You, sir, are no Sherlock Holmes.
J. Warner Wallace is a Christian apologist who used to work as a homicide detective. In his book, Cold Case Christianity, Wallace describes how, as a 35-year-old atheist, he began to look at the evidence for Christianity using the forensic principles he developed while working crime scenes. Incredibly, he came to the conclusion, based on this evidence, that Christianity must be completely true. Wallace went on to become a youth group pastor, and then a church leader. Now, he travels the apologetics circuit and maintains the website PleaseConvinceMe.com, where he blogs and provides “real answers, for a real faith, in the real world.”
Yesterday, Mr. Wallace posted an article to his blog entitled, “Two Hidden Science Facts in the Passion Week.” In the article, he describes how eyewitness testimony which may seem ludicrous or inconceivable, at first, can sometimes be corroborated by scientific facts, later on. He then purports to have located two such occurrences in the gospel accounts of the passion. It has the potential to be quite an interesting perspective, but it is marred by some very egregious errors. If this is demonstrative of Mr. Wallace’s ability to evaluate evidence, I can’t advocate much confidence in his skill as a detective.
The two narratives which Wallace identifies as revealing “hidden science facts” are Luke 22:41-44 and John 19:31-34. The Lukan passage describes a famous account in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus apparently sweats blood. The Johannine passage discusses an occurrence on the cross, when a soldier wanted to see if Jesus was dead by stabbing him with a spear, after which blood and water poured from his side. Wallace identifies these two accounts with conditions which have now been more fully described by modern science. Sweating blood is a real medical condition, known as hematidrosis, and there are other reports in history where people under incredible stress– especially men facing death or execution– have exhibited these symptoms. The water pouring forth from Jesus’ wounds, according to Wallace, can be explained as a description of a pericardial or pleural effusion, a condition where excessive fluid builds up around the heart or lungs, which can often result from trauma– such as the scourging which Jesus received.
If Wallace had simply made these observations, on their own, I would not have much to complain about. He’s certainly not the first person to recognize these similarities. There is not much which is controversial in these claims, left to themselves. However, Mr. Wallace holds that these similarities provide evidence that the gospel accounts are historically factual, and that is where his analysis begins to lose credibility.
The first major problem with our detective’s deductive reasoning occurs when he identifies the authors of Luke and John as being eyewitnesses. Mainstream New Testament research has held, for a very long time, that the gospels were not actually written by the authors tradition ascribes for them, but were instead anonymous works by later Christians who were incredibly unlikely to have been witnesses to the events they describe. The Gospel of Luke was written around 50 years after the events it describes. The Gospel of John was written about 65 years after Jesus’ death. These accounts were written by highly educated, Greek-speaking men; not by the illiterate, Aramaic-speaking day-laborers who composed Jesus’ earthly following. None of the gospels identifies its own author, and none of them treats their accounts in the first-person. The traditional authorship for these books was not ascribed to them until 100 years after they were written and began to be circulated. Neither the author of Luke nor the author of John was actually his historical namesake.
Even if, for the sake of argument, we allow that the Gospel of Luke was written by the historical Luke, Mr. Wallace would still be incorrect in identifying him as an eyewitness to the account under discussion. The historical Luke was a travelling companion of the apostle Paul, and neither man knew or followed Jesus during the Nazarene’s life and ministry. Neither man was present at the Garden of Gethsemane. And the account of the piercing of Jesus in John’s gospel explicitly states in Verse 35 that the author had not, himself, witnessed the event, but was rather reporting the testimony of someone else. Mr. Wallace cut his citation of the John 19 passage just short of this verse, for some reason.
Of course, whether or not the authors of these passages were, themselves, eyewitnesses to these events is a fairly minor mistake. After all, these things may have been witnessed by someone else who passed the story on to these authors, in which case most of Wallace’s intended point still stands firm. Still, there are a few other problems in Wallace’s depiction of these things which further complicate matters.
For example, Wallace gives absolutely no indication that he is aware of the fact that Luke 22:43-44 may not have been penned by the author of that gospel, at all. If you read this passage from the link, above, you’ll notice two things which are conspicuously absent from Mr. Wallace’s citation of these verses: brackets surrounding them, and a footnote. The footnote indicates, explicitly, that “other ancient authorities lack verses 43 and 44.” The brackets are less intuitive, unless you are familiar with conventions in Biblical translation. They indicate that the bracketed passage is not likely to be original to the text. For a good analysis of exactly why New Testament scholars tend to believe that these two verses were added to Luke by a later Christian scribe, I recommend Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, pages 112-120, which explains the text critical, grammatical, and thematic reasoning in a manner which is easy to understand. Suffice to say, it is fairly ludicrous for Mr. Wallace to assert that this passage is evidence of the historical reliability of the Gospel of Luke when it is not even clear– or, for that matter, likely– that the author of Luke even wrote this passage.
Wallace’s description of pericardial and pleural effusions is also fairly problematic. Firstly, an effusion does not consist of water forming around the heart or lungs. There are four types of fluid which can be involved in an effusion: serous fluid, blood, chyle, and pus. Of these four, the only one which could possibly be confused for water is the serous fluid, which sometimes presents as a clear liquid, though it other times presents as a cloudy fluid which is far less likely to be mistaken for water. However, when this serous fluid is clear and transparent, like water, it is a transudate. Transudative effusions are generally the result of systemic problems like renal failure or cirrhosis of the liver. Trauma most often causes bleeding or chylothorax effusions, but can cause exudative serous effusions– those cloudy fluids which I mentioned before.
Furthermore, Mr. Wallace ignores a greater problem in the description. For a witness to have observed that “blood and water came out” (Gk., ἐξῆλθεν εὐθὺς αἷμα καὶ ὕδωρ) there would need to be a fairly large volume of “water” which did not intermingle with the blood. After all, if the blood and water mixed together upon exiting the wound, it would be largely indistinguishable from simply being blood by any observer. And even if the two fluids did not mix, for an effusion to even be noticeable by an observer, it would need to be massive. According to Etiology and prognostic significance of massive pleural effusions by David Jimenez et al, that would mean a pleural effusion between 500 and 2000 mL in volume. In contrast, the normal volume of fluid between the pleura surrounding the lungs is around 5 to 14 mL. For such a massive effusion to have been caused by the trauma of Jesus’ scourging, it would almost certainly have been a bloody effusion, not a transudative effusion which could conceivably be confused for water.
J. Warner Wallace has built his entire reputation on the idea that his skills as a cold-case detective can be applied to the evidence for Christianity in order to prove its veracity. However, if this particular blog article is any indication, his skills do not seem to translate very well. Nothing which I have said, in this post, amounts to occluded or esoteric knowledge which is only known by skilled and experienced experts in these subjects. Everything which I stated about the authorship of Luke and John is extremely basic scholarship. Students learn those facts in the first week of any Introduction to New Testament Studies course, and I first learned them when I was a student at a Catholic high school taking a standard religion class. When I said that the Sweating Blood passage from Luke is textually disputed and is not likely original, I’m not claiming anything which a person would not have learned by simply reading that passage from a decent Study Bible. As for the information I presented about pericardial and pleural effusions, I knew absolutely none of it until I spent about an hour, this morning, with Google. It doesn’t take a detective to recognize that the “evidence” J. Warner Wallace presents in this blog article is extremely poor.