Years back when I was completing my Classics M.A. program at the University of Arizona, I was gifted by my sister’s former pastor with a copy of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. In the book Strobel tries to argue how his investigation, from “legal journalist’s perspective,” into the historical evidence for the Christian faith caused him to convert from an atheist to a Christian. For a detailed examination of Strobel’s conversion story, including the fact that he had been a teacher pastor in a church for 12 years before he wrote The Case for Christ, I recommend Ed Babinski’s “On the Conversions of C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, and and Lee Strobel.”
Since I was a Classics M.A. student at the time, who was studying ancient history, I was curious about some of the historical arguments that Strobel was making. The structure of Strobel’s book is to interview scholars, whom Strobel identifies as authorities, on a number of topics pertaining to Christian origins and the reliability of the New Testament. This led me to Strobel’s interview with Craig Blomberg in the first chapter of the book. Blomberg is an evangelical Christian scholar who works at Denver Seminary. I looked into Blomberg’s background, and here is what is written on his seminary’s website regarding the institution’s doctrinal commitments:
“Each year our trustees, administration, and faculty are required to affirm and sign Denver Seminary’s doctrinal statement…”
And what is written in Denver Seminary’s doctrinal statement? Well, the following:
“We believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the inspired Word of God, inerrant in the original writings, complete as the revelation of God’s will for salvation, and the supreme and final authority in all matters to which they speak.”
Nice. So, Strobel was doing an “investigation” into the historical evidence for Christianity, by visiting institutions that openly state that the New Testament is inerrant and the final authority on all matters that it speaks of. I did research into the other “scholars” that Strobel interviewed in the book, and learned 10/13 of them (and, especially, William Craig, Gary Habermas, and J.P. Moreland) also had their primary careers at similar faith-based institutions (the exceptions are Metzger, Yamauchi, and Metherell, but interesting enough Strobel interviews these men for more technical areas, like textual criticism, less relevant to proving things like Jesus’ resurrection). In effect, Strobel merely performed a survey of conservative Christian think tanks and then passed it off as if it were an objective investigation.
Nevertheless, I decided to give the book a read and to see what evidence and arguments Strobel had to offer. And so, in the first interview, I found Blomberg making a rather egregious comparison. Apparently we have earlier and more reliable historical evidence for Jesus than even the famous Macedonian general Alexander the Great. After all, Blomberg (pp. 41-42) points out the following fact about the dating of the Gospels: “The standard scholarly dating, even in very liberal circles, is Mark in the 70s, Matthew and Luke in the 80s, [and] John in the 90s” of the 1st century. That’s roughly 40-60 years after the death of Jesus.
But what is the time gap for our earliest biographies of Alexander the Great? Here is where Blomberg makes an egregious error, stating (pg. 41):
“The two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than four hundred years after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., yet historians consider them to be generally trustworthy.”
Really? You mean that in the literate Hellenistic world nobody bothered to write a biography of the Greeks’ greatest general, who conquered most of the known world, until four hundred years after his death? They even constructed a great library at Alexandria, and yet nobody thought to write a biography of the city’s founder? Wait a second…
Didn’t Alexander have a personal historian who traveled with him and wrote about his deeds during his campaigns? That’s right, Callisthenes of Olynthus (360–328 BCE) was Alexander’s official biographer, who wrote contemporary to his life (not half a century later). This is a piece of information that would be covered in any undergraduate course about Greek history. Oh, by the way, there were other authors, who were eyewitnesses and who wrote either contemporary to Alexander (356–323 BCE) or within a couple decades after his death. Just to name some others:
Anaximenes of Lampsacus (c. 380–320 BCE; Greek historian and contemporary)
Aristobulus of Cassandreia (c. 375–301 BCE; Greek historian and companion of Alexander)
Eumenes (362—316 BCE; companion and Greek scholar)
Nearchus (360—300 BCE; general and voyager under Alexander)
Hmm, so those are the writings of at least five eyewitnesses, three of whom were professional historians, who wrote about Alexander either contemporary to or within twenty-five years of his death (and there are more authors than just those who wrote about Alexander within that timespan). And yet for Jesus, we do not know of the writings of a single eyewitness or contemporary historian, nor do we know of any contemporary records for his life. The only known writings for Jesus within twenty-five years of his death are the non-forged letters of Paul, who was neither an eyewitness nor historian and who provides only a few biographical details about Jesus’ life (see NT scholar Bart Ehrman’s “Why Doesn’t Paul Say More About Jesus?”).
To be sure, I do believe that a historical Jesus existed, but comparing the evidence for this obscure figure to well-attested figures like Alexander the Great is an extreme exaggeration.
So, how could a Christian professor like Blomberg make such an egregious error regarding the first biographies of Alexander? Because the wording in Strobel’s book is horribly misleading. What the sentence should read is: “The two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great [that are fully extant today] were written by Arrian and Plutarch more than four hundred years after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., yet historians consider them to be generally trustworthy” . The actual earliest biographies of Alexander did not survive the bottleneck of lost texts during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but they are still partially preserved for us today through fragments and quotations (in scholarly volumes such as Felix Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians). That hardly entails the implication of Strobel’s misleading wording, which (without explaining the nuance) could imply that nobody bothered to write a biography until four centuries after Alexander, but ancient authors (by comparison) were rushing to jot down the deeds of Jesus much earlier. Quite to the contrary: Alexander had multiple eyewitnesses and contemporary sources, whereas nobody wrote a gospel about Jesus until half a century after his death, in a different language, and in different lands, drawing primarily from oral traditions and hearsay.
(I should note, hypothetical sources like the Q source, a pre-Markan Passion narrative, the M or L sources, do not count as textual sources in the same capacity as the historians for Alexander that I have listed above. All of these hypothetical sources are scholarly reconstructions, and there is debate over whether they constituted written texts. The Q source, for example, may have been a written collection of sayings. But it is also possible that it mostly derives from the author of Luke using Matthew’s gospel. Since it is merely a debated scholarly reconstruction, it cannot be counted as a established written text. This is very unlike a later author citing a written text, and attributing it to a specific author, such as what we see in Plutarch and Arrian.)
So why do historians find Plutarch’s and Arrian’s biographies to be “generally trustworthy”? Once more, Strobel gets it wrong when he has Blomberg state:
“In other words, the first five hundred years kept Alexander’s story pretty much intact; legendary material began to emerge over the next five hundred years. So whether the Gospel were written sixty years or thirty years after the life of Jesus, the amount of time is negligible by comparison. It’s almost a nonissue.”
No, there are very many critical issues at play here. Does Strobel really think that the first five hundred years after Alexander preserved his biography on their own? Hardly. It is only because Plutarch and Arrian drew upon the earlier written works of Alexander’s eyewitness and contemporary historians that we can trust these later works to be reliable . Arrian made heavy use of the writings of earlier, eyewitness historians. It is not the “five hundred years” that accurately preserved the information in Arrian’s narrative, but the contemporary sources that he drew upon. Strobel does not clarify any of this to his lay readers.
The comparison with Plutarch is even more insightful. For Plutarch, a number of his biographies deal with legendary figures of whose historicity we cannot even be certain. One such biography is Plutarch’s Life of Romulus. Now, Romulus allegedly lived in the 8th century BCE and Plutarch lived in the late 1st century CE. Instead of the four hundred year gap between Plutarch and Alexander, we have an eight hundred year gap between Romulus and Plutarch. But are the extra centuries what make the difference here? Not at all. The biography of Romulus cannot be trusted, because no contemporaries or near contemporaries of Romulus wrote anything about him. Had contemporaries written about Romulus, as they did about Alexander, then Plutarch could have been able to make a generally trustworthy account even eight hundred years later. This is why I can write a trustworthy biography about Alexander over two thousand years after his death. What matters are the writings of the earliest sources, not the earliest sources to be fully extant.
Let’s consider an even better comparison in the case of Plutarch’s Life of Camillus. Now, the Roman general Camillus (c. 446–365 BCE) was a near contemporary of Alexander (356–323 BCE) of whose historicity I am rather certain. The chronological gap between Plutarch and Alexander is about the same as between Plutarch and Camillus. However, I do not find Plutarch’s Life of Camillus to be generally trustworthy (at least not for many of the biographical details of Camillus’ life; the sack of Rome in 390 BCE is a historical event discussed in the biography, but Plutarch had limited evidence for knowing the specific details even of that otherwise general event). The problem is that Roman historical writing did not begin until the late 3rd century BCE with the writings of Rome’s first historian Fabius Pictor. There was some earlier evidence afforded by the Annales Maximi, which were records kept by the Roman high priest that later annalists like Pictor made use of (though, even these records were substantially destroyed by the sack of 390 BCE), but they were limited in the data that they could afford, and usually recorded only general, not specific events. That leaves a substantial gap between Camillus and the earliest historical writings about him, whereas no such gap exists for the earliest writings about Alexander the Great. Even as a diligent biographer, Plutarch was not able to produce as reliable an account for Camillus, because no contemporary sources existed for his life, whereas he could produce a reliable account for Alexander through contemporary sources, even when both subjects were distanced by four centuries. Once more, the lesson is not that hundreds of years can still accurately preserve a biography, as Strobel implies, but that contemporary written sources (of which we have none for Jesus) can accurately preserve information for hundreds of years.
Furthermore, the claim about the legendary material for Alexander is likewise misleading. It did not take the second set of five hundred years after the first half-millennium for legends to emerge about Alexander. Once more, Strobel is confusing this with the surviving legendary material we have from some collections of Medieval texts categorized as the Alexander Romance. Legends about Alexander in non-extant sources cropped up far earlier than that, as early as the Ptolemaic period immediately after Alexander’s death.
Here is a valuable article written by Kris Komarnitsky discussing the growth rate of legends surrounding famous figures in antiquity. Apologists (as seen in the example above) like to claim that it takes hundreds of years for legends to develop. They frequently quote Sherwin-White’s claim that two generations is too short a time for legends to have developed about Jesus. However, Sherwin-White was corrected by his colleague and classical historian P.A. Brunt, who pointed out that many legends emerged about Alexander the Great within only a couple decades after his death. As Sherwin-White later admitted (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, pg. 192):
“Mr. P.A. Brunt has suggested in private correspondence that a study of the Alexander [the Great] sources is less encouraging for my thesis. There was a remarkable growth of myth around his person and deeds within the lifetime of contemporaries [circa 300 BCE], and the historical embroidery was often deliberate. But the hard [historical] core still remains, and an alternative but neglected source – or pair of sources – survived for the serious inquirer Arrian to utilize in the second century A.D.”
The problem for Sherwin-White’s thesis, however, is that the historical core of Alexander’s biography was far better preserved than what was available for Jesus. In the case of Alexander, Arrian could make use of several eyewitness historical sources, written during Alexander’s life or only shortly after his death. For Jesus, there are no known contemporary, eyewitness, or historical sources of any kind, but only theological epistles from a non-eyewitness decades after his death and hagiographies written by unknown persons half a century after his death. Both Alexander and Jesus had legends quickly emerge about their lives; however, for Alexander there was still a solid historical core preserved through contemporary writings, whereas for Jesus the historical core was never preserved by contemporary records and later legends quickly took over through a religious movement that furnished the legendary accounts we have today. As Richard Stoneman (Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context, pg. 120) summarizes nicely:
“[W]ith Jesus … we have no independent historical source by which we can evaluate the ways in which the legend varies from what really happened. In the Alexander Romance we see see history becoming saga before our very eyes.”
So this is hardly a “nonissue” as Blomberg claims. I will spare him some of the blame, however, since Blomberg has stated after his interview that Strobel oversimplified many of his statements. Chris Hallquist in his book UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God (pg. 50) discusses how he emailed Blomberg about some of the generalizing statements in his interview with Strobel that could easily be misconstrued. Hallquist summarizes the correspondence as follows:
“In e-mail conversation, Blomberg told me that Strobel’s write-up of the interview was not verbatim but rather heavily paraphrased and full of what were, in Blomberg’s view, oversimplifications. He told me his initial impulse when he saw Strobel’s draft was to edit everything for accuracy, but in the end decided to correct only the worst problems.”
Unfortunately, Blomberg did not correct this oversimplification (and misrepresentation) in the statement about Alexander’s earliest biographies, which were not written “four hundred” years later, but during his lifetime. Nevertheless, the primary blame rests with Lee Strobel, whose book is chalked full of distortions and inaccuracies of this kind . As a former legal affairs journalist, I really have to wonder whether Strobel is really so incompetent at catching these critical details, or whether he deliberately puts out such overly-generalized half-truths merely to convert whatever layperson happens to be reading his book under the pretense of “evidence.”
As a Classics Ph.D. student, however, I really have to say that I find this kind of misinformation about my field to be rather terrible. As much as creationists misrepresent and misinform people about the theory of evolution, historical apologists likewise grossly distort the field of ancient history, using oversimplifications, half-truths, or pure inaccuracies in order to serve their religious agenda and proselytize. Exposing these dishonest apologetics to the public, who deserves better information about these matters, is part of the service I seek to provide as part of my work in academia.
 As it turns out, an Ancient History Ph.D. student at UNC, who was a former colleague of mine in the UofA Classics M.A. program, read this essay and contacted me about another error he found in Strobel’s interview. He pointed out that, even among the extant sources that come down through Medieval manuscripts, Plutarch and Arrian are still not the “earliest biographies.” We have surviving copies of the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus’ Historiae Alexandri Magni, which predates both Plutarch’s and Arrian’s biographies. So, even when the statement is given allowance for only referring to surviving texts (which is very ambiguous in its wording and misleading to the readers), Strobel and Blomberg are still incorrect.
 Furthermore, even if Plutarch and Arrian did not directly access the earlier writings of Alexander’s historians, they still had access to source collections that compiled their materials. As J.E. Powell (“The Sources of Plutarch’s Alexander,” pp. 229-230) argues:
“Plutarch cites by name no fewer than twenty-four authorities. The list is headed by those Letters of Alexander which form almost the sole source of the digressions illustrative of character: they are expressly cited in altogether more than thirty places. Next … come Aristobulus, Chares and Onesicritus, cited half-a-dozen times each; then Callisthenes quoted thrice, and Duris, Eratosthenes and the ephemerides, or official diaries, twice each. There remain the following sixteen names, which appear once only: Anticlides, Antigenes, Aristoxenus, Clitarchus, Dinon, Hecataeus of Eretria, Hegesias, Heraclides, Hermippus, Istrus, Philip of Chalcis and Philip the Chamberlain, Philo of Thebes, Polyclitus, Ptolemy and Sotion.
[T]he great majority of these authors can never have been in Plutarch’s hands. His citation of them must be derivative. Indeed, it can be made probable that in composing the Life Plutarch used only two books: the collection of Alexander’s letters for the character-sketches, and for the main narrative a large variorum compilation on the history of Alexander, the same compilation of which Arrian’s Anabasis is principally a judicious epitome.”
Through earlier source collections, such as the variorum that Powell discusses, therefore, the gap between Alexander’s first historians (who wrote during and shortly after his lifetime) could be bridged to later authors like Plutarch and Arrian, who wrote several hundred years later.
 For more critical reviews of Strobel’ The Case for Christ, I recommend Jeff Lowder’s “The Rest of the Story” and Robert Price’s The Case Against The Case For Christ, in addition to Paul Doland’s website, Case Against Faith, which provides detailed critical reviews of Strobel’s other “Case for…” apologetics books.
In my writings on this blog I have also countered a number of Strobel’s claims in the other chapters of The Case for Christ:
(Note: some of these essays are not direct responses to Strobel’s interviews, but only address the same historical-critical issues.)
- For a rebuttal to Strobel’s claim in chapter 1 that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony, see my essay “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels.”
- For chapter 2, in which Strobel argues for the historical reliability of the Gospels, see my essay “Methodological Approaches to Ancient History.”
- For chapter 3, in which Strobel argues for the textual reliability of the New Testament, see my essay “Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context.”
- For chapter 4, in which Strobel discusses non-Christian sources for Jesus, see my essay “Ten Reasons to Reject the Apologetic 10/42 Source Slogan.”
- For chapter 12, in which Strobel argues for Jesus’ resurrection via the empty tomb, see my essay “Knocking Out the Pillars of the Minimal Facts Apologetic.”
- For chapter 13, in which Strobel discusses the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, see my essay “1 Corinthians 15 and the 5oo Witnesses.”
[I have since expanded upon many of the points made above in my essay “When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Ancient History?.” In this second essay I elaborate further on why the historical evidence for Alexander the Great is vastly more reliable than that of Jesus, and also discuss the methodological issues surrounding legendary development and the need of early sources in historical analysis.]