Our old friend Geds the Accidental Historian is making his triumphant return to the internet with a spiffy new WordPress blog. To celebrate, he’ll be submitting some guest posts for our enjoyment. Enjoy, and definitely check out his new blog.
Vorjack brought up the concept of evangelists front-loading their arguments in a couple of recent posts. Front-loading as a technique is difficult to counter, not because it makes the arguments better but because it allows the evangelist to cheat. The best thing to do when confronted with a front-loaded argument is to seek out the flaws in the methodology, as taking the argument as if it’s honestly given and defended means starting off on the back foot.
Lee Strobel has made a career of front-loading the evangelistic message. He got his big break in the Christian apologetics market in 1998 with The Case for Christ, which he wrote from the perspective of a grizzled investigative journalist using his journalism skills to seek out the truth of the whole Jesus thing. In his defense, this premise wasn’t completely laughable in the late ‘90s, as the news industry hadn’t quite gotten around to publicly selling out to the highest bidder and reprinting press releases as actual news. The Case for Christ got a lot of traction. I worked at a Christian book store the year after it came out and we used to sell five-packs of the book so people or churches could hand them out to friends, relatives, or random passers-by.
As happens so often in the Christian publishing industry that success created a monster. In the decade and a half since The Case for Christ came out Lee Strobel has released something in the neighborhood of seventeen thousand books, workbooks, and pamphlets, most of which still worked with the The Case for… paradigm and played up the neutral investigator going for the truth angle. So let’s take a look at the way he composes one of his books: 2008’s Finding the Real Jesus, an 80-ish page quick hit. I chose Finding the Real Jesus because it’s short, mostly. It packs a lot into a short stretch, though, so let’s dive right in.
Consider the Scope
Strobel picks five ways “liberals,” and, yes, he uses the word “liberals” at multiple points, attack the truth of Jesus. His first is the Gnostic objection to Jesus. In broad strokes, Gnostics didn’t believe in the bodily incarnation because they believed all creation is irretrievably evil and truth only comes from a transcendent outside force knowable only to those with the secret knowledge. This idea stands completely at odds with the idea of an incarnate savior coming to redeem the world.
Strobel took three Gnostic writings — the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Judas – to an expert, Craig A Evans, and claimed Evans is a neutral academic. In 2006 Evans wrote a book called Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels and in 2004 he wrote a book called From Prophecy to Testament: the Function of the Old Testament in the New. I have not read either book, but it’s pretty clear he has chosen a side.
The technique Strobel used is the biggest red flag. He took the three Gnostic gospels to Evans and asked why they weren’t trustworthy. He then acts as little more than Evans’ stenographer. At one point, when Evans has expounded at length on how the gospels are trustworthy because they were written well before the Gospel of Thomas Strobel cut in with a claim that Elaine Pagels, Stevan L. Davies, and John Dominic Crossan had all said the Gospel of Thomas was written much earlier than Evans claimed. This looks like an actual argument, but it turns out to be a softball so Evans can point out how much material the Gospel of Thomas shares with other books written later than Pagels’ date. This is the only point where a non-Evans is allowed a voice.
After that they go into some standard apologia about the reliability of the four canonical gospels and Strobel concludes, “The distorted image of Jesus prompted by the Gnostics simply vanishes like a mirage when exposed to scrutiny, while once again the biblical picture of Jesus becomes even more certain when the facts are examined.”
The point to keep in mind here is simple: disproving the Gnostic gospels doesn’t prove the canonical gospels are correct. All it proves is that the Gnostic gospels aren’t trustworthy.
Simply picking the three Strobel picked is also a front-loading of the argument. The canonical gospels themselves acknowledge the existence of Gnostics, especially John, and some of the other writings indicate a conflict between the early church as represented by Peter and Paul and a sect of Gnostic believers. Disproving the Gospel of Thomas doesn’t magically disprove the existence of Gnostic thought.
There’s also a much more subtle play here. We don’t have a lot of information about the Gnostics and it’s not something the average person will know anything about. The simple act of starting by taking on the Gnostics means Strobel is stealing a cheap win.
I’ll be back again to point out what it looks like when an apologist attempts to front-load an argument that’s not nearly so esoteric.
That might be a slightly exaggerated number.