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The Case For Christ

Book review: The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobbel, Zondervan 1998.

This is now, probably, the best-selling popular English-language book about Christian apologetics… and deserves to be.

It’s easier-to-read than C.S.Lewis, more sophisticated than Josh McDowell, and belongs in the genre of Australians Ross Clifford’s ‘The Case of the Empty Tomb’ and Bishop Paul Barnett’s ‘Is the New Testament History?’ It’s probably the best book to give to a thoughtful teenager or undergraduate or adult who’s asking questions about whether Jesus of Nazareth was God, whether you can trust the New Testament documents, and are the eye-witness accounts of the apostles reliable? (But I wouldn’t give it to graduates in Philosophy or Theology: it would provoke too many ‘Yes, buts’… )!

Strobbel is a legal journalist, who applies his forensic thinking to the Big Questions about the origins of Christianity (and spices his search-for-truth with some interesting stories from his years as a legal journalist). Fortunately, the book primarily outlines the views of evangelical ‘experts’: when Strobbel ventures into first-person accounts of his apologetic journeyings, they’re somewhat unsophisticated, theologically…

But for non-sophisticates this book is good value.

Briefly: Strobbel looks at the credibility of eyewitness accounts of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth: the documentary evidence (together with corroborating, scientific and rebuttal evidences). He then moves to the person of Jesus, examining issues of Jesus’ self-identity, together with psychological, profile, and ‘fingerprint’ evidence. Then there are four chapters on Jesus’ resurrection dealing with the medical evidence, evidence of the missing body, the evidence of appearances, and circumstantial evidence.

His methodology is a little contrived. Strobel acts as a skeptical devil’s advocate with the experts he interviews. But he is then convinced at every point on every issue – so there’s an ‘a prioristic’ flavour about the whole exercise. (It’s cute how he sometimes comments on a scholar’s opinion as being ‘theologically sound’!). The academics he has chosen are mostly in the conservative-to-progressive evangelical wing of the church – but generally have good credentials. (Interesting how an advanced degree from a British university impresses Americans. And also how Strobbel regards certain people as ‘experts’ who may not be so regarded in their own fields – such as Clifford Wilso (p.144) a conservative-to-fundamentalist Australian, who would not be read outside his particular theological orientation, for example). Each scholar is asked for apologetic/forensic/theological reasons for their stance on the question at issue – but also how their personal experience corroborates their academic or theological beliefs. So you can imagine the bagging people like Barbara Thiering and the Jesus Seminar group get in this process.

But all that aside, it’s a good book. Some representative/interesting quotes:

* ‘In the ancient world the idea of writing dispassionate, objective history merely to chronicle events, with no ideological purpose, was unheard of. Nobody wrote history if there wasn’t a reason to learn from it’ (Dr Craig Blomberg, p. 38)

* ‘The definition of memorization was more flexible back then. In studies of cultures with oral traditions, there was freedom to vary how much of the story was told on any given occasion… The early Christians had committed to memory a lot of what Jesus said and did, but they felt free to recount this information in various forms, always preserving the significance of Jesus’ original teachings and deeds’ (Blomberg, pp. 54,55).

* ‘If the gospels were too consistent, that in itself would invalidate them as independent witnesses. People would then say we really only have one testimony that everybody else is just parroting’ (Blomberg, p. 58).

* ‘More than 5,000 Greek manuscripts [of the New Testament] have been catalogued… But in all there are about 24,000 ancient manuscripts in existence [Latin, Ethiopic, Slavic, Armenian etc.] The New Testament has survived in a purer form than any other great book – a form that is 99.5 percent pure’ (Dr. Bruce Metzger pp. 78, 81, 85)

* ‘From time to time some people have tried to deny the existence of Jesus, but this is really a lost cause… There is overwhelming evidence that Jesus did exist, and these hypothetical questions are really very vacuous and fallacious’ (Dr Edwin Yamauchi, p. 106)

* ‘Archeology has not produced anything that is unequivocally a contradiction to the Bible… One prominent archeologist carefully examined Luke’s references to thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands, finding not a single mistake’ (Dr John McRay p. 134, , Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, pp. 131-2)

* ‘The Jesus Seminar represents an extremely small number of radical-fringe scholars who are on the far far left wing of New Testament thinking. It does not represent mainstream scholarship… There is no good reason for preferring the second-century Gospel of Thomas over first-century gospels of the New Testament’ (Dr Gregory Boyd, pp. 152, 166)

* Jaroslav Pelikan has pointed out that the oldest Christian sermon, the oldest account of a Christian martyr, the oldest pagan report of the church, and the oldest liturgical prayer (1 Cor. 16:22) all refer to Jesus as Lord and God… ‘Clearly it was the message of what the church believed and taught that “God” was an appropriate name for Jesus Christ’ (p. 186)

* ‘In a profound sense, Christianity without the resurrection is not simply Christianity without its final chapter. It is not Christianity at all’ (Gerald O’Collins, p. 276)

* ‘It would have been simply a contradiction of terms for an early Jew to say that someone was raised from the dead but his body still was left in the tomb… The empty tomb forms a veritable rock on which all rationalistic theories of the resurrection dash themselves in vain’ (Dr William Lane Craig, p. 283)

* ‘Various scholars trace [1 Corinthians] back… to within two to eight years of the Resurrection, or from about A.D. 32 to 38… Wolfart Pannenberg, perhaps the greatest living systematic theologian in the world, has rocked modern, skeptical German theology by building his entire theology precisely on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus as supplied in Paul’s list of appearances’ (Dr Gary Habermas, pp. 310, 315)

Strobel concludes with a classic paragraph from C S Lewis: ‘I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic… or else he would be the Devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.’

Rowland Croucher September 2001


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