Reading John's Gospel - ch. 1-3

Varghese, Roy Abraham, Robert Price, Ralph Gilmore, and Dick Sztanyo. The Case for the Christ of the New Testament: An Adversarial Dialogue Concerning the Existence of Jesus Christ. Vienna, West Virginia: Warren Apologetics Center, 2013. Reviewer: Scott J. Shifferd

Making a case for Jesus as the Christ is older than the church. The church exists because experiences of Jesus’s resurrection converted the first Christians. These experiences transformed the lives of the first believers, and today, the phenomenon of the Christian faith produces that same transformation among vast numbers. Furthermore, Jesus’s apostles made the case that Jesus is the prophesied Christ upon the Scriptures, the empty tomb, and the witnesses who experienced Jesus risen (Acts 2; 13; 1 Cor 15:1–11). The Case for the Christ of the New Testament is useful for ministers to reach another level of depth in historical apologetics and prepare for the rising of mythicist claims.

The following is a summary of the dialogue between Roy Abraham Varghese, Robert M. Price, and Ralph Gilmore:

Dialogue Positions

Varghese presented the case for Christ as a phenomenon. V explained that the faith of the first Christians is historical and that faith changed their lives and the lives of millions throughout history in the form of a movement.

Price argued that Jesus was a legend shaped by other ancient myths. P noted various dying-and-rising gods such as Mithras to explain the development of the “Christ-Myth.”

Gilmore defended that Jesus was an historical figure. Gilmore presented numerous historical sources, the early church, and minimal facts from critical scholars that make the case that Jesus is an historical figure and Jesus is the Christ.

Roy Abraham Varghese

Varghese built upon Jesus of Nazareth as an historical figure noting that the Christian movement was a phenomenon and that nothing like this has happened in history. V reported that the apostles were more than recorders of whom Jesus sent out into the world, and that early Christians writers like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch confirm the existence of these apostles and their mission (10).

As Varghese presented his position, he argued for a personal encounter and experience with Jesus. While many would perceive such an experience as subjective, V perceived that faith is a rational response to experiencing Jesus. No other worldwide movement spread like the Christian faith through personal encounter. The Christian movement is unique since no other movement began from an historical event. No other religion has documents and accounts from its conception (13–14). V declared, “No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus” (16).

Centuries of secular theories have produced no certainty of an historical Jesus. V perceived such critical methods of history as hopeless. He observed that no court trials of apologetics and skeptics prove the faith and spread the Gospel, but that the first Christians were people of whose lives Christ transformed (17–21). Josephus and Tacitus demonstrate that there was a movement.

Varghese supported his position further by citing liberal theologian John Dominic Crossan. Crossan saw that Jesus was crucified and the movement spread throughout the world. Critical historians admit some facts about Jesus, and yet these facts become undermined by the critical-historical approach (25–26). The less critical scholars admit then the more people read and decide for themselves, and the more critical scholars admit then the more they affirm the Gospel accounts.

Varghese perceived that the critical approach will never determine an exact sequence of the Gospels, the earliest Christian tradition, and Jesus’s actual words. For critical scholarship, these matters are speculative (26–28). V compared historical criticism to studying a “fish out of water” where one may either study a living fish or remove a fish from water and dissect it (31).

The New Testament does recognize the transformative effect of Jesus’s resurrection. The spread of the Christian movement in the middle of the first century and the preservation of the Gospel in the early Christian writings preserve the phenomenon of the Gospel. Critical scholars along with everyone else must explain the movement of the Gospel proclamation (32). Even more, V noted that Jesus’s resurrection was not the appearance of a spirit, vision, or NDE (33).

“By far the most compelling feature of the claim of resurrection is the transformation of the followers of Jesus and the genesis of the Christian movement,” noted Varghese (34). Furthermore, V observed that Jesus would have been included as a part of a Jewish sect if the first believers did not believe that Jesus rose and claimed to be God (40). Jesus is the only significant person in history of whom lived the kind of life with teaching that one would expect from God incarnate. In addition, Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection is an expected signature of God (42, 89).

Varghese also claimed that pre-Christian religious movements pointed to sacrifice, expiation, incarnation, and salvation. The mentality of humanity attuned to the coming of Jesus Christ. V later expanded his defense that Mithra and dying-and-rising gods are only copies of Jesus Christ (60–61). V mocked such claims that Jesus arose from myths as though the ancients had the internet to borrow from Hellenist myths, Buddhist stories, and Old Testament accounts (90).

Robert M. Price

Price reported that he is a “disillusioned apologist.” P described himself as a Republican, pro-gun, pro-Israel, anti-abortion, and anti-Obama (65). P reflected that as an evangelical he realized that he had been praying to an imaginary friend. He compared Jesus to the development of Krishna, Spock, and Superman (48).

As Price presented his position, he observed that anything is possible, but the historian wants to know what is probable. P defended critical scholarship as the neutral position. He compared the biblical miracles to watching giant monsters destroy cities on television as though such is not probable or believable (68).

Price recounted his leaving apologetics when he saw his position as discounting evidence and defusing landmines. He saw the comparisons of Jesus to other religions as dangerous, and he realized that he was no longer seeking truth. Because of a guilty conscience, P left apologetics. After reading numerous apologetics, P perceived that all apologists contrived their positions (70–71).

Price came to see Jesus as a legend that the Gospel evangelists had conformed to the myths of that time. P disagreed with Bart Ehrman who sees the Gospels as reliable for source material. Price asserted that the Yahweh cult of a dying-and-rising God originated from Marduk. However, P noted that the idea of the resurrected Messiah is not in the Old Testament. He insisted that the Christ-Myth Theory is not mythicism (72–73).

Price looked down upon the apologists’ claim of “innocent until proven guilty” and that such claims prove that they are “pre-critical” historians who will believe what they are told while relying on two or three witnesses. P mocked Jesus’s miracles as not probable because Jesus is comparable to a comic book hero. P detailed that Jesus’s miracles resembled those of the Old Testament miracles (74–79).

Furthermore, Price thought that the evangelist of Mark based his Gospel on Psalm 22. P also supposed that no one was probably at Jesus’s crucifixion. P noted William Lane Craig’s historical argument for Jesus’s resurrection including Joseph of Arimathea burying Jesus’s body and the women finding the tomb empty. Craig defied the skeptics to explain. Price’s response was that fiction has taken apologists. P compared this to asking skeptics, “Where does the yellow brick road lead?” and “How to get to 221b Baker Street?” (80). Price argued that the Gospels are the product of redactionism. P saw the facts of Jesus’s resurrection as a pretense for a bait-in-switch to convert people to believe all the biblical miracles. He perceived that apologetics are trying to convert people to inerrantism (82–83).

Ralph Gilmore

Gilmore makes the case for the historicity of Jesus Christ.

  1. If the person and work of Jesus Christ are beyond that of created beings, then Jesus is the Son of God.
  2. Jesus’s person and work are beyond that of created beings.
  3. Therefore, Jesus is the Son of God.

G also added that if Jesus was the Son of God, then Jesus is historical.

Gilmore presented Licona’s historical criteria that the explanatory scope criterion insures that a hypothesis must cover all relevant facts. G noted that Price cannot disprove one account of Jesus in the New Testament as not historical. G observed that if Price wrote a history of a miracle that morning, then his anti-supernaturalism would deny the miracle in the evening. Furthermore, G added twenty-two historical points about Jesus to defend his position.

Gilmore quoted Thomas Warren that “men should only draw conclusions as are warranted by the evidence.” G presented a histiographical Christ by focusing on three facts: the documents, the eyewitnesses, and the changed lives of monotheistic Jews. Furthermore, Gilmore noted Gary Habermas’s list of twelve historical facts about Jesus’s resurrection that most critical scholars admit. This is the “Minimal Facts Argument.” G also presented William Lane Craig’s four historical facts for Jesus’s resurrection: (1) Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus’s body, (2) Women found the tomb empty, (3) Various people experienced Jesus risen from the dead, and (4) Bias opponents came to believe via experiences of Jesus risen (118). G compounded the evidence by listing fifteen groups of people in the New Testament who experienced Jesus risen from the dead (119). G added a list of historical sources for Jesus including: Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Josephus, Babylonian Talmud, Lucian, Samosota, and Suetonius (122–26).

G presented the assumptions of Price’s claim that Jesus matched the archetype of mythical heroes. The claim that Jesus conforms to the myth of dying-and-rising gods is not plausible for Jews to have accepted. No myth of deity coming back from the dead except Osiris existed before Jesus (130–33). G pointed out that the dying-and-rising god motif is not a category of ancient beliefs (126, 135). He observed that critical scholars must contrive late dates to justify their positions (135). Ralph Gilmore concluded by citing Julius Africanus who recorded the writing of a benefactor to Herod named Thallus. Thallus wrote in about AD 50 trying to explain the darkness that occurred at the crucifixion of Jesus (136).

Biographies

Dick Sztanyo has preached for four decades and served as moderator in this dialogue. Sztanyo has done doctoral studies in philosophy at the University of Dallas, Andrews University, Rice University, and the International Academy of Philosophy. He is the author of Graceful Reason: Studies in Christian Apologetics published by Warren Apologetics.

Roy Abraham Varghese is a prolific writer and editor on the interface between science and religion. Cosmos, Bios, Theos was one of his notable books, and more recently, The Christ Connection: How the World Religions Prepared the Way for the Phenomenon of Jesus (2011). Varghese also co-authored with Antony Flew: There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.

Robert M. Price was among the top “Jesus Atheists” of the 21st century. Price holds the radical mythicist position that Jesus never existed. Price has a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Drew and another Ph.D. in New Testament. He is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and author of Deconstructing Jesus, Jesus is Dead, and The Christ-Myth Theory.

Ralph Gilmore is a professor of Bible and Philosophy at Freed-Hardeman University, and he has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He is also a contributor to the work of the Warren Apologetics Center and editor of the Kingdom academic journal.