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“The Case for Christ”? The New Testament Review Podcast

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.

 

 


Smith-Pettit Lecture – The History of Heaven and Hell
Jesus in Scholarship and Film

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 19, 2020

    Very interesting. Thanks. I have read both Strobel’s “The Case for Christ” and his “The Case for Faith.” I actually think his “journalistic” approach is an interesting one (because it makes discussants explain things in lay terms) and his discussion questions are good ones, but the books would have been far better if they had included an interview with a more liberal scholar as well as maybe an interview with a middle of the road moderate scholar for each question/chapter rather than just including the conservative/evangelical viewpoint. From the viewpoint of a zoology major, his book criticizing evolution is far worse.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 19, 2020

    P.S. Strobel’s book on evolution is entitled “The Case for a Creator.”

    Someone should redo Strobel’s book asking his questions, but including, for each topic, interviews with more liberal scholars and more middle of the road scholars to go along with the views of the more conservative scholars. That approach might make a good class.

  3. epicurus
    epicurus  August 19, 2020

    I have Robert Price’s “The Case Against The Case For Christ” which I thought did a good job of dismantling Strobel’s book. Price knows many of the people Strobel interviews and has some insights that are helpful. My only complaint is that Price can be a bit too sarcastic and flippant for my liking, but I’d still recommend it for anyone frustrated by the fake scepticism and dishonest scholarship of Strobel’s book.

  4. Avatar
    Robert1953  August 19, 2020

    Saw the movie and although it was not nearly as irritating as any film in the “God Is Not Dead” series it is hard to believe that this half-baked attempt at investigative journalism could possibly convince anybody for Jesus’s existence.

    BTW just got the audiobook version of “Heaven And Hell” and noticed that you are not reading it yourself. Any particular reason?

    • Avatar
      jma12b  August 24, 2020

      Ever since the last post where I first heard about this podcast, I have been devouring its content. Absolutely wonderful production and top notch discussion/teaching. Especially loved the talk of Paul’s use of Sin as a cosmic force in Romans. Thank you so much for promoting the podcast on this blog!

      Bart, I think that one other easy way you could promote it as well is to post a podcast on your YouTube channel. You have such a large, dedicated following on there (of which I assume many are not subscribed to your blog), that I think this podcast would really resonate with them. Just a suggestion.

      As always, thanks for all the hard work.

  5. Avatar
    rburos  August 19, 2020

    Excellent. I also just subscribed to your podcast.

    • LauraBRobinson
      LauraBRobinson  August 19, 2020

      Awesome! We hope you enjoy it!

  6. Avatar
    Tpc050714@gmail.com  August 19, 2020

    Dear Bart. In your interview with Diane Rehm in October 2014 you mentioned the KJV may not be the best English translation of the Bible (given the source at the time). Which version would you therefore recommend, not from a faith perspective, but to best understand the message of the original text? Many thanks from a soggy UK. Trevor

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2020

      And hot, I hear. With very little air conditioning! My preferred translation is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) which I especilly like in an annotated edition, such as the HarperCollins Study Bible.

  7. Avatar
    Tpc050714@gmail.com  August 19, 2020

    Dear Bart. In your debate with Justin Bass in September 2015 you had a differing of view as to Jesus & the appropriateness or otherwise of the titles ‘Yahweh’ & ‘Elohim’. Has Justin moved on his contention that the Bible assigns the title Yahweh to Jesus? Again, many thanks. Trevor

  8. Avatar
    AndrewB  August 19, 2020

    This book (or rather the movie made about it) recently came up at a physically-distanced gathering I attended. After reading the above post and finding out that Greg Boyd is interviewed in it – and that Boyd seems to critique the idea that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, I decided to look it up on Amazon. What I found shocked me.

    For the 1998 version of this book, Bruce Metzger, thee Bruce Metzger, gave this quote: “The author of The Case for Christ, an investigative journalist with a legal background, probes with bulldog-like tenacity the evidence for the truth of biblical Christianity. Believers and agnostics alike will learn from this fast-paced book. – Bruce M. Metzger, Professor of New Testament, Emeritus, Princeton Theological Seminary” (Taken from the text preview).

    Bruce Metzger said that? What is going on? Am I missing something here. . .

    • Avatar
      IanMills  August 19, 2020

      I’ve long been puzzled by that. The book is just packed full of misleading material…

      • Avatar
        Seeker  August 22, 2020

        It would seem that Metzger did not agree.

  9. Avatar
    doug  August 19, 2020

    Thank you for your insightful post. I’ve found it hard to hold discussions with people whose underlying argument is “But I want to believe!”.

  10. Avatar
    Jim  August 19, 2020

    Regarding the very last sentence in this post; I get the impression that at least one of the NTR podcasters has been appearing (as a guest) on one too many atheist podcasts. 😄😄

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYW5qG2OCnE&feature=emb_logo

  11. Rick
    Rick  August 19, 2020

    “Strobel identifies himself throughout the work as a skeptic charged with cross-examining Christians……. This is, at first, amusing since Strobel was not a skeptic when he conducted these interviews. He was, rather, a published Christian apologist with ten years of pastoral experience .”

    In contracts the intentional misrepresentation of material fact by one party to the other who consents to enter into a contract in justifiable reliance upon the misrepresentation is fraudulent misrepresentation. Not to suggest there is reasonable recourse beyond that of an individual for the price of the book; but, based on the assertions … the man is a fraud.

  12. Avatar
    Stephen  August 19, 2020

    Ian and Laura

    My unanswered question in response to your first post was entirely serious. When I access repositories such as Academia or JSTOR and search for ‘The Holy Spirit’ I get hundreds of thousands of hits. There is no dearth of work on the subject. As a non-specialist what I need is a way in. One book with a good bibliography would suffice. (Is there a classic text?) The name of a critical scholar for whom this subject is their focus, perhaps? (I’m especially interested in the HS as third member of the Trinity. The Christological realm seems well covered. But what about the Pneumatological?) Any advice will be appreciated.

    Thanks!

    • Avatar
      IanMills  August 20, 2020

      I have no idea. I was hoping Laura would give you a good answer.

  13. Avatar
    Seeker  August 19, 2020

    Just an observation on this pod-cast/post. Lee Strobel’s book “The Case for Christ” does not claim to be a work of scholarship (although he interviews many bonified scholars). He is (as noted) a former Journalist now apologists. The book was an illustration of his personal journey from atheist to faith in Christ. I personally find it distasteful to mock one’s journey and motives. Rather Dr. Ehrman’s journey from faith to atheist or Strobel’s journey from atheist to faith. These are sincere and often painful struggles. If you disagree with one’s arguments or books that’s fine — politely state your case. But snarky personal attacks and the questioning of one’s motives seems cruel and unnecessary. Although such is the times we live in I guess.

    • Avatar
      IanMills  August 20, 2020

      I agree. We didn’t mock or even criticize his personal journey. We only criticize his misrepresentation of scholarship/primary texts. We’re both Christians and happy that Strobel has found meaning in the Christian faith. We object to his misleading use of this autobiography to justify representing opposing viewpoints unfairly.

      • Avatar
        Seeker  September 19, 2020

        To Ian Mills. I will take you at your word that there is no intent to personally attack. But as a layman who is reading both your post & comments and taking them at face value. One does not get that impression.

  14. Avatar
    Forrest  August 19, 2020

    Thanks for the great podcasts. I enjoy the give and take along with the banter. I shall make you a regular listen. Your Strobel presentation is a little more polemical than the others; however spot on. Best wishes.

  15. Telling
    Telling  August 19, 2020

    My feeling from watching the movie has been that Lee Strobel set out to independently discover, and did absolutely discover, that his wife was right, evidence that Jesus was crucified and reserructed from the dead is overwhelming. Otherwise his marriage may well be on the rocks.

    Safe bet is agree with the wife.

  16. Avatar
    Brand3000  August 21, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I agree with several points made in the article. I think about some of the same things when there’s an evangelical “scholar” who will do things like freely quote from Acts, from the disputed letters by “Paul,” or surmise that James wrote “James.” And yet, based on a few things noted in the article, you must acknowledge that some major claims by evangelicals are reasonable, such as the assertion that the tomb was found to be empty based on the Synoptics + John. Until about just 5 years ago, you also accepted the empty tomb as fact, correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 23, 2020

      Maybe 15 years ago? Not sure, but it’s been a long time.

      • Avatar
        Brand3000  August 23, 2020

        “How Jesus Became God,” 6 years ago in 2014. In the Intro you say that while researching for the book you changed your mind on the empty tomb.

  17. Avatar
    hairj42  August 21, 2020

    Great podcast! I’ll be listening to more. I really liked the commentary on Apologetics vs Scholarship. Keep up the great work!

  18. Avatar
    JeffreyFavot  August 22, 2020

    I’d recommend Jay Warner Wallace before Lee Strobel. Wallace has much more interesting points of view due to his expertise in investigations as the top homicide detective in the United States. He uses the same science and methods behind his work as a detective with the Gospel events. It’s very interesting

  19. Avatar
    eminentlaw  August 23, 2020

    Ian/Laura:

    One question and one comment regarding your podcast:

    Question: What is a “R1 University?”

    Comment: For us older folks, it would be wonderful if you would talk a little slower during the podcast. The content is interesting, but I have trouble hearing all of your points because you talk so fast.

    Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2020

      R1 = Research 1 university — that is, a university that stresses particularly strongly a research component for its faculty and graduate students. Yup, I know, I talk way too fast. I tell my students: Don’t do that! But alas, teaching this old dog a new trick ain’t easy….

      • Avatar
        eminentlaw  August 27, 2020

        I was not commenting on your talking, Bart. You’re my generation. I have no problem hearing and following you when you speak. Rather, I was trying to ask Ian/Laura to slow down in their podcast.

  20. Avatar
    TeresaKChou  August 25, 2020

    Ian and Laura,

    Enjoyed this podcast, thank you. Why do you think all apologetics are bad (which is how I interpret your comments)? I can quite easily understand why apologetics masquerading as scholarship is a bad thing, but I’m curious about the blanket criticism, which seems to be far broader than just a rebuke of misleading writing. I am someone who has mostly lost my faith, but still sometimes find metaphysical arguments for God’s existence rather convincing. (Incidentally, I read this book years ago and found it rather silly. Much appreciate your thorough critique.)

    Thank you.

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