I first heard of David Marshall when I encountered his book responding to the claims of the New Atheists (which is excellent, by the way). Then I heard him do an excellent job defending the existence of Jesus in a radio debate with Richard Carrier on Unbelievable. After that, I thought, “I really need to meet this guy. He’s sharp and making some unique arguments!”
We touched base shortly after that and he agreed to answer a few of my questions about his work on the historical Jesus. His book is easy to read, and yet it is packed with some fresh insights. Enjoy the interview and think about getting a copy of his outstanding book: Jesus is no Myth.
MCDOWELL: Your book is called Jesus is no Myth. Who says Jesus is a myth, besides a few fringes on the Internet? Why write a 300-page book to say something that almost every informed person recognizes already?
MARSHALL: The purpose of Jesus is No Myth is not merely to prove that some chap named Yeshua walked around Palestine 2000 years ago, but that the amazing things the Gospels tell us about him are true. I do take on the most popular mythicist in this book—and in one-on-one debates—but the notion that Jesus never even lived is mere collateral damage to my main argument. The subtitle of the book is "the fingerprints of God on the Gospels," because I argue that there is powerful evidence within the gospels—like fingerprints on a windowsill, or DNA on a knife—that God has given this corner of history a personal and world-transforming twist.
MCDOWELL: What are those "the fingerprints of God?"
MARSHALL: Some of them, I know you are familiar with. As a young man, I read your father's Evidence That Demands a Verdict. That book introduced me to historical arguments for the Christian faith, which I have been studying ever since. I was also a big fan of C. S. Lewis, who took a more literary and psychological approach to supporting the gospels.
In this book, I combine several approaches.
The "fingerprints of God" consist of 30 traits that the canonical gospels share, which demonstrate their essential historical truthfulness. Some traits are traditional criteria that New Testament scholars have discussed for decades. Others have to do with the suggestive literary nature of the gospels, or with Jesus' character as a teacher, moralist, and friend. I analyze the remarkable character of miracles in the Gospels. I also discuss Tim and Lydia McGrew's "Undesigned Coincidences" and N. T. Wright's "Double Similarity, Double Dissimilarity." Each of these qualities, like fingerprints, demonstrate that Big Hands have grasped the handle of history and "turned the world around."
I then compare the gospels to ancient works, which skeptics often claim resemble them. I find that none of those works shares the "fingerprints of God," or can at all be compared with the gospels for historical credibility. Indeed, most of those analogies prove quite amusing, when looked at carefully.
MCDOWELL: St. John said that if everything Jesus did were recorded, the world would be filled with the stories. And indeed, thousands of books have been written about him. What is unique about this one?
MARSHALL: I don't think anyone has taken quite this approach to proving the Gospels before. Few of the "fingerprints" I describe are considered in arguments over the historical Jesus—overlooking what I think is powerful evidence for the gospels.
I also come to the study as a scholar of World Religions, especially Chinese, which I believe provides a helpful new perspective on the gospels. How is Jesus like other religious founders? How is he unique? Those are questions which can be answered in remarkable ways. So late in the book, we move beyond common clichés and simplifications to something more dramatic and remarkable: how God has prepared the world for the Good News of Jesus.
Jesus is No Myth also provides a unique critique of several skeptical writers.
MCDOWELL: Yes, you write about an "ACE Detective Team." Who are they? What do they detect?
MARSHALL: A better question would be, "What do they overlook?"
ACE refers to three representative scholars: Reza Aslan, Richard Carrier, and Bart Ehrman. Aslan was author of the Number One best-seller in America a few years ago: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. As a liberal Muslim, Aslan's thesis was that Jesus was a violent revolutionary, like Mohammed, who wished to overthrow the Romans and make himself universal king. Richard Carrier, an historian with a PhD from Columbia University, argues vociferously that Jesus never lived at all. And Bart Ehrman, who can be described as the dean of liberal New Testament skeptics in America today, has written numerous books trying to explain the gospels away as tall-tales that grew up around a kernel of truth about a historical, but non-miracle-working Jesus through a cross-cultural game of "telephone," or rumor-mongering.
I argue that all three men completely overlook the elephant in the room, the many kinds of evidence within the gospels themselves that show Jesus is largely as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John say he is.
While committing many egregious errors, I believe these skeptics also serve a useful purpose. They have gone on an epic search for fictional or semi-fictional parallels to Jesus in the ancient world. The analogies they offer are often hilarious. (The most popular is a late tale about griffins, dragons, and satyrs—whose lechery can be cured with beer—called Apollonius of Tyana. I find Apollonius resembles old Saturday Night Live skits with Chevy Chase and Bill Murray far more than it resembles the gospels!) When carefully analyzed, these supposed "Jesus doubles" show that the crowds who first heard Jesus were spot on when they remarked, "No one has spoken (or acted) as this man." The astounding uniqueness of Jesus is proven by the inability of intelligent, well-read scholars to find anyone like him in ancient fiction, or any religious founder whose biography is supported by such strong and diverse historical evidence.
MCDOWELL: How would you assess the Jesus-myth movement? Is it growing and becoming more prominent, or just louder because of the social media?
MARSHALL: Certainly a lot of people seem to be converting to mythicism. That seems to include a few otherwise intelligent people, such as psychologists and scientists who happen to be highly committed atheists, but almost no historians or New Testament scholars. A survey in Great Britain showed that many now doubt that Jesus ever lived, so that idea, like 9/11 conspiracy theories, seems to be gaining some traction. The conservative scholar John Gresham Machen predicted many decades ago that mythicism would increase, simply because the gospels produce a sort of cognitive dissonance in those committed to skepticism: they record a life that transcends what atheism allows, and yet within documents that are so obviously historical and recent, that skeptics are forced to posit "wild and crazy" theories to account for them.
Some Christians focus too much on refuting mythicism, in my opinion. We should set our sights on positively proving the Christian Gospel. Simply arguing that a historical Jesus lived concedes too much to silly people, and may be as futile as trying to convince flat earthers that the moon-landings were real. My own argument is not merely that Jesus once lived, but that what the gospels tell us about him—the whole Christian story, including Jesus' miracles, his death for our sins, and his resurrection from the dead—enjoys a uniquely rich and telling foundation of evidential support.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.