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.
We are now about to find out why – in the face of all the evidence – Jeffries believes he can reassure Jason that the gospel stories haven’t been changed over time. As always, the reason is related to what we’ve just been learning about the skateboard; in this case, chain of custody. Wallace/Jeffries is claiming that we can set up a chain of custody for the gospel of John.
Which is, once again, an extraordinary claim to be making, because we don’t have any original copies for which to set up a chain of custody. The earliest complete copies we have are from probably about three hundred years after it was first written; even the first tiny fragment we have dates from some time in the first half of the second century, many years (quite possibly some decades, depending on uncertainties in dating) after the time it was thought to have been first written down. Jeffries does tell the cadets that we have none of the original copies, so at least he’s being honest about that point. His claim, it turns out, is not that we can establish a chain of custody for the actual manuscripts, but that we can establish one for the story.
Here’s how this is supposed to work, according to Jeffries:
- John had three students – Polycarp, Papias, and Ignatius – who ‘wrote their own letters describing the information they learned from John’.
- Ignatius and Polycarp went on to teach Irenaeus, who ‘wrote about what he learned from his teachers’.
- Irenaeus went on to teach Hippolytus, who ‘wrote about everything he learned from Irenaeus’.
We can therefore, according to Jeffries, compare these different versions over time to see whether anything is getting added to the story of Jesus or whether the story remained the same from the beginning. Voilà! One perfectly good chain of custody!
I… I just… where even to begin with this.
First problem: This is not how chains of custody work.
OK, disclaimer as before; I’m not a police officer, I’m not involved with police work in any capacity, and what I know about the subject is what I’ve learned by googling ‘chain of custody’ and reading the pages that seemed to be by official sources. So, if I really have this wrong and an actual police officer or person involved with police evidence in some official way spots and and points it out to me, fair enough, I’ll eat humble pie.
But… from what I’ve learned, chains of custody are for actual physical items. In this day and age they can also be for electronic evidence, but the point is that they are for evidence that can be objectively examined by others. In my reading, I didn’t see a darned thing about them being used for verbal reports. When a verbal report gets passed through multiple people… surely the term for that isn’t chain of custody, but hearsay?
The next problem is that, if Wallace/Jeffries is starting with the gospel of John to try to make the case for the gospel stories remaining unchanged over time, then he’s already missed the boat. The gospel of John is now almost universally agreed to have been written latest of the four gospels. Bible scholars estimate it to have been written in AD 90 or later (possibly more than a decade later than even that late date), meaning that at best it was written almost sixty years after the time of the events it supposedly reports, and it might well be later even than that. And, although the gospel of John has traditionally been thought to have been written by the John who was an apostle of Jesus (hence ‘gospel according to John’, the official name of this gospel), this was based on very flimsy evidence and it is also now generally accepted that that the Apostle John probably wasn’t the author. So Jeffries’ ‘proof’ that the gospel stories weren’t changed over time is in fact based on a gospel that was written down many decades after events, after having been passed along an unknown number of times.
And on top of this, Wallace/Jeffries doesn’t seem to be giving us a very accurate picture of what these authors have actually written. Here’s what Jeffries says:
“John had three students—Polycarp, Papias, and Ignatius. These men listened to everything John taught them about Jesus, and then they wrote their own letters describing the information they learned from John. These letters are not in your Bible, but they were preserved through history.”
We do have writings from all three of these men expounding on their beliefs (although it’s stretching accuracy to refer to them as ‘letters’; we do have seven letters from Ignatius and one from Polycarp, but the only writings we have from Papias’ works are a few short paragraphs from the books he wrote, which we have because another Christian author writing a few hundred years later quoted from him and we still have that book). However, it is complete supposition that they were ‘describing the information they learned from John’; none of the three states where these beliefs came from or on what evidence. We don’t know what came from reliable sources, or what came from unreliable sources, or what the authors might have felt inspired to write themselves based on no other evidence.
On top of that, it’s highly dubious whether Wallace is even right about them all having learned from John. In the case of Polycarp, we do have evidence to back this up; we have a quote preserved from Irenaeus in which he reports listening to sermons by Polycarp in which Polycarp did state that he had himself talked with John. In the case of Papias, however, we have a significant problem here; one of the quotes we have from him is about his insistence on learning from people who had learned from the apostles (or at least claimed to have done so, since it’s not clear how discerning he was about such claims, but that’s by-the-by), and this would be pretty odd if he had already had the one-step-closer method of being a student of an apostle himself. He does report learning from someone called John, but, from context, this seems to have been a different John (it was a common name in those days).
As for Ignatius, it appears we have barely any information about him. I’m happy to be put right on this if I’d missed something, but I couldn’t find anything to suggest he had been a student of John’s. I’m not at all clear what Wallace’s basis is for believing he was; I’ve checked his blog, where he writes about this, and my copy of the original ‘Cold Case Christianity’ that he wrote for adults, and he makes the claim in both places, but doesn’t reference it in either.
If we actually did have three different people writing letters and/or books along the lines of “Here is everything John told us about his experiences with Jesus”, then, while I don’t believe that could count as a chain of custody for the reasons given above, it would still be very useful evidence that we could take into account. Wallace seems to be trying to make it look, to the children reading his books, as though this is the case… but it isn’t, not even close.
Overall, Wallace’s argument here appears to boil down to something along the lines of ‘We know that people from subsequent generations of the church reported the same sorts of beliefs as those described in the gospels, so this counts as a chain of custody and proves the gospels must themselves be true and accurate accounts.’ And… no. It does not work that way at all.