Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: a reply to R. G. Price

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Jesus mythicism (the belief that Jesus never existed as a real person), explaining my initial reason for coming down on the ‘historicity’ side of that particular debate. Rather to my surprise, it went on to get more comments than I’ve had on any other post in over thirteen years of blogging. (In fairness, that is not a terribly high bar, but I was still really pleased about it.) Thank you to all those of you who commented and joined in the discussion. I replied to a lot of the comments but did leave several comments unanswered as the thread seemed to have come to a halt and I didn’t know whether anyone was still reading; if yours was one of those and you would still like it answered, do please let me know and I’ll try to do so.

Anyway, I’m restarting this as a new person has just joined the comment thread; mythicist R.G. Price (who, confusingly, is a different mythicist from Robert Price). R.G. had a long comment with a lot of questions, so I decided that, rather than trying to reply in comments, it would be better to write a new post.

Why don’t the earliest writings about Jesus describe who he was as a person?

The earliest writings about Jesus were written by someone who not only became a follower of Jesus only after his death, but showed almost no interest in hearing about Jesus’s life; he based his beliefs not on teachings from the existing group of Jesus-followers but on revelations he believed he was getting from Jesus directly, and he spread those beliefs far and wide. I completely agree that this was a somewhat bizarre state of affairs to have come about, but, nevertheless, we know from Paul’s own writings that this was what happened.

This being the case, we wouldn’t expect Paul to have described who Jesus was as a person, regardless of whether Jesus actually had been a person or not. Paul simply doesn’t seem to have been interested in Jesus as a person. In Paul’s writings, his focus is on his image of Jesus as a magic mechanism for all-purpose forgiveness of sins.

Why don’t the earliest writings about Jesus convey any of his teachings?

Same reason.

Why didn’t Jesus produce any writings of his own?

He lived and died in a culture where the majority of his society were not functionally literate, where oral teaching had huge importance, where ink and paper were expensive luxuries, and where the printing press wasn’t even a twinkle in an inventor’s eye yet. If someone in such a society wanted to get a message out to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, their best bet for doing that was to travel around and do a lot of public preaching, since that would reach significantly more people for the time spent. On top of that, we don’t even know whether Jesus himself had had formal training or practice in writing; in that day and age, it’s quite possible that he didn’t.

If Jesus couldn’t read and write, then why would people, in a culture that highly valued the reading and writing of scripture, worship such a person for their “teachings”?

I don’t know of anyone who was worshipping Jesus for his teachings. Paul created a theology in which Jesus was a magical sacrifice sent by God to wipe clean everyone’s sins, and this evolved over time into a theology that believed that Jesus was part of God and thus worshipped him on that basis.

Why would people think that a person, who presumably didn’t perform miracles or rise from the dead, was “the Lord Jesus Christ”, an eternal being with godly powers?

That’s a few different questions rolled into one:

Why did they believe him to be the Messiah (Christ)? That’s not hard to see; the Jews were desperate for a Messiah, and any apparently good contender for the post would get a lot of followers out of pure wishful thinking. Jesus was clearly a highly charismatic and convincing speaker. It would actually have been stranger if he hadn’t had followers who believed him to be the Messiah. It is strange that Paul kept up the title in writing about him despite having come to a completely different set of beliefs about him, but it’s still less strange that Paul would keep an existing title for him than that someone would so utterly and completely reinterpret the concept of Messiahship from scratch, which is what would be required for Jesus to be mythical.

Why did they call him Lord? Well, being the Messiah effectively meant you were the rightful king (it was part of the job description) and that you were sent by God, so, for the people who believed he was the Messiah, it probably would have seemed appropriate to address him as ‘Lord’. It probably would have seemed even more appropriate to Paul, whose new version of the theology seems to have involved seeing Jesus as an amazing being imbued with wondrous powers.

How did people move from seeing him as a human being to seeing him as an eternal being with godly powers? The full change to seeing him in this way seems to have happened gradually over time, but a significant shift seems to have happened with Paul, who, based on his letters, seems to have gone off on a complete tangent with his beliefs about Jesus, coming up with a new version of belief that wasn’t anything to do with traditional beliefs about the Messiah.

If people did think that this person was some eternal Lord, then why didn’t they record anything about him or things that he said that convinced them that he was this eternal all-powerful Lord?

Huh? Innumerable Christians have been recording precisely that for the past two millennia. You might need to clarify that question.

Why would someone’s brother, who grew up with him and likely had fights with him as a child and saw him get in trouble, get sick, etc. think that he was a perfect all-powerful deity – the only being in existence capable of bringing justice to the world?

Do we have any good evidence that any of Jesus’s brothers thought that (as opposed to later Christians believing it)?

Why does the letter to the Hebrews “quote” Jesus by quoting from scriptures and give no details about this person’s real life?

Most likely the author followed Paul’s influence in focusing on Jesus in his role of magic sin-erasing device rather than showing interest in him as a person. That, of course, is conjecture; but what we do know is that, whatever the author’s reason, it does not seem to have been a lack of belief in a Jesus who really walked the earth as a flesh-and-blood person.

‘Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things’: Heb 2:14

‘Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect…’: Heb 2:17

‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are’: Heb 4:15

‘In the days of his flesh…’: Heb 5:7

‘For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah’: Heb 7:14

‘…by the the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh’: Heb 10:19 – 20

That’s a half-dozen statements that are very hard to explain away if the author of Hebrews didn’t believe Jesus had lived on earth.

Why does the letter to the Hebrews say explicitly that Jesus is a heavenly High Priest?

The letter to the Hebrews was written after Jesus’s death. Regardless of whether his followers thought he’d lived on earth prior to that death or not, they’d have believed him to be in heaven at that point!

Why does Paul talk repeatedly about Jesus being a divine mystery?

If you give me the quotes you’re thinking of, I’ll see what they sound like in context. Again, given the number of times Paul makes a comment about Jesus being ‘born of a woman‘ or ‘according to the flesh‘ or ‘the seed of David‘, or comparable to Adam as a man, or about him having brothers, the answer doesn’t seem to be ‘Because Paul believed Jesus only ever existed as a spiritual being in a cosmic realm’.

Why doesn’t Paul attribute any of his teachings to Jesus?

Huh? He does. Did you mean, why does he only attribute his teachings to post-resurrection revelations from Jesus rather than to things he’d learned from the apostles? If so, then I refer you back to the first point.

Why would Paul think his teachings were better than, or even on par with, people who had personally known Jesus and learned his teachings directly from his mouth?

Paul believed that he’d learned his teachings directly from Jesus as well. Sure, he believed it was happening by revelations from Jesus up in heaven, but – given the way he changed his life over these revelations – I think we can reasonably assume that he fully believed, or at least had managed to convince himself, that he was genuinely receiving teachings from a resurrected and heavenly Jesus.

Why does the Gospel of Mark use so many literary sources?

Probably because, as you’ve just pointed out above, scriptural sources were extremely important to people in that day and age.

Why does the Gospel of Mark use teachings of Paul as Jesus’s teachings?

Because that’s how Paul presented many of his teachings to the communities he founded (remember, he believed they came directly from Jesus via revelation, and presented them as such).

Why does the Gospel of Mark portray the disciples so poorly?

This probably goes back to the division in beliefs between the communities founded by Paul, and the original church run by former disciples in Jerusalem. The gospels seem to have been written outside Judaea, meaning it’s likely they came from communities who originated from Paul and were using theology that was more Pauline in nature and hence differed from the theology taught by the original Jerusalem church on some key points. It’s not hard to imagine that this would have been pretty awkward for the churches. Some of the differences seem to have been harmonised or glossed over, but some of them seem to have been dealt with by portraying the disciples as a bunch of bumbling fools who constantly misunderstood what Jesus’s mission was really about.

Why does every single story about Jesus share text with the Gospel of Mark?

Because later authors used gMark as one of their sources.

I could go on, but really, all of these questions, and many more, need reasonable answers in order for the idea that the Jesus of Christianity is based on the life of a real person to have any plausibility.

On the other hand, there is really only one question that needs to be answered for the scenario that the Jesus of Christianity isn’t based on a real person to be plausible and that question is:

How do you explain the five or six short passages in the letters of Paul that suggest Jesus was a real person?

Only one question… are you kidding me?? What about…

Why does Josephus, in a line universally accepted as genuine by Josephan scholars, describe one man as being ‘the brother of Jesus called Christ’?

Why does Tacitus mention a Christus who founded a sect named after him and who was executed by Pontius Pilate, describing this sect in terms hostile enough that this is extremely unlikely to be information he got from Christians?

What precedent is there for anyone writing allegorical stories about a heavenly figure that are so detailed they mention fictitious family members and a place where he allegedly grew up? How often, in that culture, is that known to have happened? Based on that answer, what are the estimated chances that multiple different people in a relatively small sect would choose to do this about the same figure?

What is the explanation for the passages I quoted above from Hebrews indicating a belief in a human flesh-and-blood Jesus of physical descent?

Why do two of the gospel writers describe Jesus as coming from Nazareth, even though this was clearly very awkward for them to the point where they had to make up detailed and implausible stories explaining how he had really come to be born in Bethlehem and not Nazareth?

Why do the gospel writers all name a powerful Roman as being the person who ordered Jesus’s crucifixion, even though they clearly realised the risks of this and took great pains to gloss over and explain away this part of the story as much as possible?

All of which is on top of the multiple passages in Paul that fit with historicity rather than mythicism; and ‘five or six’ is an underestimate there. I’ve been through the undisputed letters and count 11. (That isn’t counting the ‘killed by the Jews’ passage on 1 Thessalonians, which I left off the list as there are reasonable unrelated grounds for suspecting it to be an interpolation.)

And, yes, it’s possible to look at any individual one of those examples in isolation and say, maybe this one was an interpolation or we’re interpreting it wrong or there’s some other explanation we’re not aware of. But the more such examples there are, the more difficult it is to explain all of them away. When we’re looking at needing this many convoluted and improbable explanations to sustain a theory, then that theory has become overwhelmingly unlikely and needs to be discarded.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Six, part 4

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.

So far in Chapter Six:

  • Daniel’s sister Lacey visited the class so that Jeffries could ask her what she remembered about the skateboard.
  • Jeffries asked her a few questions and proceeded to ignore her completely in favour of starting this week’s apologetics lesson.
  • Lacey clearly knows more about the skateboard than she’s letting on, but this went unexplored in this chapter as Jeffries, as usual, considers apologetics more important than actually teaching cadet-related stuff.
  • I suspect Lacey herself of being the mysterious former owner, but we have not yet been told whether this is the case or not.
  • Jeffries is claiming that a report of someone else’s report counts as an eyewitness statement. I’m fairly sure it doesn’t.
  • Jeffries believes we have good evidence that gMark (the gospel according to Mark) was written by a follower/eyewitness of Peter.

So far in background information:

And now… Jeffries is going to explain to us/the cadets what his evidence is for gMark having been written by a follower/eyewitness of Peter! Yay! This is the bit I’ve been looking forward to.

Because I was genuinely interested in this part, I did quite a lot more background reading than I usually do for these posts. After reading the CCCFK chapter, I went on to read the corresponding section in Cold Case Christianity (which, as you probably either know or can work out, is Wallace’s original ‘how to use police methods to investigate Christianity’ book and is aimed at adults) in order to get Wallace’s full argument. Then, I found an online Bible site where it was possible to get the whole of each gospel on one page, searched each gospel in turn for mentions of Peter under either of his names, made a list of all sections in each gospel that mention Peter, drew up a comparison table of the different Peter-mentioning stories in each gospel, and used my copy of Gospel Parallels (all right, all right, my parents’ copy that I borrowed in my teens-and-twenties phase of investigating Christianity and never gave back) to read and compare the different versions of the stories in each of the synoptic gospels, using an online Bible site to read the corresponding stories in gJohn. Sometimes you just gotta let your geek flag fly.

I wish I could say I’d reached some deeply profound conclusion as a result of all this, but I didn’t (I’m not counting the conclusion that I spend far too much time on trivia; I knew that long ago). Still, it was interesting.

(A quick note: Wallace, of course, refers to the author of this gospel as Mark all the way through this section. Since the entire point of this particular discussion topic is that we don’t know who the author is, this is technically somewhat question-begging. However, to be fair, it’s also more convenient, so I will do the same thing. If the author’s name was not in fact Mark, then my apologies to him, whoever he was.)

The explanation in CCCFK consists of a list of five points, followed up by Jeffries giving a short explanation of each (plus doing more whiteboard-drawing to illustrate each point; on this occasion his drawings included a calculator and a microphone, which struck me as a bit incongruous, but in fairness I suppose they’re just meant as symbols).

The list of points Jeffries gives in CCCFK is:

  1. Peter is a major character in Mark’s gospel
  2. Mark writes about Peter as a friend
  3. Mark treats Peter kindly
  4. Mark shares little things only Peter would know
  5. Mark seems to know a lot about Peter’s preaching

The corresponding CCC list contains one extra point, which is:

Mark used Peter as a set of ‘bookends’.

OK… let’s work through.

Peter is a major character in Mark’s gospel.

Jeffries’ explanation in CCCFK is ‘Mark’s gospel mentions Peter a lot more than Matthew’s gospel’. This, unfortunately, isn’t accurate even according to Wallace’s info; in CCC, I learned that gMatthew actually mentions Peter three times more than gMark does. What Wallace means is that gMark mentions Peter proportionately more, once you take the shorter length into account. I’m pretty sure Wallace’s inaccurate statement in CCCFK was an inadvertent result of his attempts to simplify the argument to child level rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead his child readers, but it’s a bit sloppy.

I also can’t help feeling Wallace has given himself a bit of a problem here, as far as gospel authorship is concerned. If the proportionately greater number of mentions of Peter in gMark compared to gMatthew did mean that Mark was likely to have known Peter personally, wouldn’t the flip side of that be that the author of gMatthew was less likely to have known Peter personally? And wouldn’t that then cause problems with the traditional Church teaching that gMatthew was written by the apostle Matthew, who would have known Peter very well indeed? Wallace seems to be coming up with an argument in favour of traditional Markan authorship that effectively stands against traditional Matthean authorship. Not sure you thought that one all the way through, Wallace.

Anyway… looking at the argument Wallace is aiming for here (that Mark mentions Peter proportionately more often for the length), how well does it stand up as evidence for Markan authorship?

I don’t think it does. The extra material included in Matthew compared to Mark largely consists of a) the nativity/infancy narrative, b) the Sermon on the Mount, c) the long ‘scribes and Pharisees’ rant, and d) a short description of resurrection appearances. (If I’ve missed any major bits I should have included on that list, do let me know.) Peter obviously wouldn’t be expected to get a mention in Jesus’s nativity story, and there’s no obvious reason why he would get mentioned in a sermon Jesus is giving to multitudes or in a rant against another group of people. We could reasonably expect him to get a mention in the resurrection appearances (as he does in both Luke and John), but then, that whole argument leaves us with the awkward question of why Mark doesn’t mention the resurrection experiences at all, so that doesn’t really help Wallace’s case here.

In short, Mark doesn’t seem to be mentioning Peter disproportionately more than would be expected considering the material he and Matthew are covering. (In fact, I found several places where another gospel mentions Peter yet the equivalent passage in Mark doesn’t, or Mark leaves that story out entirely.)


Mark writes about Peter as a friend

The phrasing, again, is a product of Wallace’s attempt to simplify this for children; in CCC, this point is phrased as ‘Mark identified Peter with the most familiarity’. The CCCFK phrasing struck me as a bit ironic, because Mark actually doesn’t write about Peter ‘as a friend’; the entire gospel is narrated dispassionately in third person, with no direct statement or suggestion at all that Mark knew Peter.

The point Wallace is actually trying to make here is that Mark only ever uses one of Peter’s names (‘Simon’ or ‘Peter’) rather than calling him Simon Peter in full. He’s the only gospel writer who doesn’t use the name in full at any point; Wallace contrasts him with John, who, apparently, uses ‘Simon Peter’ seventeen times. From another quick wordsearch, I confirmed that Matthew and Luke do indeed each use the term ‘Simon Peter’ once, so Wallace is technically correct in saying that Mark is the only one never to use it. Given how often both Matthew and Luke use single names for Peter, I didn’t find that particularly significant; it seems both of them were also quite happy to refer to him by his first name. In fact, that’s the way people generally were referred to in those times, since surnames weren’t widely used at that time.

Interestingly, another problem with Wallace’s argument here is that he seems once again to be shooting himself in the foot. If the use of just ‘Peter’ rather than ‘Simon Peter’ is an important indicator that the author knew Peter well, then, conversely, the author of John would seem to be the one who knew Peter least well, since he uses the full name far more often than any of the other three. Yet, of course, Church tradition – and Wallace’s belief – has it that the author of this gospel is none other than the apostle John. John was an apostle together with Peter and a pillar of the early church together with him and James after Jesus’s death; they spent most of their adult lives together as companions and workmates. John would have known Peter even better and more closely than one of his followers. If Wallace’s argument about naming actually does hold water, wouldn’t that mean that he’s just given us a good reason to believe that the gospel of John wasn’t written by John?


Mark treats Peter kindly

Wallace’s claim here is that Mark ‘seldom says anything unkind about Peter’ even when writing about his mistakes. In CCC, Wallace gives examples of this:

  • In the account of Jesus walking on water, Mark does not include Peter’s failed attempt at doing the same or Jesus’s consequent description of him as a doubter/a man of little faith.
  • Mark doesn’t include the story of the miraculous catch of fish, which portrays Peter as doubtful of Jesus.
  • There are incidents (not specified by Wallace) where other gospels attribute some awkward question or statement to Peter but where Mark doesn’t give an attribution.
  • In the account of Peter declaring that Jesus’s death would never occur, the ‘most edited and least embarrassing’ version occurs in Mark.

This claim, I couldn’t help but notice, contradicts what Church father Papias has to say about Mark’s gospel; Papias states that Mark ‘took especial care not to omit anything that he had heard’ in writing his account of Peter’s teachings. Does Wallace really want to claim that Papias is wrong? Since this same quote from Papias is our earliest claim about the authorship of Mark’s gospel, that could have unfortunate implications for his argument.

Anyway, more to the point… Mark also includes the story of Peter being unable to stay awake to watch with Jesus and getting rebuked for it, the triple denial, and the ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’ scene. I’m really not convinced that Mark’s tried particularly hard to avoid showing Peter in a poor light.


Mark shares little things that only Peter would know

The corresponding claim in CCC is milder; rather than claiming that only Peter could have known these details, CCC says that the details ‘point to Peter’s involvement in the shaping of the text’. Examples are:

  • Mark is the only one to tell us that Peter (Simon) and the other disciples went looking for Jesus when he was praying on his own.
  • Mark is the only one to tell us that Peter was the one who commented on the withered fig tree.
  • Mark was the one who named the specific disciples who asked Jesus when the destruction he was predicting would happen
  • In the account of Jesus visiting Capernaum, Mark writes that the people heard Jesus had ‘come home’ even though Capernaum wasn’t Jesus’s home. Wallace points out that it was Peter’s home, so Peter might well have described Jesus’s visit there thus.

The last point is a really good one; I hadn’t noticed that comment in Mark, and it is pretty odd. So, yes, that could point towards a story that came originally from Peter.

The others are not actually that impressive in context; when I read through the different accounts together, I noticed that each of the gospels seem to mention Peter in some context where the others don’t. gMatthew names Peter as the disciple who asks about the handwashing parable.  gLuke names Peter a few times; in the scene with the woman with persistent bleeding he’s the one who expresses surprise that Jesus asks who touched him, in the scene where Jesus tells the parable of the thief in the night Peter is the one who asks whether this is for them or for everyone, and in the scene where Jesus asks the disciples to talk to a man to get the Passover meal ready Peter is named as one of the two disciples sent. Luke and John both include Peter finding the empty tomb. gJohn has the ‘Feed my sheep’ scene. Did Mark choose to leave all these out? Or is it just that Peter, as the main disciple, was an obvious choice to refer to when a gospel author wanted to add a bit of verisimilitude to the tale? Either way, the mentions in gMark don’t seem particularly convincing as a sign of the author having known Peter.


Mark seems to know a lot about Peter’s preaching

What this means, apparently, is that neither Mark nor Peter includes the birth narratives or ‘other details of Jesus’s private life that are found in Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels’ (Wallace doesn’t specify here which ones). Which could mean that Mark got his story from Peter, or could mean that, at the time Mark was writing, the extra details hadn’t been added to the tradition yet.


Mark used Peter as a set of ‘bookends’

This, Wallace explains, means that Peter is both the first and the last disciple mentioned in the text of Mark’s gospel, which Wallace states to be an example of ‘inclusio’. Inclusio is, apparently, a literary device used often in the Bible in which a particular phrase or theme is echoed at the beginning and end of a section in order to emphasise the section. I’m not sure this particular example counts as inclusio, since technically it’s neither a phrase nor a theme (there’s no particular similarity between the first mention of Peter and the last mention of Peter). I do think it fair to say that those mentions are one of the indications that the author wanted to emphasise Peter as a significant character – and, of course, Peter is a significant character in all four of the gospels – but it’s really a bit of a stretch to say that this indicates he got his information from Peter.


So, that’s the list. Bottom line… This analysis had the benefit of being something new in apologetics, which does not happen all that often. However, most of the points Wallace presents here as evidence don’t really hold up, and the overall level of evidence does not stack up well against the reasons for doubting traditional Markan authorship.

And that’s the end of Chapter Six (which I have reached just barely in time to avoid another tiresome round of footnoting the initial blurb with a ‘Katie is actually now X+1 years old even though she was X when I reviewed this chapter with her’ update).

One final point, from me; Remember Lacey’s evidence, guys? The witness statement that Jeffries completely dropped so that he could give his apologetics talk for the day? Well, we’re now up against an interesting question; did Jeffries come back to that statement at all in this session, or is he leaving it until the next session? Leaving it the way he did was bad enough, but leaving it for an entire week would be even worse. Everyone’s memories of it will be pretty fuzzy by then, and either they won’t have Lacey there to check any follow-up questions with her or Lacey will have to make an extra trip back to the police station because Jeffries didn’t have the courtesy to get her part of things wrapped up while she was actually there. And, since Wallace has so far stuck to the one-session-per-chapter format, it seems extremely likely that this is indeed meant to be the end of the session.

However, the book doesn’t specifically say this to be the end of the session, so we have a Schroedinger’s Ending situation; it is technically possible that Chapter Seven will be a continuation of the same session. So, Jeffries, you get the benefit of the doubt for a little longer on this point. We’ll find out in the next chapter.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Six, 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.

I finished my last CCCFK post by declaring that the next one would discuss Wallace/Jeffries’ explanations of why, in his opinion, analysis of the gospel of Mark shows it to have been written by a close follower of Peter. However, I then worked on the next post for a while before realising that I was going to have to start with a general discussion of Wallace’s approach and some problems thereof, and that putting everything in one post would make it far too long. So, this post is the general discussion, and next post on the topic will be the one that goes into the specifics of the explanations.

Although Wallace doesn’t say so in CCCFK, what he’s using here is based on a technique he’s been trained in using as a detective, called Forensic Statement Analysis. I initially saw this mentioned in one of the blurbs about this book, and was intrigued enough that I read the corresponding chapter in Cold Case Christianity to find out more. This is Wallace’s description, in CCC, of how he carries out this method:

I routinely asked suspects to write down what they did back on the day of the murder, accounting for their activity from the time they got up in the morning to the time they went to bed. I provided each suspect a blank piece of lined paper and a pen. Any alterations in their statement would have to be scratched out, and as a result, I was able to see what they initially wrote and where they were uncomfortable with their original choice of words. I would then examine this statement, asking several important questions. What kinds of words did the suspect use to describe the victim? Does the suspect ever inadvertently slip from the present to the past tense, giving away his or her presence or involvement at the scene of the crime? Does the suspect compress or expand the description of events in order to hide something or lie about how something occurred? Does the suspect over- or underidentify the victim in an effort to seem friendlier or disinterested in the victim? In essence, I examined every word to see if it provided any clue related to the suspect’s involvement in the crime.

Wallace gives us some examples of how this might work, and goes on to tell us that when he started reading the gospels – by which time he had already been using this technique for years – he “approached the Gospels like I would any other forensic statement”.

I found all this genuinely interesting; the technique sounds fascinating in itself, and I love the idea of using it to analyse the gospels and see what comes up. However, it’s also important to note the limitations of this technique, particularly when applied in this way… and Wallace (not too surprisingly) doesn’t really go into these.

Here are some things we need to consider:

How accurate is this technique, overall? Remember that this isn’t a method used to provide definitive evidence about whodunnit; it’s a method used to give detectives clues about which suspects need further investigation.   It sounds extremely useful for that purpose, but how accurate is it by itself? Out of the times Wallace has used it, in what proportion of cases have the suspicions raised by this method ultimately proved to be unfounded?

It’s noteworthy that, in the section of CCC where Wallace gives examples of different word choices people might make, he also points out different possible meanings of the choices. “We’d have to spend some time with him [the suspect] to learn more” he writes at one point. We have no way of spending more time with the gospel authors; we can’t learn more. Without that confirmation, how accurate are the conclusions we draw from this statement going to be?

How accurate is this technique going to be in this situation? The problem with approaching the gospels like ‘any other forensic statement’ is that the gospels aren’t forensic statements. There are crucial differences between the statements Wallace analyses and the gospels.

For one thing, when a suspect writes Wallace a statement, it’s because an authority figure (Wallace) has given that person a specific directive (to write down everything they did on a particular date). When the gospel authors wrote their gospels, it was because they had a particular story that they themselves wanted to tell. Does that affect their word choice, and, if so, how? We don’t know, so that’s another potential inaccuracy in using this method here.

However, there’s a more serious problem here. Katie, for all that she hasn’t had much to say about these chapters, did make one comment on this one that nailed it; “I think it’s important to note,” she typed into my notes, “that we don’t have a clear picture of the Bible’s original words and their meanings, yet Wallace is using said original words as so-called ‘valid evidence.'”

Exactly. Wallace has told us that, for his method, he looks at the original handwritten statement in order to be able to see where a word or phrase originally chosen was corrected. We can’t even get close to doing that with the gospels. Not only do we not have the original handwritten versions of what the gospel authors wrote, we don’t even have the final versions of what they wrote. Even the earliest manuscripts we have are copies of copies of copies (and we have no idea how many times the ‘of copies’ should be repeated in that sentence), and not only will the copyists have made mistakes here and there as they transcribe the scripts, it’s very likely that now and again they also changed something deliberately; either because they thought they had a better way of saying it, or because they genuinely, if inaccurately, thought something in the version they were copying must be wrong and thus tried to help out by ‘correcting’ it.

Wallace is trying to use a technique that relies on knowing exactly what words the author chose… in a situation where we have only at best a general idea of which words the author chose. Used in such a situation, how accurate is his method?

How much do cultural differences affect the accuracy of this method? They clearly do affect it to at least some degree; again, in one of Wallace’s examples, he points out that the expression he describes his ficticious subject using might mean something of significance to the investigation… or it might simply be a regional or cultural figure of speech. Well, the gospel writers came from a different region and a different culture from us. And, although it’s a much-studied culture, it’s also a culture that existed two millennia ago, meaning that even the best available knowledge about it is going to have some limitations. (I’m also guessing that Wallace’s knowledge about Jesus’s culture is not, in fact, the best available.)

That’s also going to have an effect on how well we can interpret their words. It means we can’t be sure when the gospel writers are making cultural references that their audience would have gotten but we won’t, or when we’re reading our cultural assumptions into their words in ways that aren’t warranted.

(The flip side of this, by the way, is that the knowledge we do have about the geography and culture of this area at this time has strongly contributed to the conclusion generally held by scholars that the gospel of ‘Mark’ probably was not written by a follower of Peter. This is something I’ve mentioned in my last post on this topic; at one point the author of this gospel makes a significant geographical error by describing Jesus as travelling through a city that would in fact have been in the opposite direction from him, and at another he makes a cultural error in describing Jews as referring to King David as their ‘father’. While these mistakes would be easy for a stranger to make, they seem unlikely for someone who got his information directly from an eyewitness, and that casts significant doubt on whether the author of this gospel actually did get his information from an eyewitness. If Wallace really wants to analyse the significance of every word in reaching his conclusions about the gospels’ authorship, shouldn’t he be analysing the significance of the words that cast doubt on his claims?)


Wallace, as per the quotes above, does touch on some of the problems above when describing how this method works. But, when he describes how he used it to determine the author of gMark, that caution seems to go out of the window. In CCC, he describes the evidence he’s come up with as a ‘reasonable circumstantial case’ for the authorship of this gospel, which ‘becomes even more powerful’ when combined with the mentions we have of gMark’s authorship from the early Church fathers.  In CCCFK, he tells us that there are ‘very good reasons to believe’ that the author of gMark got his information directly from Peter. Given the significant possible sources of inaccuracy around this method, describing the evidence with such certainty does not seem warranted.