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Josh McDowell's Charade (1982)

Gordon Stein, Ph.D.

[NOTE: The following article is copyright by Gordon Stein and is reproduced with his permission.]

Josh McDowell is one of the most popular writers that fundamentalist Christianity has. He is also one of the least trustworthy. Almost nothing he says in his books (e.g., Evidence That Demands a Verdict) has been researched at more than the most superficial of levels. Perhaps it is that very sloppiness that makes his books popular with lazy students who don't want to be confused with a lot of facts. They want simple answers, even when there aren't any.

McDowell has produced a leaflet called A Skeptic's Quest , which ought to alarm all real skeptics. In it, he tells how he became a Christian. His story may be typical of how a person becomes a fundamentalist Christian. Especially interesting is how little real scholarship or investigation is required. If his conversion is typical, then we can learn a lot from it.

It seems that McDowell was a self-proclaimed "skeptic" during his undergraduate days. He became impressed with a small group of students whose lives seemed to have purpose. Those students were, of course, fundamentalist Christians. Obviously, what the purpose of their lives was that McDowell didn't have in his life, didn't seem to matter much to him. Any purpose seemingly would do. He interacted with the students and was given the challenge "to examine intellectually who Jesus Christ was" Of course, if he had tried honestly to do this, he would have come up dry, because outside of the New Testament itself, nothing is known of Jesus Christ.

The way in which McDowell came up with exactly the opposite conclusion, namely that belief in Jesus was intellectually correct, is interesting. It shows how faulty reasoning can easily lead one astray. McDowell decided that to disprove the intellectual validity of Jesus be had to 1) demonstrate that the New Testament was not historically reliable, and 2) since every-thing in Christianity was based upon Jesus' resurrection, all he had to do was prove that the resurrection never took place. Of course, the fact that it is logically impossible to prove that an event never took place didn't bother McDowell. He came to the incredible conclusion (on the basis of a faulty examination of the faulty evidence) that "the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the best established events in history, according to the laws of legal evidence" The fact that none of the "evidence" could have been admitted into a current American court under any of the ordinary rules of evidence seems not to bother McDowell.

To establish the first point above (upon which the second point depends), McDowell says he relied upon three basic tests: 1) the bibliographic test (he says this evaluates how many manuscripts you have, but this is really only one part of that test), 2) the internal evidence test, and 3) the external evidence test. Let us take each of these in turn.

The bibliographic test for a manuscript in reality is 1) can we trace the manuscript back to the original in an unbroken chain?, 2) how many copies of the manuscript are there?, 3) how closely do the copies agree?, and 4) do we have any (or all) of the manuscript in the handwriting of the purported author? In reality, the New Testament flunks badly tests number 1) and 4). We have a 300+ year gap between the first entire Gospel manuscript and the time at which it was supposed to have been written. In addition, we have no manuscript in the handwriting of the purported author. In fact, we don't even know who the authors of the Gospels were. Remember, it's the Gospel accordng to Mark, Luke, Matthew, or John. This means that it's only an attribution, but not an established fact that anyone named that actually wrote a word of any Gospel.

McDowell seems incapable of reasoning. He claims that there are 14,000 or 26,000 manuscripts of the New Testament. So what? What we need is not thousands of manuscripts from the Middle Ages (which is when most of these were written), but two or three from the exact time that Jesus supposedly lived and died. We have none until at least 40-60 years later (that is none was written down until then, but things remained in an oral tradition form), and we have no copies of any Gospel until the Codex Sianaticus of 350 A.D., more than 300 years later.

Next, we must realize that because of both the unknown authors, the 40-60 year gap, and the 300 year gap to a complete Gospel text, we do not have reliable eyewitness testimony in the Gospels. Once you realize this, any attempt to document the life of Jesus or his purported resurrection (the Gospel accounts, in addition, conflict with each other), as reliable history becomes impossible. McDowell has committed an intellectual travesty by claiming the evidence is overwhelming (it is overwhelmingly negative for the resurrection of Jesus. Worse, McDowell has passed off this travesty upon unsuspecting college students, who don't know enough to see through his inadequacies as a scholar. When a group is as intellectually bankrupt as the fundamentalists seem to be (which of them has denounced McDowell for his inadequacies?), then we know that what they are pushing as their beliefs are unjustified.