Investigating Jesus. Untampered Evidence.

In objecting to Christianity many people cite a lack of trust that the evidence has been handled well and has not been tampered with. The “telephone game” is raised as an example of how things get changed when passed from one person to another so that you cannot trust the final message to be the same as the original. So how do we know that the Christian message has not changed over time from the original? How can we trust anything we hear about Jesus from the New Testament?

J. Warner Wallace points out that with policing there is a “chain of custody” which exists to ensure evidence is properly documented and protected. There is a paper trail documenting all the people who have ever handled it, with policies and procedures in place, all to ensure that jurors can trust they are indeed presented with the facts. The evidence cannot be tampered with. So can we identify a “chain of custody” with respect to the New Testament and the Christian message? Wallace has done the hard work for us in identifying at least three different “chains” which link the New Testament as we now have it to the original apostles. I will refer you to Wallace’s book, “Cold-Case Christianity” where he treats these with much greater detail, but to summarize:

  • John’s students confirm the accuracy of the Gospels: John taught Ignatius and Polycarp who taught Irenaeus who taught Hippolytus who lived 170-236 AD.
  • Paul’s students confirm the accuracy of the Gospels: Paul taught Linus and Clement of Rome and then we have Evaristus, Alexander 1, Sixtus, Telesphorus, Hyginus,Pius, Justin Martyr and then Tatian.
  • Peter’s students confirmed the accuracy of the Gospels: Peter communicated through Mark who taught Anianus, and then we have Avilius, Kedron, Primus, Justus, Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Pamphilus of Caesarea and then Eusebius who lived 263-339 AD.

These “chains” represent three different parts of the Mediterranean world, with John’s chain running through Asian Minor, modern-day Turkey, Paul’s running through Rome, and Peter’s running through Northern Africa. In each of these locations and through time we find the same message consistently communicated with the New Testament works quoted or referred to often. Wallace points out that if we did not even have a New Testament, we could piece together the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in quite a lot of detail just from what these “Church Fathers” tell us.

As I had done a joint-major in Classical Studies I was intrigued by Wallace’s mention in this chapter of Herodotus and Thucydides. These two authors from antiquity, and many others like them, are used by classical historians in piecing together ancient history. Now the historians may or may not agree that Herodotus and Thucydides are accurate in their respective telling of history, but it is important for us to note that historians do not cast much doubt at all upon the fact that they are reading the works of Herodotus and Thucydides. Remarkably, there is no chain of custody to which we can turn to verify that these sources have not been tampered with. We can not refer to the the writings of the students or of the students of the students and so on of either Herodotus or Thucydides. And yet, no one ever brings up the “telephone game” as a reason we should suspect these books as we have them now to be fabrications or distortions of the originals. It seems obvious that many people develop a hyper-scepticism when it comes to the New Testament.

Scepticism is a very good thing. It keeps us from being naive, from believing things we ought not to. Scepticism can keep us from believing false witnesses who are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. However, hyper-scepticism is a bad thing. If all judges and jurors fell into hyper-scepticism, justice would be obstructed and many a guilty person would go free. Evidence would never be trusted as authentic. So why is it that a healthy scepticism with regard to ancient works turns to hyper-scepticism with regard to the ancient works that make up the New Testament? It goes back to Genesis 3 when Satan used his first and best tactic, saying to Eve: “Did God really say?” He continues to inspire a God denying hyper-scepticism in our day.

The apostles knew that God really was speaking into the world through Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. They, and all their students knew the great importance of handing truth on correctly:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand,  through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (NRSV emphasis mine)

From a historical perspective, there is a wonderful “chain of custody” which gives us confidence that the New Testament and all that is said in it has been preserved well and untampered for us. From a theological perspective, of course there is a chain of evidence. God, having gone to such lengths to love us, would not allow his love to be hidden by layers of deceit. Do you need to read the New Testament with a new appreciation that it is genuine and untampered evidence?

Investigating Jesus: Good Witnesses

The case is strong. As lead detective you have uncovered all the evidence and drawn the best conclusions. Eyewitness testimony is a key part of the evidence. But what if the jury members do not trust the witnesses? Why should they believe them? As the investigator you already have confidence in the eyewitnesses because you have already asked the important questions to establish trust.

When it comes to investigating Jesus, why should we trust the eyewitnesses? As we continue the journey of following the lead of cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace let us consider four key questions which Wallace says must be asked about eyewitnesses. Here again, we are only scratching the surface, please see Wallace’s book Cold-Case Christianity, where each question is the topic of an entire chapter. So what four questions are to be asked?

Were the eyewitnesses actually there?

Some who would love to discredit the eyewitnesses and strike their testimony from the investigation will claim that the writings of the New Testament, including the four Gospels were written far too late to contain any valid eyewitness testimony. However, if we can determine that they were written close to the events, then we can have confidence the eyewitnesses would have had the opportunity to review them, or be involved in the writing of them. So are there reasons we should consider the books of the New Testament as being written early? Though not Wallace’s full list, here are a few things to consider:

  • The siege and destruction of Jerusalem including the destruction of the Temple is not mentioned in the works of the New Testament beyond a prophecy of Jesus. There are plenty of times where one would expect such to be mentioned. The simplest explanation for such absence is that these writings predate the Fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, and so while the eyewitnesses of Jesus are still alive.
  • Luke, who wrote the history-focused book of Acts never mentions the deaths of Peter, Paul, or James in the 60’s AD. Since Luke would have been keen to point to their martyrdoms as examples of how they picked up their crosses and followed Jesus, it is reasonable to conclude that Luke wrote Acts before their deaths.
  • As you can tell from his opening words in each, Luke wrote his Gospel before he wrote Acts, and so during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. It is widely agreed that the Gospel of Mark was written before that of Luke.
  • Paul’s speaks of the eyewitnesses as being still alive to corroborate the testimony in 1st Corinthians 15:6

Can we verify what the eyewitnesses have said in some way?

Is there any corroborating evidence to show that the eyewitness testimony is genuine? Or does the evidence suggest that it is fabricated? Here are some things to consider:

  • Wallace points to the “unintentional eyewitness support” which he encounters in crime cases. These happen one witness unintentionally says something that answers questions that another witness has raised. Wallace gives many examples, but here is one: We might wonder from reading Matthew 4:18-22 why Simon Peter and Andrew simply get up and follow Jesus. We learn from Luke 5:1-11 that Jesus had previously been fishing with them and was the cause of a miraculous catch of fish. Of course they get up and follow when he calls!
  • There is a genuine feel to the testimony with the little discrepancies in the stories which you expect when people remember the same events, but from different perspectives. For an example of how people remember the same things slightly differently, ask someone how long this week’s sermon felt! If every person in church that day answered with 53 minutes and 12 seconds, you you would suspect a collusion and a memorized answer. Genuine witnesses do not need to memorize what they know to be true. Discrepencies are a mark of authenticity.
  • The Gospels were written from different parts of the Roman Empire. However, they all reference names which are appropriate to the location of Palestine in that time. This is an extra piece of evidence that the Gospel writers know what they are talking about.
  • Other writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish make reference to Jesus, and while they are sceptical about the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead, they do confirm the kinds of things that were being said about Jesus whether they liked it or not.

Have the eyewitnesses changed their story over time?

You don’t want to trust witnesses who change their stories. Did the followers of Jesus say one thing early on, then something quite different later? Some things to consider:

  • The evidence points to the students of the eyewitnesses as being trustworthy in keeping and handing on their testimony. We will look at this next week.
  • Through something called “textual criticism” we can be quite certain about the reliability of the texts which we have. This will be covered two weeks from now.
  • The Jewish people were very good at keeping important records. The Christian Church inherited this passion for integrity in guarding the truth.

To sum this point up, the apostles never changed their tune despite pressure to do so, and the early Christians kept right on playing the same tune.

Do the eyewitnesses have a reason to lie?

Does the evidence suggest that the apostles were simply telling what they knew to be true, or did they have some motive to conspire together in a lie? Consider:

  • Wallace points out that the three key motives for being involved in a crime revolve around money, sex, or power. The apostles did not stand to gain in any of these things, in fact they stood to lose their lives for sticking to their testimony that Jesus was risen.
  • Some would say that we should not even consider the testimony of the apostles, for they had become Christians, and their testimony therefore is biased toward a “Christian slant.” Of course they were biased. They became biased because of what they saw and knew to be true. To not admit their testimony would be like not admitting the testimony of a witness because they were now biased regarding the guilt of the person they saw commit a murder. To quote Wallace from Cold-Case Christianity: “The disciples were not prejudicially biased; they were evidentially certain.”

Jesus called the apostles to fulfil the role of witnesses:

After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. . . . He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Acts 1:3,7,8 (NRSV emphasis mine)

While we often apply this text to all Christians, we should not lose sight of the fact that Jesus is talking specifically here to the apostles. They were to fulfil the role of witnesses, telling everyone they knew, and everyone they didn’t know, about what they had seen and knew to be true. In the writing of the documents that make up the New Testament, their testimony has been preserved. They are still eyewitnesses down to this day. They are good witnesses, of some very very Good News! What will you do with their testimony?

 

Investigating Jesus: Jury Duty

Let us return to the example of a crime we have been considering the last two weeks when you were called out as a detective to investigate the circumstances of my death. You have all the evidence, you have come to the best explanation, your prime suspect is now in custody and the prosecution is ready to go to trial. The evidence is overwhelming and the case is strong. You have determined that my neighbour murdered me for my chocolate. You are confidant that justice will be served. However, it could all go wrong. The jury could obstruct the search for truth!

We are continuing our journey of learning from cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace how to investigate the evidence with respect to the reality and resurrection of Jesus. While tracking along with the chapters of “Cold-Case Christianity for Kids” (keeping pace with the children of our Sunday School who are also on this journey), today we are leaving the script a wee bit to include some material gleaned from Wallace’s podcasts. Again, I refer you to J. Warner Wallace himself to dig deeper, and please be aware that not everything you read here in this adaptation necessarily reflects his opinions.

So how is it, that having built a strong case for the conviction of your prime suspect, the jury can get in the way of the search for truth? There is a process of jury selection which is very intentional to ensure that this does not happen. The defence and the prosecution alike want to select those jurors who will handle the search for truth well. Let us consider what kind of people you do not want on the jury.

You will not consider someone a very good seeker of truth and able to serve on the jury if they will only consider one kind of evidence. In the case of my death, what would happen if someone served on the jury who trusted no one, even the police and detectives working the case? However, perhaps they once worked at a coroner’s office and having learned to trust coroners will accept coroner’s reports as good evidence. If a juror only considered a coroner’s report as valid evidence, my murderer would go free. The jurors need to consider all kinds of evidence. J. Warner Wallace points out that in cold-cases jurors need to be able to consider circumstantial evidence and not just direct evidence.

Is this important in the search for truth in religious perspective? Yes! I have often heard said things like “only science can teach you anything.” If this were true then most of what we know about history is lost to us, not to mention that many bad people would go free instead of spending time in the justice system. You would not consider someone fit for jury duty if they will only consider one type of evidence. You do not want to be that kind of person when it comes to investigating Jesus.

You will not consider someone a very good seeker of truth and able to serve on the jury if they are fixated on only one piece of evidence. Returning to my death, suppose a juror was herself a recovering chocoholic and could only think of the empty chocolate wrappers on the table once it has been presented as evidence. She does not consider the gun or the gunshot wound. My murderer will go free. Convictions are most often dependant upon cumulative evidence, that is, jurors need to consider all the different pieces of evidence.

Is this important in the search for truth in religious perspective? Yes. Sometimes people can get fixated on one piece of evidence. Consider, for example, how some people think that if the process of evolution is proven to be correct, then Christianity is proven to be wrong. Conversely, others think that if evolution is proven to be wrong, then Christianity is proven to be correct. Thinking back over the last two Sundays, did you notice something as we considered evidence for the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus? Evolution was never mentioned! Pinning your evidence for God on evolution is like fixating on the empty chocolate wrappers. It may be that by fixating on the evolution debate people are making the case for a method of interpretation of Genesis rather than for the reality of God. The case for God is a cumulative case, there is much more evidence to consider. You would not consider someone fit for jury duty if they will only consider one piece of evidence. You do not want to be that kind of person when it comes to investigating Jesus.

You will not consider someone a very good seeker of truth and able to serve on the jury if they think they must be an expert on everything before they can have an opinion on anything. In the case of my death, a jury may hear testimony from an expert on guns who presents evidence that the bullet found in me was found moments before in my neighbour’s gun. If a juror thought something like “I don’t know enough about guns and bullets to trust that  the expert is correct,” my murderer would go free. Jurors need not be experts in everything, and in fact, having access to all the evidence are in a better place to come to a conclusion than the experts.

Is this important in the search for truth in religious perspective? Yes. Some people simply shrug and say “I can never know enough about cosmology or philosophy or anyotherology to be able to figure out if God exists and Jesus is alive, so I won’t bother to find out.” This is not rocket science. You don’t need to be an expert on everything to know something, or better, Someone. You would not consider someone fit for jury duty if they think they must be an expert on everything before they can have an opinion on anything. You do not want to be that kind of person when it comes to investigating Jesus.

You will not consider someone a very good seeker of truth and able to serve on the jury if they think that every question must be answered. Suppose all the jurors are ready with a guilty verdict against my neighbour except one who says “I can not commit to a conviction because I still have an unanswered question. How much chocolate did Clarke actually eat the day of his death?” A question goes unanswered and a murderer goes free. Not every question needs to be answered in the search for truth and a conviction.

Is this important in the search for truth in religious perspective? Yes. We can get hung up on one or two questions while the weight of the evidence goes unnoticed. This happens especially with the problem of evil and the question of how a good God could allow evil to persist. There are ways of dealing with this question, but even if we have trouble answering the question, we still have the weight of the evidence for God and the resurrection of Jesus to consider. You would not consider someone fit for jury duty if they think every question must be answered. You do not want to be that kind of person when it comes to investigating Jesus.

You will not consider someone a very good seeker of truth and able to serve on the jury if they are fixated on finding proof beyond every possible doubt. Suppose all the jurors are ready to deliver a guilty verdict on my neighbour except one. He says “I can not commit to the guilty verdict. It is possible that aliens stole the chocolate and set up the neighbour as the murderer so they would remain undetected.” And a murderer goes free. Jurors are instructed to bring a conviction, not when it is beyond every possible doubt, but beyond a reasonable doubt.

Is this important in the search for truth in religious perspective? Yes. For some people, when it comes to God no amount of evidence will be enough evidence. They are looking for proof beyond every possible doubt. If being beyond a reasonable doubt is enough to send someone to jail for a long time, then it should be enough to draw conclusions with regards to religious perspective. You would not consider someone fit for jury duty if they are looking proof beyond every possible doubt. You do not want to be that kind of person when it comes to investigating Jesus.

You will not consider someone a very good seeker of truth and able to serve on the jury if they really, really, really want a certain outcome to be true. You would not want my neighbour’s wife to serve on the jury. She may care more about having her husband home than where the evidence leads. Or perhaps she will be bent on ensuring a conviction!

Is this important in the search for truth in religious perspective? Yes. Some people do not want Christianity to be true and so do not want to hear about the evidence. Consider the story Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man asks Abraham to warn his brothers of what awaits them after death:

Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” Luke 16:29-31 (NRSV)

They will not listen because their minds are already made up. You would not consider someone fit for jury duty if they really want a certain outcome to be true. You do not want to be that kind of person when it comes to investigating Jesus.

Would you be considered for jury duty? Are you a genuine seeker of truth open to considering where all the evidence leads? If not you may miss out on a very important conviction. The conviction that God loves you.