J. Warner Wallace

Author, Cold-Case Christianity

A Witness Can Be Wrong and Reliable

In every crime scene I’ve ever worked, both evidence and artifacts were present; it’s my job to separate one from the other. Did the murderer cause this blood smear, or was it caused by the paramedic who responded before me and tried to resuscitate the victim? Some smears may be evidence I can use to reconstruct the struggle, others may simply be artifacts that are completely unrelated to the crime. The evidence matters, the artifacts are inconsequential.

The “evidence” of scripture also contains unrelated “artifacts”. Bart Ehrman, for example, has drawn attention to the number of textual variations (artifacts) in the New Testament. In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman describes his own descent from faith:

“There was an obvious problem, however, with the claim that the Bible was verbally inspired - down to its very words. As we learned at Moody in one of the first courses in the curriculum, we don’t actually have the original writings of the New Testament. What we have are copies of these writings, made years later, in most cases, many years later. Moreover, none of these copies is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places. All scribes did this. So rather than actually having the inspired words of the autographs (i.e., the originals) of the Bible, what we have are the error-ridden copies of the autographs… Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later - much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places… The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book. Just as human scribes had copied, and changed, the texts of scripture, so too had human authors originally written the texts of scripture. This was a human book from beginning to end.”

It’s clear that Ehrman was troubled by the existence of the textual “artifacts” and eventually came to believe that he couldn’t trust any of the Biblical “evidence” that shared space on the pages of scripture. Imagine if I took that same approach to my crime scenes. If I threw my hands up every time I encountered a scene that wasn’t evidentially pure, I wouldn’t solve a single case. Every crime scene has artifacts. Get over it. That’s why we have to learn to be good detectives; it’s our job to sort through the evidence and the artifacts. We can’t just give up because the scene is less tidy than we might like.

It’s also important to recognize that Ehrman’s initial expectation of Biblical inerrancy caused him to lose confidence in the Bible once he discovered anything that didn’t belong in the text. Maybe that’s because he was raised in the Church and the teaching on inerrancy was foundational to his belief. As a 35 year old atheist detective, I came from a very different place when I first discovered the presence of scribal variations in the Biblical text. I’d already tried a number of robbery and murder suspects prior to reading the gospels. I was very familiar with the nature, texture and properties of eyewitness statements, long before I began to examine the claims of the gospel writers. My expectations of eyewitnesses were far lower than Ehrman’s. I already acknowledged two things about witnesses: they seldom agree about every detail and they are sometimes mistaken about some aspect of their testimony. In spite of this, witnesses can be deemed reliable and trusted once we do the hard work of determining why they might see something differently or incorrectly. In fact, judges in the state of California instruct juries that they are not to distrust a witness just because that witness may be wrong about some aspect of his or her testimony:

“Do not automatically reject testimony just because of inconsistencies or conflicts. Consider whether the differences are important or not. People sometimes honestly forget things or make mistakes about what they remember. Also, two people may witness the same event yet see or hear it differently” (Section 105, Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions, 2006)

Witnesses can be wrong in some aspect of their testimony, yet be considered reliable, over all. Once the jury understands why the witness might be mistaken in a detail, they are encouraged to consider the rest of the testimony reliable.

Let me be clear about something here: after examining the gospel accounts, I don’t believe that they contain any true contradictions or factual errors. I do, believe however, that they contain scribal variants, and these variants are already identified on the pages of scripture by the publishers of our modern translations. While I do believe in the inerrancy of the original text of the New Testament, I entered my examination of the gospels with a very different standard; I didn’t demand that the witnesses be inerrant, just reliable. A witness can be mistaken about some small detail, yet considered reliable related to his or her larger claims. Although it is clear that the New Testament we possess today contains “variants” that we have accurately identified by comparing over 24,000 manuscripts fragments and larger documents, this has no bearing on whether or not they are reliable. These variants may be an excuse for some to lazily dismiss the claims of scripture, but good investigators don’t have the luxury of being lazy. Instead, it’s our duty to separate the artifacts from the evidence so we can solve the case and determine what really happened at the crime scene. Similar diligence is needed if we are ever going to fairly assess the claims of Christianity.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene.

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In the movie, God’s Not Dead 2, I was asked to defend the historicity of Jesus and the eyewitness reliability of the Gospels. Many skeptics reject the eyewitness authority of the Gospel accounts, even though the early Church selected and embraced the canonical Gospels based primarily on the eyewitness authority of their authors. Some critics even argue the Gospels were never intended to be seen as eyewitness testimony, in spite of the fact the earliest students of the apostles (and first Church leaders) repeated the content of the Gospels in their own letters, affirming the eyewitness status of their authors. As a cold-case detective who examines eyewitness accounts every day, I investigated the accounts in my book, Cold-Case Christianity; A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. My investigation led me to conclude the New Testament gospels should be considered eyewitness accounts for four reasons:

1. Eyewitness Authority Was Affirmed By the Gospel Authors
The authors of the Gospels proclaimed their authority as eyewitnesses (or as chroniclers of the eyewitnesses), and the earliest believers embraced the traditional authorship of the eyewitnesses. The Gospel authors (and their sources) repeatedly identified themselves as eyewitnesses:

2 Peter 1:16-17
For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.

John 21:24-25
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.

Luke 1:1-4
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

2. Eyewitness Authority Was Confirmed By the First Believers
The early believers and Church Fathers accepted the Gospel accounts as eyewitness documents. Papias, when describing the authorship of the Gospel of Mark, for example, 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.

3. Eyewitness Authority Was Foundational to the Growth of the Church
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
“This man (Jesus) was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him… God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.”

4. 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.

The Gospels were written as eyewitness accounts within the long and rich evidential tradition of the early Christian community. The early Church placed a high value on the evidence provided by Jesus and the authority of the apostles as eyewitnesses. The Gospels were accepted and affirmed due to their status as eyewitness accounts. This authority was inherent to the Gospels, commissioned by Jesus, affirmed by the Gospel authors, confirmed by the first believers, foundational to the growth of the Church and used to validate the New Testament canon. There are good reasons to accept the gospels as eyewitness accounts.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene. He appears in God’s Not Dead 2 as an expert witness, making a case for the reliability of the New Testament.

In God’s Not Dead 2, high school student, Brooke Thawley, having just experienced the death of her brother, asks her teacher, Grace Wesley, how she might deal with the heartbreak and sadness she is experiencing. Grace responds by citing the source of her own strength in similar situations: Jesus. Later in the movie, Brooke asks a question about Jesus in the classroom. Grace responds and sets off a series of events that ultimately lead to a law suit against her. Can Christian teachers (or students, for that matter) make these kinds of statements? The movie echoes other true-life cases in which the name of Jesus is held in low regard in the public school setting. In 2013, for example, 10-year-old Erin Shead was attending Lucy Elementary School in Memphis Tennessee. 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. 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 as a credible source of wisdom and admiration but reject Jesus? Why is the name of Jesus increasingly held in contempt in our public schools? While it is most likely due to a growing bias against Christianity 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” (historical validity) of Jesus. Films like The God Who Wasn’t There and Zeitgeist: The Movie continue to contest the existence of Jesus. Popular atheist writers and authors have also advanced this notion. In spite of these recent efforts to minimize the impact of Jesus on our culture, the vast majority of Biblical scholars (including agnostic and atheist scholars) accept the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Each of us, as Christian believers, must also be prepared to defend the truth:

The Historicity of Jesus Qualifies Him As A Legitimate Subject of Study
Fictional characters are not typically studied seriously in academic environments, so the quickest way to exclude Jesus from our high schools and universities is to relegate him to fictional status. But the evidence for the historicity of Jesus is significant and compelling. I’ve written about this extensively in Cold-Case Christianity; A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. Jesus is worthy of our academic attention, especially when wise, historical figures like Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. (both of whom cited Jesus as a source of inspiration and wisdom) are acceptable subjects of study.

The Historicity of Jesus Qualifies Him As A Legitimate Source of Wisdom
Gandhi and King weren’t the only people in history who leaned on Jesus as a source of legitimate wisdom. In fact, Jesus is arguably the most influential moral teacher in all of history. Even those who deny his existence benefit from living in a culture that embraces his teaching. The moral wisdom of Jesus is the standard for western civilization. The historicity of Jesus allows even non-believers to assess his moral wisdom as they would any other teacher in history.  

The Historicity of Jesus Qualifies Him As A Legitimate Source of Strength
As a Christian, I trust in Jesus because I know that He really lived and died for my sins. My faith isn’t wishful thinking; it’s grounded in historical truth. I may find the words of Yoda interesting, but the words of Jesus are my strength in difficult times. Even if everything else in my life were in turmoil, I would still be confident my eternal destiny is secure, based on what Jesus did for me over two thousand years ago. The historicity of Jesus is the source of my confidence and strength as a Christian.

Given the importance of the historicity of Jesus, how prepared are you to defend it to a culture that is increasingly skeptical? Have you taken the time to investigate the evidence for yourself? Can you articulate it to others? In my brief scene in God’s Not Dead 2, I offer several reasons to trust what the Gospels say about Jesus. In Cold-Case Christianity, I offer a cold-case detective’s template you can use to establish the reliability of the New Testament. If Jesus really lived, he is a legitimate subject of study and an authentic source of wisdom and strength. His words are more than clever fiction; they are the words of God, captured for eternity. 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 and God’s Crime Scene. He appears in God’s Not Dead 2 as an expert witness, making a case for the reliability of the New Testament.

In the upcoming movie, God’s Not Dead 2, I was asked to defend the historicity of Jesus and the eyewitness reliability of the Gospels. Skeptics sometimes challenge the gospels because there appear to be differences between the accounts. As a skeptic myself, investigating the gospels for the first time at the age of thirty-five, I also observed the discrepancies between the gospels. These differences didn’t, however, automatically disqualify them for me. If there’s one thing my experience as a detective has revealed, it’s that witnesses often make conflicting and inconsistent statements when describing what they saw at a crime scene. They frequently disagree with one another and either fail to see something obvious or describe the same event in a number of conflicting ways. The more witnesses involved in a case, the more likely there will be points of disagreement. When I encounter apparent discrepancies between eyewitness accounts, I don’t automatically assume someone is lying or that the witnesses aren’t reliable. Instead, I accept my investigative responsibility and do my best to understand why the witnesses appear to disagree. Most of the time, I’m able to legitimately reconcile the testimony and arrive at the truth. You can trust eyewitnesses even if they appear to disagree. When I first began to investigate the gospels, I kept this truth in mind.

I can remember a particular homicide that occurred in a restaurant parking lot in our town, late one rainy night, well after our homicide team went home for the day. Patrol officers responded to the scene and discovered that the suspect was already long gone. The officers located three witnesses and interviewed them very briefly. They quickly recognized that the murder investigation would require the involvement of our team. Radio dispatch called our sergeant, and he began waking us up by telephone, summoning four of us to handle the investigation. It took me nearly an hour to get into a suit and drive to the location of the crime. When I got there, I discovered that the officers gathered the witnesses and put them in the backseat of their police unit so they wouldn’t get drenched in the rain. This simple act of kindness nearly ruined the case. I learned many years ago the importance of separating witnesses. If eyewitnesses are quickly separated from one another, they are far more likely to provide an uninfluenced, pure account of what they saw.

Yes, their accounts will inevitably differ from the accounts of others who witnessed the same event, but that is the natural result of a witness’s past experience, perspective, and worldview. I can deal with the inconsistencies; I expect them. But when witnesses are allowed to sit together (prior to being interviewed) and compare notes and observations, I’m likely to get one harmonized version of the event. Everyone will offer the same story. While this may be tidier, it will come at the sacrifice of some important detail that a witness is willing to forfeit in order to align his or her story with the other witnesses. I’m not willing to pay that price. I would far rather have three messy, apparently contradictory versions of the event than one harmonized version that has eliminated some important detail. I know in the end I’ll be able to determine the truth of the matter by examining all three stories. The apparent contradictions are usually easy to explain once I learn something about the witnesses and their perspectives (both visually and personally) at the time of the crime.

Jurors are cautioned about discrediting the testimony of eyewitnesses just because there may be an apparent discrepancy between the accounts:

“Do not automatically reject testimony just because of inconsistencies or conflicts. Consider whether the differences are important or not. People sometimes honestly forget things or make mistakes about what they remember. Also, two people may witness the same event yet see or hear it differently” (Section 105, Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions, 2006).

Keep this jury instruction in mind when you encounter what appears to be a contradiction between the gospel accounts of the New Testament. These differences aren’t evidence of unreliability, they’re the expected attributes of reliable eyewitness testimony. I expect eyewitnesses to disagree. If the four gospels were identical in their content, I would have been instantly suspicious. I didn’t accept them blindly; I tested them with the four-part template I use to evaluate eyewitnesses in criminal trials. I’ve described this at length in Cold-Case Christianity. When the gospels passed the test, I accepted their reliable content. The differences weren’t an issue, because you can trust the gospels accounts, even if they disagree. (This article has been excerpted from Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. For more information, refer to Chapter 4: Test Your Witnesses).

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene. He appears in God’s Not Dead 2 as an expert witness, making a case for the reliability of the New Testament.

About J. Warner Wallace

J. Warner Wallace is a cold-case homicide detective, adjunct professor of apologetics at Biola University, Christian case maker and author. J. Warner was a conscientious and vocal atheist through his undergraduate and graduate work in Design and Architecture (CSULB and UCLA); he always considered himself to be an “evidentialist”. His experience in law enforcement only served to strengthen his conviction that truth is tied directly to evidence. But at the age of thirty-five, J. Warner took a serious and expansive look at the evidence for the Christian Worldview and determined that Christianity was demonstrably true. After becoming a Christ follower in 1996, Jim continued to take an evidential approach to truth as he examined the Christian worldview. He eventually earned a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. J. Warner served as a Youth Pastor for several years, then planted a church in 2006. Along the way, he created and built the Cold-Case Christianity website, blog and podcast as a place to post and talk about what he discovered related to the evidence supporting Christianity. Jim has appeared on television and radio, explaining the role that evidence plays in the Christian definition of “faith” and defending the historicity of Jesus, the reliability of the Bible and the truth of the Christian worldview. Jim also speaks at churches, retreats and camps as he seeks to help people become confident Christian case makers. J. Warner’s first book, Cold-Case Christianity, provides readers with ten principles of cold case investigations and utilizes these principles to examine the reliability of the gospel eyewitness accounts. In his second book, God’s Crime Scene, he investigates eight pieces of evidence in the universe to make the case for God’s existence. 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 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. 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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