May 28, 2009
The Case Against Lee Strobel
Answering another email question, this time about the occasional asides I’ve made here against Lee Strobel.
Let me say this: the works of Lee Strobel are one of the things that crystallized my atheism. As a Christian, as an argument for Jesus/Christianity/theism, I think he has absolutely no credibility; as a person, I think he has absolutely no scruples. Here’s my case:
Please understand that I say this because I think Christians should put their best arguments forward. I think it’s unfair, for example, to tar all Christians with having to defend Fred Phelps, and I bristle when atheists suggest that there’s no difference between Phelps and any other Christian. Of course there is.
So let me be clear: I do not think Christianity is false because Strobel is a liar. I do, however, think that Christians should be aware of the fact that Strobel is a liar, and I think that Christians should not commend his books to seekers.
Now, where’s my proof? Bear with me — this will take a while.
First, turn to page 101 of your copy of The Case For Christ (or click on this link). On that page, Strobel is attempting to answer one of the most common objections to the historicity of the Gospels — the conflict between the date of the Nativity as set forth in Luke versus Matthew. The problem is this:
Luke 2:1-2 claims that Jesus was born while Quirinus was governor of Syria, and pursuant to a census that we know from the historian Josephus could have only taken place after Herod the Great died, and after his successor, Archelaus, was deposed. But Matthew 2:1-3 claims that Jesus was born when Herod the Great was still alive — possibly two years before he died. (See also Matthew 2:7-16).
Since Quirinius was not governor until 6 CE, and Herod died in 4 BCE, these two passages seem to contradict each other. (I note also that Josephus dates the census, under Quirinius, to 6 CE.)
Here’s how Strobel attempts to resolve the problem. He posits that there was either a second Quirinius, who was proconsul in Syria from 11 BCE to the death of Herod, or that Quirinius was governor on two subsequent occasions, one of which coincided with the rule of Herod the Great.
So far, that’s pretty reasonable. But what’s Strobel’s evidence? Again, let’s quote him directly, from the bottom of page 101:
“An eminent archaeologist named Jerry Vardaman has done a great deal of work in this regard. He has found a coin with the name of Quirinius on it in very small writing, or what we call ‘micrographic’ letters. This places him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 B.C. until after the death of Herod.”
The problem is that Jerry Vardaman is not an “eminent archaeologist.” He’s a complete and utter crackpot — described by other professionals as “insane” — who fabricated a story beyond all reasonable belief. Go ahead; click the link, or you can read my summary below.
Vardaman claims to have found coins from the Roman empire with teeny-tiny letters inscribed upon them that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye. In these ‘microletters’ — seen only by Vardaman — we find the reference to the second Quirinius (and all sorts of other crackpot claims).
Now, there are a few obvious problems with Vardaman’s claims:
1. Vardaman has never published any of his accounts in any peer-reviewed journal, or ever subjected his work on ‘microletters’ to any critical review of any kind by any other party.
2. Vardaman has never produced any of the coins that he claims contain micrographic letters! Nor has he produced, say, photo enlargements of the coins. Instead, he’s produced hand-written drawings of what he says the coins look like!
3. Comically, those drawings of coins dating back to the first century CE contain the letter ‘J’ — even though the ‘J’ was not invented for another nine centuries! This is like finding a painting said to be a Rembrandt but noticing that the subject is wearing a digital watch and eating a bag of Doritos!
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of other obvious errors in Vardaman’s so-called “scholarship;” go read it for yourself.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: perhaps this is just sloppy work by Strobel. That would certainly serve not to commend his work, but it would not warrant my calling him a liar. I agree.
However, in late 2003, on “The Bible Answer Man” program, Lee Strobel as the guest was confronted about the Vardaman claims. In that format, Strobel said merely that he had not heard of the criticism and would check it out. (Unfortunately, I cannot find a link to that audio; Strobel has also been confronted about these claims online dating back to 2004 parse Richard Carrier.)
More than two years later, on December 10, 2005, Lee Strobel repeated the same ‘Vardaman’ claims while appearing on the John Kasich program on FOX to discuss the so-called “War on Christmas” before an obviously very friendly audience. Strobel called Vardaman’s magic-Js-microletters-invisible-two-Quirinius-coins as “the strongest example of archaeological confirmation” that the Bible is true. Seriously. Go click the link.
Now, that statement is a lie. It’s a lie that any reasonable researcher — which Strobel claims to be — would have recognized as a lie from the moment he was told about it. And it’s a lie that Strobel was aware of in fact for more than two years after he was asked about it on “The Bible Answer Man.” It’s a claim so indefensible that it arose the ire of the folks at the Real Clear Theology blog — fellow conservative Christian apologists.
And that is why I think Christians should avoid commending Lee Strobel to anyone.
Worse, Strobel’s entire schtick is that of a journalist. Take a look at how Strobel describes himself on the jacket of The Case For Christ:
As a seasoned journalist with a Yale law background, Strobel systematically tracks down his leads and asks the blunt, tough questions you would want to ask — questions that can make or break the Christian faith. He refuses contrived, simplistic answers. … The Case for Christ reads like a captivating, fast-paced novel. But, it’s not fiction. It’s a riveting journey to the truth about the most remarkable event in history: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it’s a revealing, personal testimony to his power to transform people yet today — even the most case-hardened, cynical journalist.
And if you’ve ever heard Strobel speak, you know he milks this angle for all it’s worth. “I ask the tough questions,” claims Strobel.
My point in this post is simply that Strobel’s rhetoric does not match reality; the Vardaman example shows this beyond a shadow of a doubt. Is it conceivable, in the least, that Strobel asked even one moderately difficult question here? (Let me offer a suggestion: “Hey, can I see your magic coin with the invisible letters?” — that would have been a nice starting point!)
Of course not.
The Vardaman example shows exactly the kind of approach Strobel takes to these “interviews.” They are not the “critical” “hard-hitting” questions of a “cynical” journalist — they are the exact opposite; they’re uncritical, unquestioning, sycophantic suck-ups to people who share only the very narrow ideological point Strobel wants to advance in the first place.
Now, I guess people enjoy Strobel’s one-sided “journalism” — where he asks the easiest, most leading questions of cherry-picked experts who support (but do not oppose) his narrow view of the supposed “evidence.” Strobel is certainly a very wealthy man; he’s sold millions of books and has his own TV show. But I find him to be thoroughly disingenuous.
Are there other examples? Absolutely. The Case For A Creator is one big series of lies, from the very first pages where Strobel uncritically repeats Jonathan Wells’ utterly false claims that biology textbooks today teach that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny (see pp. 20-21) to the chapter on Behe that asks no critical questions (despite the fact that Behe, under actual cross-examination in Kitzmiller v. Dover, was completely shredded), it’s all vintage Strobel. The chapter on Jonathan Wells, for example, has Strobel asking a “question” that paraphrases a Discovery Institute press release almost word-for-word!
Again, all I can say is that if you’re using Strobel as an outreach tool, you are going to get burned. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Strobel is simply not a reporter doing “interviews.” He’s a propagandist feeding leading questions to sympathetic supporters who are going to give Strobel the predetermined, agreed-upon-in-advance answers that he’s seeking. Maybe that’s useful if you want to “fire up the faithful,” but it isn’t going to convince a skeptic.
And that’s the Case Against Lee Strobel.