Checklist: Evaluating Claims about Jesus – Part 6

This post will briefly discuss the two final tests of “eyewitness evidence” (or rather, tests of the historical reliability and trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts) from The Case for Christ (CFC) by Lee Strobel.


7. THE CORROBORATION TEST
I introduced this next test by asking Blomberg, “When the gospels mention people, places, and events, do they check out to be correct in cases in which they can be independently verified?”  Often such corroboration is invaluable in assessing whether a writer has a commitment to accuracy. (CFC, p.50)

One could ask the question in somewhat more skeptical terms: ‘Do the gospels check out to be incorrect in cases in which they can be independently falsified?’  There seems to be a bit of bias in Strobel’s wording, but the idea is to check the events and details of the Gospel accounts against other sources of information, such as other historical documents, and archaeological findings, when possible.  This is a perfectly reasonable consideration when evaluating the reliability of the Gospels.

However, in practice most of what the Gospels have to say about Jesus cannot be checked against other sources of information.  There are no video tapes of Jesus to watch; no photographs of Jesus, no tape recordings of Jesus, no newspaper stories or editorials about Jesus, no non-Christian biographies of Jesus or his disciples, no diaries of Jesus or his disciples, no lecture notes on his sermons, no court records of his trial, no video tapes or photos of his crucifixion, no autopsy report on his death, no death certificate, no video tapes or photos of his resurrection appearances, and so forth.

If you want to know what Jesus taught, you have to read the Gospels.  If you want to know any details about Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, you have to read the Gospels.  There is no non-Christian account of the crucifixion of Jesus.  There is no non-Christian account of the resurrection appearances of Jesus.  There is no non-Christian biography of Jesus.  There is no non-Christian report of the teachings of Jesus.

Blomberg makes the following astounding comment in response to Strobel’s questions:

In addition, we can learn through non-Christian sources a lot of facts about Jesus that corroborate key teachings and events in his life. … it’s remarkable how much we can learn about Jesus and his followers… (CFC, p.50-51, emphasis added)

I don’t know what Blomberg has been smoking or what he puts into his brownies, but it must be some good shit.  Zero examples are given by Blomberg to back up this dubious claim (in CFC), but perhaps he gives some examples in his own book (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 1987, IVP).  I am very skeptical about this strong claim, especially when not a single example is given to support it, let alone the dozens of examples that would be required to provide sufficient  evidence to back it up.

In any case, as with the ‘Cover-Up Test’ we need to look not just for examples where other reliable sources of information confirm an event or detail in a Gospel, but we need to look for examples where other reliable sources of information dis-confirm an event or detail in a Gospel.  We need to search for both confirmation and dis-confirmation of events and details in a given Gospel, and then come to some general conclusion about the degree of accuracy and reliability of that Gospel based on all of the various examples of confirmation and dis-confirmation that can be identified.

Because the Gospels are the primary source of detailed information about the life, ministry, teachings, crucifixion, and alleged resurrection appearances of Jesus, I don’t think there will be that many examples of either confirmation or dis-confirmation from reliable non-Christian sources or archaeology.  The examples of confirmation and dis-confirmation that are available will mostly be for general events or persons, not for details in the Gospel accounts.  Not for critical details like: Jesus was stabbed in the chest with a spear while on the cross, Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the cross, Jesus was on the cross for about eight hours, and Jesus was buried in a stone tomb by Josephus, etc. 

8. THE ADVERSE WITNESS TEST
This test asks the question, Were others present who would have contradicted or corrected the gospels if they had been distorted or false?  In other words, doe we see examples of contemporaries of Jesus complaining that the gospel accounts were just plain wrong? (CFC, p.51)

Again, this is a perfectly reasonable consideration to use in assessing the reliability of an historical account.  However, I don’t think Strobel appreciates the difficulty of applying this test to the Gospels.

First of all, the Gospels were written decades after the crucifixion of Jesus, so memories would have faded and become distorted, and many of the eyewitnesses would have died off by the time the Gospels were written (and many more would have died off by the time the Gospels were duplicated and widely circulated).  

Second, there were no printing presses, and no mass media, so it would take a while for the Gospels to be duplicated and to circulate to a wider audience.  Non-Christians in Palestine could not just go to the local newsstand or bookstore and pick up a paperback copy of the Gospels.  There were no critical reviews or editorials written about the Gospels in widely read magazines, newspapers, or journals.  There were no news programs or talk shows that would promote general discussion about the Gospels or the life of Jesus.  In short, the visibility and availability of the Gospels to non-Christians was fairly low for a significant period of time after the composition of the Gospels.

Third,  with the possible exception of the Gospel of Mark, the Gospels were written after the Romans attacked and destroyed Jerusalem.  So, many of the Jews who were eyewitnesses of the ministry, teaching, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, were either killed or had left Jerusalem by the time the Gospels were written.

Fourth, most people in Palestine at the time the Gospels were written were illiterate.  Only a small percentage of the population could read the Gospels, so only a small percentage of the population was in a position to criticize the contents of the Gospels.

Strobel’s ‘Adverse Witness’ questions are perfectly legitimate and reasonable, but for the reasons discussed here, there was not much opportunity for non-Christians who had personal knowledge about the life, ministry, teachings, or crucifixion of Jesus to read and criticize the contents of the Gospels.  Thus the alleged absence of criticism and skepticism towards the Gospel accounts may be due in large part to the fact that the potential critics died off, left Palestine, did not have access to the Gospels, or had access to them but could not read them because of illiteracy.
===============================
UPDATE (5/24/12 at 5:15 pm Pacific Time):
It appears I owe an apology to Mr. Blomberg.  I no longer believe that he had been smoking some good shit just before Lee Strobel interviewed him about the reliability of the Gospels.


In order to be fair to Blomberg, I took a glance at his own book on this subject (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels; hereafter: HROG) to see if he might have provided dozens of examples of passages about  Jesus in non-Christian sources that  give us “…a lot of facts about Jesus that corroborate key teachings and events in his life.” (CFC, p.50) and thus showing that it is “…remarkable how much we can learn about Jesus and his followers…”  (CFC, p.51) from such non-Christian sources.


Chapter 6 (“The Jesus Tradition Outside the Gospels”) of Blomberg’s book deals with this issue.   Blomberg devotes a whopping five pages (actually 5.3 pages) to evidence about Jesus from non-Christian sources in a section called “The Testimony of Non-Christian Writers”(HROG, p.196-201).  


No, Blomberg does NOT manage to present dozens of examples of corroboration of the Gospels by non-Christian sources in those few pages.  So, why then do I need to apologize to Mr. Blomberg?  Because his view of non-Christian sources about Jesus is close to my own view and that of most Jesus scholars: there ain’t much there.  Thus, it appears that it was Mr. Strobel who was high during the interview, and that the quotation of Blomberg above is a misunderstanding or distortion of what Blomberg actually said.


Here are a few highlights from Blomberg’s assessment of non-Christian sources about Jesus:


Graeco-Roman historians:
“None of the Graeco-Roman historians of the first generations of the Christian era has much to say about the life of Jesus.”  (HROG, p.196)


“But apart from these references to his crucifixion and the movement which outlived him, one discovers nothing else from Graeco-Roman sources.” (HROG, p.197)


Rabbinic Traditions:
“At the end of the day, one must admit that the rabbinic traditions offer precious little independent testimony to the ministry of Jesus.”  (HROG, p.199)


Blomberg is a bit more cheery about the famous references to Jesus by the Jewish historian Josephus.  But there is one main paragraph in Josephus about Jesus, and at least a portion of that paragraph was inserted by Christian scribes who copied and preserved these historical accounts written by Josephus.  Even so, there are only a few points of corroboration in that paragraph, not the dozens of examples required to substantiate the strong claim that Strobel stuck into the mouth of Blomberg.


So, if you want to refute the dubious claim that Strobel attributes to Blomberg, the best way to do so is to go straight to Blomberg’s own book on this subject, and quote Blomberg against Blomberg.  I suspect that Blomberg did not become an ignorant fool in the ten years (or so) between the publication of his book on the reliability of the Gospels (1987) and Strobel’s interview of him for Strobel’s book The Case for Christ (1998).  Rather, it is much more likely that Strobel’s biases on this issue led him to misunderstand something that Blomberg said during the interview.

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16360897119962486447 Andyman409

    Considering the avergae lifespan for a jew in the 1st century, the only eye witnesses who would have been alive when the gospels were written would have been too old and weak to criticise them.

    Also, conservatives also make a big fuss about how ancients had great memories, so they would not have forgotten things like we do. Course, this says nothing of altered memories, which is a psychological phenomena that may not be related to memory.

    Finally, on a slightly unrelated note, I had a question concerning the resurrection. I find that, when it comes down to the early appearance narratives in 1 cor 15, christians almost never say with any detail what type of experiences may have caused it. In, for example, the appearance to "the twelve", did all the disciples have to hallucinate at once, or only some? Did they all have to have the same type of experience? Accoriding to licona,(footnotes of pg 485) 1 cor 15 alone says nothing to disprove this idea. Does anyone know of any arguments against this position?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Andyman409 said…

    I find that, when it comes down to the early appearance narratives in 1 cor 15, christians almost never say with any detail what type of experiences may have caused it. In, for example, the appearance to "the twelve", did all the disciples have to hallucinate at once, or only some? Did they all have to have the same type of experience?

    1 Corinthians 15 hardly deserves the label ‘narratives’. We are talking about just four verses (15:5-8) that briefly list a few post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus to various people.

    Paul’s experiences of the ‘risen Jesus’ do seem to have been visions or hallucinations. Jesus was not simply walking down the road alongside of Paul, as in the Way-to-Emmaus appearance story in Luke (Luke 24:13-33).

    According to Luke and John, Jesus appeared to “the eleven” (Luke 24:33-52) or to ten of the disciples (twelve minus Judas and Thomas – John 20:19-25) in Jerusalem on the first Easter Sunday.

    So, did Jesus appear to “the twelve” on Easter Sunday, as suggested by 1 Cor. 15:5, or to “the eleven” as suggested by Luke 24:33, or to just ten of the disciples as suggested by John 20:24-25? The inconsistent numbers raise doubt about the reliability and historicity of these stories.

    But there is an even greater inconsistency than the number of disciples present when Jesus allegedly appeared to a group of his disciples. The time and place are inconsistent too. The Gospel of Mark strongly implies that the disciples fled Jerusalem shortly after Jesus was arrested, and returned to Galilee. That was a journey that required several days of walking. Matthew follows Mark’s account and places the first appearance of Jesus to a group of his disciples in Galilee, which would mean that the first appearance of Jesus to a group of his disciples took place about a week after the first Easter Sunday, or perhaps a few weeks after the first Easter Sunday.

    Mark is the earliest of the four Gospels, and Luke has a definite agenda and theme involving the geographical movement of Christian faith from Jerusalem to Rome, so Luke’s placement of the resurrection appearances in Jerusalem is somewhat suspect. For these and other reasons, the most likely scenario is that the resurrection appearance stories in Luke and John are fictional, or at least seriously modified in terms of timing and/or location. I place no confidence in the historicity of the appearance stories in Luke and John. Mark has no appearance stories, and although Matthew’s account is probably the closest to what really happened, Matthew’s account of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus clearly contains fictional and legendary elements, so I don’t trust the details of Matthew’s account either.

    What we can say, with a modest degree of probability, is that the disciples fled Jerusalem shortly after Jesus was arrested; they probably did not witness the crucifixion of Jesus; there were no appearances of Jesus to groups of disciples on Easter Sunday, but a week or a few weeks after the crucifixion something happened in Galilee that persuaded the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. Dreams and visions (or hallucinations) are a good hypothesis for explaining the belief of some disciples that the risen Jesus had appeared to them.

    As for the details of what they experienced and what the conditions and circumstances were, I don’t think we have any reliable data to go on. I suspect that either the group appearances are legendary or that some unfamiliar person who a group of the disciples ran into with whom they had a brief religious discussion, was later interpreted by the group to have been the risen Jesus. The Way to Emmaus story in Luke suggests that there was a failure to recognize ‘the risen Jesus’, and that conversations with a stranger were later interpreted to have been conversations with the risen Jesus.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09708981993708509662 Robert Oerter

    Already in Paul's day there was controversy over what was the correct "gospel."

    I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

    Gal 1:6-9

    So there is at least some evidence of those who contradicted the "official" version. And there is solid evidence of Christians with very different interpretations of Jesus: Ebionites, Thomas Christians, Gnostics, Marcionites, etc. These groups survived for centuries – we don't know much about their views because few of their texts have survived.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16360897119962486447 Andyman409

    I probably did not make it clear, but I personally do not think that the appearance stories as told in the gospels are accruate at all. What I've always wondered, however was that, since the appearance narratives are innacurate (and many christians concede this point), what do secular historians actually have to account for when coming up with naturalistic hypothesis?

    It's not hard coming up with conjectures just going off of 1 cor 15, since it says so little about the "appearances". For example, as you speculated, what if the 500 actually saw a look alike who they later believed to be the risen jesus? At least this would explain why the story disappeared from the historical record afterwards. What if, while all the disciples were sleeping, one member had a very real feeling hallucination of jesus, telling him to pass the message onwards, leading the disiple to conclude that the appearance was for "the 12", despite that only he saw it? What if the twelve had merely seen an illusion in the distance, or a head in a crowd a la most elvis sightings?

    Every apologist I've read will say that appearance stories like these would not have spawned the later narratives, in which jesus could be seen by everyone and eat food. But this begs the question. How do we know that the appearance to the twelve would have caused the gospel narratives to look the way they did?

    Many conservative christians hold that the jews did in fact have a pre-requisite for an individual ressurection before the end of time. With this in mind, why couldn't the disciples have interpreted the subjective experiences of the disciples be interpreted as physical even when they weren't? After all, the ressurection body was able to walk through walls and change it's appearance, right? This seems to make sense if the disciples claimed one thing and experienced another.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Andyman409 said…
    What I've always wondered, however was that, since the appearance narratives are innacurate (and many christians concede this point), what do secular historians actually have to account for when coming up with naturalistic hypothesis?
    ==============
    Excellent question.

    Evangelical and even mainstream Christians would insist that one has to account for the radical change in the disciples of Jesus from being fearful and timid men who would flee the scene when Jesus was arrested, and then shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, boldly and fearlessly preach that Jesus was the Messiah, the savior of mankind who rose from the grave a few days after his death by crucifixion.

    However, the Gospels suggest that there was a significant degree of doubt and skepticism about the resurrection of Jesus among his own disciples. So, it is not entirely clear that all eleven remaining disciples jumped on board with the new program just a few days after the crucifixion of Jesus.

    Furthermore, although there is good reason to believe that Peter experienced some such turnaround in attitude and activity, becoming a bold and fearless preacher of the Gospel, we don't have much evidence about other specific apostles and what they said and did in the days and weeks following the crucifixion of Jesus. Contrary to common belief, we don't know that any of the remaining eleven disciples of Jesus died as martyrs for the faith.

    So, even the supposed bedrock 'fact' of the radical and immediate change in attitude of Jesus disciples from fear to fearlessness, from timidity to boldly preaching the Gospel, is a matter more of legend than of historical fact.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    For historical information on the lives of the apostles, see Chapter 27 of A Marginal Jew, Volume III: Companions and Competitors, by John Meier.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11967707883565162538 cipher

    Thus, it appears that it was Mr. Strobel who was high during the interview, and that the quotation of Blomberg above is a misunderstanding or distortion of what Blomberg actually said.

    Blomberg is a conservative evangelical; Strobel chose him (as he did all of the others) for that reason. Isn't it possible that what he told Strobel differed markedly from what he's written? Perhaps, being cognizant of Strobel's target audience, he was more concerned about preserving his audience's faith than about telling the truth. Or perhaps he simply changed his mind.

    I certainly wouldn't put it past Strobel to remember a conversation in the way he wanted to, but I assume he taped these interviews and transcribed the answers. Of course, Strobel is so far gone into a state of denial that it's possible he played back the tape and actually heard what he wanted to – or perhaps he simply lied, rationalizing it as being for the greater good (a lying fundie; shocking, I know).

    What bothers me is that apparently, every fundie in existence has read Strobel's crap, and goes around the internet spewing the most ridiculous and insupportable nonsense, e.g., "There's more historical evidence for Jesus' existence than there is for George Washington's!" It would never occur to them that Strobel or his interviewees might be wrong.

    Altemeyer had them pegged: "One of my authority figures has said it, I believe it and that settles it!"

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Cipher said…

    Blomberg is a conservative evangelical; Strobel chose him (as he did all of the others) for that reason.
    ==============
    Yes. I just finished watching Strobel's video on The Case for Christ, and there is never any hint whatsoever that he intentionally selected the scholars he interviewed on the basis of their being conservative Evangelicals who would be very unlikely to express any doubts or point to any evidence that is contrary to the belief in the existence, wisdom, resurrection, and divinity of Jesus.

    I have no problem with Strobel trying to make the best case he can for traditional Christian beliefs, but to consult only those scholars who would support his beliefs, and then to present this as some kind of objective investigation is extremely deceptive and demonstrates a serious lack of integrity on Mr. Strobel's part.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11967707883565162538 cipher

    to present this as some kind of objective investigation is extremely deceptive and demonstrates a serious lack of integrity on Mr. Strobel's part.

    Bradley, Strobel is looking at integrity in the rear view mirror!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    John Meier on non-Christian sources about Jesus:

    "In short, Josephus is our only independent non-Christian source of information about the historical Jesus in the first century. There is just the bare possibility that Tacitus may represent another independent source at the beginning of the second century; but if so, he adds nothing really new." (A Marginal Jew, Volume I, p.92)

    "…in the earliest rabbinic sources, there is no clear or even probable reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, I favor the view that, when we do finally find such references in later rabbinic literature, they are most probably reactions to Christian claims, oral or written. Hence, apart from Josephus, Jewish literature of the early Christian period offers no independent source for inquiry into the historical Jesus." (A Marginal Jew, Volume I, p.98)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11967707883565162538 cipher

    Well, the name "Yeshu" appears in the Tosefta as early as circa 200 CE, which is pretty early – but yeah, certainly nothing contemporary to Jesus.

    I would also agree that the references to Jesus in rabbinic literature are reactionary.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Mark Allan Powell on non-Christian sources about Jesus:

    "The three most important Roman historians for the first-century period are Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus. All three mention Jesus, as do a couple of other Roman writers. Only Josephus, however, has much to say about him." (Jesus as a Figure in History, p.32)

    "Tacitus gives no indication that he knows anything about the beliefs of these Christians…, much less about the life or teaching of Jesus himself." (p.33)

    "Suetonius…displays no knowledge of the man Jesus who lived in Palestine." (p.33)

    "Scholars debate whether there may be obscure references to Jesus in some of the collections of ancient Jewish writings, such as the Talmud, the Tosefta, the targums, and the midrashim. Occasional polemical comments in these writings are sometimes thought to be veiled references to Jesus, but since he is not mentioned by name, no one knows for sure." (p.34)


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