J. Warner Wallace is a cold-case homicide detective. That means he investigates murders that were never solved but are then re-opened at a later time. Cold-cases have little or no hard forensic evidence, and so eyewitness statements are particularly important. Whether re-interviewing previous witnesses or identifying and interviewing new witnesses, the analysis of their testimony is critical to the possible closure of the case. Consequently, Jim Wallace was trained in ‘Forensic Statement Analysis’ – that is the scientific analysis of witness statements to determine their truth and reliability. He was used to analysing evidence and in particular knew what to look for in a reliable eyewitness statement.
Seen by friends as an “angry atheist” and “skeptic”, he started to read the Gospels and found himself using the same approach to assessing Mark’s Gospel as he used in his work. Much to his surprise, the Gospels failed to live up to his earlier assumptions:
Something about the Gospels struck me as more than mythological storytelling. The Gospels actually appeared to be ancient eyewitness accounts.
Mark’s Gospel, he concluded, appeared to be based on the eyewitness accounts of Peter. This was a turning point – if the evidence showed that the Gospels were based on eyewitness accounts, the statements they made could be trusted and needed to be treated seriously. At the very least, they were worthy of serious consideration.
“because of the evidence, not in spite of it”
Cold-Case Christianity does much more than simply recount the background to Jim Wallace’s conversion from atheist to Christian. While some have approached the issue of the reliability (or not) of the New Testament from the perspective of ancient history, classics, law or philosophy, a murder detective’s approach gives a fresh, modern perspective – and one that is likely to appeal to 21st century sceptics. While Cold-Case Christianity covers many of the same issues as books like F.F. Bruce’s classic Are the New Testament Documents Reliable? as well as more recent works, its novel approach makes this a book that is highly readable and can easily be lent to sceptics. Anyone who enjoys reading or watching a ‘whodunnit’ is likely to enjoy this book.
‘Learn to be a Detective’
Section 1 is called ‘Learn to be a Detective’. Its ten chapters give the reader an introduction to the ten most important principles that Wallace believes a detective needs to learn. Using examples from his own real-life murder investigations, Wallace illustrates how these principles assist the detective – and then applies those same principles to aspects of the Gospels themselves. In each case, he builds up a picture of the Gospels as documents that can be trusted“because of the evidence, not in spite of it”.
These principles include: ‘Don’t Be a “Know-it-All”’ (resisting presuppositions), ‘Think “Circumstantially”’ (respecting circumstantial evidence), ‘Hang on Every Word’ (examining the details of the choice of words used) and ‘Prepare for an Attack’ (being careful to distinguish between a possible alternative and a reasonablerefutation).
For example, Chapter 4, ‘Test Your Witnesses’, starts off with an illustrative court case and moves on to consider how we come to trust what an eyewitness has to say. As Wallace says: “Once you come to trust an eyewitness, you eventually must come to terms with the testimony that eyewitness has offered.” He cites the advice given to jurors in California in assessing witnesses, and summarises these as “four critical areas of concern”:
• Were they even there?
• Have they been honest and accurate?
• Can they be verified?
• Do they have an ulterior motive?
be careful to distinguish between a possiblealternative and a reasonablerefutation
He then considers what many people consider to be the crucial question that arises with multiple eyewitnesses: ‘So, why can’t they agree?’. He gives a fascinating example of a robbery case where the perpetrator was described very differently by two eyewitnesses. On further investigation, however, the differences were understandable based on the different backgrounds, interests and viewpoints of the witnesses. Wallace then applies these insights to ‘The Gospel writers as eyewitnesses’, emphasising that for the unbeliever the reliabilityof the Bible is a far more pressing question than the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible. The Gospels are “messy … filled with idiosyncrasies and personal perspectives along with common retellings of familiar stories.” Furthermore, “we have to remember that an eyewitness account can be reliable in spite of apparentcontradictions…. Let’s recognize the importance of biblical reliability and help our sceptical friends recognize the nature of personal, reliable eyewitness testimony.”
‘Examine the Evidence’
Having established the ten principles for an effective investigation of eyewitness (and other) evidence, Section 2 applies these to an investigation of the claims of the New Testament. Chapters 11 to 14 consider the four key concerns of Chapter 4 described above – how do you decide whether or not you can trust someone’s testimony? In particular, how do we decide whether the Gospel writers’ claims to be relating reliable history stand up to investigation? Wallace considers these four concerns in turn: he first considers the evidence for the reliability of the Gospels; then considers the various objections and why they turn out to be unfounded or unsatisfactory; and then looks for the most reasonable explanation of all the evidence (following his Principle #2: abductive reasoning).
Were they present?
When were the Gospels written? This is a crucial question to decide whether the writers could themselves have been eyewitnesses to the events described, or at least were basing their writings directly on the accounts of eyewitnesses. Wallace cites some of the evidence for an early dating of the Gospels, and concludes that “The reasonable inference from the circumstantial evidence is that the Gospels were written very early in history, at a time when the original eyewitnesses and gospel writers were still alive and could testify to what they had seen.”
Were they corroborated?
Are the Gospel accounts corroborated by internal evidence and external sources? Wallace considers some of the incidental comments made by different Gospel writers that provide an overall complete picture, indicating the harmony and reliability of these narratives. The finest example of this, he suggests, is the Feeding of the Five Thousand, where he describes how Mark, Luke and John contribute incidental remarks which only make complete sense when taken together.
Other evidence cited includes the historically and geographically accurate use of names (of people and of places) in the Gospels and the corroboration of Gospel themes and details from non-biblical sources and archaeological finds.
Were they accurate?
Are the Gospel accounts that we read today an accurate reflection of what the original authors wrote down? The Codex Sinaiticus, believed to date from AD 350, is the oldest completesurviving copy of the New Testament. The Council of Laodicea formalised the content of the New Testament in AD 363. Can we be sure that there was no accidental or deliberate corruption of the New Testament between the dates they were written and the mid-fourth century?
“The disciples were not prejudicially biased; they were evidentially certain.”
Wallace provides an excellent account of what he calls the “chain of custody” of the Gospels – identifying the chain of teaching and writing from the Gospel writers through their own disciples or students and on to the fourth century. For example, John taught Ignatius and Polycarp, who in turn taught Irenaeus, who taught Hippolytus in the early third century. Similar chains are given for Paul and for Peter, with the latter linking right down to the Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea in the early fourth century. Wallace proposes that “we could comfortably reconstruct an accurate image of Jesus from the letters of the students of the apostles, even if all of Scripture was lost to us.” These details would be particularly helpful in evangelism to Muslims who often accuse the Bible of corruption, but who respect the ‘isnad’ or chain of witnesses for thehadith (sayings) which describe events from Muhammad’s life. The “chain of custody” for the Gospels belies the accusations of corruption and underscores the trust that can be placed in the Gospel accounts.
Were they biased?
Did the writers have any motive to lie in their accounts? Wallace considers three possible motives for lying and shows that none of these could have motivated the Gospel writers. He then considers whether bias – preconceptions or partiality – might have produced errors in the Gospels. But he argues that:
The apostles became convinced of Jesus’s deity after they observed His life and resurrection. They didn’t start off as Christians … The disciples ended up as Christians (certain that Jesus was God) as a result of their observations… The disciples were not prejudicially biased; they were evidentially certain.
A Call to Defend the Gospel
I knew I could never take a blind leap of faith. For me, the decision to move beyond ‘belief that’ to ‘belief in’ needed to be a reasonable decision based on the evidence. I ask jurors to do this every time I present a case – to assemble the circumstantial evidence and draw the most reasonable inference from what they have examined. That’s what I did as I assembled the cumulative case for the reliability of the Gospels.
The postscript to Wallace’s book is titled ‘Becoming a “Two-Decision” Christian’. His first decision was “to believe what the gospel writers were telling me” and his second was “to become a Christian case maker”. He concludes his book with a plea for Christians to “get in the game”:
“If you’ve already decided to believe the Gospels, take a second step and decide to defend them. Become a case-making Christian; work in your profession, live your life faithfully, devote yourself to the truth, and steadily prepare yourself to make a defense for what you believe. I want to encourage you to make that second decision. Start small. Read and study. Engage your friends. Start a blog or host a website. Volunteer to teach a class at your church. Get in the game.”
If you want to know why the Gospels are trustworthy documents, or if you want a book to lend to a friend who is interested in the reliability of the Gospels, then get this book. Read it, absorb it, lend it out.
The purpose of Cold-Case Christianity is to show that “it’s possible for reasonable people to examine the evidence and conclude that Christianity is true.” This book demonstrates why the Gospels can be trusted as the accounts of eyewitnesses to what Jesus taught
1. The book is wonderfully written and organized. J. Warner Wallace has done an excellent job writing with both clarity and accessibility, presenting his points with little technical jargon and explaining what jargon he uses (more than once too!). The chapters logically flow and the entire book is written with a layman in mind.
2. The book is wonderfully engaging. Being a homicide detective, Wallace has a body of experience that is both foreign and intriguing to your average reader, and he utilizes parallels and descriptions from his police experience very effectively. Also, the book has pictures and a bit of variety in the page layout; these thoughtful insertions keep the chapters from becoming stale and visually repetitive.
3. The book has a very broad scope and serves as a great introduction to a wide variety of apologetic issues (i.e. the resurrection, the arguments for the existence of God, textual criticism, the problem of evil, etc.) without bogging the reader down in details and nuanced argument.
4. Wallace generally presents the counter-arguments to his points well. His responses are clear and concise, and one gets the feeling from reading Wallace that he has had a lot of practical conversations with people regarding the issues under discussion.
5. Wallace usually gives good explanations of the concepts he discusses, like philosophical naturalism (page 25), abductive reasoning (page 33), reasonable doubt (age 131), etc. He’s neither wordy nor vague, and he knows how to illustrate a concept effectively.
6. Pages 55-60 contain a great, helpful discussion on the validity and usefulness of circumstantial evidence and its value when compared with direct evidence. This is definitely a place where his experience in the courtroom comes forward and assists him greatly, and this is one subject that many a Christian needs to brush up on for practical purposes.
7. Pages 69-85 contain a very insightful and helpful treatment of eyewitness testimony, as well as excellent interaction with common accusations related to the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.
8. Pages 109-117 contain a fantastic treatment of conspiracy theories, exploring and explaining the practical difficulties for concocting and upholding a lasting conspiracy involving multiple parties. Again, he draws examples from his police experience that prove to be excellent illustrations of his points.
9. Page 131 has a very insightful unpacking of the standard of proof and reasonable doubt vs. possible doubt. Again, Wallace’s legal understandings and courtroom experience provide helpful illustrations here.
10. Pages 135-136 give 2 good responses to the problem of evil: Wallace points to the presuppositional philosophical inconsistencies of the problem of evil (if objective evil exists for the problem to have substance in the first place, there must be a universal standard of “good” by which evil is judged), and also gives what I call the “Ten Trillion Year” response (God is eternal and judges good and evil from his eternal perspective; i.e. ten trillion years from now, the ten thousand years of evil that mankind endured will be considered inconsequential to the 9.9999999 trillion years of comprehensive and continuous good of paradise earth).
11. Wallace has incorporated a wide variety of information, including some relatively recent stuff from the academic world. One example of this was how on page 192 he included the recent work of Tal Ilan on the frequency and distribution of names in the New Testament world to show how the writers of the Bible were from the geographic location that they claimed. I was also really pleased to see Wallace reference Edwin Yamauchi (page 209) and give a brief discussion of the actual problematic nature of archeological evidence; how most items from history don’t actually survive as evidence and our picture of the past, as based on archeological artifacts, is actually amazingly incomplete and inaccurate.
12. On the whole, chapter 12 was excellent, exploring the internal and external corroboration of the Gospels. For the Christian who has recently discovered the popular (and mostly irresponsible) manifestations of doubt regarding the reliability of the New Testament (i.e. Richard Carrier, the movie “Zeitgeist”, the skeptics annotated Bible, etc.), this chapter would be a welcome encouragement.
13. I did appreciate his call for Christians to be case-makers, especially with his cooking analogy on page 260-261. I thought it was a great way of presenting the difference between the biblical office of Evangelist and the Christian who responds to the great commission.
14. His list of books for further reading was great; 2 or 3 books per topic and not too overwhelming, though I did think that some of his books might be significantly above the reading level of someone who might find “Cold Case Christianity” a bit challenging. Going from a 5 page discussion of textual criticism to reading Metzger, Wallace and Comfort is a leap that will likely leave a lot people on their faces. Then again, I’m not really aware of a layman’s introduction to textual criticism outside of James White’s “The King James Only Controversy”, so there possibly is a book that needs to be written there.