Book review: Evidence for the Historical Jesus

by Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson

★★★★

Great book! I enjoyed reading it, and it’s chock full of fascinating facts and interesting arguments. I’ve got margin notes and highlights all over it. While the authors seem a bit defensive at times, they do provide a lot of meat to chew on. I enjoyed learning about Jesus the Jew, arguments against the two-source theory, arguments against Christianity as a copycat of the mystery religions, and the discussion of Jesus’ own Messianic and divine understanding.

I really did enjoy the book. Unfortunately, as far as the book’s purpose of providing evidence of the Historical Jesus, I came away underwhelmed. Such “evidence” ends on page 87 with the statement “That Jesus actually lived in history should be obvious by now.” It’s actually anything but obvious; by this point, the authors have reviewed only rabbinic writings, secular writings like those of Josephus, and the testimony of the early church fathers. They argue that surely no martyr would die for a cause he didn’t 100% believe in. None of this convinces me of a historical Jesus beyond, say, about a 50% surety. But unfortunately, from this point forward in the book, the authors shift focus to proving the historic accuracy of the Bible, and in doing so, they overreach and leave some of their arguments crippled. The Gospel story does provide much indirect evidence for the existence of Jesus, but in trying to prove the Bible happened literally, word-for-word, the authors wind up falling back on logic that just doesn’t work for me. Because of the authors’ stated premise of proving Jesus lived, a critical review must address primarily this goal, so it’s going to be rather long and sound more negative than the book deserves. But here goes.

Here’s an example of the type of claim that betrays the authors’ bias: “A comparison between the false writings and the canonical ones often immediately confirms the obvious superiority and authenticity of the canonical gospels.” Well, if that were even remotely true, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Perhaps the canonical gospels have a more authentic air than the non-canonical ones, but that hardly confirms that any of them are authentic. Here’s another typical assumption: “The New Testament accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus were recorded by men who had been either eyewitnesses themselves or who related the accounts of eyewitnesses of the actual events of teachings of Jesus.” Again, if we knew this to be true, the discussion about Jesus’ existence wouldn’t be necessary. How about this: “The New Testament accounts of Jesus began to be circulated within the lifetimes of those alive at the time of his life. These people could certainly confirm or deny the accuracy of the accounts.” Oops! The story of Jesus was written outside the territory where Jesus taught, in a language Jesus and his closest followers probably didn’t speak, 40-80 years after Jesus died. Perhaps by “New Testament accounts” the authors mean the writings of Paul, but then much of the “did Jesus exist” argument becomes centered around whether or not Paul really did teach a human Jesus. Or perhaps by “within the lifetimes of those alive at the time of [Jesus’] life” they mean primarily John the Apostle. Tradition holds that John outlived the other apostles into the final decade of the first century. John, then, could have read the other gospels, and would have had opportunity to contradict them, right? Well, guess what? John’s Gospel does just that; just about every place John refers to a story in the Synoptics, it’s to contradict the story. That’s hardly an endorsement of the Synoptic gospels.

Sometimes, the arguments presented by the authors seem to hurt their cause more than they help. Because an early date of the Gospels seems important to them, they point out how the book of Acts does not mention the war of 70 AD, and conclude that it must have therefore been written earlier than the year 70. Then, because Acts refers to an earlier writing (presumably the Gospel of Luke), they conclude Luke must have been written earlier yet. But they forget to mention that Luke writes very specifically about the war; thus, a historical-critical approach to the Gospel story must date Luke after 70 AD. Here’s another howler quoted from the book: “There is no mention of Jesus’ tomb ever being venerated as were those of at least fifty other prophets, later including Hanina ben Dosa. The only good explanation is that Jesus’ bones were no longer there.” Um, sorry, the only really good explanation is that Jesus was never there in the first place!

My opinion: By taking on the role of apologists, the authors may have relinquished some of their strongest Biblical arguments. They discuss John the Baptist, but by taking an apologetic stance, they can’t question why the Gospels would record the embarrassing story of Jesus being baptized by a competitor “for his sins” if it weren’t historically true. They mention how Paul refers to James as the brother of Jesus, but because they prefer not to emphasize the friction between Paul and the Jerusalem Christians, they cannot argue that Paul didn’t mean “brother” as a title or in a spiritual sense. They ignore the lonely cry of despair of Jesus on the cross, or any of the other human traits of Jesus in the book of Mark, such as his occasional failures. They argue that Matthew was written before Mark, presumably to defend the claims of the early church fathers, but in doing so, they destroy a valuable argument: by tracing the declining Christology of the New Testament as we step backward in time, the way current scholarship chronologically orders the books of the New Testament, we aim straight for a human Jesus.

Finally, let me say it one more time for emphasis, because I realize I came down pretty hard on the book. I really enjoyed it! It just falls flat of its stated purpose by trying to prove too much.

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