BOOK REVIEW: "THE CASE FOR THE REAL JESUS"
INTERVIEWS WITH CHRISTIAN APOLOGISTS
by Doug Ward
It is no accident that Lee Strobel's collections of interviews are a fixture on Christian bestseller lists. Strobel is an experienced journalist who knows how to gain and hold a reader's attention. He introduces each topic with an engaging story, and the fast-paced interview format is entertaining as well as informative. He does his homework well, making excellent choices of scholars to interview and asking these scholars the right questions. The reader is thus treated to stimulating conversations with experts who have important messages to convey.
Strobel's latest book, The Case for the Real Jesus (Zondervan, 2007), is a worthy addition to the series. A sequel to The Case for Christ, it revisits some subjects discussed in the earlier book (the resurrection of Jesus, Jesus' fulfillment of messianic prophecies) and introduces some additional ones (the Gnostic gospels, postmodernism) that have become prominent concerns in recent years.
In preparing this volume, Strobel crisscrossed North America to conduct six interviews. His first stop is Wolfville, Nova Scotia, where he talks with New Testament scholar Craig A. Evans about the noncanonical gospels-e.g., the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Judas-that picture Jesus as a revealer of secret knowledge. Evans, an expert on Jesus and his Jewish world, explains that while these unusual books reveal much about the groups that produced them, they tell us little about the historical Jesus. In terms of historical reliability, at least two factors put the four canonical gospels in a class by themselves:
· The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were written within a generation of Jesus' crucifixion, and the Gospel of John was written within two generations of that time.
· The canonical gospels contain numerous historical details that have been corroborated by other sources.1
In contrast, the noncanonical gospels usually show little interest in history and were written later, as evidenced by their anti-Jewish slant and their dependence on the canonical New Testament writings.
Strobel's second interview was prompted by the controversy surrounding the book Misquoting Jesus, a 2005 bestseller written by Prof. Bart Ehrman. In this book Ehrman, an expert on the text of the New Testament and a gifted teacher and writer, presents an engaging general-audience introduction to the field of New Testament textual criticism. He also explains the role that his own exploration of this field played in his personal journey from evangelical Christianity to agnosticism.
The controversy stems from this second aspect of the book. Ehrman argues that because of the many variations introduced as manuscripts were copied and recopied over the early centuries of Christianity, there is no way to tell what the New Testament originally said, and therefore the New Testament cannot be divinely inspired. He points out that the number of textual variations numbers between 200,000 and 400,000, a figure that actually exceeds the total number of words in the Greek text (a little over 138,000).
However, there are other experts in New Testament textual criticism who do not draw such a negative conclusion from the state of our knowledge of the manuscript evidence. A notable member of this group is Dan Wallace, executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. Wallace, who has engaged in public debate with Ehrman and articulates an alternative point of view on textual criticism in the book Reinventing Jesus (Kregel, 2006), was an obvious choice for Strobel's interview on this subject.
In the interview, Wallace estimates that seventy to eighty per cent of the 200,000 to 400,000 New Testament textual variants are differences in Greek spelling that don't affect the meaning of the text. Another large chunk of the variants include differences in word order, obvious scribal "typos" that are easy to correct, and differences involving synonyms (e.g., whether John 4:1 should say "Jesus knew" or "the Lord knew"). These variants also have no effect on the meaning of the text. Only about one per cent of the variants are viable candidates to be part of the original manuscripts and also have some bearing on the interpretation of some New Testament passage.
What about these variants that are both meaningful and viable? Here Wallace emphasizes that "no cardinal or essential doctrine is altered by any textual variant that has plausibility of going back to the original" (p. 89). Whether I John 1:4 speaks of "your joy" or "our joy," for example, is hardly earthshaking. Neither is the question of whether the "number of the beast" in Rev 13:18 is 666 or 616. Wallace makes a strong case that the essential message of the original New Testament documents has come down to us with great clarity.
Evidence for the Resurrection
The assertion that Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected from the dead is the central historical claim of Christianity. Based on faith in the resurrection, Christians believe that they too will be resurrected at the Second Coming of Jesus (I Cor 15:51-57; Matt 24:30-31). On the other hand, as the apostle Paul told the early Christians in Corinth, "... if Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain" (I Cor 15:17).
Since so much hinges on whether the resurrection occurred, it is not surprising that this question is still as hotly debated today as it was in the first century. In his third interview, Strobel discusses the historicity of the resurrection with Mike Licona, who serves as the director of apologetics and interfaith evangelism for the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Licona is the coauthor (with Gary Habermas) of the book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel, 2004) as well as the author of Paul Meets Muhammad: A Christian-Muslim Debate on the Resurrection (Baker Books, 2006).
Licona bases his case for the resurrection of Jesus on five "minimal facts" that are acknowledged by the vast majority of scholarly writers on the subject, skeptical and conservative alike:
· Jesus was killed by crucifixion.
· Jesus' disciples believed that he arose and appeared to them.
· The conversion of the church persecutor Saul of Tarsus (a.k.a. Paul).
· The conversion of the skeptic James, half-brother of Jesus.
· Jesus' tomb was empty.
He argues that the most reasonable conclusion to draw from these five facts is that Jesus really was resurrected, as Christians believe. Other models have great difficulty accounting for one or more of the five facts. For example, those who explain the empty tomb by saying that Jesus' body was simply moved to another location have no good way to account for the conversions of Paul and James, or to explain why five hundred other disciples were sure that Jesus had appeared to them after his death (I Cor 15:6). Similarly, those who suggest that Christianity borrowed the idea of the resurrection from pagan myths about dying and rising gods run into a serious problem in the fact that James, Paul, and the disciples of Jesus were observant Jews who were very careful to avoid any contact with paganism.2
Licona has more to say on why a pagan origin for the idea of Jesus' resurrection is highly unlikely. For one thing, a number of the pagan resurrection myths actually postdate the first century. Furthermore, those that do predate Christianity have little in common with the New Testament narratives of the crucifixion and resurrection. For example, an Egyptian story has Osiris coming back to life, but only in order to rule the shadowy netherworld-more a "zombification" than a resurrection, as Licona jokingly observes. While the Gospel accounts are tied to a specific time and place in history, the pagan stories are said to occur at some unspecified time in the distant past and are often intended to explain the annual seasonal cycle of death and rebirth.
Borrowed from Paganism?
Claims that Christianity's major doctrines are borrowed from paganism have been widely circulated on the internet and in recent popular books, so Strobel decides to explore this issue further with Dr. Edwin Yamauchi of Miami University. Yamauchi, an expert on the languages, cultures, and religions of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world, is well qualified to serve as a "mythbuster" for modern myths about ancient mythologies.
Yamauchi explains that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a group of scholars called the "history of religions school" used apparent parallels among the religions of antiquity to suggest ways in which these various religions may have influenced each other. The theories of these scholars have by now been largely discredited, but these theories live on in popular books like The Jesus Mysteries and The Pagan Christ.
Yamauchi points out two main weaknesses in the methodology of the history of religions school. First, these scholars did not pay sufficient attention to the chronological relationships among the beliefs and practices that they were comparing. For example, the claim that a mystery religion called Mithraism may have been source of some aspects of Christianity can be readily disproved by the fact that Mithraism didn't actually take root in the Roman Empire until the second century A.D.
The second weakness is that the alleged parallels noted by the history of religions school were often only superficial. Closer examination revealed that some allegedly similar beliefs and practices were actually quite different, and evidence of any historical cause and effect relationship was lacking.3 For instance, the gospel account of the Virgin Birth of Jesus is nothing at all like pagan myths about lustful gods mating with mortal women.
Jesus and the Messianic Prophecies
When the first Christians began to proclaim the gospel to their Israelite brethren, a key part of their message was the claim that Jesus was the promised Messiah. They supported this claim by arguing that Jesus had fulfilled a number of prophecies recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The message of the apostles was highly controversial. Some embraced it, while others rejected it. The debate over the Messiahship of Jesus has raged ever since. Today, nearly two thousand years later, this debate is being carried on with renewed vigor, thanks in part to the growth of the Messianic movement.
One of the foremost Christian experts on messianic prophecy is Dr. Michael L. Brown, author of the four-volume (soon to be five-volume) work Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus. Brown, a Jewish believer in Jesus, has devoted his life to evangelism, especially evangelism to the Jewish community. His desire to give a rigorous defense of his faith led to his pursuing advanced study, ultimately leading to a doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Literature at New York University. Brown was a natural choice for Strobel's interview on the question of whether Jesus is the promised Messiah.
In his interview, Dr. Brown summarizes a "proof from prophecy" that Jesus is the Messiah. As a starting point for his argument, Brown examines Haggai 2:7-9, a prophecy given at the time when exiles from the House of Judah had returned from Babylonian captivity and were beginning to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.4 In this prophecy, God proclaims that he would fill the new Temple with glory (v. 7). Previously the tabernacle and Solomon's Temple had been "filled with glory" by the coming of God's presence (Exodus 40:34-35; 2 Chron 5:14; 7:1-3), but no comparable event accompanied the rebuilding of the Temple. In what sense, then, did God's glory fill the Second Temple?
Brown turns to two other scriptures to help answer this question. One is Malachi 3:1-5, a prophecy that God would "suddenly come to his temple" bringing purification for some and judgment for others. The other is Daniel 9:24-27, a prophecy that the coming of the Messiah and "reconciliation for iniquity" would occur within "seventy weeks" (i.e., 490 years) of "the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem." These three prophecies together imply that a special visitation of God was to occur during the time of the Second Temple. Brown argues that the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, a manifestation of God's glory, is the only real candidate for this visitation. Christians believe that Jesus died for the sins of mankind, accomplishing the "reconciliation for iniquity" spoken of in Daniel 9 and bringing peace between God and man in fulfillment of Haggai 2:9.
Brown asserts that the scriptural messianic job description is very broad, including both kingly and priestly roles. One biblical passage that mentions both roles is Psalm 110. Another is Zechariah 6:11-13, in which a priest who symbolizes the Messiah sits on a throne and is crowned. In his priestly role the Messiah "bare the sin of many" (Isa 53:12) and was the righteous sufferer of Psalm 22, whose deliverance from death (the resurrection) has led people all over the world to turn to God (Ps 22:27). Because Jesus has carried out his priestly messianic duties, we can be confident that he will also come "with the clouds of heaven" (Dan 7:13) in a triumphant return as king.
At the close of his interview, Brown points out that Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism probably have been the main barriers preventing many Jews over the centuries from seriously considering Jesus' messianic claims. (Brown is also the author of Our Hands are Stained with Blood, a book about Christian persecution of Jews.) To be effective evangelists, Christians must follow Jesus' example of love toward God and neighbor.
Jesus and Postmodernism
Christianity's claim to be the only true religion is seen by many today as intolerant and judgmental. The "postmodern" view that every person's beliefs are equally valid and must be accorded equal respect has become very popular. To investigate the challenges of postmodernism, Strobel interviews Christian philosopher Dr. Paul Copan.
Copan observes that postmodernism has had some positive consequences. In particular, it has heightened our awareness of the limits of human knowledge and the fact that personal biases are unavoidable. However, he then goes on to expose the inherent contradictions in some popular postmodern viewpoints. For example, the assertion that there are no absolute truths is itself an absolute truth claim.
The idea that each person's beliefs are equally true can be a kind of cop out to avoid the hard mental work of evaluating competing truth claims. In fact, not all beliefs deserve equal respect. Some beliefs happen to be more in line with reality than others. The appropriate kind of "tolerance", Copan says, is that which holds all people to be of equal worth. One can accept other people without necessarily affirming their beliefs.
The Case for the Real Jesus provides a fine starting point for considering the claims of Christianity. If those claims are valid-specifically, if the resurrection of Jesus did in fact occur-then Christianity can rightfully call itself the only true religion. Strobel's interview subjects give a compelling defense of historic Christianity, but the conversations recorded in this inspiring and stimulating book merely scratch the surface of what can be said on Jesus' behalf. Strobel provides helpful lists of additional sources to which readers can turn to learn about the full case for the premise that the "historical Jesus" and the "Christ of faith" are one and the same.
translated from TEX by TTH,
On 19 May 2008, 13:34.