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?