Some comments on Josh McDowell's apologetics

August 2006

In a forum discussion on the evidence for Jesus' historicity, someone said that Josh McDowell had made a good case in his Evidence That Demands a Verdict. My response included the observations that "what McDowell offers for evidence of Jesus' historicity has little in common with what serious scholars consider evidence for Jesus' historicity" and "what McDowell considers a strong argument differs greatly from what serious scholars consider a strong argument." The other person asked me to defend those assertions. The following is my response, slightly edited.


I went looking for my copy of Evidence That Demands a Verdict but couldn't find it right away. Fortunately, McDowell has posted a Web page,, in which he gives a precis of his argument for the proposition that Jesus' resurrection a historical fact. It will serve to illustrate my point about McDowell's concepts of evidence and argumentation. Although he focuses there on the resurrection, he makes the same mistakes as he does when defending any other evangelical dogma, including the dogma that Jesus' historicity has been established as an unquestionable fact.

(It is of course quite possible that Jesus really lived and really was crucified by Pontius Pilate but never rose from the dead. However, it cannot logically be claimed that the resurrection certainly happened if it is not certain that the man actually existed. And, any argument for the resurrection that presupposes in his existence is simply begging the question. His historicity has to be proved independently of his resurrection.)

To begin with, allow me to refer you to a page on my Web site where I explain my own concept of evidence: My thinking there is based on years of reading argumentation in many fields, mostly scientific.

And so, on to McDowell's argument.

After more than 700 hours of studying this subject, I have come to the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is either one of the most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted on the minds of human beings or it is the most remarkable fact of history .

So, the first Christians either told the absolute truth or they were bald-faced liars. This is one of the apologetic community's favorite fallacies. And it is a fallacy: the false dilemma. Evangelicals cannot stomach the notion that early Christians could have just made a mistake. Christian error is simply not an option. Nevertheless, the first Christians were as human as today's Christians are. They were fallible. It was possible for them to believe things that were not so.

Neither on this Web site nor, to the best of my recollection, anywhere in ETDV does McDowell even attempt to explain why the first Christians could not have mistakenly believed in the resurrection. He seems to assume that if it did not really happen, then the first Christians would have been well aware that it did not happen and therefore would have to have to been lying when they said it happened.

Here are some of the facts relevant to the resurrection: Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish prophet who claimed to be the Christ prophesied in the Jewish Scriptures, was arrested, was judged a political criminal, and was crucified. Three days after His death and burial, some women who went to His tomb found the body gone. In subsequent weeks, His disciples claimed that God had raised Him from the dead and that He appeared to them various times before ascending into heaven.

McDowell frequently presumes that something is a fact if he just says it is a fact. No proposition, though, is a fact merely because it is asserted to be a fact. Nor does it matter how many people think the alleged fact is beyond dispute. If X is disputed by competent scholars, however few they be, then a dispute does exist and the advocate must present the evidence on which he bases his claim that X is a fact.

(Nor is it valid to argue, as apologists are wont to do, that scholars who dispute X are ipso facto "not real scholars." That is another case of begging the question.)

Just for the present discussion, I will stipulate that a Jewish preacher called Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, tried by Pontius Pilate, and executed by crucifixion. Nothing else McDowell says here about him is a fact. They are either claims made in certain documents written many years after his death, or they are interpretations of certain of those claims.

It is not a fact that he claimed to be the messiah prophesied in Jewish scripture. The documents do not even allege specifically that he himself made that claim. What they actually allege is that people who knew him came to believe that he was the messiah prophesied by Jewish scripture.

It is not a fact that some women found his body gone from the tomb three days after he was buried. It is a fact that there are documents of unknown authorship, written at least four decades later, claiming that some women did that.

It is not a fact that his disciples proclaimed anything about him within a few weeks of his death. It is a fact that a book written at least five decades later included stories about such activities by men who the author said were his disciples.

From that foundation, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and has continued to exert great influence down through the centuries.

McDowell here assumes his conclusion. It is only according to traditional Christian orthodoxy that those events were the foundation of Christianity. That orthodoxy might be nearly unanimous among Christians now, but the historical record suggest that it was anything but unanimous among Christians of the first three centuries.

The New Testament accounts of the resurrection were being circulated within the lifetimes of men and women alive at the time of the resurrection.

To put it charitably, the evidence supporting this allegation of fact is uncertain. Actually, it is practically nonexistent. The very existence of the gospels is not clearly attested by any patristic writer before the middle of the second century. There is no document, known with certainty to have been written during the first century, in which there is any account of the resurrection beyond the bare assertion that there was one. Even stipulating that the usual dating of the gospels is correct, there is zero evidence that would tell us anything about the extent of their circulation up until the time Justin mentioned them.

Those people could certainly have confirmed or denied the accuracy of such accounts.

More question-begging. We have no reason at all to assume that anybody who knew Jesus ever laid eyes on any gospel. No matter how good the argument that some of them could have seen one, nothing that could have happened can ever be evidence that anything else did in fact happen.

The writers of the four Gospels either had themselves been witnesses or else were relating the accounts of eyewitnesses of the actual events.

This is not a fact. It is a belief held by many people, but it is questioned by a large number of competent historians.

In advocating their case for the gospel, a word that means "good news," the apostles appealed (even when confronting their most severe opponents) to common knowledge concerning the facts of the resurrection.

This is more dogma presented as if it were fact. With one exception, we have no record from their own hand of what any apostle ever said about Jesus. That exception is Paul, and he most surely did not appeal to any common knowledge.

F. F. Bruce, Rylands professor of biblical criticism and exegesis at the University of Manchester, says concerning the value of the New Testament records as primary sources . . . .

A pure argument from authority, and a carefully chosen authority at that.

"Had there been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the possible presence of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served as a further corrective."

Whether or not the gospels should even be regarded as primary sources has nothing to do with what people who disagreed with them might have done after reading them. Furthermore, we have no reason whatsoever to suppose that any potentially hostile witness ever saw a gospel or even knew that any existed. By the only time we have good reason to think they were being widely circulated even within the Christian community, there would been no one left alive who could, from personal knowledge, have proved anything one way or the other about what they said.

Because the New Testament provides the primary historical source for information on the resurrection, many critics during the 19th century attacked the reliability of these biblical documents.

I'm not quite sure whether this is a red herring or a straw man. In either case, it is a complete irrelevancy.

By the end of the 19th century, however, archaeological discoveries had confirmed the accuracy of the New Testament manuscripts.

No, they had not. Some Christian archeologists thought they had. By long before the end of the 20th century, other archeologists had identified their errors. (That is notwithstanding the apologetic dogma that although Christians could conceivably lie, they can never make mistakes.)

Discoveries of early papyri bridged the gap between the time of Christ and existing manuscripts from a later date.

Speaking of lies, though, McDowell is walking on thin ice here, depending on how he intends his readers to interpret "bridge the gap." It was only in the early 20th century that manuscripts from around 200 CE were discovered. Since then, the only older document to have been found is still from the second century, and it's just a small piece of one page. As things go in historiography, it's a pretty small gap, all right, but to suggest as McDowell does that the gap is nonexistent or too small to have any relevance is at best disingenuous.

Those findings increased scholarly confidence in the reliability of the Bible.

They increased the confidence of evangelical scholars.

William F. Albright, who in his day was the world's foremost biblical archaeologist, said:

Dare anyone wonder why McDowell doesn't want to quote any of today's foremost biblical archaeologists? Could it be because no modern bibilical archeologist agrees with Albright?

I occasionally use arguments from authority myself in my own debates. They have their place if they're done right. But in a field as dynamic as biblical archeology has been, if your case must rest on opinions rendered almost a hundred years ago, you're in serious trouble.

"We can already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after about A.D. 80, two full generations before the date between 130 and 150 given by the more radical New Testament critics of today."

On this point, Albright's opinion is simply worthless. The view that at least some of the New Testament was written in the second century might have been radical in his day. It no longer is. Certainly no modern scholar except perhaps a handful of inerrantists think the entire corpus was completed by 80 CE.

over 24,000 copies of early New Testament manuscripts are known to be in existence today

That figure is, shall we say, not generally accepted.

That is not even if you count each fragment as a copy of the New Testament. I do not know anyone besides evangelical apologists, though, who if you showed them Page 10 from a book and Page 20 from that book, would say they were looking at two copies of the book.

If you count manuscripts containing the entire New Testament or most of it, there are . . . four.

The historian Luke wrote of "authentic evidence" concerning the resurrection.

What's with the quote marks? Luke never used that phrase or any Greek equivalent, but McDowell is implying that those are Luke's own words. And McDowell knows they are not.

Anyway, this is still more evangelical dogma presented as if it were fact. Luke might or might not have been a historian. Competent scholars still disagree about that.

Sir William Ramsay, who spent 15 years attempting to undermine Luke credentials as a historian

The author of Luke's gospel and the book of Acts, no matter who he was or what he knew or how competent he was at whatever he did, has no credentials. Not as a historian, not as a physician, not as anything. Nothing is known about him except what a few Christians of the late second century said about him, and they didn't say the first word about where they got their information.

I claim to be an historian. My approach to Classics is historical. And I tell you that the evidence for the life, the death, and the resurrection of Christ is better authenticated than most of the facts of ancient history . . .

E. M. Blaiklock
Professor of Classics
Auckland University

Insofar as expert opinion has any relevance here, if the experts disagree, a strong argument for any conclusion must address the opinions of experts who dispute the conclusion. An authority-based argument that simply ignores dissenting authorities is worthless. There are lots and lots of expert historians -- I strongly suspect most of them -- who think Blaiklock is just flat-out wrong. That doesn't prove he is wrong, but that is beside the point. The point of this post is the quality of McDowell's evidence and argmentation.

The New Testament witnesses were fully aware of the background against which the resurrection took place.

McDowell assumes his conclusion again. He has offered no proof that any New Testament writer witnessed anything.

The body of Jesus, in accordance with Jewish burial custom, was wrapped in a linen cloth. About 100 pounds of aromatic spices, mixed together to form a gummy substance, were applied to the wrappings of cloth about the body. After the body was placed in a solid rock tomb, an extremely large stone was rolled against the entrance of the tomb.

And again. McDowell has not even begun to demonstrate the historical reliability of the gospels. He has quoted a couple of authorities as saying they are reliable and then proceeded as if that settled everything.

The followers of Jesus said He had risen from the dead. They reported that He appeared to them during a period of 40 days

No, *they* did not say that. Someone else said he did, and we don't know who told him.

Paul the apostle recounted that Jesus appeared to more than 500 of His followers at one time, the majority of whom were still alive and who could confirm what Paul wrote.

Yes, Paul said so. McDowell has not even gone through the motions of trying to establish Paul's credibility.

As we have said, the first obvious fact was the breaking of the seal that stood for the power and authority of the Roman Empire.

The existence of a seal, broken or otherwise, has not been established to be a fact.

The consequences of breaking the seal were extremely severe.

I would not think of disputing that. I will accept it as a fact. But it is an irrelevant fact until other facts have been established.

The FBI and CIA of the Roman Empire were called into action to find the man or men who were responsible. If they were apprehended, it meant automatic execution by crucifixion upside down.

So, McDowell considers that a fact, does he? Someone more charitable than I might suspect that he read it somewhere and believed it. And maybe he did, but it sure looks like a product of his imagination.

they [Jesus' disciples] went right back to the city of Jerusalem, where, if what they were teaching was false, the falsity would be evident.

No, it would not have been evident. They didn't say anything publicly until a few weeks had passed. I'm guessing that McDowell means somebody would have produced the body. Nobody by that time could have proved it was Jesus' body or anybody else's in particular. Forensic medicine was kinda primitive in those days.

Both Jewish and Roman sources and traditions admit an empty tomb.

No, they don't.

Those resources range from Josephus . . .

Josephus says nothing about an empty tomb.

to a compilation of fifth-century Jewish writings called the "Toledoth Jeshu."

A fifth-century document cannot prove that a tomb was found empty during the first century.

Dr. Paul Maier calls this "positive evidence from a hostile source, which is the strongest kind of historical evidence.

The source's feelings are irrelevant if the source is in no position to know what he is talking about.

Gamaliel, who was a member of the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin, put forth the suggestion that the rise of the Christian movement was God's doing

So said the author of Acts. This argument presupposes inerrancy.

Paul Maier observes that " . . . if all the evidence is weighed carefully and fairly, it is indeed justifiable, according to the canons of historical research, to conclude that the sepulcher of Joseph of Arimathea, in which Jesus was buried, was actually empty on the morning of the first Easter.

I'm going to agree with that, with a notation that McDowell and I might not agree on what it means for a belief to be "justifiable." I think a belief can be justified without being true. Justification does not imply infallibility.

There exists no document from the ancient world, witnessed by so excellent a set of textual and historical testimonies . . . Skepticism regarding the historical credentials of Christianity is based upon an irrational bias.

Clark Pinnock
Mcmaster University

Pinnock's saying it is so does not make it so.

Those who observed the stone after the resurrection describe its position as having been rolled up a slope away not just from the entrance of the tomb, but from the entire massive sepulcher.

The gospels report no such observation. McDowell must be reading something between the lines.

The Roman guards fled. . . . and there were the grave clothes . . . Christ appeared alive on several occasions after the cataclysmic events of that first Easter.

More question-begging.


Several very important factors are often overlooked when considering Christ's post-resurrection appearances to individuals. The first is the large number of witnesses of Christ after that resurrection morning.

We don't have a single report from anyone known to have witnessed anything. We have reports from people saying there were witnesses, but we have no report from any of the alleged witnesses themselves.

The apostle [Paul] appealed to his audience's knowledge of the fact that Christ had been seen by more than 500 people at one time.

No, he did not. He appealed to his audience's recollection of his having told them about certain things that he had been told.

Over and over again, I have read or heard people comment that Jesus was seen alive after His death and burial only by His friends and followers. Using that argument, they attempt to water down the overwhelming impact of the multiple eyewitness accounts. But that line of reasoning is so pathetic it hardly deserves comment. No author or informed individual would regard Saul of Tarsus as being a follower of Christ.

That could be one exception. McDowell doesn't offer any others.

But it is not provably an exception. We don't have Paul's word for it that he saw the risen Christ while still an unbeliever.

If the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.

F. F. Bruce
Manchester University

Authenticity is one thing, but the bottom line is credibility. And what would make the New Testament writings secular? If they didn't mention God? If they were not religious documents, would millions of people be accusing us skeptics of pigheadedness for not believing them? I won't try to speak for all secularists, but I won't consider any ancient document to be credible beyond all doubt if it says a dead man came back to life, no matter what else that document says or does not say, or when it was supposed to have been written, or who the author is alleged to be.

The difficulties of belief may be great, but the problems inherent in unbelief present even greater difficulties.

Let's see if McDowell can identify any of those problems inherent in unbelief.

A theory propounded by Kirsopp Lake assumes that the women who reported that the body was missing had mistakenly gone to the wrong tomb.

The biggest problem with that theory is that it assumes the gospel stories to be inerrant except for one little detail. It assumes that everything happened just like the gospel authors said it happened, except only that the resurrection didn't really happen. That assumption is not justified.

However, it is not unreasonable to consider, as a possible scenario, that the authors could have been passing on stories that originated in factual accounts of what happened but got embellished over the decades that elapsed between the actual events and their being written about.

If so, then the disciples who went to check up on the women's statement must have also gone to the wrong tomb.

The stories give no hint that among Jesus' followers, anyone but the women initially knew where the tomb was. As best we can tell, it was the women who told the disciples where the tomb was.

We may be certain, however, that Jewish authorities, who asked for a Roman guard to be stationed at the tomb to prevent Jesus' body from being stolen, would not have been mistaken about the location. Nor would the Roman guards, for they were there!

Are we to think that the disciples would have asked the Jewish authorities or the Roman guard for directions to the tomb?

If the resurrection-claim was merely because of a geographical mistake, the Jewish authorities would have lost no time in producing the body from the proper tomb

Maybe so, if the disciples had immediately started announcing the resurrection. But they didn't. They waited 50 days, according to the story.

Another attempted explanation claims that the appearances of Jesus after the resurrection were either illusions or hallucinations. Unsupported by the psychological principles governing the appearances of hallucinations

McDowell doesn't say what those psychological principles are, but this theory too assumes that the gospels are inerrant in every detail but one. I don't think it out of the question that one disciple's hallucination could have inspired the others to proclaim "Christ is risen." I think it highly unlikely, and it is not what I believe, but I do find it more credible than a real resurrection.

this theory also does not coincide with the historical situation

McDowell's assumptions about the historical situation provide no evidence as to what the historical situation was.

where was the actual body, and why wasn't it produced?

It doesn't matter where the body was. It would have been pointless to produce it after it had dead for 50 days.

Another theory, popularized by Venturini several centuries ago, is often quoted today. This is the swoon theory, which says that Jesus didn't die; he merely fainted from exhaustion and loss of blood. Everyone thought Him dead, but later He resuscitated and the disciples thought it to be a resurrection.

Yep, that's a stupid theory, all right. Maybe that's why I've never known anyone who believed it. And maybe that's why it's such a favorite among the apologists' straw men.

Then consider the theory that the body was stolen by the disciples while the guards slept.

No, that would be a conspiracy theory. Let's not waste our time with any of those.

But the most telling testimony of all must be the lives of those early Christians. We must ask ourselves: What caused them to go everywhere telling the message of the risen Christ?

Why do any people ever go anywhere telling any message? They do it because they believe the message and they think other people should believe it, too.

Had there been any visible benefits accrued to them from their efforts prestige, wealth, increased social status or material benefits we might logically attempt to account for their actions

Yes, that would be one logical explanation. But it is not the only one. People have been known to do things for other reasons besides those.

As a reward for their efforts, however, those early Christians were beaten, stoned to death, thrown to the lions, tortured and crucified.

So say the legends. Even insofar as any martyrdom story can be confirmed, it proves only that the martyrs were true believers, not that anything they believed was true.

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