Checklist: Evaluating Claims about Jesus – Part 6

This post will briefly discuss the two final tests of “eyewitness evidence” (or rather, tests of the historical reliability and trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts) from The Case for Christ (CFC) by Lee Strobel.

I introduced this next test by asking Blomberg, “When the gospels mention people, places, and events, do they check out to be correct in cases in which they can be independently verified?”  Often such corroboration is invaluable in assessing whether a writer has a commitment to accuracy. (CFC, p.50)

One could ask the question in somewhat more skeptical terms: ‘Do the gospels check out to be incorrect in cases in which they can be independently falsified?’  There seems to be a bit of bias in Strobel’s wording, but the idea is to check the events and details of the Gospel accounts against other sources of information, such as other historical documents, and archaeological findings, when possible.  This is a perfectly reasonable consideration when evaluating the reliability of the Gospels.

However, in practice most of what the Gospels have to say about Jesus cannot be checked against other sources of information.  There are no video tapes of Jesus to watch; no photographs of Jesus, no tape recordings of Jesus, no newspaper stories or editorials about Jesus, no non-Christian biographies of Jesus or his disciples, no diaries of Jesus or his disciples, no lecture notes on his sermons, no court records of his trial, no video tapes or photos of his crucifixion, no autopsy report on his death, no death certificate, no video tapes or photos of his resurrection appearances, and so forth.

If you want to know what Jesus taught, you have to read the Gospels.  If you want to know any details about Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, you have to read the Gospels.  There is no non-Christian account of the crucifixion of Jesus.  There is no non-Christian account of the resurrection appearances of Jesus.  There is no non-Christian biography of Jesus.  There is no non-Christian report of the teachings of Jesus.

Blomberg makes the following astounding comment in response to Strobel’s questions:

In addition, we can learn through non-Christian sources a lot of facts about Jesus that corroborate key teachings and events in his life. … it’s remarkable how much we can learn about Jesus and his followers… (CFC, p.50-51, emphasis added)

I don’t know what Blomberg has been smoking or what he puts into his brownies, but it must be some good shit.  Zero examples are given by Blomberg to back up this dubious claim (in CFC), but perhaps he gives some examples in his own book (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 1987, IVP).  I am very skeptical about this strong claim, especially when not a single example is given to support it, let alone the dozens of examples that would be required to provide sufficient  evidence to back it up.

In any case, as with the ‘Cover-Up Test’ we need to look not just for examples where other reliable sources of information confirm an event or detail in a Gospel, but we need to look for examples where other reliable sources of information dis-confirm an event or detail in a Gospel.  We need to search for both confirmation and dis-confirmation of events and details in a given Gospel, and then come to some general conclusion about the degree of accuracy and reliability of that Gospel based on all of the various examples of confirmation and dis-confirmation that can be identified.

Because the Gospels are the primary source of detailed information about the life, ministry, teachings, crucifixion, and alleged resurrection appearances of Jesus, I don’t think there will be that many examples of either confirmation or dis-confirmation from reliable non-Christian sources or archaeology.  The examples of confirmation and dis-confirmation that are available will mostly be for general events or persons, not for details in the Gospel accounts.  Not for critical details like: Jesus was stabbed in the chest with a spear while on the cross, Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the cross, Jesus was on the cross for about eight hours, and Jesus was buried in a stone tomb by Josephus, etc. 

This test asks the question, Were others present who would have contradicted or corrected the gospels if they had been distorted or false?  In other words, doe we see examples of contemporaries of Jesus complaining that the gospel accounts were just plain wrong? (CFC, p.51)

Again, this is a perfectly reasonable consideration to use in assessing the reliability of an historical account.  However, I don’t think Strobel appreciates the difficulty of applying this test to the Gospels.

First of all, the Gospels were written decades after the crucifixion of Jesus, so memories would have faded and become distorted, and many of the eyewitnesses would have died off by the time the Gospels were written (and many more would have died off by the time the Gospels were duplicated and widely circulated).  

Second, there were no printing presses, and no mass media, so it would take a while for the Gospels to be duplicated and to circulate to a wider audience.  Non-Christians in Palestine could not just go to the local newsstand or bookstore and pick up a paperback copy of the Gospels.  There were no critical reviews or editorials written about the Gospels in widely read magazines, newspapers, or journals.  There were no news programs or talk shows that would promote general discussion about the Gospels or the life of Jesus.  In short, the visibility and availability of the Gospels to non-Christians was fairly low for a significant period of time after the composition of the Gospels.

Third,  with the possible exception of the Gospel of Mark, the Gospels were written after the Romans attacked and destroyed Jerusalem.  So, many of the Jews who were eyewitnesses of the ministry, teaching, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, were either killed or had left Jerusalem by the time the Gospels were written.

Fourth, most people in Palestine at the time the Gospels were written were illiterate.  Only a small percentage of the population could read the Gospels, so only a small percentage of the population was in a position to criticize the contents of the Gospels.

Strobel’s ‘Adverse Witness’ questions are perfectly legitimate and reasonable, but for the reasons discussed here, there was not much opportunity for non-Christians who had personal knowledge about the life, ministry, teachings, or crucifixion of Jesus to read and criticize the contents of the Gospels.  Thus the alleged absence of criticism and skepticism towards the Gospel accounts may be due in large part to the fact that the potential critics died off, left Palestine, did not have access to the Gospels, or had access to them but could not read them because of illiteracy.
UPDATE (5/24/12 at 5:15 pm Pacific Time):
It appears I owe an apology to Mr. Blomberg.  I no longer believe that he had been smoking some good shit just before Lee Strobel interviewed him about the reliability of the Gospels.

In order to be fair to Blomberg, I took a glance at his own book on this subject (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels; hereafter: HROG) to see if he might have provided dozens of examples of passages about  Jesus in non-Christian sources that  give us “…a lot of facts about Jesus that corroborate key teachings and events in his life.” (CFC, p.50) and thus showing that it is “…remarkable how much we can learn about Jesus and his followers…”  (CFC, p.51) from such non-Christian sources.

Chapter 6 (“The Jesus Tradition Outside the Gospels”) of Blomberg’s book deals with this issue.   Blomberg devotes a whopping five pages (actually 5.3 pages) to evidence about Jesus from non-Christian sources in a section called “The Testimony of Non-Christian Writers”(HROG, p.196-201).  

No, Blomberg does NOT manage to present dozens of examples of corroboration of the Gospels by non-Christian sources in those few pages.  So, why then do I need to apologize to Mr. Blomberg?  Because his view of non-Christian sources about Jesus is close to my own view and that of most Jesus scholars: there ain’t much there.  Thus, it appears that it was Mr. Strobel who was high during the interview, and that the quotation of Blomberg above is a misunderstanding or distortion of what Blomberg actually said.

Here are a few highlights from Blomberg’s assessment of non-Christian sources about Jesus:

Graeco-Roman historians:
“None of the Graeco-Roman historians of the first generations of the Christian era has much to say about the life of Jesus.”  (HROG, p.196)

“But apart from these references to his crucifixion and the movement which outlived him, one discovers nothing else from Graeco-Roman sources.” (HROG, p.197)

Rabbinic Traditions:
“At the end of the day, one must admit that the rabbinic traditions offer precious little independent testimony to the ministry of Jesus.”  (HROG, p.199)

Blomberg is a bit more cheery about the famous references to Jesus by the Jewish historian Josephus.  But there is one main paragraph in Josephus about Jesus, and at least a portion of that paragraph was inserted by Christian scribes who copied and preserved these historical accounts written by Josephus.  Even so, there are only a few points of corroboration in that paragraph, not the dozens of examples required to substantiate the strong claim that Strobel stuck into the mouth of Blomberg.

So, if you want to refute the dubious claim that Strobel attributes to Blomberg, the best way to do so is to go straight to Blomberg’s own book on this subject, and quote Blomberg against Blomberg.  I suspect that Blomberg did not become an ignorant fool in the ten years (or so) between the publication of his book on the reliability of the Gospels (1987) and Strobel’s interview of him for Strobel’s book The Case for Christ (1998).  Rather, it is much more likely that Strobel’s biases on this issue led him to misunderstand something that Blomberg said during the interview.