McDowell in the Critic's Den (1982)

Bernard Katz

[NOTE: The following article appeared in the July/August 1982 issue of The American Rationalist.]

Christian fundamentalist Josh McDowell has become quite rash in one of his latest books Prophecy: Fact or Fiction. For he is pinning his whole faith in Christianity on the "historical evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Daniel" (frontispiece).

Here's his argument: "Such amazing accurate predictions (in the Book of Daniel) defy the possibility of merely human origin. If these prophecies were composed in the lifetime of the sixth century Daniel, they would compel our acceptance of special revelation from a transcendent, personal God. No anti-supernatural position can reasonably be defended if Daniel is a genuine boof of Prophecy composed in 530 B.C. or the preceding years" (p. 5).

Keep that 530 B.C. in mind. It's crucial to McDowell's thesis that Daniel's prophecy of 70 weeks (Dn 9:24 ) started from that date and therefore accuratle predicted the coming of the Messiah (Jesus Christ), the death of this Messiah, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (pp. 22-23).

To continue McDowell's argument: "In Matthew 24 , the Olivet Discourse, Christ gave a list of events of the end time. As part of this chronology of future events, He explicitly referred to the prophecy of Daniel (the 'abomination of desolation' passage...). But beyond this one clear reference it is also vitally significant that interspersed throughout the Gospels are Christ's references to Himself as the Son of Man... There can be no doubt, from all these references to Daniel's Son of Man vision, that Christ clearly viewed it as authentic prophecy referring to Himself.

"Now if Christ were mistaken about the Book of Daniel, then He must also have been mistaken about his own identity. And if this be so, it follows that the Christian faith may be called into question. At stake is they very trustworthiness of Christ's statements concerning our own faith and salvation through Him."

"... If the book is a fraud, then Christ was mistaken concerning it, and much of the basis for our faith in His integrity and authority must come under severe questioning" (pp. 5-6).

This is about as reckless a statement as I've ever read. No one but a fanatic would base his whole faith on just one book in that library of books called the Bible. It reminds me of the ever more frantic efforts and thrashing of a swimmer in terrible trouble just before he drowns!

In order to be as fair as possible in my rebuttal, I will refer to those scholars whom McDowell considers favorable to himself.

Since the discussion centers on this biblical book, it's necessary to first ask: "Who was Daniel?" McDowell insists that "the Book of Ezekiel gives further evidence that Daniel was a historical figure" (p. 27). To refute this, I'd like to quote from Millar Burrows whom McDowell uses twice to back up part of his thesis (pp. 26, 124), as well as supplies a succinct and complementary biography in his "Biographical Sketches of Authors," (p. 137), which points up this scholar's excellent credentials.

In his What Mean These Stones? 1957, paperback edition, Burrow's admits to exactly what McDowell says: "... the references to Daniel in Ezekiel might be cited. In 14:14, 20 (of Ezekiel) Daniel is named with Noah and Job, the three being clearly chosen as supremely righteous men..." (p. 262).

Sounds like Burrows definitely agrees with McDowell as to the historicity of Daniel - right? Wrong! For this "friendly witness" then goes on to say: "Naturally readers of the Bible have supposed that in these passages the hero of our book of Daniel was meant... Now, however, we have from Ras Shamrah (tablets which are giving us `an enormous mass of new knowledge regarding the religion and mythology of northern Syria in the age of the Hebrew patriarchs') a poem concerning a divine hero who name is exactly what we find in Ezekiel. He sits at the gate, judges the cause of the widow, and establishes the right of the orphan... In any case one can hardly doubt that the Dan'el referred to in Ezekiel is the same as the Dan'el of the text from Ras Shamrah. Here is a group of biblical passages which have been put in an entirely new light by a recent archaeological discovery" (p. 263). And this refutation is from a "friendly witness."

In his From Stone Age to Christianity, 1957, paperback edition, Albright tells us: "And yet, the book of Daniel, the book of Enoch, and other works of the same general age show that a positive doctrine of the after-life had already gained the upper hand as early as 165 B.C...." (p. 351).

The farther along, on page 362, this archaeologist states: "It is highly probable that the idea of seven archangels was taken from Iranian sources. In the earlier books of the Old Testament and the earliest apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature there is nowhere any suggestion that certain angels formed a specially privileged group in the celestial hierarchy, nor do the angels receive person names identical with those of human beings. In Daniel (cir. 165 B.C.) Michael and Gabriel appear..." (p. 362, underlining mine).

Notice that Albright uses the date of 165 B.C. in the above two quotes. This late date of 165 B.C., not 530 B.C. as McDowell would have us swallow, is repeated by a great many other scholars. All of which flies in the face of the extreme claim of McDowell, who quotes from one of his sources: "Therefore, since the critics are almost unanimous in their admission that the Book of Daniel is the product of one author" (c.f. R.H. Pfeiffer, op. cit., pp. 761, 762), we may safely assert that the book could not possibly have been written as late as the Maccabean age" (p. 14).

Now if we turn to the very same book by Pfeiffer (Introduction to the Old Testament, 1948 - and cited by McDowell in his own bibliography on page 132), we find that if we look back just one more page - to 760 - we will see that Pfeiffer himself lists twenty major scholars who deny that the book was written by one author, Daniel, and that they mostly agree that the book is much later than 530 B.C.!

To disprove a long chapter by McDowell ("Attacks on Daniel as a Historian," pages 33-79, which amounts to 35 percent of the whole of McDowell's book), and in which McDowell says: "The alleged external discrepancies between the historical assertions of the Book of Daniel and secular historical sources will not hold up under close scrutiny" (p. 129), I'm going to use Pfeiffer again. He's a top scholar and McDowell favors him with a thumb-nail biography on page 139 besides quoting him on pages 14 and 65.

The historical background of Daniel is presented by Pfeiffer on pages 754 through 760, which is much too long for extensive quoting, so I'll choose just the highlights.

He denies the correctness of McDowell's assertion that the Daniel mentioned in Ezekiel is the same Daniel who wrote the book of Daniel. This is what Pfeiffer says: "The Daniel of Ezekiel could conceivably be identified with that of Ras Shamra, but hardly with the hero of our book who, being at least ten years younger than Ezekiel, could hardly be classed with Noah; moreover, in 591 and 586 when Ezekiel was writing those passages, our Daniel had barely begun his career...." (p. 754).

Pfeiffer continues: (page 754) "The historicity of the Book of Daniel is an article of faith, not an objective scientific truth... In a historical study of the Bible, convictions based on faith must be deemed irrelevant, as belonging to subjective rather than objective knowledge. The historical background of Daniel, as was discovered immediately after its publication, is not that of the sixth but of the second century. In the Sbylline Oracles (3:3831-400, a passage written about 140 B.C.) the "ten horns" of Dn. 7:7,20,24 are already recognized to be ten kings preceding Antiochus Ephiphanes (175-164 B.C.) on the throne. In the first century of our era Josephus correctly identified the little horn in 7:20-27 with Antiochus Ephiphanes... (Antiquities 10:11,7)... But the real discoverer of the historical allusions in Daniel was the neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry (d. ca. 304 A.D.), who devoted the twelfth volume of his Arguments against the Christians to the subject. The extant portions of this work which have been preserved by Jerome (d. 420) in his commentary, which is the most important of all the studies on Daniel. Porphyry assailed the historicity of Daniel by proving in detail that ch. 11 presents a history (not a prophecy) of the Seleucids and Ptolemies culminating in the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Ephiphanes. Jerome honestly accepted the views of this foe of Christianity, although in 11:21-45, he identified the tyrant Antichrist ... and not with Antiochus Ephiphanes" (pp. 755-56).

In view of the great importance which Pfeiffer attaches to Jerome's commentary on Daniel, I find it incredible that the only mention in McDowell of Jerome is that this great scholar places Daniel among the prophets (McDowell, p. 38).

Pfeiffer continues: "It will be noticed at once that the amount of historical information gradually improves as we move from the days of Nebuchadnezzar to those of Antiochus Ephiphanes" (p. 756). The reason for this is that since the book was written during the reign of Antiochus then those events pertaining to this Greek king would certainly match those in Daniel, but as history receded the events became more confused an in error.

But McDowell takes the opposite tack. He says that the events of the sixth century B.C. are accurate because that is when the book was written and that the subsequent events (which are historically correct) substantiate the infallible prophetic revelations given by God to Daniel (p. 13). But the whole point of all the critical analyses by scholars shows that McDowell has turned the evidence upside-down and actually inverted the truth!

Let's go on with Pfeiffer: "The information for the periods preceding the Alexander is sketchy and erroneous" (p. 756).

"Another anachronism in relation to Nebuchadnezzar's reign is the use of `Chaldeans' not in its original sense (an Aramaic tribe in Southern Babylonia from which Nebuchadnezzar's dynasty had sprung) but, as in Greek and Roman authors, in the sense of "astrologers" or "diviners" (p. 756; cf. McDowell pp. 55-59).

"The use of Persian and Greek words is likewise puzzling in the Neo-Babylonian period" (p. 757; cf. McDowell pp. 89-102).

"This misconception in regard to the chronological position of the Medic Empire follows the erroneous precedent of Is. 13:17 ; 21:2 ; Jer. 51:11,28 ..." (p. 757). This statement is significant because it shows that not only Daniel but also Isaiah and Jeremiah historically wrong at times, and thus adds more proof to the lack of biblical infallibility.

"In the author's muddled mind the conquests of Babylon by Cyrus (538 B.C.) and by Darius I (521 B.C.) were identified and Darius, after being turned into a Mede, was placed before Cyrus" (p. 757; cf. McDowell pp. 65-78). "Muddled mind" is indeed a harsh indictment, coming as it does from a "friendly witness!"

"It seems clear," continues Pfeiffer, "that our author's misconceptions about the Persian period are derived to a great extent from late sources of the Old Testament and possibly from other sources of questionable trustworthiness" (p. 757).

"Our author confused Nebuchadnezzar with Nabonidus not only by making him the father of Belshazzar, but probably also in the story of Nebuchadnezzar's madness" (p. 758; cf. McDowell pp. 123-4).

"The chronology of Daniel is sufficiently elastic to allow the author to superimpose on the course of history a mechanical scheme based on the interpretation of Jeremiah's seventy years as seventy weeks of years, or 490 years. He divides the seventy weeks into three periods; seven weeks from 586 to 538 (with close approximation, 48 instead of 49 years), sixty-two weeks from 538 to 171 (actually 367 instead of 434 years), and, correctly, one week from 171 to 164" (p. 758; Pfeiffer cf. McDowell pp. 15-22).

This one paragraph destroys McDowell's reconstruction of Daniel's prophecy of the seventy weeks. To authenticate this prophecy, since it's crucial to the dates of the coming and death of Christ, as well as to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, McDowell devotes, as noted above, seven pages (15-22). The arithmetic of the weeks consumes three pages alone. McDowell would have been more productive if he had used the space to prove "pyramid power!"

To resume listening to our "friendly witness"... "In conclusion," states Pfeiffer, "the author's information on the period preceding Alexander is extremely vague, being partly drawn from his imagination and partly from unreliable sources" (p. 758).

"While the author knows very little about the history of his first three world empires, his information about the fourth, particularly in its later phases, is exact and clarified" (p. 759). This corroborates what was said earlier in this article about McDowell inverting the truth.

"What lies beyond December 165," says Pfeiffer, "is not historical reality but apocalyptic dream... our author gives an imaginary picture of his (Antiochus') end. After a successful conquest of Egypt, Libya, and Ethiopia, Antiochus shall meet his end in his camp between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean, 'broken without hand' by a supernatural agency. This unfulfilled prediction follows the pattern set by earlier apocalypses..." (pp. 759-760).

Thus the "friendly witnesses," Burrows, Albright, and Pfeiffer break the back of McDowell's thesis. By his own words, McDowell has hoisted himself on his own petard. The implications for a Christian fundamentalist's faith in his religion and his Saviour are in great doubt - this according to McDowell's own words: "Of course it must follow that if the critics can prove their case, then they have seriously undermined the credibility of Christ, the Bible, and the Christian faith" (p. 9).

It is most ironical that the God who, in the Book of Daniel, stirred himself to save a mere three men from death in a fiery furnace (Dn. ch. 3 ), would not or could not save millions of his worshippers from the Nazi ovens.

McDowell himself, like Daniel, has stepped into the "den," but unlike the imaginary Daniel, McDowell has been mauled by "lion-like" critics.