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Book Review - More Than a Carpenter

Not too long ago, a friend of mine was in a place of business that had a waiting room (for anonymity, I'm leaving out details of the exact type of business). Among the reading material, he noticed a book titled More Than a Carpenter

If you don't want to read the whole review, I'll summarize. The book was bad. Practically every chapter relied on the Gospels being more or less reliable accounts, and then went off defending Jesus's divinity from there. As I've said plenty of times, if non-believers accepted that the Bible was true, we'd already be Christians. But we don't, so citing scripture as proof is nearly pointless. It would be like trying to prove Mormonism by quoting the Book of Mormon, or Buddhism by quoting the Buddhavacana. McDowell only spent one chapter (Chapter 6) trying to make a case for the Gospels being reliable, and didn't really succeed. And without that base, the rest of his book just falls flat.

Chapter 1. My Story

The first chapter was a short description of his background. I can't fault him on that, since many people do that in books like these (I even have a brief background in the book that I wrote). But his description revealed a shallow, unexamined life. He says that he went to church when he was in high school, but didn't find the answers or sense of meaning that he was looking for, so he quit going. In college, he continued looking for those answers, and would pester his professors after classes and in their offices. He even said that professors would close their doors and shut the blinds to hide from him. I hope that was just exaggeration, because I know how open my professors were when I was a student. It would have taken a particularly obtuse or arrogant student to get them to actually hide. He also mentioned the obligatory hedonistic partying. Anyway, he finally found a Bible study group that showed him the light. But even his description of the group seems strange. He mentioned that one of the girls was attractive, which surprised him, because prior to that he didn't think Christian girls were pretty**. Really? He already said he went to church in high school. Was there not a single attractive girl there? Even if his church was particularly homey, 85% of the people in this country are Christian. Did he really think that the only pretty girls were in that remaining 15%?

His background seemed a bit like a cliched 'I used to be an atheist, but then...' story, with a few outlandish statements making you question his sincerity. He certainly didn't offer anything but shallow reasons for why he was an atheist in the first place.

Chapter 2. What Makes Jesus So Different?

The second chapter was titled 'What Makes Jesus So Different?'. It was his attempt to show that Christ was unique. McDowell argued that only Christ claimed to be God, while Mohammed, the Buddha, and Confuscious never made any such claims. He then backed this up with more than 15 pages citing passages from the Bible showing that Jesus did claim to be God and the son of God.

First of all, every religion has some unique aspect differentiating it from other religions. If it didn't, it wouldn't be a separate religion. So, it seems a bit silly to point out a unique aspect of Christianity as if that's proof that Christianity is true.

Second, as I already pointed out, he was relying on scripture to back up his arguments, before even trying to establish the Bible as reliable.

The biggest problem for this chapter is that McDowell ignored many, many other religions and examples. Children of gods and mortals (demigods) are quite common - Perseus, Heacles, Theseus, Hanuman, and Garuda, to name just a few. Children of gods who are themselves gods are also common. In fact, pretty much every god or goddess in a religion with a pantheon was born of another god and goddess. The Olympian gods and goddesses were all descended from Cronus and Rhea. Osiris was the son of Geb and Nut (for more discussion of Osiris, see one of my previous entries - Osiris was the Egyptian god of the afterlife, having been killed and then resurrected.) And there's no shortage of people who claimed to be gods (or even people who claimed to be Jesus). Just consider the many such kings or emperors, like those of Egypt, Rome, China, or Japan, or cults of personality like those around Jim Jones or Father Divine.

It's also worth mentioning the hints of anti-Semitism in this chapter. Numerous times, McDowell mentioned how 'the Jews' killed Jesus. He could have easily written the Pharisees, or the Jewish leaders, but many places it was simply 'the Jews'.

Chapter 3. Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?

I've already discussed the problem with Lewis's Trilemma in another blog entry, Liar, Lunatic, or Lord... Or Something Else. The biggest problem is that people ignore whether or not Jesus was a myth. There may or may not have been an actual historical figure that Jesus of the Bible is based on, but just like Robin Hood or King Arthur, it's entirely possible that much of the story we have now is embellishment.

One quote that caught my eye from this chapter was the following.

Wherever Jesus has been proclaimed, we see lives change for the good, nations change for the better, thieves become honest, alcoholics become sober, hateful individuals become channels of love, unjust persons embrace justice.

In the Wikipedia era, I feel like saying, "Citation needed." I think it might be insightful for McDowell to read the study, Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies by Gregory S. Paul. To quote part of that study:

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies... The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a 'shining city on the hill' to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health.

Chapter 4. What about Science?

This was a very short chapter (4 pages), that did little more than reveal that McDowell has a very muddled understanding of science. He seems to think that science requires experiments in a lab, which would exclude astronomy, or any study of the past, from the realm of science. I've seen this type of argument before, and covered it in my essay, Confidence in Historical Knowledge

Chapter 5. The Challenge of the New Atheism

This chapter was written by the son, Sean. It starts off bad, criticizing the 'New Atheists' for not really offering any new arguments, when in reality, so called New Atheists never claimed to have any new ground breaking arguments. They thought of themselves as merely carrying on in the tradition of previous atheists like Bertrand Russell or Mark Twain. The term 'New Atheism' was coined in an article in Wired magazine, not invented by the New Atheists themselves.

As a small point, he also hit one of my pet peeves, describing the New Atheists as 'militant'. Now, I realize that modern atheists may not be as deferential as those from the past, now that religion is losing some of its influence over society. But when Christians actually attack abortion clinics and plot to kill police officers, while Muslims fly planes into buildings and riot over the burning of a book, it seems a bit hyperbolic to call atheists 'militant' who merely write books and speak bluntly.

In this chapter, Sean showed that he didn't accept evolution. I guess that's not much of a surprise, but it always hurts someone's credibility when they refuse to accept something with so much evidence backing it up. He did ask a question I've seen before - if our brains are the result of mindless evolution, how can we trust them? The answer is two fold. First, natural selection will favor organisms that have brains that form relatively accurate models of reality. But second, we know we can't entirely trust our brains. They're prone to cognitive biases, illusions, faulty reasoning, etc. Recognizing and working around the faults of our brains is one of the unsung victories of science (you can also read more here, though the focus of that article is medicine).

The chapter trotted out plenty of stale arguments that us atheists are used to hearing by now. There were some arguments from consequences, such as saying that atheism leads to worse morality (again, see the study by Gregory S. Paul), or that a universe without God lacks meaning. I always wonder what ultimate purpose would be added to our lives if a god existed, but even if that could be addressed, how the answer to that question makes us feel has no bearing on the reality of a god.

A few of the other 'standard' arguments from this chapter were that New Atheists focus on Christians over Muslims, Buddhists, or other religions (I wonder if that's because most New Atheists live in countries where Christianity is the majority religion), listing prominent Christian scientists from a few hundred years ago, fine tuning of the universe (Douglas Adams' anthropic puddle argument is a humorous refutation of this - we also don't know if a different type of universe might have resulted in a different kind of intelligence), and bringing up communist China, communist Russia, and Nazi Germany (never mind that Hitler was a Catholic, and most Germans were Christians). He even used Antony Flew as an example of a prominent atheist who converted to religion (at most, Flew became a deist, and there's some controversy over how much he was influenced and misled as he entered his twilight years and his reasoning wasn't as sharp as it once was).

Chapter 6. Are the Bible Records Reliable?

This was the chapter I was most looking forward to. After more than a third of the book leading up to it, I wanted to see what arguments McDowell had for the Bible being reliable. Because, as I said before, so many of his other arguments rely on it, that this book just falls flat without some justification for accepting the Gospels as more or less true. Unfortunately, this chapter was long on generalizations and arguments from authority, but short on actual evidence.

The truth of the matter is that there are no contemporary accounts of Christ, save a few short passages I'll address in a bit. The most we have now are the Gospels and other books of the New Testament, but none of those were written in Christ's time. The oldest Gospel, Mark, was probably written between 65 and 72 AD, with the other three canonical Gospels being written a few years later, with Mathew and Luke borrowing heavily from Mark's account (McDowell quoted one scholar as placing the Gospels between 50 and 75 AD - a little early, but still not contemporary to Christ). Some of the other books of the New Testament were written earlier (such as Paul's letters), but these weren't written by eyewitnesses and are lacking in actual biographical details.

McDowell mentioned textual variants, and rightly pointed out that most are of little consequence to the meaning of passages. However, the sheer number of variants shows that the surviving manuscripts are works of people, prone to making mistakes. McDowell also failed to discuss at all some of the more significant variants, such as not casting the first stone, or the final 11 verses of Mark.

He also mentioned that "In the Jewish culture it was important that a teacher's actual words were carefully preserved and passed down", but completely ignored why such a culture would produce at least two sets of last words for Jesus (possibly three, depending on your interpretation).

McDowell did mention that we have limited manuscripts of other ancient writings, which is true. However, I'm not sure I follow his argument. For example, he wrote:

Caesar composed his history of the Gallic Wars between 58 and 50 BC, and its manuscript authority rests on nine or ten copies dating one thousand years after his death.

Is his point that we have to question The Conquest of Gaul because of the late date of the manuscripts? If so, I'd agree. There are doubtless mistakes that have been made during the copying process. Is his point that we should question whether or not Caesar actually conquered Gaul? In that case, I would disagree. There are other contemporary accounts besides Caesar's. There is archaeological evidence.

Later, McDowell wrote:

If one discards the Bible as unreliable historically, then he or she must discard all literature of antiquity.

'Discard' is a strong word, but 'questioning' is reasonable. Going back to Caesar's The Conquest of Gaul, we have to keep in mind that this wasn't just an unbiased historical document. It was a bit of political propaganda to make Caesar look good back in Rome. Modern readers would do well to remember that and question Caesar's reliability when reading the book.

When it came time to listing source of external evidence, he cited Eusebius quoting Papias of Hierapolos. Unfortunately, Eusebius wasn't writing until the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, and even Papias wasn't writing until the early 2nd century. He also used Iranaeus as an example, but Iranaeus wasn't writing until the late 2nd century. So, none of his examples were contemporaries of Jesus.

When he discussed archaeology, he didn't give any examples of evidence unique to Christianity, only a little general geography. Going back to my Robin Hood example, the existence of Sherwood Forest doesn't lend credence to the myth that the Merry Men lived there.

McDowell also operated under the assumption that early Christianity was more or less uniform. He discussed the books of the New Testament as if they were part of a larger narrative. He just never considered that the different authors might themselves have had different beliefs, nor that there could have been other competing beliefs in early Christianity. Keep in mind the old saying, that history is written by the victors. Early Christians were split into multiple sects. There were Ebionites, Jewish Christians who rejected Paul of Tarsus as an apostate, adoptionists, who thought Jesus was born due to a normal conception and didn't become the son of God until he was adopted at his baptism (Bart Ehrman has argued that Mark was originally an adoptionist work), Gnostics, who were heavily influenced by pagan mystery religions, and others. What we consider mainline Christianity today is the beliefs of the sect that won out.

Throughout the chapter, as well as elsewhere in the book, McDowell tried to indicate that a myth as complex as Christ could not have formed in so short a time. I've mentioned this in other blog entries, but just consider the stories you read on Snopes. These are legends born in the modern day and age, when we have newspapers and worldwide communication that make it easy to fact check stories. But you still have people who think Obama is a foreigner who was sworn in on a Quran, or that George Bush was in on 9/11, or that the Mayan Calendar predicts the world will end on December 21st, 2012. Some of these modern day legends are quite involved, and have easily had more written about them than is contained in the New Testament. So, it's not difficult to see how a legend about Jesus could have arisen quickly, especially in a time when stories were spread by word of mouth, and in a time when people were even more open to religious/superstitious explanations.

Rather than write more on the reliability of the Gospels, I'll direct readers to some webpages that discuss this concept, especially the historicity of Jesus:

Chapter 7. Who Would Die for a Lie?

Many Christians were killed in first and second centuries. That's not really controversial. However, McDowell makes the assumption that those martyrs must have believed in the currently mainstream version of Christianity to have had enough conviction to die for those beliefs. He assumes that if they didn't believe in the resurrection, then they must have believed Christianity to be a lie, and therefore wouldn't have died for it. This was his way of dismissing all the other religious fanatics who have died for false causes (Jonestown, Heaven's Gate, or the myriad forms of suicide bombers). But, considering how many different beliefs early Christians had, it's possible that those early martyrs didn't believe in the Resurrection.

This chapter also assumes that all the accounts of the apostles are accurate. It would be a bit like using the behavior of Little John or Will Scarlett to try and defend the historicity of Robin Hood. He doesn't entertain the idea that they could all be part of the same myth.

In this Chapter, McDowell mentioned Josephus and Origen (I would have expected those in the last chapter), but without actually quoting what those historians wrote about Jesus. This is a bit surprising, since Josephus is just about the best evidence there is for there actually being a historical Jesus. The passage now known as the Testimonium Flavianum is the most explicit description of Jesus in Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews, but its authenticity is rather dubious. Many historians consider it to be a forgery inserted by later Christians (or at the very least, that the passage has been heavily altered). However, there is another passage, considered more likely to be authentic, which reads:

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others...

But aside from that, there aren't any contemporary accounts of Jesus. It's also worth considering that Josephus discussed Hercules (though in a slightly different manner).

Another argument from this chapter was that the rapid spread of Christianity, even after Christ's crucifixion, was an indication that it must have been true. By that same logic, we should consider that Scientology might have some merit.

Here again, McDowell operated under the assumption that early Christianity was monolothic, which I already discussed above. And of course, this chapter relies on trusting the gospels as reliable, which McDowell has still failed to demonstrate.


Chapter 8. What Good Is a Dead Messiah?

McDowell here at least admitted that many people die for their beliefs all the time, but then he tried to argue that the Jewish understanding of the Messiah would have made people lose hope if he had simply died, and they would have abandoned the movement. So, this chapter is simply a case of special pleading - Yes, people die for false beliefs all the time, but Christians wouldn't have done the same thing.

It's also worth mentioning here the failed prophecies of Jesus, such as Matthew 24:34 ("I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene until all these things take place.") or Luke 9:27 ("I tell you the truth, some standing here right now will not die before they see the Kingdom of God."). Obviously, those failed prophecies haven't kept people away from Christianity. In the same way that people rationalize those, I'm sure early Christians could have found ways to rationalize the death of their prophet in an era before the myth had grown to what it is today.


Chapter 9. Did You Hear What Happened to Saul?

This chapter dealt with Paul of Tarsus. He described Paul's vision on the road to Damascus, and his subsequent conversion and change in personality, and considered Paul's change as evidence that his vision was real.

In a chapter on the importance of Paul's visions, you'd think McDowell could have addressed the contradictions. Why does Acts 9:7 ("The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone's voice but saw no one!") not agree with Acts 22:9 ("The people with me saw the light but didn’t understand the voice speaking to me.")?

This following quote was something I would have parroted myself when I was still a Christian, but now, it seems baseless to me. It's merely stating that the Crucifixion forgave humans of their sins without explaining why (McDowell tried to address this in Chapter 12, so I'll come back to this).

Paul came to understand that through the Crucifixion Christ took the curse of sin on himself for us (see Galatians 3:13) and that God "made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Instead of seeing the death of Christ as defeat, he saw it as a great victory, completed by the Resurrection.

Chapter 10. Can You Keep a Good Man Down?

This chapter dealt with the empty tomb after Christ's crucifixion. McDowell assumes that nearly everything described in the Gospels is true, and argues against alternative explanations for how the tomb could have turned up empty (women and disciples checked the wrong tomb, disciples hallucinated, Jesus had merely fainted instead of died, the body was stolen by the disciples, the body was moved by authorities without the disciples knowing it). He only briefly addressed that the whole thing could have been made up. In two pages, he dismissed the idea that Jesus's resurrection could have been copied from other mythologies, such as Osiris or some mystery religions. He relied almost entirely on arguments from authority, quoting Paul Rhodes Eddy & Greg Boyd, and T.N.D. Mettinger.

He then spent the remainder of the chapter quoting lawyers (not archaeologists or historians) who believed that the Resurrection was a true event.

Chapter 11. Will the Real Messiah Please Stand Up?

This chapter dealt with the propecies fulfilled by Jesus. I have one small gripe - he listed chapter and verse for several of the prophecies, but not the text of the prophecies themselves. It would have been nice to be able to read the prophecies without looking them up in another source.

He did mention one possibility I hadn't thought of before - that since Jesus was familiar with many of the prophecies, that he would have tried to fulfill them. McDowell dismissed this because some prophecies would have been beyond Jesus's control. But, as I've said for just about every chapter, he never entertained the idea that the gospels could have been fabricated, and that maybe the reason it appears that Jesus fulfilled so many prophecies is because the Gospel writers wrote it that way.

He focused a bit on geneaology, but never even addressed the discrepancies between Jesus's genealogies given in Matthew and Luke.

McDowell also never addressed failed prophecies, or misinterpretations. For example, Isaiah 7:14 is usually presented something like:

All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).

The problem is that 'virgin' is a mistranslation of 'young woman'. Further, Jesus is never referred to as Immanuel in the New Testament except when the writers are referencing this prophecy.

As another example, Zechariah 11:12 states:

And I said to them, “If you like, give me my wages, whatever I am worth; but only if you want to.” So they counted out for my wages thirty pieces of silver.

But Matthew 27:9-10 incorrectly cites Jeremiah for this prophecy:

This fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah that says, "They took the thirty pieces of silver— the price at which he was valued by the people of Israel, and purchased the potter’s field, as the Lord directed."

And of course, there are all the other failed prophecies of the Bible, but those above are specific to prophecies about Jesus (for general examples, see Skeptics Annotated Bible, RationalWiki, or the Secular Web).

Chapter 12. Isn't There Some Other Way?

This chapter was an attempt to explain why acceptance of Christ is necessary for salvation, and why you can't just be a good person. I think the following passage is a good representation of his argument.

When Jesus was executed on the cross more than two thousand years ago, God accepted his death as a substitute for ours. The just and righteous nature of God was satisfied. Justice was done; a penalty was paid.

In truth, I think that's barbaric. Even if a sense of justice demanded a penalty, what is 'just and righteous' about killing a scape goat to forgive others? It makes no sense.

Chapter 13. He Changed My Life

This last chapter explained how horrific McDowell's life was before (drunk abusive father, sexual abuse from farmhand, an empty hedonistic lifestyle, anger, etc.), and how much he'd changed for the better after accepting Christ. For all I know, McDowell may be a better person now that he's a Christian, but there are many other possible explanations to consider (such as the social support structure of a church) before jumping to the conclusion that Christianity is true.


After thinking it over, I think there are two big problems with the book. First, as I've repeated many times, McDowell takes the Bible at more or less face value, and never seriously considers that the stories might be myths. But the other is that many of his arguments are focused so narrowly on Christianity, that he ignores the larger context of other religions. Of course Christianity has some unique aspects, but many of the arguments McDowell has made could be adapted to other religions with very little change.

The back cover of the book has the following lines (punctuation and capitalization copied faithfully).

read the story. weigh the facts.
experience his love.
and then watch what happens.

I'm still awaiting a book that actually presents this evidence, because McDowell didn't do so here. This book won't convince anybody who's given serious thought to the question of Christianity, and doesn't even present any particularly thought provoking arguments.


*To be honest, the book was so bad that I've decided to take a break on Christian apologist literature before tacklng The Case for Christ. I've read a couple light, entertaining books already - Dragon's Keep and Castle (which was great, BTW), and am in the midst of reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Maybe by the time I'm done with that, I'll be ready to start on Strobel's book. It's quite a bit longer than More Than a Carpenter, though, so I don't know if I'll put the effort into marking up the margins like my friend asked for, and I'm so burnt out on apologetics that I doubt the review for that one will be as detailed as this review.

**His exact wording was, "So I turned to one of the students, a good-looking woman (I used to think all Christians were ugly), and I said..."

Updated 2011-04-20: Made a few slight revisions to improve readability, but nothing major.

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Comments

Jeff,
Well done! Although your critique was biased in nature (You're an atheist, I presume), you present strong arguments against the unreliable book "More Than A Carpenter".
A friend who believes that I need to be saved handed me this book telling me that it helped him with his struggles. It did not have the same affect on me.
Being a researcher in the realm of social psychology, I found myself unable to complete the book (made it to chapter 6) because of the lack of empirical evidence presented by Mr. McDowell. The extenal evidence test alone made me want to chuck the book! I have to confess, when he discussed schizophrenia and the improbability that Christ suffered from this disorder, I nearly lost my lunch. Obviously, he nor the people he used to support his argument are qualified to make statements regarding this disorder. In addition, maybe he or his son should do some research on charasmatic leaders and their influence on others. Wasn't Hitler consistant with his worldview, values and beliefs?? An entire nation followed his directives. And yet, most today believe he had some sort of psychopathology.
So, if one is consistant with promoting goodness, he is sane but if one tries to take out an entire nation of people, he is not?

Jeff,
Well done! Although your critique was biased in nature (You're an atheist, I presume), you present strong arguments against the unreliable book "More Than A Carpenter".
A friend who believes that I need to be saved handed me this book telling me that it helped him with his struggles. It did not have the same affect on me.
Being a researcher in the realm of social psychology, I found myself unable to complete the book (made it to chapter 6) because of the lack of empirical evidence presented by Mr. McDowell. The extenal evidence test alone made me want to chuck the book! I have to confess, when he discussed schizophrenia and the improbability that Christ suffered from this disorder, I nearly lost my lunch. Obviously, he nor the people he used to support his argument are qualified to make statements regarding this disorder. In addition, maybe he or his son should do some research on charasmatic leaders and their influence on others. Wasn't Hitler consistant with his worldview, values and beliefs?? An entire nation followed his directives. And yet, most today believe he had some sort of psychopathology.
So, if one is consistant with promoting goodness, he is sane but if one tries to take out an entire nation of people, he is not?

I'm sorry I disagree with both of you. And i especially can't believe you wrote some of your disbeliefs. Your crazy man! especially the ccontradiction in Acts. It says the same thing. The men there wit Saul heard a voice but saw nothing and the other one stating they didn't understand the language...how that a contradiction. Its basically stating the men with them heard a voice and also didn't understand the language. You know you have a choice to believe or not. But just because you don't believe in something that doesn't make it fake. One day every knee will bow and everyone will know Jesus is Lord. You know with you confusing people and taking them away with Jesus will have more effect on Jesus I sure hope one day you will at least open your heart and not be open to see. I at least am open for anything. If someone brings stuff to me ill look into it. It's not my choice what you believe its yours. At least be acceptable for it. And some of your other gods and godesses is a faulty made up scheme. If your intelligent look into that just because someone states it true doesn't make it true. and talking about martyrs the disciples hid until they saw Jesus. Then they shared it and knew what they had to do. That is totally different than your other examples. These people were in hiding because they were afraid of death. But once they saw the truth Jesus they were not afraid of death. The Bible is very reliable... there's some books that aren't in there because of the time they were written books written about a subject hundreds of years after the point isn't accurate they would have to ask about reliability. What about other great literature writings talking about a great sorcerer. Who healed the sick, brought the dead back, the sick well, etc. If you do reliable research with an open heart you will understand. Wish you well!

jon,

Regarding discrepancies between Paul's vision, I checked the New Revised Standard Version, and 22:9 states, "Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me." The King James Version states, "And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me." The New International Version and the New Living Translation say understood instead of heard. So, without me knowing which translations are most accurate, it's tough to know how much of a discrepancy there was in regards to what they heard. But, knowing the reputations of the NIV and NRSV, I know which one I can guess is more accurate. At any rate, there's still the issue of what they saw. Acts 9 says they saw noone, while Acts 22 says they saw the light. I suppose you could argue that that's also down to fuzzy language, but my original statement still stands. When there are some translations of the Bible that show a definite contradiction, and some interpretations that are contradictory, it would have at least been interesting to read McDowell's take.

Belief is not just about choice, at least not if you're being honest with yourself. When I was a kid, I really, really wanted to believe in Santa Claus. But I had no real choice in admitting that he wasn't real. There was just too much evidence to the contrary. With regards to gods (and Christianity in particular, because that's the one I studied the most), it's the same thing. I've looked into evidence and arguments for religion, initially as a Christian expecting and hoping to find that evidence, but it just isn't there. How can I choose to believe in something like that? Could you simply choose to believe in Thor or fairies?

You mentioned that other gods and goddesses are made up. I agree completely. They're myths invented by primitive people, probably largely in part to explain what was then unknown. I just carry it one step further than you and add Yahweh in with the rest of the world's mythology.

I would argue strongly against the reliability of the Bible. Researching that was actually one of the first major steps on my path to leaving Christianity. I actually wrote an essay on it, How to Interpret the Bible (Literally, Figuratively, Allegorically, or Mythically?). And if you browse through this site, you'll find plenty of other examples of me questioning the reliability of the Bible (like this essay,
Problems with a Day-Age Interpretation of Genesis
). I've even started on a project to read the entire Bible again (the first time I was still a Christian), and to write about my impressions. You can browse through those entries in the series, Friday Bible Blogging. I've only gotten partway through Leviticus so far, but I can say that it hasn't impressed me as being the inspired word of a great and loving god. I mean, for goodness sake, it has animal sacrifice.

And yes, other well known writings discuss magic, sorcerors, dragons, monsters, etc. But we don't believe those supernatural aspects. We chalk them up to legend. Why should we do any differently for the stories about Jesus? Especially when there's so little evidence to back up those stories? I mean, for a man that was supposed to be running around raising the dead and healing the lame, you'd expect to find some contemporary accounts of him. But we don't. Even the gospels were written decades after the supposed events.

I realize nobody can force anybody else to believe something, but it's not like these beliefs come without a price. The Bible is full of rules and commandments, and they can be pretty restrictive. Look at the current resistance against marriage equality because of it. Look at the witch hunts still going on in Africa because of Christianity. Look at the people resistant to science because of their insistence on a literal interpretation of Genesis.

I'll give you one more link to a collection of essays that more fully describe my stance on religion, Religious Essays.

Jeff

I read your very well written comments and some more things on your blog about the Friday Bible commentary. Your a smart & well read guy. You have a scientific bent, similar to me. (I have a degree in Env. science.) However, we differ on our final analysis on God, the Bible, and our personal belief systems. While I respect someones difference of opinion, I think your looking at some of this through a prism that will cause you to reject the greater truths that are there. Some people think that my intentions will lead me to the truth. In reality, they will arrive at their destination based on the path they are traveling. It always trumps their intentions.

So for instance I dont think you give the Bible a fair reading because your fixated on scientific or quantitative evidence only, and your not considering much evidence based on things like human nature, philosophy, historical context, etc. The Bible contains history, facts, places, people of historical record etc, but it was not written as a proof text to defend all arguments for God. It is a story of peoples connection with and personnal journey toward God, and He toward them. If read in that vein, it becomes an entirely differnt path. You begin to see the humanness in these stories that give them real belivability. There doesnt appear to be much attempt to sanitize the characters. We get to see them warts and all. Abraham, Moses, David, Peter & the disciples, etc. Thats not the way I would have drew it up if I was fabricating such stories.

Secondly, we dont even give God the same benefit of the doubt that we do our fellow man. For instance, what do we do with a species in trouble? We send a representative to live among them and attempt to rescue them. (Think Jane Goodall). Yet some of us resent such a notion that God could attempt the same process that we have used ourselves with other species. I think your using only a few forms of evidence and and trying to apply it to the entire Bible, while ignoring some other forms of logical thinking and perspective. God is a spirit, afterall, right. So we might be missing the forest by fixating on just the trees. - Brian

The Bible contains history, facts, places, people of historical record etc...

The legend of Robin Hood contains all those same historical details. There are even historical references to 'Robinhood', 'Robehod', and 'Robbehod'. Yet I don't think anybody would consider the modern day Robin Hood legend based on anything more than kernels of truth from the past.

There doesnt appear to be much attempt to sanitize the characters. We get to see them warts and all. Abraham, Moses, David, Peter & the disciples, etc. Thats not the way I would have drew it up if I was fabricating such stories.

First of all, I doubt that people were intentionally fabricating these stories. These were myths and legends that had been passed on for generations, changing over the course of the telling. One of the most famous examples is Noah's Ark, a variation of the Mesopotamian Flood Myth. The New Oxford Annotated Bible I'm reading right now discusses ways in which the current Bible is a blending of previous traditions. It's not as if a group of men sat down and invented these stories out of thin air.

I'm also curious as to why you think character flaws disqualify these stories from being myths. Just go read The Odyssey. Odysseus isn't without his faults. Yet I doubt you think that story to be largely historical, and not mostly just a legend.

Yet some of us resent such a notion that God could attempt the same process that we have used ourselves with other species.

I've written before, if Jesus had merely come to live among people and set an example, I'd understand the story a little better. But adding in the crucifixion, as if one man's suffering and death somehow forgive other people by proxy, is not only barbaric, but doesn't make much sense, either.

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And I still think empirical evidence is important. For example, concerning all those arguments you just made for Christianity - what's to keep someone else from making similar arguments for Islam, or Buddhism, or Hinduism, or any other religion out there. If you're really after the truth, you need something more than just a warm fuzzy feeling. You need some type of real evidence to distinguish among all these different ideas.

Anyway, I'd be interested if you check back in. It's always nice to exchange thoughtful comments.

You are right in that there are many legends, myths, & stories that contain some basic historical facts. In the case of the Bible, however, its at a much more detailed scope and has a factual reliability that has stood up to generations of critical study. The story of King David is one example that some thought to be a mythical Hebrew "hero" figure because of the lack of any non-Biblical references, until one turned up a few years ago in a non-Hebrew sourced stone inscription. I think there is other empirical evidence there as well, but as I said, the book wasn't written in that vein.

To your point about the myth factor, experts say that myths and legends take 2 to 3 generations to start to build. Basically time for eyewitnesses to die off and stories to get spun beyond origin. In the case of the gospels and other new testament writings about Jesus, they were written well within this time frame to be disputed by eyewitnesses. Add to that the fact that the writers had the additional scrutiny of a Jewish leadership who was trying to stamp out what they considered to be heresy. Therefore the information contained had to be of an accurate nature in order to withstand this initial onslaught. As a result, their accusations across the early period of the Christian church centered around the blasphemous statements of Jesus and the rejection of his claims, but not the accuracy of the accounts themselves.

Also, the Hebrews who were writing down these oral stories, and later copying them on scrolls for centuries after, had a much different purpose and focus than those writing the ancient version of a good yarn, as in Robin Hood or the Odyssey. They were painstakingly recording what to them were "sacred" elements of their personal history, and their identification with Yahweh. So much so that a complete book of Isaiah found among the Dead Sea Scrolls estimated at 125 BC matched one written in 900 AD (a full 1000 years later!) at 95% accuracy. And the 5% was mostly inconsequential punctuation, stylistic elements, etc. Nothing of content. That is serious attention to detail, not captured by other writings of antiquity.

..."adding in the crucifixion, as if one man's suffering and death somehow forgive other people by proxy, is not only barbaric, but doesn't make much sense, either".

I would submit that the world WAS a barbaric place at that time. Life was cheap. The Roman empire was one of many groups that was into mass, public, & very brutal executions, as a way to keep the zealous stubborn outposts like Palestine, in line. Secondly, the Jews identified with transferring their sins to a living animal (often from their own flock) which shed its life as a symbol of atonement and sacrifice for their sins. So I believe it would have made perfect sense to them. As in the pronouncement by John the Baptist about Jesus, (Jn 1:29) "Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world". The scene at the cross would therefore have pretty intense imagery for a first century Jewish person who was considering the possibility of Jesus being the Messiah.

ahhh geez,

had this one handed to me by my grandparents, "we've heard your thoughts about christ before, but give this book a try."
"ok, I'll read it and then we'll talk about it."

Why did I agree to that. I am having serious trouble finishing this apologetic and it's silly tone - no attractive christian girls, why did he include that?

I should have told them how I felt right there and saved us the time, "g-ma, g-pa I don't want to hash out the verses of the bible and whether it's accurate because a bunch of manuscripts exist, there's some good in there and some wrong and some beautiful too. I am well-adjusted and happy without the answers to all of this, let's focus on enjoying it together."

thanks for slogging through to analyze the arguments, I think I'm done.

Brian,

Sorry it's taken me a little while to respond. The blog software never sent me an e-mail letting me know there was a new comment, so I only just noticed it.

First, I think it's important to consider the Bible for what it is - a collection of writings from various authors and various times. Even individual books are often times a melding of previous traditions (see Wikipedia - Genesis), so trying to paint the Bible with too broad of a brush is problematic. So, while some books probably have real historical roots (the Historical Books being a great example of this), others don't have such a strong basis in reality. I'm not sure of your exact interpretation of the Bible, but I think it's rather obvious that much of what's described in Genesis never literally happened. Heck, the first two chapters are mutually contradictory creation stories, and neither one matches with reality. The Tower of Babel doesn't explain where different languages came from, and there was never a world-wide flood. I know some people interpret those allegorically or metaphorically, but in reading them myself, I don't see any obvious indicators that they're not meant to be taken literally, while the Passover story, for example, was meant to be something true. I guess I'm rambling a bit, but my point is, that with all the different sources, some Bible stories probably are based more on reality than others.

As far as King David, I know of only two non-Biblical ancient references - the Tel Dan Stele and the Mesha Stele. Neither is actually about King David, but later Jewish kings of the "House of David". In other words, these don't support the stories of David himself, only that by the time those inscriptions were made, it was a common belief that David was an important historical figure for Israel. I could point to a similar different tradition, Romulus and Remus. While they may be based on real people, I doubt many people alive today believe the entire myth surrounding them. Or to use another example, what about King Arthur? The Artognou stone and the (possibly forged) Glastonbury Cross are ancient inscriptions indicating there may have been a king named Arthur. The Modena Cathedral has a doorway decorated with an Arthurian scene. But I don't think anybody would take those three pieces of evidence as proof that the entire Arthurian legend is true.

I'd like to see a reference as to who thinks legends take so long to form as you've indicated. I can think of an easy one-word answer in reply: Snopes. We see all types of modern day legends formed in short order, from the birthers who think Obama is a foreign Muslim, to 9-11 truthers who think that the terrorist attacks were really an inside job and that George Bush was in on it. The writings of these people are pretty extensive. It doesn't take long for an involved legend to form. Going back to religion, I can offer several more examples - Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, David Koresh, Ram Bahadur Bomjon, Heaven's Gate, etc. The first two of those started new religions in their own lifetimes. Another good example is documented in the book, When Prophecy Fails, describing the reaction of a group of true believers in UFOs to a failed prophecy of the world's destruction.

I'd also add that the early Christian church wasn't very homogenous. As I wrote in the original post, "There were Ebionites, Jewish Christians who rejected Paul of Tarsus as an apostate, adoptionists, who thought Jesus was born due to a normal conception and didn't become the son of God until he was adopted at his baptism..., Gnostics, who were heavily influenced by pagan mystery religions, and others."

And as one last point to your second paragraph, for an understanding of the mythical Jesus hypothesis, I'd recommend this article as a good starting point, Did Jesus Exist? by Richard Carrier.

As far as the attention to detail in the Bible, my response is two fold. First, it's pretty obvious, like I said above, that many of the books are meldings of multiple sources. They are themselves the result of changing traditions. Even the New Testament, with as comparatively young as it is, is not immune to this. One of my favorite stories, Jesus telling the Pharisees to cast the first stone, is a later addition to that book. The other point is that some ancient peoples were concerned with the integrity of other ancient writings. According to Wikipedia, "The Athenian tyrant Peisistratos, who ruled between 546 and 527 BC, is believed to have established a Commission of Editors of Homer to edit the text of the poems and remove any errors and interpolations, thus establishing a canonical text." So, the books of the Bible haven't been completely stable, and to the extent that they have been, it's not out of line with other ancient writings.

I agree that much of Roman culture was brutal, and that Hebrews had been practicing animal sacrifice for atonement (not merely symbolically). I'm nearly through with the Pentateuch, and animal sacrifice is very prominent (and detailed). But that doesn't answer why an omnipotent god would use that method. I mean, if the Pentateuch were to be believed, God came in and utterly transformed Israelite society, giving them all types of new rules and rituals in the Law. If God was providing all those new rules and rituals, he could have made them whatever he wanted. The fact that they still included barbaric animal sacrifices and cruel punishments indicates that either God really wanted that, or that the mythology was created by that culture. As the old play on words goes, perhaps it was God who was created in man's image. So going back to Jesus, just because cultures at the time were cruel, it doesn't make sense for an omnipotent deity to require sacrifice of his son/himself to somehow forgive other people's sins.

Oh, Brian, I'll add one more thing. If you come back here again and leave another comment, I definitely encourage links to reference your arguments. The spam filter has a limit to the number of links allowed per comment, but if you just e-mail right after you leave it (jeff_at_jefflewis.net), I can approve the comment so that it gets published.

Jeff

Snopes...exactly! I think your snopes comment is not a detraction but a support of the idea that legends take time to develop. Many of the examples you gave were/are considered false, fake, heretical, etc. and have been shown to be so during their infancy. My point was that people were scrutinizing this new sect of "Jesus followers" real-time, and the stories had to be truthful to withstand the onslaught and persecution that was being given them from day one (the gospels were written during the lifetimes of the eyewitness accounts that could refute mush of the inaccuracies). Blasphemy was the ultimate crime leveled on Jesus, not preaching without a license, or tax evasion, or inventing some new book of the Pentateuch.

I'm not the fastest typist. Wish we could set down and talk sometime about some of this. I said in an earlier post...if God is real, he is a spirit, right? I believe there is much evidence pointing in that direction. But not everyone will be open to it.

We are not asked to disconnect our brains when seeking answers to the big questions like "Is there really a God?", "Was Jesus really the Messiah?", "What happens after death?", etc. But the Bible also bears out that God reveals himself to those who are seeking. In other words, He does not cast out honest seekers. But I think they have to be actually "seeking" to find Him. Your a smart individual, but it wont all be just a mental exercise to make a connection with a spiritual being.

I would like to challenge you Jeff, as you are reading through the Bible, to regularly "ask" (and honestly, humbly seek) that this "God" of the scriptures, if he is real....to begin to reveal Himself to you. I hope I'm wrong, but I sense that you have built up a pretty hard shell that might prevent that from happening.

I think I'm going to end my communications here for now, as I think we are not going to solve much between us in this format. I meet with a small group of guy's once a week. If you don't mind, I would like to ask all these guys to pray for you about your personal openness to honestly seek and see the reality of a spiritual being called God.

Blessings on you Jeff

Brian

I respect your opinion about this book and about the facts about the question if the new testament is a myth.

But actually you are arguing from a certain point of view. You actually already made up your mind. Your arguments are actually not very objective.

There are three kinds of states of opinions you can have when reading the new testament and informing about the sources: I don't want to believe this, I don't know if I can believe this and I believe this. So actually atheist, agnostic or theist.

With your argument you will only strengthen the atheist. Me as theist I actually like the story about Jesus. Texts like Josephus Flavius and Tacitus and 1800 years of nobody questioning the credibility of this text are for me strong arguments that the whole story took place. Also for me the gospels are not that inconsistent as you like to tell. So actually for me you did not bring up powerful arguments so a believer would actually change his mind.

For me actually the new testament is a book written by normal humans (who had an encounter with the transcendent - namely in the person of Jesus). I don't believe in inspiration and impeccability of the text. Even Luther and Zinzendorf did not believe this. Also I think that the concept of trinity is wrong btw.

The book is actually written for someone who doesn't know about the facts. Here in Germany a lot people never read the bible because someone told them that it is all a fairy tale not worthy to read. So my goal is that people actually know the facts about the bible and make up their mind for themselves.

tilmanj,

Sorry for taking a little while to respond, but I've been busy. I'm not going to respond point by point to each of your statements, but here are a few general comments.

You state that nobody's questioned the credibility of the text for 1800 years, but you yourself said that you "don't believe in inspiration and impeccability of the text". That is, to a certain degree, questioning its credibility. After all, it's in direct conflict with 2 Timonth 3:16, "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness..."

But let's just say that the Bible has enjoyed nearly 2 millenia of unquestioned acceptance. How would that make it more or less true? Siddhārtha Gautama was supposedly born in 500 BC, giving Buddhism a 500 year head start over Christianity in years of unquestioned acceptance. Does that mean I should be a Buddhist? What about Zoroastrianism? Zoroaster was around by at least 1000 BC. Or what about Hinduism? It predates even Zoroastrianism. These religions make contradictory claims. Hinduism with its pantheon and Judaism/Christianity with their monotheism cannot both be true. So, merely citing tradition is not a good argument for veracity.

I take a bit of exception at being accused of already having made up my mind and not being objective. As I've written before, I used to be a Christian. I went to church every Sunday. I thought I could feel God's presence when I prayed. I believed what I read in the Bible (and I read the whole thing). But when I was in my 20s, I took a hard critical look at my beliefs, and eventually determined that I'd been wrong. Examining the evidence and re-evaluating beliefs based on that evidence is the very opposite of being close-minded.

Finally, regarding Biblical literacy, I kind of agree with you in that I wish more people were familiar with what was in the Bible. However, it's probably for different reasons. I wish people were more familiar with the Bible for the same reason I wish they were more familiar with Shakespeare, Greek & Roman Mythology, Buddhism, etc. It's just part of a well rounded education to be familiar with a book that has had so much influence on society. Plus, from my own atheistic perspective, I think people would be much less accepting of Christianity if they actually read the whole book that's supposed to be its basis. As Penn Jillette said in a relatively recent interview, "the Bible itself, will turn you atheist faster than anything." I'm actually in the middle of reading the entire Bible again myself. You can follow along in the series, Friday Bible Blogging if you're interested.

Hi Jeff,
I am a little late to the party. I stumbled upon this post after a friend lent me his copy of More Than a Carpenter. You are a braver man than I. I made it through chapter 5. Like Matt, I am a scientist. I am also an atheist, and was a little alienated by chapters 4 and 5. The New Atheist chapter broke an irony meter with an epic lack of self-awareness. I was definitely not the intended audience.

My friend engaged me in an apologetics debate that I was not prepared for. I told him I was interested, but he would need to suggest readings for me. I asked for the best that he had, and this is what he gave me.

It is the worst nonfiction book I have ever read. I sent him my notes, which may have been a mistake. I haven't heard back from him yet, and I may have hurt his feelings. I was not as gentle in my review as you.

I tried to be fair to the author, but my notes quickly turned into a lecture on the informal fallacies and cognitive biases. This book is filled with great examples. A whole chapter on the Lord, Liar, Lunatic trilemma! As an actual attempt at argument, without even acknowledging any of the well-known flaws. "Holy excluded middle, Batman!" (See what I did there.) The lack of research and scholarship in this book is breathtaking. I was waiting for Pascal's Wager, but maybe I did not get far enough.

Kudos to tilmanj for "I don't want to believe this, I don't know if I can believe this and I believe this." How about I can't believe it because on a factual basis it makes no sense, and there is no evidence to support any of the supernatural claims? I am certainly not persuaded by any of Mcdowell's arguments.

I am puzzled by the need that religious people seem to have to defend every book or statement written about how true christianity is, no matter how bad. Like criticism of a bad book is a personal attack on their beliefs. Strawman warning: "You don't believe Mcdowell's arguments because you have not let Jesus into your heart of hearts!!!!"

The cover says this book sold over 15 million copies. This is fleecing the flock. I am definitely in the wrong field. Damn this intellectual integrity!

Thanks for the post so I don't have to finish this book,
Jonathan

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