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.