The Verdict? A Reply to Josh McDowell

I had been avoiding reading Josh McDowell’s Book, Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith, largely out of prejudice. I was pretty sure that what McDowell was trying to do was impossible, and that his book would be a disgraceful propaganda piece. But when I found the book at a used bookstore, I figured that I really should read it and here are my thoughts.

Usually in a trial, both sides get to make their argument. It is the defense lawyer’s job to represent his case in the best possible light. McDowell’s book is such a defense. I don’t mean to take the “other side” because I am a Christian myself, but I do have some problems with McDowell’s arguments. I also think that a good defense lawyer will answer the hard questions that his opponent asks; Evidence ignores the hard questions substituting easy “straw man” questions.

When you reduce any argument about Christianity down to the most basic level, everything hinges on the Bible. There is no other contemporary source for what happened during the first 3 decades of the first century in Palestine or in Israel in the centuries before. You either believe that the Bible contains 100% literal, reliable, historical accounts (McDowell’s premise), or you don’t. There’s no external evidence to compare with.

One annoying thing that McDowell does is to quote other people at length. Citing someone else’s opinion is not evidence. If I had turned in an English composition paper with this much quotation in it, I would have gotten a bad grade. I think McDowell intends for all this material to be convincing since it comes from “books”, but again, opinion is not evidence. Some of the cited material is obsolete, and some of it misrepresents the authors views, and some of the citations are patently false. In fact, it looks like there is more quoted material than there is original material (didn’t actually measure it).

The other primary objection I have to McDowell’s book is that he puts forth the view that faith is something that comes from examining the evidence and having the will to follow up on the conclusion. Somehow, I always thought that faith was a gift from God worked through the Holy Spirit. McDowell speaks so vehemently against “blind faith” that I get the impression that he is afraid of closing his eyes. As Jesus says: “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

The first important assertion by McDowell is that the New Testament was written by eyewitnesses. For evidence, he quotes the Bible itself. What his quotations fail to do, however, is to provide any quotations from the Bible that show that Matthew, Mark, or Luke were eyewitnesses. Luke himself admits that he is not. The fact that Matthew copies around 90% of Mark into his book suggests that Matthew was not an eyewitness (why would he copy so much of Mark if he had his own knowledge?). Mark, according to ancient tradition (Papias, 2nd century as cited by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History 3:39), was a disciple of Peter and wrote down things that Peter said. So at best Matthew and Luke (who also copies much of Mark) are third hand, and Mark second hand. As for John, we know little about its composition. We do know that John’s Gospel portrays Jesus very differently from the other three and that estimates of the late date of its composition make it difficult for it to have been written by the Apostle himself. John 21:24 suggests a third party is involved in writing the book also. The same issue can be raised with the Hebrew Bible where Moses is traditionally said to be the author of the first five books, but most scholars would put this text many hundreds of years later. Books such as Daniel were not written when it is claimed that they were written nor by whom (this for many reasons, including the inclusion of Hellenistic words that were unknown at the time the story is set).

Another McDowell assertion is that the Bible is unique. Well it is. But every book is unique by McDowell’s definition. He starts off by saying that the Bible is unique because it was written over 1600 years. That’s pushing it. Most scholars would say the Bible was written over maybe 1000 years. But the point is that the Bible was not written over any number of years. A number of separate books were written (some that made it into the Bible and some did not) and at various times some of these books were put into collections and these collections were eventually selected to be bound together into the Bible. The Bible is a collection of separate books. But then McDowell, after making such a big deal about the long time, varied subject matter and eclectic authorship, claims that it is special that the Bible has continuity (that a selection of books like The Great Books of the Western World wouldn’t). Well, duh! The books in the Bible were selected for their continuity. And continuity is rather subjective anyway.

Then McDowell goes on to make other uniqueness claims for the Bible, although I don’t see exactly how they bear on the argument that the Bible is 100% literal, historical and accurate. For example, the Bible is unique because it’s so widely distributed–but the Sherlock Holmes stories are pretty widely distributed, but I wouldn’t take that as an argument that they are historical, the same goes for his widely translated argument.

McDowell’s uniqueness through survival is highly misleading. It is true that there are far more manuscripts of the Bible than of any other ancient document. Christians were early users of low-cost publishing techniques. However, these thousands of manuscripts are not all alike. He makes a big deal about the Masoretes accurate copying of the Hebrew Bible (a notable feat), but fails to point out that this started only around 600 AD and the Bible is not unique among ancient books in that all of the copies of the Hebrew Bible of any antiquity are long lost as are virtually all copies of the New Testament from the first couple hundred years.

The uniqueness of Bible Prophecy is not so remarkable considering that most of those prophecies were actually recorded some time after the events they predict, or that the authors of the later books had the prophecies before them when they shaped the accounts of contemporary events. And of course, prophecies are easily adapted to fit events (consider Nostradamus or whatever psychic is on the cover of the year-end tabloid).

There are all sorts of pitfalls for the uninformed reader in Evidence. Here’s one that stuck me: In the chapter titled “How was the Bible Prepared?”, McDowell gives the definition of various writing materials including “Vellum”. Then he gives one of his ubiquitous citations that says, “…the oldest leather scrolls date from around 1500 BC.” 1500 BC would have been around the time of Moses and one might think from this citation and its context that there are scrolls of the Bible from the time of Moses. But there are no such scrolls. The oldest Bible scrolls that exist are from the Dead Sea caves and date no farther back than 100 BC. It is interesting that McDowell cites Bruce Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament (which is an excellent book). This chapter contains some useful and correct information, but has nothing to do with the case McDowell is trying to prove.

Chapter 3 – The Canon. One of those citations again, this time from Geisler and Nix who list one of the criteria for Canon as “Is it dynamic – did it come with the life-transforming power of God?” That’s a principle that I’ve never heard in any discussion of the historical formation of Canon. What about Esther, that doesn’t even mention God? How did that get in? There is some other good information about Canon here. On page 4 of a multi-page citation from the Ungar Bible Dictionary (I wonder if he paid royalties) is the somewhat misleading statement that “Not until A.D. 1546, in a polemical action at the Counter Reformation Council of Trent, did the Apocryphal books receive full canonical status by the Roman Catholic Church.” These books were canonical (more accurately deuterocanonical) long before then.

As for the Canon of the New Testament, the usual criteria cited are three:

  1. Apostolic (or near apostolic authorship)
  2. Doctrinal correctness
  3. Widespread acceptance and use among the churches

What McDowell fails to make clear is that a number of books in the New Testament were hotly disputed, and many considered spurious during the first 3 centuries. And except for the letters of St. Paul and probably Luke, we don’t have any solid evidence as to who wrote any of the rest of the New Testament. Other books, for example the “Shepherd of Hermas”, were in widespread use. Up until the time of Athanasius your most likely bet was that “Shepherd” would have made it in, and “Hebrews” not.

Chapter 4 – The Reliability of the Bible

McDowell cites 3 tests: Bibliographical (how good are the texts), internal evidence and external evidence.

Here there are numerous citations (like always) that the thousands of variations in New Testament manuscripts don’t amount to a major flaw in the quality of the New Testament text. I agree. However, there is a critical omission in the argument, and that is, what evidence is there that our earliest texts accurately reflect the original authors. There were certainly ancient Christian claims that others were altering the texts to suit their own heretical views. Since we don’t have texts old enough to approach the time of the original authors, I don’t see how any argument based on textual accuracy can be made. McDowell has a diagram (which is nothing like anything approaching what a real one would look like) suggesting that one can reconstruct the original autograph (manuscript in the author’s hand) of the New Testament Gospels. But no one in the textual criticism field makes such a claim for their discipline. At best, they hope to reconstruct the Gospels as they existed in the middle of the second century.

McDowell says that the text of the “Old Testament” was completed around 400 BC. Actually it was the around 125 BC (Esther). Or for the New Testament, McDowell cites this: “We can say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after about A.D. 80.” If McDowell has read anything, he know that this is a fringe view. The conservative scholar, Donald Guthrie, in his New Testament Introduction (4th ed) says, for example, “The most widely held view is that this Apocalypse [Revelation] was written during the reign of Domitian, more precisely towards the end of that reign, i.e. AD 90-95…” and of John’s Gospel, “… the majority of scholars are inclined to accept a date somewhere between AD 90 and 110.”

As for the extra-biblical sources cited (a curious mixture of ancient an modern quotations), they are either generations removed from the actual events, or what they say isn’t informative about them. No real evidence here.

The next section is Archaeology. Glueck is cited as saying: “…no archaeological discovery has ever controvereted a biblical reference” which blatantly false. For example, dating of the fallen walls of Jericho showed that they had been in ruins hundreds of years before Joshua is supposed to have blown his trumpet at them. I don’t mean to suggest that the Hebrew Bible is totally at odds with archaeology (it definitely is not!), but there are problems. McDowell, of course, cites books that agree with him, not necessarily the best works available.

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