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Robert Price Son

A Rejoinder to Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict

"Jesus– God’s Son" (1997)

Robert M. Price


Introduction | Commentary on McDowell’s Introduction | Trial of Jesus | Equality with the Father? | "I Am" | "He Who Has Seen Me" | "I Say Unto You" | Bibliography | Related Resources

This chapter is typical of Evidence That Demands A Demands a Verdict, in that it presupposes a kangaroo court. McDowell is preaching to the converted. As generally throughout the long history of apologetics, the arguments of the defender of the faith seem not really to be aimed at the outsider in order to overcome his opposition to the faith. Rather, they seem intended to shore up the vulnerable faith of those already within the camp. The old saying that "the best defense is a good offense" applies here. The fundamentalist reader, whose faith has either simply been inherited from a church upbringing or embraced in a moment of emotional crisis and repentance, gets the impression as he or she reads McDowell that there must not be much reason for doubt if Josh, like his Old Testament namesake, is eager to carry the battle into the enemy camp. But the battle is by no means headed there. It is more like the Ayatollah Khomeini’s use of the American hostage crisis and the futile war against Iraq to divert the attention of his own people from the problems of his government. Apologetics is shadow-boxing.

And this is only too evident from several factors. For one, McDowell and his brethren everywhere employ the worst kind of special pleading, what Freud called "kettle logic." This is the marshalling of any and every possible argument, whether consistent with one another or not, whether cogent on their own or not. All that matters is whether all the gums are aimed in the right direction. "I did not break your kettle! It was all in one piece when I returned it last week! And besides, I never borrowed your stupid kettle in the first place! So there!"

The vast majority of the arguments McDowell uses (every one of them culled from the works of previous writers, and by McDowell’s seminary students in a kind of research scavenger hunt) function merely as cheer-leading. By setting them forth and "demanding a verdict" sophomore apologists are just getting all charged up, as in a high school pep rally. That is about the only real utility of them, as they are incapable of impressing an outsider for a minute.

It is only too apparent to anyone who has ever tried having a discussion with an evangelical apologist that these people are able to remain oblivious to their arguments’ utter lack of cogency only because their faith has a different origin altogether. As I have already anticipated, it is usually quite plain that the apologist was himself never convinced by these or any other rational arguments. More likely, he was converted at a Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusade, or a local counterpart. He would not know what it felt like to be convinced by these arguments. He is using them merely because they have been presented to him as a new and effective tool for winning his friends to Christ. He approaches them in the spirit of a gardener trying out a new weed-killer chemical.

Otherwise, how is it that apologetics coaching (e.g., Paul Little’s popular manual, Know Why You Believe) usually includes the advice to duck difficult questions by parroting "Say, that’s a good question! I’ll have to ask my pastor and get back to you. But in the meantime, wouldn’t you like to get born again anyway?" Anyone who says such a thing is signalling that his mind is already made up and that he does not intend to let any new facts confuse him.

When the evangelist/apologist is confuted at one point he merely switches to another. This is not the strategy of truth-seeking dialogue or honest intellectual inquiry. It is instead, obviously, the slimy tactic of the spin-doctor, the party hack, the obsequious sophist who is ready, after every election debate or losing primary election, to explain why his candidate really won if you look at it right. Christ becomes a product one sells by hook or by crook, with all the honesty and sincerity of a used car salesman. This is obvious to outsiders who conclude that apologists are either scary, propaganda-spouting fanatics or pathetic neurotics so tenaciously committed to something they want to be true that they dare not stop to seriously consider any opposing view.

It will come as no surprise when I confess to having pursued the apologetics racket for some years, both as an eager reader of Inter-Varsity Press books and as a student at a major evangelical Seminary. My experience is not at all unusual. It is repeated again and again. Virtually every radical New Testament scholar one meets turns out to have rejected his or her evangelical past long ago, often after having seen through the same arguments McDowell and company keep retreading and daring the heathen to refute. Why do all those "bigoted" religion professors on secular campuses or liberal seminaries persist in ignoring McDowell and his allies? Simply because they have all been there before. They used to play on the same team McDowell coaches, only, unlike him, they realized long ago it was an unwinnable game.

Why do so many apologists wind up dropping out, switching sides? Simply because they (we) "made the mistake" of taking the apologetical arguments seriously. Here’s how it happens. Even if the arguments were valid, they would still be useless so long as the would-be apologist/evangelist failed to understand them. To be able to persuade another to see the truth in a position, you must see (or at least think you see) the truth in it yourself. Try teaching Calculus or Greek or hang-gliding if you yourself have not mastered it! This means you must try to follow the arguments through, let them register on you, give them a chance to prove their cogency to you. The perceptive witness/apologist realizes that the nonbeliever is not going to be willing to allow the benefit of the doubt to a lame-sounding argument. Remember, it sounds good to the believer already, just as a new weapon sounds good to a general as long as the defense contractor tells him it will help him win the battle. But the apologist who takes his business seriously has to, in effect, suspend his belief and put himself in the unbeliever’s shoes in order to imagine how the argument is going to strike him. This is the only way to judge whether it is an argument worth using. "If I didn’t already believe in Jesus, the Bible, etc., would I find this convincing?" Okay, so one did not first come to faith via such arguments. But the next best thing is to imagine yourself a fair-minded unbeliever and to see if this apologetic would sound compelling to you. Only if it does can you convincingly relay it to a genuine unbeliever.

Forgive a sweeping statement, but many years of arguing on both sides at one time or another have led me to conclude that there are two types of apologists. First, there are the used car salesmen who are mere and pure opportunists. They wouldn’t know a cogent historical, philosophical, intellectual argument if it bit them on the fanny. These people sound like what they are, and they convince no one. They only confirm outsiders’ suspicions that fundamentalism has no real interest in the truth, only in a dogmatic party line.

Second, there are sincere apologists who, by trying to test the arguments for themselves (rather in the spirit of Luke 14:28-31, one might add), have unwittingly accustomed themselves to weighing arguments, not simply accepting things on faith. Having learned to take the unbeliever’s side for the sake of argument (becoming one’s own intellectual sparring partner), simple faith is no longer as easy as it once was. Doubt becomes a familiar habit, however miserable it makes one. Sooner or later the honest apologist winds up looking back nostalgically to the days of childlike naivete before he got into apologetics and apologetics made everything more complicated! He may realize the irony of his position: he has learned strategies for promoting saving faith, "simple faith," which however, have made it less and less possible for him to rest easy in such faith.

Worse yet, the longer one scrutinizes the apologetical arguments, the more one tests their merit in actual debate, the more holes one is brought inevitably to see. And, unless one feels able to descend to a level of complete cynicism in the interests of promoting faith (!), one simply cannot maintain one’s own faith any longer. If, as you used to tell unbelievers, they ought to believe Christianity only insofar as it makes sense to do so, you realize the jig is up once it no longer makes sense to you. It is too late to fall for the old saw that "the foolishness of God is wiser than men."

This second type of apologist will sooner or later be exiting the faith. He will have tested all things and held fast to what is good: the method of rational thinking, weighing evidence, and being intellectually honest. By contrast, the apologist who continues in his ministry is a man of faith, but of what Sartre called "bad faith" (the opposite of "acting in good faith"). It will be insincere and hypocritical faith, mere adherence to a party line. I do not claim to have proved this. It is just the way of things as I have come to see it. If you happen to be an apologist, you will find out for yourself sooner or later if the shoe fits.

As we approach the specific arguments McDowell uses to "demand the verdict" that Jesus claimed to be the divine Son of God, we will see again and again how he not only constantly resorts to blatant logical fallacies, but also frames arguments that could hardly make sense to anyone but a died-in-the-wool fundamentalist and biblical inerrantist! This circularity is the result of his reliance on the stale apologetics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the Orthodox had mainly the Protestant Rationalists to deal with, a strange breed who granted the inerrant accuracy of scripture but denied supernatural causation! This was the origin of all the silly arguments over whether Jesus "knew where the stepping stones were," or whether Mary Magdalene went to the "wrong tomb," or how the disciples could have sneaked past the Roman guards to steal the body. It is fairly easy to win an argument with supposed "critics" who start by affirming the accuracy of the gospel accounts. But they’re all dead! McDowell is going to need to bring in a channeller to raise one of those ghosts to argue with!

IA. Direct Claims

I will follow the outline of McDowell’s syllabus, focussing on some points, skipping some minor ones. This is why, though I retain his (confusing) outline notation, I do not have all the subheadings. I will begin with the direct claims of divine status supposedly made by Jesus.

1B. Introduction

Introducing the section, McDowell quotes a statement by Albert Wells which drips with typical fundamentalist doting upon Jesus, as well as with the novelistic psychologizing that besets discussions like this. "One marvels at the way in which [Jesus] draws attention to Himself, placing himself at the center of every situation that arises." This observation already presupposes a Christological estimate of Jesus; otherwise, it might be evident to Wells and McDowell that Wells is making Jesus sound like a self-promoting jerk, something he certainly did not intend. Rather, the statement breathes "That’s m’boy!"

An equally serious problem is that the comment tacitly treats the gospel episodes as disinterested, impartial footage shot by someone on the scene, as if Jesus had been caught debating with the scribes on the local Seven Eleven’s security camera in the motzah aisle. Again, this only seems to work if you are already a biblical inerrantist. The rest of us might be excused for wondering whether, at a remove of decades from the events, in accounts written to convert people to faith in Jesus as a divine being, we are really dealing with straight reporting. I am not saying we definitely are not dealing with accurate reporting, just that this is really the whole point at issue and McDowell just takes it for granted. No wonder he thinks he can demand a verdict: he has stacked the jury box with inerrantists!

Next Thomas Schultz is invoked as rehashing the old claim that Jesus alone of all religious prophets and founders claimed to be God. In case you hadn’t noticed, whether Jesus made any such claim is the very thing we are supposed to be trying to decide! You can’t jump the gun and wheel in his supposed divinity claims as one of your major arguments! And the fact that McDowell does just this makes it all too clear that the whole pretense of setting forth a cogent chain of reasoning is just that: a pretense.

I think there is zero evidence that Jesus claimed to be divine, but suppose he did. It is simply false to say none of the others made such claims. We can produce a catalogue of Hindu, Sufi, and Hellenistic holy men who made such claims, not to mention Mizra Ali Muhammad (the Bab) and Hussein Ali (Baha’Ullah), founders of the Babi and the Baha’i Faiths respectively. My guess is that your average apologist, thinking that it is some advantage to his case to attribute to Jesus unique claims, will want to quibble at this point, perhaps urging that al-Hallaj or Baha’Ullah was presupposing a rather different God-concept than Jesus would have. For, e.g., a Pantheist or a Monist to claim to be "God" is not precisely the same thing as a monotheistic Jew claiming to be God. But this, too, is question-begging.

First, it is to assume that we know what God-concept Jesus held! The apologist implicitly supposes Jesus to have been an Athanasian before Athanasius. He must have held the same opinions on the Hypostatic Union and the Trinity that the apologist does! Fundamentalists, even fairly sophisticated ones, tend to have an anachronistic and essentialist view of the history of dogma that envisions no real evolution of theology. No, the eternal verities were once and for all delivered unto the saints, and so Jesus must have believed it, too. Again, this is the thinking of a party-line spin doctor.

Second, it does not occur to the apologist that if a man did think himself to be God on earth, it would no longer be so clear that he was in fact a monotheist! Jews and Muslims certainly do not deem incarnationism compatible with monotheism. Again, the apologist implicitly assumes a whole intricate conglomeration of theological constructions, in this case blithely equating trinitarianism with biblical monotheism, something that, while it might be true, is not obvious enough to be taken for granted at a controversial point.

Notice, please, that it is supposed to make some difference that it is only founders of "recognized," i.e., successful religions that Thomas Schultz’s argument considers, as if he is perhaps aware that some saints and gurus have made divine claims, but that he thinks they don’t count unless a lot of people believe in them. This is the fallacy of appeal to consensus, a favorite but utterly fallacious argument used by apologists, as when they invoke the success of Christianity as a world religion. Truth by majority vote? They are quick enough to brand this a fallacy, and rightly so, when it is adduced on behalf of some rival belief.

And did Jesus manage to "convince a great portion of the world that he is God"? Here Schultz betrays an implicit substitution of Christian devotionalism for historical judgment. A great portion of the human race believes Jesus is God for precisely the same reason a virtually equal percentage believes Muhammad was the Seal of the Prophets: they were raised to think so in a culture where virtually everyone else around them took it for granted because they, too, had been indoctrinated with the belief. No one "convinced" most Christian believers of the Godhood of Christ. They were simply "obedient to the faith" (Romans 1:5). And to say that Jesus himself managed to convince, e.g., the suburban Baptist deacon, the Italian or Polish or Spanish Catholic peasant is to smuggle into a supposedly objective argument a doctrine of the continuing work of Christ as personal savior by the mediation of the Holy Spirit, etc. It’s not like Jesus managed to gather two millenniums’ worth of people into a stadium somewhere and present his claims.

And so what if Jesus were the only religious founder to claim to be God? Would that make it true? Was Gautama necessarily the only man to have gained Buddhahood just because he alone said he was? A unique claim might be false. A claim often made might just as easily be true in one case and false in all others. Uniqueness just doesn’t make any difference.

Someone named F.J. Meldau is quoted to the effect that Jesus must have been God incarnate because he never spoke with hesitation or provisionality. He never retracted an opinion or changed his mind. "This is all so contrary to human teachers and teachings." It never seems to occur to McDowell that such a portrait sounds good only to a dogmatist who sees no merit in considering all sides of an issue and insists he knows the ultimate truth right now. Indeed, this is contrary to the ways of teachers who rightly dismiss such a posture as that of a cock-sure, obnoxious adolescent. It is truly sad that such is the image of "Christlikeness" to which fundamentalists exhort us to aspire.

But do the gospels so depict Jesus? He is indeed said to have spoken with authority, and not as the Jewish scribes (Mark 1:22), who judiciously appealed to legal precedent and preserved varying opinions on cases of halakha. But far from contrasting Jesus with the Jewish prophets as Meldau says ("His teachings were ultimate, final – above those of Moses and the prophets."), this apodictic certainty simply associates Jesus with their ranks. They, too, were sure they spoke with divine authority, though there is no reason to suppose Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Amos believed he was God! Remember, Meldau’s point is that Jesus’ attitude of certitude, even on matters not relating directly to his own status and role, is itself a claim to divinity. Hegel, too, one must suppose, believed himself to be God. And why stop there? McDowell, too, would seem to merit insertion into the divine plurality, as would most of his fans.

Meldau infers from the fact that no statement on record features Jesus saying, "Wait a minute, I’m afraid I misspoke there…," that Jesus’ teaching was completely consistent. If it was self-contradictory, then his (supposedly) never correcting himself becomes more of an embarrassment than an endorsement. And the gospels do have Jesus contradicting himself on various points, as, for example, whether or not to fast (Mark 2:18 vs. Matthew 6:16), and why (Mark 2:20) or why not (Mark 2:19 vs. Mark 2:21-22), whether to divorce (Mark 10:11 vs. Matthew 19:9), to preach to Gentiles and Samaritans (Matthew 10:5 vs. Matthew 28:19 and John 4:35-42), whether the near approach of the End may be gauged by apocalyptic signs (Luke 17:20-21 vs. Mark 13:28-29), whether religious obligations supersede filial duties (Mark 7:9-15 vs. Matthew 8:21-22 and Luke 14:26), etc.

Critical scholars, whom McDowell judges to be agents of Satan, also assume that Jesus was a consistent thinker, but this causes them to try to sift the things Jesus actually may have said from the plainly contradictory sayings later attributed to him by various factions of the early church. Refusing to entertain this approach, McDowell and his colleagues leave us with a Jesus who may be quoted on either side of any debate, as the history of Christian theological disputation has shown again and again.

Others, whose declamations McDowell serves up stale, urge us to reckon with the fact that Jesus was put to death for claiming that he was "in reality God in the flesh." Some skeptics may question whether Jesus really made such I claims for himself, suggesting rather that the disciples gratuitously portrayed him this way. ;seemingly granting that such is possible, McDowell’s sources go on to say that secular historians agree that Jesus made such claims, and that this is sufficient proof. But where in either the New Testament or in Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius, or whomever else McDowell may have in view, is Jesus said to make such a claim? That Pliny attests an early Christian worship of Jesus tells us nothing we wouldn’t have known otherwise: that Christians worshiped Jesus. Granted, but was this Jesus’ intent? Pliny says nothing of this.

2B. The Trial

As he habitually does throughout this book, McDowell relies here upon the fallacy of appeal to authority, calling in supposed experts whose opinions we are to accept just because McDowell tells us they know what they are talking about. This is something no careful student in any field of study ever does. Scientific inquiry in any field is ever a matter of scrutinizing and weighing the judgments of one’s honored predecessors and colleagues, none of whose opinions are to be accepted except on their own merits, not merely for the sake of their propounders’ reputations. McDowell and his minions, religious propagandists with only the most transparent pose of scholarship, seem unacquainted with genuine scholarly work, or they would know this. But why should they when their only goal is to spread the "truth" they feel sure they have lucked into. They have not a thought to seek the truth, since this would be to admit that, as mere mortals, they do not yet have it.

The supposed authority cited here is one "Judge Gaynor, the accomplished jurist of the New York bench" who rules that the real complaint against Jesus at his trial was blasphemy, his "making himself God." Why McDowell thinks a modern New York judge would necessarily have any expertise on the procedures of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin in the first century is beyond me. The level of argumentation here and throughout Evidence That Demands a Verdict is on the same level with that whereby Paul Galey "demands the verdict" that Mr. Kringle is really Santa Claus in the movie Miracle on 34th Street.

McDowell’s sources mislead him in that they pay no attention whatever to the gaping problem of the historical implausibilities in the trial accounts. It has been a subject of scholarly debate for decades, for at least two reasons. First, how are the evangelists supposed to have found out what happened at the trial? All of the disciples had fled, except for Peter who hoped to avoid detection among the crowd in the high priest’s courtyard. But the interrogation of Jesus did not transpire where Peter could hear it. Indeed, Peter is busy undergoing his own interrogation in the courtyard at the same time! One might propose that Jesus filled the disciples in on the trial after his resurrection, but this is frivolous. Picture the scene: Jesus is ready now to vouchsafe to the eleven the final teaching of the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). "Sure, sure, Lord," Peter pipes up, "in a moment! But first, let’s hear what happened to you during the trial, huh? I’m really curious!"

The second problem with the trial narratives is that virtually every detail of them seems to fly in the face of everything we know of rabbinical jurisprudence. They are convening on Passover eve for a capital trial? Not likely! And why would a claim to be messiah, even if deemed false, amount to blasphemy? It sure didn’t some years later when no less a personage than Rabbi Akiba endorsed the ill-fated Simon bar Kochba as the messiah.

One begins to suspect that the gospel writers had no real idea of what transpired at Jesus’ trial and did the best they could to fill the gap from their imaginations, simply assuming that the point of contention between Jesus and the Sanhedrin had any role in the trial and death of debating in their own day: Jesus’ divine status, an belief which later Jews certainly did consider blasphemy once Christians began viewing Jesus as divine.

It even becomes an open question whether the Sanhedrin had any role in the trial and death of Jesus, simply because of the manner of execution. He was crucified, a Roman penalty inflicted on pirates, seditionists, and runaway slaves. A.N. Sherwin-White, though not an accomplished judge in the State of New York, was an authority on Roman law, and he argued in Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament that the Sanhedrin would have needed Pilate’s permission for Jesus to be executed, as the gospels say. Other scholars dispute Sherwin-White’s opinion. I am by no means in a position to take sides on the matter. But even if Sherwin-White is correct, the real difficulty remains unresolved: if Jesus were to be executed for blasphemy, why did Annas and Caiaphas not simply seek Pilate’s permission to have Jesus stoned to death, since stoning was the required penalty? That they did not raises the real possibility that the grounds for the execution were entirely different, perhaps political, as many scholars have held.

Personally, I do not believe the surviving evidence can ever settle the question, so I do not have a favorite theory to defend. My point here is that the trial narrative is a matter of just as much debate as the question of what Jesus may have claimed of himself. To treat the gospel trial accounts, and one particular interpretation of them, as undeniably factual, and to base on this a case for Jesus’ claiming to be God, is to build a house on sand.

One last apologetical distortion connected with the trial requires our attention. McDowell tries to minimize the fact that the Synoptic trial narratives do not have Jesus say precisely the same thing in answer to the question of the high priest. Asked, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" Jesus replies, according to Mark, "I am," but in Matthew and Luke, "You say that I am." First there is the problem of whether the two versions contradict one another. Second, there is the problem of whether "You say" implies evasive ambiguity.

McDowell tries to harmonize the two versions, as apologists commonly do. McDowell tries to make us believe that the ambiguous reply in Matthew and Luke really means the same as Mark’s forthright "I am." He quotes various previous apologists as saying that "You say that I am" is actually a forthright affirmation, despite appearances. Frank Morison (author of Who Moved the Stone?, an ex-skeptic turned apologist, a Damascus Road reversal that seems to apologists to validate everything Morison says) writes, "These answers are really identical. The formulae ‘Thou hast said’ or ‘Ye say that I am,’ which to modern ears sounds evasive, had no such connotation to the contemporary Jewish mind. ‘Thou sayest’ was the traditional form in which a cultivated Jew replied to a question of grave or sad import. Courtesy forbade a direct ‘yes’ or ‘no.’"

But Morison’s own explanation refutes itself. If "thou sayest" could conceal either a "direct ‘yes’ or ‘no,"’ then how, pray tell, is the hearer to know which of the two, yes or no, is meant? It would certainly make things a good bit easier for the apologist who wants to use Jesus as a ventriloquist dummy to mouth fourth-century Athanasian dogma if "Thou sayest" were an unambiguous "You said it!," but it is not. And to make Matthew and Luke’s ambiguous version tantamount to Mark’s unambiguous affirmation, simply because Mark has the one in the same spot where Matthew and Luke have the other, is pure harmonization. It is like saying that if I answer "maybe" and you answer "yes" to the same question we must be giving the same answer.

But in fact, there is a way to iron out the apparent contradiction in this case, though I don’t think McDowell and his fans would like it much. As it happens, there are a couple of early manuscripts of Mark which agree with Matthew and Luke in attributing to Jesus an ambiguous answer: "You say so." There is obviously no way to be sure how the original autograph manuscript of Mark read at this (or any other) point, since manuscript evidence from the first century or so of copying is practically non-existent (a crucial factor minimized to the vanishing point by apologists). But ask yourself which is more likely, that, faced with a clear affirmation of Jesus’ messiahship in Mark’s trial scene, Matthew and Luke would both, independently, deem it better to befog the issue by introducing the ambiguous "thou sayest" business? Or that Mark, too, originally had the ambiguous "thou sayest," which Matthew and Luke both faithfully reproduced, but which some later copyist of Mark found theologically inadequate and changed to a nice, juicy "I am"?

I think the latter scenario makes the more sense, but really, who knows? Again, my point is that the facts are anything but clear, whereas they would have to be crystal clear to serve McDowell’s purpose. You see, scholarly New Testament criticism can afford to live with uncertainties, unable to decide between possible theories. But apologetics "demands a verdict." It is not scholarship at all, but propaganda. If you want a secular analogue to apologetics, don’t look to the work of historians. Look to the "research" funded by the American Tobacco Institute. Or if you prefer, as McDowell does, to invoke modern legal parallels, forget about Judge Gaynor and Simon Greenleaf. O.J. Simpson’s "dream team" would be a better fit.

3B. Further Claims

lC. Equality With the Father

lD., 2D.

Attention shifts now to a pair of verses in John’s Gospel in which Jesus supposedly claims to be equal to God. One is John 10:33, where the enemies of Jesus say he is "making himself God." The other is John 5:18, where they say he is "making himself equal to God." We see here a good example of a universal tendency in fundamentalist apologetics to take at face value the opinions of the opponents of Jesus in the Gospel of John. I marvel that, of all the voices in the gospel, that of the stone-throwing haters of Jesus should be considered the most fundamental for understanding him! One might as well argue that Jesus was a glutton and an alcoholic (Matthew 11:19) and that he was in league with Beelzebul (Mark 3:22), was a Samaritan and demon-possessed (John 8:48), out of his mind (Mark 3:21), that he proposed offering himself as the main course at a feast for cannibals (John 6:52), that he thought he was physically older than Abraham (John 8:57), that he proposed to rebuild Herod’s temple in three days (John 2:20), or that like Superman he had descended bodily from the sky (John 6:42), all examples of what the enemies of Jesus think of him or think he is claiming. In every case, surely, the point of the gospel writers is that Jesus’ opponents have woefully misunderstood and caricatured him.

This is made clear in the case of the John 11 passage from the simply fact that Jesus issues a rejoinder to their accusation that he makes himself God. He does not say, "You got that right, folks!" Rather he shows how Psalm 82 does not hesitate to apply the very honorific "gods" to those who were merely readers of scripture, whereas he makes for himself a more modest claim, that, in that he is God’s chosen envoy, he can be called God’s son. Is not Jesus here presented as correcting the way his hostile hearers misunderstood his language about sonship? McDowell quotes another apologist as saying, "Jesus did not try to convince the Jews that they had misunderstood him." But that seems to be precisely what John has him doing in John 10.

It strikes me as perverse that apologists, supposed zealots for the scriptures, will opportunistically quote the slanders of Jesus’ opponents when, taken out of context, they will sound superficially compatible with later Christian dogma.

When McDowell turns his attention to John’s numerous instances of Jesus calling God "My Father," he raises, implicitly, a different point, that of the fidelity of gospel "reporting." As Joachim Jeremias points out (The Central Message of the New Testament, p. 22), we find a dramatically increasing tendency for Jesus to call God "Father" as we move from earlier to later gospel source documents. In Mark we find but 3 instances, 4 in Q, 4 in the material peculiar to Luke. In the uniquely Matthean material we suddenly jump to 31, and John is practically off the scale at 100! If we narrow our search to instances of Jesus referring to God as "My Father," we find not a single instance in Mark, I in Q, 2 in material unique to Luke (and one of these is a redactional addition absent in Matthew’s version: compare Luke 22:29 with Matthew 19:28), and then 12 in Matthew’s special material and 32 in John. What all this would clearly imply to anyone but the apologetical spin doctor (who feels more secure mouthing his assent to Athanasian Christology if Jesus had already believed it himself) is that, while "My Father" is indeed language denoting the speaker’s divine status (though not necessarily as more than a demigod), it appears to be theological language that has crept into the gospel portraits of Jesus at first slowly and sparingly, but then in full flood the farther from the historical Jesus we get. The massive later use of this language makes the nature of it clear even in those strata of the gospel tradition where its presence is more modest: it is theological language about Jesus only subsequently placed in his own mouth. I ask any apologist to be honest with himself: wouldn’t you really find this the most natural way to read the evidence if you weren’t just trying to get out of a tight spot?

Ironically, the idea of early Christians ascribing to Jesus clear Christological self-references he did not himself actually make should hardly sound peculiar or implausible, especially to fundamentalists, since they do it themselves. For example, the fundamentalist Targum variously marketed as The Living Bible, The Way, Reach Out, The Book, etc., shows a number of instances where paraphraser Ken Taylor apparently thought Jesus was being a bit too coy about his own messianic claims. Taylor regularly substitutes for "the Son of Man" phrases like "the Man from Heaven" or "the Messiah." He even makes Jesus say, "I am the Messiah" in John 4:26! By contrast, in the Greek text of the gospels, or even in a straight English translation like the New American Standard Bible, there is no such explicit self-identification. (By the way, what Ken Taylor has done with John 4:26 is exactly the same sort of thing I suggested happened when an early copyist changed Mark’s original and ambiguous "Thou sayest" to a ringing affirmation, "I am.")

In fact, it seems to me that apologists themselves are doing the same thing when they constantly say that "Jesus claimed to be God." Hearing that Jesus "claimed to be God," what sort of statement would you expect to find in the gospels? Presumably something like "I am God" or perhaps "I am he whom you call your God." Every apologist secretly wishes the gospels did contain such texts, but there are none. The ambiguous passages we have been discussing certainly do not justify loaded and over-explicit language like "Jesus claimed to be God." What apologists are essentially doing, then, is to place their own Christological inferences onto the lips of Jesus. Why couldn’t the gospel writers have done the same thing? (Ironically, as we have just seen, none of the New Testament writers goes so far in this direction as the apologists do!)

Apologists love to quote John 10:30 as a clear declaration by Jesus of his faith in Chalcedonian Christology: "I and the Father are one." If Jesus (or, as I should think, the evangelist) so clearly and unambiguously, conveyed by these words the Christological orthodoxy of the fourth and fifth centuries, it is hard to explain why it took so many centuries of debate for the churches to settle these very issues! McDowell quotes A.T. Robertson in an amazing attempt, worthy of Paul in Galatians 3:16, to squeeze Christology out of a lexical stone. "One (hen). Neuter, no[t] masculine (heis). Not one person (cf. heis in Gal. 3:28), but one essence or nature."

Fair enough, if all he means is to exclude the Patripassian heresy, that Jesus was the Father incarnate. But it is not so clear that "I and my Father are one" would exclude something like the Monothelite heresy, that the oneness of Jesus and the Father was simply that of harmonious will and moral purpose. In fact, another verse in the same chapter of John seems to push 10:30 in this very direction: "This is why my Father loves me; I do always that which pleases him" (John 10:17).

I should even say that "I and the Father are one" must mean something like this given that John 17:22-23 seems to predicate precisely the same oneness of Jesus and the disciples: "that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me."

It is vain to say this oneness of Jesus and the disciples refers to his consubstantiality with them in his human ousia as he is consubstantial with the Father in his divine ousia. Why? First, because this is to read absurdly too much into the text, which seems oblivious of such fine distinctions. If you can find this in the text, you can have no quarrel with Martin Luther’s papist opponents and their multiple-sense exegesis of scripture!

Second, for Jesus’ Chalcedonian consubstantiality with human beings in general to be all that is in view in John 17:22-23 would grossly trivialize the prayer Jesus is shown praying, for this abstruse metaphysical consubstantiality would unite Jesus with Judas Iscariot, Pilate, and Herod Antipas equally with Peter, Andrew, and the Beloved Disciple! Is this likely the intent of the passage? Again, no one but the sophist and the spin-doctor will think so.

2C. "I AM".

John 8:58 has Jesus’ opponents ask the exasperated rhetorical question, "You do not have fifty years, and Abraham has seen you?" He answers, "Amen, amen, I tell you, before Abraham became, I am." This may very well be a claim by the Johannine Jesus to divine preexistence. Indeed, I should judge that the most natural reading, though the odd juxtaposition of tenses sets a question mark beside any interpretation. That is, there is no really "natural" reading of a peculiar construction. It is not out of the question that the passage is intended as a parallel to the contrast between Jesus and Jacob in John 4:12 ("Are you greater than our father Jacob?"), and that the point is tantamount to the Matthean sequence, "Something greater than the temple/Jonah/Solomon is here" (Matthew 12: 6, 41-42). And in view of the statement that prompted the indignant reply to Jesus, "Abraham rejoiced to see my day," perhaps we ought rather to take 8:58 to mean not so much that Jesus existed prior to Abraham but rather that "Jesus’ day" was available in the foreknowledge of God for Abraham, as a prophet, to see (cf. I Peter 1:10-12, 20; Luke 17:22).

But let us assume that the traditional interpretation captures the scriptural writer’s intent, and that this is a claim to preexistence. This should not be too surprising in view of John 1:1, which no one doubts is a Johannine claim to the preexistence of the divine Logos. But McDowell and the apologists he quotes beg two key questions. The first is that of whether the Fourth Gospel should be read as a source of historical recollection and reportage. McDowell simply takes it for granted that we are reading a transcript of Jesus’ words. Lurking behind such confidence is the fundamentalist doctrine of inerrancy, a vestige of the origin of all these arguments back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the opponents were fellow biblicists, Rationalist Protestants and Christian Unitarians. McDowell’s arguments on behalf of the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings in the gospels, which he sets forth in a previous chapter, are nothing but a tissue of desperate rationalizations of something he really believes for a priori dogmatic reasons. You may consult the corresponding chapter in the present volume or my own book Beyond Born Again, where I deal at great length with McDowell’s arguments on the point.

After trying for years to accept the argument of William Temple (subsequently warmed over by George Eldon Ladd and others) that, despite its radical stylistic and theological differences from the Synoptics, John’s Gospel should still be read as genuine recollections of Jesus’ teaching, I found myself finally unable to deny the force of a simple point: the Johannine Jesus not only sounds nothing like the Synoptic Jesus; he sounds exactly like the narrator of the Fourth Gospel, all the other characters in the Fourth Gospel, and the author of the three Johannine Epistles. Thus the words attributed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel are John’s, not Jesus’.

Reading the Fourth Gospel is much like reading Kahlil Gibran’s Jesus the Son of Man, in which Gibran adopts the device of having a number of Jesus’ ancient contemporaries share their recollections of what he said and did. The result is, l have found, a profound and beautiful book, just as the Gospel of John is. And, as in John’s Gospel, one notices that all Gibran’s characters sound just alike, like Jesus, and like the writer of all the other books by Kahlil Gibran. No one would argue that, oh, let’s say, Gibran has preserved a genuine set of teachings of Jesus which Jesus spoke using a special idiom, a group of sayings strangely missing from the other gospels, and that Gibran was so pervasively influenced by these sayings that the same stylistic idiom went on to permeate all of his own writings! No, no one would have the slightest difficulty in recognizing that in Jesus the Son of Man we have Gibran’s own personal vision of Jesus expressed in Gibran’s own thoughts and words. Why can we not use me same common sense in the case of the Gospel of John? Critical scholars can and do. For them the implication is quite clear. This book represents the theological reflections of its author, set in narrative form, and utilizing the literary device of divine epiphany monologues like those found in contemporary Isis aretalogies (see Philip B. Harner, The "I Am" of the Fourth Gospel) and the revelation discourses of the Mandaean scriptures.

Before one parrots the ludicrous dictum of C.S. Lewis (in "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism") that the Johannine discourses bear no resemblance to ancient, non-historical genres, one owes it to oneself to read the Gnostic and Mandaean revelation soliloquies abundantly quoted in Bultmann’s commentary on John, something I rather doubt any apologists take the trouble to do. (I find it amusing that Lewis preferred to compare John’s discourses with Boswell’s "reportage" of Samuel Johnson’s table-talk–which, as has recently been argued, seems itself to have been a literary stylization of the kind critics suggest we find in the Fourth Gospel!)

In much of what I have said on the interpretation of various Johannine texts, my assumption is not that the apologists are putting the wrong construal on the words of the historical Jesus, but rather that they are misinterpreting the more modest Christology of the Fourth Evangelist. Just so in the case of John 8:58. My point is not that the verse does not imply ambient pre-existence of the Logos. It is rather to say that, first, the verse represents the view of the gospel writer, precisely as John 1:1 does, and not necessarily that of Jesus; and second, that this Christology may as easily be Arian as Athanasian in its slant.

But doesn’t John 8:58 have to mean that Jesus is not only the (possibly created) "Arian" Logos, but the eternal "I am" of the burning bush? Again, let us not read in anachronistic Christology and theology, whether Jewish or Christian. Jewish angelology swarmed with figures like Metatron, Yahoel, Melchizedek and others who were referred to as "your Elohim" and as "the little Yahweh"! "My name is in him." (See Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism; Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven; Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God; Fred L. Brown, Jr., The Melchizedek Tradition). Is something like that going on in John 8:58? Again, I don’t know. The ancient evidence is at once too fragmentary and too suggestive of a wider range of options than McDowell’s argument implies.

6C. He Who Has Seen Me.

I am afraid the reply of the Johannine Jesus to Philip in John 14:9 ("Have I been with you so long, Philip, and still you do not know me? He who has seen me has seen the Father; so how is it you ask, ‘Show us the Father’?") is of no more help to the apologist’s case. Granted, if this is all the text said (and it all McDowell cites), it would seem to constitute a pretty strong claim on the part of the Johannine Jesus to be God. In fact, it would be a bit too strong for the apologists’ palate, since it would imply Patripassianism, that Jesus is not only divine by nature, but is God the Father himself, something A.T. Robertson was just as glad to see ruled out in John 10:30.

However, the hydra-head of heresy, thus momentarily raised up, sinks back into the abyss as soon as we read on, for John’s Jesus, as if sensing the need to prevent apologist and Patripassian alike from going astray (not that it did any good in the long run!), immediately qualifies his statement (and thus renders it uselessly vague for Christology): "Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me? The words which I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me." Paul says the same sort of thing of every believer, and no one thinks it implies that all believers are incarnations of God.

I recall how, as an apologist myself, I felt let down at reading this continuation, since it seemed to let the air out of what had sounded at first like the strongest possible Christological self-revelation. I am reminded here of Schleiermacher’s Christology. He sought to justify and maintain traditional incarnation language while redefining it in essentially naturalistic terms. David Friedrich Strauss had little patience with such efforts, as he deemed them, at equivocation. Here is a comment from Strauss on Schleiermacher’s Christology that I believe applies with equal force to the apologists’ attempts to find Athanasian Christology in John 14:9-11. "If we think of the divine in Christ according to this analogy [or in terms of John 14:9-11], then we no longer think of it in personal terms, no longer as a divine being united with the human, but only as an effective impulse working on it, that is, as a heightening of its natural powers, especially of its God-consciousness, which we assume in Christ to be something absolute, powerful, and exclusively determinative of all aspects of life. As is known, Schleiermacher [as, by analogy, the apologists] also called this ‘constant potency of the God-consciousness’ a ‘veritable existence of God in him,’ but the very fact that he calls it a real existence shows that he rather senses that it is an unreal one" (The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History, 24-25).

7C. "I Say Unto You"

McDowell cites the Matthean antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount, in which the Matthean Jesus contrasts his own maxims with what "you have heard… was said to the men of old." McDowell sees Jesus as pulling rank over Moses, something he could do only if his rank were that of God himself. This argument is not holy but only full of holes.

First, as most critical New Testament scholars admit, the antitheses are Matthew’s own redactional creations. One reason for thinking so is that a couple of the examples of Jesus’ supposedly "counter"-teachings, contrasted with Jewish commandments, appear in the Lukan parallels standing on their own, without reference to any teaching "of the men of old," which implies they were not originally uttered with such a contrast in mind.

Second, even where such Jesus-Moses contrasts may be original, it is a wild leap to conclude that Jesus must have believed himself to be God to dare draw such contrasts. For instance, when in Mark 10:5 Jesus is shown rejecting scribal opinions on divorce does he set aside the force of the Deuteronomic divorce law because he is God, or simply because he sees the will of God better represented in Genesis 2? In Jesus’ judgment, Deuteronomy represented merely God’s permissive will, a compromise with the stubbornness of the human heart. This conclusion may have been simply an inference on Jesus’ part, as when some today feel sure that pacifism would be more in accord with Jesus’ teaching than militarism, or that Jesus would oppose abortion. Or Jesus may have claimed, as did the ancient Micaiah and other prophets, to be privy to the secret councils of God. But until we can eliminate such possibilities let us not jump to the conclusion Jesus believed himself to be God.

Third, McDowell is undoubtedly unaware of it, but the very same set of contrasts the Matthean Jesus draws between the literal Torah commands against adultery, oath-breaking, and murder on the one hand, and, on the other, a "higher righteousness" of the pious heart that renders such prohibitions superfluous, is an important ancient feature of rabbinical Jewish ethics and piety. (See Solomon Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, chapter XIII, "The Law of Holiness and the Law of Goodness," pp. 199-218). There is nothing distinctly Christian about it, much less anything requiring the authority of an avatar of Jehovah to establish such contrasts. Not that the Sermon on the Mount says there is! The urgency that Jesus’ teachings (the vast majority of which are paralleled, often word for word, in ancient Jewish and Hellenistic sources) should be new and unique is an inference drawn from the Christian belief in Jesus as a unique divine revealer. It is not that the sayings were so unigue that they led anybody to think their speaker must have been God. To argue that way would seem to lead apologists in the direction of yet another heresy, Marcionism.

And must we conclude that for Jesus to preface his sayings with the formula "Truly I say to you" instead of "Thus says the Lord" means he thought himself to be none other than the Lord? McDowell thinks so. But this is absurd for two reasons. First, when Paul uses the phrase "I say to you," he explicitly contrasts it with having a divine revelation, which his very use of the phrase implies he does not have! "I say, not the Lord" (I Corinthians 7:12; cf, verse 25). How do we know Jesus did not mean the same thing? What if he were humbly disclaiming the thundering divine authority which the apologists, with all the self-abnegating arrogance of Eric Hoffer’s "true believer," would like to grant him?

Second, McDowell ignores the fact of which he is ready to make so much when it suits him: namely, that the gospel writers attributed divine authority to Jesus (whether Jesus himself did or not). Thus for them to preface a saying with "Jesus said, ‘Truly I say to you…"’ is exactly tantamount to an Old Testament prophet saying "Thus saith the Lord." In fact the gospel writers, every time they have Jesus say "Verily I say to you," are saying in effect "Thus saith the Lord Jesus…" The relevant analogy is not between Jesus and the Old Testament prophets, but between the New Testament evangelists and the Old Testament prophets.

Much is made both by apologists and by pious New Testament critics like Joachim Jeremias (whom, for his other opinions, despite his tender piety, McDowell would see as roasting in Gehenna) of Jesus’ use of the simple Aramaic word Abba in prayer to God. Jeremias (The Central Message of the New Testament, pp. 9-30) observed that so far no ancient Jewish source had yet surfaced attesting such direct address to God whereas surviving ancient Jewish prayer language addressed God in terms of grand formality (like Matthew’s "Our Father which art in heaven" as opposed to Luke’s plain and unadorned "Father"). Despite the fact that both Mark 14:36 and Galatians 4:6 translate Abba simply as "Father," Jeremias contended that Jesus intended a warm current of loving intimacy between himself and his Father such as could be appropriate only between divine Father and divine Son. This inference is based on the common homiletical fallacy of confusing etymology with definition. Abba originated as the Aramaic version of "Dada" or "Papa," but by New Testament times, it had come simply to mean "Father" (as Jeremias himself admits, p. 21).

But it is the oddest inference to attribute to the historical Jesus a consciousness of unique divine sonship on the basis of the use of Abba in Mark 14:36 and Galatians 4:6. First, Galatians says nothing whatsoever about Jesus ever having used the word. It simply says that since we have now received sonship we may address God as Abba. Contra Jeremias ("there can be no doubt at all that this primitive Christian cry is an echo of Jesus’ own praying," p. 18), Galatians 4:6 says nothing about our imitating Jesus in this regard.

Second, we have to ask how Mark could have known what Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, since Mark has taken care explicitly to eliminate any witnesses from the scene. As Jesus prays he is far enough away from even the three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, not to know that they are asleep till he returns to where they await him, and the other eight are even further away. Mark "knows" what Jesus prayed in Gethsemane because he made it up. He is the typical "omniscient narrator" of a piece of fiction. McDowell and company never even notice such things because, deep down, they cannot bring themselves to look at the Bible through any other lenses than those provided by the doctrine of biblical inerrancy which presupposes that the Bible’s statements are all factually accurate because they are the product of a literally omniscient narrator-God Almighty. Here as everywhere, apologists can hardly veil the fact that what they are really doing is to offer after-the-fact rationalizations for a position taken on other grounds entirely.

Virtually all the rest of McDowell’s sixth chapter is taken up with defending what no one challenges: that various New Testament writers believed Jesus Christ was a heavenly being come to earth. That McDowell can for a moment imagine that such scripture prooftexting even begins to address the objections of nonbelievers shows once again that he really has no intention of engaging them. He is simply a cheer-leader for fundamentalism, preaching to the choir.

Works Cited

Margaret Barker. The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God. Philadelphia: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.

Rudolf Bultmann. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Translated by G. R. Beasley-Murray, R.W.N. Hoare, and J.K. Riches. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971.

Kahlil Gibran. Jesus the Son of Man: His Words and Deeds as Recorded by Those Who Knew Him. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928.

Philip B. Harner. The "I Am" of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Johannine Usage and Thought. Facet Books, Biblical Series, Gen. ed., John Reumann. 26. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.

Fred L. Horton, Jr. The Melchizedek Tradition: A Critical Examination of the Sources to the Fifth Century A.D. and in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series. Gen. ed. Matthew Black, 30. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Joachim Jeremias. The Central Message of the New Testament. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965.

C.S. Lewis. "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism" in Walter Hooper (ed.) Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1976, pp 152-166.

Solomon Schechter. Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology. NY: Macmillan Company, 1910.

Gershom G. Scholem. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. NY: Schocken Books, 1973.

Alan F. Segal. Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism. Studies in Judaism and Late Antiquity Ed. Jacob Neusner. 25. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1977.

A.N. Sherwin-White. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. NY: Oxford University Press, 1963.

David Friedrich Strauss. The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History: A Critique of Schleiermacher’s The Life of Jesus. Translated by Leander E. Keck. Lives of Jesus Series. Gen.ed. Leander E. Keck. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.

Related Resources

Biblical Errancy Subject Index in the Secular Web’s Modern Library [ Index ]

Links to various essays which address the errancy of the Bible.

The Price of a Guilty Conscience” (n.d.) (Off Site) by Robert Turkel

Turkel’s rebuttal to this essay. (Turkel refuses to provide a link to this essay.)

"A Rejoinder to Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict: ‘Jesus — God’s Son’" is copyright © 1997 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Robert M. Price.

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