Last month, I wrote about Leah, my husband's bright 18 year old cousin, a delightful girl who is head over heels in love with Jesus. The post was called 'Is Being a Martyr A Good Thing?'. In that first exchange with Leah about religion, I basically kept my mouth shut. And I think it was the right decision at the time. Leah finds great comfort in her love of Jesus. Who am I to take that away from her?

Anyway, she put something on my Facebook wall the other day, asking me to watch a documentary called The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel. Here is what she said in the exchange:

"I found this documentary on netflix actually. So if you have netflix, you can watch it that way as well. I was just browsing and ran into it. To say I don't have any doubts in my faith or question it at times would be a complete and total lie, as I think it would be for most. Everyone doubts to various degrees I believe and at different times throughout their life. This was really convincing to me though and extremely interesting to hear this man's story and his side of "the case", if you will. He is a journalist and was an atheist when he began doing research, it was actually supposed to be him setting out to completely prove the Bible wrong and show all the contradictions and fallacies within it, but instead, at the end he became convinced in the truth behind it and became a Christian. If you watch the video, you'll get all that backstory though.
A lot of the reason for doubt in my own life is because it's hard to have faith without some type of reason behind it. Although faith is believing in that which is unseen, for anyone, that concept can be hard to entirely grasp. The reason I found this story so compelling and convincing, was because this man felt very strongly about having evidence to back up his beliefs. It was interesting to really understand some of the logic behind why I can stand firm in what I believe, and really start to have that solid foundation that I never really learned growing up in an environment not completely sold-out for Christ.
I'm not trying to force my religion down your throat in any way, I hope you don't see it as that. I just thought that you might find it of interest after our last conversation regarding God, and although we believe very opposing things, I respect that it's your right to say and believe what you will. If I didn't listen to the other side and try to understand, I could never grow as a person, but rather just conform to the hypocrisy already evident in the church. I just ask that you watch it with an open-mind, and let me know what you think of it when you're done.
Side note: some parts seem a bit dramatic and cheesy, bear with it... maybe get a good chuckle or two. I did a few times. :P"


I said I'd watch it because Leah is coming to me to have a discussion about religion. She mentions having some type of reason behind her faith (which is the opposite of the very definition of faith), and she mentions logic and evidence, which is common ground and a great place to start. So, I feel it's my responsibility to watch this and tell her what I think of it.

I need to keep my objectives very clear. The most important priority here is to keep a good relationship with a family member who I value and love. She says she's not trying to force her religion down my throat, and she seems genuine. But she did restart the conversation which I was willing to drop. So at some point I have to directly and honestly reply. I want to give her solid and helpful information. I want to show her respect personally. I don't want to commit any logical fallacies in my arguments and critiques of the information. While I respect her for who she is, I don't feel like I have to feel or show any respect for religion. I want to be calm, compassionate, diplomatic and honest.

The reason I'm telling you all of this is because I feel I'm over my head. I feel that this conversation is incredibly important. I'm talking to a family member, a True Believer, someone I care about deeply. She is looking for Reasons, Logic and Evidence for Christ. I definitely have a lot of information to share on this subject. While I would love to see her embrace reason and skepticism as a healthy foundation for dealing with life, the universe and everything, it's really up to her to question her faith. I think it would be both extremely futile and cruel to steal away that comfort and belief system just to try to deconvert her.

That being said, I have to be honest. And for the first time, I have to reply and not let it go. So if you can stomach it, and you watch the video I would be very grateful for your response, whether in the comments or by email.

Without further ado, here is my review of the first 20 minutes. Butch (my awesome atheist husband and Leah's cousin) and I came up with this together.

The beginning of the video is anecdotal fluff. Nothing of value is said in the first 7 minutes.

He then starts talking about "expert witnesses". He talks about how valuable expert eyewitness accounts are. This is patently false. Many studies have been done that show over and over again how fallible our senses are, and how incredibly fallible our memory is. It's even been found that flash memories (such as: I vividly recall exactly where I was and all the details of when I learned the trade towers had been hit by planes on 9/11) are inaccurate and change over time.

Strobel spends a lot of time talking about how expert witnesses make cases in court all the time. That's an appeal to tradition (maybe also a tu quoque), and again it's just not true that people remember reliably.

He then introduces his own experts:

The first gigantic red flag is cherry picking. All of his experts are christians of one stripe or another. They all have an agenda, they all believe in the bible, they are all blatantly biased. Jesus is their Sacred Cow. They are all True Believers. All of his experts are on the same side of the issue. There is zero objectivity. This is dreadful journalism, and we just started.

Question: Who would give a better, more unbiased scholarly account of the new testament? The first scholar I can think of is Bart Ehrman. Can you think of anyone else?

A few general notes of the first 7 minutes: the one time skepticism is mentioned the language used to describe it is negative, while the language used to talk about the scholars is heavy in the appeal to authority. Wright talks about what he wanted to find in the new testament, which seems like he already had the answer and then looked to ask the question, which is confirmation bias.

Strobel says (around the 7 minute mark) that Matthew was attributed to a disciple of Jesus named Matthew. He goes on to say that Mark was also a disciple, as was John, and that Luke was a historian and confidant of Paul. These are all unfounded claims, I'm fairly certain. Around the 8 minute mark, the video shows itself that Mark was written first around 60-85, Matthew and Luke also 60-85 CE, and John around 60-95 CE.

From what I remember, those dates are generously early. But note how far removed they are from the time of Jesus' supposed death in 30 CE or thereabouts. Also note that Jesus himself didn't write a single word down. I am pretty sure that most scholars agree that the authorship of the gospels has not been established, and that the people that wrote them were most likely not disciples.

Here is a timeline of the gospels by Jeremy Beahan. See how the dates by scholars are actually a bit later, which makes it even less likely that they were within one lifespan and written by disciples.

Average life expectancy in ancient Egypt was about 40 years old (Joyce Filer, Egyptologist). So if the disciples were 20 they would be in extreme old age by 60 CE, if not dead. This is almost more than one lifetime removed from "eyewitnesses".

The film does use the Codex Sinaiticus to quote from which I appreciate, since, along with the Codex Vaticanus, is the oldest, most complete bible that exists. But in fact, if you look at this text skeptically, it goes against his case. The document shows how heavily edited it is. Certainly not a case for biblical inerrancy.

Moreland states that the gospels are biographies, written by contemporaries of Jesus but just looking at the dates makes that seem highly unlikely.

They go on and on about eyewitness accounts and how reliable and perfect they all were back then. But it has been shown in scientific studies consistently that eyewitness testimony is highly suspect, even under optimal conditions. If, on a slim chance the writers of the gospels were contemporaries of Jesus, they still didn't write down anything for 30 years, at the earliest, after Jesus supposedly died.

Strauss said the gospels are the earliest and most reliable records of Jesus of Nazareth. While this is true on the surface, here are some points:

  • There was no Nazareth at the time of Jesus.

  • The only records that talk of Jesus are the four gospels.  And they were written 30 to 70 years after he died.

  • There are no records written by Jesus himself.

  • To say that the four gospels are reliable because they support each other is circular reasoning.

They also talk about Josephus and quote from him. But Josephus wrote the Antiquities of the Jews in about 94 CE, so his accounts are merely about what he could find, not actual experience of events. The only factual thing he says in the quote taken from his writings is that there are followers of Jesus at the time of his writing. Talking of Jesus himself is not a firsthand account by any means. It's anecdotal, not solid evidence in any way.

They use the term "remarkably close" to events. But it's still not in one lifetime. Yes, in the history of time, 50 years is a blip. But in the affairs of men, a story can change innumerably in a single recounting, never mind over 50 years or so.  Again, eyewitness testimony is virtually useless. To say that it's solid evidence is wrong. If that is the basis for the Case for Christ, already it's incredibly flawed.

This whole argument makes some huge assumptions of the gospels, all of which are completely unfounded:

  • assumes every "eyewitness" shared only facts.

  • assumes every retelling of the story was exactly the same.

  • assumes people had life expectancies similar to today, about 70-80 years, when in fact they only lived to about 40 years.

  • assumes people never lied or exaggerated or told tall tales.

It is special pleading to suggest that everyone in the first century who encountered Jesus, and the writers of the gospels, all had perfect memories and perfect recall, and perfect reasons to recount the story exactly the same every time throughout their lives, as if people back then were special and more noble than people today.

They use the term "reliably preserved" which is also ridiculous. Look at the Codex Sinaiticus yourself. See how heavily edited it is. And that is one of the oldest texts that we have of the bible. And it's dated to around 330-360 CE. Note the late date. So much for eyewitness accounts!

They talk about the perfect nature of the oral tradition back then. This is flawed thinking and easily dismissible as already discussed. They mention "scholarly studies" that show that oral tradition passes on through generations "without changing a thing". But no reference is made. I'd like to see those studies. Also, even it it were true that some oral traditions are passed on as stated, it doesn't mean that that is also true for average people who told stories back in the time of Jesus. There is a difference between the average person and people who trained as rabbis or other special roles to repeat verbatim their stories. Of course, just because they repeat a story verbatim doesn't mean the story is automatically true or factual.

The argument around the 15 minute mark is about contradictions. They talk about how if the gospels all agreed then everyone would accuse them of collusion. But their contradictions are quite notable. I recommend listening to an excellent talk by Jeremy Beahan, an adjunct professor. The lecture is called Which Jesus: Examining Differences in the Gospel Narratives. You can follow along with his powerpoint slides.

Reasonable Doubts also did two other episodes about the gospels: Cross-Examining the Four Witnesses Part 1, and Cross-Examining the Four Witnesses Part 2. A description of these episodes: 'Does the New Testament provide a clear and accurate portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth? If the gospels provide the testimony of four independent witnesses who overwhelmingly agree on the details, as apologists claim, then we would have reason to trust these accounts. But modern biblical scholarship paints a radically different picture of the gospels, their origins and historical accuracy. In this, the first of a two part series, the Doubtcasters draw upon the insights of biblical criticism to challenge the reliability of the gospel narratives. For part two of the series, the Doubtcasters will consider and respond to recent counter-arguments offered by prominent Christian apologists.'

I think it was Strobel who made a comment - if all we have are copies of copies of copies of copies, how do we know they are real? This is an excellent point! He then contradicts himself by saying that there are "incredibly reliable" new testament copies all from around the same time. But it's well established that the copies we have are all heavily edited and made from previous copies of copies of copies. So it means nothing to say these are special or accurate or historically factual. The actual material is still unvalidated. And the lack of extrabiblical corroboration says quite a lot.

They do talk about corroboration outside the new testament but only make vague references of Jesus being referred to. All of these sources are long after Jesus' supposed death (which is not recorded by the Romans, who were meticulous record keepers), so they are hearsay at best.

They say the following phrase, "an impressive record taken as a whole" but zero evidence is given for this. And modern biblical scholars would disagree.

So that's the first 20 minutes. We couldn't take much more than that. We'll watch the rest later. I would greatly appreciate any criticism of this documentary, especially with references to evidence I can document to show Leah. It's one thing to refute the video as I've done. It's another thing to bring contradictory evidence to bear, like Jeremy Beahan's lecture with references.

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