Once again we are joined by Geds the Accidental Historian. When last we left our intrepid hero he was tackling to story of the Roman Census. Now he turns to the question of the fulfillment of prophecy.
If you pay close attention to apologists you can usually hear when they give the game away. For instance, Lee Strobel makes a subtle mistake when moves from trying to convince everyone that he’s proven the historical truth of Jesus to proving that Jesus has to be the Messiah. He believes, as do so many apologists, that the important bits reside in the Messianic prophecies. He also openly admits in part 3 of Finding the Real Jesus that, “Historically, Jewish rabbis have rejected Jesus’ messianic credentials. They point out that he didn’t fulfill what they consider to be the main messianic prophecies: bringing about a world of peace and unity, and ending evil, idolatry, falsehood, and hatred.” How is an apologist to deal with the fact that Christianity, supposedly an outgrowth of Judaism, doesn’t actually worship a savior that matches the messianic prophecies of Judaism? He finds an expert.
“To investigate the case for Jesus being the Messiah,” Strobel writes, “I flew to Charlotte to interview Michael L. Brown, a scholar who grew up Jewish and became convinced that Jesus really is the Messiah.”
Did you see it? Did you see the subtle way Strobel gave the game away how he’s gaming the whole thing? He picked as his expert someone who used to disagree with him but is now convinced that his position is correct. Oh, wait, that’s really not subtle at all, is it?
This is the problem we come to with any and every apologist cut from Strobel’s cloth. They’re not actually trying to convince someone who isn’t a believer. They’re trying to maintain the integrity of the world for themselves and people who already agree with them. It’s a game that only works for people who already agree with them.
Part 3 of Finding the Real Jesus supposedly proves that Jesus fulfilled a bunch of Jewish prophecies. When I was a young, inquisitive Christian I recall having a Bible that had notes. The notes were pretty simple, usually just a cross-reference to a different Bible verse. I remember there were a lot of things in the Gospels and the Epistles that purported to cross-reference things about Jesus to Old Testament prophecies. Those cross-references usually confused me, though, because the New Testament passage would be about Jesus doing something, then the Old Testament verse would be something that obviously had absolutely nothing to do with prophecy or Jesus. Thinking about that for more than about five minutes can cause real problems.
This is why it’s important to step outside of the apologist’s world and look at the real world. The big prophecies of the Messiah revolve around a few key passages that boil down to a few key facts: the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, would be of the House of David, and would symbolically retrace the exile to Egypt. If those things don’t work out the whole thing falls apart.
So what do you do if your Messiah is known as Jesus of Nazareth? Nazareth isn’t anywhere close to Bethlehem. No one is actually going to buy the notion that the actual Messiah of prophecy came from a jerkwater like Nazareth.
The answer is simple. Make up a story. Tell everyone that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. His parents went from Nazareth to Bethlehem because they had to for that census thing. Then Herod the Great got all pissed about it and they had to flee to Egypt. Eventually they came back and went to Nazareth because it was where the family really belonged. Easy as pie.
We learned last time that Augustus never called a census and that the historical records don’t support a mass migration of people forcibly returning to their ancestral homes. We learned that the only census called in the Levant was the census of Quirinius, who ran Syria about a decade after the death of Herod the Great. There’s a further wrinkle: there’s no historical record that Herod the Great ordered the death of every child at any point during his rule. Again, that seems like something that would have gotten mention somewhere, especially in a place as meticulous in its record keeping as the Roman Empire.
Strobel doesn’t care about these inconvenient facts, though. It’s entirely possible that he hasn’t even thought about them. Actually dealing with the historical record as we know it gets in the way of apologetics, after all. Lee Strobel doesn’t care, though. He’s not trying to convince the non-Christian adult version of me to come back to Christianity. He’s trying to convince the teenaged Christian version of me to stop asking questions, because there are answers if he only listens to people who say that Jesus fulfilled prophecy.