Friday, 25 December 2009

Book summary: "The Case For Christ" by Lee Strobel

I enjoyed this book so much that I decided to summarise it. It is a Gold-Medallion award-winning best-seller written by Lee Strobel, a former legal editor of the Chicago Tribune, who has a Master of Studies in Law degree from Yale Law School. The book retraces his own spiritual journey from atheism to belief in Christ. Using his investigative journalism skills he cross-examines a dozen experts, with doctorates from prestigious universities like Cambridge and Princeton, who are recognized authorities in their own fields. Strobel asks some tough, point-blank questions. With a predisposition to atheism he sets out to examine whether Jesus of Nazareth really was the Son of God. Being a skeptic he is interested in evidence, and that is what he tries to uncover. The book is remarkably easy to read, written in a captivating, fast-paced style.

The eyewitness evidence

Strobel starts by examining the eye witness testimony of Jesus, recorded in the gospels, and interviews Dr. Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar at Denver Seminary in Colorado. The gospels include: the Gospel of Matthew, by Matthew, also known as Levi, the tax collector; the Gospel of Mark, by John Mark, a companion of Peter; the Gospel of Luke, by Paul’s physician, Luke; and the Gospel of John, by another disciple of Jesus, John. All the gospels were written within sixty years of the life of Jesus, much earlier than biographies of other important persons in ancient history and too early for legendary interpretations to have formed, explains Blomberg. The Gospel of Mark was written first, no later than about 60AD, and it was a source for the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It is believed Matthew and Luke also used a common hypothetical source, called Q (from the German Quelle, meaning "source"), containing a collection of the sayings of Jesus.

Blomberg explains persuasively it was the intention of the gospel writers to preserve history accurately, they were able to do so, and that they were honest and didn’t allow bias to influence their reporting. They had nothing to gain except criticism, ostracism and martyrdom, yet because of their integrity and firm beliefs, they were willing to endure all this. The consistency of the gospels on the main facts, together with variations on some details, lends historical credibility to the accounts. Blomberg says, “It’s likely that a lot of the similarities and differences among the synoptics can be explained by assuming that the disciples and other early Christians had committed to memory a lot of what Jesus said and did, but they felt free to recount this information in various forms, always preserving the significance of Jesus’ original teachings and deeds.” Moreover, it is unlikely the early church would have grown if contemporaries of Jesus could have been exposed as propagating falsehoods.

The documentary evidence

Strobel then examines how carefully the biographies of Jesus have been preserved. He interviews Bruce Metzger, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, who has written many books on the New Testament. Metzger explains that although there are no surviving copies of the original New Testament, what it has in its favour is the unprecedented number of copies (more than 5,000), from different geographical locations, that have survived and date back close to the original writings. This indicates they can be traced back genealogically in a family tree to the original manuscripts. The oldest surviving manuscript is a fragment of the gospel of John which dates back to between 100 and 150 AD. The manuscripts are so remarkably consistent with one another that scholars Norman Geisler and William Nix conclude, “The New Testament has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book – a form that is 99.5% pure.” The early church did not include apocrypha, such as The Gospel of Thomas, in the New Testament because they contradicted Jesus’ teaching, having been written in the second century or later, and their mythical qualities made them less credible.

The corroborating evidence

Is there evidence outside of the gospels for Jesus? Strobel puts this question to Dr Edwin M. Yamauchi, a Japanese-American academic, who was born a Buddhist but became a believer of Christ. Josephus was a very important Jewish historian of the first century. In his work “The Antiquities “ he describes how a high priest named Ananias took advantage of the death of the Roman governor Festus in order to have James, the brother of Jesus, killed. An even lengthier section about Jesus is written in the “Testimonium Flavianum”, which is considered authentic by both Jewish and Christian scholars, although there may be some interpolations by early Christian copyists. Josephus corroborates important information about Jesus: he was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem; and he established a wide and lasting following, despite having been crucified under Pilate at the instigation of some Jewish leaders. Tacitus, a Roman historian of the first century, testifies to the success and spread of Christianity, based on a historical figure – “Christus” – who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Pliny the Younger, another Roman who was provincial governor of Pontus and Bithynia, wrote to Emperor Trajan in 112 AD how to deal with Christians, who refused to worship the emperor and instead worshiped "Christus". A historian called Thallus refers to the solar eclipse at the time of the Crucifixion. The Jewish Talmud mentions Jesus, calling him a false messiah who practiced magic and who was justly condemned to death; and it repeats the rumour Jesus was born of a Roman soldier and Mary, suggesting there was something unusual about his birth; so in a negative way it corroborates some things about Jesus. Paul of Tarsus, a Jewish high priest who never met Jesus, was transformed from being a persecutor of Christians to history’s foremost Christian missionary after he encountered the resurrected Christ. His letters, written before the gospels, verifies the antiquity and traditions of Jesus, undermining a popular theory that the deity of Christ was later imported into Christianity by pagan beliefs. The ‘Apostolic Fathers’ – the earliest Christian writers after the New Testament – attest to the basic facts about Jesus, particularly his crucifixion, resurrection and divine nature. Yamauchi adds, “For me, the historical evidence has reinforced my commitment to Jesus Christ as the Son of God who loves us and died for us and was raised from the dead. It’s that simple.”

The scientific evidence

Next, Strobel examines the scientific evidence and interviews Dr John McRay, a professor of New Testament and archaeology. McRay explains how archaeological evidence has repeatedly enhanced the credibility of the New Testament. John’s gospel was sometimes considered suspect because he mentioned locations that couldn’t be verified, but new discoveries have backed it up. The Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed an invalid (John 5:1 – 15), has recently been excavated. Other discoveries include the Pool of Siloam (John 9:7), Jacob’s Well (John 4:12), the probable location of the Stone Pavement near Jaffa Gate where Jesus appeared before Pilate (John 19:13). Luke says the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem was conducted when Quirinius was governing Syria. Strobel points out that Quirinius didn’t begin ruling Syria until 6 AD. But McRay says an archaeologist named Jerry Vardaman found a coin with the name of Quirinius on it in very small writing, which places him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod the Great. Sir William Ramsay, the late archaeologist and professor at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, concluded from various inscriptions that while there was only one Quirinius, he ruled Syria on two separate occasions, which would cover the time of the census. Another contentious issue is the existence of Nazareth, which skeptics say didn’t exist during the time of Jesus. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jewish priests were sent out to various other locations, including Galilee. Archaeologists have found a list in Aramaic describing the twenty four ‘courses’, or families, of priests who were relocated, and one of them was registered as having moved to Nazareth. There is no independent confirmation of the slaughter of new born children at Bethlehem. Bethlehem, McRay explains, was a small town, and the fact that Herod, a bloodthirsty king, killed some babies there wouldn’t have captured the attention of people in the Roman world. Ancient Palestine was a bloody place. The way archaeology has backed up the New Testament, concludes Strobel, contrasts with how it has proved to be devastating for other religions such as Mormonism.

The rebuttal evidence

With self-selected, liberal groups like the Jesus Seminar attracting a great deal of uncritical media attention with their claims disputing the gospels, is the Jesus of history the same as the Jesus of faith? Strobel puts this question to Dr Gregory A Boyd, a former atheist, who became professor of theology at Bethel University. The Jesus Seminar disputes most of what Jesus is purported to have said in the gospels, rules out the possibility of the supernatural, and uses questionable criteria to prove that a saying came from Jesus. Historians usually operate with the burden of proof to prove falsity or unreliability, since people generally are not compulsive liars, but the Jesus Seminar turns this logic on its head explains Boyd. He says the Jesus Seminar represents “an extremely small number of radical-fringe scholars who are on the far, far left wing of New Testament thinking.” The idea that Jesus emerged from mythology or was another Jewish wonder worker doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Jesus’ teachings are based on distinctively Jewish beliefs and the miracles he performed have no parallel in history. It is likely that mystery religions with parallels to Christianity, which emerged after the second century, borrowed from Christianity rather than the other way round. So the Jesus of faith is the Jesus of history, concludes Boyd.

The identity evidence

The second part of the book examines the identity of Jesus. Did he believe he was God? Strobel discusses the topic with Dr Ben Witherington III, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Drawing upon Jesus’ miracles, his sense of mission, and some of his phrases (e.g. “Abba” to refer to God, “Amen I say to you” before starting his teachings) Witherton explains how Jesus saw himself in the very place of God. As Mark 10:45 says his purpose was to come into this world and, by sacrificing his life, redeem his people: “I did not come to be served but to serve and give my life as a ransom in place of the many.” Just as God formed his people in the Old Testament Jesus creates a renewed Israel, represented by his twelve disciples. This says quite a lot about what he thought of himself.

The psychological evidence

Was Jesus crazy when he claimed to be the son of God? Strobel examines this area with Dr Gary R Collins, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Purdue University. Collins says Jesus didn’t display the usual characteristics of madness: emotional imbalance (e.g. depression, anger, anxiety); misperceptions (e.g. paranoia); thinking disorders; or unsuitable behaviour (e.g. odd dress sense, poor social skills). On the contrary he was compassionate; he was not egotistical; he was emotionally balanced; he knew what he was doing and where he was going; he accepted people but didn’t ignore their sins; and he responded to people based on their unique needs. Jesus healed conditions like lifelong blindness and leprosy, for which a psychosomatic explanation isn’t likely. “I just don’t see signs that Jesus was suffering from any known mental illness,” he concluded.

The profile evidence

The Old Testament provides numerous details about the attributes of God. Did Jesus fulfil those attributes? Strobel put this question to Dr D A Carson, a research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, who has written more than forty books. While the Incarnation - God becoming man, the infinite becoming finite – is difficult for our finite minds to comprehend, Carson pointed out evidence that Jesus did exhibit the characteristics of deity, although theologians believe some kind of voluntary ‘emptying’ out (Philippians 2) of his independent use of his attributes took place. Every attribute of God, says the New Testament, is found in Jesus: omniscience (John 16:30); omnipresence (Matthew 28:20, Matthew 18:20); omnipotence (Matthew 28:18); eternality (John 1:1); and immutability (Hebrews 13:8).

The fingerprint evidence

Did Jesus, and he alone, match the identity of the Messiah given in the Old Testament? Could he have simply fitted the description of the Messiah by coincidence? Strobel interviews Dr Louis S. Lapides, who was born to a Jewish family, to discuss these questions. Lapides had experienced some anti-Semitism when he was an American soldier in the Vietnam War which put him off Christianity. However, looking at a bible given to him by an evangelist he was stopped cold when he read Isaiah 53, which was written seven hundred years before Jesus:

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gave gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
Nor was any deceit in his mouth...

For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Lapides was so struck by this description of the Messiah that he believed Christians had rewritten the Old Testament to make Isaiah’s words sound as though the prophet had been foreshadowing Jesus. Jews in the Old Testament sought to atone for their sins through a system of animal sacrifices but here was Jesus, the ultimate sacrificial lamb of God, who paid for the sin of all man. He came across more than four dozen predictions of the Messiah in the Old Testament, all of which matched with Jesus. Mathematician Peter W. Stoner computed that the probability of a man fulfilling just eight prophesises would be 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000. Lapides realised the New Testament wasn’t a handbook for the American Nazi Party but an interaction between Jesus and the Jewish community. Lapides accepted Jesus as the Messiah and that also helped to transform his spiritual life.

The medical evidence

The third part of the book examines the Resurrection, the fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith, which is the ultimate vindication of Jesus’ teaching and personal claims. The idea that Jesus never really died on the cross can be found in the Koran. Ahmadiya Muslims believe that Jesus fled to India; and there’s a shrine that supposedly marks his real burial place in Srinagar, Kashmir. Many swoon hypotheses, that contend Jesus faked his death, continue to flourish. Strobel interviews Dr Alexander Metherell, M.D., Ph.D., who holds a medical doctorate from the University of Miami and a doctorate in engineering from the University of Bristol, to discuss the possibility whether Jesus could have faked his death. Metherell provides a medical account of the physical torture Jesus would have endured, from his sweating of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest to his crucifixion on the cross. The sweating of blood is a condition known as hematidrosis, which is associated with a high degree of psychological stress. The flogging Jesus received prior to his crucifixion would have been brutal, resulting in lacerations and significant blood loss, which would have caused hypovolemic shock as evidenced by the fact that he was too weak to carry the crossbar (patibulum) all the way to Golgotha. At the site of the crucifixion he would have been laid down and his wrists would have been nailed to the crossbar, piercing the median nerve which is the largest nerve going to the hand. The pain would have been unbearable, so much so that a new word was invented for it: excruciating. Once the crossbar was attached to the vertical skate, and nails driven through his feet, both shoulders would have become dislocated (Psalm 22: “My bones are out of joint”). Then it would have been a slow agonizing death by asphyxiation. Jesus’ death would have been guaranteed by the thrust of a spear into his side and heart, accounting for some fluid – the pericardial effusion and the pleural effusion – that has the appearance of a clear fluid, like water, described by the eyewitness John in his gospel. Metherell concludes that it would have been impossible for Jesus to survive this ordeal, and even if he somehow did his ghastly condition would not have inspired a worldwide movement.

The evidence of the missing body

If the resurrection is true, is there evidence that supports Jesus’ missing body from the tomb? Strobel seeks out Dr William Lane Craig, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Birmingham and a doctorate in theology from the University of Munich, to answer this question. Craig points out that the empty grave is reported or implied in extremely early sources – Mark’s gospel and the 1 Corinthians 15 creed – which date so close to the event that they could not have been products of legend. The fact the empty tomb was discovered by women, who had a very low status in first century Jewish society, bolsters the story’s authenticity. There are conflicting narratives about the empty tomb in the gospels but the inconsistencies are in the secondary details, suggesting we have multiple, independent attestation for the missing body; and all four accounts name Joseph of Arimathea, a Jewish high priest who gave Jesus a tomb. It is most likely that Joseph of Arimathea is a historical figure, and not invented by the gospel writers, considering the early Christian anger toward the Jewish leaders for instigating Jesus’ crucifixion. It is unlikely the women went to the wrong tomb because it was known to the Jewish authorities who would have been too happy to point it out, yet they invented the story that the disciples, despite having no motivation or opportunity, stole the body – a theory not even the most sceptical critic believes today.

The evidence of appearances

What is the evidence to support the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus? This question is put to Dr Gary Habermas, an expert on the resurrection of Jesus. Habermas begins by referring to Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul passes on a creed of the early church which names specific individuals and groups of people who encountered the risen Christ, written at a time when many of them were still alive and could be sought out to verify the truth. The evidence suggests the creed could be considered a statement of eyewitnesses. The Acts is littered with references to Jesus’ appearances, while the gospels describe numerous appearances in detail. Appearances to multiple people simultaneously, including to sceptics like James and Paul, rule out the possibility of hallucinations. Concluded British theologian Michael Green, “The appearances of Jesus are as well authenticated as anything in antiquity...There can be no rational doubt that they occurred, and that the main reason why Christians became sure of the resurrection in the earliest days was just this. They could say with assurance, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ They knew it was the case.”

The circumstantial evidence

Finally, what circumstantial evidence supports the Resurrection? Strobel interviews Dr J. P. Moreland, a philosopher with a doctorate from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, to answer this question. In a clear and methodical way Moreland outlined five reasons to believe in the Resurrection. Firstly, the disciples were transformed from being weak, cowardly men to zealous followers of Jesus, willing to spend their lives proclaiming about Jesus and, in the process, face hardship and death; it’s unlikely they would have endured so much if they weren’t sure of the Resurrection. Secondly, there’s no good reason other than the Resurrection that sceptics like James, the brother of Jesus, and Paul of Tarsus would have been converted and died for their faith. Thirdly, within five weeks of the Crucifixion over ten thousand Jews began abandoning key social practices that they had carefully preserved for centuries. For a people who thought that such social institutions were entrusted by God and abandoning them would risk their souls being damned, these changes represented a social earthquake, and earthquakes don’t happen without a reason. Fourthly, the early Christians adopted the sacraments of communion and baptism. Communion symbolised Jesus’ victory over death, and baptism a Gentile’s wish to take upon himself the laws of Moses. Fifthly, the spontaneous emergence of the church in the face of brutal Roman persecution “rips a great hole in history, a hole the size and shape of Resurrection,” as C. F D. Moule put it.


This is a certainly a compelling book and for those people who have open mind, there is sufficient evidence to support the case for Jesus’ divinity. However, it probably won’t convince the most ardent sceptics. They will obviously point out that all of the people Strobel interviewed were evangelical Christians. This maybe so but most of them have undertaken extensive research, often battling with their own beliefs, before becoming convinced about Jesus themselves. In some cases they were not believers of Christ at all but became believers in the course of their research. Even today, the majority of scholars are so convinced of the historicity of Jesus that it is only a small minority of non-historians who dispute the case. This book is testament to the fact that the evidence was strong enough that a former atheist, who was a well established award winning journalist, has become a pastor. Often converts who are the most ardent believers. Strobel has gone on to write a number of other books similar to this one, in which he tries to argue the case for a Creator, faith and the real Jesus, none of which I have read; he has also appeared on a television programme called "Faith Under Fire" in America. This book is most certainly worth a read if you want to explore the evidence for Jesus and you have an open mind.


Mel Avila Alarilla said...

The post is quite long and I have so many things to do. I'll try to come back latermyn to read your post and make the appropriate comments. Thanks for the post. God bless you always.

JI said...

Hi Mel. It's a bit lengthy, but I only included the salient points. Read it when you get time. Thanks.

Amrita said...

JI your book review is very interesting and I will read it when I have some more time.I have read about Lee Strobel, but never read any of his books.
Your header picture is from Kerala I am sure.

Thank you for your visit.

JI said...

Hi Amrita. Nice of you to visit my blog.

This one of the best books I've read on Jesus. The evidence he presents is very convincing, and its written in a very readable style.

Yes, the header picture is from Kerala. It’s a tranquil sort of place, as you probably know. St Thomas came here in the first century. Many Christians in Kerala believe he is not dead but still present in spirit, guarding over his followers and guiding his church.

Anonymous said...

As for what you say here.."They will obviously point out that all of the people Strobel interviewed were evangelical Christians."

It's much more than that. Maybe you've already seen this site that debunks's Lee Strobel's books.

send me an email with your reply.

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