Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

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.

Advertisements

Single Post Navigation

13 thoughts on “You, sir, are no Sherlock Holmes.

  1. It continually amazes me that some people of the Christian faith feel the need to constantly prove the Bible as absolute truth and be constantly confrontational with science and logic, instead of accepting the writings as fascinating and historical allegory which still hold power to inspire and uplift. I have been attending regular church services for the first time in my life since I have been hired as a soprano section leader for a small methodist church, and this disconnect surprises me. To me, just the fact that there’s a text roughly 2k years old that people still want to read is pretty incredible in itself, let alone the fact that there are passages about human interaction which remain relevant. It is just this literal interpretation stuff that I just can’t understand. Like you and for similar reasons, I am not a Christian.

    • Thanks, both for taking the time to read and for opening up, in turn!

      I absolutely agree with you. It is incredibly ironic that a faith which so vehemently opposes idolatry, in word, is so unknowingly entrenched in it, in deed. For Protestants, especially Evangelicals, this usually plays out as Bibliolatry, where the Bible is venerated as an almost deific entity, unto itself. In Roman Catholicism, there is a pervasive Ecclesiolatry, which exalts the Church and its Magisterium to glorified heights.

      I have actually come to a much fuller, much deeper understanding of and appreciation for the Bible now that I am an atheist than I had when I thought it was the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Now, I let each author speak for himself– I no longer need to try to impose John’s Christology onto the book of Mark. Contradictions and difficult passages are no longer faith-threatening mysteries which require mental gymnastics; now, they are interesting clues as to the historical men behind the writings.

      I have no problem with Christians. I have a problem with people who disseminate misinformation, regardless of their faith (or lack thereof).

  2. First, I’d like to clarify about the term dishonest. I don’t think that Wallace is being dishonest even if he is wrong. Dishonesty implies an intent to deceive which I think is lacking in Wallace. After all, we don’t chide a 5 year old who tells his friend that dragons are real. We simply correct him. There’s no reason to punish the child for dishonesty when his mistake was honest. Unless there is evidence that Wallace is directly attempting to be deceptive, the we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Innocent until proven guilty, after all. 

    Now onto the post; I agree that Luke was not a direct eyewitness, and Wallace himself states that, if not in this article, then certainly elsewhere. Being written too much later and by other people however, I haven’t seen any evidence for that claim. Being written later doesn’t mean much if the people who wrote them were still alive when they were written. I can write about my childhood as an adult and that doesn’t make it any less my childhood. Now if someone else wrote about my childhood whileI was still alive, I’d certainly know what was true and what wasn’t. Even after I’m dead, people who knew me would know the truth about my life for quite some time afterwards. Wallace makes a great point of going through the details of this validation in his book. He makes a case, not only that the books were written by the people they claim to be written by, but also why they were eye-witness accounts even though they didn’t mention it directly. 

    Furthermore, the verses that were added later; if we don’t like them, then toss them out. Wallace is not trying to say that these verse were in the earliest manuscripts. He’s simply pointing out the anatomical correctness of them. If those verse aren’t in the Bible, we lose nothing from the gospel narrative, only a neat science fact found in a history book. I don’t see it as a problem, but feel free to take a chainsaw to it. 
    As far as the water’s mistaken identity, the Bible doesn’t clarify if what would be mistaken for water was cloudy or not. I don’t that’s enough evidence to say that it’s false. But for fun, let’s say that no one saw this happen or that it didn’t happen at all. That doesn’t loose anything for me. It certainly isn’t sufficient evidence that the Bible is wrong. Nor is there a reason for anyone to add that detail if it didn’t happen. What would be the point? The extraneous details are always a fascinating bit that we must deal with. If someone was making it up, why do something that makes your case less credible?

    Thanks for the great post. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness and the ample time you devote to your research and writing. 

    • Thanks for the reply! I’ll do my best to respond to all of the points you make in your comment.

      I don’t think that Wallace is being dishonest even if he is wrong. Dishonesty implies an intent to deceive which I think is lacking in Wallace.

      When I use the term “dishonest” in reference to Wallace, I do so deliberately. I think that Wallace is fully aware that the positions he espouses are not supported by the vast majority of scholarship on the subject, and yet he completely omits this basic fact when giving his presentations.

      It is dishonest to present oneself as a disinterested and neutral investigator when one offers such a deliberately skewed position.

      He makes a case, not only that the books were written by the people they claim to be written by, but also why they were eye-witness accounts even though they didn’t mention it directly.

      I’ll note that none of the four canonical gospels make any claims as to their own authorship. The authors of these works did not sign their own names to them, did not write in the first person, and make absolutely no claims to having been eyewitnesses to the events. It is, therefore, impossible to make a case “that the books were written by the people they claim to be written by.”

      Wallace’s claim that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses is an exceedingly weak proposition. However, that is largely irrelevant to the events being described in this article, as there are bigger problems for Wallace’s claims, whether or not the gospel authors were eyewitnesses.

      Furthermore, the verses that were added later; if we don’t like them, then toss them out. Wallace is not trying to say that these verse were in the earliest manuscripts. He’s simply pointing out the anatomical correctness of them. If those verse aren’t in the Bible, we lose nothing from the gospel narrative, only a neat science fact found in a history book.

      I don’t think you understood my point, here. My issue is not simply that the passage may be inauthentic, but rather that Wallace is presenting the passage as evidence for the veracity of the gospels without even mentioning that it is a disputed textual variant.

      How can something be good evidence for the veracity of the gospel when it might not even be a part of the gospel?

      But for fun, let’s say that no one saw [blood and water pour from the wound in Jesus’ side] or that it didn’t happen at all. …Nor is there a reason for anyone to add that detail if it didn’t happen. What would be the point? …If someone was making it up, why do something that makes your case less credible?

      Blood and water were both fluids which certainly had philosophical, mythological, and theological implications for the people of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. Both were considered to be liquids of life, both in a physical and an esoteric sense. It does not take much imagination to think of a reason why a person might claim that these fluids poured out of Jesus’ wound.

      Nor do I think that an author would think such a tale would have made his document “less credible,” especially when he has already included stories about turning water into wine and raising men from the dead.

      Again, my point in mentioning it was not to show that the Bible is wrong, but rather to show that Wallace is in error to claim that the passage is evidence for the veracity of John due to an accurate description of an actual medical condition. The passage does not describe the medical condition which Wallace claims it describes. Therefore, Wallace is wrong to claim that the passage supports the accuracy of John to history.

      • About Dishonesty; my question then is “why do you think he’s being dishonest?” What reason do you have to believe that he doesn’t believe what he is saying? Going against the majority is certainly not a reason to say he’s lying. It’s not even a reason to say he’s wrong. He doesn’t ever claim that he’s on the majority’s side. Simply put, what evidence do you have that he is being dishonest?

        Eyewitnessness: I agree that they don’t claim to be eyewitnesses directly, but that a lack of evidence not evidence that they weren’t. Wallace’s entire book is about identifying them as eye witnesses because of how the documents were written. 1st person narrative is not necessary for eyewitnesses. If I’m telling you a story of what happened that largely involves other people, I won’t say “I” a lot. Wallace make a cumulative case from his profession of examining eye witness accounts that is pretty strong. Just because I don’t label my remote controls does’t mean that they are not remote controls.

        As for not mentioning that the verses are disputed; keep in mind this is a blog post. Wallace, as I do with my own posts, tries to keep them short. There are 100 facts all of us leave out of our posts, not out of malicious intent, but for brevity’s sake. The validity of the gospels certainly doesn’t hang on these later-added verses. Again, if these are a point of contention, don’t worry about them. The fact that Christians have always put a note about them in the printed Bibles means that it certainly doesn’t bother us either. He’s making cumulative case. We don’t need every piece and not every piece of evidence will be strong.

        For the blood/waterness: it actually would weaken the case. In fact, early church leaders were baffled by it. They couldn’t understand how it was even possible and they were the ones who had the best reason to jump all over that kind of metaphor. I agree, however, that Wallace may be in error on this point. It’s only one piece of the cumulative case, so we can toss it out for the better chunks.

        I appreciate your veracity on this topic! It’s always fun when it’s not someone who’s simply bigoted against religion. Thanks for not being that guy. 🙂

        • About Dishonesty; my question then is “why do you think he’s being dishonest?” What reason do you have to believe that he doesn’t believe what he is saying? Going against the majority is certainly not a reason to say he’s lying. It’s not even a reason to say he’s wrong. He doesn’t ever claim that he’s on the majority’s side. Simply put, what evidence do you have that he is being dishonest?

          I’m not saying that he’s being dishonest because he opposed the consensus of scholarship– I, myself, oppose the consensus of scholarship on a number of issues.

          I’m saying that he’s being dishonest because he presents his case as if it is a disinterested view of the evidence when it is certainly not. I would not consider him dishonest if he acknowledged that his views are certainly not shared by the vast majority of New Testament scholars, but that he still finds them convincing. The problem is that he knows he is presenting a fringe position, but he presents it as if it is the obvious position of scholars and that opposing thoughts are in the minority, or only held by non-Christians.

          It is dishonest to present fringe positions as if they are a disinterested view of the facts without acknowledging that they are, in fact, fringe positions.

          Wallace’s entire book is about identifying them as eye witnesses because of how the documents were written. 1st person narrative is not necessary for eyewitnesses.

          I am not saying that first person narrative is necessary for an eyewitness testimony, but rather that it would be normal to expect first person narrative in an eyewitness testimony. Furthermore, I am saying that the evidence which Wallace presents in support of the idea that the gospel writers were eyewitnesses to the events they recorded is specious and unconvincing, at best.

          As for not mentioning that the verses are disputed; keep in mind this is a blog post. Wallace, as I do with my own posts, tries to keep them short. There are 100 facts all of us leave out of our posts, not out of malicious intent, but for brevity’s sake.

          You’re missing my point. Wallace is trying to make a case that a whole document is historically reliable based on a passage which might not actually be a part of that document. You might as well argue that the whole of Luke is historically reliable because Diophantus wrote the Arithmetica.

          I agree, however, that Wallace may be in error on this point. It’s only one piece of the cumulative case, so we can toss it out for the better chunks.

          My point is that the cumulative case is built upon a great many flawed premises, like this one. Wallace does not present any “better chunks.”

          I appreciate your veracity on this topic! It’s always fun when it’s not someone who’s simply bigoted against religion. Thanks for not being that guy.

          My pleasure, and thanks for the compliment! I actually have quite a love for the Bible. I spend almost as much time correcting misconceptions about the Bible spread by other atheists as I do debating Christians about it. My only goal is to ascertain the truth about things, regardless of where that journey leads.

          • I don’t think he mentions either general scholarship or fringeness. I think he’s simply stating his point of view. I don’t think we can call him dishonest for that. I certainly don;t qualify my work in either way.

            Being unconvincing for you doesn’t make it false either. I find it convincing when read in entirety, which he does not do in this article. I agree that solely what is in this article is unconvincing.

            I don’t think he’s making a case that the whole document is reliable solely because of these passages. He’s built quite a repertoire of articles with many more convincing pieces. I’ve followed him for years and have seen an enormous quantity. If he was using only these verses, it would be laughably insufficient.

            The thing about a cumulative case is that you must have many pieces. The difficulty is not only in assembling them, but also in knocking them down one by one. Again, his work quantitatively is quite vast. This article alone is not his best, but by no means is it his only.

            I really appreciate that you seek the truth and fend off the anti-thesists (as I like to call them). It’s wonderfully refreshing to have an actual discussion instead of someone who likes to say “neener neener neener” and run away. Thanks for that. 🙂

          • I don’t think he mentions either general scholarship or fringeness. I think he’s simply stating his point of view.

            I agree, and this is precisely why I consider him dishonest. Wallace is not presenting this information as if it is solely his “point of view.” He presents it as if it is the proper conclusion to be drawn from the facts, just as a cold-case detective does with a crime scene. But a cold-case detective doesn’t start his investigation by declaring the murderer and then gathering only the bits of evidence that support his claim while ignoring the vast preponderance of evidence which opposes it.

            I don’t think he’s making a case that the whole document is reliable solely because of these passages. He’s built quite a repertoire of articles with many more convincing pieces.

            I’ve never seen any work of his which is any more convincing than this article. If you’d like to recommend some, I’d be more than happy to read and critique them for a future article.

            I really appreciate that you seek the truth and fend off the anti-thesists (as I like to call them). It’s wonderfully refreshing to have an actual discussion instead of someone who likes to say “neener neener neener” and run away. Thanks for that.

            Trust me, if anyone understands that, it’s me. I get it from both sides. Particularly from extreme groups of both camps, like the Mythicists or the KJV-Onlyists.

  3. Cool cool. I don’t think we’re going to agree on that first point.

    Here’s a relatively concise article that I think builds a nice case for the eyewitnessness of the Gospels. It taps on who wrote the gospels slightly, but he has other articles that go further in depth on that topic. I’m excited to read your response post!

    Thanks again for awesomeness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: