Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review: Chapter Eight, Part 2

My eleven-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are reviewing 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 assumed a few things about this book as I went along, and one of them was that the final-chapter Solving Of The Skateboard Mystery would be done by actual detective work from the cadets. Sure, I wasn’t expecting Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, and I also figured Jeffries would probably have to guide them with some leading questions… but I did expect that resolution would come in some kind of ultimate burst of discovering and/or connecting clues to give the cadets the answer. Not only was this the one bit of any actual detective work that the cadets got to do, but there was still the matter of the witness statement that Jeffries – despite promptly ignoring it for the next fortnight – did stress the cadets should be closely analysing.

Well… here’s how it actually went down.

Jeffries tells the cadets that they’re going to ‘wrap up the mystery of the skateboard’. He opens the door. Ta-daaaa! Lacey walks in! Jeffries tells them ‘”As it turns out, Lacey is the key to solving our mystery.”‘ Insert Character suddenly realises that Daniel’s – and therefore Lacey’s – surname is Bolan, making Lacey’s initials LB, the initials they found on the skateboard. Insert Character yells out ‘”You owned the skateboard!”‘ Lacey agrees. Ta-da. Mystery solved.

So… I guess technically I was not completely wrong. After all, the Insert Character does have one ‘Aha, so that is what that clue means’ moment. But:

a) this happens only once Jeffries has literally put the answer slap bang in front of them, and

b) this happens only because Insert Character is friends with Daniel and thus knows the family’s surname.

So, none of the other cadets – you remember them, even though Wallace doesn’t? The children from other schools who are supposedly also in this class even though none of them ever, ever gets named or says anything? – had a look-in here. And it would have been so easy for Jeffries to do that differently; all he had to do was to start Lacey’s witness statement off with a ‘State your full name for the record’. Apart from anything else, surely getting the witness’s full details is normal practice for a witness statement?

But, nope. Didn’t happen.

Daniel wants to know why Lacey didn’t say anything earlier. I’d assumed that this was because she didn’t want her illicit skateboard-riding to get back to her mother. But… nope. Instead, we get this:

“Because Detective Jeffries told me not to,” she explains. “Once he solved it, he asked me to play along and let you guys try to figure it out on your own.[…]”

Where. To. Start.

1. I can quite understand that Jeffries would want the solving of this case to take a bit more effort than Daniel happening to examine the board at home and Lacey walking in and saying “Hey, that’s my old skateboard!”. However, this goes further; Lacey’s actually kept quiet about her involvement when explicitly asked if she knows anything about the board, to the point of downright deceptiveness. Her response when Daniel asked her about it was “I’ve seen it before… At least, I think I have.” The first statement was technically true, but the second one wasn’t; she knew perfectly well that she’d seen it, because she’d owned it.

Which means that the one bit of detective work the cadets got to do during this entire fake cadet class – solving the mystery – has been mucked up for them by Jeffries deliberately suppressing evidence. Heck… even if he didn’t want Lacey handing Daniel the solution on a plate, the obvious thing for him to do would have been to lead the class through analysing that damn witness statement and help them see what further questions to ask. It would have been great teaching and really interesting for the cadets. Bloody hell, Jeffries. You couldn’t even let your class have that much.

2. It’s disturbing that Lacey managed to lie to her brother so smoothly when he first asked her about the skateboard. Did Jeffries coach her in this?

3. How and when did Jeffries solve the case? He apparently managed it before Daniel first asked Lacey about the skateboard, and that happened between sessions 3 and 4, so he managed it fairly early on. And Jeffries would have had no obvious reason to ask Lacey; Daniel didn’t ask her because any clues had pointed to her at that stage, he asked her purely because she happened to be someone he knew who’d been at the school at around the right time. The other people the cadets have spoken to – the custodian and the person at the skateboard shop – didn’t mention anyone else coming round asking questions about the board (though, who knows, maybe Jeffries told them to keep quiet as well).

4. Did it not occur to Daniel at any point that, if he was looking for a girl who’d been at the school several years ago who had the initials ‘LB’, there was someone right there in his family who fitted the bill?

5. Could we all just take a minute to reflect on the irony of the fact that, within minutes of Jeffries assuring us that this clearly wasn’t a conspiracy, we find out that he was in fact conspiring with Lacey?

 

Sigh. Why am I even shocked by any of this? Jeffries told the cadets they’d discover the truth about the skateboard if they kept searching; but what he actually did was to give them the evidence he wanted, when he wanted to. I have no idea why I didn’t see that coming.

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 2

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.

Several chapters back, in response to Jason’s question about how we know that the gospels are ‘real eyewitness testimonies instead of legends or myths or something’, Jeffries promised that we’d get a whole session on that topic. (Although only, apparently, after we’d spent the then-current session discussing the gospels on the assumption that they were reliable accounts, so that raises some concerning questions about Wallace’s approach to evaluating evidence.)

Given the emphasis on the theme of eyewitness statements in this chapter, I think this is supposed to be the session to which he was referring. However, this session only covers the authorship of the gospel normally known as Mark… which is not meant to be an eyewitness testimony. While Church tradition does have it that two of the gospels (‘Matthew’ and ‘John’) are written by eyewitnesses, there are no such claims for ‘Mark’, which was supposedly written by someone who’d obtained his information second-hand, from the apostle Peter. (Of course, if that’s true it would still be potentially good evidence, but it wouldn’t be an eyewitness testimony.) So, if this is supposed to be the promised explanation of how we know the gospels are eyewitness testimonies, then it’s a pretty inadequate attempt at it.

Oh, well. I don’t know for sure that this is the session Wallace/Jeffries was referring to, and there are two more chapters left after this one, so it is theoretically possible that he actually had a different session in mind which is still to come. I’m willing to give him the benefit of at least some doubt.

Before getting on to what Wallace/Jeffries has to say about the authorship of the gospel of Mark (which I’ll henceforward refer to by the abbreviation gMark, to save typing time), I’ll give a quick general rundown on the subject for anyone who wants it. (Thanks here go to historian and blogger Matthew Ferguson for his post Why Scholars Doubt The Traditional Authors Of The Gospels, which was a useful source for a couple of these points.)

The author of gMark, like those of the other gospels, does not identify himself in the text of his work. The earliest information the Church has on gMark’s authorship comes from the early church bishop Papias, who probably wrote some time between 95 and 120 CE (AD). Papias’s actual works have been lost, but one of the few quotes of his work that we have from later authors is about gMark, and states that it was written by Peter’s interpreter Mark, who wrote down what he remembered of Peter’s teaching as accurately as he could. This information is backed up by two other authors from the second century; Irenaeus, in the third volume of his work ‘Against Heresies’, states that ‘Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter’, and a few of the quotes we have from Clement of Alexandria’s work state that Mark was a follower and companion of Peter who wrote his gospel at the request of some of Peter’s other followers.

(There is also a tradition that this Mark was the John Mark mentioned a few times in Acts. I can’t actually find anything in any of the above quotes to specify whether this is the case; as far as I can see, it’s plausible that these authors were talking about a different Mark and other people made an understandable but incorrect assumption that they were referring to John Mark. However, while this is an interesting question, I don’t think it’s a terribly important one; if gMark was written by someone very familiar with Peter’s teachings, then that’s important information regardless of whether the author was John Mark or not. Wallace also doesn’t raise this issue and I won’t go into it further.)

The question is, of course, whether Papias, Irenaeus and Clement were actually right. All of them were writing decades after gMark was written, and we don’t know how reliable their information was. Papias got his information from someone known only as ‘the presbyter John’, and we don’t know who this person was or where he got his information. We have no idea where the other two got their information; it might, for all we know, trace back to Papias, or perhaps to a source of similarly uncertain reliability. (Of note is that both Papias and Irenaeus also described the gospel of Matthew as being a work originally written in Hebrew… but scholarship has since established that Matthew was originally written in Greek. If those two made a mistake that basic regarding one gospel, we can’t count on what they say about others.)

On top of this, it’s been noted that gMark makes various geographical and cultural errors that would be unlikely in the writings of someone who was a close follower of Peter. (For example, he depicts Jesus as travelling from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee via Sidon, which was, in fact, in the opposite direction from the Sea of Galilee for someone starting from Tyre; he depicts Jews as calling out the phrase ‘our father David’ when in fact David, while a highly important figure in Jewish history, was not considered one of the Jewish fathers and wouldn’t have been referred to as such.) Also, his quotes from the Jewish scriptures come from the Greek version, not from the original Hebrew that Peter would have been expected to use.

The result of all this is that it is now the general consensus of scholars that Papias and co. probably had it wrong; that, whoever wrote gMark, it probably wasn’t someone who’d received his information directly from Peter.

I’m going to add here, by the way, that this does seem to me to be – ironically – a better conclusion as far as the Church’s point of view is concerned. After all, one notable aspect of gMark is that it originally did not contain any actual accounts of people seeing a resurrected Jesus. (Some versions do have a short paragraph about resurrection appearances, but these aren’t in the earliest copies we have and have long since been established as being later additions. The actual gospel ended with the women learning from an unnamed man at the empty tomb that Jesus had risen, then leaving in fear.) Yet, from the accounts we have of the resurrection appearances from other sources, Peter was supposedly one of the key witnesses. If gMark really is the comprehensive and reliable report of Peter’s teachings that Papias tells us, surely the fact that this doesn’t include any reports of post-resurrection appearances should be rather awkward for the Church?

In any case… back to the book.

I think Wallace actually ran into a bit of a conundrum in writing this bit. On the one hand, he has this whole structure of focusing on one police-related theme for each chapter and he really wanted the theme of this chapter to be eyewitness statements. On the other hand, the subject he actually wanted to write about was the authorship of a gospel that wasn’t written by an eyewitness.

His method for resolving this conundrum was to have Jeffries claim to the cadets that, since the gospel was based on Peter’s teachings, it actually counts as Peter’s eyewitness statement.

I realise that Wallace genuinely does know a lot more about the whole subject of witnesses and statements than I do and thus it is actually possible that I’m wrong and he’s right here, but… surely an eyewitness statement has to be the words of an eyewitness? Seems to me that, even if he and the Church are right here and Mark actually was Peter’s close follower/interpreter, the gospel would still at best be Mark’s eyewitness statement about Peter’s teaching. (Since it’s been formalised and anonymised in the writing, I’m not sure it would even count as that much. I couldn’t find a definition of eyewitness statements for the US, which is where Wallace works and writes, but I found a page from the UK about eyewitness statements that specified that they have to include a description of what the witness actually saw or heard. Any US police officers or lawyers reading this who can comment?)

On top of that, of course, there’s the fact that the gospel includes scenes for which Peter wasn’t present. Even if the Church is right about Mark being a follower of Peter’s, those particular scenes can only be third-hand at best.

Jason, I was pleased to see, is likewise dubious:

“Why isn’t it just called the gospel of Peter then?” asks Jason.

“Because Mark was Peter’s ‘scribe’—he wrote down Peter’s teaching, so he’s the actual author.” Jeffries can tell that Jason isn’t satisfied with that answer.

And rightly so, IMO. I mean, isn’t it a contradiction to say that Mark is the author but it’s Peter’s eyewitness statement? If someone other than the eyewitness is the author, then surely by definition it’s not an eyewitness statement. I can’t see that one standing up in court, Jeffries.

However, turns out Jason is unsatisfied for a different reason; he wants to know how Jeffries can be sure that this gospel is in fact based on Peter’s information. In other words, this is Wallace/Jeffries’ cue to explain why we should believe – based on analysis of gMark – that it actually was written by a close follower of Peter’s.

And that, my dear readers, is going to be the subject of the next CCCFK post. See you there!

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Six, part 1

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’re on to Chapter 6, which is titled ‘Hang On Every Word: Spot the Truth When You Hear It!’ (All Wallace’s chapter titles in this book end in exclamation marks; maybe he thinks children like exclamation marks. Maybe they do like exclamation marks. Maybe this is based on market research.)

On this chapter Katie did have a couple of comments, though the first thing she had to say was a general comment on the book so far. “This guy says stuff that’s so wrong, it’s annoying to me,” she told me. “It’s literally just straight-up wrong information. And it is aggravating to me. Yay! I used the word ‘aggravating’. I’m proud of knowing that.”

Chapter 6 starts with a surprise for Daniel; Jeffries has invited Daniel’s sister, Lacey, in to be a witness in The Case Of The Mysterious Skateboard. Lacey’s happy to have the chance to see the cadet classes because, apparently, it’s ‘all Daniel can talk about’. Which I would have thought would be a great opportunity for Lacey and/or parents to notice that this supposed police cadet academy course that is being run on police premises and was initially advertised on school premises is, in fact, an evangelising class being illicitly advertised as a police cadet class and illicitly run by a public tax-funded department. Alas, this does not happen.

This chapter is about the importance of paying attention to every detail when analysing witness statements. Because of this, I’ll quote Lacey’s interview with Jeffries in full, as at this point we haven’t yet been told which bits will turn out to be important:

“[…]Would you call yourself an expert witness on skateboarding?”

Lacey hesitates for a moment. “Not really. I mean, I never actually owned a skateboard. My mom didn’t think they were safe.”

“Now, Lacey,” asks Jeffries, “why did you specifically remember this skateboard?”

“The large poly wheels make the board ride really fast.” Lacey points to the blue wheels. “It’s a smooth riding board too.”

“How often did you see your friend Lincoln skating on this board?”

Lacey responds, “I was—um, I mean, Lincoln was on it almost every day.”

Katie pulled my computer towards her and typed (she learned to touch-type a few months back, and now practices the skill when she gets a chance): ‘Since Lacey stutters and says ‘I was-um, Imean, Lincoln’ I feel like she rode the skateboard and doesn’t want people to know so she doesn’t get in trouble.’

This was exactly my conclusion as well; Lacey’s clearly a thwarted skateboard fan who had some kind of arrangement going with Lincoln whereby she could secretly use this board without her mother knowing. Which means that at least one of the bits I was dubious about –  the question of why on earth Lacey would remember so much about the board, so many years later – has actually now been satisfactorily answered, which makes a nice change. I am sometimes not the quickest on the uptake, and so it wasn’t until later that I realised there’s an obvious plot twist that could well be coming up here; the Big Reveal will probably be that it’s Lacey’s board (with Lincoln keeping it at his house so that she can keep it a secret from her mother), and she will be the ‘L’ in the mysterious ‘LB’ that was scratched on the board and then covered up.

However, we didn’t get to find out in this chapter whether any of this is correct, because we are sticking to the usual class format of

  1. Skateboard discovery section (which will just handily happen to bring up whichever points are going to be needed for the apologetics section)
  2. Apologetics section

even though, in this case, it makes no sense at all. Lacey’s statement is fresh in everyone’s mind, and Lacey herself is right here in case any of the cadets want to ask her more questions, so now is the obvious time to discuss Lacey’s statement. Instead, Jeffries invites Lacey to join them if she wants, gives the cadets a general speech on the importance of listening to every word people say and how they say it, tells the cadets that they might just have picked up another clue or two about the skateboard if they were listening carefully… and proceeds to change the subject to talk about the gospel of Mark.

Lacey, please note, is apparently sitting and listening to all this (at least, Wallace doesn’t mention her leaving, so it sounds as though she’s taken Jeffries up on his invitation for her to stay). Oh, if only she would interrupt him: “Hey, hang on, what’s all this about the gospels? I thought this was meant to be a police cadet class!” “That would be amazing,” Katie agreed. It would indeed, but – of course – it doesn’t happen.

I’ll break the post here, and come back to discuss what Jeffries has to say about Mark’s gospel.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Five, part 2

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.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids – reprise

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.

This was originally meant to be the second post about Chapter Five. Then, as part of the segue into the main bit, I went back to talk about the end of Chapter Four and started writing some explanatory bits about why there was a problem with Jeffries’ last statement there. Several paragraphs later, I looked at this and thought “Actually, I seem to have just written a post”. So here is that post. Following this, I will get back to Chapter Five.

Chapter Four ended with Jason asking this excellent question:

“[…]How do you know the story of Jesus wasn’t just changed over time? Maybe the first version didn’t even contain all the miracles I read about last week. What if those parts were added later by people who had something to gain?”

…and Jeffries assuring him that he would help him answer that question in the next session.

Which is interesting, because one thing we do know for sure is that the story of Jesus was changed over time.

For one thing, Bible scholars have ascertained that the four gospels were written at different points in the first century, running from Mark as the earliest to John as the latest – which gives us a chance to compare how the stories change over time. Of course, it’s important to remember that we can expect some differences between them regardless; when four different people with four different perspectives each write their account of a particular set of events, you’re going to end up with four different accounts, due to people’s different memories and different opinions on what’s important enough to put in. It is, however, noticeable how much more remarkable the miracles seem to get in the later gospels compared to the gospel of Mark. For example, the gospel of Matthew tells us about dead people coming out of their graves and speaking to other people at the time of Jesus’s death; the gospel of John tells us that Jesus restored a man who’d been dead for four days to life. Even allowing for differing perspectives, it’s very odd that the other gospel writers wouldn’t have wanted to include stories as amazing as those… unless, of course, those stories were added as part of a natural process of embroidery and exaggeration as the accounts were passed on by word of mouth over time.

But on top of that, there also exist different manuscripts of each gospel, coming from different time periods, which allows Bible scholars to compare the different versions and see what changes have happened over time. Of course, nearly all the changes they’ve found are utterly trivial; anyone copying out a very long document by hand is going to end up with spelling errors, spelling variants, transposed words and the like, and even the most sceptical scholar is unlikely to see those as any kind of serious problem. However, here and there there are points where a scribe seems to have taken it on himself to slip something extra into the text while copying.

The two most famous and significant such known cases are a story about Jesus in the gospel of John (in which he speaks to a group of people threatening to stone a woman to death for committing adultery), and the reports at the end of the gospel of Mark of a resurrected Jesus appearing to his followers (the original gospel is now recognised to end at the point where women who’ve come to Jesus’s tomb find it empty, are told by a mysterious man that Jesus has risen from the dead, and go away too frightened to tell anyone else; the accounts of actual resurrection appearances in Mark only appear in later manuscripts). Both these sections are now recognised by scholars to have been added by someone else at a later date, not by the original gospel authors.

Apologists have pointed out that discounting these stories as later additions needn’t affect our understanding of the New Testament as a whole. After all, even with discounting the authenticity of these sections, we have plenty of other stories in the NT that the existing manuscripts agree on (including stories of resurrection appearances reported in all three of the other gospels and in one of Paul’s epistles). This is true, but it’s also missing an important point; if these invented stories could be inserted and the resultant manuscripts read and circulated as valid, how do we know that this hasn’t happened with other stories in the gospels?

When I talk about comparing earlier to later manuscripts, it’s important to remember that the earliest full manuscripts we have of the gospels still come from a few hundred years after the original manuscripts were written; we have multiple fragments from earlier, but even those come from decades after the originals at absolute best, and more usually over a hundred years after the originals. So… if those original copies had been preserved and we could compare the earliest ones we now have to the actual originals, what other changes might we see? What those insertions tell us is that it’s possible for a scribe to insert new material – sometimes important new material – into gospel manuscripts while they’re being copied, and have it accepted and believed by the people who read those manuscripts or hear them read out.

And, of course, all of that is on top of the fact that even those very earliest manuscripts were still written decades after the original events themselves. We have no way of knowing how many intermediaries those stories passed through before being written down, or how accurate those people were in their reporting; how prone to misremember or, worse, to exaggerate and embroider for effect. If verses and whole stories could get added to the gospels after they were written down, what on earth was to stop such a thing happening before there were even written records to put a partial break on that?

It’s not even in question whether the story of Jesus was changed over time. It was. The question is whether it was changed beyond the point where we can still trust the key points of doctrine that Christians derive from it.

But, instead of addressing that question, Wallace/Jeffries is focusing on making it sound to readers/cadets as though the story wasn’t changed… and that’s just plain disingenuous.

 

(One paragraph of this post was edited after Owlmirror pointed out to me that my original figures for the time from original writing to the earliest available full copies were overly generous. Thanks for the catch.)

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Five, part 1

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.

Chapter Five: Respect the Chain of Custody: Make Sure No One Has Tampered with the Evidence!

It’s the beginning of a new chapter, so, of course, we have the obligatory bit about the skateboard. Insert Character and Hannah examine the board further and discover that the school name sticker is covering the initials ‘LB’, which are scratched onto the board. They and Daniel decide to go and see the custodian that gave Daniel the board in the first place. Which… seems like something they should have done a lot earlier in the investigation, but, as usual, bits of skateboard investigation only happen at the point where they illustrate whatever apologetics point Wallace wants to make in the chapter in question.

Anyway, better late than never. The custodian – Mr Warren – turns out to know quite a lot about what’s happened to the skateboard:

  • Lincoln gave the board to Mr Templeton, the first custodian of the school.
  • Mr Templeton then retired and told the temporary custodian, Mr Jenkins, about it.
  • Mr Warren took up the job, and Mr Jenkins passed board and backstory on to him.
  • A ‘nice, polite girl’ asked Mr Warren if she could have it, and he passed it on.
  • Some time after that, it appeared back in the shed again.
  • The shed has not actually been used for years, as the school staff now keep their tools in a storage area in the new gym.

Which all strikes me as somewhat peculiar. Why would a child give his skateboard to someone on the brink of retirement, who, even allowing for the possibility of early retirement, probably doesn’t look much as though he’s still enjoying halcyon boarding days? Why would Mr Jenkins bother remembering and passing on this much detail, including the original owner’s name, and why would Mr Warren also remember it? Why was the skateboard left behind in the shed when the tools were moved; why not just give it to someone else or donate it to whatever the US has by way of charity shops? Why was the shed unlocked on the day Daniel was there? Why is the shed even still there if it’s no longer being used; shouldn’t someone get round to either repurposing it or tearing it down? Actually, I suppose that one does make sense; lack of funding and/or inertia. I do hope we get answers to all the rest before the book ends.

Also, Mr Warren doesn’t remember what the girl looked like, but does remember that the sticker wasn’t on the board when he first saw the board. Which seems like an extremely unlikely detail to be sure about this many years later, but Jeffries doesn’t question this at all when they tell him, assuring the cadets that ‘we even know when the sticker was added’. YOU DO NOT KNOW WHEN THE STICKER WAS ADDED, JEFFRIES. I could just about buy that someone might notice a sticker on a skateboard when they first saw it and that might stick in their mind years later, but the idea that someone would make a careful enough examination of the board to remember years later that it did not have a sticker on it, as opposed to ‘well, don’t remember it, but can’t swear it wasn’t there’? No, Jeffries, that did not happen. (Sheesh! You’re quick enough to remind people about the fallibility of human memory/observation when it comes to explaining the contradictions in the gospels! But now you’ve got a different point you want to make, all that goes out the window?)

I… I seriously worry about the quality of police investigation that’s getting done in whatever state Wallace works in. I sincerely hope all of this is just the result of him simplifying things for the age group this book is geared at and isn’t representative of the quality of his investigative work generally.

The point of all this, as far as the story is concerned, is to open the door for Jeffries to explain the concept of ‘chain of custody’ to the cadets:

“What’s that?” you ask.

“A record of who had the evidence and when. It’s like a chain. Each person in the chain is a link who handed the skateboard to the next person in the chain.”

An insert box adds the following:

We trace the “chain of custody” for each piece of evidence to see if it was changed over time. We ask two important questions:

1. Who handled it?

2. How did they describe it?

We can ask these same two questions about the Gospels to see if the information in the Bible has been changed over time.

Wallace is leaving out a key point here; the explanation of why the police use chains of custody.

I should point out here that I’m not a police officer (nor do I play one on TV) and that everything I know about this comes from some quick googling, so if there are any actual police officers reading this who feel I have drastically misunderstood things here then I am happy for them to point this out whereupon I will humbly apologise. However, my understanding from what I’ve read is that the purposes of a chain of custody are

  1. to preserve the evidence in an untampered state, and
  2. to be able to demonstrate in court that you have done so.

The former maximises the chances of getting useful and accurate information from it, and both the former and the latter are important when it comes to being able to build a court case against the guilty party.

Now, if this were an actual police academy cadet class and not a thinly-disguised Bible class, this topic could have made for a great lesson. Jeffries could have talked about what happens when they’re trying to use forensic evidence to link a suspect to a murder weapon, or evidence to a crime site, and a lawyer challenges them on it in court by pointing out that their flawed chain of custody has allowed for the possibility of contaminated or even planted evidence. He could have taught them about how to set up a good chain of custody, and about things the police might try to strengthen a flawed chain of custody. He could have shown them the evidence lab, the tamper-evident bags, the tape used to seal the bags after the times they have to be opened for the contents to be examined. Some of this is actually in the version of this book that Wallace wrote for adults, and it’s good reading.

But we don’t get any of this. And, of course, if we did – if the readers of this book learned enough about what’s needed to make a good chain of custody – it would become immediately apparent that what we have here is a terrible chain of custody. We have no idea what happened to the skateboard between the (unknown) time that Mr Warren gives it to this nameless girl and the (unknown) time it shows up again in the shed. We know, from the fact that it did show up in the shed, that at least one person other than the custodian has access to that shed; we therefore can’t exclude the possibility that someone tampered with the skateboard while it was in the shed. We have no written corroboration of any of this; we’re entirely dependent on the memories of one person, who wasn’t even an eyewitness to much of what happened. It worked for introducing the general idea of a chain of custody to the cadets, but there’s no way this particular chain would be considered valid in a court case.

The funny thing is that the chapter subheading – ‘Make Sure No One Has Tampered with the Evidence’ – does tell us what a chain of custody is for, but that excellent principle is nowhere to be seen in the text. Instead, Jeffries assures his cadets ‘Now we know everyone who had contact with the skateboard’ when in fact we know nothing of the sort. Once again, Wallace is presenting his case to his readers in such a way as to make it sound as though he is working towards rigorous police-level standards of investigation… while not, in fact, doing so.

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

Obligatory quick recap: This chapter is supposedly assessing the gospel stories by criteria used by jurors to assess reliability of witness reports, and Jeffries is doing a good job of glossing over just how dismally they fail. We have, so far, made it through the first of four criteria.

‘Wow, that was a lot of work just to answer the first question’ says Daniel. More accurately, it was a lot of work to evade the first question; answering it honestly (‘No, the author of Luke wasn’t there and can’t be treated as an eyewitness report’) would have been much faster. I do agree with him about it being a lot of work, though. Time to crack on.

The cadets move on to point 2, which is, you might recall, “Can we verify what they say in some way? We look for other pieces of evidence to see if they agree with what the witness said.”

How does that play out as far as the gospels are concerned? Well, there’s an awful lot in them that can’t be verified; the words and actions of an itinerant preacher in a largely illiterate backwater are, in the nature of things, highly likely to go unrecorded. It’s therefore only to be expected that we’d have no confirmation from non-gospel sources of most of the stories in the gospels, and indeed this is the case. A couple of points actually are confirmed; the historian Tacitus makes passing mention of a ‘Christus’ who founded a cult and was executed by Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, and Josephus mentions that a person called James was the brother ‘of Jesus called Christ’ (and probably mentions some other things about Jesus in another passage, but that one unfortunately has been contaminated by Christian interpolations at a later stage, making it hard for us to tell for certain what he said). None of this, of course, gets us any further in terms of verifying the claims that this Jesus-called-Christ actually did perform miracles, claim to be God, or rise from the dead.

However, there are some other claims in the gospels that actually should be verifiable if true. ‘Matthew’ tells us that at the time of Jesus’s death there was an earthquake that split rocks, the temple veil spontaneously tore from top to bottom, and graves opened up, with a number of dead people emerging and going into the towns where they appeared to people. These seem like the kinds of events that historians of the time would mention, even if just to try to put a naturalistic explanation on them to refute all the supernatural claims people would have been making. From the absence of mention of any such events, we can be reasonably sure they didn’t happen. ‘Matthew’ also cites numerous supposed prophecies that were supposedly miraculously fulfilled by the events in Jesus’s life, so that’s something we can fact-check; we can go back to the Jewish scriptures and see whether those prophecies actually exist. In fact, it turns out that most of the passages that ‘Matthew’ is claiming as prophecies are vague statements taken out of context and, in a couple of cases, crucially mistranslated; so what ‘Matthew’ says about prophecies isn’t accurate, when fact-checked.

All this doesn’t mean we can discard this gospel entirely; ‘Matthew’ might well, for all we know, have also reported all sorts of truths about Jesus’s life. But it does mean that ‘Matthew’ seems to have quite a penchant for dramatic elaboration and embroidery of a story, and that we can’t simply trust this author unquestioningly; we don’t know what other claims in this gospel are also examples of this type of elaboration. Once again, the gospels do not do well against Jeffries’ criteria.

Yet despite this, Jeffries assures the cadets that “we do have a lot of ‘verifying’ evidence”. This, apparently, is archaeological evidence to indicate that the gospel of Luke contains accurate information about cities in the area and about common names at the time, thus indicating that ‘Luke’ was indeed in the appropriate area at the right sort of time. Which seems to be good enough for verifying evidence, as far as Wallace/Jeffries is concerned. I… really hope that, when Wallace prepares his police cases, he goes for better evidence than ‘This person was in the right part of the country at the approximate time of these events, so clearly we can treat them as a valid eyewitness’.

“But how do we know they weren’t lying about the stuff that we can’t verify with archaeology or names?” asks Jason again.

GO, JASON!

Jeffries sits down with the cadets. “Let’s jump down to question #4[…]”

This line, by the way, is illustrated with a not-terribly-skilled line drawing of Jeffries and cadets which I barely noticed but which struck Katie as somewhat disturbing. “They’re all smiling the same slightly creepy smile,” she pointed out. “It’s as if they’re all possessed by the ghost of a marionette or something.”

Did the authors have a reason to lie? What would they get for their trouble? They ended up dying for their claims and there isn’t any evidence that they got rich or successful, or even popular!

I’m wondering whom he thinks ended up ‘dying for their claims’ here. I realise that Wallace (unlike most Biblical scholars) believes that the gospels of Matthew and John were written by the apostles of that name, and that there are church legends that say that Matthew was killed for his beliefs; but even the church has never claimed that John was martyred, and I couldn’t find any such claims regarding Mark or Luke either. Even if all four of the gospels actually were written by the authors traditionally claimed for them (which, alas for Wallace, is now generally considered by Biblical scholars to be highly unlikely to have been the case), we’d still only have at most one of them killed for his beliefs, and very possibly not even that, given the doubt about the story of Matthew’s martyrdom.

Many of them were put to death for teaching about Jesus, but none ever changed his story.”

Could we please put the ‘none ever changed his story’ myth to rest? In the first place, it s based on literally zero evidence. We have nothing available on whether any of the apostles were given a chance to recant prior to death or on what they said. We barely even know whether they were put to death; most of the martyrdom stories are unreliable legends from later in church history. In the second place, it’s a reply to a strawman argument; the argument that the apostles were lying about the resurrection. I’ve not yet come across anyone who seriously believes that to be the case after studying the evidence; it’s far more likely that the apostles somehow came to believe themselves that Jesus really was resurrected. Even if we did have reliable accounts of apostles sticking to their stories in the face of death threats, that wouldn’t help us judge the accuracy of their beliefs.

And Jason, bless him (if you’ll excuse the figure of speech), has come up with a great point:

“Okay then. What about the question you skipped? How do you know the story of Jesus wasn’t just changed over time? Maybe the first version didn’t even contain all the miracles I read about last week. What if those parts were added later by people who had something to gain?”

GO, JASON!

Everyone in the room gets suddenly silent.

Dun-dun-DUUNNNNNNN……

“Oooh,” says Jeffries, smiling at Jason. “Now you’re starting to think like a detective![…]”

He’s been thinking more like a detective than you have here, so maybe cut the patronising tone?

“[…]I’ll help you answer that question the next time we meet.”

“So he can have time to think of an answer?” I speculated to Katie. She liked this and typed into my notes, “So I can have a chance to think of another lie… I-I mean, really think about the evidence and make sure my conclusion is correct, uh…!”

So! What will Jeffries have to say about this one! Will he have good reasons as to why we should trust that a story that was passed on orally for decades, often in sites that were far from where events originally took place, remained essentially unchanged? (Spoiler: no.) Will he have a good explanation for the stories and elaborations that, indeed, do show up in the later gospels but not the earlier ones? (Spoiler: no.) Tune in next week, etc., etc.

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.

 

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Four, part 2

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”?