The Case for the Real Jesus (Book Review)

case-real-jesusIt’s an interesting phenomenon.  Many popular Christian apologists are slow to adapt to the changing questions that unbelievers ask about the Christian faith, and the evolving strategies of antagonistic nonbelievers seeking to discredit Christianity.  The most recent change, at least in the Western English-speaking world, seems to be the shift from question whether the Bible’s message is true to a more hostile question of whether the Bible’s message is good.  Hence the culture is no longer asking so much if we can honestly believe in the Triune God.  Rather the question is whether we are morally justified in worshiping such a God.  In other words, the primary questions are not what they were a generation ago:

  1. How can an all-powerful and all-good God allow evil and suffering to exist?
  2. Are there good reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?
  3. Hasn’t science disproved the existence (or at least the need) of God?

To be sure, people are still asking these questions.  I know from experience because they still arise in my personal evangelism discussions with strangers.  But these questions may be described as defensive.  People who ask them first tend to have a respect for Jesus and the Bible.  Sometimes a deep respect.  But they just have a hard time bringing their mind to believe what their heart finds attractive.  For those who consider themselves spiritually open-minded or seekers, these kinds of questions are stumbling stones to their assent to Christian truth claims.

But there are a new set of questions that people are beginning to ask.  These may be described as offensive.  There is no veneer of respect for Jesus and the Bible underlying these questions.  Rather a deep-seated hostility to all forms of religion, but especially evangelical (Bible-believing) Christianity, lies behind these objections to the Christian faith.  For those who consider themselves atheist, secular, free-thinkers, or anti-Christian, their questions are more like throwing stones at the target of Christian truth claims.  Here are some of the typical questions meant to expose the Bible, Jesus, and his followers:

  1. Aren’t there other legitimate written portraits of the historical Jesus that contradict the miraculous and supernatural claims of the canonical Gospels?
  2. Isn’t it true that the institutional Church has altered the biblical text so much that the original wording is lost to history?
  3. Hasn’t new evidence exposed the story of the resurrection as an ancient myth?
  4. Didn’t the early Church borrow many of its foundational teachings about Jesus from pagan religions?
  5. Wasn’t Jesus a failed candidate for the Bible’s prophesied Messiah/Christ?
  6. In light of all this, shouldn’t people just believe whatever they want about Jesus?

Do you see those are very different questions coming from very different starting points?  At root, the first set is at least open to the gospel.  But the second set is hostile to the gospel.  The second set of questions tends to reflect the trajectory of our culture.  We are becoming as a society more secular and antagonistic toward religion.  We claim to be tolerant, but we no longer tolerate disagreement.  We used to tip our hats to the prophets while quietly dismissing them.  Now we want to stone them.

Thankfully there are a few Christian apologists who are both speaking to the culture and equipping the Church to answer these tough new questions.  Journalist Lee Strobel, a best-selling author and popular speaker, is one of a few trying to get the message out that such questions have satisfying answers if you just look for them.  His strategy for pursuing answers is journalistic.  He typically calls up a recognized expert who specializes in the field pertinent to the issue, then pays a visit to interview the “witness”.  Strobel records the audio of his discussions, which are peppered with cross-examination-style queries, then writes an article/chapter describing the conversation and his response to it.  In his book, The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ (CRJ), Strobel tackles all six of the second set of questions.

So what does he find?  That the questions are not really new after all from a historical perspective!  It turns out the more offensive questions are common in a culture that is basically pagan, secular, atheistic, an anti-Christian.  Defensive questions are more common from minority viewpoints in Christianized cultures or cultures that are more post-Christian than Christian.  Before Europe became known to history as Christendom, offensive questions were the norm.  So it’s instructive that our culture is beginning to ask more hostile questions.  What does that say about us as a people and where we are headed?

The book CRJ is organized according to six challenges and responses.  Chapter titles are:

Challenge #1: Scholars are uncovering a radically different Jesus in ancient documents just as credible as the four Gospels. (Interview with Dr. Craig A. Evans)

Challenge #2: The Bible’s portrait of Jesus can’t be trusted because the Church tampered with the text. (Interview with Dr. Daniel B. Wallace)

Challenge #3: New explanations have refuted Jesus’ resurrection. (Interview with Dr. Michael R. Licona, Ph.D candidate at the time of publication)

Challenge #4: Christianity’s beliefs about Jesus were copied from pagan religions. (Interview with Dr. Edwin M. Yamauchi)

Challenge #5: Jesus was an imposter who failed to fulfill the Messianic prophecies. (Interview with Dr. Michael L. Brown)

Challenge #6: People should be free to pick and choose what to believe about Jesus. (Interview with Dr. Paul Copan)

(Pages 266-267 contain a summary of these challenges and responses.)

Some of the highlights of CRJ are Strobel’s addressing of Bart Ehrman’s attack on the reliability of the Bible.  Ehrman, a former evangelical student who now identifies as agnostic, is a world-renowned NT textual critic and highly respected in scholarly circles.  His popular level books have cast great doubt on the trustworthiness and reliability of the NT text.  Many Christians have experienced a crisis of faith after reading Ehrman.  And former Christians and other nonbelievers have found great delight in his attack on simplistic fundamentalist views of Scripture.  Strobel and others have pointed out that, while Ehrman is a scholar, his conclusions are often unwarranted and overly skeptical.  In a word, he is good at overplaying his hand.

One of my favorite parts of CRJ is Strobel’s interaction with the ideas popularized by Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code.  Unfortunately, some scholars on the radical fringe have managed to get some exposure of their neo-gnostic views.  The second century apologists dismantled these ideas, but they have made a comeback in a culture that is ignorant of the Bible’s and Christianity’s history.  Strobel manages to expose the silly notions that other “gospels” and “epistles” authored by legitimate teachers of minority “Christianities” that coexisted in the first three centuries of the Church were suppressed by the most powerful contingent who took the name “orthodox”.  Only a person who disliked historic Christianity would argue that the lost writings are more historically accurate than those works recognized as canonical and thereby included in the NT.

I know a few people who like to indulge the latest cockamamie theory that purports to finally discredit Christianity and expose its lies.  I’ve perused a few of their favorite bestselling books.  I’ve read the blogs for and against.  And in the end, I’m not convinced by their evidence or arguments.  Opponents on both sides are able to accuse the other side of bias and special pleading.  Point taken.  Every single person approaches these questions with a viewpoint.  We are all biased toward one view or another.  The difference, as I see it, resides in the sober-mindedness of the person.  Does the weight of evidence point toward the Jesus of historic and orthodox Christianity?  Or to a different Jesus.  Strobel makes a compelling case that the Real Jesus is the one the Bible presents to the reader.  Not between the lines, but at face value.

Resources

Student Edition of CRJ (pdf)

Reviews

Bill Muehlenberg at Culture Watch

Gary Gilley

Goodreads

Leslie Ey

Pursuing Veritas (CRJ student edition)

Reason to Believe

 

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