Appeal Denied: How Challenging the Verdict Fails to Overturn The Case for Christ
Copyright 2002 by Bob
and Gretchen Passantino
review was first published in the Christian Research Journal (www.equip.org). It was awarded the Evangelical Press
Association's "Higher Goals in Christian Journalism" First Place Award for
Critical Review in 2002.
the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel's "The Case for Christ"
Canada: Age of Reason Publications, 2001)
features of Earl Doherty's Challenging the Verdict, a response to Lee
Strobel's runaway bestseller The Case for Christ, compel a critical
review. First, it is a prime example of the sort of false attacks many skeptics
bring against Christianity. Such a review presents a good opportunity to
address faulty arguments skeptics often raise against popular Christian sources
on Christ. Second, it has gained notoriety on the coattails of Strobel's book
because skeptics have recommended it in customer reviews on The Case for
Christ's page on Amazon.com. This marketing ploy has probably generated
more publicity for the book than, for example, Drew University professor Robert
Price's gushing review of Doherty's book in Free Inquiry magazine
Lee Strobel presented his
interviews of scholars in The Case for Christ as though he were a legal
affairs journalist (which he was) who is researching the evidence in the case
for Christ. He interviews leading scholars who gave evidence for the
traditional orthodox Christian view of Jesus as the Christ, the miracle-working
resurrected Son of God, and he concluded that the evidence supports its
Earl Doherty, author of Challenging
the Verdict, chose a similar legal motif, but this time in a courtroom.
Where Strobel used this motif sparingly and effectively, Doherty uses it
mockingly and unfairly. Doherty claims that he provides his opposing side the
opportunity to "cross-examine" the scholars interviewed by Strobel. He
neglects, however, to give the cross-examined witnesses an opportunity to
respond to his critical statements. What emerges is not a coherent collection
of evidence and argumentation but a strange monologue by Doherty while his witnesses
Like Strobel's The Case for
Christ, Doherty's Challenging the Verdict is divided into three main
parts. Strobel's "Examining the Record" becomes Doherty's "Is the Gospel Record
Reliable?" Strobel's "Analyzing Jesus" is Doherty's "What Was the Nature of
Jesus?" and Strobel's "Researching the Resurrection" becomes Doherty's
"Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?"
Neither Challenging the
Verdict nor Doherty's Web site tells us the author's background. He was, in
fact, once the president of the Ottawa Skeptics, a Canadian skeptic group, and is an
occasional contributor to a small periodical edited by Robert Price dedicated
to denouncing the Bible, The Journal of Higher Criticism. Doherty's
first book, The Jesus Puzzle, argues there is no credible evidence to
believe Jesus existed as a historical person, a position that so contradicts
the evidence that even most liberals he quotes, including the ultra-liberal
members of the Jesus Seminar, disagree with him. Virtually the only current view similar to his is in G. A.
Wells's volumes discrediting Jesus' existence, which have been soundly refuted
by, among others, Dr. Gary Habermas in his critical review in the Journal.
One of the problems responding
to Doherty is that, like many skeptics, he uses a shotgun approach that at
first glance seems overwhelming because there is "buckshot" everywhere. Only as
one patiently removes one small pellet at a time is it evident that the attack
has not been fatal. The "case for Christ," in fact, emerges from the smoke of
Doherty"s attack virtually unscathed except for cosmetic complaints that could
be said of any book dealing with complex issues in a popular manner.
New under the Sun. Most of the arguments in Challenging the Verdict
have been used before, sometimes much better, by Christianity's detractors.
Skeptics have sought to overturn the evidence for Jesus and the Resurrection
since this historic event. The nonbelieving Jews unsuccessfully tried to argue
that Jesus' disciples must have stolen His body from the tomb while the guards
were sleeping. Other arguments arose over the centuries, from the
fourth-century emperor Julian the apostate to Robert Ingersoll in the
nineteenth century and Bertrand Russell in the twentieth century. All were
capably answered by Christians' employing good history and good thinking. For
example, Robert Ingersoll immortalized his disdain for the Bible in his Some
Mistakes of Moses, to which leading biblical scholars of his day replied
convincingly with Some Mistakes of Ingersoll.
The unsuspecting Christian
reader who first encounters criticisms of Christianity in Challenging the
Verdict should be encouraged by the wealth of counterevidence published
both before and after Doherty's book. This volume, unlike his earlier one, does
not presume that Jesus never existed. He does, however, argue that the New
Testament is completely unreliable in telling us anything about any historical
Jesus. To support this, he presents a variety of arguments, among them: the
Jews never expected a personal Messiah; the Jesus story has more in common with
mystery religion myths than history; Christians changed the simple morality
tale of myth into a pseudo-history; the New Testament borrows motifs from Old
Testament stories and weaves them into Jesus stories that never actually
happened; the Jesus Savior story is no different than pagan "savior" stories;
the earliest Christian beliefs were Gnostic, but later Christians suppressed
them; Paul's writings speak of a spiritual, not physical, resurrection of the
mythic Christ; early Christianity was a confusion of bewildering and
contradictory spiritual insights and mystical revelations; and so on.
The interested reader can find a wealth of
information in books such as N. T. Wright's The Contemporary Quest for Jesus
(Fortress, 2002), Darrell Bock's Studying the Historical Jesus (Baker,
2002), Paul Barnett's Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity
(InterVarsity, 1999), Gregory Boyd's Cynic Sage or Son of God?
(Bridgepoint, 1995), Ben Witherington's The Jesus Quest (InterVarsity,
1995), and Ronald H. Nash's The Gospels and the Greeks (Probe, 1992).
Several Internet Web sites have excellent information, including Leadership
University (www.leaderu.com), the Christian Think
Tank (www.Christian-thinktank.com), and Tektonics
The Skeptics' Mythical Jesus. Doherty embodies some of
the subjective interpretive methods of the Jesus Seminar. He incredibly is able
intuitively to discern the "real" history behind the hopelessly corrupted New
Testament texts to uncover the bare myth of spiritual enlightenment he claims
underlies the phony historical and supernatural claims.
In other ways, his interpretive methods are novel.
His assumption that from myth comes the erroneous belief in a real, historical
character or event is exactly opposite what most scholars of mythology observe.
The reader, nevertheless, is asked to accept Doherty's fanciful suppositions
uncritically. If the Christian, however, were to invent his own interpretive
system and assert his own dogmatism of a supernatural Son of God from the text,
Doherty would insist on objective proof of such an indisputable nature that no
figure or event of ancient history could qualify.
subjectivism seems to blind its adherents, who see nothing incongruous in their
insistence that Christians haven't proved their point while at the same time
they advance their own subjective theories. Jesus Seminar founder Robert Funk,
for example, once told us that his interpretation of Jesus as a first-century
Jewish cynic sage was based on little more than his subjective
"experience" of the New Testament.
asked Funk, "If the New Testament text we possess led you to discover this
George Carlin-type of Jesus, what kind of text would there have to be for you
to discover a Son of God, resurrected Jesus Christ?" After we went back
and forth asking the same question a couple of different ways, he responded,
"The exact same text we have already."
we pressed, "if the same text can give some readers a divine resurrected
Christ and others a human rabbi Jesus, then you're saying either interpretation
is subjective based on some 'inner experience' and not on any scientific,
historic, linguistic, or rational investigation or standard." In so many
words, he agreed, reminding us that with the New Testament we're dealing with
literature, not science, and therefore, strangely enough, subjective experience
Starting with a Bias. One of Doherty's
assumptions is that miracles cannot happen. Any account of a Bible
miracle might be explained in a variety of ways, but not as an actual
historical miraculous event. This argument is less sophisticated and persuasive
than nineteenth- century philosopher David Hume's popular treatise but no less
dogmatic. He first quotes Gregory Boyd, one of Strobel's experts, concerning
the antisupernatural bias of the Jesus Seminar members. Doherty continues,
"Well, Dr. Boyd, I just wish we were all as biased as the Seminar in rejecting
the supernatural as authentic in the Gospels any more than it is authentic
Nowhere does Doherty give a
logical argument or empirical evidence that miracles can't happen, he just
blindly pontificates. He should follow the
evidence wherever it logically leads him, even if it leads him to the
historical fact that Christ rose from the dead.
Doherty's statement presupposes
that the only legitimate neutral approach to the issue of Christ's resurrection
is one of disbelief rather than withholding of belief. He commits
the common fallacy of neutrality, assuming that one who believes a proposition cannot
be objective and that only one who disbelieves is neutral and objective.
On the contrary, disbelief is a
belief against and therefore not neutral. Neutrality would be to withhold
belief, neither excluding the supernatural nor assuming it, but allowing
the evidence to support it or contradict it. Some scholars adopt conservative
positions because of their critical standards.
Doherty and other skeptics
assume that evidence for the Resurrection is nothing more than partisan wish
fulfillment. In other words, we wish it were the case that God became man, died
for our sins, rose again, and reconciled us to God; therefore, we delude ourselves
into believing despite the evidence.
What if it is the case,
however, that evidence for the Resurrection is the foundation of belief,
not a stumbling block to belief? Contrary to Doherty's wish fulfillment idea,
it is the evidence itself that led Lee Strobel to become a Christian and write The
Case for Christ: "The atheism I had embraced for so long buckled under the
weight of historical truth. It was a
stunning and radical outcome, certainly not what I had anticipated when I
embarked on this investigative process.
But it was, in my opinion, a decision compelled by the facts" (266).
If anyone is guilty of
overlooking the evidence in favor of wish fulfillment, it is Doherty. In Challenging
the Verdict Doherty appears to be biased, committed to a faith, and united
with other skeptics in a futile attempt to promote his conviction that the
Jesus Christ of the New Testament was, at best, a simple Jewish teacher with
Greek Cynic pretensions, at worst, a figment of people's imaginations. Doherty
comes to the table with a bias against the Jesus Christ of the New
sentence in the opening paragraph of Challenging the Verdict is a good
example of Doherty's bias: "Not only have increasing numbers of the rank and
file in the established churches rejected old standards of dogma and practice,
liberal circles within New Testament scholarship have been bringing modern
critical standards to the study of the Gospels and found them wanting in
historical reliability" (1). This "loaded" vocabulary implies that the beliefs
held by Strobel and "established churches" are merely matters of dogma and
practice and are not historical fact and that evangelicals have no standards,
are not critical, and are old-fashioned.
Claims of Fairness. Doherty's unfairness is revealed in his refusal to
consult the scholars' published materials. His obligation to do so is greater
than Strobel's since Strobel allowed them to present their own material.
Doherty's cross-examination is not merely supposed refutations of their
evidence but criticisms on issues they didn't even address with Strobel.
Doherty challenged the scholars with no acknowledgment of their other
materials, which, in most cases, overturn the challenges and affirm the
Christian claims for Christ.
A proper cross-examination seeks
to overturn the testimony of the scholars by showing that they made contrary
statements elsewhere, or by referring to the responses of other scholars to the
exact same questions with contrary evidence and argumentation. By introducing
completely new questions and challenges, Doherty launched an entirely new trial
with no legal impartiality or rigorous standards of evidence. He silences the
scholars, reinvents them as mutes, and then condemns them for not answering
challenges never contained in their original testimony.
When it comes to the witness of
history and evidence to the life and resurrection of Christ, Doherty argues
that silence supports his inventive ideas. Because we don't have a full copy of
the New Testament from the first century, then obviously, Doherty assumes, no
New Testament existed in the first century. Because we don't have every early
church father explicitly quoting from and affirming each book of the New
Testament as God's Word, obviously they must have been ignorant of the New
Testament or didn't consider it Scripture. Because we don't have an explicit,
comprehensive record of Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection in extant
secular history of the time, obviously Jesus must not have existed! The
Doherty-enforced silence of the scholars overturns their entire body of work,
while the patchy silences of ancient history prove everything for Doherty.
Living Line of Eyewitness Testimony. Doherty claims the gap between the events of the
New Testament and our earliest complete copies contains such a discontinuity
that the texts of the New Testament documents are hopelessly unreliable. There
are at least two ways to approach this claim: (1) Show historical continuity,
and (2) compare this gap with those of other ancient literature that Doherty
does consider reliable.
First, we have an unbroken line
from the eyewitnesses of the Resurrection, through Paul and the other apostles,
into the early second century with Papias, Polycarp, Ignatius, and the Didache
(an early apostolic teaching document).
liberal critics such as those Doherty quotes agree that some of Paul's letters
were written well within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses to Christ, including
his testimony of the bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. The apostle
Peter, himself an eyewitness, commended Paul's letters and includes them with
other Scripture (the Old Testament) as God's Word: "...our Lord's patience means
salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that
God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them
of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand,
which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures"
(2 Pet. 3:1516, emphasis added).
his Acts of the Apostles, the evangelist Luke affirmed that the teachings of
Paul agree with the teachings of the apostles, who were eyewitnesses of
Christ's ministry, miracles, and resurrection. Paul himself acknowledged in his
letter to the Romans that there were Christians whose conversions predated his.
He pointed out that they agreed that the gospel he preached is the same gospel
they believed from the same Christ they saw resurrected. There is a continuity
of teaching and testimony from the eyewitnesses through Paul and the other
apostles. Papias, Polycarp, and the
other earliest church fathers claimed either to have known the apostles
themselves or to have known those who knew the apostles.
To discount the testimony of the
earliest fathers, who affirmed the apostles, who affirmed Paul, who themselves
are affirmed by the liberal critics, is to discount the very critics to whom
Doherty appeals! Should we believe the eyewitnesses who affirmed Paul, who was
affirmed by the other apostles, who were affirmed by their immediate
successors, whose words are preserved in our earliest church writings; or
should we believe Doherty, the skeptic who undercuts ancient historiography by
discounting the New Testament texts?
for You, but Not for Me. Doherty dismisses the textual evidence for the New
Testament as too little, too late, and too inconsistent. He claims we cannot
trust them because there are not enough copies or citations that are "early
enough"; the fragments far outnumber the complete manuscripts, and the
Scripture citations in the early church fathers are fragmentary.
Such wholesale dismissal flies
in the face of the standard principles used by genuine experts (including those
interviewed by Strobel) to date all classical literature. To dismiss or replace
these standards is to disqualify the authenticity of the texts of other ancient
literature, including some Doherty uses to try to dismiss the supernatural Jesus
Christ of the New Testament!
Doherty assumes when an early
writer uses a particular passage from the New Testament, one can infer only
that the isolated passage was known to the writer, not the book in which the
passage occurs, much less the New Testament in which the book containing the
passage is found. With this standard, he could not affirm most of classical
literature, including the teachings of Socrates, whose work is known to us only
by references and quotations by others (such as Socrates' Apology). The
standard approach is that when an ancient author quotes or refers to a
distinctive teaching or saying of a predecessor, and we have the larger context
of the quoted material in later copies, we assume that the larger context
existed as the ancient writer's source.
Doherty, furthermore, assumes
that unless the early writer specifically says a specific passage is Scripture,
the writer must not consider the passage as Scripture. This ignores the context
in which most of the passages occur. The context regularly affirms that the
writer believes what he is writing or teaching and that he believes Scripture
is God's revelation, of which the relevant quotation is a part.
Doherty argues that if there is
any gap between the events depicted in the New Testament documents and our
earliest citations, manuscripts, or manuscript fragments, we cannot affirm any
textual continuity. By this standard, Doherty should reject all the classics
because the gaps represented by them are enormous compared to the New Testament.
The comparatively infinitesimal
time gap between the New Testament events and our first copies and the
overwhelming volume of manuscript evidence we possess far outweigh any similar
evidence we have for other classics. Geisler and Nix list in their A General
Introduction to the Bible (408), for example, that we have only 643 copies
of Homer's Iliad, 8 of Herodotus's History, 8 of Thucydides's History,
7 of Plato's works, 10 of Julius Caesar's The Gallic Wars, and 20
of Livy's History of Rome. Compare those numbers
to 5,366 copies of fragments, portions, and complete books of the New
Testaments, the majority later than the seventh century but with some
significant copies from very early.
The difference in gaps is even
more striking. The bulk of the copies we have for the classic authors come from
the middle ages, a thousand years or more from the composition of the texts.
For Herodotus it's 1,350 years (eleventh century a.d.),
for Caesar 1,000 years (eleventh century a.d.),
and for Livy 400 years (fifth century a.d.)
for one partial manuscript and 1,000 years (eleventh century a.d.) for the other nineteen. The New
Testament gap, in contrast, is only 50 years for our earliest fragment, 100
years for our earliest complete books, 150 years for the majority of the New
Testament, and 225 years for the complete New Testament.
Doherty to state we can have no assurance of the dating of the New Testament documents
until we have the complete New Testament in manuscript form also ignores the
standards used to date ancient documents. Aside from its physical
characteristics and the archival setting in which the document is found, the
content of ancient documents can help us date them by (1) what it claims for
itself; (2) the style, vocabulary, grammar, and other literary features; and
(3) the historical and geographical clues within the document.
It would be possible to date the
contents of the New Testament to the first century a.d. even if we had no citations from early church fathers
and no comments from near contemporaries about when they believed the New
Testament was composed. That is how scholars date the Iliad to the
century of its composition even though our earliest copies of portions of it
are dated nearly 1,000 years later.
Dubious Sources. Added to Doherty's woeful inadequacy as a textual critic is his
wholesale acceptance of a proposed "source document" for the gospels, called Q
(after the German Quelle, "source"). Regarding Q, we have no copies of
Q, no copies of portions of Q, no references to Q in any of the early Christian
writings, no references to Q in any of the early non-Christian writings, no
references to Q in any of the gospels or the writings of Paul or the other
letters; we have, in fact, no conclusive evidence whatsoever that Q ever
the Witness of History. Doherty ignores one of the strongest testimonies of the
trustworthiness of the New Testament documents. Christianity is, as Sir Norman
Anderson termed it, "the witness of history."
We call this a variation on the
great-grandfather paradox. Let's say we're discussing the existence of Earl
Doherty, skeptic extraordinairé. We can't find any biographical material about
him other than his stint as president of the Ottowa skeptics group, his
contributions to a small periodical, and his Web site attacking Christianity.
We might suspect he is a figment of some skeptic groups' collective
imagination, an editorial ghost they have conjured to plague Christian authors such
as Lee Strobel.
Then we meet Earl Doherty. He
shows us his driver's license, birth certificate, and pay stubs where he works.
We are confronted with the real Earl Doherty. We cannot explain his
existence away without a story about identity fabrication more incredible than
believing there really is somebody named Earl Doherty who thinks he can
overthrow the truth claims of Christianity. It would be ridiculous to argue
that Earl Doherty doesn't exist merely because we don't possess his
genealogical history back for umpteen generations. We would be laughed out of
the academy of ideas if we were to argue, "We can't verify the identity of Earl
Doherty's great-grandfather, so he must not have had one." The very fact of the
existence of Earl Doherty is proof that he must have had a great-grandfather
even though no evidence may exist today for that great-grandfather.
The existence of the
Christianity of the second or third century that has as its foundation a
belief in the historical verification of its founder's miracle-working power,
death-defeating resurrection, and thus His divine identity, could not have come
into being from a source that ignores historical verification, conjures up a
founder of mythic proportions, and uses miracle and resurrection fantasies as a
mere motif of spiritual enlightenment. Today's history-based Christianity
exists as the progeny of a history-based
If the founders never claimed a
historical base, they could not have produced a history-based religion.
Myth-propagating founders can produce only a myth-perpetuating
religion. There is no need for a myth religion to package itself as a history
religion. The apostle Peter, in fact, declared, "We did not follow cleverly
invented stories [Greek muthos or myths] when we told you about the
power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his
majesty" (2 Pet. 1:16).
Even if there were no intact
contemporaneous evidence of the historical facts of Christianity's founder, His
miracles and His resurrection, the existence of Christianity as a history-based
religion (not merely a religion that existed in history) argues for a
historical origin. Christianity's existence today argues for the existence of
the historic figure of Jesus Christ.
Doherty's challenge has fallen
fatally short of its goal. The Case for Christ and the faith it examines
remain the witness of history.
Bob and Gretchen Passantino