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Review of More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell

reviewed “In Behalf of the Fool” (1980)

The Fool recently had the pleasure of hearing Josh McDowell entertain a packed house, mainly of college students, on the topic of “Maximum Sex.” The audience was snuggled together on the rug of a college cafeteria and listened attentively as he did a mildly suggestive stand-up night club type comic routine–interspersed with God talk and gentle admonitions about sex, both minimum and maximum.

Earlier in the day, the Fool had heard McDowell talk in the Free Speech area on the same campus. The main point of the earlier talk seemed to be the statistical improbability of Jesus not being God. McDowell said, “There are 333 prophecies all performed in one person, Jesus Christ.” The Fool kept wondering what would happen mathematically if just one of the alleged prophecies turned out to be false.

As a result of hearing these talks and commenting on them causally, a friend of the Fool gave him McDowell’s book More Than a Carpenter to read. The implication was clearly that McDowell had something of value to say to the Fool.

Unfortunately, whether or not there is any value in More Than a Carpenter is eclipsed by the fact that the book is riddled with statements of questionable validity. The only redeeming feature that the Fool found in the book was McDowell’s account on the last four pages of his own psychological needs and the changes that he says took place in his restlessness, his temper, and his anger at his father, when he became a Christian at 8:30 P.M. on December 19, 1959.

The Fool would hardly be inclined to spend time reviewing More Than a Carpenter, except that the cover says there are “More than one-half million copies in print,” and McDowell seems to have such a flotilla of followers that the Fool would be remiss not to call attention to a few of the book’s inadequacies for the discriminating reader.

The Fool should warn graduate students and philosophy majors that they are especially suspect to McDowell and do not fare well in More Than a Carpenter. Apparently they have been a thorn in McDowell’s side are good for a laugh after they have been set up as “straw men” and patsies for McDowell’s gospel. Others of reasonable intelligence should also expect to have it–that is their intelligence–insulted.

McDowell presents C.S. Lewis’ naive trilemma early in his book. In McDowell’s words, Jesus “is either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord.” No other options are allowed and no awareness of biblical scholarship regarding the historicity of Jesus or the development of the canon is evidenced. Scholars are quoted–or misquoted–to prove a point. The Bible itself is used more for prooftexting than to encourage an understanding of the complexity of its teachings.

An example of the faulty use of quotations includes the Latourette quote on pages 68 and 69. It is not from “A History of Christianity, 1937 Vol I” (which as far as the Fool knows does not exist as this title) but from page 59 of a History of Christianity, published in 1953. This would be written off as a small clerical error except for the fact that the intent of neither Latorette’s The First Five Centuries, 1937, p. 59 nor the 1953 History of Christianity chapter that contains McDowell’s quotation confirm the narrow hypothesis that McDowell is trying to prove.

A similar problem exists with McDowell’s use of John A.T. Robinson’s Redating the New Testament, which McDowell cites to bolster his need for an early dating of the New Testament. McDowell’s statement of Robinson’s thesis about early dating is not faithful to the book’s conclusion, but just a small part of it that suits McDowell’s purpose.

The Thomas Arnold quote on p. 96 cited as 1859, (but which was probably written in 1841) is out of place between a 1972 Inter-Varsity Press book and a 1967 Scripture Press Publication. The Fool thinks that the famous Headmaster of Rugby would find himself to be a strange filling in this sandwich of writers separated by over 100 years of biblical research and understanding.

The Fool does not want to imply that he has checked all of the quotations and their citations and found that they are all out of context, but this sample should be sufficient to help the cautious reader be aware of possible problems and do his own checking.

What of McDowell’s use of the Bible itself? He makes much of “internal evidence” to confirm the Bible’s trustoworthiness, but does not deal with even simple problems of the New Testament’s lack of accuracy like the account by Peter in Acts 1:18 of Judas’ death, and the contradictory account by hanging described in Mt. 27:5. There is a whole chapter called “Did you hear what happened to Saul?” but the Fool did not find any indication of the three different stories in Acts of what happened to Saul? The differences may not be important, but they should serve to bring into question the historical accuracy of at least parts of the Bible. The Fool re-read 9:7 where Saul’s companions “stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one,” 22:9 where they “saw the light but did not hear the voice,” and the 26th chapter where no mention is made about whether Saul’s companions heard the voice at all. The reasons for these different accounts of the same episode are beyond the understanding of the Fool, but in any event, he realizes that there are problems with literal historical accuracy in the Bible, contrary to McDowell’s uncritical assumptions.

It is simply not possible for the Fool to have confidence in McDowell’s use of the Bible. McDowell says, “Over and over again Jesus appealed to the prophecies of the Old Testament to substantiate his claims as the Messiah.” Then to confirm this he quotes from Galatians, which was certainly not Jesus speaking.

The crux of McDowell’s book seems to be “Does Christianity have an historically acceptable basis?” He cites some “facts relevant to the resurrection,” but fails to deal with the actual Biblical record including such elemental matters as the five different and somewhat discrepant accounts in the Gospels of the empty tomb and the events that followed. (There are apparently two different accounts in Mark itself.) Although McDowell says that he is dealing with “facts,” the details provided by the Bible itself leave many questions which have been wrestled with and left unsettled by the greatest minds in the history of Christendom, but which are ignored by McDowell.

The Fool does not think that one should be unduly criticized for the company that one keeps, or even have one’s academic credentials dismissed because degrees were obtained from an institution of questionable caliber, but McDowell’s book cover notes that he has a M.Div. from Talbot Seminary. The Talbot Theological Seminary Catalog says that “All members of the Board of Trustees and all teachers annually reaffirm their commitment to the unabridged form of the Statement of Doctrine.” Since in the “Statement of Doctrine” the Bible is claimed to be “without error or defect of any kind,” the Fool does not see how this would encourage a student such as Josh McDowell to be openminded and objective about it. The Fool is reminded of a footnote in Thomas Henry Huxley’s Agnosticism: A Rejoinder that deals with the state of religious scholarship and chairs of theology in 1889:

Imagine that all our chairs of Astronomy had been founded in the 14th century, and that their incumbents were bound to sign Ptolemic articles. In that case, with every respect for the efforts of the persons thus hampered to attain and expound the truth, I think men of common sense would go elsewhere to learn astronomy.

McDowell seems to be living still in the religious world of the 19th Century, with its chairs of doctrinal affirmations. The Fool therefore feels that he must look elsewhere for any possible truth about this man that McDowell says is “More Than a Carpenter.”

April 1980

Gaunilo II