A Brief Note on McDowell’s Absurdity

This criticism relates to the chapter “Archaeology and Biblical Criticism” in New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Josh McDowell). In addressing the creation, flood, and other stories, McDowell, amazingly, attempts to convince the reader that the Judeo-Christian account is accurate and original because A) the stories of non-Jewish societies are too embellished, elaborate, and fanciful, and B) because non-Jewish societies have those stories in the first place.

So to that end, on p. 375, the author points to creation stories that have mankind, heaven, and Earth all originated by God or gods, but insists they are too imaginative to be true history. He writes of the Babylonian and Sumerian stories, in which man is formed from clay mixed with the blood of a fallen evil god: “These tales display the kind of distortion and embellishment to be expected when a historical account becomes mythologized.” He insists that while other stories are similar, their greater complexity indicates they are distorted versions of the “unadorned elegance” of Genesis. McDowell goes on to say, “The Bible contains the ancient, less embellished version of the story and transmits the facts without the corruption of the mythological renderings.”

He takes a similar tack with the flood story (p. 377), noting that cultures on multiple continents have a flood story, but that “the other versions contain elaborations, indicating corruption. Only in Genesis is the year of the flood given, as well as dates for the chronology relative to Noah’s life.” (The year is actually not given, only speculated about today based on the text’s tales of Noah’s descendants and how long they lived.) The length of rainfall in non-Jewish accounts (seven days) is “not enough time for the devastation they describe.” Further, “The Babylonian idea that all of the flood waters subsided in one day is absurd.”

This argument is hopeless. Simply terrible. Arguing that one supernatural tale is “too embellished” or “too absurd” compared to another supernatural tale is foolishness of the worst kind. With supernatural stories, one is literally dealing with magic. Whether a deity takes 40 days to flood the world or seven, it hardly seems to matter. Further, “embellishment” is a purely subjective description. McDowell may think that the mixing of an evil god’s blood with clay is infinitely more outlandish than a good god forming a woman from the rib of a man, but that is because he already believes the latter and thus must reject the former. But I may see both these supernatural stories as equally fanciful, or I might see the first story more “unadorned” or “elegant” than the second. The Babylonians and Sumerians may have agreed. All this is obvious.

As for the second part of the “argument,” which seeks to make the Jewish stories seem more likely to be factual because neighboring societies had similar, albeit corrupted, tales, the mere existence of similar stories is not evidence that one of them or any of them actually happened. We can all agree that many myths existed and were pure fiction. Does the fact that such tales spread to cultures nearby serve as evidence that someone in particular believed what was true and supernatural? The Greeks had many thousands of gods. When the Romans conquered Greece and adopted their stories, pausing only to rename the deities, did that somehow provide “evidence” that Greek myths were true? Or consider Native American nations. They all have in common powerful spiritual animals. You have an Earth born on the back of a turtle, talking ravens, humans originating from the feathers of eagles, etc. Is this evidence that a single tribe somewhere actually experienced something similar, perhaps something just slightly less “embellished”? And does the existence of myths of fire-breathing dragons in Europe and East Asia, perhaps not even shared, prove that such creatures existed? Most thinking persons, including most Christians, would say no.

Total fictions can be shared to other societies, or can originate in multiple societies independently. McDowell believes that the Hebrews wrote these tales and they spread to other cultures (it is actually more likely the Hebrews stole the stories from neighbors), but to present an argument that boils down to “multiple societies have this story, so there must be truth to it somewhere” is inane.