J. Warner Wallace

Author, Cold-Case Christianity

In an interview on Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley, I spoke with two skeptics and discussed apparent contradictions in the history offered by the Gospel authors when compared to non-Christian historians. One skeptic offered an objection related to the account of the beheading of John the Baptist. Although I had difficulty hearing and understanding his words through the telephone connection and his accent, his argument can be summed up succinctly: Josephus records the death of John the Baptist at a time in history that appears to be around 36AD, six years after the date commonly accepted for the crucifixion of Jesus. If Josephus’ record is accurate, John was executed after the Resurrection of Jesus, and the gospel accounts are wrong. This objection, along with an objection about the role and dating of Quirinius in the Gospel of Luke, formed the basis for his skepticism toward the Gospel accounts.

While I had difficulty hearing and understanding the precise dating elements the caller referenced in his objection, I was certainly familiar enough with the nature of the complaint and the overarching principles I would use to test the testimony of Josephus against the testimony of Matthew (14:1-12) and Mark (6:14-29). I’ve written about these concepts related to eyewitness reliability in my book, Cold-Case Christianity, and it’s important to employ these principles to avoid stumbling over apparently contradictory minutia:

Principle One: Make Sure the Witnesses Were Present in the First Place
While Mark and Matthew (or at least the authors of their Gospels if you’re inclined to deny the traditional attributions) lived during the time of John’s execution, Josephus did not. Most scholars place Josephus’ birth at 37AD and date his testimony related to John the Baptist (as it is recorded in Antiquities of the Jews) at 93-94AD. There is good reason to believe Mark’s Gospel is the earliest narrative of these events and was written within 20 years of John’s execution; the case for the early dating of Mark’s text is cumulative and compelling. Mark’s account was, therefore, available to the early Christian and non-Christian observers of the life of Jesus. The first consideration for eyewitness reliability is simply proximity to the event. Were the witnesses truly present to see what they said they saw? Just as importantly, was the account available early enough in history to be fact checked by other contemporaries? In this case, we are comparing two accounts from the time of the event to one account written one generation after the event.

Principle Two: Try to Find Some Corroboration for the Claims of the Witnesses
Historical accounts (like accounts from cold-case homicide witnesses) can be verified in a variety of ways. Sometimes we use physical evidence external to the account (like archaeological discoveries) and sometimes we use the testimony of other witnesses. In this case, we have only three accounts from antiquity confirming the events surrounding John’s execution: the account from Mark, the account from Matthew and the account from Josephus. A careful reading of Matthew and Mark’s gospel reveals distinct idiosyncrasies in each account. Both authors reference the same set of facts (and are obviously familiar with each other’s claims), but express variations well within the range we would expect from two eyewitnesses. When skeptics favor Josephus’ lone account against the two accounts in the Biblical text, they simply expose their bias against the Christian narratives.

Principle Three: Examine the Consistency and Accuracy of the Witnesses
Accuracy and consistency are another important aspect of eyewitness reliability. If we’re going to use Josephus’ lone record to discredit the gospel accounts, we need to at least be fair about assessing Josephus’ precision and uniformity. Josephus’ historical record is, unfortunately, uneven and sometimes self-contradictory. Josephus often cites the Old Testament Biblical record as part of historical account, but he frequently cites this Biblical history inaccurately. In addition, while Josephus is detailed in his chronological information in some places, he is inconsistent or silent in providing information from the reign of Archelaus through the time of Pilate (4BC-26AD). More importantly, Josephus contradicts himself repeatedly related to the dating of Herod’s reign, setting the beginning of Herod’s rule in 36, 37, 38 or 41BC, depending on which of Josephus’ volumes or passages one examines. Part of the problem (especially when compared with the Gospel accounts) is the utter absence of any ancient copy of Josephus’ original work. There are no surviving extant manuscripts of Josephus’ histories prior to the 11th century. In fact, there are only approximately 120 ancient manuscripts of Josephus’ work and only 33 predate the 14th century. Compared to the rich abundance of ancient copies of the gospels, the work of Josephus is not well attested and difficult to cross-check for consistency and transmissional accuracy.

Principle Four: Examine the Presence of Bias on the Part of the Witnesses
Skeptics often claim we can’t trust the gospel authors because they were Christians and were biased in favor of presenting Jesus in a certain way. I’ve written about this in Cold Case Christianity and demonstrated the difference between a presuppositional bias and a conviction based on observation, but even if the Gospel authors were biased in some way, what advantage does their version of John’s execution give them? As I often say, there are only three motives behind any lie (financial greed, or sexual lust/relational desire). Which of these motives would cause the gospel authors to lie about their version of the events, particularly when these accounts would be circulating within the first generation of citizens who knew how and when John was executed?

In trying to evaluate which ancient historical account (Matthew, Mark or Josephus) is accurate, I simply apply the four dimensional template I’ve just described. This is the same template we use in criminal trials, and it clearly favors the Gospel accounts over the account from Josephus. But let’s assume the very worst here as a skeptical precaution. What if Mark and Matthew are both wrong about the facts related to the execution of John the Baptist? Would this necessarily disqualify their account entirely? No. I’ve never had a witness in a case who was entirely inerrant, and judges, in fact, admonish jurors to be careful not to disqualify a witness simply because he or she might be wrong about a particular detail. While I believe the Gospel autographs to be inerrant, the bar for witness reliability is actually much lower. We don’t discredit the entire record of Josephus simply because he was wrong about Old Testament Biblical history, the dating of Herod’s reign or the execution of John. We ought to afford the Biblical gospel authors the same benefit of the doubt.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith.

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Jesus Was A Case Maker

The Jesus I encounter on the pages of the New Testament is a committed case maker. He didn’t expect His followers to believe what He said (direct evidence) without good reason (the support of indirect evidence). Jesus continually supported His testimony with the indirect evidence of the miracles He performed. He then made the case for the authority of His testimony from the corroborative evidence of these miracles:

John 5:36
But the testimony which I have is greater than the testimony of John; for the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish—the very works that I dotestify about Me, that the Father has sent Me.

John 10:25
Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me.”

John 10:37–38
If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.

John 14:11
Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves.

Jesus knew His followers needed more than His direct testimony. He offered the evidence of the miracles to corroborate His claims so His hearers would be fully convinced. In fact, Jesus was so committed to this evidential approach that He stayed with the disciples for over a month following His resurrection to give them additional evidence:

Acts 1:2–3
… until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.

Think about that for a minute. Jesus had already demonstrated His deity by rising from the grave. I think that would be enough for me. But it wasn’t for Jesus. He stayed an additional forty days to give many more “convincing proofs.” That’s an exceptional commitment to case making.

This short article was excerpted from Forensic Faith: A Homicide Detective Makes the Case for a More Reasonable, Evidential Christian Faith. For more information about this third book in my Christian Case Making trilogy, please visit www.ForensicFaithBook.com.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith.

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During an interview on Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley, a caller asked about corroboration and wanted to know if there was enough evidence beyond the Gospels to verify the reliability of their testimony. I began by helping him understand the nature of evidential corroboration and the limited information typically offered by such evidence. Every piece of corroborative evidence typically addresses (and verifies) only a “touchpoint”, a small aspect of the testimony from which we infer the “reasonability” of the larger account. Corroborative evidence is always limited; it only addresses a small aspect of the event under consideration. Even with these limits, however, the Gospels are still well corroborated. I’ve written a chapter about this in my book, Cold-Case Christianity, but here is a brief summary of the evidence “beyond the Gospels”:

Ancient “Reluctant Admissions”
Non-Christian authors and historians from antiquity mentioned Jesus or His followers repeatedly, even as they denied His Deity or the claims of His supporters. While these ancient sources were hostile to the claims of the New Testament, they reluctantly confirmed key elements of the Gospel narrative.

Josephus (37-101AD)
Even when examining the a modest, redacted version of Josephus’ ancient account, it’s clear that this Jewish historian reluctantly affirmed the following: Jesus lived in Palestine, was a wise man and a teacher, worked amazing deeds, was accused by the Jews, crucified under Pilate and had followers called Christians.

Thallus (52AD)
While Thallus appeared to deny the supernatural aspect of the gospel narratives, he did reluctantly repeat and affirm the following: Jesus lived, was crucified, and there was an earthquake and darkness at the point of his crucifixion.

Tacitus (56-120AD)
Cornelius Tacitus (known for his analysis and examination of historical documents and among the most trusted of ancient historians) described Nero’s response to the great fire in Rome and reluctantly affirmed the following: Jesus lived in Judea, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and had followers who were persecuted for their faith in Christ.

Mara Bar-Serapion (70AD)
Sometime after 70AD, this Syrian philosopher, writing to encourage his son, compared the life and persecution of Jesus with that of other philosophers who were persecuted and reluctantly affirmed the following: Jesus was a wise and influential man who died for his beliefs, His followers adopted these beliefs and lived lives that reflected them.

Phlegon (80-140AD)
Phlegon wrote a chronicle of history around 140AD and reluctantly affirmed the following details about Jesus: Jesus had the ability to accurately predict the future, was crucified under the reign of Tiberius Caesar and demonstrated his wounds after he was resurrected.

Archaeological Discoveries
Many volumes have been written about the archaeological support for the Old and New Testament, including this very brief list of archaeological corroborations:

Related to Quirinius
Luke wrote that Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem because a Syrian governor named Quirinius was conducting a census (Luke 2:1–3). Archaeological discoveries in the nineteenth century revealed Quirinius (or someone with the same name) was also a proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC to the death of Herod. Quirinius’s name has been discovered on a coin from this period of time, and on the base of a statue erected in Pisidian Antioch.

Related to Erastus
In Romans 16:23, Paul wrote, “Erastus, the city treasurer greets you.” A piece of pavement was discovered in Corinth in 1929 confirming his existence.

Related to Lysanias
Luke described a tetrarch named Lysanias and wrote that this man reigned over Abilene when John the Baptist began his ministry (Luke 3:1). Two inscriptions have been discovered that mention Lysanias by name. One of these, dated from AD 14–37, identifies Lysanias as the tetrarch in Abila near Damascus.

Related to Iconium
In Acts 13:51, Luke described this city in Phyrigia. Some ancient writers (like Cicero) wrote that Iconium was located in Lycaonia, rather than Phyrigia, but a monument was discovered in 1910 that confirmed Iconium as a city in Phyrigia.

Related to the Pool of Bethesda
John wrote about the existence of a pool of Bethesda (John 5:1–9) and said that it was located in the region of Jerusalem, near the Sheep Gate, surrounded by five porticos. In 1888, archaeologists began excavating the area near St. Anne’s Church in Jerusalem and discovered the remains of the pool, complete with steps leading down from one side and five shallow porticos on another side.

Related to Politarchs
For many centuries, Luke was the only ancient writer to use the word Politarch to describe “rulers of the city.” Skeptics doubted that it was a legitimate Greek term until nineteen inscriptions were discovered. Five of these were in reference to Thessalonica (the very city in which Luke was claiming to have heard the term).

Related to the Pool of Siloam
John wrote about the “Pool of Siloam” (John 9:1–12) and described it as a place of ceremonial cleansing. Archaeologists Ronny Reich and Eli Shukrun excavated the pool and dated it from 100 BC to AD 100 (based on the features of the pool and coins found in the plaster).

Related to Pontius Pilate
For many years, the only corroboration we had for the existence of Pontius Pilate (the governor of Judea who authorized the crucifixion of Jesus) was a very brief citation by Tacitus. In 1961, however, a piece of limestone was discovered bearing an inscription with Pilate’s name. The inscription was discovered in Caesarea, a provincial capital during Pilate’s term (AD 26–36), and it describes a building dedication from Pilate to Tiberius Caesar.

Related to the Custom of Crucifixion
While thousands of condemned criminals and war prisoners were reportedly executed in this manner, not a single one of them had ever been discovered in any archaeological site. In 1968, Vassilios Tzaferis found the first remains of a crucifixion victim, Yohanan Ben Ha’galgol, buried in a proper Jewish “kôkhîmtype” tomb.

Related to Sergius Paulus
In Acts 13, Luke identified Sergius Paulus, a proconsul in Paphos. Skeptics doubted the existence of this man and claimed that any leader of this area would be a “propraetor” rather than a proconsul. But an inscription was discovered at Soli in Cyprus that acknowledged Paulus and identified him as a proconsul.

While the corroborative evidence “beyond the gospels” is extensive (I’ve only touched upon a few of the highlights), there is also significant evidence from “within the gospels” to corroborate their content, including (1) Accurate “unintentional eyewitness support” between gospel authors, (2) Accurate referencing of regional 1st century proper names, (3) Governmental functions, and (4) Little-known geographic locations, and (5) The proper use of ancient language. I’ve written about these corroborative evidences extensively in Chapter 12. As we evaluate the gospel accounts with the same template we apply to court witnesses to determine their reliability, the New Testament narratives withstand our scrutiny and display the earmarks of trustworthy testimony. This means we can have confidence in them as reliable history, supported (as we might expect) by the reluctant testimony of ancient non-Christian authors and the archaeological record of the period.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith.

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During an interview on Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley, I responded to the objections of two atheists who rejected the reliability of the Gospel accounts on the basis of apparent contradictions with Josephus’ record and a concern about-corroborative evidence. I’ve learned to employ a four-pronged template when assessing the reliability of a witness, and I took this approach when I first examined the Gospels as a skeptic (I was 35 years old before I became interested in the Gospel accounts). As I evaluated the Biblical text with these principles in mind, I became convinced they were a reliable record of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. I understand, however, when others come to a different conclusion, and I think there are two reasons why someone might disagree about the most reasonable inference from the evidence. Before I address these two reasons, however, I want to ask you to imagine the existence of a historical account related to an ancient teacher. Imagine investigating this ancient record and discovering the following:

There are multiple accounts related to the life of this teacher. Several of these accounts date back to within the lifetimes of those who knew the teacher personally. These early records were accepted immediately as the true account of the life and teaching of this ancient “master”. Even those who are skeptical of the contents of these texts admit they are the earliest written record related to the ancient sage.

There are many internal and external pieces of evidence that corroborate the claims of these early records. They contain accurate “unintentional eyewitness support” between authors, accurate descriptions of ancient regional proper names, governmental functions, and little-known geographic locations, and they use the forms of ancient language we would expect. In addition to this, external evidential support for the claims of these texts is available in the archaeological record and in the testimony of ancient hostile writers. These early critics confirm the description of the teacher, even though they opposed his students and teaching.

The transmission record of the early accounts is robust and thorough. They were handled like few other ancient documents; they were copied, preserved and cherished by generations of disciples, resulting in over 24,000 fragments and complete manuscripts from antiquity. There are also ample ancient descriptions of these early accounts from disciples who were students of the first eyewitnesses. The writings of these students confirm the narrative described in the original texts. As a result, we can have certainty about the original content of the documents.

The original accounts were attested by people who cherished their testimony and were willing to die for the veracity of their claims. None of these eyewitnesses gained anything financially, relationally or sexually. None of them became powerful as a result of their claims. Instead, they often had to “scratch and claw” for respect, even within the context of their own communities. They were sometimes rejected by the people within this community, even as they were vigorously persecuted by those outside the group. They were beaten, starved and eventually killed for their testimony, yet none of them ever recanted.

If you were examining this ancient record fairly, I think you would find it to be reliable given the evidence related to early dating, evidential corroboration, accurate transmission and the lack of bias. There are very few ancient accounts that pass a test this rigorous, but the New Testament Gospels do. In fact, the second section of Cold Case Christianity provides a glimpse of how the evidence confirms the reliability of the gospel narratives. They pass the test, yet many still doubt their reliability. Why? I think there are two reasons:

Miraculous Details
First, the accounts include supernatural events. The ancient teacher, Jesus, performed miracles and was resurrected after his crucifixion and death. For many in the post-enlightenment era, the presence of miracles automatically disqualifies any ancient record as history and relegates it to the ranks of mythology. But stop and think about this for a minute. The writers of the Gospels were testifying about something they knew to be unusual: They were testifying about a man who was more than a teacher, He was a miracle worker who claimed to be God and rose from the dead to prove His claim. The witnesses knew their claims would be controversial and resisted. As we examine their testimony to determine whether or not we can trust them, we cannot begin by rejecting the very nature of their claim. Yes, we can be skeptical, but we cannot begin by rejecting supernaturalism before the witnesses even make a case for the supernatural.  We cannot start our investigation with our conclusions predetermined. We would never want to do that in a criminal investigation, and we should be similarly hesitant to begin with our conclusions when examining the gospels. Instead, let’s evaluate them for reliability and suspend our presuppositions until we hear what the witnesses have to say.

Moral Directives
The gospel accounts, for better or worse, are not merely descriptive, they are prescriptive as well. Jesus didn’t come to teach algebra or grammar; He came to teach us about our true condition as humans, our need for a Savior and the way back Home. He illuminated the dark nature of our souls and the truth about God and Himself. He called it like it was (and still is), and He didn’t pull many punches. He offended many who listened to his teaching in the 1st Century and He continues to offend listeners today. Sometimes the ugly truth is… ugly. The right way is seldom the easy way, and truth, by its very nature, is exclusive. The message of Jesus has been difficult to hear (and accept) for over two thousand years. Many who hear it today quickly equate the claims of Christianity with moral directives they seek to reject at any cost. Don’t be surprised, then, when people reject the prescriptive Gospels as unreliable, even though they accept other ancient descriptive accounts far less attested or corroborated.

Not every claim is gets rejected solely on the basis of a rational, evidential examination. There are times when our presuppositions and desires have a greater impact on our decision making than we might care to admit. If the Gospels did not include supernatural elements and a moral prescription, I doubt anyone would find them historically unreliable.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith.

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About J. Warner Wallace

J. Warner Wallace is a cold-case homicide detective, popular national speaker and best-selling author. He continues to consult on cold-case investigations while serving as a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is also an adjunct professor of apologetics at Biola University and a faculty member at Summit Ministries. J. Warner’s professional investigative work has received national recognition; his cases have been featured more than any other detective on NBC’s Dateline, and his work has also appeared on CourtTV and Fox News. He also appears on television as an investigative consultant (most recently on truTV) and had a role in God's Not Dead 2, making the case for the historicity of Jesus. J. Warner was awarded the Police and Fire Medal of Valor “Sustained Superiority” Award for his continuing work on cold-case homicides, and the CopsWest Award after solving a 1979 murder. Relying on over two decades of investigative experience, J. Warner provides his readers and audiences with the tools they will 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 @JWarnerWallace

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