The Great Preposterous

Robert M. Price

 If oxen and horses or lions had hands and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds.

–Xenophanes ofColophon

If anyone needed further proof that apologetics as practiced by Josh McDowell is merely an exercise in after-the-fact rationalization of beliefs held on prior emotional grounds, I welcome him to Chapter 8 of Evidence That Demands a Verdict. One can only say again that McDowell is the worst enemy of his own faith: with defenders like this, who needs attackers? The more seriously one takes him as a representative of his faith, the more seriously one will be tempted to thrust Christianity aside as a tissue of grotesque absurdities capable of commending itself only to fools and bigots. Before I turn to the smorgasbord of fallacious arguments, let me point out the massive irony of the chapter as a whole. McDowell is concerned here to answer the question, “‘If God became man THEN what would He be like?'”[1] Since McDowell is in great danger of losing sight of the enchanted forest for the trees, an initial look at the whole approach will be helpful. Here is his thumbnail sketch for recognizing God next time you see him in the Burger King line next to Elvis:


1. Have an unusual entrance into life.
2. Be without sin.
3. Manifest the supernatural in the form of miracles.
4. Have an acute sense of difference from other men.
5. Speak the greatest words ever spoken.
6. Have a lasting and universal influence.
7. Satisfy the spiritual hunger in man.
8. Exercise power over death.[2]

And of course we have to conclude that God did become incarnate. His name was Apollonius of Tyana. And Gautama Buddha, and Caesar Augustus, and Moses, and Pythagoras, and Empedocles, and Alexander the Great, and Muhammad.

The irony of McDowell’s argument is not so simple as the skeptic might first think, namely that he has simply abstracted the outlines of the Christian story of Jesus. There is a point to that, but I think that criticism would better apply to J.B. Phillips’s version of the argument in his Your God Is Too Small.[3] What McDowell has unwittingly done is to list off the basic outline of the Mythic Hero Archetype as described by Joseph Campbell, Lord Raglan, Otto Ranck, Alan Dundes, and others. He is quite right that people would expect an incarnate god or divine hero to conform to the job description he has outlined. What he does not seem to see is that his very apologetic recapitulates the mythopoetic tendency of the human imagination to flesh out the outlines of the Hero Archetype by lending it a concrete form and name, in McDowell’s case, those of Jesus of Nazareth.

Form-critic Martin Dibelius called it the Law of Biographical Analogy. The human imagination operates pretty much the same way all over the world, and faced with the same issues and questions, it’s going to resort to a certain limited menu of options. This means that when we find similar myths (flood stories, dying-&-rising saviors, sacred time and space) or ideas (the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments or God) or inventions (Aztec and Egyptian pyramids), we need not assume borrowing (though of course that sometimes happens, too). People are just as likely to come up with these things over and over again independently and spontaneously. And when they start asking themselves what an avatar or a messiah would be like, they’re usually going to have, e.g., some sort of a miraculous nativity. It is an irresistible metaphor for the epoch-making significance (as they see it, anyway) of the advent of their hero into their history. And so on with the rest of McDowell’s (and Raglan’s and Ranck’s) list.

In fact, the conformity of the gospel portraits of Jesus to the Mythic Hero Archetype (though McDowell obviously wouldn’t want to call it that) is one major reason that some scholars have questioned the historical existence of Jesus. The more a character’s life conforms to familiar myth-patterns, the more likely it is that the character’s biography has been subsumed into myth. If there is nothing left but mythic traits, then you have to start seriously asking if this figure ever lived at all. The same question has justly been raised in the case of Gautama Buddha. There is much more to be said on the subject of the Christ Myth theory, but since McDowell only raises this question by accident, I will leave it for another time and move on.

The Astonishing Ant-Man

McDowell uses a striking analogy for the incarnation: if you were observing ants building an ant-hill and you wished you could share a bit of human architectural know-how with them, what would be necessary? Why, you’d have to become an ant yourself! And that’s what God decided he had to do to communicate with us puny humans. I think the analogy both succeeds brilliantly and fails miserably. That is because it well expresses the idea of the incarnation, only that idea itself is a mass of confusions. The basic problem (at least as long as we are, with McDowell’s analogy, focusing on the issue of God revealing knowledge to the human race) is the dilemma posed by the Prophet Isaiah: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says Yahve. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8-9). If we look past the great many places where prophets simply announce they are giving forth the word of God, as if this were no difficult thing to do, just picking up the Royal Telephone, as the old chorus has it, occasionally in the Bible we find intimations of the paradox involved with any claim to be speaking the word of God. Next door inGreece, the Delphic Oracle would rant in glossolalia with the verba ipsissima of Apollo, leaving it for the interpreter standing beside her to derive from it an articulate answer for the questioner, only the resultant utterance was notoriously ambivalent. This last feature no doubt functioned as a butt-covering device (“Well, she didn’t actually say that you’d win the battle, your Majesty! She just said a mighty empire would fall. Heh heh.”), but it is also an insightful piece of theology, denoting that the infinite qualitative distinction between God’s mind and the human mind can never really be bridged, any more than you could ever succeed in explaining your ideas to an ant even if you had a set of their antenna.

This is why there can never be genuine translation of the word of God into the words of men. “No one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received… the Spirit which is from God” (1 Corinthians 2:11-12). So doesn’t Paul think it is possible to tap God’s phone? To speak his language? Yes, but then one ends up like the Oracle of Delphi again: speaking in tongues, things it is not lawful for a man to utter, unutterable utterances, the tongues of angels, speaking in the spirit. One experiences the mystery as mystery, as Tillich puts it, one does not crack some code, solve some problem. If it is a word, it cannot be from God. Conversely, if it from God, it cannot be a word.

For this reason, the fundamentalist doctrine of propositional revelation is so much idolatrous nonsense. Any human word which purports to interpret God’s word is really only playing charades. It is only pointing, symbolizing, and finally deceiving anyone who forgets for a second the ambivalent, ambiguous character of that word. It is something like trying to translate the Chinese Tao te Ching into English. The Taoist epigrams are so terse, and the two languages so different, that translations differ wildly. All are edifying, but one would be intemperate to quote any one version and say one had grasped the intent of the author.

Aquinas understood the problem here, though one may wonder whether the great philosopher really came to grips with it. He knew that God’s ways and words must be so vastly different from our own that human words about God could never simply be univocal in their reference to God. Love, for instance, is all bound up with human associations and limitations that could not touch the infinite God, He Who Is. But if by saying “God is love,” we use the word equivocally, so that God’s love bears no similarity to human love, there is no point in using the same word at all. (This error is constantly made by theodicy arguments which try to get God off the hook by saying that, while it would be unjust for us to stand by and let someone suffer, it is not unjust for God.) So Aquinas sought to settle down in the middle, saying our God-language is analogous. In other words, as Francis Schaeffer said, it is true enough without being exhaustively true. Pardon me if I think this is a case of trying to have one’s cake and eat it too. “I’ll just take the best of both! Wrap it up for me, will you?”

As the Zen masters teach, human talk pretends to convey Reality but is wholly inadequate to the job and always inevitably ends up substituting for that which it claims to convey, thus cutting us off from it! It was brilliant theology for the Old Testament to forbid any image of God. There can be no image of an invisible God. Christian incarnationism risks (to put it mildly) losing this essential insight by calling Jesus the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), by having Jesus say, “He who has seen me has seen the father” (John 14:9). What winds up happening is perfectly summed up by Albrecht Ritschl, who said that for liberal Protestants like himself, “Jesus has the value of God for us.” In other words, Jesus has become an idol usurping the place of God. And that, to my mind, is the confusion of the “idea” of the Incarnation. Theologians only admit this when they obsequiously pronounce the incarnation a “mystery of the faith.” This, too, is no real admission, only a rhetorical diversion, since they will talk quite confidently about the incarnation and its importance, as if they knew quite well what the doctrine meant–until they get pinned down on it, and then it’s time to hide demurely behind the petticoat of “mystery.”

Prophetic Ventriloquism

McDowell zeroes in on the virgin birth of Jesus, but digresses immediately into the mine field of “fulfilled prophecy.” He shows himself as heedless of the original context of biblical prophecies as his colleague in charlatanry Hal Lindsey (you know you’re dealing with real scholarship when your authorities go by names like “Josh” and “Hal”). He can unblinkingly cite Genesis 3:15, an etiological myth for why humans hate snakes, as a prediction of the defeat of Satan by Jesus! This medieval eisegesis makes utter gibberish of the context, but that’s okay with Josh. Context means nothing to a proof-texter. It simply does not occur to McDowell that no one living in pre-Christian times could have possibly understood any of the texts he blithely cites as predictions of the Messiah’s birth. These interpretations arose only after the fact, once Christians began to proof-text them as square pegs jammed into the round holes of Christian dogma. In other words, they sound like predictions of Jesus only once you read them through Christian lenses. Thus they have no evidential value in the endeavor to prove someone should adopt the Christian standpoint. It only seems to work once you’ve done so, and even then it is only an optical illusion.

“A clearer prophecy occurs in Isaiah 7:14 which states that ‘… a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel’ (KJV). This is very specific in that the reference is to a virgin. This most logically, refers to the woman in Genesis 3:15.”[4] Does it? One only need do what McDowell apparently has never done and open Isaiah 7:14 itself, which, as ought to be obvious even to the veriest fool, concerns itself with the birth of a child contemporary with Isaiah himself, as his birth will herald the imminent downfall of the Israelite-Syrian alliance against Judah. At this point McDowell’s argument is simply moronic, unworthy of a pimply adolescent Hi-BA member. It appears to be good enough for McDowell that Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14 as a prediction of Jesus’ virgin birth, only he ignores the implication of Matthew 13:51-52 that Matthew understood all such prophecies as allegorical double fulfillments, something inconsistent with McDowell’s inherited Protestant literalism, so he just ignores the context and pretends Isaiah was an ancient Jeanne Dixon.

Parenthetically, it is this sort of idiocy that explains why up to now scholars have not given McDowell’s tripe the time of day, for fear of appearing to dignify it with a response. My fellow contributors to The Jury Is In and I, however, feel that something ought to be done for the sake of the weaker brethren who do not know better and whom McDowell is causing to stumble into misinformation and delusion.

Immaculate Misconception

McDowell tries to defend the myth of the virgin birth of Jesus by the simple expedient of ignoring the yawning gulf that stretches between the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke. He quotes James Orr’s lame response to such critical analyses as Strauss’s in The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. But the result, ironically, is to admit the force of Strauss’s argument. “The critics speak of the discrepancies of the narratives. Much more remarkable, it seems to me, are their agreements, and the subtle harmonies that pervade them. The agreements, if we study them carefully, prove to be far more numerous than may at first strike us.”[5] This is as much as saying, “Gee, they are so divergent, it’s amazing they have even this much in common!” But McDowell, every bit as much the true believer as Orr, simply dismisses the gross conflicts between the narratives. He just doesn’t care about them and knows that his readership, for whom he functions as a cheer-leader, doesn’t want to bother with them either, And the Orr quote functions simply to give them permission to say “Yeah, I didn’t think there was a problem, praise the Lord,” and move on.

Is nothing at all to be made of the fact that, e.g., while Matthew has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem where Jesus is born in their home, and only later relocating in Nazareth to seek shelter from Archelaeus, Luke makes the couple residents of Nazareth who only “happen” to be on their way to Bethlehem for a census registration when Mary’s water breaks? Luke’s manifold historical inaccuracies and narrative absurdities pose no problem at all for the true believer, but McDowell can hardly expect an outsider to be persuaded of Luke’s reliability simply by the sleight-of-hand of ignoring them. A census requiring people to register where their remote ancestors lived a millennium before? A man stupid enough to take his nine-months-pregnant wife on a donkey ride over unpaved hill trails?

And the notorious gaff placing the birth of Jesus both before Herod’s death (4 B.C.) and during the census of Quirinius (6 A.D.) will not go away. Of this last McDowell says, “some now believe that Quirinius served two terms of office, the first of these being 10-7 B.C., which would put his first census at the time, roughly, of Christ’s birth shortly before Herod’s death in 4 B.C.”[6] Some apologists now believe it, but no one else. It is a piece of pure guesswork floated by apologist William Ramsey on the basis of a single ambiguous inscription which noted Quirinius had been rewarded for a great military victory. There is no hint of the nature of this reward, but Ramsey figures it might as well have been another term of office! Yeah, that’s the ticket! Sorry, but that’s ruled out by the fact that we know who the Roman governors were at the time of Herod’s death, namely Quintilius Varus and Sentius Saturninus. And there couldn’t have been a census previous to the one in 6 A.D., since the outrageous novelty of that one (to think: that Romans should exact tribute from Jews!), sparked the bloody uprising of Judas the Galilean. A related problem is that no census Quirinius conducted would have involved residents ofBethlehem, since in Quirinius’ reign, Judea was a technically independent client state allied withRome, not subject to taxation, unlikeNazareth, part of the Romanprovince ofSyria. Of all this Josh is as ignorant or as heedless as Luke himself.

Pregnant Silence

One of the obstacles standing in the way of the virgin birth as any more than a myth is the sparseness of its attestation in the New Testament. Only Matthew and Luke mention it (and even there, some early manuscripts of Luke imply the virgin birth is an interpolation into that gospel, while as Jane Schaberg shows in The Illegitimacy of Jesus, Matthew never really mentions a miraculous conception, only a providential one).[7] But this doesn’t bother McDowell who simply takes for granted a picture of a united “early church” who can be safely assumed all to have believed the same things. Thus if Luke mentions it, Jude must have believed it, too. This is merely a reflection of the fundamentalist dogma of the harmony of scripture. The writers of the Bible must all have agreed with each other since there were all merely ventriloquist dummies for God.

Robert Gromacki is cited thusly:

… it is not tenable to argue from silence to disbelief or from silence to an ignorance of the doctrine. The apostles did not record everything that they taught or knew (cf. John 20:30). In fact, the so-called silence argument of the liberal can boomerang on him. Since Paul did not mention any human father for the person Jesus, does that mean that he believed that Jesus had no human father? Most regard silence as an assent. If Paul and the others did not believe in the virgin birth, should they not have corrected the earlier birth narratives? [8]

This is just asinine. You mean to tell me that if someone never mentioned something as remarkable as a virgin birth, that means he did believe in it? And as for Paul never mentioning that Jesus had a human father, well, come to think of it, he never mentioned Jesus having two legs or two eyes, either! Can Gromacki and McDowell really be so obtuse, can their credulous acceptance of Christian catechism have so blinded them, that they cannot see that one does not mention that which does not call for mention, but that if something is remarkable, and one fails to mention it, especially when it would be relevant, then at least we have no right to assume that he believed it anyway? The medieval Catholic Church used the same sort of preposterous argument to claim apostolic pedigree for the selling of indulgences, relic-mongering, and priestly celibacy. “True, the apostles didn’t happen to write it down, but we can be sure they believed this was a piece of the true cross anyway. Want to buy it?” With arguments like this, one is forced to conclude that McDowell is either just plain stupid or a damn liar. They demand that verdict, it seems to me.

And speaking of subordinating the text of scripture to gratuitous church traditions, McDowell is a sucker for the fanciful hadith of Papias which identifies the author of the anonymous Third Gospel with Luke the companion of Paul. This comes in handy, as it enables the apologist to treat everything in the Gospel of Luke as if it were written by Paul, which is precisely why the link was first made, by ancient apologists.

And it would certainly have been difficult for Paul to correct virgin birth narratives which had not yet been composed! That’s the whole point of the argument Gromacki and McDowell think they are refuting.

Strike the Harp and Join the Chorus

McDowell holds to the epistemology of the popularity contest: the virgin birth must be factual because everybody in the early church believed it. Well, maybe not quite everybody! “Apart from the Ebionites… and a few Gnostic sects, no body of Christians in early times is known who did not accept as part of their faith the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary.”[9] Again, Orr undermines his own case even as he states it. Who are these Ebionites? As it happens, they were the surviving remnants of theJerusalemChurch. If, of all people, these Christians rejected the virgin birth, as they did, as a paganizing admixture to the faith of Jesus, we are obliged to take their witness seriously! I am reminded of the 1988 presidential election, when, for all of Michael Dukakis’s crowing about his economic “Massachusetts miracle,” someMassachusetts citizens started calling his bluff: “What miracle?,” they wanted to know. So did the Ebionites.

And, as Orr admits, the Ebionites were hardly alone in rejecting the virgin birth. Why does he brush them aside? It is part and parcel of the Eusebian propaganda on behalf of the imperialchurchofConstantine, who had ruthlessly exterminated all the believers in other types of Christianity than the one he believed in. Many, many more Christians were persecuted and killed by fellow Christians than pagan emperors had ever killed. Even today, the mainstream churches like to maintain the party-line myth of an early Catholic Orthodoxy solidly established by Jesus, who catechized the 12, who trained the bishops and wrote the creeds. “Heretics,” the official (rewritten) history said, were Hell’s fifth-columnists sent on sabotage raids by their spy-master Satan. Orr presupposes all this; hence he simply doesn’t feel the opinions of these ancient, dissenting Christians count. But of course they do. Their very presence gives the lie to the propaganda that the early church agreed on much of anything, or that Jesus had made anything very clear.

Christianity Bastardized

Apologists love to smuggle in evidence where it does not appear to the naked eye. They also insist on reading the gospels as if they were written as a set of four to read together. This stops the reader from drawing any unorthodox inferences from a single gospel by itself. For instance, knowing that adoptionism was rife in the early church (Acts 2:36; 13:33; Romans 1:3-4), itself a fact that completely ruins McDowell’s fallacious claim that everyone in the early days believed, or even knew of, the virgin birth, it makes sense that Mark should begin with the baptism of Jesus, with Jesus being informed by the heavenly voice that he is God’s son. Matthew and Luke supplement the account by a prior virgin birth. Again, Mark has Jesus’ family decide he is out of his mind and must be taken in hand (3:19b-21); thus he has Jesus repudiate them (3:31-35). Matthew and Luke realize this is simply impossible if his mother had been told by an angel that her son would be a divine savior, so Matthew (chapter 12) and Luke (chapter 8) both omit the reason for their visit, while Luke even softens the rebuke. It seems pretty apparent that Mark had no virgin birth in mind. But just as Matthew and Luke felt they had to add stories of the virgin birth when expanding Mark, so do modern apologists insist on injecting the notion into Mark. They find their toehold in the story of Jesus returning to his home town and speaking in the synagogue (Mark 6:1-6). The crowd is impressed that a local boy, known to them for so long, has become the master of such great deeds and fine words. They proudly ask the rhetorical question, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”

Is this supposed to be one of those 3-D pictures where, if you stare at it long enough, the virgin birth will suddenly pop out? Where does one find the virgin birth in this picture? First we have to see how Mark continues the story. He has the crowd suddenly and arbitrarily turn ugly: “And they took offense at him.” Why? Mark did not know. All he knew was that a saying attributed to Jesus makes prophets unacceptable in their own hometowns, physicians unable to cure those who know them (the complete form of it, alluded to in Mark, is preserved in the Gospel of Thomas, saying 31). So he felt he had to reverse course and have the audience turn hostile, as little sense as this made in terms of the narrative. This is important: the rhetorical question of the crowd, “Isn’t this the son of Mary and brother of James, etc.?”, is in no way to be construed as an insult. How can it be, when they are praising the wisdom of his words and the marvelous character of his works?

But on the peculiar assumption that the statements attributed to the crowd are insults, Ethelbert Stauffer conjured up the strange hypothesis that they are cat-calling Jesus: “You bastard!” Huh? How’s that again? “This account… which appears only in Mark does full justice to the situation. The Jews had strict rules governing name-giving. A Jew was named after his father (Johanan ben Sakkai, for example) even if his father had died before his birth. He was named after his mother only when his father was unknown.”[10] I’m not sure Stauffer, a Nazi and author of the book On the Unification of the Cross and the Swastika, is to be trusted as an authority on Jewish customs! In fact, the whole interpretation is a piece of anti-Semitic vilification, injecting Jewish hostility toward the Christian savior where there was none. Admittedly, Mark himself had already turned things in this direction, but Stauffer is carrying it even farther.

Is Commandant Stauffer were correct, the point would be that the crowd knew of some irregularity concerning the birth of Jesus and were exploiting it. For a Christian apologist this would mean that the news of Jesus’ virgin birth had circulated but met with hostile skepticism. Notice that it simply does not occur to the apologists that things might be the other way around: that Jesus might actually have been a bastard and that the virgin conception tale was circulated as a theological euphemism, just as Livy tells us that the claim of Rhea Silvia (mother of Romulus and Remus) to have been miraculously impregnated by the god Mars might well have been a desperate stratagem to avoid being executed for violating her vows of sacerdotal celibacy. Why not take the virgin birth story as evidence of Jesus’ illegitimacy?

In either case, Mark is innocent of all such matters. Jesus is not being given the epithet “bar-Miriam” in this story. This is simply out of the question since in the same breath he is called “brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon.” The point is simply to identify Jesus as a local boy whose surviving family members are well known to the audience.

Stauffer also cites a Talmudic tradition that Rabbi Shimeon ben Azzai said, “I found a genealogical scroll in Jerusalem, and therein was written, ‘so-and-so, bastard son of an adulteress.'” So does Hugh J. Schonfield, whom McDowell sneeringly deprecates as a “Jewish skeptic.” (McDowell seems not to know, or not to care, that the author of The Passover Plot was in fact a believer in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. He just didn’t identify with the Christian religion and its deification of Messiah Jesus.[11]) The point, once again, is to place Jewish sarcasm about the virgin birth, and thus the Christian belief in the virgin birth, as early as possible, before the fall of Jerusalem, as if to make it early were to lessen the likelihood of its being a late legendary accretion. Does this tradition prove this? No. First, in case you hadn’t noticed, Jesus’ name is conspicuously absent! Though Jesus might be the one intended, we just don’t know. From “so-and-so” to Jesus is something of a leap!

Second, even if the intent is to discredit Jesus, McDowell and Stauffer are all too willing to step into the trap set for them (though of course they are trying to spin apologetical gold out of anti-Christian polemical straw). As Jacob Neusner has shown, the attribution of this or that rabbinical saying to this or that famous rabbinic name has more to do with the redactional point the compiler of the mishnaic tract is trying to make than with the history of the matter.[12] And in this case, the choice of the name of a pre-70 A.D. rabbi is needful for the sake of the story, which is a polemical construction, since all genealogical records such as the story envisions were destroyed with the fall of Jerusalem. No one could have claimed a peek at the geneaological records later than 70 A.D. McDowell, like Stauffer, wants the polemic to date that early so they can place the Christian belief parodied in it to the same early date. But no luck.

Why Do You Call Me Good?

McDowell moves on to make his case for the sinlessness of Jesus, something he would expect if God became a man. First he tells us that Jesus claimed to be sinless, a real Mr. Humility. “Which of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:46). “He received no answer.”[13] None that the gospel writer recorded, anyhow. Again and again McDowell treats the gospels as if they were the Akashic Records, impartial objective newsreels of what happened. It does not occur to him that he is reading and quoting tendential pro-Christian propaganda. But how could he be aware of it, any more than a fish realizes there is such a thing as water as long as it surrounds him and he breathes it?

Christ’s self-conscious purity is astonishing in that it is totally unlike the experience of the other believers. Every Christian knows that the nearer he approaches God, the more aware he becomes of his sin. However, with Christ this is not the case. Jesus lived more closely to God than anyone else and was free from all sense of sin.

It doesn’t sound like McDowell has read Mark’s gospel lately, since it forthrightly has Jesus seek out the baptism of John, a ritual in which one confessed one’s sins and resolved to repent of them (Mark 1:4). Later on, when flattered by the rich young ruler, who calls him “Good teacher,” Jesus parries his praise, “Why do you call me good? Only one is good, God” (Mark 10:18). Matthew did not like either passage, so he changed them, as is well known (Matthew 3:14-15; 19:16-17). McDowell just ignores the Markan versions, though if he were pressed, I think we can be sure he would resort, at least in the second case, to the old fundamentalist harmonization that Jesus was giving the man a quick lesson in trinitarianism, but no one would ever take such a piece of text-twisting seriously if he weren’t already committed to the doctrine of the incarnation. And in that case, we are not talking about an inductive examination of the evidence. But then again with McDowell we never are.

McDowell next quotes a number of New Testament statements of the Christian dogma of the sinlessness of Christ, taking them to be personal character references, as if all the writers knew Jesus personally, even Paul! There is quite a difference between the original apologetical claim that, though executed as a criminal, Jesus was actually innocent of all charges, and the later abstraction whereby Jesus becomes absolutely sinless, a piece of docetic Christology.

Then, we are told, even the enemies of Jesus admitted his sinlessness![14] One may wonder in this case why they wanted Jesus dead. But of course, McDowell takes for granted the anti-Semitic nonsense that “the Jews” were perversely determined to get rid of Jesus, not despite his sinlessness, but rather because of it, since they were Satan-inspired. But did Jesus’ enemies endorse his sinlessness? Hardly! In the gospels they accuse Jesus of being in league with the devil and of being a drunk and a glutton. I’m not saying that he was, but these are hardly glowing appraisals by his enemies.

Is Jesus depicted as absolutely sinless, not susceptible to irritation and unkindness? What about the fig-tree legend? In it Jesus is so annoyed with a hapless fig-tree that he supernaturally zaps it to death, the very picture of a peevish demigod. Of course no one in his right mind considers this to be an episode from the life of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean McDowell mustn’t take it seriously.

A Wicked Generation Seeks after a Sign

How do you suppose it is possible, in view of Jesus’ own repudiation of evidential miracles in Mark (8:12) and Luke (16:31) that apologists like Bernard Ramm, C.S. Lewis, and McDowell can elevate paranormal phenomena to epistemological centrality? We need miracles, Ramm says, to establish which is the true religion. And without the miracles, Lewis says, Christianity loses its essential character. Not only does such prodigy-mongering overthrow the agenda of Jesus; it is useless in practice, since, faced with comparable miracle claims from other religions, fundamentalists, like the biblical writers themselves, will not hesitate to brand these miracles “false,” “lying wonders,” “Satanic counterfeits.” But since it is the criterion of prior theology that determines which miracles are “false” and which are true, it is obvious that miracles can in no way authenticate the theology.

For McDowell and those he quotes to point out that Jesus’ enemies and the enemies of Christianity did not deny his wonders but ascribed them to sorcery is futile for the purpose for which they are cited. McDowell implies that Celsus, the scribes, etc., would have denied the reality of the miracles if they could have. They were skeptics, after all, weren’t they? Yes, but not of the type McDowell is trying to refute/persuade. They were skeptical about Jesus, not about the supernatural. They had no problem with miracles in general. They preferred to depict Jesus as a miracle-worker because this enabled them to paint him as a false prophet and a magician. The miracles could be turned into negative testimony of a miraculously evil Jesus. It’s not as if McDowell can cite Bertrand Russell or Robert Ingersoll admitting that Jesus performed miracles. That is something quite different.

You Heard It Here First

McDowell’s wish-list of traits of an incarnate God include that he (not she, God forbid!) should have “spake as never a man spake.” The notion that Jesus’ teachings are in any measure or sense unique is not the basis for a belief in his divinity but rather an erroneous inference from it. The belief in uniqueness cannot survive the slightest acquaintance with the ethical and spiritual traditions of other religions and philosophies. It is a simple matter of fact that virtually every saying of Jesus treating of morality or piety can be paralleled, often virtually verbatim, from the Mishnah. Ditto if you restrict yourself to Greek philosophy, or to the Buddhist Dhammapada. On the other hand, even the most sublime revelation discourses of the Fourth Gospel can be paralleled from Gnostic and Hermetic sources. None of it is particularly unique. In the case of the ethical and pious teaching, this is no surprise. It only becomes an embarrassment to the incarnation doctrine: why should God become man in order to “reveal” what the wise of all the nations had already known for many centuries? Ancient apologists already had to come to grips with the problem. Their back-peddling strategy was called the Logos doctrine. They said Socrates, for example, was a “Christian before Christ.” So the truth the “noble pagans” knew was still the unique possession of Jesus, but he had already begun sharing it with the human race some hundreds or thousands of years before he appeared in the flesh. Then what was the urgency of his appearing? One can always shift over to the salvific death of Jesus as the reason for the incarnation, but that is not the point here. McDowell wants to have an incarnate God who comes to tell humanity what it could have learned in no other way. And this just does not work once we recognize the plain fact that nothing attributed to Jesus is unique.

Beyond Death and Humanity

McDowell’s mythopoetic imagination, which draws up a job description of the Mythic Hero and then grants the position to Jesus, ends up where the gospels end up: “If God became man, we would expect him to exercise power over death.”[15] And again the inherent instability, the essential confusion of the doctrine, is illuminated. If it was God who came to earth in the likeness of human flesh, okay, death hath no dominion over him. This is the logic of docetism: the suffering and death, even the real humanity of Jesus, were a sham. Because how could God suffer and die? Christian theology has always tried to shy away from this, and few “heresies” have been so despised and condemned as any which denied the genuine death of Jesus.

And yet, as Thomas J.J. Altizer (The Descent into Hell) has repeatedly pointed out, a “real” death of some two to two and a half days’ duration is hardly more of a real death than the old Swoon Theory postulated.[16] Did Jesus not actually suffer, as the Gospel of Peter had it? Was the cross actually empty, as in some Gnostic gospels? Was it someone else on the cross in Jesus’ place, as one billion Muslims believe? Or did Jesus die only for the weekend? In any of these cases, it is what we would expect of an epiphany of the eternal Spirit whom death’s pangs could not hold. But it has little in common with real humanity. People do not die just for a weekend.


[1] Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 111.
[2] McDowell, p. 111-112.
[3] J. B. Phillip, Your God Is Too Small (New York: Macmillan, 1961), pp. 72-86.
[4] McDowell, p. 112.
[5] James Orr, The Virgin Birth of Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), pp. 36-37. Quoted in McDowell, p. 113.
[6] McDowell, p. 112.
[7] Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987)
[8] Robert Glenn Gromacki, The Virgin Birth (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1907). Quoted in McDowell, pp. 113-114.
[9] Orr, p. 138. Quoted in McDowell, p. 115.
[10] Ethelbert Stauffer, Jesus and His Story (trans. Richard and Clara Winston,New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), p. 16. Quoted in McDowell, p. 117.
[11] Hugh J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot (London, Hutchinson [1965]).
[12] Jacob Neusner, “In Search of Talmudic Biography: The Problem of the Attributed Saying” Brown Judaic Studies 70.Chico. CA: Scholars Press, 1984.
[13] McDowell, p. 118.
[14] McDowell, p. 120.
[15] McDowell, p. 137
[16] Thomas J. Alitzer, The Descent into Hell (Philadelphia, Lippincott [1970])


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