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.
In the first part of this chapter, we had some stuff about witnesses and how to assess their reliability, and Jeffries asked the cadets to apply these principles to the ‘witnesses mentioned in the Gospels’, conveniently ignoring the fact that the only information we have on ‘the witnesses mentioned in the Gospels’ are some reports, from unknown people, an unknown number of decades later, telling us that some people (the reports don’t always entirely agree on which people) witnessed the events reported, with no information on how these reports were verified or passed on to others. In a situation like that, not only have we got no chance of assessing the reliability of the witnesses, but it’s a moot point as we also have no idea how much their reports might have been changed/embroidered/misremembered in the process of being passed from one person to another prior to being written down.
Sadly, no trained skeptics are there to point any of this out, so Jeffries gets to go on making his approach sound like thorough and appropriate investigation.
Jason, as instructed, starts to work through the list of questions Jeffries has given them for assessing witness reliability, starting with ‘Were they actually there?’. Jeffries tells them they should ‘use our detective minds again’, which, as always, means ‘go along with Jeffries’ leading questions’. Back to the skateboard investigation as an example; in this case, an example of how to draw unwarranted conclusions about when something was written while making it sound as though the evidence backs you up. Here’s how it works:
If Daniel had written a report on the skateboard investigation yesterday, argues Jeffries, it wouldn’t have included the information he got from his sister or the shop owner today. (Today? When did they have time? I thought they went to the
Bible class police cadet academy straight after school. Oh, well, maybe it’s a school holiday.) Therefore, Jeffries would have been able to tell it was written yesterday purely from the fact that those things were omitted.
If you’re looking at an official report meant to include all known details, this is probably fairly reasonable (of course, in that case the report would also be dated and it would be a moot point, but that’s by-the-by here). However, what Wallace/Jeffries is trying to do here is to extrapolate this to accounts that aren’t that official. Sorry, but you can’t work on the assumption that the only possible reason why anyone wouldn’t include X in an account is that it hadn’t yet happened at the time of writing.
Thus: Because Acts doesn’t include the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD) or the deaths of Peter, Paul, and James (supposedly from 61 – 64AD, although Wallace doesn’t explain how Jeffries thinks he knows the dates of death of Peter and Paul, since all we have on those are late legends; I suppose we might know when James died, since that famously gets mentioned in Josephus), Jeffries argues that Acts was written before 61 and thus the gospel of Luke was written even earlier than that. QED.
I’m not an expert, but I do know that there is a general consensus in Biblical scholarship that the gospel of Luke is thought to have been written around 80 AD at the earliest. (There is a lot of uncertainty around the dating of all of the gospels, but this is thought to have been the earliest likely date for Luke.) This, it is worth noting, is despite a heavy preponderance of conservative Christian scholars in the field of Bible studies, who would love to be able to date the gospels as early as possible and would be delighted with evidence supporting an earlier rather than a later date. I don’t know the details of how Biblical scholars reached the conclusion that the gospel of Luke had been written in the 80s AD or later, but I’m willing to bet that the answer is not “Because we never thought of this point about Luke not including those events! This changes everything! Thank you, Wallace, for coming up with this!”
But… even if Wallace/Jeffries is right here, how much would that help? We’d still be looking at this gospel being written potentially as much as a quarter-century later, which is enough time for a lot of embroidering of a story to happen as it passes from one person to another. But Jeffries doesn’t see that as a problem, because…
“[…]This gospel was written early, while people who really knew Jesus were still alive. If the Gospels contained lies, the people who knew Jesus would have spotted them. It’s hard to fool people who were there and knew the truth.”
….because of the ‘Disciples As Perfect Proof-Checkers’ fallacy. (That isn’t an official name for it, by the way; I just came up with that one. Has a good ring to it, though.)
This fallacy is a common one; the idea that inaccuracies or legends couldn’t have been written into the gospels while the original witnesses were still alive because they’d have called the gospel-writers out on it. It sounds superficially persuasive, until you start looking at the assumptions required here:
- That the church founders would even have heard or read the gospels. That becomes a heck of a large assumption when you figure in that we don’t know where the original gospels were written; that by that time, Paul and others had travelled around setting up some pretty far-flung communities of believers, in an age where travel was difficult and uncommon, especially amongst the poor; that we don’t know whether these gospels were being read aloud regularly to their communities, or whether the church founders could themselves read; and that it’s now recognised that the gospels were written in Greek while Jesus’s original followers would have spoken Aramaic as their native tongue.
- That the gospel authors would, if called out on errors, be happy to correct their works.
- That it would, at that point, be possible to retrieve and rewrite all copies that had so far been written. (Remember that none of this was being done via formal publishing. If a copy of your work had gone off to a far-distant community, then the only way to change that would be to send or take the corrected copy yourself and hope the community would be willing to make the switch.)
“Let’s face it,” I said to Katie, “Luke wasn’t going to rewrite his gospel just because someone pointed out there was a mistake in it.”
Katie immediately spotted the relevance to our current project. “Like, I’ve spotted a lot of flaws in the story already, and so have you, as we both know. But that doesn’t mean this guy is going to rewrite the whole thing, does it?”
Of course, it’s not an exact parallel; the disciples and other witnesses to the events around Jesus’s life should, in theory, been able to speak about their situation with more authority than I daresay Wallace would consider we held on his opinions. But still… how likely is it that Luke would have been willing to, say, arrange for the ending of all existing copies of his gospel to be rewritten just because some guy turned up at the church meeting claiming to be a disciple and saying “No, actually, that bit about Jesus sharing our food never happened”?