This book presents itself as an unbiased seeking after the truth about the life of Jesus. The narrator, Mr. Strobel, claims to have great journalistic credentials. ("A Seasoned Journalist Chases Down the Biggest Story in History," from the back cover.) Unfortunately, the book presents a case for Jesus as God that only a true believer could swallow.
The book is written as a narrative "search for truth." Most of it is a series of interviews with experts: theologians and Christian apologists (I looked them up: not exactly unbiased sources.*) His main rhetorical device is to ask one of these experts, with false sincerity, about one of the many highly doubtful aspects of the Christian presentation of Jesus, and then proceeds to swallow whole whatever this authority says. The book is laced with phrases such as, "that makes sense, doesn't it?" "that seems likely" "that sounded logical," "as you can imagine," "I wanted to push him further on this," "exactly, he said crisply." (If that authority was "crisp" on it, it must be true!)
(* Craig Blomberg, Bruce M. Metzger, Edwin Yamauchi, John McRay, Gregory Boyd, Ben Witherington III, Gary Collins, D. A Carson, Alexander Metherell, William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, J.P. Moreland. Every one a devoted Christian, almost every one a theologian and/or Christian apologist.)
The book is intellectually dishonest. I was barely 25 pages into the book before I came across several gems such as this. Mr. Strobel claims corroborating "evidence" for the Gospels being fact, because they are, "Confirmed by a sort of 1st-century journalist," (p. 25) after citing Papias (p. 23) and Irenaeus (p. 24). Both Papias and Irenaeus were active in the 2nd-century -- making them out to be 1st-century makes them seem closer to the events in question, not four to seven generations later. Both were early Christian church leaders, nothing like a journalist:
>>>Irenaeus, (c. 130-202) was bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, which is now Lyon, France. His writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology, and he is recognized as a saint by both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church; both consider him a Father of the Church. He was a notable early Christian apologist.<<<
>>> Papias (working in the 1st half of the 2nd century) was one of the early leaders of the Christian church, canonized as a saint. Eusebius calls him "Bishop of Hierapolis"<<<
This is typical of the entire flimsy fabric of the case Strobel makes.
Also typical is Strobel's citing of "indirect eyewitness testimony." (p. 25) Strobel begins the book by describing some of the trial of Timothy McVeigh. He states that McVeigh was convicted by only circumstantial evidence, thereby implying that circumstantial evidence is reliable. In U.S. courts, there is a specific term for "indirect eyewitness testimony." It's called hearsay, and it's not allowed. ("No, really Your Honor, Bob told me that he saw Mr. Strobel rob that bank.")
Strobel notes that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke appear to have copied material from the Gospel of Mark. Mark is purported to be (scholars aren't sure of course) the companion of Peter. And Mark is purported to have, "handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter's preaching." (p. 24). So we have Matthew and Luke copying the work of Mark who is interpreting the preaching of Peter, who actually saw Jesus. This is Strobel's idea of evidence: "indirect eyewitness testimony." This is hearsay on top of hearsay on top of hearsay.
Also typical are his ways of dealing with the errors in transcription of the New Testament and the apocryphal gospels. The apocryphal gospels are swept from the table with a single statement from one of his theologian authorities, Craig Blomberg, "I knew Blomberg was smart; in fact his appearance fit the stereotype. Tall (six feet two) and lanky, with short, wavy brown hair ... glasses, he looked like the type who would have been a valedictorian (he was), National Merit Scholar (he was), and a magna cum laude graduate from a prestigious seminary ... But I wanted someone who was more than just intelligent and educated. ... an expert who wouldn't ... blithely dismiss challenges to the records of Christianity." (p. 21) This expert then proceeds to say, "Contrast this with what happened when the fanciful apocryphal gospels written much later. People chose the names of well-known and exemplary figures to be their fictitious authors -- Philip, Peter, Mary, James. Those names carried a lot more weight ..." (p. 23) That is the entire discussion of the other gospels that were excluded by the early church. Not a blithe dismissal?
On the transcription errors, he uses his expert Bruce M. Metzger. Strobel writes, "... the high number of 'variants,' or differences among manuscripts, was troubling. ... estimates as high as 200,000. However, Metzger downplayed the significance of that figure. ... He explained that if a single word is misspelled in two thousand manuscripts, that's counted as 2000 variants." (p. 64) [Note that neither actually tells you about those 200,000 errors: they just give one hypothetical example that sounds good for their position and leave it at that.] And then he proceeds to show that the errors don't matter because they don't put any church doctrine into "jeopardy." (p. 65) Well, of course not, if you dismiss them out of hand. Metzger then acknowledges that some of the current versions of the Bible don't match the old manuscripts. This is dismissed by Metzger: "that does not dislodge the firmly witnessed testimony of the Bible to the doctrine of the Trinity." (p. 65) He's using the Bible as evidence for the Bible. (Hank's always right.)
Some apologists cite ancient Roman (or other) authors as corroboration. Strobel does this (yes, the Romans knew there was a man in Palestine named Jesus, executed for sedition under Procurator Pilate, p. 82) but his main use of ancient secular authors is to cite how few of their manuscripts are extant and contrast this number to the number of extant manuscripts of the New Testament, and then claims that this makes the New Testament more likely to be true(!). (He titles one section, "A Wealth of Evidence," (p. 62) and another as "A Mountain of Manuscripts," (p. 60) as if counting up copies means something. If it's said a few thousand times, that makes it true?) Nevermind that no original manuscripts exist. He's always noting how these great authorities -- Bible scholars -- are going back to the original meanings to show what the Bible REALLY means. There aren't any originals, of course.
Which brings us to the famous Josephus, born in 37 AD (p. 77): after Jesus' death. He participated in the war with Rome (66 - 74 AD). Josephus writes how a High Priest Ananias convened the Sanhedrin to question James, brother of Jesus and others. Josephus writes that this Ananias declared that James and others had violated the law and should be stoned. James, "had apparently been converted by the appearance of the risen Christ ... compare John 7:5 and 1 Corinthians 15:7 -- and corroboration of the fact that some people considered Jesus to be the Christ." (quote: Edwin Yamauchi, p. 78) Let's see: Josephus writes about a high priest at least a generation older than himself (hearsay) and that high priest convicted James, Jesus' brother of a crime worthy of stoning (even Strobel and Yamauchi don't know what that crime was "[he] had transgressed the law" (p. 78)) From this we are to conclude that Jesus was god resurrected, and this matches the Bible verses, so it must be true. Right.
Also from Josephus, is the passage from Testimonium Flavium, "he [Jesus] was one who wrought surprising feats and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. ... crucified ... appeared to them restored to life." (p. 79) Yamauchi admits the passage is controversial: "early Christian copyists inserted some phrases that a Jewish writer like Josephus would not have written." (p. 79) Insertions such as: "If one ought to call him a man," "He was the Christ," and "on the third day he he appeared to them restored to life." (all noted by the expert, Yamauchi, pp. 79-80) "The passage in Josephus probably was originally written about Jesus, although without those three points I mentioned." (Yamauchi, p. 80) And Strobel leaves it at that! All the supernatural godlike references (all hearsay anyway) were admittedly added by later Christian copyists (when? Yamauchi doesn't say.) Again, no one is disputing that a Jesus lived and taught in Palestine in the beginning of the first century, which is all the Josephus passages tell us.
After all is said about Josephus, Yamauchi has the temerity to state that the two passages are, "Highly significant, especially since the accounts of the Jewish war have proved very accurate ... he's considered to be a pretty reliable historian and his mentioning Jesus [but not any supernatural aspects, and in the first only his brother] is considered [by whom?] extremely important." (p. 81) Pretty reliable that he reported hearsay about a Jesus without supernatural aspects. Wow, amazing evidence.
Strobel and Yamauchi also quote Pliny the Younger (63-118 AD), born 30 years after Jesus' death. "I asked them if they were Christians ... they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses ... in honor of Christ as if to a god." So, Pliny simply confirms that there were early followers of Christianity. No one disputes this. From this passage, Yamauchi concludes that it is "Very important. It was probably written about 111 AD [80 years, 4 generations, after Jesus' death] and it attests to the rapid spread of Christianity, both in the city and the rural areas, among every class of person." (p. 82) Pliny mentions nothing about rapid spread, numbers of Christians, their locations, or their class. This conclusion is typical of the logic and reasoning used throughout the book. It's pathetic.
And further: Yamauchi, "How can you explain the spread of a religion based on the worship of a man who had suffered the most ignominious death possible? Of course, the Christian answer is that he was resurrected." That is posed as evidence for his resurrection: the argument from ignorance. There were credulous people in the 1st and 2nd centuries [no kidding?] therefore we must be credulous as well. When some one begins their conclusion with, "I can't think of any other ..." beware! Plenty of wide-spread religions believe some incredible things [and I mean that literally.] For instance, the Mormons, one of the fastest-growing religions. [It's spreading fast, so it must be true, eh Mr. Yamauchi?]
Regarding Jesus' resurrection, Strobel also cites a creed of the early Christians, again using his expert Craig Blomberg, "This creed is incredibly early and therefore trustworthy material." (p. 209). A formula creed (dogma) used by the proponents of the doctrine as a form of worship or oath is evidence for the truth of the doctrine?
Strobel sums up with: "I admit it: I was ambushed by the amount and quality of the evidence that Jesus is the unique Son of God." (p. 264)
So, we are left with copies of copies of copies (errors in transcription acknowledged) of hearsay upon hearsay. This is presented as strong evidence. Only to a true believer. The book is superficial and too glib by half. It might be entertaining if presented as a novel; but it's got nothing on the DaVinci Code there (not that I believe anything in that book either!)