Robert Price on ETDAV

This chapter from the Secular Web begins most inauspiciously:

If anyone needed further proof that apologetics as practiced by Josh McDowell is merely an exercise in after-the-fact rationalization of beliefs held on prior emotional grounds, I welcome him to Chapter 8 of Evidence That Demands a Verdict. One can only say again that McDowell is the worst enemy of his own faith: with defenders like this, who needs attackers? The more seriously one takes him as a representative of his faith, the more seriously one will be tempted to thrust Christianity aside as a tissue of grotesque absurdities capable of commending itself only to fools and bigots. Before I turn to the smorgasbord of fallacious arguments, let me point out the massive irony of the chapter as a whole. McDowell is concerned here to answer the question, "'If God became man THEN what would He be like?'" Since McDowell is in great danger of losing sight of the enchanted forest for the trees, an initial look at the whole approach will be helpful. Here is his thumbnail sketch for recognizing God next time you see him in the Burger King line next to Elvis...
(McDowell) shows himself as heedless of the original context of biblical prophecies as his colleague in charlatanry Hal Lindsey (you know you're dealing with real scholarship when your authorities go by names like "Josh" and "Hal").
At this point McDowell's argument is simply moronic, unworthy of a pimply adolescent Hi-BA member...
...(McDowell) just ignores the context and pretends Isaiah was an ancient Jeanne Dixon...
With arguments like this, one is forced to conclude that McDowell is either just plain stupid or a damn liar.

These comments were brought to us under the auspices of Jeff Lowder, who, in spite of his admonition to his fellow secularists to practice gentleness and reverence in their version of apologetics, nevertheless published the above. I believe that speaks for itself. Bypassing such rhetoric, however, let us turn to the matter at hand.

McDowell's chapter here is entitled "The Great Proposition" - and within it is asked, "If God came to earth as a human, what would we expect Him to be like?" To set the stage, here are the eight things that McDowell believes that we would expect God to be or do in said situation:

  1. Have an unusual entrance into life.
  2. Be without sin.
  3. Manifest the supernatural in the form of miracles.
  4. Have an acute sense of difference from other men.
  5. Speak the greatest words ever spoken.
  6. Have a lasting and universal influence.
  7. Satisfy the spiritual hunger in man.
  8. Exercise power over death.

It shall not be my purpose here to defend the veracity or validity of this argument. As an analogy, and as a tool to understanding, it serves its purpose well; but for reason of personal preference, I would scarcely use it as an apologetic for Christianity.

Noting these eight criteria, Price replies -

And of course we have to conclude that God did become incarnate. His name was Apollonius of Tyana. And Gautama Buddha, and Caesar Augustus, and Moses, and Pythagoras, and Empedocles, and Alexander the Great, and Muhammad.

To the particulars:

So the net of this is: Price's eight candidates for godhood simply fail. And, not one of them made any claim to be the Creator God of the universe - which I would add as a ninth criteria. Empedocles did assert himself as "a" god, and Augustus was thought of as a "god" in the same manner as the other Roman emperors - but there is no claim that comes close to those of Jesus.

On Pedagogy

The following argument is rather dated, and does not comprehend the typical evangelical scholarly position:

What McDowell has unwittingly done is to list off the basic outline of the Mythic Hero Archetype as described by Joseph Campbell, Lord Raglan, Otto Ranck, Alan Dundes, and others. He is quite right that people would expect an incarnate god or divine hero to conform to the job description he has outlined. What he does not seem to see is that his very apologetic recapitulates the mythopoetic tendency of the human imagination to flesh out the outlines of the Hero Archetype by lending it a concrete form and name, in McDowell's case, those of Jesus of Nazareth...In fact, the conformity of the gospel portraits of Jesus to the Mythic Hero Archetype (though McDowell obviously wouldn't want to call it that) is one major reason that some scholars have questioned the historical existence of Jesus. The more a character's life conforms to familiar myth-patterns, the more likely it is that the character's biography has been subsumed into myth.

Actually, if Price had read McDowell's later book, He Walked Among Us, he would have found that McDowell would have no problem with the Mythic Hero Archaetype concept in this regard. McDowell, like myself and other Christian writers (notably Peter Kreeft) recognize that "it may be that God has actually used some of the pagan myths" as a teaching process to define a relationship with Him. On this matter, McDowell quotes Pinchas Lapide (HWAU, p. 192):

...would it not be possible that the Lord of the universe used the myth of the resurrection (which was well known to pagans) in order 'to eliminate idolatry in the pagan world' through the true resurrection of a just person and to carry 'the knowledge of God' to the four corners of the earth by means of the Easter faith?

This view, then, recognizes the eight criteria - what Price deigns the "Mythic Hero Archetype" - as pointers towards the true God and His Son.

Now the assertion that the more a character's life conforms to familiar myth-patterns, the more likely it is that the character's biography has been subsumed into myth is simply unwarranted; it is an illogical leap. One is well advised to "check out" the credentials of the candidates, as we have done - and as Price evidently failed to do. We may also point out that there are too many aspects of Christ that the human would not anticipate at all -- these cannot be said to originate from image-projection capabilities of humans.

For more related to this subject, please see Glenn Miller's continuing works - click here and here - on the question of whether the NT was influenced by pagan myths. Miller notes that the Divine Man stereotype was (1) not really defined as a type and (2) was not operative in the time of Jesus.

The Ant Analogy

The next section concerns McDowell's "ant analogy" to explain the reasonableness of the incarnation. Price objects to this analogy on the grounds that God's ways would be incomprehensible to us. In his words (and we must quote extensively here):

...the infinite qualitative distinction between God's mind and the human mind can never really be bridged, any more than you could ever succeed in explaining your ideas to an ant even if you had a set of their antenna.
This is why there can never be genuine translation of the word of God into the words of men. "No one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received... the Spirit which is from God" (1 Corinthians 2:11-12). So doesn't Paul think it is possible to tap God's phone? To speak his language? Yes, but then one ends up like the Oracle of Delphi again: speaking in tongues, things it is not lawful for a man to utter, unutterable utterances, the tongues of angels, speaking in the spirit. One experiences the mystery as mystery, as Tillich puts it, one does not crack some code, solve some problem. If it is a word, it cannot be from God. Conversely, if it from God, it cannot be a word.
For this reason, the fundamentalist doctrine of propositional revelation is so much idolatrous nonsense. Any human word which purports to interpret God's word is really only playing charades. It is only pointing, symbolizing, and finally deceiving anyone who forgets for a second the ambivalent, ambiguous character of that word. It is something like trying to translate the Chinese Tao te Ching into English. The Taoist epigrams are so terse, and the two languages so different, that translations differ wildly. All are edifying, but one would be intemperate to quote any one version and say one had grasped the intent of the author.
Aquinas understood the problem here, though one may wonder whether the great philosopher really came to grips with it. He knew that God's ways and words must be so vastly different from our own that human words about God could never simply be univocal in their reference to God. Love, for instance, is all bound up with human associations and limitations that could not touch the infinite God, He Who Is. But if by saying "God is love," we use the word equivocally, so that God's love bears no similarity to human love, there is no point in using the same word at all.

A few points in reply:

For material on the virgin birth, click here.

Price then turns to the criteria of sinlessness. Other than claiming that the Gospels are no more than tendential pro-Christian propaganda and objecting (indirectly) that since Jesus' words were not recorded on videotape we cannot be sure that He said what the Gospels attribute to Him, or for that matter that Jesus was really sinless, Price attempts three points here answered in these two links:

  • Mark 10:18 and parallels.
  • The destruction of the fig tree Sign-Giving
    How do you suppose it is possible, in view of Jesus' own repudiation of evidential miracles in Mark (8:12) and Luke (16:31) that apologists like Bernard Ramm, C.S. Lewis, and McDowell can elevate paranormal phenomena to epistemological centrality?

    In the Scriptures cited, Jesus is repudiating miracles on demand as a sign - not evidential miracles per se; and indeed, Jesus points John the Baptist to the miracles as proof of His Messiahship, and in the Upper Room with His disciples appealed to them to believe in Him, at least because of His miracles.

    For McDowell and those he quotes to point out that Jesus' enemies and the enemies of Christianity did not deny his wonders but ascribed them to sorcery is futile for the purpose for which they are cited. McDowell implies that Celsus, the scribes, etc., would have denied the reality of the miracles if they could have. They were skeptics, after all, weren't they? Yes, but not of the type McDowell is trying to refute/persuade. They were skeptical about Jesus, not about the supernatural. They had no problem with miracles in general. They preferred to depict Jesus as a miracle-worker because this enabled them to paint him as a false prophet and a magician. The miracles could be turned into negative testimony of a miraculously evil Jesus. It's not as if McDowell can cite Bertrand Russell or Robert Ingersoll admitting that Jesus performed miracles. That is something quite different.

    So the argument is: We can't accept pagan testimony of Jesus' miraculous powers, because the pagans were just as credulous as the Christians were. Well, true enough, they had a more open-minded view of the subject than Russell et al., but on the other hand, they were not gratutious accepters of this sort of thing. Glenn Miller has made several points concerning the critical capabilities of ancient historians; we have also noted a passage from Josephus, who was very careful to stress that he knew that certain miracles that he was about to report were unbelievable. Likewise, Tacitus reports healing miraces performed by Vespasian in a way that suggests that he cast a critical eye towards such things. Is there any other evidence that we can draw upon?

    Thiessen, in Miracles Stories of the Early Christian Tradition (pp.269, 274-5), observes that:

    This period (Hellenistic up to Imperial times) may well have been the least superstitious period of antiquity, even if we have to allow for the continued existence in concealment of an undercurrent of the usual superstitions and belief in miracles. However that may be a sea change sets in with the beginning of late antiquity. Popular belief in miracles and superstition revived. Whereas in Hellenism belief in miracles was permeated with rational elements, now the relationship was reversed...And increasing irrationalism began to flood in to Romano-Greek culture...
    The end of the 1st century BC is marked by a general increase in the intensity of belief in miracles. The belief takes on a few form. The balance of rational and irrational elements in Hellenistic belief in miracles tips towards the irrational.
    On the other hand it must be admitted that in the relatively peaceful and stable period of the first two centuries (AD) the irrationalism which first appeared at the beginning of the 1st century was unable to strike roots. There continued to be rationalist movements alongside it. In his dialogues Lucian mocked his contemporaries' belief in the miraculous. Oenomaus of Gadara mocked the oracles, and Sextus Empiricus once more brought together all the arguments of skepticism. Even where increased irrationalism was notable--for example in Plutarch's development--it remained within bounds, without eccentricity or fanaticism. There was no decisive change before the great social and political crisis of the 3rd century AD.

    Robin Lane Fox writes [RLF.PC, 29] of the scepticism of the time (mostly in the educated classs), but says it was overcome by the emphasis on tradition. (Let us recall, of course, that Christianity grew in the educated class the fastest.) He also notes the broad spectrum of opinion on such matters - and it sounds remarkably like the spectrum of opinions available today!

    Finally, Sarton, in Hellenistic Culture in the Last Three Centuries BC, notes the following concerning two particular writers of the time:

    (257) On Cicero: "His main achievement in the tradition of Stoicism was the rejection of nonsense and superstition. This required lucidity and courage in a superstitious age..."

    (272) On Lucretius: "Lucretius was an enemy of superstition in all its forms; he was not only anticlerical but also antireligious."

    So Price's evaluation of ancient historians and writers is quite unwarranted; like us, they were quite able to think critically and make discernments.


    The notion that Jesus' teachings are in any measure or sense unique is not the basis for a belief in his divinity but rather an erroneous inference from it. The belief in uniqueness cannot survive the slightest acquaintance with the ethical and spiritual traditions of other religions and philosophies. It is a simple matter of fact that virtually every saying of Jesus treating of morality or piety can be paralleled, often virtually verbatim, from the Mishnah...None of it is particularly unique. In the case of the ethical and pious teaching, this is no surprise. It only becomes an embarrassment to the incarnation doctrine: why should God become man in order to "reveal" what the wise of all the nations had already known for many centuries?

    I do not see that McDowell is arguing that Jesus' teachings were in any way unique in the sense that Price is inferring; but let's leave that aside for now. As anyone who has read the most basic Christian material on the matter - in this case, probably C. S. Lewis' Abolition of Man - it is not argued that Jesus' ethical teachings were something brand new and unheard of; rather, they represented the highest moral ideals found by man - as we would expect if He were God incarnate. The only difference, really, is Jesus' teachings regarding His own divinity and the authority with which He expressed Himself. Ethical teaching was not the point of Jesus' mission, just an essential part of it.

    Now Price, interestingly, is aware of this; but note his response:

    Ancient apologists already had to come to grips with the problem. Their back-peddling strategy was called the Logos doctrine. They said Socrates, for example, was a "Christian before Christ." So the truth the "noble pagans" knew was still the unique possession of Jesus, but he had already begun sharing it with the human race some hundreds or thousands of years before he appeared in the flesh.

    The Logos doctrine can actually be found rather farther back than the ancient apologists (it is in the Jewish roots of the first century, with links back to the Wisdom figure of intertestamental Judaism and Proverbs 8), so it is hardly "back-peddling" -- and note that NO ancient apologist is quoted in this regard. But even if it were a back-pedal, it would only be because these ancient apologists had previously made the same mistake that Price falsely attributes to McDowell - asserting that the ethical substance of Jesus' teachings were somehow unique.

    Now again, this was part and parcel of Jesus' mission, but salvation was the true core, and Price is aware of this, but:

    Then what was the urgency of his appearing? One can always shift over to the salvific death of Jesus as the reason for the incarnation, but that is not the point here. McDowell wants to have an incarnate God who comes to tell humanity what it could have learned in no other way. And this just does not work once we recognize the plain fact that nothing attributed to Jesus is unique.

    Not the point? This is precisely the point -- nowhere does McDowell state that Jesus taught things that men could have learned in no other way. He does quote Ramm's opinion that Jesus' words were the greatest ever spoken (based on His authority and teaching style - NOT the content, outside of issues related to salvation); he quotes Romanes as saying that Jesus' teachings are superior to Plato (while noting that "in respect of philosophic thought," Plato was "greatly in advance" of Jesus); he quotes others on Jesus' authority in teaching (not the content alone)...but not once does he say or quote anyone as saying that Jesus' ethical teachings, in and of themselves, are unique.

    In fact, McDowell quotes Peake as allowing that the teaching of Jesus is NOT original - just more concise than that of Jesus' competitors. Price is simply reading intent into McDowell -- and again, if Price had read McDowell's He Walked Among Us, he would have found a clear citation by McDowell indicating that it was not the content of Jesus' teachings that was unique - other than His claims to divinity.

    A Real Death?
    And yet, as Thomas J.J. Altizer (The Descent into Hell) has repeatedly pointed out, a "real" death of some two to two and a half days' duration is hardly more of a real death than the old Swoon Theory postulated. Did Jesus not actually suffer, as the Gospel of Peter had it? Was the cross actually empty, as in some Gnostic gospels? Was it someone else on the cross in Jesus' place, as one billion Muslims believe? Or did Jesus die only for the weekend? In any of these cases, it is what we would expect of an epiphany of the eternal Spirit whom death's pangs could not hold. But it has little in common with real humanity. People do not die just for a weekend.

    We may note, of course, that the Gospel of Peter, the Gnostic gospels, and the Muslim assertions, are all far too late to be taken seriously as witnesses to what actually happened (John Dominic Crossan's ideas and those of the Jesus Seminar notwithstanding).

    But let us be clear --there is a huge, huge difference between a swoon (of any length) and a death (of even 30 minutes). The power of God in resurrection was proven by a real death, and would not have been manifest in revival from a swoon. And as for us "expecting it" of an eternal spirit, he has missed the historical Jewish context again -- the evangelists and preachers in Acts refer back to Psalm 16:10 ("For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption."), a resurrection of a dead "son of David".

    It was expected, not by virtue of deity, but by virtual of a successful Messianic life, mission, and death. As an added note - having acquired Altizer's book referenced above, The Descent Into Hell, I see not one single place where it is pointed out - much less is it "repeatedly pointed out" -- that a "real" death of some two to two and a half days' duration is hardly more of a real death than the old Swoon Theory postulated. Even less do we see any medical or forensic evidence to back up this assertion.


    Price would do well to take his OWN advice from his OWN book, Beyond Born Again:

    If I may offer some friendly advice as to what a new ex-Evangelical might avoid, let me caution such a reader not to become an anti-evangelist. There is no point in carrying a vengeful chip on one's shoulder, looking for every opportunity to challenge and refute an Evangelical. What a pathetic irony this would be! Just picture the person who has repudiated the task of trying to save people by converting them to Evangelical faith, now trying to save people by converting them from Evangelical faith! A similar temptation is to negate completely one's Evangelical past as a "life of sin," i.e., "I once was blind, but now I see!" Once again we would have the mirror-image of the thing repudiated! No, I dare say the "ex-Evangelical" wants eventually to mature past the "anti-Evangelical," to become the "non-Evangelical." Then he will be able to appreciate the positive experiences of the past, however he may now want to explain them. He will be able to look at his former co-religionists simply as people with whom he happens to disagree, rather than as the unsaved "them," i.e., the same set of categories he used to see. As a full- fledged non-Evangelical he will not have to deny his past, nor let his past define all the issues for him.

    So, then - are Jury Chapter 6 and 8 reflective of not being "anti-evangelist"? Are they, then, NOT samples of carrying a "vengeful chip" on one's shoulder, looking for every opportunity to challenge and refute, etc.? Is Mr. Price looking at McDowell as a former co-religionist "with whom he happens to disagree"? If so, I am afraid that it is not entirely clear from the content.

    Note well that Price is quite able to write in more civilized tones - Beyond Born Again and Jury Chapter 9 indicates this...or else, together they indicate a conflicted soul whose assessments are hardly to be trusted.


    (1) On a slightly ironic note - Kingsley refers to a critic who discounts the story of Empedocles jumping into Mt. Etna simply because the poet "had nothing to say" in his writings concerning volcanoes. It's nice to know that rationales like this are being used even outside the circles of Biblical criticism.

    (2) Special thanks again go to Glenn Miller, for some really fantastic quotes and informational help.


    1. NA.MI - Anderson, Norman. The Mystery of the Incarnation. Downers Grove: IVP, 1978.
    2. PB.ATG - Briant, Pierre. Alexander the Great: Man of Action, Man of Spirit. Disocoveries: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
    3. REB.BMh - Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Image Books, 1977.
    4. REB.VCBR - Brown, Raymond E. The Virgin Birth and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus. New York: Paulist Press, 1973.
    5. JAB.Mk - Brooks, James A. Mark. Nashville: Broadman, 1991.
    6. HVC.VBT - Campenhausen, Hans von. The Virgin Birth in the Theology of the Ancient Church. Naperville: Alec R. Allenson, 1964.
    7. JGD.EJ -Dunn, James G. D. The Evidence for Jesus. Louisville: Westmister, 1985.
    8. RLF.PC - Fox, Robin Lane. Pagans and Christians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
    9. PG.PAL - Gorman, Peter. Pythagoras: A Life. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.
    10. MG.IMDC - Goulder, Michael, ed. Incarnation and Myth: The Debate Continued. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.
    11. JH.MG - Hick, John, ed. The Myth of God Incarnate. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977.
    12. HL.E - Lambridis, Helle. Empedocles. University: University of Alabama Press, 1976.
    13. PK.APM - Kingsley, Peter. Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.
    14. JGM.VBC - Machen, J. Gresham. The Virgin Birth of Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1930.
    15. JM.MJ - Meier, John P. - A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
    16. TVM.LGI - Morris, Thomas V. The Logic of God Incarnate. Ithaca: Cornell U. Press, 1986.
    17. JCO.WD - O'Neill, J. C. Who Did Jesus Think He Was? London: E. J. Brill, 1995
    18. PC.AMN - Pseudo-Callisthenes. The Life of Alexander of Macedon. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1955.
    19. JS.IJ - Schaberg, Jane. The Illegitimacy of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987.
    20. BW.JQ - Witherington, Ben. The Jesus Quest. Downers Grove: IVP, 1995.