Here now is the second guest post by Duke PhD students Ian Mills and Laura Robinson, dealing with their podcast New Testament Review. In this one they describe one of their more unusual podcasts. As you’ll see, they deal with extremely interesting material for to anyone interested real scholarship on early Christianity– as opposed to the (often very popular) books by people who don’t know or understand scholarship but try to denigrate it in order to “prove” their own sectarian views.
Blog Post #2
New Testament Review on Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ
As outlined in our last post, the New Testament Review podcast is dedicated to summarizing influential pieces of New Testament scholarship and their reception in the field. Every work we cover has transformed how later scholarship treats a specific topic or text. Every work, that is, except one. On April 1st 2019, we released an episode with the title, “Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ.” Lee Strobel is a former journalist turned evangelical Christian apologist. His bestselling book The Case for Christ is a series of interviews in which Strobel and his interviewee make an argument for the historical reliability of the New Testament and, specifically, Jesus’ resurrection. It is not a work of scholarship. After introducing the podcast and giving the title of the work, we paused for a few seconds, broke into laughter, and wished our audience a happy April Fool’s. This earned us a few angry emails and a mild scolding from a fellow churchman, but most listeners thought it was funny.
This year, we thought we would play the joke again – with a twist. We published Episode #30 with the exact same title but, instead of concluding with uproarious laughter, we spent thirty minutes reviewing many of the problems in Strobel’s book. To our chagrin, it quickly became our most popular episode. We received feedback from bloggers, podcasters, and YouTubers of every stripe. A few scholars reached out with compliments; a few with irritated criticism. We thought a wider readership might appreciate a summary of our key criticisms in written form. Professor Ehrman kindly offered us his platform.
One frustration we had with Strobel’s book is the misleading use of his own conversion narrative to frame his “investigation.” Strobel identifies himself throughout the work as a skeptic charged with cross-examining Christians. In the interviews, for instance, Strobel insists that he asks questions “with an edge of challenge” (22) and repeatedly describes himself as won over by the compelling arguments of the people he is interviewing (35). Once, he states “pointedly” that there is little evidence for Jesus outside of the New Testament – only to be immediately corrected (77). This is, at first, amusing since Strobel was not a skeptic when he conducted these interviews (as he acknowledges on page 279). He was, rather, a published Christian apologist with ten years of pastoral experience. Strobel’s feigned skepticism, however, functions to justify his complete exclusion of skeptical voices. Strobel would have the reader believe that he is himself speaking for the skeptics. This framing device approaches self-parody when Strobel declares that “the time had come for me to confront [the] critiques [of the Jesus seminar] head-on” (108). Strobel, however, does not resolve thereby to interview a member of the Jesus Seminar. Rather, Strobel “confronts” Greg Boyd – a fellow evangelical pastor and an outspoken critic of the Jesus Seminar. The “head-on” confrontation is between Boyd, a Christian apologist, and Strobel, the purported Jesus Seminar-sympathizer (despite his obvious lack of sympathy for or familiarity with these scholars). Strobel’s posturing as an easily persuadable skeptic allows him to interview only people sharing his own convictions while maintaining the pretense of a critical investigation.
More disturbing are the mischaracterizations of scholarship, misrepresentations of the evidence, and material falsehoods littered throughout Strobel’s book. Let us consider a few examples. First, Boyd rightly notes that historians give credence to historical information that is attested by several sources (i.e. the criterion of multiple independent attestation). Boyd then accuses the Jesus Seminar of being inconsistent for failing to consider traditions repeated in Matthew, Mark, and Luke as multiply attested. Boyd knows well, of course, the reason for this: the synoptic gospels are not independent witnesses because Matthew and Luke copied word-for-word out of Mark. Boyd characterizes this as an assumption of the Jesus Seminar and accuses them of “failing to recognize” that many scholars have “serious reservations about the theory that Matthew and Luke used Mark” (118). Apart from the uncharitable caricature of the Jesus Seminar, this is an appalling mischaracterization of the state of scholarship. Whether you look at evangelical schools (like Wheaton or Baylor) or R1 Universities (like Boyd’s alma mater), you will not find any burgeoning school of thought that denies a literary relationship among the synoptics. The synoptic problem (i.e. the inquiry into the directions of dependence among the synoptic gospels) is as popular as ever.
Second, Craig Blomberg points out that the gospels were written closer in time to the events they describe than the first biographies of Alexander the Great (33). “Legendary material about Alexander,” says Blomberg, didn’t develop until “centuries after these [biographies]” (33). It follows, according to Blomberg, that there was not time for legendary material to find its way into the Jesus tradition before the composition of the gospels. We note in our podcast episode that this is a silly argument – fantastic misrepresentations of events are sometimes told by contemporaries. What is more important for understanding the nature of Strobel’s apologetic project, however, is that Blomberg’s description of the evidence is patently false. Both Arrian and Plutarch – Blomberg’s own examples – include fantastical legends about Alexander. Arrian, for instance, describes two talking snakes guiding Alexander’s army through the desert (Anabasis of Alexaner 3.3). Likewise, Plutarch recounts a legend of Alexander’s conception by a snake (Life of Alexander 2-3).
Our podcast catalogs several other patent falsehoods, misleading descriptions, and misrepresentations in The Case for Christ. These are a mere sampling of Strobel’s campaign of misinformation. Our point is simple: Strobel is not educating his reader about Christian origins or the current state of New Testament scholarship. He is tendentiously advancing his interpretation of the New Testament without any concern to accurately represent his opponents or, indeed, the primary data.
Nothing we have written above is a denial that Evangelical Christians (of the sort Strobel interviews) have produced valuable scholarship. We have featured several Evangelical scholars on the podcast (e.g. Episode 23). Strobel’s apologetic project is something qualitatively different. Strobel is not interested in developing a better understanding of the literary relationships among the synoptic gospels, the New Testament text tradition, or how stories about important people were transmitted in the ancient world. Instead, Strobel strip-mines conservative scholarship in order to build “a case” that will reassure his evangelical audience. As a result, readers will know less about the New Testament and Christian origins than when they began.
We encourage our fellow Christians not to read this book. It will make you a less empathetic reader of scholarship and a less informed interpreter of scripture. Strobel’s key concerns – the incarnation and Jesus’ bodily resurrection – lie beyond purview of historical inquiry. Instead, readers of the Bible should consult scholarship that nuances historical claims and takes the time to accurately characterize opposing points of view. Apologetics, as practiced by Strobel, is bad for you.