It’s elementary, my dear Wallace
Yesterday, I took Christian apologist J. Warner Wallace to task for his mishandling of “Two Hidden Science Facts” which he purported to exist in the writings of Luke and John. Wallace’s primary claim to fame is that he is a former cold-case homicide detective who uses the forensics skills he learned on the job to show that the evidence for Christianity is true. If yesterday’s article wasn’t sufficient to show that Wallace’s skills as a detective do not translate well to history, then today’s certainly will. I went back, a couple of weeks, through the PleaseConvinceMe.com blog, and found this article from April 7th, “Is the Bible True? The Cumulative Case for the Reliability of the Gospels.”
J. Warner Wallace is being entirely dishonest when he pretends that a dispassionate view of the evidence supports the case which he presents.
I do have to thank Mr. Wallace for the orderly presentation of his claims in “Is the Bible True?” which will allow me to respond to each of his points, specifically, by referencing the numbers he assigned them. That saves me from having to quote most of his article, in my response, while still making it very easy for my readers to see exactly which of his points I am addressing. To that end, we will start at the beginning of his outline.
Premise #1: The Gospels Were Written Early
In (1a), Mr. Wallace asserts that the best explanation for purported “missing information” in the Acts of the Apostles is that this account was written prior to 61 CE. Except that he ignores a much better explanation for this allegedly “missing” data: it is entirely irrelevant to the purpose and message of the Book of Acts. The Acts of the Apostles is not presented as a general history of Roman Palestine, nor is it intended to be a biography of the men it describes. Acts of the Apostles was intended– counterintuitive as this may sound– to describe the actions undertaken by the apostles, especially Peter and Paul, as they are sent out to preach the good news (“apostle” comes from the Greek ἀπόστολος meaning “one who is sent out”). The Siege of Jerusalem and the Destruction of the Temple have absolutely nothing to do with the apostles. Neither do the deaths of Peter, James, and Paul have any evangelical purpose (as opposed to the death of Stephen, for example, which is recounted in Acts).
Of course, there’s an even bigger problem for Mr. Wallace. As he correctly notes in (1b), the Gospel of Luke was written by the same author who wrote Acts, and the former was written prior to the latter. Why is this a problem? Because Luke 21:5-30 does describe the Siege of Jerusalem and the Destruction of the Temple, and does so in greater detail than Mark 13, which was his source for this pericope.
Wallace then claims that Paul is copying from Luke in a few passages in his own work, which shows that Luke must have been written prior to these epistles. There’s a fairly large problem, though: neither of the examples which Wallace gives show Paul quoting from Luke, in the first place. Even the majority of conservative Christian scholars agree that 1 Timothy was not actually written by Paul, let alone the almost unanimous view of mainstream scholarship on that book. The books 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus are collectively referred to as the “Pastoral Epistles,” and it has been the conventional view of scholarship for centuries that these are pseudepigraphical– that is, that they were written by someone else claiming to be Paul. Conventional scholarship dates 1 Timothy to the late 1st Century, or early-to-mid 2nd Century.
Wallace’s other example text actually does come from one of the letters which is generally believed to be authentically Pauline. However, if one were to simply read 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, they would find that Paul explicitly tells us his source for this passage– and it is not Luke. He is recounting a story which he “received from the Lord.” Paul is claiming to have gotten this information from a revelatory experience, not from a written source.
Wallace correctly points out, in (1d), that Mark was written prior to Luke. He’s being a bit misleading when he says that Luke “references” Mark– in fact, most scholars would say that Luke rather blatantly plagiarizes Mark, though such an act need not have carried the stigma which it does, today. But that’s simply nitpicking. The vast majority of New Testament scholars ascribe a date of somewhere between 65-70 CE for Mark, fully two decades after Wallace’s proposed date. This same scholarship typically date Matthew and Luke to around 80-85 CE, and John to around 90-95 CE. Such dates would place them after “the same generation as those who witnessed the truth,” meaning that Wallace’s claim that they could “have been cross-checked by those who were still alive and would have known better” is untenable.
Premise #2: The Gospels Have Been Corroborated
The idea that the gospel accounts have been “better corroborated than any other ancient historical account” is absolutely preposterous. I could quite easily point to, say, Suetonius’ account of Julius Caesar’s life, which finds corroboration in Plutarch, Cassius Dio, Appian, Caesar’s own writings, architectural inscriptions, sculpture, coinage, pottery, and even graffiti. That is far more corroboration than anything which exists for the Gospels. That said, let’s look at Wallace’s specific claims.
He begins, in (2a), by noting that archaeology corroborates many people, locations, and events in the Gospels. In (2c) and (2d) he also states that the Gospels accurately identify some local geographical details and some historical figures. These three points are absolutely correct! However, archaeology does not corroborate any of the most important people or events in the Gospels. There is no archaeological corroboration for Jesus, or any of his disciples, or for Joseph of Arimathea, or Nicodemus, or Lazarus, or the vast majority of people in the texts. Nor is there any archaeological corroboration for the Slaughter of the Innocents, or the ministry of Jesus, or his miracles, or the crucifixion of Jesus, or the Empty Tomb. A great many texts from antiquity with very obviously legendary embellishments also have people, locations, and events corroborated by archaeology and other historical documents. The fact that Aristotle references many people, places, and things which actually did occur in history doesn’t mean that he is historically reliable when he claims that Pythagoras had a thigh made out of solid gold. Similarly, the fact that the Gospels actually reference many people, places, and things which actually did occur in history doesn’t mean the Gospels are historically reliable in all of their claims.
In (2b), Wallace claims that “Ancient Jewish, Greek and Pagan accounts corroborate the outline of Jesus’ identity, life, death and resurrection.” This is simply not the case, at all. Within 100 years of Jesus’ death, there are exactly three non-Christian writers whose works mention him, at all. The earliest of these comes from about 92 CE, with the Jewish historian Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. Unfortunately, the authenticity of the passages mentioning Jesus are in dispute. It is universally recognized that the references to Jesus in Antiquities are largely interpolations from later, Christian scribes; and some scholars argue that the passages are wholly inauthentic. Anything so obviously manipulated and altered as these passages cannot be seriously considered as good corroboration to the Gospel accounts. The other two writers who mention Jesus are Romans, writing in the early 2nd Century. Combined, their references total two lines of text. Suetonius says, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [the Emperor Claudius] expelled them from Rome;” meanwhile, Tacitus gives us a little bit more: “Christus, from whom the name [Christian] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” There are no ancient Jewish, Greek, Pagan, or otherwise non-Christian accounts which corroborate Jesus’ identity, ministry, or resurrection. His death is corroborated by only one Roman source, and possibly one Jewish source.
Wallace’s claim in (2e) is simply perplexing. He states that, “Mark’s repeated reference and familiarity with Peter corroborates Papias’ description of Mark’s authorship of the account.” Papias was a Christian bishop writing sometime in the early 2nd Century. In one of his works, now lost to history, Papias mentions that Peter’s secretary, Mark, wrote down an account based on his memories of Peter’s testimony. This is the earliest known source of the tradition that the historical Mark actually wrote the Gospel which now bears his name. That said, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the work which Papias references is the same as our current Mark. Papias doesn’t quote from our Mark, he doesn’t summarize our Mark, he doesn’t even make reference to any pericope which is found in our Mark. And there are very good reasons to think that our Mark was not written by the historical Mark. For one thing, Acts tells us that Mark was a lower-class, Aramaic speaking Jew from Palestine. The author of Mark, on the other hand, was a highly-educated, Greek-speaking person who was not likely Jewish, and who was not likely from Palestine. Wallace’s assertion in (2e) is completely illogical. To illustrate, I’ve restated his claim as a syllogism:
- Papias claims Peter’s secretary wrote an account.
- We have an anonymous book which talks about Peter.
- Therefore, the anonymous book which we have must be the book Papias described.
It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to identify the problems with that nonsense.
Finally, in (2f), we find another fairly ludicrous claim. Wallace states that, “The authors of the Gospels support one another unintentionally with details obscure details (sic) between the accounts.” However, the prevailing scholarship on the matter is that there was nothing unintentional about it. In fact, both Matthew and Luke are extremely likely to have utilized Mark as a source for their gospels. In numerous places, the two later works copied Mark’s text nearly verbatim. Other passages with word-for-word similarity between Matthew and Luke indicate that the two likely had another shared source, as well: a lost collection of Jesus’ sayings which scholars have called “Q.” This isn’t just a case of two witnesses to an event independently reporting similar facts. This is a case of documents literally plagiarizing other documents. To claim that this amounts to corroborating witness is absolutely preposterous.
Premise #3: The Gospels Have Been Accurately Delivered
I actually agree with most of Wallace’s third premise. His points in (3a), (3b), and (3c) are reasonably accurate claims. The New Testament documents really are the most textually reliable documents from antiquity in the world. By that, I mean that we can be more reasonably sure that what we have, today, faithfully represents the original text for the documents of the New Testament than we can be for any other literary documents from that time.
That just leaves (3d). Even when I’m so close to being in complete agreement with Mr. Wallace, he throws in another misrepresentation of the evidence. He claims that, “The earliest caretakers of the text considered it to be a precise, divinely inspired document worthy of careful preservation.” However, all of the available evidence from manuscripts of New Testament texts shows precisely the opposite, as is well-described in Bart Ehrman’s scholarly work, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. Far and away, the earliest period of manuscript transmission is the period which introduced the most textual variation, emendation, and redaction. This has been the relatively uncontroversial and almost unanimous conclusion of scholarship on the subject for decades. In this early period, the numerous disparate factions of Christianity were all fighting with one another over doctrine and theology, and each faction claimed apostolic authority and Sciptural justification based on their texts. They were not above intentionally altering the text of the New Testament to make it better fit their beliefs.
Premise #4: The Gospel Authors Were Unbiased
This entire premise is so incredibly laughable, I would heretofore have only expected the worst of Internet forum trolls to make such an argument. But, alas, Poe’s Law is once again affirmed. Our esteemed detective, J. Warner Wallace, wants us to believe that the men who worshiped Jesus of Nazareth as a god were unbiased when describing the accounts of Jesus’ life. This claim is so inordinately preposterous, I can’t even begin to fathom why Mr. Wallace would think it makes a good argument.
In (4a), Wallace argues that the authors were convinced of their beliefs by their observations. Of course, the manner in which someone attains their bias is completely irrelevant to the question of whether or not they are biased. The fact that an unbeliever can be convinced to believe says nothing about whether that person’s subsequent work is biased.
In (4b), Wallace says that the authors were not driven by financial gain, sexual lust, or power, therefore they could not be biased. I’ll even set aside the fact that Wallace claims these authors all “died without any of these advantages,” despite the fact that our detective has absolutely no evidence to support such a position. The simple fact of the matter is that the pursuit of money, lust, and power are most certainly not the only sources of bias. There are numerous examples of poverty-ridden racists to prove that.
In (4c), Wallace claims, “The testimony of the authors was attested by their willingness to die for what they claimed. There is no evidence any of them ever recanted their testimony.” Of course, there is no evidence that they were willing to die for what they claimed, either. There is no evidence that anyone ever even requested that they recant their testimony, let alone threatened these men with torture or death in order to coax them into such a thing. Even if they were willing to die for what they claimed, that would not be an indication that they were unbiased. Thousands of slave owners willingly went to their deaths, in the American Civil War, to defend their beliefs. That didn’t make them any less biased.
Your Honor, I Move to Dismiss This Case
Now that I have completed my analysis of Mr. Wallace’s evidence, allow me to admit that there certainly are scholars who would agree with him on almost all of the points he makes– the dating, the authorship, the corroboration by other sources. However, these scholars are in the extreme minority of New Testament scholarship. Even amongst conservative, Evangelical Christian scholars, most of the claims Mr. Wallace makes in “Is the Bible True?” would be considered, at best, against the grain of the consensus; and often, on the complete fringes of scholarship. He is building his entire case off of very flimsy evidence.
J. Warner Wallace’s entire approach to apologetics is set up as an analogy to building a case in the criminal justice system. Unfortunately for his analogy, if Mr. Wallace were to present a court with evidence like this, he would undoubtedly lose the case. When the vast consensus of expert witnesses brought before the court stands in opposition to your view of the evidence, the Judge and Jury are not likely to conclude that you have proven your case beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s not even likely that a Judge would allow such a case to continue to trial, based on such sparse evidence. Wallace may like to claim that he is simply presenting a dispassionate, unbiased, and detective-like view of the evidence, but the truth is that he is manipulating his crime scene. He only presents the evidence that fits his claims, and intentionally obfuscates all of the evidence to the contrary.
J. Warner Wallace isn’t acting like a good detective. He’s acting like a crooked cop.