Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Four, part 3

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.

The beginning of that introduction doesn’t feel terribly accurate at the moment; as you might or might not have noticed, the last two posts had very little mention of comments from Katie and this one none whatsoever. This wasn’t by my choice; Katie simply felt she had a lot less to say about both this chapter and the next, as she’s never read the gospels and doesn’t know much about them, so I’m getting very few comments from her to share. Hopefully that situation will improve again as we get further into the book. In the meantime, I’ll keep going with the review.

I was hoping to get Chapter 3 wrapped up in this post, but then I realised I’d missed a major point that I should have covered in the last post. You might recall that I was discussing Jeffries’ claim that witnesses of Jesus’s life/alleged afterlife would have corrected any fallacious claims in Luke’s gospel and that we can therefore treat this gospel as reliable and accurate. This is a common apologetics claim which does not in fact hold up, for reasons which I explained. What I managed to miss, however, was that Jeffries wasn’t even answering his own question there.


Jeffries told the cadets that the first question to answer regarding witnesses was, and I quote:

1. Were they actually there? If not, they can’t help us.

And he didn’t answer that. He told the cadets why he thought Luke must have been written before 61 AD (without mentioning that Bible scholars agree that the earliest likely date for Luke is more around 80 AD). He told the cadets why he thought that the witnesses to Jesus’s life would have corrected any errors in Luke’s gospel (I’ve explained the reasons why we can’t actually assume that). But he never addressed the question he said they had to answer; the question of whether the author of Luke was actually there.

If he had directly addressed this, of course, he would have had a major problem; ‘Luke’ (whose real name is unknown) wasn’t there.

‘Luke’ has never been claimed, even by early church tradition, to have himself been personally present for the events of his gospel. He claims to have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, which might well have included talking with at least some eyewitnesses (unfortunately, we can’t even know that much, as ‘Luke’ gives us no details whatsoever on what ‘carefully investigated’ meant to him; we have no idea whom he talked to, what questions he asked, or what investigations he made to look into any contradictions in the accounts he received, all of which makes it nearly impossible to assess the reliability of his information). But, even if it did, there is no indication that he was present for any of these events himself.

The gospel of Luke fails the first test Wallace/Jeffries gives us. By Jeffries’ own assessment, the reports in these gospel can’t help us.

The same, by the way, is true of the gospel of Mark, which has also never been claimed to be a direct eyewitness report. It’s supposed to have been written by Peter’s assistant and be a report of Peter’s teachings, which would, if true, at least make it a second-hand report; unfortunately, this claim is based on flimsy evidence and is highly unlikely to have been true, so it probably wasn’t even that much. Either way, it is not a direct eyewitness report. The authors of the gospels of Matthew and John were traditionally thought to be the disciples of those names, which would, if true, have meant that those at least were eyewitness reports; however, the general consensus now of Biblical scholars is that this was not actually the case and that these two gospels were also not written by eyewitnesses. For more information on all this, check out this excellent blog post on the subject by PhD Classics student Matthew Ferguson. In short, it does not appear that any of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses.

This, just to clarify, does not make them useless or devoid of all evidence. They’re samples of what was being believed/taught in the decades following Jesus’s life and death, and they do ultimately go back, via some irretrievable path of who knows how much passing on and misremembering and embroidering along the way, to some kind of actual witness reports. But it does make their accuracy extremely uncertain and their reliability hopeless; and it does mean that they resoundingly fail the standards of police-investigative level rigour that Wallace is trying to make us think they pass.

‘Were they actually there? If not, they can’t help us.’ Wallace/Jeffries is, frankly, being downright misleading and disingenuous here. He’s presenting this to the cadets as a thorough investigation performed according to appropriate police standards, while completely glossing over the fact that the evidence does not meet these standards.



  1. DonDueed says

    All of the above contingent on there having been such a person as “Jesus of Nazareth” at all (that is, one who even remotely resembles the description in the gospels; no doubt there were several Jeshuas living in that area around that time).

  2. Owlmirror says

    As long as we’re talking about Luke, I found another post by Matthew Ferguson that has an interesting paragraph:

    As scholar Marion Soards (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 1827) notes, “The initial four verses of the book are a single Greek sentence that forms a highly stylized introductory statement typical of ancient historical writings … After this distinctive preface, however, the narrative shifts into a style of Greek reminiscent of the Septuagint.” As such, while Luke mimics some of the conventions of historical writing at the beginning of the gospel, the rest of the narrative reverts into the storytelling typical of the other Gospels.

  3. Dr Sarah says

    Well, we’ve got one historian (Tacitus) who mentions this troublemaking cult founded by someone called Christus or Chrestus who was executed by Pontius Pilate. We’ve got another historian (Josephus) who mentions a ‘Jesus who was called Christ’ (and probably other things about a wise man called Jesus as well, although those are confused by later interpolations). We’ve got a cult of followers who were writing about Jesus as a real person within decades of his alleged life and death, including some details that would be very unlikely to be invented (in particular, this Jesus’s upbringing in Nazareth, which two gospel authors make considerable attempts to explain away with improbable and contradictory explanations about how he was really born in Bethlehem even though he was brought up in Nazareth). We’ve got one very early writer (Paul) mentioning meeting with ‘the brother of the Lord’ in a context where ‘the Lord’ would have referred to Jesus, and also referring to Jesus as being born of a woman and coming from the seed of David.

    That all adds up to fairly solid evidence that, whatever else we do or don’t know about Yeshua-who-was-called-Christ of Nazareth, such a person does seem to have at least existed, founded a cult, and been executed by the Romans. Alternative explanations exist for all of the above, but they’re so convoluted and improbable that it’s vastly more likely that there actually was a real person who was mentioned in passing by the historians and who served as the original inspiration for the stories his followers later told about him, even though many of those stories weren’t true.

  4. Dr Sarah says

    Yes. Ferguson and Carrier have both written some really interesting things on the whole topic of the gospels/problems with them, IMO.

  5. Brian Shanahan says

    1) The Tacitus reference to Chrestus (and not Christus, that was a “correction” made by an 11th century monk) may not refer to a cult of the abrahamic god at all. There were many Chrestuses in the Roman world, mainly because it was a nickname meaning “the good”.
    2) The Testmonium is a fraud inserted into Josephus by Eusebius c 325 CE. It did not appear before that date, did not appear in any Hebrew copies (a fact noted by Patriarch Photius I when denouncing the passage as a fraud) and neither reads as something written by a jew or something written by Josephus (the passage is laconic and lacking in details when Josephus was a verbose writer who loved giving back stories).
    3) We don’t ave a cult of Jesus followers early on, we’ve a number of cults of heterodox jews who later morphed into Jesus followers (in the 2nd century), and they most definitely weren’t writing the gospels down early. We don’t have a fragment larger than a few words until the very end of the 100s CE.
    4) Nazareth didn’t exist as anything bigger than a single farm between about the 400s BCE and the 400s CE (and was made a town largely to have a pilgramage site). The Nazarene title comes from a whole different area of Iudaea.
    5) Which Paul? The bible has four, all of very dubious validity and none of whom had an inkling of the gospels Jesuses.

    Of the five things you’ve cited we swerve madly from unverified conjecture to outright lies without ever remotely touching evidence (and that’s not even touching the fact that the bible writings have been radically alteredover the c1700 years of their existence).

  6. Dr Sarah says

    @Brian Shanahan:

    1. Tacitus did write ‘Christus’. The word that was altered in the manuscript was ‘Chrestianos’ (‘Chrestians’), which was altered to ‘Christianos’. There is no sign that the word ‘Christus’ was altered.

    More importantly, he described this ‘Christus’ as starting a cult of some kind in Judaea which Tacitus considered a ‘most mischievous superstition’ and which survived the founder’s death, and being executed by Pontius Pilate. It’d be a pretty gargantuan coincidence if Tacitus had heard of some other person who just happened to fit all those details.

    2. I’m aware of the controversy about the Testimonium, but that’s irrelevant to the ‘Jesus who was called Christ’ phrase, which is a passing mention in a completely different section of Josephus’s Antiquities which is accepted by scholars as genuine.

    (By the way, even the Testimonium, despite the fact that at least some of it is clearly a later interpolation, is thought by the majority of Josephan scholars to be at least partly genuine. While the controversy means it’s limited in evidential value, the majority agreement on parts of it being genuine mean that we can’t discount it completely; at the very least, it’s one more thing to tip the probability further towards a historical Jesus.)

    3. And yet, the fact that we do have an early fragment of the gospel of John means that we know that this gospel was around in some form by the early decades of the second century, meaning we have an account of Jesus’s life dating back to then.

    As for the other gospels, scholarly agreement even amongst skeptics appears to be universal that a) they were written before John’s gospel and b) this happened at some point in the first century, probably within a few decades of Jesus’s life. This makes me extremely skeptical of claims to the contrary, especially when such a claim is described as ‘most definitely’. If it were really that definite, we would not have a consensus among scholars of the opposite. (We would no doubt still get people who found reasons to dispute it, but they’d be outliers, not the general consensus.)

    4. So… how is that meant to refute my point? The gospel authors clearly found it highly awkward that Jesus came from Nazareth. The prophecy about the Messiah’s birth had him coming from Bethlehem, and that was what people expected. Instead, here was a supposed Messiah who not only didn’t come from Bethlehem, but came from a little nothing place in the back end of nowhere. Hence, you get Matthew and Luke making up convoluted and contradictory stories about royal-ordered infanticide, messages from angels, and a census that supposedly required Joseph to register in a place where he didn’t live (precisely what a census wouldn’t have requested) and to take his extremely pregnant wife along with him, all to explain how Jesus wasn’t really born in Nazareth despite coming from there.

    If the stories were entirely made up, why wouldn’t the authors just take the far simpler line of inventing his birth in Bethlehem in the first place? This is the kind of detail that strongly suggests that the stories did go back to a real Yeshua who was known to come from Nazareth, leaving the gospel writers with some explaining to do.

    5. Paul of Tarsus, who certainly wouldn’t have known anything about ‘the gospel Jesus’ as he was writing before the gospels were written, and who also knew extremely little about the actual Jesus, having joined the movement after Jesus’s death and shown very little interest indeed in finding anything out from the existing apostles. So we get minimal information about Jesus’s life from Paul.

    But he does, however, mention meeting James, ‘the brother of the Lord’ – i.e., the brother of Jesus. So, this is evidence that Jesus’s brother was an actual human being, which would make Jesus an actual human being. On top of this, he also refers to Jesus as being ‘of the seed of David according to the flesh’ (Romans 1:3) and as being born of a woman (Galatians 4:4). As little as Paul knew about Jesus, and as exaggerated and miraculous a view as he seems to have built up of him, it does appear that he understood him to be someone who until recently had been walking around on earth as a flesh-and-blood figure.

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