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 3

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!

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; to work on the assumption that the only possible reason for not including X is that it hadn’t yet happened at the time of writing the report. but doesn’t mean that you can extrapolate that to anyone’s account of anything and assume that if they didn’t include X then the only possible reason is because they wrote the report before X happened.

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”?

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Four, 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 4: Test Your Witnesses: Don’t Get Fooled by Your Witnesses!

Chapter Four! Six months after I started this, we are actually onto Chapter Four! Storming along here! It felt pretty exciting to slide that Kindle page across, I can tell you. And, hey! We may have solved the skateboard mystery! I know you must be all on the edges of your seats.

Daniel has a sister called Lacey who is ten years older than him, which immediately makes me wonder what the backstory to that one was. Large family? Fertility difficulties? Accidental late pregnancy? Whatever the reason, it means that Lacey might have been at their school at the right time to have known the skateboard owner. Daniel realises this and asks her, and she was! And she thinks she can remember him! That’s impressive – I sure as hell wouldn’t remember seeing a particular skateboard with a particular person, ten years later. Or ten minutes later, for that matter, so probably it’s just that I’m not very observant about skateboards, but… seriously, would someone remember this? Oh, well, maybe Lacey loves skateboards and so it stuck with her.

Anyway, Lacey tells Daniel that she thinks the owner was a boy called Lincoln Singleton, who was three years older than her, moved away about five years ago, and always wore what I initially read as ‘blackboard shorts’ but was actually ‘black board shorts’. Which was not much less confusing to me as I’d never heard of board shorts, but my daughter figured out they must be something you wear to go skateboarding, which sounds logical. Daniel and Insert Character go back to the skateboard shop (‘back’ because they went there in the last chapter; it was so boring I don’t think I bothered writing about it) and the owner thinks he remembers seeing a boy who fits Lacey’s description.

But! We have a discrepancy! Lacey remembers this boy as being very tall, but the shop owner doesn’t! Fear not, readers; when they report back to Jeffries, he assures them that eyewitnesses never agree entirely. He also points out a logical answer for the discrepancy here; a boy who looks very tall to a short child three years younger than him is not necessarily going to look tall to an adult. More generally, of course, the point is that we don’t expect eyewitnesses to agree on every point.

You know where this is leading, don’t you? If your answer was “To an assurance that it’s quite all right that the gospel writers disagree with one another” then well done; you are quite correct. We get another of those grey insert boxes, reiterating the point about witnesses disagreeing and then giving us this gem:

So, when you see that two gospels describe something in a slightly different way, don’t panic.

Because, of course, panicking is exactly what a child is going to do when seeing a contradiction in the gospels. Thank goodness we have Wallace to reassure us, is all I can say.

Meanwhile, before we get to discussing the gospels, Jeffries lists four questions we need to ask to find out whether a witness can be trusted.

“The first question,” Katie declared, “is if they are evil. Because if they are evil, I don’t think they can be trusted!” Not a bad question, actually, but the actual four questions were:

  1. Were they actually there?
  2. Can we verify what they say in some way?
  3. Have they changed their story over time?
  4. Do they have some reason to lie?

I’m looking forward to seeing what Jeffries has to say about the gospels as far as those last two items are concerned. I’m also curious as to whether this is based on any sort of official list of police or legal guidelines, or whether Wallace made it up. It does seem to be missing a couple of important points; how accurate were the witness’s observations in the first place (i.e., was this event something they spotted in passing and had a vague impression of, or did they check lots of details, or what) and how well does the witness remember them (including the question of how long a time period elapsed between the event and the witness’s report)?

There is a brief discussion of the two witnesses of the elusive Lincoln Singleton, in which Jeffries and the cadets agree that it is fair to conclude that these reports of memories of something unimportant to the witnesses that they saw approximately ten years ago can indeed be counted as trustworthy. It’s at times like this that I feel really reassured as to the quality of the investigative efforts going on in the US police forces.

Back to ‘the case for Jesus’; Jeffries apparently asked Jason to do some research last week, and Jason read the gospels. (All of them? That’s pretty impressive, especially for a child to manage in one week’s worth of spare time.)

“I read the four Gospels and I see there are places where the stories don’t seem to be entirely the same. But now that I understand what eyewitnesses are like, I guess that’s not all that surprising.”

I wonder what he thought about the places where they’re entirely different? Or the places where one of them mentions something so amazing (a man being raised from the dead after four days, a nationwide darkness with the dead rising out of their graves and walking) that you’d expect all four gospels to put that one in, and yet none of the rest do?

Jeffries, of course, agrees with Jason, and then says:

“Now let’s ask our four questions to see if the witnesses mentioned in the Gospels pass the test.[…]”

…except that we have absolutely no direct reports from any of the ‘witnesses mentioned in the Gospels’. (In fact, when it comes to the resurrection accounts the Gospels can’t even agree on who exactly the witnesses were.)

So this situation is simply not equivalent to assessing the validity of a witness statement. All we know here is that four (unknown) people have reported that various people witnessed Jesus do various things, including getting killed and turning up again a day and a half later, and that one of them (Luke) assured his readers that he has ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning‘ (Luke 1:3) but without giving us any further details of what reports he received from whom, what measures he took to check their accuracy, and what ‘carefully investigated’ actually means to him here in terms of how much care, and more importantly how much impartiality and analytical thought, he brought to the investigation. With this sort of knowledge base, asking these kinds of questions about the witnesses’ trustworthiness is meaningless.

This seems like a good place to split this chapter. Back soon with more!

 

Questions from Joel Settecase – Part Three

On to the final ten of Joel Settecase’s 30 Questions for Non-Christians. (Supposedly for non-Christians, anyway; as I commented in my last post, they actually seem to be aimed specifically at atheists in particular.) I notice Joel Settecase has actually put up a follow-up post letting his readers know about my answers and asking them to come over here and have polite respectful discussions, which I thought was very nice of him. (Well, all right, I’m not naive – I know he’s hoping that the result will be that I convert to Christianity – but I still felt it was a nice thought.)

On with the questions:

 

21. If no God, why is there so much good in the world?

Same reason there’s so much bad in the world; things happen for hugely varied and complex reasons that have nothing to do with any gods, and we as humans have perceptions of these things as good, bad, or indifferent according to how they affect us or other beings with whom we emphasise. I’ll add here that I’ve never seen the ‘Why is there so much evil in the world?’ argument as being a valid argument against the existence of a god, but I do think in fairness that the flip side of that is that this hypothetical god shouldn’t automatically get credit for the good things either.

22. If no God, how did our DNA get programmed with such incredibly complex language and instructions?

‘Get programmed’, in this context, seems rather question-begging; after all, the point is that we don’t believe it ‘got programmed’ by anyone.

As to how it happened; well, bear in mind that, according to colossal amounts of evidence from radioactive dating, this planet has been around for well over four billion years. Obviously even the simplest DNA molecule took some time to develop and wasn’t there from the start, but that still leaves billions of years of evolution. Copying errors happen now and again; some of those are actively damaging and thus die out, but some of them lead to benefits for an organism that in turn lead to it producing more offspring and to more copies of that improved gene being passed on. On top of that, every so often an entire stretch of DNA gets erroneously duplicated in the copying, meaning that there’s some ‘spare DNA’ there which has greater scope for undergoing mutations without killing off the organism. All of this, remember, is going on over billions of years – that is a lot of time, and a lot of copying of DNA, and a lot of chance for change and development, during which the unhelpful mutations die out while the useful ones get copied more and more. A few billion years of this is enough to give us vast amounts of complexity and detail in the DNA.

23. Is everything in the universe really just matter and energy?

As a couple of your follow-up questions partly demonstrate, there are also concepts that could be described as the results of matter and energy, or as descriptions of how matter and/or energy work and interact, or as categorisations. Might be others I’m not thinking of.

24. If you just thought, “Yes,” was that thought made of matter and energy?

Technically N/A, but in terms of answering the more general question of what thoughts are made of, I think it makes more sense to say they’re produced by matter (brain cells, neurotransmitters) and energy (passage of electrical impulses along nerve axons triggering neurotransmitter release).

25. The Bible says every good and perfect gift is from the Father above (i.e. God). To whom are you grateful for the good things in your life?

First and foremost, my parents. (Goodness – this is going to end up sounding like one of these Academy Award speeches. Oh, well, you did ask.) They did an amazing job of giving me a happy, secure childhood and paying for me to have an excellent education that has been invaluable in me getting where I am in life. And, although my father sadly died many years back, my mother is still in there giving me help and support. When I need it, she has absolutely got my back. That is a gift beyond price.

On top of that… let’s see. There’s my sister, who stepped up when I needed support, who introduced me to the wonderful world of Kindle ownership, and who fulfilled my lifelong dream of being thanked in an author’s acknowledgements (not to mention being an all-around pretty cool and awesome sister). There are the practice managers and work colleagues I deal with, who have been incredibly helpful and supportive with the various changes (sometimes at very short notice) I’ve needed to my work pattern over the years of juggling work with parenthood, especially given some of my son’s difficulties. There’s Aneurin Bevan and colleagues, for setting up the system that means that I’ve always had confidence that if I needed health care, I’d be able to get it with no worries about how I would pay for it (and that when I treat sick people, I don’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay for it). There’s the lady at the local council who’s been dealing with the difficult problem of helping us find appropriate education for my son, who’s been exceedingly helpful with this fairly thorny task. There are the people on the medical forum to which I post who have offered helpful advice on issues medical and non-medical over the years, one of them recently saving me several weeks and over a hundred pounds by recommending a decorator when the one I’d originally booked with had a very long waiting list. There’s the taxi driver who, over half a century ago, said “Aren’t you even going to ask for her phone number?” to the young man in his taxi who’d spent a long journey chatting animatedly with the young woman who’d shared the taxi with him, and thus inadvertently ensured that my parents’ relationship didn’t end with one interesting conversation but moved on to what would ultimately be an incredibly happy thirty-four year marriage.

I’ve probably forgotten people, for which I apologise, but those are the main ones I can think of. On top of that, of course, there’s a lot of stuff that’s just plain good luck; I’ve had excellent health, fertility when I wanted it, I was born into a comfortably-off middle-class family, I’m not a member of various minority groups who face a lot of disadvantages that I don’t. I’m very happy about all this, but that’s not the same as gratitude.

26. Where do you think the laws of logic come from?

I think they’re descriptions, by human beings, of how some things in reality/thought processes work.

27. Are the laws of logic made of matter and energy?

No.

28. What evidence would actually convince you that Jesus Christ is God, the Lord, and the only Savior?

Good question. First of all, ‘only Savior’ is kind of meaningless unless you know what he’s supposed to be a saviour from, and, as I understand it, the answer to that is ‘From the afterlife of eternal torment that was originally designed by the very God of which Jesus is meant to be a part’. Even if I believed that theology, proclaiming anyone as Saviour in that context feels kind of… Stockholm-syndromish.

Secondly, when I was investigating Christianity to make my decision about it, I ended up reading the OT prophets in their entirety to see what they actually said when they weren’t being cherry-picked, and I’d already read a good part of the other bits of the OT… and, to cut a long story short, established that the teachings of the Jewish scriptures were flat-out not compatible with Christian teachings. I could believe that the Jewish scriptures were a message from God (this was in my agnostic days) in which case Christianity wasn’t true, or I could believe that the Jewish scriptures were a bunch of legends and wishful thinking on the part of the Jewish leaders of a few millennia ago and not a divine message at all, in which case Christianity also wasn’t true, or I could believe that the Jewish scriptures were a deliberate attempt by a psychopathic God to trick the Jews into doing completely the wrong thing and ending up in hell, in which case Christianity might technically be true but this was a moot point as a God who would try to trick you like that clearly couldn’t be trusted anyway. But, given what I was reading in the OT, there wasn’t a logical way for Christianity to be a genuine teaching from a consistent, sane, and loving God.

So I suppose the answer to what evidence would convince me, would be that either Christianity would have to teach something completely and utterly different from what it in fact teaches, or Judaism would have to teach something completely and utterly different from what it in fact teaches. Which isn’t exactly helpful.

29. How much do you know about the heart of the Christian message, AKA the “Gospel” or good news?

Quite a lot, having spent years reading about it on and off.

30. Are you ready to learn more about Jesus?

If it’s actually something new and interesting – say, if something new comes to light about the culture of the time that sheds new light on something taught about Jesus – then sure. For example, I’ve loved Hyam Maccoby’s books because, despite their flaws, Maccoby looks at the Christian teachings from the viewpoint of a Jewish scholar who can pick up a lot of points that get missed by people without that background. If it’s just more Christian interpretations, then it isn’t anything I’d particularly trust, so no.