THE CASE FOR THE REAL JESUS: A JOURNALIST INVESTIGATES CURRENT ATTACKS ON THE IDENTITY OF CHRIST, by Lee Strobel

Published on June 2, 2016 by Matt Haste

Zondervan, 2007 | 328 pages

A Brief Book Summary from Books at a Glance

About the Author

Lee Strobel, the former acclaimed legal editor of the Chicago Tribune turned Christian apologist, is the author of several popular books exploring the legitimacy of Christianity, including The Case for Christ (1998), The Case for Faith (2000), and The Case for a Creator (2004). His educational background includes a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, a Master of Studies in Law from Yale, and a honorary Doctor of Divinity from Southern Evangelical Seminary.

 

Introduction

In The Case for the Real Jesus, former journalist Lee Strobel interviews leading experts to help unravel the claims of contemporary critics of historical Christianity. Following a similar pattern as his former books, Strobel examines six challenges to the faith that center on the person and identity of Jesus of Nazareth. Each challenge is developed through a chapter telling the story of Strobel’s personal interview with the Christian expert on the subject. As each claim is scrutinized, Strobel seeks to demonstrate that the traditional understanding of Jesus remains the most plausible explanation of the available evidence.

 

Table of Contents

Introduction: Searching for the Real Jesus
Challenge #1:
“Scholars are uncovering a radically different Jesus in ancient documents just as credible as the four Gospels.”
Challenge #2:
“The Bible’s portrait of Jesus can’t be trusted because the Church tampered with the text.”
Challenge #3:
“New explanations have refuted Jesus’ resurrection.”
Challenge #4:
“Christianity’s beliefs about Jesus were copied from pagan religions.”
Challenge #5:
“Jesus was an imposter who failed to fulfill the Messianic Prophecies.”
Challenge #6:
“People should be free to pick and choose what to believe about Jesus.”
Conclusion: Discovering the Real Jesus

Summary

Introduction:
Searching for the Real Jesus

Years after determining that archaeological and historical evidence support the claims of the New Testament, Lee Strobel embarked on another quest for the truth. This time he sought to determine if contemporary challenges to the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus have legitimately uncovered the “real Jesus.” For each of the six challenges explored, Strobel interviewed an expert in the field who could help shed light on the key issues involved. The six challenges were as follows:

  • Challenge #1: “Scholars are uncovering a radically different Jesus in ancient documents just as credible as the four Gospels.”
  • Challenge #2: “The Bible’s portrait of Jesus can’t be trusted because the Church tampered with the text.”
  • Challenge #3: “New explanations have refuted Jesus’ resurrection.”
  • Challenge #4: “Christianity’s beliefs about Jesus were copied from pagan religions.”
  • Challenge #5: “Jesus was an imposter who failed to fulfill the Messianic Prophecies.”
  • Challenge #6: “People should be free to pick and choose what to believe about Jesus.”

Each interview is presented in dialogical format in the book, but this summary will focus on the key components of each expert’s argument against these challenges.

Challenge #1:
“Scholars are uncovering a radically different Jesus in ancient documents just as credible as the four Gospels.”

In recent years, a number of scholars have heralded the discovery of additional accounts of the life of Jesus such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Mary. Some scholars, particularly those associated with the Jesus Seminar, consider these gospels legitimate alternatives to the biblical narratives. Because their presentation of Jesus is radically different from what is found in the canonical gospels, their contents have been the subject of considerable public interest. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, casts Jesus not as a redeemer who dies for his people but as a wisdom figure who discloses hidden teachings to his followers. Scholars who accept such documents as historically reliable have begun to speak of the existence of various early forms of Christianity that were eventually squelched by the church. On this topic, Strobel interviewed Craig A. Evans, a professor of New Testament at Acadia University and the author of Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (2006). The following is a summary of Evans’ primary arguments against these claims.

Scholars who tout the legitimacy of these alternative gospels typically read the concepts of Greek philosophy and literature anachronistically into the teachings of Jesus. In doing so, they ignore the most basic considerations used by historians to determine the reliability of an ancient document, such as its date, geographic origin, cultural accuracy, and the potential motivations of its author(s). When contrasted with the canonical gospels, the so-called “alternative gospels” fall short on these criteria.

The Gospel of Thomas was likely written in the late second century in Syriac. It incorporates a large amount of material from the synoptic Gospels but typically in a harmonized form that was especially prevalent in Syria. The portrayal of Jesus in this document as a mystical teacher who imparted secret knowledge to his disciples can be dismissed by appealing to the much earlier and better-established accounts of Jesus in the canonical gospels.

The Gospel of Peter actually refers to a small manuscript fragment discovered in the late nineteenth-century in Akhmîm, Egypt. This incomplete fragment has been labeled by some as the Gospel of Peter referenced by the ancient church historian Eusebius, although most modern scholars see no legitimate reason to make this conclusion. The fragment contains some of the canonical details of the crucifixion narrative in addition to various embellishments such as gigantic angels at the tomb and a talking cross. Despite John Dominic Crossan’s claims to the contrary in The Cross That Spoke (1988), there is no reason to accept any part of this document as historically reliable. It has an anti-Semitic tone and betrays an overall ignorance to the norms of first-century Jewish culture. It was clearly composed at a later date by someone with a particular agenda.

The Gospel of Mary received considerable attention when Dan Brown’s popular novel, The Da Vinci Code (2003), suggested that Jesus may have had a romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene. However, the Gospel of Mary does not even make this claim. Furthermore, no respectable scholars date it prior to the middle of the second century nor consider it to be written by Mary Magdalene.

One of the most fascinating stories surrounding the alternative gospels is that of The Secret Gospel of Mark, which Judeo-Christian scholar Morton Smith claimed to discover at the Mar Saba Monastery in the 1950s. According to Smith, fragments of this gospel were included in a letter written by Clement of Alexandria that was later copied into a book which Smith found in the Mar Saba library. The letter referenced Jesus spending an intimate night with a sparsely-clothed young man, whom he had raised from the dead. However, the book in which Smith claimed to find the letter vanished and Smith’s claims are now considered a bizarre hoax. Smith himself never owned up to the deception but the evidence suggests that he may have forged the document in order to corroborate his own research claims and, in a subtle way, to legitimize his personal sexual choices.

Michael Baigent’s assertions in The Jesus Papers (2006) are equally unbelievable. The documents in question, which according to Baigent were composed by Jesus and suggest he did not claim to be divine, have never been produced nor can any living person apart from Baigent speak to their contents. The entire story is completely unsubstantiated.

In the mid-2000s, Evans was among a team of scholars who helped date and translate a document known as the Gospel of Judas, which has sparked considerable interest with its suggestion that Judas and Jesus were co-conspirators. Despite various claims in the mainstream media, this document does not provide any kind of counter-narrative to the biblical story. By contrast, it further legitimizes the contributions of the second-century theologian Irenaeus, who labeled it as “fictitious history” in AD 180.

Each of the so-called alternative gospels fails to meet the standards of historical credibility. By contrast, the Gospels found in the New Testament are legitimized by their coherence, consistency, and proximity to the events they describe. There is no evidence of an elaborate scheme to cover up additional narratives in the first century. Rather, it seems that the church preserved the documents that were clearly the most reliable and trustworthy in communicating the life, person, and purposes of Jesus.

Challenge #2:
“The Bible’s portrait of Jesus can’t be trusted because the Church tampered with the text.”

The claim that the modern text of the Bible is untrustworthy…

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The Case for the Real Jesus

Zondervan, 2007 | 328 pages