Checklist: Evaluating Claims about Jesus – Part 5

In the Chapter 2 of The Case for Christ (hereafter CFC), Lee Stobel puts forward eight tests for determining the credibility and reliability of the Gospels.  I briefly discussed four of those tests in Part 3 of this series.  In this post I briefly discuss two more of  the tests.

This test analyzes whether the Gospel writers had any biases that would have colored their work.  Did they have any vested interest in skewing the material they were reporting on? (CFC, p.48)

In part, the Gospels are clearly examples of religious propaganda.  That is, they represent efforts to persuade people to adopt a Christian point of view and way of life.  They also were intended to serve as materials for the religious education of Christian believers, especially to preserve the Christian belief system for future generations which would not be able to learn directly from Jesus nor from his inner circle of disciples.
These purposes of the Gospel authors clearly introduce bias (or a significant potential for bias) into their accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus.  Jesus is not only a great teacher and prophet in the view of early Christians, but the Messiah and the savior of mankind.  Faith was not only to be placed in the teachings of Jesus, but also in the goodness and power of Jesus as savior who could bestow forgiveness and eternal life on those who follow him.

Given the exalted status of Jesus for early Christian believers, there would clearly be a strong tendency of Christian authors who wrote accounts about the life and ministry of Jesus to present Jesus in a positive light, to present stories about events which support the view that Jesus was a great teacher and a great prophet and the divinely ordained savior of mankind.  Clearly the death of Jesus on the cross, and his resurrection appearances to the disciples are basic and important to Christian faith in Jesus as the divinely appointed savior of mankind.

Would such authors be likely to doubt and reject third or fourth-hand stories about Jesus that supported these Christian beliefs about Jesus on the grounds that such stories would be of questionable reliability and accuracy?  Probably not.  Would such authors be likely to accept and publish stories about Jesus that clearly contradicted these Christian beliefs about Jesus, even if such stories came from reliable eyewitness sources?  Probably not.

So, would Christian believers who are writing for the purposes of persuading others to become followers of Jesus, and for teaching the faith to future generations of Christians, be likely to accept and publish stories of events and details that contradict or cast significant doubt upon the assumption that Jesus died on the cross?  Probably not.  Would they be likely to doubt and reject stories and details about the crucifixion or resurrection appearances of Jesus that support Christian belief on the basis that the source of information was not an eyewitness or was an unreliable eyewitness?  Probably not.

Blomberg comments to Strobel: “Besides, these disciples had nothing to gain except criticism, ostracism, and martyrdom. They certainly had nothing to win financially.” (CFC, p.48).  While fame and fortune were probably not a motivation for the authors of the Gospels, their worldview and self-image as Christian believers was tied up with assumptions about the goodness, power, wisdom, and even the divinity of Jesus, as well as the belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  So, their basic beliefs and values and self-image was at stake in the subject about which they were writing.

When people testify about events they saw, they will often try to protect themselves or others by conveniently forgetting to mention details that are embarrassing or hard to explain.  As a result, this raises uncertainty about the veracity of their testimony. (CFC, p.49)

First of all, the authors of the Gospels were probably not eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus, nor to his crucifixion, nor to his resurrection appearances.  So, it is misleading for Strobel to speak of these writers as if they were eyewitnesses.

It is tempting to leave out embarrassing or hard to explain events and details.  So, if someone does so, then that reveals some degree of a lack of integrity and honesty in that person.  Of course, a very dishonest person will lie about anything and mislead and stretch the truth for the slightest of reasons, even when there are no embarrassing or hard to explain events or details to worry about.

Interestingly, Strobel immediately and unthinkingly modifies the above test in a way that provides a classic example of confirmation bias

So I asked Blomberg, “Did the gospel writers include any material that might be embarrassing, or did they cover it up to make themselves look good?  Did they report anything that would be uncomfortable or difficult for them to explain?” (CFC, p.49)

Strobel’s purpose in writing The Case for Christ is much the same as the purpose of the Gospel writers- to persuade people to become followers of Jesus and to believe that Jesus is not only a great prophet, but the divinely approved savior of mankind.  So, he is interested in selling his readers on the idea that the Gospels are historically reliable (see my comments on 5. THE BIAS TEST above).  So, Strobel is interested in looking for evidence to confirm his view of the Gospels, and switches from looking for evidence of dishonesty (which is how he presents the test initially) to looking for evidence of honesty.  So, Strobel migrates from looking for examples of Gospel writers covering up embarrassing events/details, to looking for examples of Gospel writers being honest and straightforward in recording embarrassing events/details.

Because Strobel has a clear bias in favor of Christianity and the reliability of the Gospels, he wants to look for evidence that

supports his religious convictions, and he is less interested in looking for evidence that would cast doubt on Christianity and on the Gospels.  Because that is the sort of evidence he is looking for, it is no surprise that that is the evidence he finds and publishes in his book, which was written for the purpose of persuading people to become Christians and followers of Jesus.  The temptation of confirmation bias is to look for evidence to support one’s cherished beliefs but to fail to look for evidence that goes contrary to one’s cherished beliefs.  In order to be objective and fair minded, one must learn the discipline of looking for both sorts of evidence.   Since our natural tendency is to look for evidence that confirms our cherished beliefs, what we especially need to work at is looking for evidence that runs contrary to our cherished beliefs.

Strobel gives a few examples of instances in the Gospel of Mark that appear to be embarrassing or hard to explain: Mark 6:5 and Mark 13:32 present events that suggest that Jesus is less than omnipotent and less than omniscient, and thus suggest that Jesus is not God  incarnate.
These verses are somewhat embarrassing to Trinitarian Christians, but it is not clear that they were embarrassing to the author of Mark, since it is not clear that the author of Mark believed Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity, or God incarnate.  The presence of these verses in Mark, it might be argued, is evidence that the author was NOT embarrassed by these events, and thus that the author held a different view of Jesus than held by Strobel and other Trinitarian Christians.  In any event, one would need to build a case for the view that the author of Mark was a Trinitarian Christian who would in fact have felt embarrassment or discomfort in reporting these incidents. Strobel does not do so.

Giving a few examples of embarrassing events/details in one Gospel does not show the author of that Gospel to be generally honest and candid, nor does it show other Gospel authors to be generally honest and candid.  One needs to take a broader view of the evidence, looking at each of the Gospels for examples of both embarrassing events/details as well as looking for examples of cover-ups and truth-stretching in the service of avoiding embarrassment.  For each Gospel one must weigh up both positive and negative examples to come to some sort of overall conclusion about the honesty and candor of each author. 
Furthermore, in ordinary cases of legal testimony, we often have many different sources of information to draw upon, in order to check whether a particular person’s testimony leaves out some embarrassing events or details.  But in the case of the life, ministry, and crucifixion of Jesus, our sources are pretty much limited to the Gospels.  So, it is more difficult in this case to  find examples of leaving out events or details.  However, because Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a primary source of information about Jesus, we can look to see whether they leave out or modify events and details from Mark that they would consider embarrassing or hard to explain.  So, although we don’t have much in the way of independent information about Jesus from outside the Gospels, we can look at how Matthew and Luke treat the information they had from the Gospel of Mark.

Note that by failing to look for examples of cover-ups in the Gospels, Strobel fails to find any such examples.  If he had actually done a careful search for such examples, he would have found several of them.  By failing to look for evidence of dishonesty, Strobel avoids having to report such examples to his readers, which would be embarrassing to Strobel and hard for him to explain in terms of his view that the Gospels are highly reliable and trustworthy.  

Or perhaps Strobel did look for and find some examples of cover-ups in the Gospels, but he conveniently forgot to mention them, and thus was not honest and candid enough to share those with his readers.  Strobel’s failure to look for examples of dishonesty in the Gospels (or his failure to report such examples after finding some) raises uncertainty about the veracity and honesty of Strobel’s investigation into the reliability of the Gospels.

I must say that it is quite clever how Lee Strobel illustrates both bias and cover-ups in his discussion of these tests for the reliability and trustworthiness of the Gospels.