Because "by itself an empty grave does not a resurrection make," Strobel's next endeavor centers around the postmortem appearances of Jesus. Yet this has trouble of its own too, since reports of sightings after death do not a resurrection make either. Gary Habermas, Strobel's interview subject for the chapter, relies primarily on the earliness of the stories, but there are problems with such a simplistic approach that can best be illustrated by referring to the king of kings. As I previously noted, the earliest reported postmortem sighting of Elvis Presley was a mere two days after his death. The 'witness' believed they saw Elvis filling up his car at a gas station in Georgia - nothing fantastically mythical or legendary. Do the earliness and primitivity of this report make it likely that Elvis really did survive death? Apologists may protest on the grounds that the king's grave is not empty, but this fact simply goes to show what people are willing to believe. Earliness and primitivity are not sufficient to establish the reliability of a report of a postmortem appearance.
That said, let's have a look at Habermas' performance anyway. Strobel introduces him in a very unjournalistic fashion similar to his introduction of William Lane Craig. A debate between Habermas and Antony Flew is commented on, with a number of quotes from questionably biased personalities. As one example, a judge of the debate stated, "Since the case against the resurrection was no stronger than that presented by Antony Flew, I would think it was time I began to take the resurrection seriously" (p. 226). Debates are not a contest to determine the truth of a proposition, despite the way many of them are formatted. A representative of one side of the argument engages a representative of another side of the argument in discussion, and most intelligent folks understand that these representatives do NOT speak for all the people on their side, but do try their best to accurately reflect the gist of the position. To conclude based on one debate that the case against the resurrection is no stronger than the delivery of it given by the representative is a grossly under-informed presumption.
Habermas explains how he fashions an argument for the resurrection:
Unfortunately for Habermas, there's no way to actually establish that Jesus appeared to people. The best he can offer are reports of appearances, and these are suspect by nature of the fact that "dead people don't normally [appear to others after their death]," as he says himself. So what does he provide to defend these reports? First on the list is the 'creed' in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, which Strobel finally asks for his guest scholar to support. Claiming the passage as an early creed, Habermas gives us five arguments: (i) the words "received" and "delivered" are 'technical rabbinic terms' used for holy traditions; (ii) the text's parallelism and stylized content; (iii) the use of the Aramaic name "Cephas" for Peter; (iv) primitive phrases like "the Twelve," "the third day," and "he was raised"; and (v) the "use of certain words is similar to Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew means of narration" (p. 229).
Though not sourced, (i) bases itself on the work of Joachim Jeremias, who is quoted by Habermas for another purpose on page 230. The connection of "received" and "delivered" with rabbinic practices of passing on traditions comes from the assumption that the Greek word paralambano, for "received," is associated with the Hebrew qibel, which is taken as always referring to the reception of a tradition. However, as Hyam Maccoby has shown, this is not always the case, as the Mishna uses qibel in stating that "Moses received the Torah from Sinai" . Obviously, Moses was not handed down the Torah as a tradition, but he was given it through a revelation from god himself, as the story tells. This also corresponds to Paul's own profession in Galatians 1:12 that he did not receive [paralambano] his gospel from any man, but by a revelation from Jesus Christ. Habermas' first argument holds no water.
(ii) is given no elaboration, and it's difficult to rebut a vague statement that has no examples or details to support it. Even so, grammatical structure just means that Paul was well-educated in Greek composition, which shows in many of his writings. There's no reason to assume this means a greater chance of antiquity or reliability. For (iii), why should use of the Aramaic name for Peter mean anything other than that Paul knew Peter's Aramaic name? This is unexceptional, and the fact that the later gospel of John uses "Cephas" (1:42) also makes this irrelevant as an argument for an earlier dating. With (iv), Habermas claims that the three phrases listed above are ones "Paul would not customarily use" (p. 229). But how is this an argument for anything? We only have seven undisputed epistles from Paul to judge his vocabulary by, and every writer will occasionally use words that are not common to the rest of their writing. (v) is almost too pointless to bother with. Paul certainly knew Aramaic, and Mishnaic Hebrew was a dialect in use until at least the 4th century C.E.
To summarize, Habermas' case for the 1 Corinthians 15 passage being an early creed is built on faith more than any conclusive evidence. A couple of additional problems with his view are touched upon by Strobel, such as the 500 witnesses that aren't mentioned in the gospels and the absence of women from the appearances in the 'creed.' In defense of the five hundred, Habermas claims that Paul was "inviting people to check it out for themselves," (p. 232) though I don't see how they could've done this when Paul didn't name any names, not to mention the difficulty of traveling and researching such a thing in the first century. As apologists are so fond of doing, he also argues that the passage doesn't say Peter was "first" to see Jesus, so the women are invisibly implied, especially because women were not allowed as witnesses in those days (p. 233). It's interesting, then, that "sisters" are mentioned among the 500 witnesses, who Habermas believes Paul intended for people to investigate.
I want to look at one last statement Habermas makes before moving on to the final chapter:
So often this seems to be the thinking of apologists, but the truth is that legend is not the only way of saying that a report has left the realm of factual reality and become something else. Historical facts don't suddenly spring up into an assortment of colorful mythic distortions. The first step in that direction is usually very small, and disconfirming events - like the death of a beloved figure - are translated into spiritual experiences by followers all the time (for a recent example, Harold Camping responded to his failed doomsday prediction by reinterpreting it as a 'spiritual' judgment day ). It also deserves to be noted that we don't have multiple accounts of postmortem appearances. We may have Paul's testimony, but we do not have the testimonies of Cephas, James, the 500 witnesses, or anyone else until Matthew's gospel, some 30-50 years after Paul. What we have, then, for the earliest postmortem appearances is one man's statement about his own experience and the experiences of others. It hardly constitutes reliable evidence for a resurrection.
Strobel attempts to bolster the appearances with five pieces of evidence for the resurrection "that are not in dispute by anybody" (p. 246). J.P. Moreland, the final interview in the carnival of Evangelical affirmation, gives the five pieces: (i) the disciples died for their beliefs; (ii) skeptics like James and Paul were converted; (iii) changes to key Jewish social structures were made; (iv) communion and baptism celebrate Christ's resurrection; and (v) the emergence of the church (p. 246-255). Scholars do dispute some of these 'facts,' though, like James being a skeptic  and the disciples being martyred , but we may grant Moreland these claims and still find his argument lacking.
In their discussion of (i), Strobel observes that "people won't die for their religious beliefs if they know their beliefs are false" (p. 247). In my article, Did the Disciples Die For a Lie?, I point out the difficulty of assessing who among the disciples could have known it if they were following a lie. Strobel claims that they were in a position to know, having lived with Jesus, but this presumes the accuracy of the gospel stories, and ignores the truth that we have NO accounts of martyred apostles who were eyewitnesses to the resurrection, as I explain in the article. That Moreland paints the disciples as "eleven credible people with no ulterior motives, with nothing to gain and a lot to lose" (p. 247) should cast suspicion on his own motives. How he can judge the credibility of eleven people, most of whom we have not a single preserved account from, is truly phenomenal, not to mention his knowledge of their unique minds and the motives they might have had (or rather did not have, according to Moreland). But most importantly, there is no reason to think the disciples died for beliefs they knew to be false.
On (ii), Moreland tries to claim that the conversion of alleged skeptics James and Paul makes... some sort of case for... something. "Remember," he says, "it's not the simple fact that Paul changed his views. You have to explain how he had this particular change of belief that completely went against his upbringing" (p. 249). As someone who made a change of belief that went against his Evangelical Christian upbringing, I find Moreland's comment to be especially amusing. A drastic change of mind does not imply the truth of one's position, nor does it suggest the involvement of the supernatural.
(iii) through (v) also cannot get us anywhere close to an inference of resurrection. Regarding (iii), Jews were already beginning to change their social structures before Christianity came on the scene, as the presence of various sects like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes can testify. Some of Moreland's 'evidences,' like the end of sacrifices, have a very simple natural explanation too, such as the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. - the only place where sacrifices were allowed under Jewish Law. For (iv), rather than strict symbols of resurrection, communion may represent commemoration and baptism may represent rebirth or cleansing. Such practices could be part of a belief system that saw Jesus' resurrection as non-physical, so this piece of the evidence is irrelevant to Moreland's aim. Lastly, on (v), the emergence of the Christian church was no special event, as I've explained before. It does not demonstrate the truth of Christianity anymore than the emergence of the Mormon church demonstrates the truth of Mormonism.
As "the final confirming proof," Moreland cites the "ongoing encounters" of Jesus by people of various backgrounds living throughout the world today (p. 255). I have addressed The Argument From Religious Experience in another article, but I will say that even if we were to suppose that these individuals have good reasons for believing in the experiences they've had, their experiences do not demonstrate the truth of the resurrection. The diversity of religious experience also builds a strong case against the use of such experience to support any specific religion. Yet this final 'proof' is saved until the last point of the last chapter for a reason of its own. Strobel and crew prime the reader for conversion by getting him/her to think about the experiences of the numerous believing Christians. With so many people claiming to have experienced something, they can't all be wrong, can they?
In the book's conclusion, Strobel finally reveals that The Case for Christ is his recounting of his conversion some seventeen years ago. But even more than this, he explains that during his actual experience, he "primarily studied books and other historical research instead of personally interacting with scholars" (p. 259). This puts to rest the rumor that Strobel was an atheist when he began work on the book, and since we don't know what "books" and "historical research" he studied in 1981, it also certainly calls into question the reasons for his conversion. The Case for Christ is a mass-marketed propaganda piece of Christian apologetics, intended to inspire conversion. It purports to be a journalistic investigation of the evidence for Christianity, but it is far from that. Nonetheless, Strobel claims that in light of the case he presents, it would've taken more faith for him to remain an atheist than to trust in Jesus (p. 265). Let's return to the questions Strobel asked of the Dixon case.
Has the collection of evidence really been thorough? The only honest answer can be: absolutely not. Strobel fails to interview a single skeptic - atheist or of some belief besides Evangelical Christianity. Though quotes of dissenting parties are sometimes offered, they seem cherry-picked for Strobel's scholars to knock down, and often times they don't accurately summarize the opponent's position, such as with the chapter on the Jesus Seminar. Some of the known, relevant evidence is also omitted, like the studies on the unreliability of eyewitness evidence, the Pilate stone with his actual title of "Prefect," the accounts of anti-abolitionist Christians who relied on the bible for support, and other details that would drastically challenge, if not entirely overturn, several of the statements made in the book. As said of the Jesus Seminar in chapter six, the results of The Case for Christ were "already determined ahead of time," and the cast of characters, the arguments, and the structure were all chosen with that conclusion in mind. "This is not responsible, or even critical, scholarship. It is a self-indulgent charade" (p. 127).
Which explanation best fits the totality of the evidence? Even if taken at face value, the arguments made by Strobel and his 13 scholars do not establish the divinity or resurrection of Christ. Perhaps Jesus did claim to be god and perhaps he sincerely believed he was. Perhaps the apostles did claim shortly after Jesus' death that he had risen from the grave and perhaps they sincerely believed he had. The problem with using any of this to endorse resurrection or divinity is that belief claims, no matter how sincere, are not testaments of actuality. Even if we had no alternative explanations of these claims, no rebuttals of them, and so forth, the fact remains that belief does not always correlate to what is real. Resurrection is not the only possibility for an empty tomb, and as a miraculous event, it is improbable by its very nature. But since we don't have an actual empty tomb - just believers' stories of it - the apologists are back at square one. Josephus, the Pool of Bethesda, and other such arguments are insufficient to support the divinity or resurrection of Jesus, yet no one in The Case for Christ provides anything of greater substance.
Thus, Strobel's case is an abject failure in journalism and scholarship. However, the real intent of the book is to provide some semi-intellectual basis for believing the claims of Christianity, and that is perhaps the only audience that will find the case compelling. For those who are interested in the truth or both sides of the debate, Strobel's work will likely hold nothing of value, other than possible entertainment. I give The Case for Christ 2 out of 5 clown courts.
1. Maccoby, H. (1991) Paul and Hellenism. p. 91-92. Trinity Press International.
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