The case for Christ: Chapter 1 – Eyewitness Testimonies
August 11, 2013 Leave a comment
‘The case for Christ posts’ are all in relation to a particular book by Lee Strobel, oddly enough entitled ‘The case for Christ’. It’s not often one has the opportunity to read such a well written piece of propaganda. These posts are intended to break down the book chapter by chapter and explain what is wrong either logically or factually in each. By the end of it hopefully readers will be more aware of what to look out for in biased writings.
Before the Interview
Strobel’s first interview is with a fellow named Craig Blomberg. A reputable enough fellow he seems a reasonable choice for an interviewee.
Before Strobel even gets started with the interview he’s already making mistakes. Firstly he places great importance on eyewitness testimony. This is already fraught with danger as we know these kinds of testimonies are often inaccurate. I could dedicate an entire post to how unreliable eyewitness testimony is, so I won’t go into any extra detail here, but just because you have a witness or two doesn’t prove the kinds of extraordinary claims Strobel would like you to believe. It makes even less sence to place such importance on claims made by people over 2,000 years ago, who spoke a different language, who lacked critical thinking education and who’s mental states we can only guess at.
The next big mistake Strobel makes (again before the interview) is to say that
“…eyewitness testimony is just as crucial in investigating historical matters – even the issue of whether Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God”.
The fact of the matter is no amount of eyewitness evidence could ever prove such a thing. Even if we could confirm that everyone in the Gospels is who they say they are, and that the testimonies they have given are accurate we could still not conclude that Jesus was the son of God. It would only prove the man could do amazing things and claimed to be the son of Yahweh. Another explanation is that he could have been the son on Zeus. Or an Alien with superior technology. Or a human, but from the future. The list of alternative explanations goes on. The best we could conclude from eyewitness testimonies is that the man (if he was a man) could do some spectacular things.
Again before the interview, Strobel asks the reader
“…how well would these accounts” (the eyewitness testimonies) “withstand the scrutiny of skeptics?”
At no point does Strobel actually consult a skeptic to answer this question. A sure sign of biased journalism.
Who Wrote the Gospels?
The first answer Strobel gets from Blomberg is
“It’s important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous. But the uniform testimony of the early church was that Matthew…was the author of the first gospel in the New Testament; that John Mark…was the author of the gospel we call Mark; and that Luke…wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles”.
I’m not sure I’d go as far to say the Church’s teachings were “uniform” but it is certainly true that the early Church did teach this. What’s important here is not the answer given, but the way Strobel uses this information in later chapters. Right now Blomberg’s answer is ‘We can’t be certain who wrote the Gospels, but the Church believed they knew who the authors were’. Later Strobel creates arguments based on the assumption that the Church was right, completely ignoring the possibility that they may have been wrong. We’ll return to this idea later.
There is in fact strong evidence to suggest the Church was wrong on these facts. Firstly, none of the Gospels name the author. Surely if one of the Apostles wrote a Gospel they’d feel the need to attach their name to it, thus giving it extra credibility as an eyewitness account. But none of them do.
The Gospel of Matthew is written completely in the third person. In reference to Jesus and his disciples it always refers to “they”, not “we”. Even when Jesus calls the disciple Matthew to join him, the text reads “him”, not “me”. Very strange wording, assuming Matthew the Apostle actually wrote it.
The final few verses in John also eliminate the writer as being one of the Apostles. John 21:24 reads
“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.”
Note the use of “we” here. It is referring to the writer and the reader, in reference to the disciple. This means the writer is differentiating himself from the disciple. The Gospel itself is quite clear that the writer was not one of the disciples.
As for the other two Gospels, Mark and Luke, although there is no strong evidence against the Church tradition (Mark was a follower of the Apostle Peter and Luke was a follower of Paul), there is also no good reason to think any of it is true. Neither Gospel mentions who its author is and all we have to go on is what the Church wants us to believe. But should we trust them?
Should we believe the Church?
Strobel then asks Blomberg whether anyone would have reason to lie about the Gospels authorship. Blomberg reasons that because Luke and Mark weren’t actually disciples, and that because Matthew was most likely the least liked Apostle (being an ex-tax collector) it is unlikely anyone would make this up. It would be far more convincing to attribute these works to actual disciples (or at least likable ones), than to choose these three people. But this isn’t necessarily true. Perhaps the author was especially crafty, and realising this logic deliberately chose some less renowned names to give that extra credibility. Or perhaps by the time the author was writing many of the disciples had already died. Obviously a dead man couldn’t write a book, so it would be much more believable to use a close friend. Blomberg is clearly biased by his own desires and doesn’t want to consider the possibility of deceit.
Finally it needs to be noted that Blomberg finishes this section by stating
“the gospel [John] is obviously based on eyewitness material, as are the other three gospels”.
Not only is this clearly wrong, as two of the gospels attest to, there’s no good reason to think it’s right.
There is one final quote in regards to John’s gospel that is worth noting. Blomberg says:
“For many years the assumption was that John knew everything Matthew, Mark and Luke wrote, and he saw no need to repeat it, so he consciously chose to supplement them. More recently it has been assumed that John is largely independent of the other three gospels, which could account for not only the different choices of material, but also the different perspectives on Jesus”.
The question must be asked, if John is truly one of the disciples, as was Matthew, how can they be independent? For the most part these two were together with Jesus during his ministry. It is very odd that two people would have such radically different views, both on the events of Jesus’ ministry and of Jesus himself.
In the next section Blomberg tries to give specific evidence as to why he believes the gospel writers are who the Church claims they are. He cites Papias, an early Christian writer saying Papias confirms it was Mark, the follower of Peter, who wrote the Gospel. Blomberg says Papias wrote that Mark “made no mistakes” and “did not include any false statement” and that “Matthew had preserved the teachings of Jesus as well.” Blomberg glosses over Papias, which is a mistake as there are several issues with his writings.
Firstly this is an exaggeration on what Papias wrote about Mark. The text actually reads:
“For he was intent on just one purpose: not to leave out anything that he heard or to include any falsehood among them”.
A valiant effort no doubt, but a far cry from his writings being free from error.
It’s also worth mentioning that this just isn’t true. The Gospel of Mark is not terribly long. Surely if Mark has written down everything that Peter had told him the book would be vastly longer.
As for Papias’ writing on Matthew, he doesn’t say where he received his information or when. Papias wrote somewhere between 110-140AD. This is more than enough time for the myth of authorship to build up. Papias writes that
“Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew tongue.”
Firstly, there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest all the gospels were originally written in Greek, and secondly, the gospel of Matthew is much more than a composition of sayings. Is Papias even referring to the gospel of Matthew as we know it today?
As a final note, most historians don’t place great importance on Papias’ writings. Although there is no reason to think these specific quotes are incorrect it is well-known that a lot of Papias’ writings are wrong. Unless these writings can be confirmed elsewhere, it is difficult to give them much credibility.
Blomberg then refers to the writings of Irenaeus, which does verify the Church’s teachings of the authorship of the four gospels. The problem is that Irenaeus was writing in ~180AD, more than enough time for the mythical tradition to have built up.
At the end of each chapter are a series of questions for reflection and further thought. I intend to answer all of these.
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?
We are fortunate enough with the gospels that we have multiple accounts to go off, and not only those found in the Bible. This is truly fantastic, because one thing I would use to evaluate the accuracy of someone’s story would be to compare it with other’s who were there at the same time.
Unfortunately the gospels differ significantly, both in their recording of history and their theological opinions. This is quite forgivable if the authors didn’t know each other or had heard the Jesus story much later in time, but when two of the authors were meant to be followers, and the other two disciples of other followers we should be skeptical.
2. Do you believe that the gospels can have a theological agenda while at the same time being trustworthy in what they report? Why or why not? Do you find Blomberg’s Holocaust analogy helpful in thinking through this issue?
Of course they can. But that doesn’t mean they did. Only sifting through the evidence can really answer that question. Mulling over the theoretical possibilities is a waste of time.
Blomberg’s Holocaust example is no doubt useful in terms of understanding his point, but it doesn’t get us any closer to answering the question of historical reliability.
3. How and why does Blomberg’s description of the early information about Jesus affect your opinion about the reliability of the gospels?
If you were to follow only Blomberg’s descriptions the early information about Jesus would be quite convincing. The problem occurs when you do further reading and discover the alternative opinions on what this early information may mean. It becomes much less compelling.
What I truly find interesting is how early Paul may have been writing. If Blomberg is right that Paul was writing mere years after Jesus death/resurrection, this could be quite compelling. Only further reading will tell for sure.