The ignorance and dishonesty of Christian apologetics, part 2: New Testament scholarship and Josh McDowell

In my post on the ignorance of Christian apologists regarding evolution, I promised a follow-up post on their handling of New Testament scholarship. But I wrote the post, I realized I’d have to break it up; this entry will focus first on some general remarks about Biblical scholarship, then on Josh McDowell.

I need to start by talking about one huge difference between Biblical scholarship and evolutionary biology, indeed between Biblical scholarship and most of academia. The difference is that Biblical scholarship is largely a religious endeavor. To quote Jacques Berlinerblau:

“Show of hands: Who here’s an atheist?” If a keynote speaker were to pose that unlikely query to an audience of 1,000 scholars gathered at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature my guess is only about a couple of dozen or so would publicly confess to infidelity.

Nonbelievers are few and far between in biblical scholarship. Not counting the theologians employed by seminaries who have yet to come out of the closet, the cohort is so small that we literally all know one another by name.

From another article by Berlinerblau:

Assume for a moment that you are an atheist exegete. Now please follow my instructions. Peruse the listings in Openings. Understand that your unique skills and talents are of no interest to those institutions listed there with the words “Saint” and “Holy” and “Theological” and “Seminary” in their names. This leaves, per year, about two or three advertised posts in biblical studies at religiously un-chartered institutions of higher learning. Apply for those jobs. Get rejected. A few months later learn—preferably while consuming donuts with a colleague—that the position was filled by a graduate of a theological seminary. Realize that those on the search committee who made this choice all graduated from seminaries themselves. Curse the gods.

Not only are non-believing Biblical scholars rare, the few that are out there are mostly former believers with degrees in theology. That description fits Bart Ehrman, Gerd Lüdemann, and Robert M. Price. Hector Avalos deconverted before starting his Ph.D. program, though his interest in Biblical scholarship clearly stems from his days as a child evangelist. Berlinerblau himself is the ultra-rare exception to the rule, never having been a believer.

For this reason, while I know of no reliable statistics on the views of Biblical scholars, I would not be surprised to find that the proportion willing to defend evangelical views of the Bible is quite large (at least in the United States). This is not a point in favor of evangelicalism. To quote Price:

[William Lane Craig] may well be correct that New Testament scholarship is more conservative than it once was. This has more than he admits to do with which denominations can afford to train the most students, hire more faculty, and send more members to the Society of Biblical Literature. But basically, it should surprise no one that the great mainstream of biblical scholars hold views friendly to traditional Christianity, for the simple reason that most biblical scholars are and always have been believing Christians, even if not fundamentalists. It is only the pious arrogance of Craig’s evangelicalism (which denies the name “Christian” to anyone without a personal tete-a-tete with Jesus) that allows him to implicitly depict New Testament scholars as a bunch of newly-chastened skeptics with their tails between their legs. Even Bultmann, a devout Lutheran, was much less skeptical than Baur and Strauss.

In spite of this, and while I have no idea of the exact percentage, there is certainly a plentiful supply of Biblical scholars who recognize the problems with the historical reliability of the New Testament. Some scholars, many of whom I’ve already listed, are non-believers. Others, like John Dominic Crossan and Patheos’ own James McGrath, are Christians of a quite liberal theological bent.

And a fair number are Christians who, while still fairly orthodox in their theology, having no problems with miracles and such, still realize that the claims about the historical reliability of the New Testament made in evangelical circles are problematic.

The Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown (who died in 1998), for example, railed against scholars who were skeptical of the Virgin Birth just because it was a miracle, but also admitted he had doubts about that on strictly historical grounds. Brown, in fact, realized that most of the gospels were not written by the men Christian tradition claimed, though he remained agnostic about Luke.

With that preamble out of the way, I’m going to start my look at Christian apologists and the New Testament with Josh McDowell. I rarely write about McDowell, and it feels weird doing it now. My reason for not writing about him is not due to unfamiliarity. Rather, I’ve studied his work carefully and concluded it was mostly not worth bothering with–when I first purchased the 1999 edition of Evidence that Demands a Verdict, I very nearly returned it to the bookstore because of how bad the arguments were.

And “bad arguments” doesn’t even begin to describe it. The “book” is largely just a series of quotation that sound supportive of Christianity, but which are strung together without any real regard for logic. The section on the resurrection is about twice as long as the section on the historical reliability of the Bible; but assumes not just that the Bible is a fairly reliable source, but that is very nearly 100% reliable.

With that strategy, the discussion of the resurrection could have been a single page, but the discussion of the reliability of the Bible could have benefited from being a good deal more thorough. This is especially true since McDowell relies heavily on the argument that the Bible must be reliable because (allegedly) some details have been confirmed.

While a little digging reveals that McDowell’s alleged confirmations of the Bible often based on outdated, dubious, or selectively quoted scholarship, you don’t have to know that to know that even many works of deliberate fiction incorporate accurate historical details (something critics of Christian apologetics have noted repeatedly).

(I should note that some of McDowell’s later works are even more of a disaster in this regard. In The Resurrection Factor, McDowell skips the discussion of the Bible’s historical reliability entirely, and just asserts that the reliability of the Bible is obvious. Right.)

The reasons for the, *ahem*, unusual features of Evidence that Demands a Verdict are clearer if you can find a copy of the first edition used. The first edition carries the phrase “compiled by Josh McDowell” on the cover, and prominently lists the names of the large team of evangelical college students who did the research for the book inside. (The existence of this team is mentioned inside later editions, but much less prominently.)

What seems to have happened is that McDowell’s team of college students went through their college libraries looking for quotes that looked favorable to Christianity, handed the quotes over to McDowell, and McDowell organized them into a book without, apparently, putting much thought into a coherent overall argument. Indeed, the “writing” process for ETDAV does not appear to have required McDowell to have the faintest clue what he was doing, either in terms of competent writing or knowing anything about the topics he was writing about.

McDowell’s later books, by the way, differ from ETDAV in being actual books, rather than strung together quotes, though I suspect most of the credit for those goes to McDowell’s coauthors and, in at least some cases, ghostwriters (for example, Glenn Morton of Morton’s Demon fame ghost-wrote the section on evolution in Reasons Skeptics Should Consider Christianity back when he was a creationist).

In spite of all this, McDowell has been an enormously influential figure. His book have supposedly sold tens of millions of copies he’s been cited as an influence by Christian apologists like William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, and Christianity Today ranked Evidence that Demands a Verdict 13th among their top 50 influential evangelical books–the only apologists who outranked McDowell on the list were Francis Shaeffer and C. S. Lewis.

Really, Josh McDowell set the standard for Christian apologetics–he just set it very low. His influence can be felt among countless second-rate apologists who insist they’ve got conclusive evidence for Christianity while clearly not having the first clue about Biblical scholarship. I try to pay even less attention to McDowell’s imitators than to McDowell himself, but they’re hard not to run into occasionally if you pay attention to evangelicalism.

For example, McDowell’s longtime employer, Campus Crusade for Christ, has put a fair amount of effort into promoting an apologetics website called One when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin, the local Crusade chapter went around campus chalking the URL of a Badger-theme variant, and I’ve occasionally seen ads for the site popping up on my own blog. This article from the site give a good sense of the level of competence involved when it comes to Biblical scholarship–and I must emphasize, the problem is not that the author disagrees with mainstream Biblical scholarship, but that he appears to unaware of its existence.

I could multiply examples, but the basic template for McDowell inspired apologists is total confidence that their “evidence” for Christianity ought to convince skeptics, combined with difficulty comprehending the fact that skeptics are unlikely to grant the total reliability of the Bible as a premise. Some seem to literally not know a single thing about the views of more skeptical scholars; others seem to be under the impression that scholarly skepticism was something that only happened in the 19th century; while others are just clued in enough to decide they need need to get in a few good blows on the Jesus Seminar before returning to their comfortable assumption of Biblical inerrancy.

Are all apologists who deal with New Testament scholarship as bad as McDowell? No. Are they still, often, pretty bad? Yes, in fact–and I’ll talk about how in my next post.

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