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Will the Real Jesus Stand Up? A Debate Between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan

edited by
Paul Copan

Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998, 179 pages.

This book captures a debate between Craig, an evangelical and defender of orthodox Christianity, and Crossan, a former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar consisted of a well-publicized series of meetings of New Testament scholars (almost exclusively liberal or radical ) whose purpose was to determine which of the statements and teachings attributed to Jesus in the Bible, were actually spoken by Him and which were the creation of the early church.

The debate was held in 1994 at Moody Memorial Church, and was moderated by William F. Buckley, Jr. (whose sympathies he freely acknowledged lay with Craig rather than Crossan). Then two evangelicals (Craig Blomberg and Ben Witherington III) and two participants in the Jesus Seminar (Robert Miller and Marcus Borg) were asked to respond to the debate, and their responses are also included in this book.

Craig opened the debate by announcing that he was going to defend two main contentions:

(1) The real Jesus rose from the dead in confirmation of his radical personal claims to divinity.

(2) If contention 1 is false—that is, if Jesus did not rise—then Christianity is a fairy tale which no rationale person should believe (page 25).

His contentions are based on four facts (which he characterizes as being supported by “the consensus of scholarship today” (page 26): 1. The burial by Joseph of Arimathea, 2. The empty tomb, 3. The resurrection appearances, and 4. The origin of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection.

Crossan on the other hand, makes a distinction between the “Christ of faith” and the “Jesus of history.” To determine the Jesus of history, he relies upon certain historical presuppositions, and accepts the Biblical record only in so far as it is deemed historically verifiable or at least historically likely. For example, for Crossan, the resurrection was not bodily or physical, but rather a means of speaking of Jesus’ continuing “presence” with his followers in some ephemeral way. Crossan closes his opening address by saying:

When I look a Buddhist friend in the face, I cannot say with integrity, “Our story about Jesus’ virginal birth is true and factual. Your story that when the Buddha came out of his mother’s womb, he was walking, talking, teaching and preaching (which I must admit is even better than our story)---that’s a myth. We have the truth; you have a lie.” I don’t think that can be said any longer, for our insistence that our faith is a fact and that others’ faith is a lie is, I think, a cancer that eats at the heart of Christianity (page 39).

Anyway, after the opening addresses, each of the participants has a rebuttal, and then chapter 5 in the book is a dialogue between Craig, Crossan, and Buckley, followed by closing statements from the two participants. Then the second section of book follows, with responses from the four individuals mentioned earlier, and a final chapter on the later reflections on the debate, by Craig and Crossan.

So, if you are interested in hearing a debate on the issues concerning the historicity of Christ and the resurrection, this would be a good book to consult. It was interesting, but at the same time sad, to hear someone who considers himself a “Christian” scholar, but has so watered down his faith that you want to ask him, why bother at all? As Craig says in his closing reflections:

What this exchange revealed is that on a factual level Dr. Crossan’s view is, as I suspected, atheism. “God” is just an interpretive construct which human beings put on the universe in the same way that (to Crossan) “Christ” is an interpretive construct which Christian believers put on the purely human Jesus. In this light, it is no surprise at all that Dr. Crossan believes neither in miracles nor in the resurrection of Jesus as events in history…Crossan is thus a good example of contemporary theologians who have accepted the modernist critique of religion but who cannot bring themselves, in Don Cupitt’s phrase, to “take leave of God” (page 174).

Related Topics: Christology