Years back when I was completing my Classics M.A. program at the University of Arizona, I was gifted by my sister’s former pastor with a copy of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. In the book Strobel tries to argue how his investigation, from “legal journalist’s perspective,” into the historical evidence for the Christian faith caused him to convert from an atheist to a Christian. For a detailed examination of Strobel’s conversion story, including the fact that he had been a teacher pastor in a church for 12 years before he wrote The Case for Christ, I recommend Ed Babinski’s “On the Conversions of C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, and and Lee Strobel.”
Since I was a Classics M.A. student at the time, who was studying ancient history, I was curious about some of the historical arguments that Strobel was making. The structure of Strobel’s book is to interview scholars, whom Strobel identifies as authorities, on a number of topics pertaining to Christian origins and the reliability of the New Testament. This led me to Strobel’s interview with Craig Blomberg in the first chapter of the book. Blomberg is an evangelical Christian scholar who works at Denver Seminary. I looked into Blomberg’s background, and here is what is written on his seminary’s website regarding the institution’s doctrinal commitments:
“Each year our trustees, administration, and faculty are required to affirm and sign Denver Seminary’s doctrinal statement…”
And what is written in Denver Seminary’s doctrinal statement? Well, the following:
“We believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the inspired Word of God, inerrant in the original writings, complete as the revelation of God’s will for salvation, and the supreme and final authority in all matters to which they speak.”
Nice. So, Strobel was doing an “investigation” into the historical evidence for Christianity, by visiting institutions that openly state that the New Testament is inerrant and the final authority on all matters that it speaks of. I did research into the other “scholars” that Strobel interviewed in the book, and learned 10/13 of them (and, especially, William Craig, Gary Habermas, and J.P. Moreland) also had their primary careers at similar faith-based institutions (the exceptions are Metzger, Yamauchi, and Metherell, but interesting enough Strobel interviews these men for more technical areas, like textual criticism, less relevant to proving things like Jesus’ resurrection). In effect, Strobel merely performed a survey of conservative Christian think tanks and then passed it off as if it were an objective investigation.
Nevertheless, I decided to give the book a read and to see what evidence and arguments Strobel had to offer. And so, in the first interview, I found Blomberg making a rather egregious comparison. Apparently we have earlier and more reliable historical evidence for Jesus than even the famous Macedonian general Alexander the Great. After all, Blomberg (pp. 41-42) points out the following fact about the dating of the Gospels: “The standard scholarly dating, even in very liberal circles, is Mark in the 70s, Matthew and Luke in the 80s, [and] John in the 90s” of the 1st century. That’s roughly 40-60 years after the death of Jesus.
But what is the time gap for our earliest biographies of Alexander the Great? Here is where Blomberg makes an egregious error, stating (pg. 41):
“The two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than four hundred years after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., yet historians consider them to be generally trustworthy.”
Really? You mean that in the literate Hellenistic world nobody bothered to write a biography of the Greeks’ greatest general, who conquered most of the known world, until four hundred years after his death? They even constructed a great library at Alexandria, and yet nobody thought to write a biography of the city’s founder? Wait a second…
Didn’t Alexander have a personal historian who traveled with him and wrote about his deeds during his campaigns? That’s right, Callisthenes of Olynthus (360–328 BCE) was Alexander’s official biographer, who wrote contemporary to his life (not half a century later). This is a piece of information that would be covered in any undergraduate course about Greek history. Oh, by the way, there were other authors, who were eyewitnesses and who wrote either contemporary to Alexander (356–323 BCE) or within a couple decades after his death. Just to name some others:
Anaximenes of Lampsacus (c. 380–320 BCE; Greek historian and contemporary)
Aristobulus of Cassandreia (c. 375–301 BCE; Greek historian and companion of Alexander)
Eumenes (362—316 BCE; companion and Greek scholar)
Nearchus (360—300 BCE; general and voyager under Alexander)
Hmm, so those are the writings of at least five eyewitnesses, three of whom were professional historians, who wrote about Alexander either contemporary to or within twenty-five years of his death (and there are more authors than just those who wrote about Alexander within that timespan). And yet for Jesus, we do not know of the writings of a single eyewitness or contemporary historian, nor do we know of any contemporary records for his life. The only known writings for Jesus within twenty-five years of his death are the non-forged letters of Paul, who was neither an eyewitness nor historian and who provides only a few biographical details about Jesus’ life (see NT scholar Bart Ehrman’s “Why Doesn’t Paul Say More About Jesus?”).
To be sure, I do believe that a historical Jesus existed, but comparing the evidence for this obscure figure to well-attested figures like Alexander the Great is an extreme exaggeration.
So, how could a Christian professor like Blomberg make such an egregious error regarding the first biographies of Alexander? Because the wording in Strobel’s book is horribly misleading. What the sentence should read is: “The two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great [that are fully extant today] were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than four hundred years after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., yet historians consider them to be generally trustworthy” . The actual earliest biographies of Alexander did not survive the bottleneck of lost texts during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but they are still partially preserved for us today through fragments and quotations (in scholarly volumes such as Felix Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians). That hardly entails the implication of Strobel’s misleading wording, which (without explaining the nuance) could imply that nobody bothered to write a biography until four centuries after Alexander, but ancient authors (by comparison) were rushing to jot down the deeds of Jesus much earlier. Quite to the contrary: Alexander had multiple eyewitnesses and contemporary sources, whereas nobody wrote a gospel about Jesus until half a century after his death, in a different language, and in different lands, drawing primarily from oral traditions and hearsay.
(I should note, hypothetical sources like the Q source, a pre-Markan Passion narrative, the M or L sources, do not count as textual sources in the same capacity as the historians for Alexander that I have listed above. All of these hypothetical sources are scholarly reconstructions, and there is debate over whether they constituted written texts. The Q source, for example, may have been a written collection of sayings. But it is also possible that it mostly derives from the author of Luke using Matthew’s gospel. Since it is merely a debated scholarly reconstruction, it cannot be counted as a established written text. This is very unlike a later author citing a written text, and attributing it to a specific author, such as what we see in Plutarch and Arrian.)
So why do historians find Plutarch’s and Arrian’s biographies to be “generally trustworthy”? Once more, Strobel gets it wrong when he has Blomberg state:
“In other words, the first five hundred years kept Alexander’s story pretty much intact; legendary material began to emerge over the next five hundred years. So whether the Gospel were written sixty years or thirty years after the life of Jesus, the amount of time is negligible by comparison. It’s almost a nonissue.”
No, there are very many critical issues at play here. Does Strobel really think that the first five hundred years after Alexander preserved his biography on their own? Hardly. It is only because Plutarch and Arrian drew upon the earlier written works of Alexander’s eyewitness and contemporary historians that we can trust these later works to be reliable . Arrian made heavy use of the writings of earlier, eyewitness historians. It is not the “five hundred years” that accurately preserved the information in Arrian’s narrative, but the contemporary sources that he drew upon. Strobel does not clarify any of this to his lay readers.
The comparison with Plutarch is even more insightful. For Plutarch, a number of his biographies deal with legendary figures of whose historicity we cannot even be certain. One such biography is Plutarch’s Life of Romulus. Now, Romulus allegedly lived in the 8th century BCE and Plutarch lived in the late 1st century CE. Instead of the four hundred year gap between Plutarch and Alexander, we have an eight hundred year gap between Romulus and Plutarch. But are the extra centuries what make the difference here? Not at all. The biography of Romulus cannot be trusted, because no contemporaries or near contemporaries of Romulus wrote anything about him. Had contemporaries written about Romulus, as they did about Alexander, then Plutarch could have been able to make a generally trustworthy account even eight hundred years later. This is why I can write a trustworthy biography about Alexander over two thousand years after his death. What matters are the writings of the earliest sources, not the earliest sources to be fully extant.
Let’s consider an even better comparison in the case of Plutarch’s Life of Camillus. Now, the Roman general Camillus (c. 446–365 BCE) was a near contemporary of Alexander (356–323 BCE) of whose historicity I am rather certain. The chronological gap between Plutarch and Alexander is about the same as between Plutarch and Camillus. However, I do not find Plutarch’s Life of Camillus to be generally trustworthy (at least not for many of the biographical details of Camillus’ life; the sack of Rome in 390 BCE is a historical event discussed in the biography, but Plutarch had limited evidence for knowing the specific details even of that otherwise general event). The problem is that Roman historical writing did not begin until the late 3rd century BCE with the writings of Rome’s first historian Fabius Pictor. There was some earlier evidence afforded by the Annales Maximi, which were records kept by the Roman high priest that later annalists like Pictor made use of (though, even these records were substantially destroyed by the sack of 390 BCE), but they were limited in the data that they could afford, and usually recorded only general, not specific events. That leaves a substantial gap between Camillus and the earliest historical writings about him, whereas no such gap exists for the earliest writings about Alexander the Great. Even as a diligent biographer, Plutarch was not able to produce as reliable an account for Camillus, because no contemporary sources existed for his life, whereas he could produce a reliable account for Alexander through contemporary sources, even when both subjects were distanced by four centuries. Once more, the lesson is not that hundreds of years can still accurately preserve a biography, as Strobel implies, but that contemporary written sources (of which we have none for Jesus) can accurately preserve information for hundreds of years.
Furthermore, the claim about the legendary material for Alexander is likewise misleading. It did not take the second set of five hundred years after the first half-millennium for legends to emerge about Alexander. Once more, Strobel is confusing this with the surviving legendary material we have from some collections of Medieval texts categorized as the Alexander Romance. Legends about Alexander in non-extant sources cropped up far earlier than that, as early as the Ptolemaic period immediately after Alexander’s death.
Here is a valuable article written by Kris Komarnitsky discussing the growth rate of legends surrounding famous figures in antiquity. Apologists (as seen in the example above) like to claim that it takes hundreds of years for legends to develop. They frequently quote Sherwin-White’s claim that two generations is too short a time for legends to have developed about Jesus. However, Sherwin-White was corrected by his colleague and classical historian P.A. Brunt, who pointed out that many legends emerged about Alexander the Great within only a couple decades after his death. As Sherwin-White later admitted (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, pg. 192):
“Mr. P.A. Brunt has suggested in private correspondence that a study of the Alexander [the Great] sources is less encouraging for my thesis. There was a remarkable growth of myth around his person and deeds within the lifetime of contemporaries [circa 300 BCE], and the historical embroidery was often deliberate. But the hard [historical] core still remains, and an alternative but neglected source – or pair of sources – survived for the serious inquirer Arrian to utilize in the second century A.D.”
The problem for Sherwin-White’s thesis, however, is that the historical core of Alexander’s biography was far better preserved than what was available for Jesus. In the case of Alexander, Arrian could make use of several eyewitness historical sources, written during Alexander’s life or only shortly after his death. For Jesus, there are no known contemporary, eyewitness, or historical sources of any kind, but only theological epistles from a non-eyewitness decades after his death and hagiographies written by unknown persons half a century after his death. Both Alexander and Jesus had legends quickly emerge about their lives; however, for Alexander there was still a solid historical core preserved through contemporary writings, whereas for Jesus the historical core was never preserved by contemporary records and later legends quickly took over through a religious movement that furnished the legendary accounts we have today. As Richard Stoneman (Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context, pg. 120) summarizes nicely:
“[W]ith Jesus … we have no independent historical source by which we can evaluate the ways in which the legend varies from what really happened. In the Alexander Romance we see see history becoming saga before our very eyes.”
So this is hardly a “nonissue” as Blomberg claims. I will spare him some of the blame, however, since Blomberg has stated after his interview that Strobel oversimplified many of his statements. Chris Hallquist in his book UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God (pg. 50) discusses how he emailed Blomberg about some of the generalizing statements in his interview with Strobel that could easily be misconstrued. Hallquist summarizes the correspondence as follows:
“In e-mail conversation, Blomberg told me that Strobel’s write-up of the interview was not verbatim but rather heavily paraphrased and full of what were, in Blomberg’s view, oversimplifications. He told me his initial impulse when he saw Strobel’s draft was to edit everything for accuracy, but in the end decided to correct only the worst problems.”
Unfortunately, Blomberg did not correct this oversimplification (and misrepresentation) in the statement about Alexander’s earliest biographies, which were not written “four hundred” years later, but during his lifetime. Nevertheless, the primary blame rests with Lee Strobel, whose book is chalked full of distortions and inaccuracies of this kind . As a former legal affairs journalist, I really have to wonder whether Strobel is really so incompetent at catching these critical details, or whether he deliberately puts out such overly-generalized half-truths merely to convert whatever layperson happens to be reading his book under the pretense of “evidence.”
As a Classics Ph.D. student, however, I really have to say that I find this kind of misinformation about my field to be rather terrible. As much as creationists misrepresent and misinform people about the theory of evolution, historical apologists likewise grossly distort the field of ancient history, using oversimplifications, half-truths, or pure inaccuracies in order to serve their religious agenda and proselytize. Exposing these dishonest apologetics to the public, who deserves better information about these matters, is part of the service I seek to provide as part of my work in academia.
 As it turns out, an Ancient History Ph.D. student at UNC, who was a former colleague of mine in the UofA Classics M.A. program, read this essay and contacted me about another error he found in Strobel’s interview. He pointed out that, even among the extant sources that come down through Medieval manuscripts, Plutarch and Arrian are still not the “earliest biographies.” We have surviving copies of the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus’ Historiae Alexandri Magni, which predates both Plutarch’s and Arrian’s biographies. So, even when the statement is given allowance for only referring to surviving texts (which is very ambiguous in its wording and misleading to the readers), Strobel and Blomberg are still incorrect.
 Furthermore, even if Plutarch and Arrian did not directly access the earlier writings of Alexander’s historians, they still had access to source collections that compiled their materials. As J.E. Powell (“The Sources of Plutarch’s Alexander,” pp. 229-230) argues:
“Plutarch cites by name no fewer than twenty-four authorities. The list is headed by those Letters of Alexander which form almost the sole source of the digressions illustrative of character: they are expressly cited in altogether more than thirty places. Next … come Aristobulus, Chares and Onesicritus, cited half-a-dozen times each; then Callisthenes quoted thrice, and Duris, Eratosthenes and the ephemerides, or official diaries, twice each. There remain the following sixteen names, which appear once only: Anticlides, Antigenes, Aristoxenus, Clitarchus, Dinon, Hecataeus of Eretria, Hegesias, Heraclides, Hermippus, Istrus, Philip of Chalcis and Philip the Chamberlain, Philo of Thebes, Polyclitus, Ptolemy and Sotion.
[T]he great majority of these authors can never have been in Plutarch’s hands. His citation of them must be derivative. Indeed, it can be made probable that in composing the Life Plutarch used only two books: the collection of Alexander’s letters for the character-sketches, and for the main narrative a large variorum compilation on the history of Alexander, the same compilation of which Arrian’s Anabasis is principally a judicious epitome.”
Through earlier source collections, such as the variorum that Powell discusses, therefore, the gap between Alexander’s first historians (who wrote during and shortly after his lifetime) could be bridged to later authors like Plutarch and Arrian, who wrote several hundred years later.
 For more critical reviews of Strobel’ The Case for Christ, I recommend Jeff Lowder’s “The Rest of the Story” and Robert Price’s The Case Against The Case For Christ, in addition to Paul Doland’s website, Case Against Faith, which provides detailed critical reviews of Strobel’s other “Case for…” apologetics books.
In my writings on this blog I have also countered a number of Strobel’s claims in the other chapters of The Case for Christ:
(Note: some of these essays are not direct responses to Strobel’s interviews, but only address the same historical-critical issues.)
- For a rebuttal to Strobel’s claim in chapter 1 that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony, see my essay “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels.”
- For chapter 2, in which Strobel argues for the historical reliability of the Gospels, see my essay “Methodological Approaches to Ancient History.”
- For chapter 3, in which Strobel argues for the textual reliability of the New Testament, see my essay “Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context.”
- For chapter 4, in which Strobel discusses non-Christian sources for Jesus, see my essay “Ten Reasons to Reject the Apologetic 10/42 Source Slogan.”
- For chapter 12, in which Strobel argues for Jesus’ resurrection via the empty tomb, see my essay “Knocking Out the Pillars of the Minimal Facts Apologetic.”
- For chapter 13, in which Strobel discusses the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, see my essay “1 Corinthians 15 and the 500 Witnesses.”
[I have since expanded upon many of the points made above in my essay “When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?.” In this second essay I elaborate further on why the historical evidence for Alexander the Great is vastly more reliable than that of Jesus, and also discuss the methodological issues surrounding legendary development and the need of early sources in historical analysis.]
The only real surprise is when they break character
What occurred to me while reading your article are those similarities between evangelism and Pro Wrestling. It’s not so much pro wrestling/evangelism’s mischaracterizations of Ancient History & the Classics, but their adherents who cannot stand admitting to any fakery about even doing so.
Pedagogy: It’s all about their fanbase, nothing else matters.
Hi Matthew, and thanks again for a really interesting post. Your last paragraph sums up the Apologists’ ‘dirty tricks’ and the downright deceptions they employ in a nutshell.
A History Ph.D. student at UNC, who was a former colleague of mine in the UofA Classics M.A. program, read my article and just contacted me about another error in Strobel’s interview.
He pointed out that, even among the extant sources that come down through Medieval manuscripts, Plutarch and Arrian are not the “earliest biographies.” We have surviving copies of the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus‘ Historiae Alexandri Magni, which slightly predates Plutarch.
So, even when the statement is given allowance for only referring to surviving texts (it is still ambiguously worded and easily open to misinterpretation), Strobel and Blomberg are still incorrect. I’ll add a footnote to the article to note this additional detail.
It is fascinating to watch these memes develop. A legitimate scholar like A.N. Sherwin-White gets quote mined by William Lane Craig. Then Strobel interviews Craig and Sherwin-White’s anecdotal remarks become a “meticulous study” of the rate of legendary development. After a couple more iterations, some fundamentalist blogger claims that Sherwin-White unequivocally affirmed the historicity of the resurrection.
What I really love is the way that Blomberg couldn’t be bothered to make sure that Strobel quoted him correctly, but he expects us to believe that 1st century Christians would have gone batcrap crazy if anyone had dared to pass along anything about Jesus that was any less than 100% true. .
Ha, that’s a good point. Strobel and Blomberg couldn’t bother to check a couple facts available in a quick internet search. And yet Habermas, just a couple chapters later in Strobel’s book, claimed that some of the Corinthians would travel all the way across the Aegean to Palestine, so that they could corroborate Paul’s claim about the “500 witnesses.” What were they going to do? Run around the country asking random people if they were part of the 500? If apologetics is so sloppy in the age of information, would an apocalyptic cult of people speaking in tongues and prophesying really have committed themselves to forensic investigations 2,000 years ago?
Whenever an apologist says that skeptics must believe that the ancients were more gullible than people today, I reply “No. I just don’t believe that they were any less gullible.”
“Run around the country asking random people if they were part of the 500?”
Couldn’t they just go to a local church and ask someone to point them to the eyewitnesses? Your lack of imagination isn’t an argument.
” committed themselves to forensic investigations 2,000 years ago?”
Interviewing eyewitnesses? It isn’t that hard to ask someone what they saw.
Why would people from Corinth travel across the Aegean to interview an unnamed group of 500 people, when Blomberg and Strobel in the age of the Internet couldn’t even be bothered to do a basic Google search to check information that they were publishing? There is no evidence that anybody bothered to track down and fact check this claim. Apologists want there to be, but the reality is that it is nothing by a piece of uncorroborated hearsay, as I explain in fuller depth here.
This entire article is a straw man attack. While i agree that when Strobel says “The two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than four hundred years after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C”. He was trying to make it seem that there were no previous writings about Alexander. You actually glossed over Strobel’s Point. In the very next sentence Strobel says; “yet historians consider them to be generally trustworthy.
This is the point Strobel is making. Its a refutation of the Historical Jesus deniers common allegation that the Gospels should not be considered historically reliable because they were written about 70 or 80 years after Jesus’ death.
If historians consider a history of Alexander the Great written 400 years after his life reliable; then the Gospels written so soon after the crucifixion must be so much more reliable. I’m only talking about time lines not content. That’s another argument.
It looks like you missed the point I was making. Historians only consider Arrian and Plutarch to be reliable because they were drawing upon contemporary written records of Alexander’s life (of which there are none for Jesus). Hence, the 400 versus 70-80 years isn’t the issue, and that is explicitly what Strobel either does not understand or does not tell his readers.
That is why I gave the example of Plutarch’s Life of Camillus. That is another biography that is written about 400 years later, but there were no contemporary histories or written records for Camillus that Plutarch could utilize. Accordingly, Plutarch’s biography of Camillus is not generally trustworthy, even though it is written with the same chronological gap as the biography of Alexander. The issue is whether the later sources had access to contemporary writings, not how many years later they were written than the Gospels. Without contemporary records, the historical core could be displaced in only a couple decades. With contemporary records, it could be preserved for centuries. Accordingly, biographies of Alexander the Great could still be reliably written hundreds of years later, but the Gospels became legends in half a century.
It is absolutely ridiculous to say that the Gospels are as or more reliable than Plutarch’s biography simply because they were written within a shorter gap. Plutarch was using sources like Callisthenes (writing while Alexander was alive) and other contemporaries, whereas there is no evidence that the Gospels drew upon contemporary historians of Jesus. Plutarch is much, much more reliable than the Gospels, not only because he has better sources, but also because he belongs much more to the genre of historical prose than the Gospels. I elaborate on genre further here.
It was very naive of Strobel to think that a historical core could be preserved for 400 years on its own. He should have asked what sources Plutarch and Arrian used versus the Gospels. He would then find that we have much better reasons to trust Plutarch and Arrian, and that, only in the case of authors drawing from contemporary sources, can we call the chronological gap a nonissue. In the case of the Gospels it very much is an issue.
Didn’t Alexander have a personal historian who traveled with him and wrote about his deeds during his campaigns? That’s right, Callisthenes of Olynthus (360–328 BCE) was Alexander’s official biographer, who wrote contemporary to his life (not half a century later). This is a piece of information that would be covered in any undergraduate course about Greek history. Oh, by the way, there were other authors, who were eyewitnesses and who wrote either contemporary to Alexander (356–323 BCE) or within a couple decades after his death. Just to name ones I am familiar with:
Lee doesn’t have a classical background so I doubt it was deliberate. In fact I not familiar as much with Alexander as Julius Cesar but the main sources that I can think of Julius Caesar in his lifetime are Caesar Commentaries on the War in Gaul and the Civil Wars, Cicero’s letters and a couple of nasty remarks in the poetry of Catullus. In fact most of Julius Caesar life is in sources over a 150 years later in Plutarch and Suetonius. We don’t really know if Caesar spend time with pirates as a young man because its in Plutarch and Suetonius long after his lifetime. I believe like Caesar some of Alexander’s life is first referred in Plutarch as well.
“Lee doesn’t have a classical background so I doubt it was deliberate.”
Yeah, but Blomberg should have and yet he didn’t correct this completely incompetent error. Likewise, Strobel shouldn’t write these books if he genuinely does not understand the subject matter, misinforms people, and appears incapable or unwilling to do research to improve his “investigations” into these issues (such as interviewing more than just Christian apologists). However, I doubt that matters when you can make tons of money by selling such nonsense to a built-in Christian audience…
“In fact I not familiar as much with Alexander as Julius Cesar but the main sources that I can think of Julius Caesar in his lifetime are Caesar Commentaries on the War in Gaul and the Civil Wars, Cicero’s letters and a couple of nasty remarks in the poetry of Catullus.”
That’s already 3 contemporary sources, none of which exist for Jesus, as well as the writings of the subject himself, while we have no writings from Jesus (he was probably illiterate and certainly incapable of authoring complex prose). In addition, Caesar’s commentaries detail a massive narrative of two campaigns that spanned over a decade, and yet we can scarcely even reconstruct Jesus’ ministry, which was just one year of his life (or possibly three if you go off the contradictory timeline in John). Likewise, Cicero provides a direct day-by-day commentary on many of Caesar’s activities. We have absolutely nothing like this for Jesus.
In addition there are other early sources: Sallust’s De Bello Catilinae (c. 44-40 BCE) features Julius Caesar, is written by an eyewitness historian, and dates to only a couple years after Caesar’s death. We have no writings about Jesus until at least two decades later in the form of non-eyewitnesses and no historians.
“In fact most of Julius Caesar life is in sources over a 150 years later in Plutarch and Suetonius. We don’t really know if Caesar spend time with pirates as a young man because its in Plutarch and Suetonius long after his lifetime. I believe like Caesar some of Alexander’s life is first referred in Plutarch as well.”
Hardly. Most of Caesar’s important military campaigns and political decisions are corroborated during his lifetime or shortly after his death. You may be correct that we have to rely on later sources for some more obscure details about his childhood and young adulthood, but these types of details, apart from two contradictory and ahistorical nativity narratives in the Gospels and a brief and most likely ahistorical reference in Luke (2:41-52) about Jesus’ childhood, have been entirely lost in the case of Jesus. So we likewise have vastly more information about Caesar’s entire life, whereas for Jesus we can only reconstruct a brief biographical sketch of his rough timeline, approximate a few details of his life, and maybe reconstruct a some of his teachings from Greek oral traditions that could have been translated from his Aramaic sayings.
Likewise, even for the later sources of Caesar’s life the same principle applies as in the case of Alexander about contemporary written documents. While Caesar was alive he had secretaries, enemy politicians, family, and friends writing about him and likewise having epistolary exchanges. He was surrounded by literate people whose writings were both contemporary and preserved hundreds of years later in order for historical biographers like Suetonius and Plutarch to accurately make use of their contemporary evidence. In contrast with Jesus, although there are a few oral traditions that may date to a couple years of his lifetime, there is no evidence that anyone was writing anything about him until after his death. His illiterate followers passed on some details about him in the form of oral tradition, but these were added to, lost, invented, and translated into different languages before ever being written down. They are not even remotely as reliable.
In other words: the evidence for both Caesar and Alexander is vastly, vastly better. This does not entail that Jesus did not exist, but it is wrong to compare him to historically well-established figures, such as these. Moreover, historicity is something that can vary by degree. We have quantitatively more information about Caesar and Alexander and qualitatively more reliable accounts. Jesus, in contrast, was most likely an obscure itinerant prophet, for whom we can only glean a few details about his life and ministry. So it is absurd to compare him to Caesar or Alexander, and doing so misinforms people, gives them a skewed perspective of history, and ultimately dumbs down their ability to accurately understand these issues.
We really must get past simply accepting that the gospels are even quasi-historical sources whose authorial purpose can be equated to that of a Plutarch or an Arrian. Nonsense! The gospels are sophisticated narrative theology (written in chiastic structure) about GOD, who assumed the form of a man, was executed and came back to life “according to the scriptures.” Before we accept that they were written “30 years after the death of Jesus,” we must first establish a reason to believe anything the theologians self-consciously writing these church manuals ever actually happened in reality. Because until that is established, you might as well say “Don Quixote” must be true because it was written just a few years after his death. Context and authorial intent is everything. Apologists never learn this, but what can you expect from professional liars.
If you haven’t already, I urge you to spend some time reading Michael Turton’s Commentary on Mark.
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I am saddened that while there may be error in the dating and who wrote what when idealism, I will have to say the hate read on these posts towards “apologists” are very limited in seeing the big picture of does God exist? If not, then don’t waste my time. If so, then why debate, talk to Him directly like I did.
Oh I’m not a professional lair.
I’m not really sure what this comment is about. However, I posted this article specifically to correct misrepresentations of my academic discipline in Classics. When I see incorrect information used about Alexander the Great, I think it is good to correct such misinformation and to educate people about what the evidence is really like. It is unfortunate that apologists spread such misconceptions when seeking to create skewed numbers for the evidence of Jesus. Even if I were a Christian, I would still disapprove of this practice and be highly disappointed in Lee Strobel for spreading such misinformation.
I think you missed the point. Critics will say that our earliest gospel accounts were written 40 years after Jesus , so they cannot be reliable. BUt Alexander’s biographies were written 400 years after him and they were considered to be reliable.. You respond that these guys are considered to be reliable because they use earlier sources. If you look at the work of scholars like Richard Bauckham , you will find that the gospel accounts used earlier eyewitness sources as well , so the case is pretty parallel. Someone you say those earlier sources for the gospels didn’t survive, but neither did those earlier biographies of Alexander.
I think you missed the point. Blomberg claimed that the “earliest biographies” of Alexander were written 400 years after his death. This is demonstrably false, as eyewitness historians, such as Callisthenes, were traveling with Alexander and recording his deeds in person. Blomberg was also incorrect about the earliest extant biographies of Alexander being Plutarch and Arrian, since Curtius Rufus is a surviving historian writing earlier. This claim is nothing but a piece of misinformation demonstrating Strobel’s incompetent research.
Likewise, historians do not think that Plutarch and Arrian are reliable because they were writing within 400 years, rather than later (as Blomberg implies with the Alexander Romance, which I address above). Strobel tries to make it seem that historians merely crunch numbers and base historicity on the date of a text. The reality is far more complicated, since actual historical analysis uses a variety of criteria, such as literary genre (I explain here how the Gospels are not historical in genre), the research methods of the authors, the type of claim in question, etc. I explain in my article about methodological approaches to ancient history that when you apply the same historical criteria used to evaluate other ancient texts to the Gospels, they are unreliable.
The claim that 40 years is too soon for legends to emerge is not supported by ancient evidence, as Komarnitsky explains in the article I linked. The Vita Genofevae, a biography of St. Genevieve that claims to be written only 18 years after her death, records things like ships magically levitating out of water. Historians realize that Herodotus, writing only 40 years after the Persian War, has egregious errors in his history, such as exaggerating the size of the Persian army, and recording that the gods destroyed the Persian forces as they attacked Delphi (which was probably simply overwhelmed and capture). Obviously historians do not just count years.
Likewise, Richard Bauckham’s claims are not accepted by mainstream NT scholarship. A large number of scholars critiqued his book in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Here is an article summarizing why scholars do no accept Bauckham’s views. I likewise explain here why the vast majority of scholars doubt that there is direct eyewitness testimony in the Gospels.
For a more representative view of where scholars stand with regard to the sources and genre of the Gospels that does not just look at evangelical scholars, but evaluates the field as a whole, I recommend the Oxford Annotated Bible, which explains (pg. 1744):
Lee Strobel is not a scholarly source of information. He is a hack author who makes a profit by selling after-the-fact rationalizations to an in-built Christian audience. I realize that you do not want that to be the case, but as someone who teaches ancient Greek history at the university level, I can assure that scholars do not take these ridiculous claims and comparisons seriously.
1) As to the first paragraph , I think a bit of interpretive charity is needed. Our main sources for Alexander’s life are Arrian and Plutarch and historians think they are reliable. I think that is the main point. Papias refers to an earlier document containing Aramaic sayings of Jesus , and scholars like Ehrman, Casey, Crossley think there were earlier written sources for the gospel traditions , but those don’t survive either (just as teh sources Alexander’s biographies didn’t survive). I agree caveats definitely need t be added about historiography and it not just being dates and myth development. I think AN Sherwn White point was more subtle though. He was talking about myth overtaking teh core elements of the history
2) Bauckham’s book did get a good deal of positive reviews by NT scholars as well. I also find it heavily ironic that you say his claims are not accepted by the mainstream , while you yourself like to cite fringe scholars like Robert Price and Richard Carrier who are even further from the mainstream .
3) I think Lee Strobel’s stuff is Ok . Its definiely less nuanced than a scholarly work , but his arguments are generally OK.
1) The case with the source material for Plutarch and Arrian is not parallel to that for the Gospels, even when we consider earlier materials and traditions that the Gospels were drawing from. Here is why:
In the case of Plutarch and Arrian, the previous sources they are drawing from are known authors and eyewitness historians, such as Callisthenes, Anaximenes, Aristobulus, Eumenes, Nearchus, etc. Even if their works did not survive, we have quotations of them to know a good amount about what they wrote, and Arrian is likewise very methodological in how he uses theses previous sources and explains to his readers how he passes judgments.
In the case of the Gospels, scholars like Ehrman think that there were probably earlier M, L, and Q source materials (even though Goodacre doubts the existence of Q), and a Signs Gospel behind John, etc. However, the difference is that we do not know who authored any of these source materials. In fact, we do not really know for certain if they existed, even if source analysis can suggest that they may have, and some scholars doubt the existence of some of them (e.g Goodacre). Also, these materials would not have come from critical historians, like Callisthenes. They would have primarily been oral traditions, sayings, etc. Likewise, none of the Gospels’ authors tell us how they use these sources or pass judgment, like Arrian does. Furthermore, based on the sheer volume of material in Plutarch and Arrian, it is clear that there was simply far more documented material about Alexander, whereas these earlier sources and traditions behind the Gospels would have been much more sparse and limited.
As for the case with Sherwin White, if you read the article I linked by Komarnitsky, in addition to the discussion above, myth only does not overtake the core elements of history when the figure in question is of public interest. Alexander was surrounded by literate people recording details about his life. He also did things like mint coins, found cities, and fight battles that brought the end of empires. Such large-scale events are very prominent and not easily forgotten. That said, things such as sayings of Alexander or particular anecdotes are more likely to have been obscured over time. But, in the case of Alexander, he would have been a person of sufficient public interest for later myth-making not to erase the core of his biography, as there was simply a very large footprint of contemporary evidence that he left behind.
The case is not the same for Jesus. Jesus was an obscure itinerant prophet followed by largely illiterate Galileans. Very little of Jesus’ activity would have a made an impact in public records. Instead, the only thing that was preserved of Jesus were oral traditions and later stories. There may be kernels of truth behind some of these traditions, but there was no where near he volume of documented evidence that there was Alexander. As such, it was far more easy for the historical core of Jesus’ biography to be erased, especially when we consider that Jesus was a messianic figure who was exalted by his followers, and whose life was only documented at any length in anonymous hagiographies, nothing like the critical historians of Alexander.
It is thus a very bad comparison to compare the biographical material for Alexander to that of Jesus. A figure like Socrates would be a better comparison (i.e. a teacher who wrote nothing of his own, but whose teachings were written about by others), but even for Socrates we have contemporary eyewitnesses who write about him, such as Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon, but for Jesus there are no works agreed upon by scholars to have been written by an eyewitness or contemporary. And even for the historical Socrates there are many difficulties in reconstructing the biography of his life, as later authors fashioned him to their own narrative purposes.
2) I said that Richard Baukham’s position about there being eyewitness testimony in the Gospels is fringe and not accepted by the majority of scholars. On other issues, however, I am sure that Baukham holds views that are consistent with the mainstream.
In like manner, Prices’ and Carrier’s positions about mythicism and the ahistoricity of Jesus are indeed not mainstream. However, that does not mean that other positions that Price and Carrier hold are not agreed upon by the majority of scholars. If you read all of the material that I cite from Price and Carrier, none of it has to do with mythicism. This is because I am not a mythicist and believe that there was a historical Jesus. I lean more towards Ehrman’s views. However, when I cite things from Carrier, such as his refutation of the claim that there is as good of evidence for Caesar crossing the Rubicon as there is for Jesus’ resurrection (which is even worse than the Alexander comparison), I can guarantee you that the vast majority of Classicists would agree with Carrier. Likewise, Carrier’s philosophical views about naturalism are shared by the majority of professional philosophers.
3) We are going to have to agree to disagree about Strobel. However, here is my main complaint: Strobel claims in his book that he was investigating the origins of Christianity just like he would investigate a case in his role as a forensic journalist. Yet in his book he only interviews conservative apologists, 10/13 of whom are from Christian universities. This is not a representative sample of NT scholarship. So when Strobel claims that the Gospels are eyewitness testimonies, he does not clarify that this is a minority position, rejected by the bulk of mainstream scholarship, to his lay readers. This poor representation is so bad that even Blomberg admitted that there were many problems in the chapter with Strobel’s interview of him (which I cited above from Hallquist’s email to Blomberg).
Personally, I think that The Case for Christ misinforms far more than it informs on anything. Lay readers who are not familiar with ancient history will walk away with a worse understanding of the subject than they would have had before. As an educator of ancient history, I find this to be highly deplorable, which is why I wrote this article.
A lot of people who read apologetics are only interested in learning about ancient history, insomuch as it confirms their religious beliefs. They are not interested in the history of Alexander the Great, for example, for its own sake. I am a Classicist who studies Pagan history for its own purposes. As such, when I see it abused by apologists merely in order to sell after-the-fact rationalization for their religion, I consider it to be a huge abuse of my field. This is why, as a Classicist, I seek to educate the public about this egregious misrepresentation, such as in the case of Strobel’s very, very bad comparison between the evidence for Jesus vs. Alexander.
Fair points re:Alexander’s biographies and I agree Strobel should probably have indicated what the mainstream views were , even if he thinks there were good arguments against those views and wanted to present them.
I am a history student at the U of A as well as an atheist and recently Cliffe Knechtle was again at the school. While I listened he claimed that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all primary first hand accounts which I’m fairly certain most agree they are not. But he will not budge on this fallacy. I then began to discuss with him how he can claim God as a moral standard when God is one of the most immoral characters in literary history accepting and/or commanding slavery, murder, rape etc. and they immediately stopped filming and he never gave a cognitive answer, just talked around it by basically saying God is just meaning God can do what he wants because he is God. I was very disappointed in his dishonesty.
“I am a history student at the U of A as well as an atheist and recently Cliffe Knechtle was again at the school. While I listened he claimed that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all primary first hand accounts which I’m fairly certain most agree they are not. But he will not budge on this fallacy.”
Yeah, Cliffe has been informed multiple times and hopefully knows from his own research that most scholars doubt the traditional authors of the Gospels. He never says this to his audience right off the bat. Instead, he only concedes this if someone in the audience has the background to call him on it. He is also stubborn in abandoning the eyewitness interpretation, because much of his case for the resurrection rests on the premises that the disciples: 1) wrote that they physically saw the resurrected Jesus (we have no such written accounts), and 2) they died for their belief in the resurrection (the stories of the apostles’ martyrdoms are actually all unreliable and legendary). Cliffe thinks this is a slam dunk case, because, of course, “nobody would die for a lie!”
For a lengthy article explaining why scholars doubt the traditional authors of the Gospels, quoting all of the authorities (including many Christian scholars) whom Cliffe is ignoring, see here:
For a refutation of the claim that the disciples “died for their belief in the resurrection,” see here:
For further refutation of Cliffe’s claim that the Gospels read like the finest historians of their day, see here:
“I then began to discuss with him how he can claim God as a moral standard when God is one of the most immoral characters in literary history accepting and/or commanding slavery, murder, rape etc. and they immediately stopped filming and he never gave a cognitive answer, just talked around it by basically saying God is just meaning God can do what he wants because he is God.”
Cliffe loves the moral argument as well. The main reason is because he likes to use it as an emotional scare tactic. “You have no point in life without God! I could kill anyone without God and you would have no right to judge! You have no reason to say that Hitler was evil if atheism is true!”
All empty assertions with no support among professional ethical philosophers. See below a debate between professional philosopher of ethics Shelly Kagan with apologist William Craig about whether moral realism can exist without God (many Christians even acknowledge that Kagan won this debate):
Likewise, I discuss meta-ehthics and its relation to moral realism under atheism and theism in this conference paper that I presented at a philosophy of religion conference a couple years ago:
Also, here is a guest article from my friend Michael Torri (who has also confronted Cliffe at UofA) about the issue that you discussed concerning God’s immorality in the Bible:
Finally, here is another article exploring the implications of moral anti-realism, in which I explain that, even if Cliffe were right about God being necessary for moral realism, there is no reason to expect anarchy and negative consequences if moral realism were not true. Cliffe just uses the moral argument for anti-atheist fear mongering, as I explain here:
“I was very disappointed in his dishonesty.”
Indeed, so am I, which is why I have written a good deal responding to his false caricatures of atheists and explaining what real atheists actually believe.
When was he last at UofA?
Unfortunately, the last time I had a chance to argue with him was over the whole 10/42 incident, which he misrepresented online, but which I corrected through my article and video, to which Cliffe (miraculously) apologized. I haven’t had a chance to confront Cliffe since, because I left UofA that year and he does not come to UCI. I’d like to get a chance to debate him in person again, this time with my own camera. I’ve been following Cliffe’s specious rhetoric and anti-atheist attacks for a good while now, so, if I had the chance to confront him again, I would prepare counter points to everything that he has to say, quoting the numerous philosophical, historical, and scientific authorities that disagree with him. But, I haven’t had the chance to confront Cliffe again so far.
Cliffe was here at the U of A starting Monday October 27th through yesterday October 29th I believe. He may still be here today 10/30 but I’m not sure yet. I had never heard of him prior. I agree having your own camera is the only way to go, I watched his video edits including reading what happened with your incident and I was upset with the deceitfulness of his online editing.
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