J. Warner Wallace

Author, Cold-Case Christianity

Why the Historicity of Jesus Matters

All of us need a little help at one time or another. When times get tough and we need some wise advice, we can turn to our friends, our parents, our mentors or the wise philosophers and thinkers of the past. I’ve known people who have gleaned comfort and wisdom from historic thinkers or writers like Mahatma Ghandi, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or even John Lennon. Wise sources from the past seem every bit as reasonable as more current ones, especially when the wisdom of these thinkers has been vetted and embraced by individuals and cultures across the ages. By contrast, few people would consider Barney the Dinosaur or Yoda to be reasonable sources for such wisdom. Why not? After all, Barney and Yoda have actually offered many wise statements, and some of these statements may even apply to whatever hardship you’re experiencing at this time in your life. Given the wise advice offered by Barney and Yoda, why don’t we embrace them as reliable sources of wisdom? You know why: Barney and Yoda are fictional characters. While we may find some truth in the words of such characters, we typically reject them as consistent, reliable sages. So, to which category does Jesus belong? Is he a wise teacher from who we can gain wisdom, or a fictional character we ought to reject?

Some believe Jesus falls in the latter category. Earlier this year, a story broke in Memphis, Tennessee when a teacher rejected Jesus as a reasonable source of wisdom and comfort. 10 year old Erin Shead was attending Lucy Elementary in Memphis. Her teacher assigned a simple project: write about someone you idolize. Erin chose God. “I look up to God,” she wrote. “I love him and Jesus, and Jesus is His earthly son. I also love Jesus.” Erin’s teacher objected to her choice and told her Jesus could not be the subject of her short project. She told Erin to start over again, and allowed her to pick Michael Jackson as the subject of her report. Erin’s mom brought the case before the School Board. The Board eventually agreed with the Shead’s and permitted Erin to write about Jesus. Why would anyone consider Michael Jackson but reject Jesus as a credible source of wisdom and admiration? While it is most likely due to a growing bias against theism in general, it may also be due to disbelief in Jesus as a true person from history.

Over the past ten years or so, a number of popular works have challenged the historicity of Jesus in significant ways. Films like The God Who Wasn’t There and Zeitgeist: The Movie have garnered millions of views on the Internet. Both films challenge the historicity of Jesus and argue Jesus is nothing more than a borrowed mythological character, crafted from prior similar mythologies. Popular writers and authors such as David Fitzgerald, Richard Carrier and Robert M. Price have advanced this notion in their own publications. As our culture becomes increasingly hostile to the Christian Worldview, authors and filmmakers who depict Jesus as a fictional character will be ever more popular. If Jesus is like Barney or Yoda, there’s really no reason to listen to His teaching or embrace His message.

But Jesus is not like Barney or Yoda. The evidence for the historicity of Jesus is significant and compelling. Jesus is not a re-creation of early mythologies. His existence was confirmed by non-Biblical ancient historical sources and was accurately preserved over the centuries. Even the non-canonical authors affirm the true existence of Jesus.  The historical evidence for the existence of Jesus is so compelling and overwhelming, even an ardent agnostic skeptic like Bart Ehrman has written publicly about the topic (in an e-book entitled, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth). Ehrman may not be a Christian, but he know Jesus was a real historical character. The historicity of Jesus has been established by credible historians and critics, even if denied by popular authors and filmmakers.

You and I, as Christians, need to master the case for the historicity of Jesus. It matters. If Jesus really lived, he is a candidate for our attention, just like Ghandi, Emerson or Lennon. His words are more than clever fiction invented by an anonymous playwright or author. They are Jesus’ words of wisdom, captured for eternity. The historicity of Jesus matters because it allows us to talk about Jesus in a culture which only accepts real people as wise sages worthy of consideration. If we are allowed to talk about the way Ghandi’s wisdom impacted us on a personal level, we ought to be allowed to talk about how Jesus’ wisdom changed our lives. Jesus is a viable candidate because Jesus was a real person. That’s why the historicity of Jesus matters.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

Comment on this blog, Subscribe to J. Warner’s Daily Email, or download the Cold-Case Christianity App from the iTunes Store or Android Marketplace.

Following Dateline’s airing of our latest cold-case (“The Wire”), I received a number of concerned emails from viewers who felt there simply wasn’t enough evidence to be certain Douglas Bradford killed Lynne Knight. I think I can see their point. Dateline has done an excellent job chronicling four of our investigations, but our cases are nearly impossible to adequately represent in the limited time Dateline has to tell the stories. Why? Because our cases are complex, layered, cumulative, circumstantial cases. While I’ve written often about the nature of circumstantial evidence, one of the most evidential concepts related to our cold-cases is the role of cumulative arguments. When a large quantity of evidence point to the same suspect, the cumulative impact of this evidence can be powerful. Many of the individual facts and evidences may seem unimportant or trivial on their own, but when assembled as a set, their collective weight becomes unbearable. All my cold-cases are built in this way. We assemble dozens of facts, details, inferential statements and evidences and show the jury how the collective set of evidence implicates our suspect. I’ve often referred to this process sarcastically as “Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts”.

Defense attorneys typically respond to cumulative cases by focusing on those few pieces of evidence they believe to be the most damaging for their client. They then try to show how any number of other, unrelated causes might also explain these specific items of evidence. They want jurors to focus on the individual pieces rather than the collective set. In essence, they hope jurors will see the “trees” rather than the “forest” (and hopefully only a few of the trees, at that!) In the end, defense attorneys explain the evidences by way of many unrelated causes rather than by the simpler explanation: their client is the one causal factor who can account for all the evidence in the case. In many ways, it’s an “Ockham’s Razor” exercise. When one causal factor explains all the evidence in the case, that cause is the simplest (and most reasonable) explanation.

If you want to be a good Christian Case Maker (or you simply want to examine the case for Christianity for the first time), you’ll need to understand the power of cumulative cases. The Christian worldview is established in a collective manner: the reliability of the eyewitness Gospel accounts is built on more than one line of evidence. In fact, eyewitnesses are established based on four separate categories of evidence, expressed with four important questions: Where the eyewitnesses really present to see what they said they saw? Can their statements be corroborated or verified in some way? Have the eyewitnesses been honest and accurate over time? Do the eyewitnesses possess a bias or ulterior motive disqualifying them? These questions must be considered collectively. In addition to this, the case for each category is also made cumulatively. The issue of corroboration, for example is established on the basis of several unrelated lines of evidence including archaeology, ancient Jewish writings, ancient non-Christian Greek writings, geographic internal evidence, linguistic internal evidence, correct use of proper nouns, and the unintentional eyewitness support I describe in Cold-Case Christianity.

None of these individual elements corroborates the Biblical account on its own. They must be considered collectively. When a skeptic tries to attack the insufficiency of any single line of evidence for the Christian worldview, they are (like defense attorneys) asking the jury to ignore the implications of the collective case. They hope people will focus on a “tree” rather than the “forest”. They typically do their best to argue for an alternative explanation (or several alternative explanations) for each of these evidential facts. But the more reasonable explanation is much simpler: Christianity, if true, can explain all the evidence as the only causal factor. I’ve tried to illustrate the depth of the cumulative case for Christianity with a simple illustration (available as a free, downloadable Bible Insert on the homepage at www.ColdCaseChristianity.com):

When our cases are covered by Dateline, only a few evidences ever make the final edit. As a result, I often get notes from viewers who can’t understand how the jury convicted our suspect (even when some of these men later confessed to the crime!) But our juries never seem to struggle with their decision. Instead, they typically convict rather quickly. When jurors come to understand the power of a collective case, the decision is easy. The Christian worldview is also established cumulatively. If we can learn to communicate the strength of collective cases such as these, we’ll become better Christian Case Makers. If you’re examining the case for Christianity for the first time, don’t stop at the “tree-line”. Go deep. Look at everything. Assemble and assess the cumulative case.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

Comment on this blog, Subscribe to J. Warner’s Daily Email, or download the Cold-Case Christianity App from the iTunes Store or Android Marketplace.

I had the great honor of speaking at the National Religious Broadcasters Apologetics Conference two weeks ago, along with Frank Turek, Abdu Murray, Alex McFarland, Stephen C. Meyer, Ed Stetzer and Troy Miller. In case you weren’t aware, the NRB Network (available on Direct TV) features many Christian Case Making programs (including Cold-Case Christianity). Troy Miller is the President and CEO of the network, and with the help of Arline Bell (the Director of Programming), the network has forged a new path for Christian programming. This is definitely not your parent’s Christian television network. NRB TV is filled with great Christian teaching and Case Making programs. I am delighted to be a small part of the line-up. At lunch, Troy shared the results of a recent viewer survey in which people who watch the NRB Network reported what they liked about it. High on their list were two responses: When using a single word to describe what they enjoy about the programming, many viewers said “orthodoxy”. People who watch NRB TV love the fact the programs argue for an orthodox, conservative view of Christianity. In addition to this, many of the viewers said, “The NRB Network makes me proud to be a Christian.” That last statement was powerful for me. Although most of us, as Christians, tend to shrink away from talking about any form of “pride” (given its negative connotations in Scripture), I think I understand what the viewers meant by the statement. In a culture dominated by Christian programming seen as more embarrassing than praiseworthy and in a cultural environment where Christians are often portrayed as unintelligent and unthoughtful, the NRB Network provides examples of just the opposite. There are good reasons to celebrate our Christian worldview and to be “proud” (not of ourselves, but) of the God who created us:

The Christian Worldview Describes the World Accurately
We live in a universe that had a beginning and appears to be fine-tuned for life. In addition, living biological organisms emerged in this universe from non-living matter and these organisms also display the appearance of design. Our universe is home to conscious creatures who possess free agency, and we recognize the existence of transcendent, objective moral truths and an objective standard for righteousness which defines the nature of evil (by comparison). The Christian worldview accurately accounts for these features of the universe. Christians don’t need to be embarrassed of their worldview; Christianity, when properly articulated, describes our world accurately.

The Christian Worldview Holds Up to Scrutiny
Christianity is not simply a set of proverbial propositions; it is a claim about history. Because Christianity is rooted in an historical event (the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus), it can be verified or falsified. The evidence supporting Christianity is robust and significant. The gospels can be tested using the same template we use for eyewitness testimony in criminal trials (I demonstrated this in Cold-Case Christianity). The historical accounts in the New Testament are reliable. Christians don’t need to be embarrassed of their worldview; Christianity, when properly examined, holds up to critical scrutiny.

The Christian Worldview Provides a Solution
Every worldview offers a solution to a problem, but not every worldview accurately identifies the problem it is trying to solve. Christianity identifies the problem as our own persistent inclination toward bad behavior. We have a sin problem. But Christianity is more than a description of how to be good. Unlike other works-based theistic worldviews (i.e. Judaism, Mormonism or Islam), Christianity recognizes our inability to consistently “perform”. While other theistic worldviews encourage us to work hard and do our best to save ourselves, only Christianity acknowledges our inability to accomplish this task. Other religions offer a work regimen, Christianity offers hope. Only Christianity offers Jesus as the sacrifice for our sin. Christians don’t need to be embarrassed of their worldview; Christianity, when properly understood, offers hope and a solution to our dilemma.

I understand our hesitancy, as Christians, to say we should be “proud”. The Bible has very little good to say about “pride” and the way we often abuse it. But we can be appropriately “proud” of our God and the truth He has provided in Scripture. Christianity is true. It describes the world accurately, holds up to scrutiny and provides hope. The NRB Network viewers are correct. There are good reasons to celebrate your Christian worldview.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

Comment on this blog, Subscribe to J. Warner’s Daily Email, or download the Cold-Case Christianity App from the iTunes Store or Android Marketplace.

I have six half brothers and sisters who were raised in the church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). When I first became interested in the existence of God and the reliability of the Bible, I committed myself to a simultaneous investigation of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. What I discovered kept me from becoming a Mormon. I hope some of these resources will help you investigate Mormonism as well (each article is printable and downloadable as a PDF file):

Resources Related to the Evidence Against Mormonism
Articles to help you examine the evidential claims of Mormonism:

Investigating the Evidence for Mormonism In Six Steps
Given the evidence, there is more than enough reason to conclude Joseph Smith was a fraud and the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction.

How the Book of Abraham Exposes the False Nature of Mormonism
By taking an evidential approach to Christian and Mormon scripture, you can confirm the veracity of Christianity and guard yourself from the falsity of Mormonism

What Do the Kinderhook Plates Reveal About Joseph Smith?
The Kinderhook Plates reveal the false nature of Mormonism and the deceptive efforts of Joseph Smith.

The First Question to Ask of an Ancient Holy Book: Is It Ancient?
Can a book alleging to be from the ancient world be "holy" if it is lying about ancient history? How does the New Testament measure against the Book of Mormon?

Test Your Eyewitnesses, Even When the Eyewitness Is You
Can we trust religious experience? Be ready to provide an answer incorporating both our experiences and the evidential basis for believing they are from God.

The Witnesses of the Resurrection Compared to the Witnesses of the Golden Plates
The truthfulness of the Book of Mormon hinges on the validity of the Golden Plates from which it was translated.

Resources Related to Mormon History
Articles examining the complex and contradictory history of the LDS Church:

The Rich, Contradictory History of Mormon Polygamy
Mormonism has been clearly unorthodox in its positions related to polygamy, extreme in its practices, and variable in its commandments.

Is the Account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision Reliable?
Joseph Smith omitted and changed the facts of the first vision account to make them less offensive and more compelling.

Can We Trust the Prophecies of Joseph Smith?
Joseph Smith uttered demonstrably false prophecies. His status as a prophet of God must be removed and with it, the foundation for Mormonism.

Resources Related to Mormon Theology
Articles describing the theological differences between Mormonism and Christianity:

Is Mormon Salvation Possible?
According to Mormonism, no one receives eternal life until they have abandoned all past sin and have committed themselves to never repeat these sins again.

Mormon Beliefs, Salvation and the Nature of Perfection
Mormon Beliefs: What does Mormon theology teach about grace, salvation and forgiveness? Is perfection required for salvation, and if so, what kind?

The Difference Between Christian Grace and Mormon Grace
Christianity stands alone as the only religion that offers true “grace” to its adherents. Salvation is not the result of anything we do.

Salvation: Why Christians Know They Have Eternal Life (Right Now)
What does Christianity and Mormonism teach about eternal life? What do Mormons believe about the relationship between grace and the assurance of salvation?

Mormons Are Not Christians Because the Mormon Jesus Is Not the Christian Christ
Is the Mormon Jesus the same as the Christian Jesus? Does the nature of Jesus matter when examining the difference between Mormonism and Christianity?

Mormons today often try to portray their belief system as simply another, legitimate, historical denomination of Christianity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mormonism is not evidentially legitimate, historically reliable, nor theologically compatible with Christianity. I hope these resources will help you understand the truth about the Church of Latter Day Saints.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

Comment on this blog, Subscribe to J. Warner’s Daily Email, or download the Cold-Case Christianity App from the iTunes Store or Android Marketplace.

About J. Warner Wallace

Jim was a conscientious and vocal atheist for 35 years. As a police detective, he spent over a decade working cold-case homicides. When J. Warner took time to be honest with himself, he had to admit that he’d never given the case for Christianity a fair shake. Using the tools he learned as a detective, he fairly examined the evidence for Christianity and realized that it was demonstrably true. He became a Christian in 1996 and eventually earned a master’s degree in theological studies from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. After serving as a pastor and church planter, Jim now speaks at churches, retreats, and camps about the historicity of Jesus, the reliability of the Bible, and the truth of Christianity. His latest book, “Cold-Case Christianity” (David C. Cook), provides readers with the tools they need to investigate the claims of Christianity and make a convincing case for the truth of the Christian worldview. You can follow J. Warner Wallace on Twitter @PlsConvinceMe.

  • Editors' Picks

    17 Prayers of Gratitude for the Holiday Season
    17 Prayers of Gratitude for the Holiday Season
  • The First Thanksgiving We Don't Remember
    The First Thanksgiving We Don't Remember
  • Humanum Conference at The Vatican
    Humanum Conference at The Vatican
;