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They Never Learn!

Jeff Lowder on Lee Strobel's "Case for Christ"
Josh Brister and James Patrick Holding

It was not that long ago that this page got its start by launching a counter to the Secular Web's rebuttal to Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict. One of our primary points -- expressed throughout our own response -- was that in tackling ETDAV, the SecWebbers were choosing an "easy target" and ignoring more detailed scholarship that generally confirmed McDowell's overall case. The Sec Web may be brave enough to tackle McDowell, all right, but we will never see the jury come in on the likes of Ben Witherington and N. T. Wright -- it's much harder to put a judge on trial!

Skeptics, it seems, never learn their lessons. Lee Strobel's Case for Christ is a major step up from McDowellish material; yet it is still a popular work that is backed up by more detailed scholarship, and unlike ETDAV, does provide a path to those who offer more detailed scholarship. There is no excuse here for not knowing about the works of Witherington, et al. for lack of reference. But don't count on the skeptics dirtying their shoes with hard research, least of all skeptic emeritus Jeff Lowder. As before with McDowell, Lowder is still worrying about an apologist not providing points of view from the other side -- as if the public libraries weren't open to all, and as if any apologist or writer is under an obligation to provide opponents equal time in their own books (you haven't got publishers and books of your own?), especially books in a mass-market genre. We've had our fill of these "crybaby" complaints; this from someone who has the Secular Web at his disposal and all the Internet space he needs!

And what of the critique itself? It hurls elephants with unmatched propensity: If we wish to object mightily about lack of balance, it may as well be in the realm of the sound bite. About Matthew and Luke using Mark as a source, Lowder states, "...if the two-source hypothesis is correct, Matthew and Luke are based heavily on Mark; it is therefore unlikely that Matthew and Luke constitute independent accounts." And these sound bites are added: "...the traditional authorship of Mark is open to serious question....it is unlikely that John was authored by John, son of Zebedee, for it seems to have been heavily edited and reworked." As if Lowder is not aware of the pages of material written by myself and Glenn Miller in this regard; to say nothing of the vast panoply of detailed scholarship ranging from Hengel to Wright. The authorship of Mark is open to question? What about, for example, that Mark wasn't even an apostle (he was a scribe for Peter by tradition) and didn't himself see an appearance of Jesus? Surely, as Hengel and others have cogently pointed out, the early Christians would have placed Peter's, or perphaps, James' authorship on this gospel. But no! And what of John? John's setting and time span covers the beginning and end of Jesus' ministry. John speaks as an eyewitness of Jesus and declares many times of himself this idenity, "the beloved disciple." From the fact that John was of the inner three of Jesus (James and Peter the other two) it is reasonable to conclude that he would know of Jesus' private conversations. But not in SkepticLand, where it's often enough just to quote John 20:31, dismiss the account as "biased," and be done with it.

And of course that's not the only skeptical argument hoisted with a snuffle and given a new spin. Lowder sets Edwin Yamauchi's words about religious movements recording matters later ("When people begin religious movements, it's often not until many generations later that people record things about them") against Blomberg's claim (one which Lowder calls a "familiar apologetic assertion") that if Christian evangelistic claims were false, then hostile witnesses would have happily shouted that fact from the moutaintops. One wonders if Lowder has read this section of the book carefully. Yamauchi isn't saying that Christianity was in fact started or recorded many generations after, but that movements generally, such as Islam for example, were started, then recorded certain things many generations later. It is illicit to place Yamauchi's words in particular against Blomberg's. It is more legit to quote Wilken: "For almost a century Christianity went unnoticed by most men and women in the Roman Empire. ... [Non-Christians] saw the Christian community as a tiny, peculiar, antisocial, irreligious sect, drawing its adherents from the lower strata of society." Yet these "hostile witnesses" we refer to are not the Romans, but Diaspora and Jerusalem Jews (note that Wilken says "most", not ALL!); moreover, it is clear from Wilken's quote that by "unnoticed" he does not mean "unknown"! He means, rather, "taken note of, and ignored"! That's what we would expect from a Roman watching two apparently Jewish sects having it out; yet Jews and their God-fearing converts would have had enough to chew on. (And regarding Yamauchi, and how that quote is used, we may ask: What of that events from antiquity were often recorded long after they happened? What of that even by "late date" standards, the hypothetical Q and Mark were recorded after only a short time -- 3-8 years and 40-50 years later, respectively? This is the sort of comparative argumentation we have yet to see performed in skeptical circles -- most likely because it will expose their arguments as special pleading against the NT record!)

(Note particularly the interactive polemic at the end of Matthew's Gospel about the disciples stealing the body. It would be odd for the church to make up this polemic; it would have been counter-productive if false. But if this is true then it would vindicate the claim that there was indeed a controversey; and note that Matthew reports that the Jews hold this position to that day.)

Now on the matter of oral tradition; did the disciples forget what Jesus told them? According to Lowder they did. Certainly it would be conceivable (if extremely unlikely) that the disciples had some sort of collective amnesia. It seems more likely that Lowder has selective amnesia about the fact that Glenn Miller has shown how he is misusing Elizabeth Loftus' material. (May we demand that he link to Miller's article at this point?) What about the vast data regarding oral transmission and its reliability in the ancient world? (Lowder does quote Blomberg as saying that "oral culture, in which there was great emphasis placed on memorization", but thinks that quoting Loftus is the cure-all. It isn't -- this is apples to Loftus' oranges. Not only was the ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman culture (and still today, as with the Arabic culture) heavily dependent on and versed in in oral memorization; but in the case of sacred tradition for instance, more care was given. Moreover, the sayings from Jesus were probably said many times, being preached in vilage to vilage with the same basic message, perhaps with a few varations in line with the mechanics of oral tradition. It's very reasonable to assert that the orginal disciples could remember what Jesus said and did. Merely sound-biting Crossan's opinion (when Crossan is far from being an expert in this area) isn't enough.

Next up is the discussion of the NT canon. Metzger offers three crtieria for inclusion:

  1. Was the book written by an apostle or by a follower of an apostle?
  2. Did the book conform with what Christians already believed?
  3. Had the book been continuously accepted and used by the church at large?

Somehow Lowder manages to spin this into an admission by Metzger that "church councils squelched equally legitimate documents because they didn't like the picture of Jesus they portrayed!" "If, say, the first-century Roman historian Suetonius had written a book entitled, 'The Full Grave of Jesus,' documenting in intricate detail that the Resurrection was a hoax, the early church would have excluded such a book from the New Testament." Well, we could ask the same question: why isn't Paley's Evidences of Christianity in the Humanist Manifesto? To ask such questions is almost absurd. Why on earth would such a book be in the canon? Why should it have been? Here's the more reasonable scenario: Had Suey written such a work, we would expect it to get the "Celsus Treatment" and be addressed by a church apologist. Lowder clearly has no conception of the ancient purpose of "canon" -- it was not a tool of political correctness or a means of airing all views; it was a collection of internal documents -- neither the Jews nor their ANE precursors who made collections of sacred books would have included "opposing views" in their own canon! Should the Egyptians have had to include Hittite religious documents along with a copy of the Book of the Dead? All Metzger said was that if the books weren't written by an apostle or by a follower of an apostle, they weren't considered legitimate by the church for the canon. This has nothing to do with "squelching" skeptical works. (Note as well the begged question that there were "leigitmate" books squelched -- as usual, skeptics make this plea, but are seldom forthcoming in providing, much less discussing in detail, potential candidates! Most can't suggest more than the Gospel of Thomas!) These books (gospels, epistles, etc...) were meant to tell the story of Jesus and they were for the believer, not to, as Lowder apparantely wanted the council to have done, canonize rebuttals to arguments. Christians did, as noted, interact with other's views, in letters and in other books.

In terms of corroborating evidence -- we have had our day with Lowder on this subject, and there isn't much need to go further. Regarding Josephus, even though Lowder agrees, apparently, with Yamauchi as a whole that the passages from Joe are authentic, he pitches the same old argument: "...I think it is significant that Strobel did not interview someone who rejects the authenticity of both of these references." It isn't significant at all -- this is nothing but complaining on Lowder's part; Strobel or any other writer is not obliged to interview everyone with a theory to promote, especially as they have their own venues and the public libraries are open and free. If they are so obliged, we want the Secular Web to expand by at least a space of five -- they'll need it to accommodate all the Christians, Muslims, mystics, and others who have opposing views. (Further spin-doctoring is found in Lowder's complaint that Yamauchi does nothing to show that Josephus' words "...corroborate the central theological claims of Jesus." But surely Lowder understands that Yamauchi was simply giving evidence outside the New Testament for the existence of Jesus, not a full theological doctrine of Christianity from the references of Josephus' works!)

Lowder's next comments are on "suspicious" matters recorded in the Gospels. One wonders how this compares with other historical documents, pro rata, but we have links for two: the Lukan census and the Slaughter of the Innocents. On the existence of Nazareth Lowder does end up agreeing (in spite of saying first it is in the "suspicious" category) that the place probably existed and that the Gospels are sufficient confirmation for this.

"Moreover," Lowder remarks, "at least three New Testament claims are completely unsupported by archaeology..." They are the three hours of global darkness at the crucifixion; the resurrection of the saints and their subsequent appearances to many in Jerusalem; and third, the tomb of Jesus has never been found. These aren't very hard to answer. In addition to Miller's item on Thallus we have shown against G. A. Wells that the darkness was not global, according to the Gospels. On the resurrection of the saints, we refer to Miller's item here and challenge the application of the rebuttal to the fivefold challenge, and add this aswell. As to the location of the tomb of Jesus: What's the issue? Is Lowder objecting that Jesus wasn't buried in a tomb? Hopefully not, for in an article on the empty tomb, Lowder affirms Joseph's of Arimithea's historicity. (But fails as Miller notes in his main argument.) This is important because Jesus was placed in Joe's tomb as even Mark, and probably even the hypothetical Q attest. Thus, the tomb would have been known to both Jew and Christian alike in that case even if Jesus was buried in a common grave, as Lowder remarks in his article. What exactly is the problem with us not knowing the location today? (It gets worse, though; as N.T. Wright has declared, the tomb of Jesus would have likely been venerated as a shrine, kept holy, if in fact Jesus was still in the tomb. The fact that these first followers of Jesus didn't venerate his tomb (which is a good reason why it hasn't been found) is an argument for the hypothesis that Jesus' tomb was actually empty and his body never found which the tomb in and of itself wasn't an important issue to the early Christians.

In his next section, Lowder objects yet again that The Case for Christ didn't interview a single skeptical scholar, this time regarding the Jesus Seminar. But surely this doesn't hinder the postive case that Strobel does give. Why, we might ask, did Lowder not object about The Five Gospels, writen by the Jesus Seminar, which doesn't give evangelical responses? (The answer: Funk knows, unlike Lowder, that the responses are already out there and available; he isn't obliged to provide "equal time" to his adversaries! He doesn't need to include what the other side says!) The best Lowder can do here is counter Boyd's claim that the Seminar doesn't even leave open the possibility of miracles by pointing to a couple of sound bites from Funk and Crossan saying, in effect, "Well, maybe not," (no surprise, since to appear so closed-minded, when the overlarge proportion of people do consider miracles at least possible, doesn't do much to make your work popular) but it is nevertheless clear that as a whole the Seminar does carry with it an anti-supernaturalistic view when looking at the evidence. We can counter the bit about miracles at Lourdes with Crossan's comment in his debate with William Lane Craig, in which he said that he didn't believe that God existed in the Jurassic age. If he doesn't believe in God as a being independent of our existence, that would surely have an effect on his objectivity in considering the possibility of miracles happening, much less one having happened in the past. In fact, Crossan went on to say that the supernatural only happens through the natural, which is basically naturalism since God can't act directly in the universe.

Little comment is needed on the matter of "identity evidence." Regarding Jesus' claims to divinity, Lowder merely hurls the standard elephants of, "What about arguments that Jesus never said these things?" (see here) and the popular skeptical throwout, "Maybe Jesus was honestly mistaken about being divine." (see here). Uni-dimensional single-paragraph counterarguments are far from impressive.

Responding to the words of Collins, Lowder comments, "A psychologist simply cannot make a diagnosis concerning the sanity of a person who has not walked the Earth for almost 2,000 years." This is a moot point: Diagnosis may not be as easy even even when there is a person sitting on a chair in front of you, and on the other hand, general mental stability is not as hard to observe even over 2000 years when the records left behind are sufficient. We don't need diagnostic precision to make a judgment in this case.

Lowder next says, "I also wonder if Collins, as someone who believes he has a personal relationship with Jesus, can really be objective concerning Jesus' sanity." Lowder is actually implying, then, that nobody can be objective if they have deep emotions toward what they are talking about. But, this is obviously wrong. To use the well-worn example, the Jews had deep emotions about their suffering in Germany and what was happening there. No one would say that the testimony of the Jews of what happened to them their would be less objective simply because they had deep emotions and feelings toward that and other events surronding WW2. So for Lowder to say that Collins can't be objective about Jesus' mental state of mind is simply wrong as pointed out above; it is spin-doctoring and nothing more.

On the matter of attributes, we would advise fine-tuning of the sort found here. Lowder needs some education in the doctrine of kenosis. Other than this, because Jesus couldn't do any miracles in his hometown, Lowder objects, presumably, because God would be able do miracles anywhere at anytime. But does the passage mean he couldn't do miracles, or that he wouldn't because of the lack of people's faith? The word used here for "could" (dunamai) offers no clues, and the passage does not explain the "why" of the issue, other than the hint of unbelief -- no cause-effect is offered, and nowhere else is there a possibility of unbelief being an effective cause of Jesus' miraculous power not being expressed. There is an obvious connection between faith and healing (cf. Mark 9:24) but it would seem more likely to be one in which "lack of faith limits the reception of help readily available from Jesus." [Witherington, Mark commentary, 195 -- for further confirmation, see here]

Lowder's final reason for thinking that Jesus didn't posess all the divine attributes of God was because, in Lowder's words,

Jesus taught the doctrine of Hell. According to that doctrine, Hell is permanent and inescapable for those who wind up there. Even if the people in Hell sincerely changed their behavior and attitudes, they could never escape from Hell. This doctrine is difficult to reconcile with the claim that Jesus, as God Incarnate, is loving, because a finite sin does not warrant an infinite punishment.

A few points can be made in response to this. First, to say that Jesus taught the doctine of hell doesn't lead to the conclusion that he wasn't divine. Lowder reasons this way: (i) Anybody who teaches the doctrine of hell can't be God, (ii) Jesus taught the doctrine of hell, (iii) therefore Jesus can't be God. But there is no logical contradiction in these premisses. Considering (i), would it be a contradiction for someone to teach the doctrine of hell and still be God? If so, why? If God has reasons for preaching hell, then there would be no logical contradiction. Second, Lowder's reasoning actually backfires on him. For example, we could argue that by teaching the doctrine of hell, Jesus implicitly showed his divinity. That is, when Jesus taught about hell he gave the people a choice; either to follow him and accept him, or they would face the consequences. Finally, and this seems to be the key point: Lowder objects that it is "...difficult to reconcile with the claim that Jesus, as God Incarnate, is loving, because a finite sin does not warrant an infinite punishment." This is merely skeptical emotion-twisting. No sin is "finite" with respect to a God of infinite holiness. I am reminded of the skeptic who recently asked me how someone who is "99% sinless" could still go to hell. You can no more be "99% sinless" than a woman could be "99% pregnant"!

Regarding the comments of Lapides, Lowder says, "I will therefore simply state that all of the alleged 'prophecies' cited by Lapides have been answered by skeptics...?" Have they really been answered? As we have shown, Lowder's source, Tim Callahan, while one of the most honest skeptics I have seen, doesn't do the job.

We are amused to note Lowder's objection that Strobel quotes his (Lowder's) work, but provides no URL; then complains: "Yet Strobel never acknowledges the existence of New Testament scholar Robert Price�s rebuttal to Craig�s apologetic for the Resurrection, available on the Secular Web!" Fair enough -- the Secular Web has never acknowledged MY responses to Price; but I'm not complaining, because unlike Lowder, I don't think my ideological foes have a hidebound duty to acknowledge me.

On the matter of the resurrection appearances, and the physical nature of the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15, see here. In the words of E . E. Ellis, "It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, 'grave emptying' resurrection. To them an anastasis without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a square circle."

Further, Lowder claims that the gospel of Mark "did not contain any appearance stories." Lowder doesn't believe there is any mention to appearances in Mark's gospel because the ending verses of Mark (9-20), aren't in most manuscripts. But to say that because those verses (9-20) are missing, or weren't in the original story, doesn't mean that Mark didn't believe in the empty tomb, or post-resurrection appearances; Lowder must also deal with evidence that v. 8 is not the original end of Mark.

Finally, J.P. Moreland provided six lines of circumstanial evidence, whch are: (i) the disciples died for their beliefs; (ii) the conversion of skeptics; (iii) changes to key social structures; (iv) communion and baptism; (v) the emergence of the church; and (vi) the religious experience of Christians. Lowder first appeals back to the idea of a non-physical resurrection, refuted in the above link.

Concerning Galatians 6:12, Lowder states that this verse, "...makes clear that early Christians were persecuted because they had relaxed the rules on circumcision and the law--not because of the Resurrection--and that some early Christians actually compromised their beliefs in the face of persecution." This is an egregious exegetical error. Paul refers here only to a small group of people known as Judiazers who didn't accept the authority of Paul being an apostle, and indeed argued that Paul was guilty of compromising some of the requirements for the law, i.e. circumcision. The "persecution" here, as Witherington shows (Galatians commentary, 446-7), isn't having to do not with being persecuted for being a Christian per se, but with not being a Jew, so to speak; the Judaizers were trying to avoid persecution by being circumcised and thereby not incurring the wrath of those (like Paul once was) who were still Jews alone. Belief in Christ wasn't even at issue here; nor was it a matter of denying some historical tenet of the faith -- there was no problem with believing in Christ, as long as you were circumcised and followed the law! This would be like being persecuted today for believing that Christ was crucified on a Thursday, not a Friday -- why not give this up if it is a simple matter with no reckoning for eternal consequences?!? When Paul alludes to the "cross of Christ" he is referring to the covenant of grace as a whole, not the historic event of the crucifixion! (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17; Phil. 3:18) The point then: compromise on one matter that is ethereal by one group says nothing about the possibility of compromise on a historical matter by a larger group. This is falsely generalizing from particulars, and moreover, offers no counter for the fact that the majority when confronted did not give in under persecution. (See more here.)

Lowder next claims that there is no reason to think that James was an enemy of Christianity. But the question is whether he was skeptical, not necessarily an enemy of Christianity. The best Lowder can do is quote Price's thesis that James was akin to a modern televangelist! He also quotes Price thusly:

The story of Paul's conversion is hardly even hinted at in any of the writings attributed to him. And when you read about it in the book of Acts, this looks like an awful lot like two stories widely known at the tomb: the conversion of the persecutor Pentheus--persecutor of the Dionysian religion that's told in Euripides' play, The Bacchae--and the conversion against his will of Heliodorus, the agent of Antiogas Epiphanes, 2 Maccabees. [These are] both texts that the author of Acts would certainly have known as an educated person. His stories of Paul being converted don't sound much like Paul's epistles but do sound like this.

I have read the account of Pentheus, and here's news: Pentheus is not "converted" at all! (See here.) I have not read the account of Heliodorus lately, and Price provides no comparison points. On the matter of the Epistles vs. Acts, see here -- I find no basis at all for the final claim.

Does communion, baptism, and changes in key social structures consitiute as circumstantial evidence for the truth of Christianity? Lowder doesn't think so. He even says, "They no more increase the probability of Christianity than, say, the emergence of the Mormon church increases the probability of Mormonism being true." As someone who has now studied Mormonism, I can tell you plainly that Lowder hasn't a clue here. Consider that the first Christians were in fact, Jews. Jews stuck to a strict form of monotheism and held the Mosaic Law above virtually everything. But after Jesus had risen and accended, these Jews suddenly changed their orientation radically in terms of theology, ritual, and social contact. Mormonism kept most of the rituals, only adding baptism for the dead, some secret temple rites, and polygamy -- the lattetr of which which was given up under persecution! Mormonism also had the benefit of unclaimed land to go to; Christianity did not have this option, but had to withstand persecution and scrutiny. Lowder is going to have to develop this a lot further in order to make it anything but apples and oranges. (See more here.)

Finally, Lowder refers to Drange's argument (though I am told he has mixed this up with someone else's) that "...the mere fact of reasonable nonbelief in the world is evidence for the nonexistence of the Christian god." I'll put it succinctly: After years of this sort of work, I find that there is no such thing as "reasonable nonbelief." The litany of excuses, wild speculations, and other absurdities ground out by skeptics and critics doesn't deserve the adjective "reasonable." And that's my elephant for the day.