This is part of a review series of J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’, on which I’ve been assisted by my ten-year-old daughter. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.
Jeffries has just laid out his ‘chain of custody’ for the gospel of John, which consists of some people whom Jeffries believe to have studied with John having held similar beliefs to the author of the gospel by that name, followed by someone who studied with those people having similar beliefs, followed by someone who (probably) studied with that person having similar beliefs, all of which apparently, to Wallace, counts as a dependable chain of custody. In the last post, I discussed why it doesn’t.
We now get to what Jeffries has to say about this chain:
“When we read everything these men in the chain of custody had to say about what they learned along the way, we can see that nothing was added to the story of Jesus.”
“Nothing?” asks Jason.
“Nothing,” confirms Jeffries.
This, plain and simple, is just not true.
The quotes we have from Papias include an account of a prediction supposedly from Jesus (about exponential tens of thousands of branches/grapes which urge saints to pick them) which is found nowhere in the gospels, and a claim that Judas swelled up to greater than the width of a chariot track, resulting in him being run over by a chariot and killed, which is also found nowhere in the gospels. Papias also apparently wrote about other things (unspecified in the few quotes we have) handed down to him by ‘unwritten tradition’, so that was clearly considered OK as a method of receiving information that was then considered trustworthy enough to pass on.
Ignatius, in one of his letters, wrote about the star that appeared at Jesus’s birth. That much, of course, is found in the gospel of Matthew and is familiar to anyone who’s ever been involved in a Nativity play. However, according to Ignatius, this star shone with a greater light than the sun, moon and stars which all formed a chorus to it, and heralded the destruction of every kind of magic, wickedness and ignorance; and those fairly significant details aren’t found in Matthew, or any of the other gospels.
The very sources that Wallace/Jeffries is citing in support of his belief that nothing is getting added to the stories about Jesus actually show the exact opposite; they’re providing us with examples of how further claims and details did get added to the stories over time. Jeffries’ own evidence doesn’t support his own claims.
(By the way, this inaccuracy seems to be not so much deliberate dishonesty on Wallace’s part, but his attempt to simplify his arguments for children. I’ve read his version of this argument in the original adult-aimed book and in the posts he’s made about it on his blog, and it does not contain the blithe assurance about ‘nothing’ having been added; instead, he focuses on the similarities in what the different people have to say about Jesus. It’s still a poor argument – the fact that subsequent generations of church members followed the teachings of the earlier generations tells us nothing whatsoever about how accurate these beliefs were in the first place, and is not the equivalent of passing down a physical object for which a chain of custody can be set up – but at least it isn’t flat-out inaccurate in the way this one is.)
“From the very beginning, Jesus was described the same way: He was born of a virgin, preached amazing sermons, worked incredible miracles, died on a cross, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven.[…]”
I assume that the ‘born of a virgin’ is included there because Ignatius mentions the virgin birth in his letters, but it’s rather ironic in this context; the virgin birth is actually not mentioned either in the writing Wallace is counting as the beginning of this particular chain (the gospel of John), or in the actual earliest writings we have from Christians (the letters from Paul and the gospel of Mark). Again, it doesn’t bode all that well for Wallace’s case when one of the very examples he chooses to illustrate his point actually illustrates the opposite.
(On a tangential note, I would love it if one of the children would raise a hand and inquire in all innocence as to what a virgin is. Doesn’t happen, alas.)
“You bet, and remember when we were talking about all the possible explanations for the resurrection? One of them was that the story of the resurrection was added many years later, right?”
That’s… not exactly a strawman argument, since I think there are people who believe just this, but an oversimplification.
I, for one, believe that the story of the resurrection was there in at least some form from the start. Not for the very poor ‘chain of custody’ reason Wallace gives here – whatever Wallace might think, writings from a century or more after the start of a religion just aren’t very good evidence about what was or wasn’t believed at the beginning – but because, unless the disciples had at least believed in Jesus’s resurrection, Christianity would never have got off the ground after Jesus’s death. His following would have been just another failed messianic cult (one of many from that time) that fell apart after the leader was executed. So, yes, I do believe that, in the time immediately following Jesus’s death, his followers did somehow reach the passionate belief that he had been miraculously resurrected by God in order to come back and lead them at some point in the future if they just kept the faith. But ‘the story of the resurrection’ isn’t some kind of all-or-nothing monolith; it’s a jumble of different stories and different details… and we don’t know how much of it was added later, as the stories spread and the rumours grew.
Here’s why this is important:
The most likely explanation for the disciples’ belief in the resurrection is that one or more of them had some form of grief hallucination, took this as an appearance of Jesus, and ended up stirring up the rest to some kind of group experience of religious fervour that was also interpreted, through the lens of wishful thinking, as Jesus appearing to them in some form. Now, one of the main counter-arguments apologists will make here is to point out the bits of the story that wouldn’t fit with that explanation; Jesus physically present when touched, Jesus eating, Jesus making speeches that were heard by the disciples collectively, Jesus staying with the disciples for weeks, and, ultimately, Jesus convincing a doubter who expresses the wish to examine him physically (now that’s always struck me as a story that was added to make a point). And it’s quite true that, if these things really happened, they wouldn’t fit with the idea that the disciples were simply hallucinating.
But, of course… we have no idea when those details were added. We don’t know what version of the story we would hear if we could go back in time and listen to what the disciples were actually saying when they first preached the resurrection. And it’s perfectly plausible that it would in fact be a much vaguer version about how Jesus ‘appeared’ to different people, with no clear explanation of what ‘appeared’ meant to the disciples at the time. In fact, when we look at the earliest account we do have of the resurrection appearances – the list that Paul gives the Corinthians in his first letter to them – this is pretty much exactly what we read.
So, no; I don’t think the claim that there was a resurrection was ‘added many years later’; I think the disciples came to believe that very soon after Jesus’s death. But I do think that a lot of other details, important ones, were added to the story in the following years and decades, as it spread and as people added in their account of what they inaccurately remembered having been heard (the memory is great at embroidering and putting its own spin on things), or even deliberately added details for dramatic effect because they wanted to do what would win converts to the cause in which they passionately believed.
Jeffries, of course, assures the cadets that the resurrection story can’t have been added later because chain of custody yadda yadda, and exhorts them all to keep searching because they’re all going to discover the truth, about both the skateboard and Jesus. That’s the end of the chapter. Katie and I have already been through the next chapter in preparation, and I’m pleased to say she’s managed more contributions to this one, though unfortunately nothing quite on the level of inventing potato-worship. (On which point, she tells me she still believes firmly in the tenets of Potatoism and is quite offended that it isn’t being taught in her school RE lessons.) Back soon with the next post!