Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: an argument in favour of the latter

I seem to have had a few comments on here in recent weeks about the Jesus mythicism question (for those who are unfamiliar with the argument, this is the question of whether a real Jesus actually existed in the first place or whether Christianity started with a belief in some kind of celestial being). For the record, I’m on the ‘historical Jesus’ side of this particular debate, meaning that I believe that the whole thing did start with an actual Jewish preacher and founder of a Messianic cult. This is something I’d like to post a series of posts about at some point, but it’s a long way down my to-do list at the moment, so look out for those in about… 2030, maybe? However, one particular comment I got did catch my attention as raising an important point. I started writing a comment in reply, and realised it was actually long enough to be a post. So here we are.

 

 

Owlmirror wrote:

I have to admit, it is weird no matter which way things are supposed to have gone: How a Son/Christ who supposedly had no earthly incarnation could have suddenly gotten one in the specific time and place of Judea in the 30’s. Or the other way; how a Jesus who was presumably real and taught in the 30’s could be so easily ignored/erased by those who came later.

Which is an excellent point. If Jesus did exist, we have to explain how, within a relatively short time of his death, he was being spoken of as some kind of mythical semi-deity in the writings of some of his followers. If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how he then came to be written about and taught about as an actual person who walked the face of the earth and did normal (as well as miraculous) things. And this, as it happens, gets to the nub of why I believe in a historical Jesus; I’ve found other reasons as I looked into the topic more, but my initial reason is simply that I believe the former scenario is a lot easier to explain with the data we have than the latter. So, I want to explain why.

First, here are some key points to bear in mind:

  • We have four official accounts portraying Jesus as a real person, which have been established as having been written within a century (the earliest probably within a few decades) of the events alleged in them.
  • These accounts include quite a few things which were clearly quite awkward for their authors. Jesus was supposed to have been the Messiah – despite this being a Jewish title that referred to someone who would rule over the country in an era of peace and prosperity, which Jesus clearly hadn’t done. He apparently came from Nazareth – even though this was another big problem for his followers’ claims that he was the Messiah, requiring two of the gospel authors to make up complicated and contradictory accounts about how, despite having grown up in Nazareth, he had actually been born in Bethlehem. He was executed by the Romans for sedition – which would have made the cult widely unpopular and could have got them into real trouble (if you read the gospel accounts, you can see the writers coming out with some wildly implausible stuff intended to paint a picture of Pilate as really innocent in the matter and the Jews really being the ones to blame for the whole thing). And apparently, despite the gospels painting a very anti-Pharisaic picture, his teachings as portrayed were in fact rather typically Pharisaian (Maccoby, Revolution in Judea and The Mythmaker). So… these things all got included, and we need to ask why.
  • These accounts also show signs of getting increasingly fantastical over time, suggesting the stories are getting embroidered as they go along.
  • In the early years of the Church, the person who seems to have been doing more than anyone else to spread this new belief to Gentiles in far-flung places was someone who joined only after Jesus’s death, showed astonishingly little interest in finding out about the doctrines of this new group, thought it quite OK to spread teachings that he believed to have come to him through personal revelation rather than from others in the group, and clashed with the existing group over the things he was teaching, of which they didn’t approve at all. Which gives us a rather bizarre situation where this man has gone off at a complete tangent and is energetically spreading his version of this new belief, which ends up being extremely influential despite being quite different from what the original grou believed.
  • All this was happening within a society where the majority of the population came from cultures other than the minority culture from which Jesus supposedly came, whose beliefs, and hence their interpretation of stories and events, might be very different from that of the culture in which the beliefs originated. On top of that, it was a society with widespread beliefs in amazing happenings, including the possibility of gods visiting the earth in human form.

Against this background information, how does the above question look?

Firstly, let’s look at the hypothesis that Jesus was actually a historical person. How does the above evidence fit with this? Well… according to this theory Jesus creates a bit of a splash in his local area, gets killed, and his local followers reach the belief he’s miraculously risen from the dead and thus keep his cult alive. A few years later, along comes Paul of Tarsus, who appears to have converted dramatically to the faith but has in fact converted dramatically to his own rather peculiar version of it, which he then energetically preaches to other communities over the next several years. Meanwhile, the existing stories about Jesus are getting embroidered as they get passed on. Some of those stories are getting passed out to the groups of converts in other cities, and some of the theology that those converts hold is filtering back to the original Jerusalem community, and a lot of people are ending up with a mixture of ideas that’s moving away from what was originally intended.

By the time people get as far as writing the stories down, a few decades later, the stories they have to work with are a mishmash of things that actually happened, embroidered versions of things that actually happened, stories that people have made up out of whole cloth because they sound good, and some rather strange mythology around the whole thing. So that’s what gets written down. Some of the stuff is pretty awkward for them, but, because it goes back to things that did actually happen, it’s firmly embedded in the traditions and can’t just be erased or ignored, so the gospel authors include those bits but do what they can to sugar-coat them or explain them away. We end up with an odd mix of stories, many of which are clearly embroidered or mythicised but many others of which seem to be describing a historical Jesus. Which, as you have probably spotted, pretty much describes the NT.

So far, so good; the historical theory fits well with what we have. Now, time to look at the other hypothesis; the idea that Jesus was originally a myth about a celestial being, and the stories about him were historicised later. How does that fit with the evidence we’ve got?

Well, the epistles seem to fit reasonably well, purely as far as theology goes; the theological descriptions of the Lord in the epistles could plausibly fit with a group who believe in a spiritual leader somewhere up in the heavens. (Even then, there are a lot of lines that wouldn’t plausibly fit with this; the epistles do contain several lines about Jesus having existed according to the flesh, or being born of a woman, or being of the seed of David, or having brothers, one of whom Paul mentions meeting, all of which is rather difficult to reconcile with mythicism and requires some highly strained logic on the part of mythicists. But if we ignore all that – which mythicists do, on the whole, tend to prefer to do – and focus just on the theology, then that seems at first glance to fit.)

However, once we get to the gospels, things get a lot more difficult to explain. If the group at this stage believed that the person they held so dear was in fact a celestial being who had never visited this world as a human, how did we end up with multiple books telling detailed stories about his time living in this world as a human?

Of course, explanations exist. Earl Doherty, in The Jesus Puzzle, presents the first gospel as being written as a deliberate attempt to give a group an apparent historical founder that would appeal more to converts. Richard Carrier, in On the Historicity of Jesus, explains it as being an example of euhemerism, a practice of the time in which historicised stories were written about mythical beings. Adam Lee from the Daylight Atheism blog, in this essay, suggests the gospel writers might have been following the precedent of midrash, a rabbinical method for analysing verses from the Jewish scriptures and coming up with further explanations and illustrative stories about them. All these explanations have their problems, but I can certainly see how any of them could explain the existence of a few historicised stories about a Jesus who was originally thought to have lived, died, and risen on a heavenly plane only.

But what do we actually have? Multiple different books describing a historical Jesus. (While the gospels are not independent in terms of what information they give us, each one does nevertheless represent a different person sitting down and putting a lot of effort into writing a detailed and lengthy story.) Highly awkward claims – that the authors seem to be desperately trying to soft-pedal, but nonetheless include – that a specific and powerful public figure was responsible for the death of this founder. Further highly awkward claims that the revered founder was making claims that got him (rightly, under the prevailing Roman law) executed for sedition. Complicated and contradictory stories attempting to explain how a man from Nazareth was actually born in Bethlehem, when it would surely have been so much simpler to leave out the Nazareth claim and write Jesus as coming from Bethlehem in the first place.

What would lead people to make all this stuff up – all of it – from scratch? Not just embroidering or adding to existing stories about an existing person, but inventing all of the above, including the bits that clearly work against their purposes? So far, I have not heard an adequate explanation for this. Of the two theories, therefore, the theory that Jesus did actually exist – that, at the start of the story of Christianity, there was an actual Yeshu or Yeshua who preached and had a following and was executed by the Romans – fits the available data a lot better.

And that’s why I believe in a historical Jesus.

Gender dysphoria in children – replacing myth with fact. Part Two.

Quick background: This is a follow-on from the post I wrote in response to SkepDoc Harriet Hall’s sadly misleading post Gender Dysphoria in Children. In my reply, I challenged the myth that children with gender dysphoria are being pushed or rushed into transitioning at very young ages. In fact, international medical guidelines on the subject are clear that medical treatment for children with gender dysphoria should not be started prior to puberty (for more on recommended management of younger children with gender dysphoria, see Part One).

I’m writing Part Two because I realised there is a fairly obvious follow-up question that readers might have; while that’s all well and good, why are children starting medical treatment for gender dysphoria during puberty? After all, at this stage they’re still children. Surely, runs this line of argument, it would be better for them to wait until adulthood before any decision is made about medical therapy with its possible (or definite) long-term consequences? It’s an argument that sounds superficially logical and has convinced many people.

Unfortunately, there is a huge problem with it: Children’s bodies are not going to wait. When the decision arises as to whether a pubertal child with gender dysphoria should start medical treatment or not, the alternative to treatment is not going to be that everything remains comfortably in status quo for several more years while the child grows up. The alternative is going to be that the child goes through the significant biological changes that come with puberty.

For a child with persistent gender dysphoria, this is a very big problem. If you read Part One of this, you might remember the Steensma et al research study that looked at the differences between ‘desisters’ and ‘persisters’ with gender dysphoria, and found that the onset of pubertal changes had been a key point for the children they surveyed; while those changes improved the desisters’ feelings of gender dysphoria, they worsened the gender dysphoria symptoms for the persisters. A lot. Children who already felt uncomfortable and out of place with having a body whose gender didn’t match theirs were faced with that body developing much more specific features of that gender… and they found this quite a horrific sensation.

It was terrible, I constantly wanted to know whether I was already in puberty or not. I knew about the puberty blocking treatment and I wanted to be in time. I really did not want to have breasts, I felt like, if they would grow, I would remove them myself. I absolutely did not want them!

I noticed the Adam’s apple of my brother, and an uneasy feeling stole upon me. If I would get an Adam’s apple like his, I did not want to live.

When I was 13, I started to menstruate and my breasts started to grow. I hated it! If we would have had a train station in our town I would definitely have jumped in front of a train. I didn’t go to school anymore, lost my friends and became totally withdrawn.

As soon as puberty started, I could no longer be myself. A boy does not have breasts. As a child it didn’t matter that much, boys and girls don’t differ except that boys have a penis, and girls don’t. But the way I was changing was very wrong. I couldn’t hide it anymore.

At the time my breasts started to grow, I wanted to hide them. I always tried to wear loose shirts. I felt so insecure that I didn’t want other people to see me. So I frequently skipped school and they suspended me. Then I became even more withdrawn.

Before puberty started, I felt physically a boy, but when my breasts started growing, I felt more like a mutant.

(quotes from young people with persistent gender dysphoria in Steensma et al., ‘Desisting and persisting gender dysphoria after childhood: A qualitative follow-up study‘, Clin Child Psychol Psychiatry 2011; 16(4): 499 – 516)

(With regard to the suicidal impulses expressed by some of these patients; yes, this is a very real risk. Several studies have shown a very high rate of suicide attempts among transgender people, and many of these work. Transitioning, and general acceptance and support from others, have both been shown to decrease this risk significantly.)

Imagine, for a minute, that you read or hear a story about doctors at a gender identity clinic forcing a child to go through puberty in the gender that isn’t theirs, against that child’s wishes, even though the child was distressed about it to the point of suicidal unhappiness. We’d all be appalled at the thought. Well… that’s what children with gender dysphoria of this severity go through when made to experience puberty without medical treatment. Their body doesn’t match their gender identity; when they  go through puberty, they’re having to deal with their body becoming more and more obviously that of a gender that isn’t theirs.

As though that wasn’t bad enough, forcing children to endure the wrong puberty has long-term consequences as well; that child is now going forward into adulthood with physical changes that are much harder to reverse. If that child is a transgender girl (a child with the physical body of a boy, but with the internal gender identity of a girl), then she’s had to develop facial hair, stronger facial features, and a deep masculine-sounding voice. She’s going to be stuck with the choice between either having a lot of difficult (and expensive) procedures to reverse these, or spending her life looking and sounding noticeably male even once she starts taking hormone treatment to transition (with all the considerable social stigma and unpleasantness that this will cause her). If that child is a transgender boy who wants to transition physically, his eventual transition will have to include surgery to remove the breasts that could have been prevented from growing in the first place.

There are times in life when doing nothing is a decision. It might be a default decision rather than an active one, but it’s still a decision and it still has consequences. When a persistently transgender child has started puberty, is becoming frantic with the changes, is becoming ever more certain about their decision to transition, is faced with puberty still proceeding apace… then that’s one of those times. In such a situation, doing nothing – withholding medical treatment, insisting that the child has to endure all these changes for years more before being allowed to start treatment for them – is outright harmful to that child.

Of course, it’s also preferable for children not to be making a final decision about transition at that point. After all, we’re talking here about children who are in the early stages of puberty, hence in their early teens at most and in many cases younger than that. Whatever myths you might have heard about gender identity clinics, the professionals there are in fact fully aware that children might change their mind, and are not in any sort of hurry to rush a young child into anything irreversible or even difficult to reverse. So, when a child with persistent gender dysphoria is finding that the early changes of puberty are making the symptoms worse and not better, this presents a dilemma.

Here, therefore, is the management that the WPATH (the international) guidelines advise in such a situation:

When, and only when, a child has persistent and intense symptoms of gender identity issues that are getting worse rather than better with puberty, and other issues in the child’s life have been looked for and dealt with so that this isn’t a case of, say, a child making a poor decision due to severe depression or anxiety, and the child wishes to start treatment after a full discussion of the pros and cons with child and family… then doctors will start a type of treatment known as a puberty blocker. This does not cause any physical gender changes; as the name suggests, it blocks the hormones that cause pubertal changes, thus allowing doctors to hit the ‘pause’ button on the child’s puberty and give them a few extra years to make a decision about gender transition. During this time, the child should be under the care of a paediatric endocrinologist who monitors their response to the puberty blocker and is on the lookout for any side-effects.

If the child’s gender dysphoria persists, and remains at such a level that they wish to physically transition, the next step is hormonal transitioning; taking either testosterone or oestrogen, as the case might be, to bring about the bodily changes of the gender with which the child identifies. (At this point, most people do go on to transition – after all, by this stage you’re down to a subset of transgender children with severe and persistent problems – but it isn’t inevitable. Children who decide against transitioning can simply stop the puberty blockers and allow puberty to proceed normally.) While this is, of course, the point at which changes do start becoming irreversible, that still doesn’t happen straight away. This isn’t like waking up from surgery; the hormonally-induced body changes need to be there for some weeks before they gradually become irreversible, whereas if someone finds that the changes towards a different body are distressing then that reaction is going to be present from an early stage. So, even at this point, we’re still talking about having some leeway to stop things; you haven’t committed irreversibly to gender transition from the moment you swallow your first pill.

The decision about whether or not to transition hormonally is generally taken and implemented around the age of 16, though that’s not an absolute. Again, this is a compromise; the desirability of giving children as much time as feasible to make this decision has to be weighed against the distress of being in a wrong-gender body plus the psychosocial and sometimes physical ramifications of postponing puberty.

As for genital surgery, the guidelines advise that this should be postponed until adulthood. (They also advise waiting until the person has lived as the gender in question for at least twelve months.) It is worth noting here, by the way, that surgery is by no means an inevitable step of transitioning; it’s the one step that everyone who doesn’t know much about transgender treatment will focus on, but in fact many transgender people find that transitioning with the use of hormones is enough for them and that, once the rest of their body matches their inner gender identity, they can deal with having a wrong-gender set of genitals. Either way, it is recommended that this step not be taken prior to adulthood.

Now, hopefully it should be clear by now that the reason for this protocol is that so far it’s the best compromise that exists between the potential risks of treatment and the known risks of not treating an adolescent with severe gender dysphoria who is distressed by pubertal changes. Whatever myths you might have heard, no-one is recommending this because they are oblivious to the potential side-effects of medication or because they think that prescribing for a child is an ideal and sought-after situation. It isn’t. The ideal situation would be for everyone to be born into a body that matches their own inner gender, so that transgender problems wouldn’t exist. For that matter, the ideal situation would be for no child ever to have a condition serious enough to need medication; I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t be delighted with that situation.

But that, of course, isn’t the situation we’ve got. We have the real world. Some children have serious, or potentially serious, medical conditions which do require treatment; not because medicating children is ideal, but because the consequences of not prescribing for a child with a serious problem can be worse. One such problem is severe gender dysphoria. We can leave children in such a situation to suffer the consequences of an untreated condition – knowing there is a high risk that those consequences will have a serious and significant impact on the child – or we can offer them treatment. It’s hard to believe that any of us would choose the former option were it any other medical condition involved. Why should we do so for children with gender dysphoria?

Gender dysphoria in children – replacing myth with fact, Part One

There is a widespread and pervasive myth that children are frequently being pushed into gender transition therapies. It’s a dangerous myth, because the pushback against it is contributing significantly to the problems that transgender youth have in actually getting appropriate, evidence-based support and therapy. Unfortunately, doctor and blogger Harriet Hall’s recent post Gender Dysphoria in Children appears to have been heavily influenced by this myth, with clumsily researched and pervasively scaremongering results.

There are a lot of highly misleading statements in the post that I’d like to debunk if possible. I’m realistic about my rate of blogging, however; if I get time to reply to other statements in her post then I will, but, for this post, I’m going to concentrate on the central myth here.

(Hat tip to FTB blogger Hj Hornbeck, who mentioned Hall’s post to FTB. His own reply to it is here, so do check that out as well, for a lot more information on the subject.)

I’m going to reply, here, to one particular quote from early in Hall’s post which is not in fact from Hall herself; it was a comment she found on this post. I chose this particular paragraph to reply to because I think it quite well encapsulates the groundless fears that swirl muddily around this topic. (Hall, unfortunately, seems to have chosen the quote so that she can echo these fears, rather than in order to examine them and see whether they’re actually justified.)

At about the age of 5, I was convinced I was a boy who had mistakenly been born in the body of a girl. This was in the 1950s, so there was never any discussion of my feelings, and obviously I never heard of “gender dysphoria.” By the time I was an adolescent, these feelings had disappeared. Parents who rush to allow children to “transition” when they are young may be harming their children more than if they just waited to see if the child still felt that way when they got a little older.

It’s not totally clear what this commenter thinks would have happened if she had attended one of today’s gender dysphoria clinics; in fact, I suspect the commenter isn’t clear herself on what she thinks would have happened. However, she does clearly have some kind of significant concern about the possibility that she would somehow have ended up rushing, or even being rushed, into an overly hasty decision to transition that would have then turned out to be the wrong decision for her. And this is the concern that normally comes up in these discussions.

So let’s look at what actually does happen.

Let’s imagine for a moment that gender identity and gender dysphoria research had been seventy years ahead of where it actually was, so that the guidelines and clinics we have today were available in the ’50s. Let’s imagine that this woman’s feelings about her gender, back when she was 5, had led to her referral to the kind of gender identity clinic that’s available to transgender people now, where she could have been assessed and managed under the guidelines that exist for children with gender dysphoria in the present day. What could we expect her experience there to be?

To answer this, I turned to the international guidelines on gender dysphoria management; the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s Standards of Care. They can be downloaded for free here; the sections which I drew on for this post are on pages 14 to 19. My other main source was the study Desisting and persisting gender dysphoria after childhood: A qualitative follow-up study (Steensma et al., Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2011; 16(4): 499 – 516). This is a key study on the topic of children who do lose their initial ‘wrong gender’ feelings after childhood, and factors that differentiate them from children with gender dysphoria that persists into adulthood. The abstract is available online at that link; the full study can also be downloaded for free there.

Based on the above information, here is what actually would have happened for this commenter if she’d visited a well-run modern-day gender identity clinic in her childhood.

First of all, she’d have had the chance to meet with supporting and non-judgemental professionals who would have explored her feelings about gender with her, without trying to push her one way or the other. They’d have taken a full and detailed look at what was going on in her life generally; at how her family life, her school life, and her social life were going, and whether there were problems there. They’d assess her for signs of mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, and, if such were found, treat them appropriately. They’d have provided support for her and her family, as well as pointing her in the direction of other resources that could help.

They’d have discussed whether or not she wanted to try any parts of what’s known as ‘social transitioning’ – living as one gender without making any physical changes. For example, she might want to try having clothes, haircuts or toys that were traditionally viewed as ‘for boys’, or maybe even move on to being called by a boy’s name and/or referred to as ‘he’ instead of ‘she’. If so, there would have been some careful discussion of what implications this might have in terms of how other people would react and treat her, and it would also have been made clear to her that this was an experiment, not the start of an irreversible journey; if she tried these changes and found that they made her more uncomfortable rather than less, it would be absolutely fine for her to reverse them at any point. She might have been offered the option of trying these changes only on holiday, where it would be easy for her to stop them without pushback from people who knew her. Of course, on discussion it might have emerged that she didn’t feel comfortable with trying any of these changes; that would also have been fine. The goal over this time would be to help her explore her feelings about her gender in ways that would be fully reversible should those feelings change.

It’s not clear from her comment when her beliefs about having the wrong-gender body faded, although clearly it was at some point between age 5 and when she hit puberty. If those feelings did persist over the next few years, the clinic would have been particularly on the lookout for how she reacted to the run-up to/early stages of puberty. This is because, in the Steensma et al study I linked to above, this showed up as the stage that differentiated persisters (those children whose gender dysphoria feelings continued) from desisters (those children who grew out of them). Desisters reported that, during this stage, they found themselves coming more to terms with their bodies, and that pubertal changes were, overall, a positive factor that helped reconcile them with the idea of being their birth gender. Persisters reported the exact opposite; their feelings of gender dysphoria became much stronger, and pubertal changes were extremely distressing for them.

This woman, of course, was clearly a desister. From her wording (‘By the time I was an adolescent, these feelings had disappeared’), it sounds as though, in her case, the initial feelings of gender dysphoria faded before she reached puberty. When that happened, her family would have been able simply to discharge her from the clinic.

That’s it. That’s what would have happened. That’s what happens to children today who are referred to gender identity clinics with feelings that turn out to be temporary; they get to talk those feelings over with supportive and non-judgemental medical professionals who also do their best to find out about any other problems in the child’s life that may need help, they’re supported in reversible ways of experimenting with gender identity if and only if they so wish, and they can stop follow-up whenever they feel the feelings have faded.

All this business about letting children wait a bit longer/not rushing them into transitioning/being aware they might feel differently as they get older? These are not mysterious extraordinary concepts that have somehow never occurred to the doctors who work in this field. These are fundamental principles of good care for children with gender dysphoria. This is what is already happening for children with gender dysphoria. So, when next you hear someone raising concern about how young children with gender dysphoria should be allowed to just wait a little longer, or whatever the concerned phrase is… then be aware that this is exactly what’s already happening.

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!

The Friday the 13th call for decriminalising prostitution

…and, this Friday the 13th, I’m going to do this the lazy way, because I’m late for getting dinner started and, as far as coming up with new and incisive yet extremely quick to write thoughts on why sex work should be decriminalised, I got nothin’. So, here’s the link to my previous writings on the subject on this blog.

Quick summary: Sex workers are people trying to make a living. They’re not disgusting criminals. They’re not passive, pathetic victims who can’t think or make decisions for themselves about their own lives. And, while it’s important to recognise that some of them are victims of disgusting crimes and abuses… it’s simplistic and completely inaccurate to treat all sex workers this way. Laws based on any of these stereotypes do more harm than good.

Read my past posts to find out more about problems with prostitution laws; not just the ones that make prostitution itself a crime (I hope the harms and wrongs of those are obvious) but also some of the ones that are promoted as supposedly helping prostitutes but that backfire because of the ignorance and stereotypes that informed their passing.

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, 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.