You must stand clear, Mr. Holmes, or be trodden underfoot.
“That is not danger,” said he. “It is inevitable destruction. You stand in the way not merely of an individual, but of a mighty organisation, the full extent of which you, with all your cleverness, have been unable to realise. You must stand clear, Mr. Holmes, or be trodden underfoot.”
—The Final Problem, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A few days ago, I was reading a post from fellow blogger, Andrew Crigler, who writes Entertaining Christianity. He had written a fun little post, jovially comparing blind-faith beliefs to clothing for puppies, which I enjoyed and with which, for the most part, I agreed. However, at the end of the article, Andrew recommended his readers to J. Warner Wallace’s book Cold Case Christianity. If you have been reading my blog for a while, you might remember that I am no fan of J. Warner Wallace and, in fact, I think he is more akin to a crooked cop than an honest detective. I commented on Andrew’s post to convey this, and that began a nice back-and-forth conversation between us regarding Wallace and his claims. At one point, Andrew suggested that Wallace had written other articles which were more convincing, and formed on better logic, than the ones which I had critiqued. I asked him to suggest one, for me, so that I could read and review it here. Andrew provided me with a link to one of Wallace’s posts entitled, “The Case for the Eyewitness Status of the Gospel Authors.”
Unfortunately, I find this article to be just as poor as Wallace’s others.
Wallace divides his article into a number of sections, each of which discusses a specific point. I will be quoting as much of these sections as is pragmatic, in my responses, in order to make it easier for my readers. I know, all too well, how difficult it can be to try to read a response article while flipping back and forth to the original. If anything seems unclear, or if anyone believes that I have unfairly omitted one of Wallace’s points from my quotations, please feel free to mention it in the Comments section, and I will do my best to correct or clarify.
Eyewitness Authority Is Inherent to the Gospels
The Gospel accounts are written as historical narratives. The life of Jesus is intertwined with historical events locating it geographically and historically. The Gospels repeatedly affirmed their own historical, eyewitness nature, mentioning key figures who served to validate the history of Jesus as eyewitnesses:
There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him.
It is patently absurd to claim that, since the gospel accounts are written as historical narratives, it is therefore implied that the author was an eyewitness. The vast majority of historical narratives, throughout the whole of history, were not written by eyewitnesses to the events, and ancient Roman Palestine is certainly no exception to this rule. It is, in fact, quite rare to find historical narratives from the period of New Testament authorship or earlier which were penned by eyewitnesses. Does Wallace think that Herodotus was an eyewitness to the construction of the pyramids? Or that Suetonius was a witness to Julius Caesar’s campaign in Gaul? Does he think that the author of 1 Maccabees must have been an eyewitness to the history he describes in his narrative? What about the author of the Gospel of the Ebionites? The fact that a document is written as a historical narrative says nothing, at all, about whether or not its author was an eyewitness to the events described.
Wallace’s first point is false.
Eyewitness Authority Was Commissioned by Jesus
Jesus understood the eyewitness status of the Apostles. In fact, he commissioned them to grow the Kingdom on the basis of their eyewitness observations:
“You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
“…but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
The fact that people in a historical narrative are explicitly named as witnesses to that narrative says nothing, at all, about whether or not the author was an eyewitness. Every single historical narrative which is written about specific people, by definition, discusses witnesses to the narrative. The author of a text need not be an eyewitness, nor have ever even met an eyewitness, in order to say that other people were eyewitnesses.
Wallace’s second point is a complete non-sequitur.
Eyewitness Authority Was Affirmed By the Gospel Authors
The authors of the Gospels proclaimed their authority as eyewitnesses (or as chroniclers of the eyewitnesses). While some skeptics have attempted to disassociate the Biblical statements from the Gospel authors to refute the authorship of the Gospels, the earliest believers embraced the traditional authorship of the eyewitnesses (and we can also make good circumstantial cases for the traditional authorship). The Gospel authors (and their sources) repeatedly identified themselves as eyewitnesses:
1 Peter 5:1
2 Peter 1:16-17
1 John 1:1-3
I have discussed, in my earlier articles on Wallace, why he is dishonest to claim that “the earliest believers embraced the traditional authorship of the eyewitnesses,” and I will address this again, later, so I will ignore that comment for the moment. Instead, I will simply discuss the main claim of Wallace’s third point: “The Gospel authors (and their sources) repeatedly identified themselves as eyewitnesses.” I’m going to deal with each of Wallace’s citations, in turn, to show why this claim is absolutely false.
I’ll take the 1 Peter and 2 Peter citations, together, since my counterpoints are the same for both. My first such counterpoint should likely be blatantly obvious to every reader: Peter was not an author of any of the gospels. Still, Wallace is likely attempting to say that Peter was Mark’s source for the composition of his gospel, and that Peter claims to have been an eyewitness. Of course, this means that Wallace needs to stack poor argument for the authorship of 1 & 2 Peter on top of his poor argument for the authorship of Mark. The simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of New Testament scholarship regards 1 & 2 Peter as pseudepigraphical– that is to say, as forgeries written in Peter’s name by a later author. It is exceedingly unlikely that Peter, a poor and illiterate (Acts 4:13; Gk., ἀγράμματοί) Aramaic-speaker from the backwaters of Galilee, could have written 1 & 2 Peter, both of which would have required an expensive education in Greek grammar and rhetoric for their composition.
The next passage Wallace cites is 1 John 1:1-3, but this passage makes no claims to being an eyewitness to the events described in the Gospel of John, at all. The author, representing his community, is claiming to be a witness to the eternal life which results from Jesus’ teaching. There is a fairly tremendous difference between claiming to have witnessed an esoteric spiritual beneficence and claiming to have witnessed historical events.
Wallace then cites John 21:24-25, but conveniently omits the important context provided by verses 20-23. When read all together, it is exceedingly clear that this passage actually says precisely the opposite of what Wallace is claiming. According to this passage, Peter sees ‘the beloved disciple’ following him and Jesus and asks, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus responded by saying, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” Apparently, a great many Christians thought that this meant ‘the beloved disciple’ would never die, but the author of John feels the need to correct this interpretation– perhaps because ‘the beloved disciple’ had already died, in contradiction to such a belief. Then we get to verse 24, which states that the disciple under discussion– that is, ‘the beloved disciple’– is the one who witnessed these things, and that he wrote them down. Then, in contrast to that person, the author of the gospel states, “We know that his testimony is true.” The author is explicitly stating that he is not the beloved disciple which testifies to these things, but that he believes that disciple.
Finally, Wallace mentions Luke 1:1-4, which is a very common proof-text for the eyewitness nature of the gospels. Unfortunately, such apologists usually pretend the passage says something which it absolutely does not state. Very often, this text is cited to show that the author of Luke claims to have interviewed eyewitnesses in the composition of his work. However, a simple reading of the text shows that is says no such thing. Luke simply says that many people have tried to set to page an account of Christian history, just as those accounts had been passed orally even from the first eyewitnesses. The author of Luke does not claim to have known, spoken with, or otherwise interviewed any of the eyewitnesses, personally. Furthermore, the consensus of scholarship is that Luke copied the majority of his material from at least two written sources, neither of which is thought to have been composed by an eyewitness.
Wallace’s third point is false.
Eyewitness Authority Was Confirmed By the First Believers
The early believers and Church Fathers accepted the Gospel accounts as eyewitness documents. In fact, many Church fathers wrote about the Gospels. Papias, when describing the authorship of the Gospel of Mark, said, “Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ.” In addition, Papias, Ireneaus, Origen and Jerome affirmed the authorship of Matthew’s Gospel by the tax collector described in the account, written for the Hebrews in his native dialect and translated as he was able.
Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, and Jerome were certainly not the “First Believers.” The earliest of these, Papias of Hierapolis, did not compose his works until around 70 years after Jesus’ death. The earliest believers to whose writings we have access are the authors of the New Testament, and not a single one of them claims that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses. In fact, there is no evidence to show that most of the New Testament authors were even aware the gospels had been written, at all.
Furthermore, Wallace is wrong to say that Papias was describing the authorship of the canonical Gospel of Mark in that famous quote. Papias simply says that Mark wrote an account. He does not say that the Gospel of Mark which we now use is the account to which he is referring, and he does not quote from the canonical gospel in any of his extant writings. Similarly, Papias does say that Matthew authored a work, but never links it to the canonical Matthew, nor ever quotes from the canonical Matthew. In fact, the book of Matthew which Papias describes is completely different from the canonical work. Papias says that Matthew penned a collection of quotations attributed to Jesus, and that the work was written in Hebrew. However, the canonical Matthew was composed in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, and is composed of a great deal more than just a catalogue of Jesus’ sayings.
Irenaeus is the first person on record to explicitly associate the four canonical gospels with their traditional authors. He made this connection in his book Against Heresies, which was written circa 180 CE– that is to say, around 150 years after Jesus’ death, 110 years after scholars generally believe Mark was written, 100 years after Matthew & Luke, and 85 years after John. Using the early dating proposed by Wallace is even more damning, since he thinks all four gospels were completed more than 120 years before Irenaeus wrote. Furthermore, Irenaeus ascribes these books to these particular authors in an explicit attempt to lend authority to his own views against those of other Christians; he was not simply recounting a disinterested historical fact. Putting all of this together makes Irenaeus a fairly unreliable witness on the matter of gospel authorship.
Wallace’s fourth point is false.
Eyewitness Authority Was Foundational to the Growth of the Church
It really shouldn’t surprise us that the authority of the Gospels was grounded in their eyewitness status. The eyewitness authority of the Apostles was key to the expansion of the early Church. The apostles were unified in the manner in which they proclaimed Christ. They repeatedly identified themselves, first and foremost, as eyewitnesses:
Acts 2:23-24, 32
For a moment, I’m going to ignore the fact that arguably the single most important apostle in the expansion of the early church, Paul, was not an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. The fact that the Apostles proclaimed that they had been witness to the ministry of Jesus says nothing at all about whether or not the gospels were written by eyewitnesses. Again, Wallace is conflating claims about eyewitnesses for evidence of authorship by eyewitnesses. These are two wholly separate subjects, despite Wallace’s attempts to force the one onto the other.
Wallace’s fifth point is a complete non-sequitur.
Eyewitness Authority Was Used to Validate New Testament Writings
Even Paul understood the importance of eyewitness authority. He continually referred to his own encounter with Jesus to establish the authenticity of his office and writings. Paul also directed his readers to other eyewitnesses who could corroborate his claims:
1 Corinthians 15:3-8
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
In his final point, Wallace commits the same error, yet again. Whether or not Paul cites his own experiences is completely irrelevant to the question of the eyewitness authorship of the gospels. The one has absolutely nothing to do with the other. Let’s put Wallace’s claim into the form of a syllogism, in order to really illustrate just how completely illogical it actually is:
- Paul understood the importance of eyewitness testimony.
- Because he understood the importance of eyewitness testimony, Paul made reference to himself and others as eyewitnesses.
- Therefore, the gospels were written by eyewitnesses.
One does not need to be a philosophy major to see that such an argument is completely invalid. Wallace’s conclusion does not follow from his premises. This is a fairly basic fallacy of logic that one would rather expect a former cold-case detective to avoid.
Wallace’s sixth point is a complete non-sequitur.
When Andrew Crigler suggested I read and review this particular article, I was hoping that it was going to be better than the ones I had previously read from Wallace. Unfortunately, that hope was very soon dashed. In case you missed the final tally, here’s a summary review of all of Wallace’s points in the article:
- Historical narrative implies eyewitness authorship – FALSE
- Jesus called the disciples his witnesses – NON-SEQUITUR
- The gospel authors claimed to be eyewitnesses – FALSE
- The first believers claimed the authors were eyewitnesses – FALSE
- The Apostles referred to their own status as witnesses – NON-SEQUITUR
- Paul knew the importance of eyewitness testimony – NON-SEQUITUR
J. Warner Wallace makes six arguments in support of the eyewitness authorship of the gospels, but half of his arguments are false, and the other half are completely irrelevant to the question. I began this article with a quote from Professor Moriarty, intending to play on the juxtaposition of Wallace with Sherlock Holmes which I maintained in my previous two articles about the apologist. I was going to joke about how Wallace had set himself up against the “mighty organization” that is the body of New Testament scholarship. However, I’m beginning to think that analogy gives Wallace far too much credit. Despite his attempts to present himself as a fair-minded detective, J. Warner Wallace is certainly no Sherlock Holmes. It wouldn’t even be fair to call him a Jacques Clouseau, since that bumbling detective at least seems to get to the correct answer, in the end.
J. Warner Wallace is not the disinterested investigator that he pretends to be. He is a professional apologist who sells himself by exploiting the reputation of his former profession.