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A frustrating case
on 23 December 2011
"The case for the real Jesus" is a sequel to Lee Strobel's best-selling "The case for Christ". The author, who calls himself a journalist, is actually an evangelical minister. (That's why he looks like one on the dust jacket.)
The book attacks alternative ideas about Jesus, including those of the Jesus Seminar, Morton Smith, Michael Baigent, Muslims and Jews. Strobel also takes on Bart Ehrman. As in "The case for Christ", Strobel interviews various Christian scholars to solicit their opinions on the latest heterodox notions about Jesus. While "The case for Christ" looked (mostly) intended for a general audience, the sequel feels more narrowly directed at Christians.
Many of the alternative visions of Jesus tackled in the book are indeed pretty extreme, and Strobel has little problem exposing them. Thus, Morton Smith's "secret gospel of Mark" was probably a forgery, the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas was most certainly written much later than the canonical gospels, and Michael Baigent...well, why even bother mentioning him?
However, many of the other arguments are much weaker. Strobel should seriously try to tackle the contradictions (or "differences", if you're very neutral-minded) between the synoptics and John. Instead, we read that the gospels concur in the "essentials". Well, Jesus does die and rise again in all four gospels, so I guess you can say they agree on the "essentials" in that sense. Presumably the exact date of the crucifixion, the length of Jesus' ministry, or the exact origins of his parents, aren't "essentials", then? But that, of course, is not Strobel's position, since he's a fundamentalist (or something close to it). He is clearly being disingenuous here.
Further, the author downplays the conflicts within the early Church between Paul and various Jewish Christian groups, arguing that they weren't essential either, while missing the real point: how could such conflicts arise at all, if the words of Jesus had been supernaturally preserved? Why didn't Paul point to a statement by Jesus to prove that all food was lawful? Perhaps because there wasn't such a statement...until one was attributed to Jesus in the gospels, written down after Paul's death. Besides, Paul and his opponents certainly believed that the conflict was over essentials. Why else would Paul's preaching be so controversial? Why did the most radical Jewish Christians accuse Paul of no longer being Jewish, forcing Paul to worship in the Temple to prove his Jewishness? Surely, these people saw Temple worship as something very essential!
That the book is intended for an evangelical audience is also shown by some rather strange arguments, such as Paul's meeting with the risen Christ being proof that Jesus did indeed rose from the dead. On most interpretations, however, Paul met a heavenly being, not a physical one. This is compatible with having a spiritual vision. Perhaps such visions are true in some sense, but they might just as well prove the immortality of the soul *without* the physical body. Paul's vision, by itself, therefore doesn't prove the bodily resurrection. Besides, other religions also claim that their founders were associated with miracles, even resurrections. The Hindu guru Paramahamsa Yogananda supposedly met his teacher in a resurrected state. The Three Witnesses saw the Book of Mormon being brought to them by an angel. Strobel presumably rejects these miracles, but why? They are not dissimilar in character from Paul's experience on the Damascus road. A "New Age" believer might argue that they are all true, an atheist that they are all false, and a Word of Faith believer that the non-Christian miracles are true but induced by the Devil himself! But what would Strobel say?
Another evangelical-oriented section attacks New Age, gravely telling us that we cannot believe whatever we want to believe about Jesus. No? The author doesn't seem to have any problem with it. After all, the credal statements developed over time. It's not prima facie clear that the earliest disciples believed exactly the same thing as modern evangelicals. Sure, there might be a "family likeness", but where do we draw the line? Even beliefs about the resurrection seem to have varied, with Paul being closer to the "spiritual" part of the spectrum, while Tertullian (I think) was closer to the "material" part. The Trinity wasn't officially adopted until the fourth century, and so on.
Strobel also claims that the Christian concept of Hell is better than the Hindu concept of reincarnation and karma. Really? Since when? I'm sorry, but here our author is entering the intellectual twilight zone! Enough said.
There simply isn't a case for Protestant fundamentalism.