Review: Jesus Under Fire

Wilkins' & Moreland's 'Jesus Under Fire'At last. The book I originally went to the library to find (because I sure as anything wasn’t going to pay real money for it): Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, edited by Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland. A Christian friend of mine kept citing it in our conversations about the historicity and general trustworthiness of the Bible, and I couldn’t address the arguments he pulled from it after only a short glance at a line or two that he’d point out to me. I’m glad I read it, but as Inigo Montoya might have put it, I don’t think this book says what he thought it said.

It does sound like Jesus Under Fire promises to provide substantial evidence for the truth of Christianity. That is what I was asking my friend for, and that was the context in which he recommended it to me. The authors strike me as intelligent people who understand why evidence is needed and blind faith is a poor approach. In the introduction, Wilkins and Moreland write,

The Importance of Truth for Religious Belief

Consider first the question of truth. In medicine, we all know what a placebo is. It is an innocuous substance that doesn’t really do anything to help an illness. But the patient’s false belief that it works brings some mental relief. A placebo works because of the naive, misinformed, and false beliefs of the patient. Sadly, the placebo effect is not limited to medicine. Many people have worldview placebos–false, naive, misinformed beliefs that help them because they are living in a fantasy world of their own creation and not because the beliefs themselves are true. [p. 6]

They then go on to argue for the importance of reason and evidence in determining truth, even religious truth. That’s a really good start. However, in the book’s chapters, written by well-known evangelical apologists like Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig, we don’t get anything resembling compelling evidence. It’s mostly a lot of citing the Bible to show that the Bible is true.

To be fair, I don’t think atheists are the target audience of this book. It does generally discuss people who claim that the Bible’s records of Jesus are not historically accurate and factual, but their priority is refuting one such group of people: the Jesus Seminar. I knew virtually nothing about this group before reading this book, but it seemed as though the writers assumed that my disbelief in their version of Christianity hinged on my having been hypnotized by the Jesus Seminar’s claims. If everything they say about the Jesus Seminar is true, not quote-mined and distorted — something I’m not certain about, but it’s possible — then I generally agree with their criticisms. A liberal Christianity based on deeming huge portions of the Bible to be false doesn’t make a lot of sense. It should take you all the way to nonbelief. As Scot McKnight puts it in his chapter, “Who Is Jesus? An Introduction to Jesus Studies,”

If the current views of Jesus that I discuss below are accurate, millions of Christians have been deluded into thinking that Jesus was and is their Savior. They have bought into a myth that has no more roots in reality than the Wizard of Oz. They have trusted in a Christ who is not there and assumed a faith that is an illusion. Millions of Christians, throughout the world and throughout the history of the church, have begun their day, sustained their work, and laid their heads down at night in constant prayer to Jesus, the Lord; if that Jesus did not exist, then their faith is a psychological trick and their prayers are more than fanciful coping mechanisms. their hope for life with God is a vapor trail that was created in thin air. [p. 52]

Yet for all their accusations that the Jesus Seminar members are practicing flawed scholarship in order to satisfy their ideological goals, the writers of Jesus Under Fire don’t fare any better. Their conservative ideology requires that the biblical Jesus must have been real, and over and over again they cite little else but the Bible itself as “evidence” of this claim. Their desperation is painfully apparent.

My copy of the book is full of little sticky notes marking passages I could refute, but answering all of them wouldn’t be very interesting for you or for me, and it would make this post nearly as long as the book itself. Instead, I’m going to highlight a few of the sections where the authors purport to offer “evidence,” and explain how deeply lacking their efforts are.

After 22 pages of Craig L. Blomberg’s 27-page chapter, “Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?”, he finally gets to a section he titles, “What Evidence Do We Have from Outside the Gospels?” But there’s less than a page on archaeology, and less than a page on non-Christian historians [p. 40-1]. Then we’re back to New Testament letters, Christian hymns and other poetry, and “later Christian testimony.” These are technically “outside the Gospels,” but not in an important sense as far as evidentiary weight is concerned. The page and a half on legitimately different sources demonstrate at best that a controversial teacher by the name of Jesus lived in Palestine in the first century CE, and that many locations and a few of the people mentioned in the New Testament really existed. This is hardly evidence for the biblical Jesus in all his supposed glory. Blomberg peppers these short sections with awkward excuses, saying

When we realize that ancient historians focused almost entirely on the exploits of political and military leaders or officially recognized religious and philosophical spokespersons, one should not be surprised that Jesus gets so little attention in ancient historiography. [p. 40]


These and numerous other details create a favorable impression of the Gospels’ trustworthiness in the areas in which they can be tested. Reasonable historians will therefore give them the benefit of the doubt in areas in which they cannot be tested. [p. 41]

Habermas’ chapter, “Did Jesus Perform Miracles?”, follows a very similar pattern. Somewhat amusingly, he criticizes the “historicity of ancient non-Christian miracle claims” [p. 123-4] and points out that it’s “insufficient simply to claim that a miracle occurred in any tradition” [p. 124]. He criticizes the Jesus Seminar for unfairly discounting the possibility of miracles, then launches into his discussion of the evidence [p. 129-33]. Guess what the evidence is? First, “source attestation.” The Gospels say that Jesus did miracles. Second, “Jesus’ opponents.” The Gospels say that people who didn’t like Jesus witnessed his miracles and acknowledged that they happened. (Not what you might have expected that point to mean, huh?) Third, historicity. Sometimes this term is used to mean that the miracles fit in with the overall Gospel narrative, and other times it means that the miracle stories include some details, e.g. geographical locations, that are historical. Fourth, “the trustworthiness of the Gospels.” Habermas makes a handwaving argument for this in in only two paragraphs. Fifth, “the resurrection of Jesus.” If Jesus was capable of coming back from the dead, surely he could have achieved lesser miracles. (In the following chapter, Craig addresses the resurrection specifically.)

In the last half-page before his conclusion, Habermas finally attempts to argue for “modern scientific confirmation.” He does so with two brief examples which he says “may provide some hints” as to how modern studies could validate biblical miracle claims. The first is a citation of R.C. Byrd’s 1988 intercessory prayer study. This study is one among many investigations of IP, and the vast majority of them show no effect (and some show a negative effect). Additionally, Byrd’s methods and interpretations had some serious flaws. Habermas’ second example is that Christian psychiatrist M. Scott Peck and his team were stymied by a couple “possession” and “exorcism” cases. Um, what?

I’m bored of this now, and I’m sure you are too. I’ll just finally mention that William Lane Craig’s evidence for the resurrection is 2 parts citations of scripture pertaining to Jesus’ empty tomb and his disciples’ visions of him after his death, and 1 part assertions that mere decades are not enough time for legends to develop and that so many Christians couldn’t possibly be wrong. R. Douglass Geivett has a chapter called “Is Jesus the Only Way?” in which he asserts that “the Christian revelation claim enjoys the greatest support among the alternatives” [p. 195], by which he means other religious teachings, apparently not including atheism as a possibility. It’s conceivable that Christianity is the most warranted religious tradition out there, though I don’t think that’s true. Even if it is, this book serves to show that even it is seriously lacking in evidence, which must make other religions’ justifications very dismal indeed.

By assuming each of the books of the Bible to be distinct and reliable sources, this team of authors might be able to convince a few liberal but devout Christians who previously bought into the Jesus Seminar to shift their views in the conservative direction. In terms of its ability to convince a non-Christian that Christianity merits belief in the first place, though, it’s a miserable failure.

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  1. Aristarchus

     /  July 5, 2011 at 10:28 am

    and 1 part assertions that mere decades are not enough time for legends to develop

    I assume the case studies aren’t over? 🙂

    On a semi-serious note – when will you have read enough of these that you feel safe assuming the rest are nonsense without having to actually read them?

  2. Haha, no, I have three case study drafts in the works right now, and will add more as good ideas come to me. Suggestions are welcome! 😉

    On the serious note … ugh, I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll be reading many more unless a religious person tells me specifically that that one has especially great, unique points (though I’ll be doubtful, I’m a good sport). I’ll probably make them read a book I suggest in trade, too. I did find one laughably ridiculous book when I went back to the library to return this set I’m in the process of blogging about now (two more to go). It’s about how to get exactly what you want when you pray, using the author’s special formula for prayer. I would be remiss not to share that gem with the blogosphere.

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