Once again, we bring you Geds the Accidental Historian, as he tackles the problems with Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ”.
In my last post on the subject of front-loaded arguments I hope I got the basic point across that it’s important to look at the methodologies and the scope of the arguments made rather than the arguments themselves. Sometimes, as with an esoteric argument about the reliability of the Gnostic interpretation of Jesus, that’s the only way to counter the argument. Sometimes, though, the front-loaded argument is rather easy to counter if you just realize what the apologist in question is ignoring.
Consider the Source
Strobel follows his takedown of the Gnostic gospels in Finding the Real Jesus by claiming to defend the Bible from people who are disputing its historical accuracy. He does this by taking on Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. I assume the readership of UF is at least familiar with Ehrman’s work and that everyone reading this has read the book, so I won’t go too far into that.
Misquoting Jesus is a book of textual criticism, which is an ancient discipline focused on finding discrepancies in manuscripts and either harmonizing them or determining which version is more accurate to the original. Apologists love textual criticism. It’s sabermetrics for the Bible crowd. Strobel, then, had no problem finding someone to critique Ehrman’s criticism.
He chose Daniel B. Wallace, a professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. This is a huge red flag right at the outset. DTS is extremely theologically conservative and the center of the pre-millenial dispensationalist world. Or, at least, it was about ten years ago when I was thinking of going to DTS based entirely on the fact that I knew someone who went there. I decided not to go once I learned about the actual institution and got a look at the statement of faith all students were supposed to sign. My point here is that Daniel B. Wallace is probably not open-minded.
Fortunately, though, it doesn’t matter. Textual criticism is a red-herring when it comes to the historical accuracy of the Bible. Any apologist who wants to bring up Bart Ehrman and start counting up the available texts and the years from whence they came is really just trying to start an argument over whether Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds is the best home run hitter of all time. You can’t determine the historical accuracy of the Bible by counting up the translations. You have to step back.
Have you ever noticed that no one knows when Jesus was actually born or died? There’s a ballpark time frame given of a few years around 0 and certain traditions give answers, but nobody can pinpoint when Jesus actually lived. This is handwaved because no one outside the writers of the Bible thought he was important. But those writers wrote about actual historical events and people who were covered elsewhere. So let’s look at a concrete historical claims made at the time of Jesus’s birth, Augustus Caesar’s census of the whole world.
The story goes that Joseph and Mary were chilling in Nazareth, but had to pack up and move to Bethlehem, which was Joseph’s ancestral home. That would have been a huge undertaking. Yet there are absolutely no records of anything of the sort at any of the times of Jesus’s birth. Caesar called a few censuses (censii?) of Roman citizens, but there was a bright, bold line between “Roman” and “the whole world.”
Consider the tale itself. Joseph and Mary had to pick up everything and go back to Joseph’s hometown just to be counted in the census. This is the most senseless idea in the history of senseless ideas. The Roman Empire had one of the finest organizational structures of any government in history and ruled an empire that stretched from Spain to the Levant and Britain to Egypt and they’re going to send out a decree that says, “Hey, everyone, go back to your ancestral home so we can get a headcount.” So a Briton in Egypt would have to go all the way home. An Iberian in Athens would have had to go home. This is a massive undertaking that would have disrupted the economy and military of the Roman Empire for years. Yet there is absolutely no mention of it anywhere other than a couple verses in the Bible.
There’s an alternate explanation, though. It could have been the more limited census Quirinius ordered for Syria and Judea in 6 CE. This runs into problems, though, since Jesus’ birth is specifically tied to Herod the Great, who died ten years before Quirinius’s census. That doesn’t work.
It’s pretty obvious why an apologist would limit the discussion to textual criticism now, isn’t it? I will get into the question of why next time.