An Atheist Reads Evidence That Demands a Verdict
Part Three: The Case For and Against Christianity
Chapter 27: Introduction to New Testament Form Criticism
- Form criticism was originally developed as a tool to analyze the Old Testament, and it has been used for that purpose, as a supplementary tool to the documentary hypothesis. Modern biblical critics use form criticism mostly to examine the New Testament, particularly the Gospels, which are thought to have originated as episodes that were passed around via oral tradition, before being written down.
- Though it differs from the documentary hypothesis in important ways, the goal of form criticism is the same — to demystify (or demythologize) the scriptures and allow us to understand what they actually are and how they actually came to be. The Bible itself and much of Christianity would have us believe that these are inspired documents that were created through some transcendent process of divine inspiration. But that isn’t the truth.
- By focusing on discovering the original oral traditions that shaped the text, form criticism concerns itself with illuminating the original context in which these stories were told. Who were the people who started telling these stories, what were their lives like, what message were they trying to pass down through these traditions?
- The three major proponents of form criticism mentioned by McDowell are Martin Dibelius, Rudolf Bultmann, and Vincent Taylor. Dibelius and Bultmann were Germans, Taylor was British, and they all took this concept of going beyond the sources to understand the original forms that was developed to study the Old Testament and applied it to the Gospels. All three did most of their major work in the years between World War I and World War II.
- And that’s it for Chapter 27. It’s just a summary of the origins and aims of form criticism, without much commentary from McDowell. It’s a good introduction, from what I can tell, not being a scholar on this subject myself.
Chapter 28: Historical Skepticism
- The first half of this chapter is more summary of form criticism, specifically of the assumptions form critics hold when approaching the text. McDowell’s commentary and arguments against form criticism begin in the second half of this chapter.
- McDowell briefly summarizes the opinions of Albert Schweitzer, Martin Dibelius, Rudolf Bultmann, and Ernst Kasemann on the historical truth of the gospels. All five generally agree that little to nothing of an actual, historical Jesus is present in the Gospels. They agree that the original purpose of the Gospels was not historical, but rather to proclaim Jesus Christ.
- Bultmann claims that nothing apart from the fact of his execution can be known about Jesus with reasonable certainty, while the others are less skeptical and feel some fragments of historical truth can be derived from the gospels.
- But Bultmann speaks for the overall view of form critics when he says that the historical Jesus is not to be found in the gospels, but rather the spirit of Jesus. In other words, the stories in the Gospels may represent Jesus, may give us a sense of his teachings and his character and his message, but they don’t tell us, literally, what Jesus did and said during his life.
- Kasemann puts it another way. He says the historical element in the story of Jesus has been replaced by the message that the community which propagated the story wanted to send about Jesus.
- And I should add, even though I’m most definitely a layman when it comes to biblical criticism, this is my own view as well. The Jesus we read about in the Gospels may represent in some way a historical Jesus, by including certain details that are historically accurate, or by preserving the message of Jesus as the church saw fit to preserve it, but that for the most part, the Jesus of the Gospels is a legendary figure. He didn’t actually do or say the things he does and says in the Gospels, although those acts and sayings may be representative of aspects of the life or philosophy of a real person.
- McDowell’s most overarching objection to form criticism is that it results in a Jesus who is not supernatural, not a miracle worker, and not the savior of mankind. Or, as he quotes George Ladd saying,
- “The Son of God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth becomes a product rather than the creator of Christian faith.” (George E. Ladd, THE NEW TESTAMENT CRITICISM, p. 147)
- McDowell quotes several other authors, all of whom share his queasiness with the implications of form criticism. If the Gospels aren’t actually reliable as literal historical sources, if the Jesus of the Bible is not exactly the Jesus of history, then the embodiment of God’s revelation in the person of Jesus cannot truly be known, and Jesus is reduced from the miracle-working, resurrected Son of God to a preacher and would-be prophet about whom almost nothing can be known.
- You can see from how McDowell and his selected supporting experts bridle at the notion of a natural, non-divine, largely unknowable historical Jesus that their true aim is not to discover the truth, whatever it may be, but to defend their religious beliefs, no matter how the facts contradict them.
- McDowell argues for the historical reliability of Gospels by returning to an argument he’s used before when discussing the Old and New Testament: since the text can be shown to be accurate concerning certain details, it should be viewed overall as a reliable source of history.
- McDowell quotes F.F. Bruce, who describes Luke as a writer of demonstrable accuracy. When the accuracy of Luke can be tested, Bruce says, he shows himself to be reliable. And since accuracy is a habit of mind, we should assume that Luke’s gospel is essentially accurate (and, by implication, so are the other gospels which agree with Luke).
- There are two problems with this. The first is that a form critic doesn’t accept that Luke actually wrote the Gospel of Luke — or, in fact, any of the traditional authors wrote the gospel named for them. And if you pin him down tight enough, McDowell admits that the Gospels are anonymous, that there is no evidence connecting Luke, or Mark, or Matthew, or John, to their respective gospels. Luke’s supposed accuracy as a historian is irrelevant, because the stories in Luke originated as oral traditions shared within the church, and when they finally were written down, it was someone other than Luke who did the writing.
- The second problem is, Luke’s gospel contains the same unbelievable elements that inspire skepticism in the other three gospels, and in the Bible as a whole. Luke’s gospel records a virgin birth. Luke’s gospel records more miracles of Jesus than any other gospel: he heals the sick, he exorcises demons, he feeds multitudes with little food, he calms the storm, he returns to life following his crucifixion, and he is lifted bodily into Heaven never to be seen again.
- McDowell and Bruce claim that Luke is accurate in areas where he can be tested. Well, I contend that the miracles of Jesus comprise such an area. Do we have any archaeological evidence we can refer to? No. Do we have any extra-biblical records of the miracles we can refer to? No. But we do have our everyday, common, quantifiable, describable experiences. We have a scientific understanding of how the world works, of what does and does not happen, of what can happen and what, from all appearances, cannot happen. And the miracles of Jesus — the healings, the casting out of demons, the feeding of crowds of people with a small amount of bread and fish, the command over the weather, the resurrection, and the ascension — all belong in the category of things that do not and almost certainly cannot happen.
- There is no evidence that miracles happen — ever — not now, not at any point in history. Since Luke provides us with no evidence that the miracles it depicts actually happened, our objective, impartial conclusion must be that these miracles are just as imaginary as the miracles attributed to Buddha, Muhammad, and Joseph Smith by the scriptures and traditions of their faiths.
- And given that Luke records more miracles of Jesus than any other gospel, it seems to me that his accuracy is hardly anything to crow about. McDowell would like us to take Luke’s accuracy in other areas as assurance that the miracles he records did happen. But for me, the effect is the opposite: the unavoidable presence of miracles arouses my skepticism about the entire story.
- McDowell ends the chapter by arguing that Jesus should be evaluated impartially, and that form critics are not treating Jesus with the same level of skepticism that they would another ancient figure such as Julius Caesar. McDowell cites F.F. Bruce, who declares that the historicity of Christ should be regarded to be as axiomatic as the historicity of Caesar. He also declares that only non-historians support the Christ-myth theory.
- To take the last point first, the architects of form criticism McDowell cites — Bultmann, Dibelius, Taylor, etc. — believed in a historical Jesus. They were not proponents of a Christ-myth theory. In fact, McDowell quotes Bultmann in this chapter, specifically rejecting the notion that Jesus never existed.
- As to impartiality, I would argue that unbiased historians do treat Jesus in the same way they treat Julius Caesar, or Alexander the Great, or any other ancient figure around whom a legend has grown. Julius Caesar is universally accepted to have actually existed. We have sources for the life of Caesar that are treated as dependable. But nobody seriously believes that Caesar is descended from the goddess Aphrodite through her son, the legendary hero Aeneas. Alexander the Great is likewise accepted as a real and significant historical figure. But no one today accepts that his true father was Zeus.
- If we applied McDowell’s methods to legendary material in the stories of Caesar or Alexander, we might ask ourselves, “Why would the admirers of Caesar or Alexander include false information in their biographies? And if it were well known that Caesar and Alexander were not actually descended from gods, wouldn’t these stories have been corrected by people who knew better, or simply rejected? Why would those who wanted to remember Caesar or Alexander be interested in preserving stories about them that contained false information?” Maybe we should give the legends about Caesar and Alexander the same unshakable benefit of the doubt McDowell wants us to give to the Gospels. Why wouldn’t we?
- Despite the all-or-nothing approach McDowell and his supporting experts take toward the Gospels, it is possible to simultaneously accept the existence of an historical Jesus and acknowledge that much of what we read about Jesus in the Gospels is not historically accurate. And I think that’s exactly what we ought to do.
Chapter 29: Jesus Under Fire
- McDowell begins the chapter with this very telling quote:
- “Over the past few centuries many doctrines of the historical, orthodox Christian faith have been challenged by liberal thinkers all over the world. None has been more harmful for the church than the seemingly never-ending quest for the historical Jesus.” (Josh McDowell, THE NEW EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 559)
- Why would the quest to discover the historical Jesus be harmful to the church, unless the church was based on something other than the historical Jesus?
- McDowell summarizes three quests for the historical Jesus that have taken place in Biblical scholarship over the last two centuries.
- The first quest took place in the early-to-mid 19th century, and was best exemplified by D.F Strauss’s book, The Life of Christ, which argued that the miracle-working, supernatural Jesus of the Gospels could only be understood as a nonhistorical myth.
- The second quest took place in the 20th century after World War II. The aforementioned Ernst Kasemann instigated this quest, wherein he sought (unsuccessfully) to establish a continuity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.
- The third quest is a contemporary one, and seeks to place Jesus in the context of the first century Jewish community. This quest is exemplified by the work of the Jesus Seminar, which uses methods like those of Strauss and Bultmann to recover accurate historical details about the historical Jesus from the mythology of the New Testament.
The Jesus Seminar
- See if you can ascertain what Josh McDowell thinks of the Jesus Seminar from his opening paragraph for this section:
- “Over the past few years, one of the most radical quests for the historical Jesus has shown itself in the so-called Jesus Seminar. Any reading of the major newsmagazines, especially around the holiday seasons, will encounter the conclusions of these so-called ‘scholars.’” (p. 562)
- McDowell will spend the next several pages questioning the motives and objectivity of the Jesus Seminar. But has any member of the Jesus Seminar ever written a passage as catty and dripping with resentment toward an ideological adversary as that?
- McDowell quotes Norman Geisler describing the members of the Jesus Seminar. They are, it seems, mostly professors, with some pastors and filmmakers thrown in there, and about half of them are graduates of Harvard, Claremont, or Vanderbilt divinity schools.
- So much for their “so-called” scholarship, I guess.
- Another quote from Geisler describes how the Jesus Seminar has declared to carry out its work in public. Geisler interprets this (as does McDowell) as publicity seeking, and describes the Seminar as carrying out a “public information campaign for anti-supernatural theology” rather than discussing their views within the scholarly community.
- Excuse me, what is this? [holds up book] Is this an academic work? Is Josh McDowell a scholar who debates his views within the scholarly community? Or is he someone who writes for a broader audience and has appeared on television more times than I can remember? Granted, most of those times were on TBN, but lots of people watch that shit.
- McDowell also ridicules the Seminar for voting on the authenticity of the sayings of Jesus, using colored beads to indicate how certain each member is of the authenticity of a given saying. Geisler is quoted again, declaring that “truth is not determined by majority vote.”
- No, it isn’t. But the opinion of a group can be determined by a vote. And that is all the votes taken by the Jesus Seminar are being used to determine. It’s a way of judging the consensus of the group. How many members think Saying X of Jesus is authentic? Inauthentic? Somewhere in between? It’s not using a vote to decide the truth. It’s using a vote to determine the opinion of the members of the group.
- Finally, McDowell attacks the Jesus Seminar for rejecting the supernatural episodes in the gospels. “Anti-supernatural bias!” he calls it. And he’s not alone. Besides Geisler, who gets quoted frequently in this section, there’s also Gary Habermas (who some of you may remember as one of Lee Strobel’s experts from The Case for Christ). McDowell quotes Habermas saying:
- “Although the Jesus Seminar has received much attention from its treatment of the historical Jesus, their conclusions must be apportioned to the data. As a result, their basic rejection of the supernatural events in Jesus’ life is unwarranted.” (Gary Habermas, THE HISTORICAL JESUS, p. 139)
- When he says “data”, he’s referring to the New Testament. The data on the supernatural Habermas criticizes the Jesus Seminar for rejecting are found in 2,000 year-old stories created by people who believed in angels and demons.
- But why should this seem strange to Habermas, who — despite living today, in the modern world illuminated by the light of science, and not 2,000 years ago — also believes in angels and demons?
The Christ of Faith or the Jesus of History?
- McDowell argues that there should be no separation between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. Afterall, if the Jesus of faith is not the Jesus of history, then his words and actions as recorded in the New Testament have no real significance.
- Furthermore, McDowell argues that it is the critics like Bultmann and the members of the Jesus Seminar who are denying history, since they are dismissing the gospels as non-historical.
- This is more projection from McDowell, accusing critics of denying historical evidence when in fact it’s that very practice that enables him to cling to his own dogmatic beliefs about Jesus the Man With the Magic Sin-Washing Blood.
- McDowell’s position is built on two parallel columns. First, there is the assumption — based on nothing but the authority of the text itself — that the Bible is an historically reliable source. Second, there is the insistence that those who reject the Bible as an historically reliable source do so because of an unjustified anti-supernatural bias. The first is a circular argument that McDowell would immediately reject were it made in defense of any other holy book. The second is a mischaracterization of naturalism, which is not dogmatic but based on the common experience of a reality that does not seem to include miracles, and which could be refuted by a single case of a genuine, verified miracle.
- In other words, as I’ve said several times already, McDowell’s got nothing. It’s a religious dogma which McDowell attempts to obscure with an elaborate misdirection.
- McDowell closes the chapter with this:
- “Now the verdict must be delivered. Every individual must decide whom to believe: the erudite philosopher centuries removed from the Jesus who walked on earth, or those who walked with Him and died for Him.” (McDowell, p. 569)
- Mmmm . . . I’ll go with the erudite philosopher.
- Wait — which one believes in demons and talking snakes again?
Chapter 30: Conclusion to Form Criticism
- McDowell lists some of what he considers to be positive contributions of form criticism (increasing understanding and appreciation of the various styles and structures of the Gospels, showing how complete harmonization of the Gospels is neither possible nor necessary, helping to explain variations in parallel accounts). But ultimately, McDowell declares form criticism’s ultimate goal of discovering a historical Jesus apart from the Jesus of faith to be a failure.
- And while that may be true, it’s not entirely the fault of form criticism. It seems much more likely to me that the failure to recover the historical Jesus is due to the lack of interest in the early church in preserving the historical Jesus instead of the mythical one. I’ll have a bit more to say about this at the end. For now, I’ll just say that form criticism has accomplished quite a bit simply by giving us good reasons to believe that the historical Jesus, whoever he was, is distinct from the Jesus of the Gospels, and that the Jesus of the Gospels, however much he may represent the message of the historical Jesus (or at least the message of the church the historical Jesus inspired), is mostly a product of myth.
Chapter 31: Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism by C.S. Lewis
- This is a reprint of an essay by C.S. Lewis, originally published in the collection Christian Reflections. McDowell includes it here because he needed another chapter to make an even 40, and figured C.S. Lewis’s name would look impressive in the table of contents.
- The gist of Lewis’s essay is this: he disagrees with the opinion of the form critical scholars, because he prefers his interpretation of the Bible to theirs. That’s not how he puts it, of course, but that is what he says. He also expresses an opinion on miracles and prophecy that agrees with McDowell’s, arguing that it’s unfair to dismiss the miraculous as unhistorical as long as we don’t know for certain that such things are absolutely impossible.
- Lewis says the rule of regarding the miraculous as unhistorical is something the scholars bring to the text, not something they learn from the text.
- Well, obviously. If the text teaches something that contradicts the scholar’s understanding of reality, and offers nothing in the way of evidence for the truth of that teaching, is the scholar’s only option to just accept the truth of the teaching, no matter how preposterous it seems? If the text being studied is the Bible, apparently the answer is yes.
- Lewis is far superior to McDowell as a writer, less so as a thinker. When he writes about Christianity, his eloquence exceeds his reason more often than not.
- Where Lewis brings in a unique perspective on this issue is as a writer who has read reviews of his own work. He describes an example of a critic who incorrectly assumes that a dull essay in a book of Lewis’s was written without much interest in the subject. The reviewer was correct, Lewis says, that the essay wasn’t very good, but incorrect when he tried to imagine why.
- Lewis’s insight is a good one, and it’s a reminder that textual criticism is not an exact science, particular when it’s applied to an ancient text, the authors of which are no longer available to consult. And I don’t think any serious supporter of form criticism, or the documentary hypothesis, for that matter, would argue that its conclusions be treated as absolute certainties. The judgment of form critics is not perfect, and their conclusions may sometimes be far off from the truth, and it may not always be possible to recognize just how far off they are. The process is necessarily blind to a degree, because of how much separation there is between the scholars doing the studying and the origins of the text.
- The problem is, Lewis seems to think this means that we should defer to the authority of the Bible instead. But it’s the unreliable nature of that authority, which invites incredulity and skepticism, which compelled the scholars of form criticism and other fields which Josh McDowell regards as radical, to begin their studies in the first place.
- Before wrapping up, I want to return to this notion that Jesus is being treated unfairly by form critics, and also to the idea that the historical Jesus cannot be found through form criticism.
- McDowell compares Jesus to Caesar, and points out that no one questions the historicity of Caesar. I, in turn, pointed out that no one who accepts the historicity of Caesar also accepts that Caesar was a descendant of the gods.
- But there is a difference between Jesus and Caesar. Caesar was a significant historical figure in his own right. He was a general, he was a statesman, he participated in important, transformative events. And for this reason, we have a lot more sources for the life of Caesar than we have for the life of Jesus.
- Jesus is significant only because of his cult. McDowell and other apologists like to spin this as a positive: look at this, a humble carpenter who commanded no army, who was king of no nation, who went on to become the most revered figure in history. How extraordinary. But this doesn’t reflect on anything special about Jesus so much as it does on the tenacity and endurance and good fortune of the cult which followed Jesus, the cult which we now call a church, Christianity.
- Because Jesus wasn’t important to people outside of his cult during and immediately following his lifetime, we have no archaeological evidence of his life, and we have only the stories told about him within the community of the cult to look to as sources for biographical information. And if we discard these sources — as I feel we must, in large part — we’re left with an historical Jesus who is essentially unknown, and possibly unknowable.
- And Josh McDowell has a real problem with that, as we’ve seen in the chapters discussed in this video. But why should he? If we take him at his word that he’s only interested in the truth, why should he be disturbed at the prospect of an unknowable historical Jesus? If he truly means to find the truth, rather than defend his dogmatically held religious beliefs, then he should courageously embrace that truth, whatever it is, and whatever its implications for those beliefs.
- But that isn’t what McDowell is really after. It’s been clear from the start of this book that McDowell’s only interest is in defending Christianity, regardless of what history (not to mention science and reason) has to say about it. And not just Christianity, but his particular version of Christianity — because I remind you that these form critics we’ve been discussing, Bultmann, Dibelius, Taylor, Kasemann, etc., were also Christians, religious men struggling to find a way of understanding their faith in Christ that corresponded with reality. It’s a struggle by which Josh McDowell is evidently not burdened.
Next: Begin Part Four: Truth or Consequences
Chapter 32: The Nature of Truth
Chapter 33: The Knowability of Truth
Chapter 34: Answering Postmodernism