Wednesday 25 August 2021

Josh McDowell: Manuscript Hunting and Mythmaking for Jesus

I sort-of took part in a really interesting webinar today, that I only heard about at the last moment. Dr. Kipp Davis showed the results of a piece of his research that was presented in the form of a film Josh McDowell: Manuscript Hunting and Mythmaking for Jesus . Sort-of because I use one computer for most of my work that has a super-mega firewall that interferes with some webstuff, and one for purely webstuff like online meetings. The problem is that other computer is at times unstable... so when the Zoom meeting started breaking up, it was not clear whether it was my computer that was playing up, or the source signal. Apparently it was a bit of both. Fortunately, the main problems were in the bit that was a presentation of a You Tube video which was the topic of the discussion. So I watched it on You Tube and returned to the Zoom meeting to hear the erudite comments of Dr Roberta Mazza (Manchester papyrologist many times mentioned here) and Dana Ryan Lande, MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society who is a narrative theoretician. Both made excellent and thought-provoking points. As the blurb says:

Josh McDowell is one of the most recognisable Evangelical apologists of the last half-century, and he is renowned in part for his usage of ancient manuscript studies to fortify a number of his exaggerated claims about the New Testament and Christianity. McDowell is a private manuscript collector in his own right, and he involved himself in the recent controversy surrounding the popularisation of a supposedly first-century manuscript fragment of the Gospel of Mark. This film tracks McDowell’s history with ancient manuscripts parallel to the recent history of controversial biblical manuscript finds and forgeries, and deconstructs how he has manipulated this history to rewrite his own conversion narrative.
McDowell is mentioned quite a lot in this blog, though mainly around 2013, 2014- ish. He has a 15th century torah scroll reputedly from "Lots" on the Polish German border that went missing and surfaced in Israel (he says) after the War. The city is called Łódź and has today a Jewish community. I wrote some other comments about his collection too. He's one of the ones involved in the absolutely disgusting dissolution of cartonnage of uncertain provenance to provide an alibi for the appearance of certain papyri in the increasingly complicated and entangled stories involving papyri, collectors, a certain museum, and academic institutions that have been emerging in recent years.

The film is really  well done (and I think the best way to present the material gathered). Please pay attention to the music, specially written for the piece, and it's a super match. The mummy mask dissolving is discussed at the beginning. 

Posted on you tube by Kipp Davis 25th August 2018

The seminar however focussed on one aspect of McDowell's presentations and that is the story he tells of his own conversion and the way it evolved between the 1970s and the present day.   

Dr Davis tries to show how this story not only changes with time (and where its elements come from) but also the way ancient manuscripts start to get incorporated into it after a certain period, which he correlates with the beginnings of the interests in private ownership of physical fragments of the manuscripts with the Schoyen collection, Scott Carrol's dealings for Van Kampen and the Green collection - but also the announcement of "First Century Mark". He shows that the theme of manuscripts and the revelation "in the library of a small London Museum" first appear in accounts of 2018. Dr Davis explains at the end why it is important to look at these accounts and McDowell's mythologising of himself. [Mention is made of the Ewa Mroczek piece Batshit Stories: New Tales of Discovering Ancient Texts (Marginalia June 22, 2018)].

One thing that I was surprised not to see being brought up by Bible scholars about this narrative (and the session overran due to some technical problems, so I did not raise it). The specific time given Friday evening about 18:30, and then McDowell's insistent repetition each time when he retold it that he said "it is true" three times is a clear parallel to Peter's triple DENIAL of Christ and Repentance after the Crucifixion (the evening of Good Friday) which is mentioned in all four Gospels. In Luke 22:55-60, the denial is made to three people, and in McDowell's post-2018 Conversion narrative "there were only three people there" (in the library).

Several important points were made in the discussion after the film. Dr Mazza pointed out that there is a very clear anti-intellectual/ anti-elite/ anti-authority sentiment behind a lot of the collecting activity and writing of these fundamentalists. Dana Ryan Lande pointed out that the way this narrative was constructed was instrumental in establishing a picture of McDowell's authority and qualifications to make the arguments he does. This is why it is important to establish what in it it true and what is spin (which I think the film does).

A reflection I had was that in the eyes of these fundamentalist wannabe US evangelists, it was not the quality of "evidence" that the Bible story was true that matters, but the amount. Thus, as if that mattered, we have grabby collectors destroying mummy masks to get heaps and heaps of scraps of papyrus that include some that are "twenty years older" than somebody else's (but actually might be third century and not 1st century). We see the Greens buying 40 000 'biblical' artefacts in a space of four years, not half a dozen cuneiform tablets for a display but tens of thousands. It does not matter that they have no context or associations, or even findspot, there are "lots of them" as if size matters.


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