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:
- GodlessGeeks.com - Did Jesus Really Exist?
- NoBeliefs.com - Did a historical Jesus exist?
- In His Steps Ministries (This argues for the Bible being accurate, but in my opinion, not very convincingly. It is useful for showing many of the ancient documents with references to Jesus. Just be a bit skeptical of their authenticity.)
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.