As a freethinker who occasionally expresses his views about religion (and in particular, fundamentalist Christianity) in public forums, I am accustomed to having these views challenged by others. Often, these defenders of the faith invoke the name of Josh McDowell, either by directly referring me to one of his works, or by quoting passages from them to me. I have thus become very conversant with McDowell's works. I have also come to recognize the influence he wields in Christian circles, especially among college groups such as the Campus Crusade for Christ and other similar organizations. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Christians in the world have embraced McDowell as a spokesman and many of these people can quote their favorite McDowell arguments as readily as they can their favorite Bible passages.
The problem is that McDowell's work is characterized by errors in both fact and logic as well as a legerdemain use of rhetoric which those Christians who parrot him in discussions with others seem to be unaware of. Rationalist critics have for the most part ignored McDowell, probably for two reasons: His books do not offer any significant new ideas in the field of apologetics, and they are targeted for a more general audience than is usually associated with books on Biblical scholarship. But it is precisely for these two reasons that McDowell needs to be taken seriously by the academic community. I therefore thought it would be both fun and instructive (fun for me, instructive for others) to write a capsule critique of McDowell in the form of a review of one of his books.
I have chosen "More Than a Carpenter" as the subject of this article because it is perhaps the single most widely distributed and read of his works (Christian organizations often give away mass quantities free at his lectures and other events) and it is well representative of his material. The main thrust of the book is to attempt to prove the existence and divinity of the Jesus Christ described in the New Testament by appealing to history, logic, and McDowell's own personal testimony of how Jesus Christ "changed his life."
In the first chapter, "What Makes Jesus So Different?", McDowell attempts to demonstrate the uniqueness of Jesus among the world's spiritual and religious leaders. Here the foundation of his demonstration rests on a blatantly false premise; namely that Jesus was the only such leader in world history who claimed divinity. "Why don't the names of Buddha, Mohammed, Conficius offend people?" asks McDowell. "The reason is that these others didn't claim to be God, but Jesus did. That is what makes him so different from other religious leaders."
With this sweeping statement, McDowell reduces the number of significant figures in the history of religion to four and concludes that because Jesus was the only one of these four who claimed divinity, then he must be unique among *ALL* the peoples of the world. That is all well and good for his purposes, but if one wishes to expand the field beyond McDowell's elite circle of four it doesn't require an exhaustive search of the various churches, mythologies, and cults that have existed since the dawn of recorded history to come across human beings claiming to be God or some type of divinity. Krishna, the figure analogous to Christ in the Hindu religion, is quoted in the Bhagvat Gita as saying "Know me then to be the creator of mankind, uncreated, and without decay." And this is just one of many examples. So much for the uniqueness of Christ's claim to divinity. McDowell is able to get away with making statements like this because his readership for the most part is unfamiliar with the history and literature of other religions and the science of comparative religion.
In addition, the question of whether Christ's claim to divinity can be conclusively supported by the canonical Gospel texts is open to dispute. This aspect will be more fully discussed in the treatment of the next chapter. We need only note here that McDowell in Chapter One makes much of the proposition that the belief of Jesus' disciples and followers in his divinity goes a long way toward proving that divinity. But by appealing to the belief of others, McDowell totally undermines the basis he earlier established for Jesus' uniqueness: His *own* claim to divinity. Buddha's followers believed him to be just as much of a God as Christ's followers did him, even though Buddha may not have made the claim himself. So Christ is certainly not unique in the respect of being thought a God by others, making most of McDowell's points in this chapter irrelevant to his thesis. McDowell utterly and completely fails to support the contention that there are unique aspects about Jesus' life and ministry that make him stand apart from other men. He would perhaps have been better served by attempting to argue that Christ's impact on history was greater than any other religious leader, a position that is at least defensible.
Chapter Two, "Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?" is a masterpiece of poor reasoning, generalization, and assorted other fallacies. Although by itself it stands as a textbook example of the problems with McDowell's work; in all fairness, he is not to blame for it. The famous Christian writer C.S. Lewis conceived the trilemma put forth in this chapter. Lewis attempted in his works to provide a purely philosophical basis for the truth of Christianity. Unfortunately, his understanding of philosophy was outdated and he had trouble with constructing coherent arguments. Efforts such as "Lord, Liar, and Lunatic" are the result.
The argument is expressed as follows. Jesus claimed to be God. Only three things can possibly be true in light of that claim: Either it was untrue and he knew it was untrue (and was deliberately lying), either it was untrue and he didn't know it was untrue (in which case he was a lunatic), or else it was true (in which case Jesus really was God.) Although the structure of this argument appears sound to the casual reader, a few moments of reflection upon its premises by anyone who's ever passed a course in basic philosophy will reveal serious flaws in their correlations.
McDowell has little trouble in dispensing with the first two conditions and arriving at the third through the process of elimination. Let's see how he does it. In dismissing the notion that Jesus was a liar, McDowell says: "This view of Jesus, however, doesn't coincide with what we know either of him or the results of his life and teachings. Wherever Jesus has been proclaimed, lives have been changed for the good, nations have changed for the better, thieves are made honest, alcoholics are cured, hateful individuals become channels of love, unjust persons become just." Talk about your glittering generalities! McDowell doesn't even attempt to support any of these statements by example. And what exactly does all this have to do with whether or not Jesus was lying when he stated he was God? McDowell completely ignores his task in this section. I personally doubt that it is possible to prove conclusively, based on the text of the Gospels and the history of the Christian Church, that Jesus was not of a temperment prone to lying, but this is at least what McDowell should be attempting to do if he wants to successfully address his point. Instead he throws out a list of beneficial effects Jesus has supposedly had on society, every single one of which is highly disputable if not demonstrably false. I could cite a number of specific examples in which, in my opinion, Christianity has had a negative impact on the state of the honesty of nations or individuals, but the whole subject is completely and totally irrelevant to the question under discussion.
By this time we begin to note a feature which is a characteristic of McDowell's work. He uses lots of quotes from a variety of different sources to give his work the appearance of having been thoroughly researched. The reader is impressed by the authorities appealed to on almost every page, and the long list in the endnotes reference listings of each chapter. In reality, however, the quotes McDowell uses from these sources are nearly always bereft of relevant facts, unrelated to the subject that is supposed to be the topic of discussion, or are made by people who do not have the authority on the subject to support McDowell's claims about it.
An example of this occurs on page 29 of More Than a Carpenter and comes from Philips Schaff's History of the Christian Church. McDowell is appealing to Schaff to help bolster the case of Jesus' honest character. Schaff writes: "The former hypothesis (that Jesus was lying when he said he was God) cannot stand a moment before the moral purity and dignity of Jesus, revealed in his every word and work, and acknowledged by universal consent. Self-deception in a matter so momentous, and with an intellect in all respects so clear and so sound, is equally out of the question. How could he be an enthusiast or a madman who never lost the even balance of his mind, who sailed serenely over all the troubles and persecutions, as the sun above the clouds, who always returned the wisest answer to tempting questions . . . A character so original, so complete, so uniformly consistent, so perfect, so human and yet so high above all human greatness, can be neither a fraud nor a fiction . . ." McDowell has no business quoting this vacuous poetry in this section of the chapter, which purports to deal with the question in a scientific and objective manner. Schaff's testimony is sheer, unadulterated opinion. The things he says cannot possibly be supported by the New Testament records of the life of Jesus, nor does Schaff attempt to justify or qualify them with such. A few passing references are made to some alleged fulfilled prophecies Jesus was supposed to have made, but that's it in the way of anything approaching a tangible example. Unfortunately, this Schaff piece is typical of the kind of source McDowell uses to "support" his findings. I personally find it a pity that McDowell did not offer anything relating to this question that was worthy of serious discussion.
McDowell's treatment of the argument's next condition, the possibility that Jesus was a lunatic, is just as poorly handled and this time even more substantially flawed. The difficulties of attempting to build anything resembling an accurate psychological profile of a man who lived two thousand years ago and who we know only through fragmentary, distorted, (and in many cases conflicting) records never seem to occur to McDowell. He treats the whole subject by applying the same type of generalizations he used in the "liar" question, making statements like "In Jesus we don't observe the abnormalities and imbalance that usually go along with being deranged" and "His poise and composure would certainly be amazing if he were insane."
Jesus' actions in the moneychangers' temple (Luke 19), his cursing of the fig tree for being out of season (Mark 11 and Matthew 21), his outburst against Peter (Mark 8:29-33), his belief in a literal hell with which he often threatened his detractors, and his reference to the scribes and Pharisees as "fools" and "generation of vipers", while they certainly do not necessarily brand Jesus as crazy, nonetheless do not coincide with McDowell's contentions. And besides, if the sanity of Jesus is such a self-evident fact, why did his own contemporaries, in Mark 3:21, think he was "beside himself"? McDowell's assertions are once again shown to be unfounded and insupportable.
And since when has sincerely believing something that is in reality untrue been automatic grounds for condemning someone as a lunatic? I'd hate to have McDowell as a judge in a competency hearing, if he ascribes to such a stringent and dogmatic standard for sanity. McDowell's belief that Jesus really is God shows that he doesn't consider the idea that a man could be God absurd in and of itself. And yet he would call Jesus a lunatic simply for being mistaken about it! What if McDowell should turn out to be wrong in his belief in Christ's divinity? I happen to sincerely believe that he is wrong, but I don't think him crazy as a result. I will allow Mr. McDowell to be in error without calling him a nut, which is considerably more leeway than he gives to his own Savior. "I cannot personally conclude that Jesus was a liar or a lunatic," states McDowell at the close of his analysis of the argument. He might have added that the reason he cannot come to these conclusions is because he has not engaged in even an approximation of an investigation into the propositions.
Of course, the argument rests principally upon the basis that Jesus did in fact claim to be God, that this claim can be supported by Biblical evidence, and the question of whether or not it is possible for a human being to have divine attributes. I dealt with this subject in greater detail in my essay "The Conceptual, Philosophical, Semantic, Historical, and Scriptural Impossibility of the Divinity of Jesus Christ." Most of that essay had to do with the incompatibility of human and divine attributes. Reproduced here are a portion of the list of biblical quotes in that essay which contest the basis for Jesus Christ's divinity:
1. God himself disclaims Jesus' divinity in passages such as Isaiah 43:2, Isaiah 14:21, and Hosea 13:4.
2. Jesus denies he has the quality of omnipotence in John 5:19. 3. He denies omniscience in Matthew 34:36. 4. He denies omnipresence by acknowledging that he was not present at the grave of Lazarus.
5. He credits God with bringing him into existence in John 6:57 and also in Hebrews 26:5.
6. He makes the statement "Why call me good? There is none good but one, that is God." (Mark 10:18)
7. He referred worship to God the Father rather than to himself in John 14:21.
8. "My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me." (John 7:16)
9. "The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the father do." (John 5:19)
10. He refers to himself as an intermediary between men and God in John 6:44-46.
11. He declared himself subservient to God (John 5:30)
12. Jesus referred to God as "my father and my God" in John 20:17.
13. He told his disciples to direct their prayers to God instead of him (Matthew 6:6).
14. I John 4:12 tells us that "No man has seen God at any time." Christ was seen by many men over a period of several years. 15. "To sit on my right hand and on my left . . . is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father." (Matthew 20:23)
And on and on. As can be seen, any textual evidence from the Bible which may suggest that Jesus claimed divinity is more than outweighed by the evidence that he believed in a God that was greater than himself.
The "Lord, Liar, or Lunatic" argument is one of the most frequently used pieces of sophistry by born-again Christians attempting to convert others via the method of tracts or casual conversation. It is high time that its numerous errors were brought to light.
Chapter Three is titled "What About Science?" Ah, that old bugaboo Science! Invariably, any extensive work of Christian apologetics gets around to a discussion of the inadequacy of the scientific method in addressing questions of a theological nature. This has become more and more a practice in religious literature as advances in science have increasingly challenged the claims of religion. "The mentality that modern humanity has descended to is amazing," bemoans McDowell, referring to the fact that many intelligent people no longer uncritically accept whatever incredible or fantastic creed the church tries to spoon-feed them. He then proceeds to trash the scientific method, pointing out that "if the scientific method was the only method of proving something, you couldn't prove that you went to your first hour class this morning or that you had lunch today." (Really, Josh? What about running an analysis of my stomach contents?) McDowell concludes that legal and historical proofs are the only types relevant to testing the claims of Christianity.
McDowell's treatment of the scientific method shows that he thinks it consists of nothing more than conducting repeatable experiments under controlled conditions. His curt dismissal and misrepresentation is typical of Christian literature. Since science can't prove conclusively whether or not certain historical events happened, then it has no value in addressing the truth or falsehood of the basis of Christian faith. The fact is that while Christianity is a religion to which the reality of certain historical events is of prime importance, both these facts and other aspects of the religion involve presuppositions which fall within the realm of the scientific method. For example, the claims of Christianity partly stand upon the validity of the account of the creation of the world as it is related in the book of Genesis. Physical sciences such as geology and physics are well-equipped to study these claims in relation to established scientific principles and determine whether or not they are true. McDowell derides science for dealing only with established fact. It is for this very reason that scientific tests of any proposition must come before legal or historical tests, as the truth or falsity of any proposition is thus more easily and ascertainably verifiable. Thus McDowell's assertation that the question "was Jesus Christ raised from the dead?" is "outside the realm of scientific proof" is clearly far from being the case.
Throughout the next five chapters, McDowell will examine various issues related to the history of Christianity and Biblical scholarship. The questions he raises in these chapters are all complex and involve the consideration of many different historical factors, but he treats them in a superficial and homogeneous manner.
In "Are the Biblical Records Reliable?" McDowell begins by making a number of arguments concerning the dating of the books of the New Testament. He quotes a number of sources who are of the opinion that *all* of these manuscripts were written at least twenty years before the end of the first century. Now, while most modern authorities agree upon the period of 50-75 A.D. for the composition of the synoptic Gospels, the other New Testament writings are usually given a much later date. I won't belabor the point that McDowell is backing the minority position here; because, quite frankly, this is a difficult issue which requires a great deal of research and study before one can even begin to understand the issues involved. The fact is that while much study and speculation has been undertaken, no one knows for sure exactly when the various books of the New Testament were written. However, the point related to the question which forms the title of the chapter is this: WE DO NOT HAVE ANY ORIGINALS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT MANUSCRIPTS. ALL WE HAVE ARE COPIES OF COPIES.
Thus all speculation concerning the time the books were originally composed is beside the point, because we don't know what the original manuscripts contained. All we have to work with are the copies, and certainly none of them date from the first century. This makes any argument about the dating of the originals only minimally relevant to the question about whether or not what we do have are reliable documents.
However, it is useful to study McDowell's methods of establishing the rationale for his first-century dating, since this is where he perpetuates some of his greatest chicanery. One piece of evidence for a first-century dating McDowell gives is to claim that archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century "have bridged the gap" between the earliest New Testament manuscripts and the ones we have now. However, the earliest example he lists is the John Ryland manuscript, from only 130 A.D., and he also fails to mention that the Ryland "manuscript" is nothing more than a fragment of papyrus somewhat smaller than a cocktail napkin, and barely identifiable for what it is.
McDowell also quotes exclusively from references sympathetic to his position. Page 43 contains a prime example of how McDowell uses his sources. The quote is from someone named "Sir William Ramsey," who McDowell tells us is "regarded as one of the greatest archaeologists ever to have lived." Having searched several reference works on archaeology (such as encyclopedias and dictionaries with biographical information) in vain for an entry on a William Ramsay, I have to wonder just who it is besides McDowell and his ilk who regards him as such. There was a Nobel Prize winner by that name; but his field was chemistry, not archaeology, and he lived before the time that the work quoted was published. The Ramsay McDowell is talking about may possibly be a great (however unappreciated) archaeologist, to say that he is regarded as one is dishonest. This trick of designating a greater authority for a sympathetic source than they actually possess is common of McDowell's.
Anyway, Ramsay has done some type of research that supposedly verifies the historical accuracy of the Acts of the Apostles. I'm not sure exactly what the content of this research is; McDowell isn't specific, and I have been unable to find a copy of the work this quote comes from. Ramsay "observed the meticulous accuracy of the historical details" of the Acts and came to the conclusion that Luke (or whoever the author was) "is a historian of the first rank . . . this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians." Of course, since by McDowell's own admission Ramsay "paid little attention to the New Testament" during his studies, we have to wonder at what the value of his conclusions are especially when they stand in opposition to Biblical scholars of more established standing. For example; Renan, the author of Life of Jesus, is quoted by John E. Remsberg (p. 39 of The Christ) as having considered the Acts "the most faulty book of the New Testament." Remsburg himself wrote that Acts "contains historical innacuracies, contradicts the Gospel of Matthew, and conflicts with the writings of Paul." Throughout his work Remsberg compiles the numerous historical errors in both Acts and the Gospel of Luke. If McDowell is aware of any of the scholarship which takes this stand, he doesn't feel it necessary to comment on. Apparently all he did was find an archaeological work which contained opinions friendly to his cause, slap the label of "world's greatest archaeologist" on the author, and quote its conclusions without an explication of how they were arrived at or a treatment of the works of those who challenge them.
Some of the statements made by the "authorities" McDowell quotes are just ridiculous. Professor Sam Kistemaker tells us that "Normally, the accumulation of folklore among people of a primitive culture takes many generations; it is a gradual process spread over centuries of time." And archaeologist William Albright states "a period of twenty to fifty years is too slight to permit of any appreciable corruption of the essential content and even of the specific wording of the sayings of Jesus." These appeals to academia on the part of McDowell are an attempt to strengthen his case for the unexpurgated transmission of our Gospels, but all they do is show the ignorance of the men who made them. Kistemaker speaks of "primitive" cultures, which in no way applies to the time and place being discussed. In any case, his contention that "centuries" are required for the development of legends is silly, as is Allbright's insistence that a period of more than fifty years is required to corrupt information.
McDowell, having spent most of this chapter explaining why all of modern scholarship is wrong in its dating of the New Testament, he gives us his three criteria for testing the reliability of a historical document. These consist of the bibliographical test ("an examination of the textual transmission by which documents reach us"), the internal evidence test ("whether that written record is credible and to what extent"), and the external evidence test ("whether other historical material confirms or denies the internal testimony of the documents themselves.")
Naturally, McDowell has loaded the dice in establishing this criteria to ensure that the New Testament passes with flying colors. In subjecting the New Testament to the bibliographical test, he tries to downplay the fact that no originals of the New Testament manuscripts are availible to us. He cites the works of Thucydides, Aristotle's poetics, and Caesar's history of the Gallic Wars as examples of renown documents of ancient history for which no original manuscripts are availible. However, there are a number of important factors that need to be considered in comparing these documents with the New Testament writings. For example, most of his other examples come from time periods when history was in its infancy, as opposed to the time of the New Testament, when we have a relative abundance of historical material to choose from. Furthermore, the history of the transmission of the New Testament documents is very cloudy and there is good reason to believe that there was much tampering with them for various political reasons before the copies of the manuscripts that we have now emerged. McDowell doesn't deal with this latter problem, and correspondingly his contention that the New Testament "has more manuscript authority than any piece of literature from antiquity" is shown to be absurd.
McDowell next subjects the New Testament to his internal evidence test, continuing to work under the assumption that a first-century date for the books as we know them has been established. The strength of his argument here rests on the fact that there is a lack of "hostile witnesses" to deny the truth of the gospel accounts. This means that the authors of the books would not have written them in the manner they did if they had any fear of being contradicted. But it is probable that the books as we know them were composed or at least heavily rewritten at a time when the church already wielded a certain degree of power and feared no opposition. We know that the works of many early church opponents, such as Ireaneus and Celsus were either heavily censured or utterly destroyed.
The song and dance about how modern archaeology has derailed modern critics continues in the external evidences test. Once again, we are treated to a cursory and one-sided examination of the issues involved. One noteworthy passage occurs at the end of this chapter. McDowell is attempting to show that the presence of miraculous or supernatural events in a testimony cannot be used exclusively to demonstrate unreliability. He uses a quote from theology professor Dr. Clark H. Pinnock: "Skepticism regarding the historical credentials of Christianity is based upon an irrational (i.e., anti- supernatural) bias."
An "anti-supernatural bias." I can still remember when I came across this curious little phrase. One Easter, I had written a newspaper article outlining the lack of foundation for belief in the resurrection. A local representative of the Campus Crusade for Christ challenged my viewpoint and sparked a running debate by writing a response article. For his sources, he chiefly used McDowell and the partisan Encyclopedia of Religion, and consequently got most of his facts wrong. But the highlight of his piece was the accusation of "anti-supernatural bias." How did I respond? Guilty as charged! The charge was obviously meant to impugne upon my ability to reason and tell the difference between truth and falsehood, but I consider it complimentary of those qualities. The word "bias" has negative connotations, but the strict definition of it is "a mental leaning, inclination or preposession." Now, whenever we try to answer a question or solve a problem, we bring mental leanings and inclinations to bear on it. These are based upon our previous experience and observations. A bias in an of itself is not inherently either a good or a bad thing. It depends upon whether or not the bias has reasonable foundation (i.e. the bias is consistently supported by real-life experiences and observation). People have been trying to prove the existence of the supernatural (including the possibility of life after death) throughout recorded history. So far, it hasn't been done. Does it then not seem a good thing for one to have an "anti-supernatural bias?" If I am biased against paranormal, otherworldly, or illogical claims, it is for a good reason. It is because the supernatural by definition is placed outside of the realm of natural law, logic, and science, and is unworthy of scientific consideration. My "anti-supernatural" bias keeps me from believing in Santa Claus, fairies, dragons, unicorns, the possibility of two and two equaling five, and my ability to click my heels three times together and be magically transported to the Land of Oz. I can't conceive of how men like Mr. Pinnock and Mr. McDowell can think that the words "irrational" and "anti-supernatural" are synonymous. In my opinion, the exact opposite is true, and therefore my only reply to such an accusation is to turn the charge back upon its source and suggest that perhaps they have an "anti-natural" or "anti-rational" bias that allows them to unquestioningly accept the incredible and impossible claims of the Bible.
I did end up getting a good laugh out of the whole thing, however. About this time a good friend of mine who had been following the controversy came to visit me at my apartment. He saw the computer I was using at the time, which was a 286 BIOS. My friend was really into computer technology and couldn't believe I was using something so outdated. "Is this old clunker the machine you write all your stuff on," he incredulously asked. "A BIOS?" "Yeah," I replied. "This is my anti-supernatural BIOS!"
In chapter five, entitled "Who Would Die for a Lie?", McDowell cites the example of the number of apostles and early Christians who willingly martyred themselves. In response to the standard objection that many different world faiths have had their martyrs, McDowell replies "Yes, a lot of people have died for a lie, but they thought it was the truth. Now if the resurrection didn't take place (i.e., was false), the disciples knew . . . it was a lie. It would be hard to find eleven people in history who died for a lie, knowing it was a lie." McDowell's defense doesn't address the point of the objection; that other martyrs believed just as sincerely in their causes as Jesus' disciples did in theirs. Basically, he's crediting the apostles of the Christian faith with better judgement and treating the others in a condescending manner. But even more central to the issue is the subject of whether or not the accounts of martyrdom as we have them in the New Testament records and early church history are completely accurate. Many scholars believe that some of the martyrdom stories are either wholly fabricated or at least altered substantially. Joseph McCabe has perhaps done the most work in this field; and the interested reader can still find at least one or two of his books in any well-stocked university library, but there are other sources as well. And even the World Book Encyclopedia article on Peter admits that the record of the last years of his life are cloudy and thet there are conflicting reports of his death. The point is that, as usual, the question as a whole requires more study and inspection than he has devoted to it.
The issue of the belief of Jesus' apostles as testimony for his reality is explored further in Chapter Six, "What Good Is a Dead Messiah?" (A title which terribly tempts me to compile 101 uses . . .) Yet once again, complex historical issues are dealt with in Mickey Mouse terms. The argument this time is that the reality of the resurrected Christ can be attested to by the change in the attitudes of the disciples from when Christ was alive (when they thought him to be the Jewish Mesiah), and to the type of faith they practiced after he was crucified and killed. Well, naturally they'd change their beliefs. The foundation for their Mesianic belief had been done away with and they'd have to find some other justification for their belief in Jesus. This actually provides a rational explanation for the emergence of the resurrection story rather than a proof of its occurrence. This new faith in the resurrected Jesus would then account for the recommitment and redication of purpose, after the initial shock of their leader's death, that McDowell points out to us. Relevant factors such as the influence of the Essenes and the Gnostics on the early Christians, the various sects and schisms that sprang up among them, and the fact that death-resurrection fertility rites were ingrained into nearly every religious belief system and mystery rite of the time are ignored.
In Chapter Seven, "Did You Hear What Happened to Saul?", McDowell once again uses the example of a change in the attitude or belief of a follower of Jesus to support the truth of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. This time the subject is Paul (the apostle formerly known as Saul) whose religious experience on the way to Damascus led him to embrace the religion he had been fervently and jealously prosecuting. Why, asks McDowell, would Paul make such a drastic change in his life if a vision of the risen Christ hadn't appeared to him and told him the things he related? Most of this chapter consists of inaccurate and incomplete observations about Paul's life, interspersed with the usual slew of apologists who gush about what a great guy he turned into after his conversion.
The story of this conversion is given at least three separate times in the Acts; in chapters 9, 22, and 26. In the first story the men who were with Paul heard the voice, whereas in the second version they did not. The Chapter 26 version of the story is even more radically different than the first two. It is also curious to note that many of the disciples of both the Christian and the Jewish faith at that time doubted the sincerity of Paul's conversion. Could they possibly have seen, as many scholars have since speculated (pointing out the differences in the essences of Paul's doctrines with that of the other early apostles), that the opportunistic Paul saw the possibilities for power the new church possessed, and decided to appropriate it and mold the character of Christ to push his own religious ideal? McDowell, however, retells the story of Paul in Sunday School fashion instead of approaching it from a scholarly perspective. But of course, McDowell is aiming his books at a general readership perhaps more than somewhat familiar with the Bible itself, but almost completely unaware of the scholarship and textual criticism related to it. This is presumably why he feels he can safely ignore these issues and still produce impressive-looking cases supporting his position.
In Chapter Eight, "Can You Keep a Good Man Down?", McDowell finally gets to the heart of the matter - the resurrection of Christ, which he says is based on "overwhelming historical evidence" and, in another of his works, calls it "one of the most well-authenticated facts of ancient history." The methods used to substantiate these proclamations fall along the usual lines of apologetic arguments for the truth of the resurrection: uncritical acceptance of the Gospel and Acts accounts as valid history, an ignorance of the potential influence of other religions and movements upon the formation of and belief in the resurrection story, various other presuppositions and appeals to speculative rationalizations, and dismissing skepticism concerning the numerous miraculous features of the story on the grounds of being "anti- supernaturally biased."
In my many discussions and debates on this subject I've heard these arguments so many times I can quote them in my sleep. McDowell pays no attention to the many contradictory accounts in the Gospel stories of the resurrection or the corresponding indications that the latter stories borrowed from and embellished upon the earlier ones. His synthetic account of the resurrection story is peppered with real-life historical details from the time and place. No mention is made of the angels, earthquakes, and walking dead which inhabit the evangelist tales.
Here at least, McDowell presents the viewpoints of those opposing the historicity of the resurrection accounts - or seems to. Here we are given an example of another of McDowell's little deceptions: Instead of challenging the strongest and most frequently raised objections to the resurrection, he deals with three arguments (in the form of alternate hypotheses to the resurrection) that are considered improbable and far-fetched even among rationalists. All three are based upon the presupposition that the Gospel writings are reliable and accurate accounts of what happened.
I don't intend to enter into an involved discussion of why I believe there is good reason to doubt the reliability of the Gospel resurrection stories, as I've already written a couple of essays on the subject. I'll just recap the basics here:
1. The only detailed account we have of the resurrection of Jesus comes from the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles books of the New Testament. As we have already seen, we don't know exactly when the copies of the New Testament that we have now were written, nor what changes were made to them. There is good reason to doubt that there is the "accurate textual transmission" that McDowell claims for them. This hampers their reliability as historical documents.
2. No other of the many other historians who lived at the time of the resurrection make reference to it. If all the incredible things related in the Gospels really happened, surely news of it would have reached one of them and they would have found it noteworthy.
3. It is far more probable that the authors of the Gospels or the men who offered testimony to the risen Christ either lied or were mistaken than that Christ actually rose from the dead. (I've already given my reply to the charge of having an "anti-supernatural bias.")
4. McDowell asserts that the accounts of Christ's resurrection, taken together, represent a case that would, through the evidence of the collaboration of the four "witnesses," convince a court of law of the truth of the events described. Apparently this hypothetical court of law does not consider conflicting testimony as grounds for dismissal of evidence. Among these problems are the disagreement among the four Gospels as to the complement of the party who visited the tomb; the time they arrived and what exactly they discovered; whom to, when and where Jesus first appeared following his resurrection, as well as the circumstances surrounding that first appearance; and the circumstances and time of his final ascension. Many Christian writers have attempted to harmonize these contradictions (in works such as John Wenham's Easter Enigma), but so far none have successfully and honestly accomplished the task. Read the accounts of the resurrection and post-death appearances in the four Gospels and then the relevant verses in Acts. Then ask yourself if you would give credence to such disparate testimony if you were on a jury. The notion that the risen Christ appeared to five hundred witnesses at one time will also have to be considered "inadmissible evidence" until some type of corroboration can be found apart from the fantastic account in Acts. This always reminds me of Senator Joseph Mccarthy's claims that he had a list of fifty confirmed communists in positions of power when all he really was holding up was a sheet full of doodles.
5. The Bible itself has several stories of people being raised up from the dead in both the Old and New Testaments. In view of this, why is Christ's return to life considered such an unprecedented historical event? Would McDowell be willing to say that the other Bible stories are false or exaggerated?
6. On a related note; we have the case of many mythologies and religions long predating that of the Christian era; the stories of the deaths and resurrections of whose Gods so closely parallel that of Jesus Christ that nearly every legend and saying of Christ's life and death are accounted for. Foremost among these must have been the worship of Mithra, which has Persian origins and was widely practiced in the provinces of Rome at the time. But the Stories of world saviors in many other belief systems probably had a hand in helping develop the Christ legends as well. There are many excellent reference works which focus on the comparison of the Christ story with earlier belief systems, perhaps the best and most comprehensive of them being James Frazer's The Golden Bough, J.A. Robertson's Christianity and Mythology, and T.W. Doane's Bible Myths and Their Paralells in Other Religions. The fact is that the resurrection story in all its main points was a feature of worship long before the birth of Christ. The matter of the originality of the Christian version aside, the question remains: If you accept the accounts of Christ's resurrection as true, then how can you maintain the truth of those accounts and yet dismiss the just-as-well documented cases of other resurrections, descents into hell, and final ascensions? How can one be shown to be true and the others false? The apologist deals with the issue in three ways: By avoiding it entirely; by misrepresenting the doctrines and history of other religions; and finally, after being challenged by the scholarship of comaparitive religion, to disingeniously insist that such findings are faulty or offer insufficient evidence. McDowell has used all three of these techniques frequently throughout his career. The three remaining chapters of McDowell's work deserve little attention, as they are not much more than fundamentalist propaganda of the penny-tract variety. "Will the Real Messiah Please Stand Up?" is an appeal to the various Biblical prophecies concerning the life and mission of Christ that are supposed to have been miraculously fulfilled. This chapter contains nothing that wasn't utterly refuted by Thomas Paine two hundred years ago in "The Age of Reason, Part Three." I need do no more than refer the interested reader to that book, other than noting how amazed I am at the tenacity with which modern Christians still cling to these long-annihilated arguments. Once I explained to a fundamentalist that the supposed "virgin birth" prophecy of Isaiah contains absolutely no reference to Jesus by demonstrating that it related solely to the birth of the child Emmanuel which was to be a portent of the downfall of King Pekah of Israel. My opponent agreed with my findings, but stated that the passage was still a prophecy of Jesus' birth because it was a representative symbol of the future birth of the Messiah. In other words, even though there was no mention of Jesus and no indication that the author of Isaiah was attempting to prophesy events outside his own lifetime, it nevertheless is a prophecy of Jesus' birth simply because it gives a description of a young woman giving birth to a son. Who cares if his name is "Emmanuel" instead of "Jesus?" What's in a name? I recount this incident to demonstrate the futility one often encounters when arguing with fundamentalists, who will readily give up all reason, logic, and sensibility before they relinquish one whit of their sacred doctrines.
"Isn't There Some Other Way?" explains the purpose of God's advent on Earth in human form and its greater implications for the unjust, illogical and absurd Christian "scheme of salvation." Anyone who's ever had a born-again fundamentalist trying to convert them has heard this spiel. All human beings are innately sinful deserve nothing but eternal and infinite damnation for their flawed characters. But God took pity upon us and decided to come up with a means whereby we might achieve salvation. So he sent his only son to Earth (in this chapter Josh seems to forget all his earlier attempts to establish that Jesus was God and treats God and Jesus as separate entities) to die and rise again in the presence of mankind. Thus all people everywhere would become aware of this gift of eternal life and salvation is theirs for the asking. All they have to do is believe in the resurrection of Jesus and accept Him into their hearts and life through prayer and God will forget all their past sins and the fact that you are still innately sinful and unworthy of His kingdom and write your name in the Book of Life anyway. The fact that many other religions have similar ideals of salvation is conveniently ignored, along with any attempt to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian scheme to them.
Any reasonably intelligent adult who is so disposed and who uses his or her mind should easily be able to see the numerous ridiculous features with this doctrine, so I won't waste time detailing the many objections to it here. I'll only offer a little of my own perspective. Exactly what human virtue is God rewarding with this plan of salvation? Excessive credulity? I just don't understand how the Christian's belief makes him more virtuous and more worthy of the kingdom of heaven than the non-believer or the devout disciple of another religion. The whole thing sounds like one big lottery draw where those who are lucky enough to be born into a nation where Christianity is the major religion, hear this version of the gospel message, and are disposed to believe it have an unfair advantage which has nothing to do with justice or righteousness. Christians are always telling us that the reason God has to make heaven an exclusive club is because "You don't want to have to worry about the type of people you're going to meet up there" in the same breath that they tell us "Good works won't get you to heaven." So how does unadulterated acceptance of one religious doctrine among many in one religious system among many constitute a greater level of morality? It seems to me that the Christian God is nothing more than an incredible egotist who wants heaven filled with only those people who worship him, regardless of their standards of morals or the quality of their lives. I also have trouble understanding why God had to make a sacrifice in order to assure our salvation. He's God! He's supposed to be all-powerful! Why must he sacrifice anything, and more importantly WHO is going to hold concession over him to demand this sacrifice? But I've already given this topic more attention than it merits.
The last chapter, "He Changed My Life," is McDowell's own personal testimony of how he became a born-again Christian. It is little different from many other such accounts. McDowell admits that at the time of his conversion to Christianity he was generally unhappy and dissatisfied with his life. He also indicates that he felt his life lacked purpose. When a person has this state of mind; a major change such as adopting a new religion that involves a new outlook and sense of productivity can provide the rejuvenation McDowell says he experienced after he became a Christian. The fact that McDowell in his own testimony states that he so readily accepted Christianity after setting out to prove it false strongly suggests he was seeking any kind of change in his outlook on life. But this is all speculation on my part, and unimportant. I could provide McDowell with the stories of many, many people whose outlook on life changed for the better after they discarded their religious beliefs, including that of myself. Such stories prove nothing as to the truth or falsity of any intrinsic claim made by the doctrines of a religion.
I hope that I've demonstrated at least some of McDowell's shortcomings and inadequacies present in More Than a Carpenter. I realize a full exploration of some of the issues discussed requires more scholarship than I am conversant with or can adequately treat in an essay of this size. But the point is that he hasn't given these questions the depth that they require, either. Although his books have the appearance of being well-researched and full of documented evidence, most of the sources he uses are people who don't demonstrate a great deal of comprehension of the issues involved in higher criticism. They either have nothing of substance to say, or when they do offer us a tangible statement, it turns out to be preposterous. More Than a Carpenter, far from being a serious work on the issues it proposes to explore, is little more than what Christian organizations use it for: a quick and easy vehicle to dupe potential convertees into believing that Christianity is a faith backed up by historical facts.
I'm sure that such groups and individuals will continue to use More Than a Carpenter for that purpose, and I have little hope that my criticisms of it will convert the already indoctrinated. What I do hope for is that the as-yet- impartial reader will be able to approach the book a little more warily, and that other freethinkers may find material in this essay useful when Christians attempt to use information from McDowell in discussions with them.
Contents copyright 1995, 1997, by Todd M. Pence. Permission to freely distribute and reproduce is given as long as proper credit is acknowledged. Todd M. Pence, 3211 Adams Ct, Fairfax, VA 22030-1900
|Last revised 6/3/01 visitors since 3/97|