My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.
Obligatory quick recap: This chapter is supposedly assessing the gospel stories by criteria used by jurors to assess reliability of witness reports, and Jeffries is doing a good job of glossing over just how dismally they fail. We have, so far, made it through the first of four criteria.
‘Wow, that was a lot of work just to answer the first question’ says Daniel. More accurately, it was a lot of work to evade the first question; answering it honestly (‘No, the author of Luke wasn’t there and can’t be treated as an eyewitness report’) would have been much faster. I do agree with him about it being a lot of work, though. Time to crack on.
The cadets move on to point 2, which is, you might recall, “Can we verify what they say in some way? We look for other pieces of evidence to see if they agree with what the witness said.”
How does that play out as far as the gospels are concerned? Well, there’s an awful lot in them that can’t be verified; the words and actions of an itinerant preacher in a largely illiterate backwater are, in the nature of things, highly likely to go unrecorded. It’s therefore only to be expected that we’d have no confirmation from non-gospel sources of most of the stories in the gospels, and indeed this is the case. A couple of points actually are confirmed; the historian Tacitus makes passing mention of a ‘Christus’ who founded a cult and was executed by Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, and Josephus mentions that a person called James was the brother ‘of Jesus called Christ’ (and probably mentions some other things about Jesus in another passage, but that one unfortunately has been contaminated by Christian interpolations at a later stage, making it hard for us to tell for certain what he said). None of this, of course, gets us any further in terms of verifying the claims that this Jesus-called-Christ actually did perform miracles, claim to be God, or rise from the dead.
However, there are some other claims in the gospels that actually should be verifiable if true. ‘Matthew’ tells us that at the time of Jesus’s death there was an earthquake that split rocks, the temple veil spontaneously tore from top to bottom, and graves opened up, with a number of dead people emerging and going into the towns where they appeared to people. These seem like the kinds of events that historians of the time would mention, even if just to try to put a naturalistic explanation on them to refute all the supernatural claims people would have been making. From the absence of mention of any such events, we can be reasonably sure they didn’t happen. ‘Matthew’ also cites numerous supposed prophecies that were supposedly miraculously fulfilled by the events in Jesus’s life, so that’s something we can fact-check; we can go back to the Jewish scriptures and see whether those prophecies actually exist. In fact, it turns out that most of the passages that ‘Matthew’ is claiming as prophecies are vague statements taken out of context and, in a couple of cases, crucially mistranslated; so what ‘Matthew’ says about prophecies isn’t accurate, when fact-checked.
All this doesn’t mean we can discard this gospel entirely; ‘Matthew’ might well, for all we know, have also reported all sorts of truths about Jesus’s life. But it does mean that ‘Matthew’ seems to have quite a penchant for dramatic elaboration and embroidery of a story, and that we can’t simply trust this author unquestioningly; we don’t know what other claims in this gospel are also examples of this type of elaboration. Once again, the gospels do not do well against Jeffries’ criteria.
Yet despite this, Jeffries assures the cadets that “we do have a lot of ‘verifying’ evidence”. This, apparently, is archaeological evidence to indicate that the gospel of Luke contains accurate information about cities in the area and about common names at the time, thus indicating that ‘Luke’ was indeed in the appropriate area at the right sort of time. Which seems to be good enough for verifying evidence, as far as Wallace/Jeffries is concerned. I… really hope that, when Wallace prepares his police cases, he goes for better evidence than ‘This person was in the right part of the country at the approximate time of these events, so clearly we can treat them as a valid eyewitness’.
“But how do we know they weren’t lying about the stuff that we can’t verify with archaeology or names?” asks Jason again.
Jeffries sits down with the cadets. “Let’s jump down to question #4[…]”
This line, by the way, is illustrated with a not-terribly-skilled line drawing of Jeffries and cadets which I barely noticed but which struck Katie as somewhat disturbing. “They’re all smiling the same slightly creepy smile,” she pointed out. “It’s as if they’re all possessed by the ghost of a marionette or something.”
Did the authors have a reason to lie? What would they get for their trouble? They ended up dying for their claims and there isn’t any evidence that they got rich or successful, or even popular!
I’m wondering whom he thinks ended up ‘dying for their claims’ here. I realise that Wallace (unlike most Biblical scholars) believes that the gospels of Matthew and John were written by the apostles of that name, and that there are church legends that say that Matthew was killed for his beliefs; but even the church has never claimed that John was martyred, and I couldn’t find any such claims regarding Mark or Luke either. Even if all four of the gospels actually were written by the authors traditionally claimed for them (which, alas for Wallace, is now generally considered by Biblical scholars to be highly unlikely to have been the case), we’d still only have at most one of them killed for his beliefs, and very possibly not even that, given the doubt about the story of Matthew’s martyrdom.
Many of them were put to death for teaching about Jesus, but none ever changed his story.”
Could we please put the ‘none ever changed his story’ myth to rest? In the first place, it s based on literally zero evidence. We have nothing available on whether any of the apostles were given a chance to recant prior to death or on what they said. We barely even know whether they were put to death; most of the martyrdom stories are unreliable legends from later in church history. In the second place, it’s a reply to a strawman argument; the argument that the apostles were lying about the resurrection. I’ve not yet come across anyone who seriously believes that to be the case after studying the evidence; it’s far more likely that the apostles somehow came to believe themselves that Jesus really was resurrected. Even if we did have reliable accounts of apostles sticking to their stories in the face of death threats, that wouldn’t help us judge the accuracy of their beliefs.
And Jason, bless him (if you’ll excuse the figure of speech), has come up with a great point:
“Okay then. What about the question you skipped? How do you know the story of Jesus wasn’t just changed over time? Maybe the first version didn’t even contain all the miracles I read about last week. What if those parts were added later by people who had something to gain?”
Everyone in the room gets suddenly silent.
“Oooh,” says Jeffries, smiling at Jason. “Now you’re starting to think like a detective![…]”
He’s been thinking more like a detective than you have here, so maybe cut the patronising tone?
“[…]I’ll help you answer that question the next time we meet.”
“So he can have time to think of an answer?” I speculated to Katie. She liked this and typed into my notes, “So I can have a chance to think of another lie… I-I mean, really think about the evidence and make sure my conclusion is correct, uh…!”
So! What will Jeffries have to say about this one! Will he have good reasons as to why we should trust that a story that was passed on orally for decades, often in sites that were far from where events originally took place, remained essentially unchanged? (Spoiler: no.) Will he have a good explanation for the stories and elaborations that, indeed, do show up in the later gospels but not the earlier ones? (Spoiler: no.) Tune in next week, etc., etc.