Friday, January 9, 2009

Notes on Lee Strobel's The Case for the Real Jesus

Recently, I brushed up against Lee Strobel on the blogosphere. When researching Simon Peter, I almost read some of his work into the historicity of Jesus but after a little work I didn't because, well, I have little interest in Christian apologia. I was looking for history. (I didn't find any. What I did find was a vast perversion of history and archeology concerning Bible subjects, ugh, but that's a different rant.) But in my blogosphere brush with him, he tried to come off as a reasonable man with training in law and journalism who had studied all the available evidence and believed that anyone, upon seeing the evidence, would be drawn to the conclusion that Jesus existed much as said in the Gospels, that the evidence shows he is the "Son of God", that he died on the cross and rose from the dead and ascended into the Christian heaven. Not that he believed these things as an article of faith, but that the proof, the historical and archeological proof, when viewed honestly would lead a person to the inevitable conclusion that Jesus was the the true reborn and ascended Messiah of Biblical prophesy. I always hope that people who are acting reasonable are acting in good faith because, otherwise, it increases the cynicism of the world and a person who might initially come off as reasonable is turned into a crude manipulator of people's hopes.

Because I clearly hate myself, I picked up and plowed through Strobel's The Case for the Real Jesus. In this book, Strobel purports to address six arguments that people make to discredit the evangelical Christian view of Jesus. Each section of the book first briefs the audience on the argument and then he conducts a single interview with a single person about the subject. While the section where he briefs the subject demonstrates that he has reviewed the material in sufficient depth, all of the subsequent discussion is in the form of interviews with single scholars about the subjects.

The interviewees and subjects are:

#1: Craig A. Evans and "Scholars are Uncovering a Radically Different Jesus in Ancient Documents Just as Credible as the Four Gospels". Evans teaches at the Acadia Divinity College, located in Nova Scotia. From the intro for prospies: "Pastors today need to be proficient in many areas, and ADC helps our students rise to this challenge by preparing Christian leaders with a wide range of skills that will equip them for a challenging and rewarding ministry to this world that God so loves. ADC also works closely with the Convention of Atlantic Bap[t]ist Churches to prepare our Baptist students for Baptist ministry beyond the classroom." Yes, I had to correct the spelling of the world Baptist that I C&P'd from their website. That wasn't just snark on my part.

The thrust here is that the Nag Hammadi library and Dead Sea Scrolls pose a challenge to Christianity because their antiquity provides demonstration that during the first century CE there was no consensus on who Jesus was or Jesus' message. Which is, of course, true. Evans "refutes" this by basically saying that the Nag Hammadi library and the Dead Sea Scrolls were the work of crazy people who didn't know what they were talking about and that the integrity of the Gospels is therefore intact. He does this largely through assertion and circular reasoning. If those other texts were so good, why didn't they become the basis of Christianity instead of the books that did? He says it's preposterous, furthermore, that Constantine had the power to tell the Nicean bishops what to do - which is, itself, preposterous given Constantine's absolute authority and, y'know, the legion of hardened veterans he had with him at the Council of Nicea. (For the record, I don't think Connie much cared what they decided on, just that they did get the agenda settled. He was much too practical a man, in my opinion, to worry too much over the specifics of the theology, just that the religion he was grooming to unify his empire was itself unified enough to serve as his tool. Which isn't even to say that Connie didn't "believe". I'm neutral on that subject but I don't see why he couldn't believe in the fundamental tenets of Christianity while being indifferent to a lot of the specifics.)

#2: Daniel B. Wallace and "The Bible's Portrait of Jesus Can't Be Trusted Because the Church Tampered with the Text", another theologian, this time at the Dallas Theological Seminary, and one of the contributors to The upshot here is that . . . aw, I don't even fuckin' know, hehe. I mean, the real argument is that the Christian god wouldn't allow that to happen, so all the "differences" and "changes" are, at worst, grammatical and have had no substantial impact on meaning. Weirdly, the fact that none of the Gospels agree with each other is not touched on. I guess that ground has been sufficiently trod about apologists that Strobel felt no need to repeat it.

#3: Michael Licona and "New Explanations Have Refuted Jesus' Resurrection". His website identifies him as a Christian apologist straight off the bat. He's a Ph.D candidate at, of course, theology in the University of Pretoria after doing his undergrad work at Liberty University. To me, this was the most bizarre section. I didn't know that there were any "new" explanations to refute Jesus' resurrection. That it was an initiation ceremony or something of that nature has been floating around since the Roman Empire, as were conspiracy theories that Pilate was a secret Christian who spirited Jesus to safety or that Jesus' body had been moved. At the root, the question here is one of magic: either you believe it's possible for the dead to rise as described in the Bible or you don't. If you do believe that Jesus is the resurrected god, belief in the Biblical narrative is possible, indeed, likely. If you believe that when a person dies it sucks for them but is party time for the worms, then obviously something else happened. Which is the position that Licona inevitably takes - that the resurrection happened as described in the Bible therefore alternate explanations are wrong. Lots of circular reasoning.

#4: Edwin M. Yamauchi and "Christianity's Beliefs about Jesus Were Copied from Pagan Religions". He's one of the founders of the Oxford Bible Fellowship. So, this guy has his own church. Anyway, OBF are "[d]oing everything we can by faith through the living Word of God and in the power of the Spirit to equip this next generation in the love of Christ for a lifetime of service throughout all the world."

The argument Yamauchi uses is that Judaism was impervious to Hellenism, to sum it up. Or, in the case of Mithraism, Christianity predated the "mystery cult" of Mithraism, making a bizarre distinction between the "mystery cult" Mithraism and the Mithraism practiced by the people of, uh, Tarsus. The same Tarsus the apostle Paul came from. That Mithraism wasn't a mystery cult at the time (or, at least, the nature of the religion was uncertain because Cilician pirates aren't known for their exact records) is taken by Yamauchi to prove that there was no way that it could have influenced Christianity. And the rest of the Hellenic, Persian, Egyptian, Babylonian, etc., religions that surrounded the area and resembled Christianity's narrative of execution, resurrection and redemption had nothing to do with Christianity because the Jews were immune to that kind of thing - after all, their religion was true as opposed to those false religions, right? The imperviousness to the Jewish religion to outside influence is taken as a given by most religious historians, unsurprisingly.

#5: Michael L. Brown and "Jesus Was an Imposter Who Failed to Fulfill the Messianic Prophecies". Probably the most pernicious person in the book. While I think that Strobel's work is largely in bad faith, one of the sections is basically an attack on Judaism and Brown's the interviewee for that section. Brown is a former Jew who is now an evangelical Christian. He's now the pastor and founder of ICN ministries who is taking the Christian message to Israel to convert all those heathen Jews. The book is totally shameless on several levels, but this in particular - given Christianity's history of antisemitism - I found most galling. Here, better than anywhere in the book, the sick bias attacks. Because Christians are in a spot with Judaism - Jesus was, well, a Jew and Christianity broadly seeks to distance themselves from Judaism which rejects Jesus as a messiah. So, to do this, rather than just present the standard Christian line that the Jews are wrong, he gets "one of their own" to reject Judaism's claim that Jesus is no messiah. I found it to be in extremely bad taste, far moreso than the other interviewees.

For the record, did Jesus fulfill the Old Testament prophesies? The short answer is "no". My favorite part of the Gospels are the genealogies of Jesus on Joseph's side. The damn book goes on to say that Joe isn't Jesus' father but they trace his descent from the House of David from Joseph's side. Comedy abounds. (When asked about the specific point, they'll go on to say that Mary is also descended from the House of David, though there's no evidence of that even in the Bible. This is also typical on how contradictions are explained away - Christians create an additional narrative that has no textual or historical support whatsoever. But that is also another rant.) The longer answer is . . . that the prophesies are so badly worded and unclear that it's possible to read a lot into them.

#6: Paul Copan and "People Should Be Free to Pick and Choose What to Believe About Jesus". Another seminarian, shocker, and yet another unabashed Christian apologist. As a philosopher, this part was pure lulz because, y'know, outside of Christian apologia, apparently, almost all philosophers agree that not only are people intellectually free to pick and choose what we believe but it is inevitable (er, assuming they believe in free will at all, hehe, that'll be my caveat, here - the subject is reasonably complex amongst philosophers, which Copan is by education, but outside of Christiania the question of free will assumes that if we have it, well, we have it; I, myself, don't believe in radical freedom for honesty's sake). So, Copan and Strobel, even if they agree with a traditional evangelical position about Jesus, chose to do so. Furthermore, because almost all Christians believe that the choice to believe must be freely made, without trickery or coercion, well, yeah, even from within a very traditional Christian point of view they're free to choose what they believe about Jesus. (Tho' there is another school of thought amongst Christians who are, obviously, quite comfortable coercing the decision in a number of ways, even while mouthing platitudes about free will to justify the existence of evil. It's all very intellectually corrupt.)

Right off the bat, not only are all of them Christians, they're all a particular kind of Christian - evangelical. Not only does he ignore all nonbelievers, he also ignores all non-evangelical types of Christianity. No Catholics, no Episcopalians, no one who might be termed a "moderate Christian". Also, no women. And five of the six men are lily white. All of them come from reasonably advantaged backgrounds.

He says at the beginning of the book that he's going to take a hard, skeptical look at the subject. He has certainly reviewed the material, but when he presents the case it is extraordinary one-sided - it is largely the case of white, male evangelical middle class Christians. He truly runs the gamut of possibilities from A to B.

So, while his reading of the material seems to be broad, his journalism is dishonest and lazy. He claims that he's going to take a skeptical look and really address the questions about the person of Jesus but just looking at his interviewees I think that claim is entirely discredited. Comically so. Deceptively so. His research has all the honesty of a person asking questions about intelligent design whose sole stop along the way is the Discovery Institute (the rumor is that's where Strobel gets these guys from in the first place). What is particularly galling and what makes him a liar is that in the intro he goes on at some length about how, when he was working for the Chicago Tribune, he made the reporters under his watch get elaborate proof for the things they published, making sure that they authenticated the information accurately to meet high standards - but in his own book, his entire proof consists of one interview with one person about one subject, and that person is massively biased.

Further, while I am a vocal atheist, I believe I can tell the difference between an honest apologia and dishonest swill. So, while I might disagree with John Shelby Spong I do not doubt his integrity. It's stuff by people like Strobel that confuse the hell out of me. Because he's, well, a filthy liar judging him on his own standards. He said in the introduction that he was going to really, seriously look for the truth behind the various challenges to concerning the identity of Jesus. He didn't. He didn't even try. After reviewing the material, he went to well-off evangelical Christian men to (often crudely) discredit the questions Strobel raised concerning the identity of Jesus without the least bit of critique of their position or even the acknowledgment that, as evangelical Christians, there might be bias. In short, he lied when he said he was seriously going to consider the questions he posed. Which is what confuses me about all of this. Christians are supposed to have a religious attachment to the truth, and there's a huge difference between being wrong and lying. But that's what Strobel does, and he does it obviously and, apparently, shamelessly. I would think that his books would be rejected by Christians, even if they agree with the conclusions, because of the dishonest way Strobel reaches those conclusions. (F'rex, if I say my car is white because pixies sprinkle it with pixie dust, and that I went down to the factory and saw the pixies, you're going to conclude I'm a liar or a madman even if my car is white. Full disclosure - it's sort of gray because I find car washes to be a wasteful use of water, hehe.) But when looking at reviews of the book, I didn't find a single self-identified evangelical Christian who said what I feel is obvious: that the book is a giant lie. It does not seriously answer the questions he poses, he doesn't even try, and the book is an insult to everyone who honestly struggles with difficult questions.

Needless to say, I didn't like the book. Oh, no, not at all.