Is the Easter Myth really a “fact” ?


Lee StrobelEaster is fast approaching and so the apologists are once again ramping up their rather familiar arguments. A rather popular example of this is perhaps Lee Strobel who is promoted as the Atheist Journalist who turned to Jesus and converted after examining all the evidence for the resurrection. Wow, “evidence”, now that sounds interesting. Ah but is this really true, does he have some solid evidence?

Let’s take a look.

We have an article within Christian Today that asserts his claim like this …

“For nearly two years, I explored the minutia of the historical data on whether Easter was myth or reality. I didn’t merely accept the New Testament at face value; I was determined only to consider facts that were well-supported historically. As my investigation unfolded, my atheism began to buckle,” he recounted in an article for Stream.

One of the first pieces of evidence he gathered was actually from atheist historian Gerd Lüdemann who declared Jesus’ death by crucifixion “indisputable.” This was supported by a thorough study by A. N. Sherwin-White of Oxford, who himself cited ancient eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ death.

Well there you go then, an Oxford historian is cited so it just must all be true … right?

Oh wait, that article is simply asserting a claim and does not actually explicitly state anything that you can directly check. Instead it is making vague references and so we need to peel back this layer and see what is under the covers. In fact, it is just a rehash of an article that Mr Strobel himself wrote a couple of days ago, and so there we discover what Mr Strobel himself actually claimed. In it is a slightly toned down variation of the bit of the claim associated with A. N. Sherwin-White.

Over in The Stream he writes …

I quickly determined that the alleged resurrection of Jesus was the key. … Is the resurrection a legend? Not a chance. A. N. Sherwin-White of Oxford said it took more than two generations of time in the ancient world for legend to develop and wipe out a solid core of historical truth. Yet we have a report of the resurrection – that Jesus appeared to named individuals and groups of eyewitnesses – which has been dated to within months of Jesus’ death.

Was Jesus’ tomb empty? Scholar William Lane Craig points out that its location was known to Christians and non-Christians alike. So if it hadn’t been empty, it would have been highly unlikely for a movement founded on the resurrection to have exploded into existence in the same city where Jesus had been publicly executed just a few weeks before.

… I read books by skeptics, but their counter-arguments crumbled under the weight of the historical data. No wonder atheists so often come up short in scholarly debates over the resurrection.

In the end, after I had thoroughly investigated the matter, I reached an unexpected conclusion: it would actually take more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a follower of Jesus.

OK, so let’s peel back yet another layer and see what is under that.

A. N. Sherwin-White

Take this claim ….

A. N. Sherwin-White of Oxford said it took more than two generations of time in the ancient world for legend to develop and wipe out a solid core of historical truth

… and let’s see if that is factual.

Actually no it is not, the claim is pure myth. It  has been examined in detail and revealed to not be factual. A. N. Sherwin-White wrote a book all about Roman law and not the supposed resurrection of Jesus. Since Roman law was his focus he does consider the trail of Jesus and other legal proceedings recorded about Paul, but offers no opinion on the reliability of the resurrection at all. Towards the end of his book he does also offer some speculation …(this is the bit that has been hijacked by apologists) … as explained in an analysis of it all …

He admitted that “a deal of distortion can affect a story that is given literary form a generation or two after the events,” (RSRLNT p. 187) but his response was that the gospels were no more obviously distorted than many of the sources that historians of ancient Rome must deal with on a regular basis. He did not assert that the gospels were historically factual. He asserted that they could be used to do history.

… Professor Sherwin-White noted that even the “most deplorable” sources can be read critically by historians to yield a “basic layer of historical truth.” While he did not claim that the Bible was a deplorable source, he repeatedly compared it to writings that are replete with problems.

…The part of Sherwin-White’s essay that has attracted the most attention from Christian apologists is his comments on the length of time it takes for mythology to displace historical fact. However, contrary to Craig, StrobelGeisler and a host of others, he did not attempt to calculate a rate of legendary accumulation that is universally applicable. Nor did he lay out a rule that enables an historian to identify a point before which an oral tradition can still be considered historical. Indeed, Sherwin-White acknowledged that various types of bias can be present both in the original source of the oral tradition and in the writer who finally records it. He merely asserted that “historical content is not hopelessly lost” to the critical historian even after a period of two generations. (RSRLNT p. 191)

In other words, we are being conned by Mr Strobel and others who assert this source as “evidence” that the bible must be considered fact because it was written down only 30 years after the events it claims to describe.

So did Mr Strobel actually lie about all this?

Yes he damn well did … in print within his own book …

What clinched it for me was the famous study by A. N. Sherwin-White, the great classical historian from Oxford University, which William Lane alluded to in our interview. Sherwin-White meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world. His conclusion: not even two full generations was enough time for legend to develop and to wipe out a solid core of historical truth.  (The Case for Christ p. 264)

… and as can be clearly seen by anybody who checks, that is not a factual claim.

There was no study, that is not factual. There was no meticulous examination of the rate at which legend accrued, that is not factual. Sherwin-White did not assert that two full generations was not enough time for legend to develop, that is not factual.

If we took even more time to examine any or all of the other claims presented regarding supposed “evidence” then in a very similar manner you would discover similar distortions and outright fraudulent claims.

Is Mr Strobel being deliberately deceptive? Actually I do not think so, but instead what we have here is a desperate need to rationalise a belief being combined with a game of Chinese whispers. Where did Mr Strobel get the claim that A. N. Sherwin-White conducted a study in which he supposedly “meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world” from? That came from William Lane Craig who grossly distorts a snippet from the back of the book on Roman law by A. N. Sherwin-White. In other words Mr Strobel got it from William Lane Craig, does not bother to actually fact check, and simply takes it as-is, gives it a bit more spin. Others in turn then pick up what Mr Strobel wrote and distorted it even further, until we end up with the claim within the Christian Today article that then makes the following completely fictitious assertion …

a thorough study by A. N. Sherwin-White of Oxford, who himself cited ancient eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ death.

You might think that I’m being a tad hard on Mr Strobel for simply being gullible, but remember, this is an apologist who claims that he spent two years researching it all as a journalist. Call me a tad picky if you like, but part of Journalism 101 should be checking your sources and not ending up as a link in a chain of Chinese whispers that churns out fiction as fact.

Lee Strobel & The Case for Christ

Mr Strobel’s gullibility in this respect is well illustrated by his book, “The Case for Christ”. It is supposedly the definitive book on the topic, but those who do a detailed review do find that while it is well written, it rather lacks any impartiality at all.

Here is a very detailed and quite fair review that concludes as follows…

Case for Christ is a creative, well-written contribution to Christian apologetics. Moreover, Strobel is to be commended for summarizing the work of so many leading apologists for Evangelical Christianity in such a compact and easy-to-read format. Yet Strobel did not interview any critics of Evangelical apologetics. He sometimes refutes at great length objections not made by the critics (e.g., the claim that Jesus was mentally insane); more often, he doesn’t address objections the critics do make (e.g., the complete inauthenticity of the Testimonium Flavianium, the failure of Jews to produce the body is inconclusive evidence for the empty tomb, etc.) Perhaps this will be a welcome feature to people who already believe Christianity but have no idea why they believe it. For those of us who are primarily interested in the truth, however, we want to hear both sides of the story

So why did Mr Strobel actually convert?

He claims it was all due to these “historical facts”, but as he himself often explains, his real motivation was not intellectual, but instead was an emotional one …

It was the worst news I could get as an atheist: my agnostic wife had decided to become a Christian. Two words shot through my mind. The first was an expletive; the second was “divorce.”

In other words, he had an emotional commitment with somebody who converted, and to preserve that relationship he also converted. The rest, all the “evidence” is how he justified his new emotional stance to both himself and others.

It is perhaps also highly ironic that apologetic myths have been very rapidly built upon the writings of A.N. Sherwin-White in order to establish ancient myths as facts on the basis that it supposedly takes a long time for legends to be established – yet the fact that A.N. Sherwin-White actually made this observation is itself a legend that very rapidly got picked up and established, and so it self-refutes the argument being made. If you take the time to cut though all the layers of this mythology then you will quickly discover no real evidence at all and so faith remains just “faith” which is basically believing stuff on the basis of no evidence at all. If indeed there was any reliable robust evidence then it would cease to be “faith” and would instead be fact.

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