An Atheist Reads Evidence That Demands a Verdict
Chapters 5 and 6
Part Two: The Case for Jesus
Chapter 5: Jesus, A Man of History
- In this chapter, McDowell defends the historicity of Jesus. It’s important to note the historicity of Jesus means only that the Jesus we read about in the Bible was an actual historical figure. It doesn’t mean that the miraculous stories told about him in the Bible are true — it doesn’t even mean that the broad narrative of Jesus’s life that we find in the gospels is necessarily true. All it means is that Jesus of Nazareth really lived, just like Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great, and Muhammad, and many, many other historical figures about whom incredible claims have occasionally been made.
- McDowell begins by dismissing the Christ Myth theory, the notion that the Jesus of the New Testament is wholly invented and never actually existed at all. This isn’t something that most serious, informed people believe, McDowell claims. And he’s right — the notion that Jesus never existed at all isn’t one held by very many people, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof about Jesus, though there are some who make this claim very seriously.
- But there are two questions to be answered here, and they are both suggested by a quote from Bertrand Russell that McDowell quotes in the first paragraph of the chapter. Russell says:
- “Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him.” (Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, p. 16)
- The two questions concerning the historical Jesus, then, are:
- Was Jesus a real person? And:
- If so, was he as the New Testament describes him?
- McDowell describes that quote from Russell as a radical claim, but in doing so he conflates those two points into one. (This isn’t surprising, since apologists do this all the time, defending one point and then pretending that they’ve actually proven another.) Russell’s first observation, that it’s doubtful whether Jesus ever existed at all, could be considered radical by many. But his second, that we don’t really know anything about the historical Jesus, while perhaps an overstatement, is a lot more plausible than McDowell would probably admit. Because while we have several non-Christian sources to establish the existence of Jesus, we have no source other than the gospels for biographical details of Jesus. And as sources of historical fact, the gospels are problematic at best.
- Was there an historical Jesus? Probably. How much do we really know about him? Probably a lot less than Josh McDowell claims we do.
Secular Authorities on Jesus’ Historicity
- McDowell reviews a series of non-Christian and non-Jewish references to Jesus and Christianity from the early days of the church:
- Tacitus, who referred to Jesus and the “pernicious superstition” held by his followers, in his Annals. McDowell cites Norman Anderson, who sees the reference in Tacitus to Christianity being repressed for a time only to break out again, as a reference to the resurrection. McDowell also brings in F.F. Bruce, who observes that Tacitus mentions Pilate, who is not referenced by any other pagan writer. Bruce calls this an instance of Roman Tacitus unwittingly confirming the line in the Nicene Creed about Christ suffering under Pilate.
- Tacitus doesn’t say that Jesus was resurrected, and the most you can fairly infer from the “repressed for a time, broke out again” passage is that some people believed Jesus had been resurrected. And Tacitus confirming that Jesus suffered under Pilate is meaningless, as is the confirmation of every other mundane detail about the Jesus story. As I said in the previous video, it’s not the believable bits that compel skepticism; it’s the unbelievable bits.
- Next, McDowell turns to Lucian of Samosata, a Greek satirist who described Christians as “misguided creatures” and wrote sarcastically of their devotion to the crucified Jesus. Still, Lucian refers to Jesus as having been an actual person, so McDowell counts this as secular confirmation.
- The Roman Suetonius, secretary to Emperor Hadrian, wrote of the expulsion of Christians from Rome, and of how Nero persecuted Christians, described as people “given to a new and mischievous superstition.”
- Next is Pliny the Younger, Governor of Bithynia in the early 2nd century. Pliny wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to treat Christians in his province.
- Speaking only for myself, I am prepared to concede the existence of Christians.
- Thallus, a historian whose work survives only in fragments, reportedly tried to explain away the darkness that fell over the land the day Jesus died on the cross as a solar eclipse. Our only source for Thallus writing this is the Christian writer Julius Africanus, who refers to this passage from Thallus in his Chronography. On the significance of this, McDowell says:
- “This reference shows that the Gospel account of the Darkness that fell upon the land during Christ’s crucifixion was well known and required a naturalistic explanation from non-Christians. Thallus did not doubt that Jesus had been crucified and that an unusual event had occurred in nature that required an explanation. What occupied his mind was the task of coming up with a different interpretation. The basic facts were not called into question.” (Josh McDowell, THE NEW EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 122)
- McDowell dates Thallus as writing around A.D. 52, and Africanus as writing around A.D. 221. So what we have is a Christian making a reference to something a non-Christian wrote 170 years prior. We don’t have what Thallus originally wrote. Africanus doesn’t even provide us a direct quote to consider. So we don’t know what Thallus actually said, we don’t know the context, we don’t know anything other than what Africanus, a Christian who disagrees with Thallus, tells us. And, we know almost nothing about Thallus himself. Now, that’s weak enough as it is, but here’s what McDowell doesn’t tell you: we only have this passage from Africanus because it was quoted by someone else, a Byzantine monk named George Syncellus, who lived in the 9th century. McDowell is relying on a passage from a work by Thallus, which is lost, cited in a work by Africanus, which is also lost, quoted in a work by Syncellus, who was writing 600 years after Africanus.
- And that, my theist and atheist friends, is why you shouldn’t trust Josh McDowell.
- Phlegon is the next secular source. He also refers to the crucifixion darkness in his Chronicles, which also is lost and survives only in fragments quoted by later writers, including, again, Julius Africanus. Next.
- Mara Bar-Serapion, a Syrian philosopher writing to his son from prison, refers to Jesus, calling him the wise King of the Jews and equating his death with those of Socrates and Pythagoras. McDowell acknowledges Bar-Serapion doesn’t affirm the resurrection, and places Jesus on the same level as Socrates and Pythagoras, but nonetheless refers to Jesus as a real person.
- If most people accept that Jesus was a real person, why do apologists like McDowell spend so much effort defending his historicity?
Jewish References to Jesus’ Historicity
- We inch closer to the Christian sources, moving from the Pagans to the Jews. McDowell says:
- “Similar to the secular references, the ones found in ancient Jewish sources are unfriendly toward Christianity’s founder, followers, and beliefs. For this reason their attestation to events surrounding Jesus’ life are valuable testimony to the historicity of these events.” (p. 123)
- Great. Show me some Jewish sources attesting to the fact that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, who was resurrected following his death, and we’ll finally be getting somewhere. (Not very far, but somewhere.)
- McDowell spends a few pages on the Talmud, the most important text in Rabbinic Judaism other than the Tanakh, summarizing how it confirms the existence of Jesus and his disciples, and the crucifixion of Jesus. Then McDowell argues that references to Jesus being the product of an adulterous affair between Mary and a man other than her husband Joseph are in fact evidence for the virgin birth:
- “Although the New Testament affirms that this charge is baseless, the accusation does confirm that the Christian account of Jesus’ miraculous birth was an early claim of the church that required a response. And notice, the response did not include a denial of Jesus’ existence — only a different interpretation of His conception.” (p. 125)
- A different, and vastly more plausible interpretation of his conception.
- McDowell then comes to the Testimonium of Josephus. To his credit, McDowell acknowledges the widely accepted fact that the passages in Josephus that refer to Jesus as “the Christ” and describe the post-resurrection appearance of Christ were inserted by Christians much later. Nonetheless, Josephus attests to the historicity of Jesus. Yet more evidence for the relatively mundane claim that there once lived a man named Jesus. Or Yeshua. Or something.
Christian Sources for Jesus’ Historicity
- McDowell begins with the pre-New Testament sources, of which there are none, but he argues that certain passages in the New Testament are actually quoting early church creeds. This was also covered in Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, just one of many apologetics books written after this book was originally published that crib shamelessly from it, as some of you have noticed and mentioned in the comments.
- Here’s McDowell on the early Christians who supposedly spread those creeds:
- “Early Christians often paid with their lives or suffered great persecution for their reports that Jesus had lived, died, risen from the dead, and appeared to many after His resurrection. These early Christians had nothing to gain and everything to lose for their testimony that these things had actually happened. For this reason, their accounts are highly significant historical sources.” (p. 126)
- Yes, but sources for what? That they held these beliefs? Sure. That these beliefs were true? Not so fast. Even if what modern Christians are typically told about the persecution and torture and execution of early Christians who refused to renounce their faith in Christ is true — and most of that comes from church tradition and ought to be taken with a grain of salt — the sincerity and perseverance of early Christians in their faith should not compel us to suspend our skepticism about their claims. If a group of people chooses to die rather than deny that the founder of their order was a god who returned from his own death, that is extraordinary. But people returning from their deaths is still impossible, and the fact that some people believed with an unshakable conviction that it was possible, is not evidence that it’s possible, or that it happened.
- McDowell goes on, spending several more pages to argue for the “creedal elements” of the New Testament as the earliest testimony to the church’s convictions about Jesus.
- Again, the fact that people held such convictions is beside the point; the real question, the true point of dispute between Christians and non-Christians, is whether or not those convictions were true. And McDowell can offer nothing to demonstrate that.
- The rest of the chapter is devoted to listing a series of Christian sources: Clement, Ignatius, Quadratus, the Epistle of Barnabas, Aristides, Justin Martyr, and Hegesippus, as well as a handful of other sources that attest to the historicity of Jesus, including Trajan, Macrobiu, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Juvenal, Seneca, and Hierocles.
- These sources are all either Christian, or lost except for references by Christians, and like the other sources discussed here, they attest only to what Christians in the early decades of the church believed. They give us no reasons to accept the claims that Jesus was the Son of God, worked miracles, or was resurrected, or that our opinions of Jesus today have any bearing on what happens to us after we die.
- McDowell closes the chapter by describing the unparalleled influence Jesus has had on history.
- “The evidence is conclusive. Jesus really lived among us and accomplished powerful works that even hostile, non-Christian sources do not fail to confirm. The skeptics about Jesus’ historicity are simply wrong.” (p. 136)
- If we accept these claims about Jesus based on the evidence, and the standards for judging that evidence, presented by McDowell in this chapter, then we must also accept similar claims about Muhammad, whose followers also accomplished incredible things in his name, and whose life and teachings were also the basis of a religion that eventually became the dominant influence on the culture and politics of its civilization. But I note that McDowell is a Christian, not a Muslim.
Chapter 6: If Jesus Wasn’t God, He Deserves an Oscar
- So now that we know that Jesus was a real person, we can consider the question of whether he was God.
- “The writers of Scripture invite us to examine this person Jesus for ourselves and to conclude for ourselves His significance.” (p. 137)
- No they don’t. The writers of the New Testament don’t present us with a set of objectively agreed upon facts and cases for and against the conclusion that Jesus was the Son of God. The writers of the New Testament tell us unambiguously that Jesus was God, and that he told them to go and convince other people of this. They don’t invite us to examine anything — or give us anything other than their unsubstantiated claims to examine — and they make it clear throughout what our conclusion about Jesus should be.
- The thing that distinguishes Jesus from other religious leaders of the past, including Moses, Buddha, and Muhammad, says McDowell, is that Jesus claimed himself to be God.
- “One may well say, ‘Of course Jesus is presented this way in the Bible because it was written by His associates who desired to make an everlasting memorial to Him.’ However, to disregard the entire Bible is not to disregard all the evidence, as we have seen from historical records that make mention of Jesus, His works, and His teachings.” (p. 138)
- There’s nothing in the Bible that compels us to accept its supernatural claims as true, so technically to disregard the Bible is not to disregard any of the evidence, because the Bible isn’t evidence.
- And, as we just got done discussing in the previous chapter, the non-Biblical sources only establish that there was such a person as Jesus, and that some people believed some pretty incredible things about him. It does nothing to compel us to believe those incredible things, as well.
- McDowell examines the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, which we find described in all four of the gospels. The charge against Jesus was blasphemy, which was verified in the eyes of the Jewish priests by Jesus himself when he answered that he was the Son of God.
- “It is perfectly clear then that this is the testimony that Jesus wanted to bear of Himself. We also see that the Jews must have understood His reply as a claim to His being God. There were two alternatives to be faced, then; that His assertions were pure blasphemy or that He was God. His judges had to see the issue clearly — so clearly, in fact, that they crucified Him and then taunted Him, saying ‘He trusted in God . . . for He said, “I am the Son of God”’ (Matt. 27:43). . . . Thus, we see that Jesus was crucified for being who He really was, for being the Son of God.” (p. 140)
- No; he was crucified for blasphemy, for claiming to be the Son of God when, in the judgment of the Sanhedrin, he wasn’t. McDowell makes this clear himself a few paragraphs later, so why would he phrase it here to make it sound like the Sanhedrin thought Jesus really was the Son of God but crucified him anyway?
- If McDowell’s line of argument seems a little confusing here, it’s because, as in the previous chapter, he’s arguing that a given claim was actually made, not presenting any evidence that the claim is true. And, having made the case for Jesus’s claim that he was the Son of God, McDowell moves on to proving that Jesus made other claims for himself:
- Citing the New Testament (because that’s the only document that claims to record the words of Jesus), and mostly the Gospel of John, McDowell shows that, in addition to claiming himself to be the Son of God, Jesus also claimed to be equal with God, to actually be God (“I AM”), to be due the same honor that is due God (makes sense), that to know, see, and believe in him was to know, see, and believe in God, and several other claims that are all essentially re-statements of the same claim: Jesus is God.
- And not only did Jesus make these claims for himself — people believed him! Including, shockingly, people who wrote (or are traditionally credited with writing) documents we now find in the New Testament — people such as John, Paul and Peter, as well as other people mentioned in the Bible who aren’t credited with writing things, like John the Baptist and Doubting Thomas.
Conclusion: Jesus Is God
- A misleading subtitle, especially since the paragraphs that follow make it clear that the actual conclusion is that Jesus claims to be God in the gospels. That is a very, very different conclusion than “Jesus is God” (and a much easier one to swallow).
His Indirect Claims to Deity
- In addition to claiming to be God to anyone who would listen and encouraging people to worship him as God, we also find Jesus acting like God, doing things like forgiving sins, describing himself as “the way, the truth, and the life,” and generally talking and acting like he possessed ultimate authority over other people and the world.
- How this makes Jesus out to be anything other than a megalomaniacal asshole is lost on me.
Titles of Deity
- Jesus also claims several of God’s titles for himself, including Lord, YHWH (the aforementioned “I AM”), Son of God, Son of Man (a messianic title derived from the Book of Daniel), and refers to God using the word Abba, which is an Aramaic word meaning “Father”.
- And that’s it for the chapter. Just a review of New Testament claims related to Jesus.
- Again, I scratch my head at the space devoted to establishing that, yes, Jesus does claim himself to be God in the New Testament. Most Christians already accept this, one would think. There are non-Christians who would argue that Jesus didn’t really make these claims about himself, or at least that we will never know whether Jesus made these claims, because the only source we have are the Gospels, which are difficult to take at face value. But even most of these folks would probably agree with me that whether Jesus made such claims of himself or not is irrelevant to determining the truth of those claims. A claim of divinity, no matter how boldly and consistently it is made, is not evidence of divinity. I concede that Jesus thought he was God. Now show me why I should think so, too.
Next: Continue Part Two: The Case for Jesus
Chapter 7: Significance of Deity: The Trilemma — Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?
Chapter 8: Support of Deity: Old Testament Prophecies Fulfilled in Jesus Christ