With Moreland we get a whole interview built around this principle. The apostles all believed in the Resurrection; they all preached the Resurrection from the start; the stories of their martyrdom are true; “Josephus tells us that James…was stoned to death because of his belief in his brother” (page 248). (Look up the Josephus passage and see. It doesn’t take long.) And so forth. These are *not* facts, they’re claims, and I often don’t understand why it is I’m supposed to accept them. Let alone why I should accept them from a man who clearly demonstrates his bias by asserting (just as much without supporting argument) that the followers of Muhammad (bless him) “‘converted’…by the sword”, moments before carefully glossing over early Christian history by leaving it that Christianity “eventually overwhelmed the entire Roman empire” (pages 249, 254).

I mentioned the book’s conclusion. I’ve found something interesting there. Do you want to see some truly stunning proof of just how far Christian apologists will go in repeating the same arguments ad infinitum?

“When German theologian Julius Muller in 1844 challenged anyone to find a single example of legend developing that fast anywhere in history, the response from the scholars of his day—and to the present time—was resounding silence.” (Strobel, page 265)

“Muller challenged his nineteenth-century contemporaries to produce a single example anywhere in history of a great myth or legend arising around a historical figure and being generally believed within thirty years after that figure’s death. No one has ever answered him.” (Kreeft and Tacelli, “Handbook of Christian Apologetics”—a book printed four years earlier) [6]

In this conclusion I’m encouraged to “reach my own verdict”. Which again is kind of offensive considering how said encouragement comes after such a one-sided “investigation”.

But very well. If I have learned anything new from this book, it’s a confirmation of a preexisting suspicion. Or anyway my suspicion has slightly grown. A suspicion that evangelical Christians are ultimately concerned with pretty much nothing except validating the inerrancy of The Bible. Any talk of historical evidence—in a way, even the act of focusing on the Resurrection in particular—is either an outward show or an inner rationalization.

This may be most clearly demonstrated (as far as the book is concerned, anyway) with the case of Craig Blomberg. First he argues that it would be suspicious were there too much consistency between Gospel accounts, seeing as that would make it look like the various sources were all colluding with each other. Again, I’ve heard it before—but it is food for thought. Then what does Blomberg go and do a moment later? He goes out of his way to resolve every tiny contradiction claim that happens to come up. Mixed messages there. (Pages 45-8)

Gary Habermas does something similar in pages 232-3. One moment he’s talking like it’s irrelevant if there are little inconsistencies here and there in the biblical Resurrection accounts; the next, he’s making a point of placing the “five hundred brethren” from 1 Corinthians 15 within the framework of the Matthean storyline. What exactly *are* his priorities?

John McRay first says that “archaeology…certainly can’t prove whether the New Testament is the Word of God”…and then says that the reason why Luke 18:35 and Mark 10:46 appear to contradict each other (with “approached Jericho” vs. “leaving Jericho”) is because archaeology shows how there were at least four different locations for Jericho, and so it’s “like moving from one part of suburban Chicago to another part of suburban Chicago” (pages 95, 98). It’s like these people can’t help it!

I’ve seen this exact phenomenon a lot in interfaith debates, wherein the Christian debater carefully keeps himself at arm’s length from the topic of biblical inerrancy while somehow nonetheless guarding that same doctrine with all of the protectiveness of the sphinx. So strange is these people’s doublethink that in their minds The Bible can be confirmed as true by being shown to contain a lie. I’m not making that up. They do it in this very book. When Habermas is asked about the women at the empty tomb not showing up in Paul’s account of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 he says that “since women were not considered competent as witnesses in first-century Jewish culture, it’s not surprising that they’re not mentioned here” (page 233). It is this very claim I’ve heard several times before. Somehow it’s supposed to confirm Paul’s account as trustworthy—by calling him a liar.

You know what? I take it back. I *don’t* understand what’s going through these people’s minds, and I don’t think I ever will.

NOTES:

[1] “The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus” by Lee Strobel. 1998 Zondervan. It’s a large paperback.

[2] For instance Google “explanatory scope explanatory power plausibility” and see what kinds of sites pop up in the results. It’s Christian apologetics and Christian evangelism as far as the eye can see. Nary a sign of a secular historical discussion. Yet in their debates William Lane Craig and Mike Licona will treat these criteria like we’re supposed to take them for granted.

[3] From the online version. http://www.usccb.org/bible/matthew/13

Accessed Saturday, September 19th, 2015.

[4] The parable of Dives and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is now, for me, looking more awkward in its present context than ever.

[5] Always assume, unless I say otherwise, that I’m using the New Revised Standard Version. As indeed I am here.

[6] “Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions” by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, page 191. 1994 IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press. It’s another large paperback book.