Richard Dawkins once famously said, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” He’s also quoted saying, “Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that.” Dawkins isn’t the only atheist who believes Christianity can’t be supported by evidence. Sam Harris said, “When considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn't. Religion is one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.” Statements such as these, while they are rhetorically powerful, expose a lack of understanding about the nature of evidence. Dawkins and Harris aren’t professional case makers, and they aren’t familiar with the broad categories of evidence we use in criminal and civil trials every day. Detectives and prosecutors understand anything can be assessed evidentially. There are only two categories of evidence, and Christian Case Makers use both types of evidence when making a case for Christianity:
Category One: Direct Evidence
Category Two: Indirect (Circumstantial) Evidence
Judges help jurors understand the difference between these two forms of evidence. In California, judges provide the following instruction to jurors: “Facts may be proved by direct or circumstantial evidence or by a combination of both. Direct evidence can prove a fact by itself. For example, if a witness testifies he saw it raining outside before he came into the courthouse, that testimony is direct evidence that it was raining. Circumstantial evidence also may be called indirect evidence. Circumstantial evidence does not directly prove the fact to be decided, but is evidence of another fact or group of facts from which you may logically and reasonably conclude the truth of the fact in question. For example, if a witness testifies that he saw someone come inside wearing a raincoat covered with drops of water, that testimony is circumstantial evidence because it may support a conclusion that it was raining outside” (CalCrim Section 223). Starting to understand the difference? The vast majority of cases tired in America are primarily circumstantial. In fact, none of my cold cases have ever benefitted from direct evidence. When you don’t have an eyewitness who can identify your suspect, you have to build the case cumulatively from all the indirect pieces of evidence you do have.
If you’re like other people in America, you probably think of circumstantial evidence in a disparaging way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Oh, that’s just a circumstantial case.” Indirect evidence gets a bad rap in the press these days. Maybe that’s why people are confused about its value in criminal trials. Judges instruct juries to be careful not to think of circumstantial evidence negatively. In fact, jurors are told to give circumstantial evidence the exact same weight in their considerations:
“Both direct and circumstantial evidence are acceptable types of evidence to prove or disprove the elements of a charge, including intent and mental state and acts necessary to a conviction, and neither is necessarily more reliable than the other. Neither is entitled to any greater weight than the other. You must decide whether a fact in issue has been proved based on all the evidence.” (CalCrim Section 223)
I personally like circumstantial cases better than direct cases. You know why? Because witnesses sometimes lie. There are times when a witness is improperly motivated. Maybe they want to lie so they can provide some important detail and be on Dateline, or maybe they want to lie to help out a friend who’s been accused. While I can misinterpret indirect evidence, it never intentionally lies to me. For that reason, I often prefer to assemble circumstantial cases than direct cases relying solely on eyewitnesses.
As it turns out, the case for Christianity is built on both direct and indirect evidence. The gospels are eyewitness accounts. They are direct evidence, although we would be wise to offer a caveat. Skeptics sometimes claim we shouldn’t think of the Gospel accounts as direct evidence since we can’t cross-examine the witnesses (writers) like we can witnesses in criminal trials. After all, hearsay rules prevent us from presenting eyewitness claims that can’t be tested through cross-examination. But I’ve already written about why this important rule simply cannot be applied to historical accounts like the Gospels (so I won’t belabor this point here). The more important issue is simply this: are the Gospel accounts reliable? We can actually address this more critical issue by applying the same critical template we apply to other eyewitness accounts. I’ve tried to demonstrate this process in Cold-Case Christianity.
Like all good evidential cases, the case for Christianity is a cumulative case built with both direct and indirect evidence. We can assess the claims of the Gospels indirectly by examining the internal evidence of language, pronoun use, and descriptions of geography, culture and politics. We can also assess the evidence of archaeology and the early reluctant parallel descriptions offered by non-Christians and Jewish believers. In addition, we can assess the early dating of the Gospels indirectly and trace their transmission with the evidence we find in the writings of the early Church Fathers. All of these pieces of indirect evidence are important to our case.
Once last important point needs to be made about the nature of the evidence we use to make criminal cases. Television shows like CSI have falsely given the general public the idea we must have scientific, forensic evidence (like DNA, serological, fingerprint or scientific, material evidence) in order to make a compelling case. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my cold-cases, I have seldom had this kind of evidence (remember there’s a reason why my cases originally went unsolved). More than anything else, my cases are made with the evidence of statements and behaviors. Sometimes the simplest statement or action can be the key to convicting a suspect. Scientific evidence is great when you have it, but I seldom do. I’ve learned to examine everything and overlook nothing.
When Dawkins and Harris say we, as Christians, believe in something for which there is no supporting evidence, they simply betray their ignorance about the nature of evidence and the way in which detectives and prosecutors build cases. Everything has the potential to be used as evidence. Indirect evidence is every bit as powerful as direct evidence, and scientific, forensic evidence is often an unnecessary luxury. There are only two categories of evidence, and Christian Case Makers use both types of evidence when making a case for Christianity.
I’ve been writing intermittently about some of the alleged Gospel contradictions skeptics cite when arguing against the reliability of the New Testament. When two or more eyewitness accounts appear to disagree, we’ve either encountered an error on the part of one of the witnesses, are somehow misreading (or misinterpreting) the accounts, or have insufficient information to reconcile the descriptions. The death of Judas, as recorded in two places in the New Testament, appears to present us with a contradiction:
Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to that yourself!” And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests took the pieces of silver and said, “It is not lawful to put them into the temple treasury, since it is the price of blood.” And they conferred together and with the money bought the Potter’s Field as a burial place for strangers. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one whose price had been set by the sons of Israel; and they gave them for the Potter’s Field, as the Lord directed me.”
At this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together), and said, “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was counted among us and received his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out. And it became known to all who were living in Jerusalem; so that in their own language that field was called Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead be made desolate, And let no one dwell in it’; and, ‘Let another man take his office.’”
These accounts seem to differ in two important ways. How was the “blood money” spent? Did Judas use it to purchase a piece of property or did the chief priests use it to purchase the Potter’s Field? This first alleged contradiction seems rather simple to reconcile if we are willing to layer the two accounts (this is often necessary when examining two descriptions in my cold-case investigations, especially when I no longer have access to the original witnesses). Judas threw the money into the temple and departed. The chief priests retrieved the coins and decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. Luke’s description of the purchase does not appear to be a direct quote from Peter linking Judas to the purchase, but is instead a tangential description intended for those who were not familiar with the details of the field or Judas’ death. Luke simply wanted us to know the acquisition of the field was made possible by the money Judas provided.
But what about the manner of Judas’ death? Did he stumble to his death on that field or go off somewhere and hang himself? This aspect of the accounts can be reconciled if you know something about human anatomy and post-mortem bloating. Let me explain. The descriptions from Matthew and Luke are consistent with one another if Judas later “went away and hanged himself” in the very field purchased with the “blood money” he received from betraying Jesus. This location makes sense, given it was a permanent, public reminder of Judas’ action against Jesus. If he felt remorseful enough about his betrayal to kill himself, it is likely he might commit suicide in the one place demarking his betrayal. The “Potter’s Field” is exactly where I would expect Judas to hang himself.
But why does Luke’s account say he fell headlong in this field? Note an important distinction here: Luke does not say Judas tripped or stumbled to his death. These words were available to Luke, but he described the event differently. Judas fell. This description makes sense if his body fell to the ground sometime after he successfully hanged himself. In fact, the additional gruesome description in which Luke says Judas “burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out” is also consistent with this reasonable inference. Unfortunately, I’ve had to respond to a number of suicides and death investigations in the many years I’ve investigated homicides. These investigations taught me a number of disturbing truths about what happens to the human body after death. I’ve described, for example, the Mortis Triad in prior posts related to the Resurrection of Jesus. When we die and our heart stops pumping, four things begin to happen. First we begin to cool (a condition known as “algor mortis”). We also become rigid (“rigor mortis”) and begin to show signs of blood pooling (“livor mortis”).
In addition to these changes, dead bodies begin to decompose, particularly if undiscovered for a period of time. As bodies decompose, they begin to experience post mortem “bloating”. Dead bodies swell as bacteria within the body cavity begins to ingest the post mortem tissues and organs. This bacterial activity produces decomposition gasses which inflate the body disproportionately. I’ve been at several death scenes in which a victim was undiscovered for a number of days and was swollen beyond recognition by the time we got to the scene. Internal bacterial is the culprit in this swelling, and our bodies contain the largest amounts of such bacteria in our stomachs and intestines. While we are living, this bacteria is used to digest our food, but after we die it has the potential to cause tremendous bloating.
If Judas hanged himself in the Potter’s Field and remained undiscovered for a period of time, he would most likely experience such post-mortem bloating, especially if gasses couldn’t escape as the result of his ligature. If the rope eventually broke, his bloating body would fall to the ground and break open in the one area most distended by post-mortem bloating: his abdomen. If this was the case, he would have “burst open in the middle” and “all his intestines” would have “gushed out”. Luke wasn’t being overly dramatic in his description, and although this may at first appear unlikely to those unfamiliar with death scenes, post mortem bloating would result in precisely such a condition.
In over 25 years of investigations and interactions with eyewitnesses, I’ve learned to employ a number of simple principles when examining contradictions between accounts, and many of these principles can be applied to the alleged discrepancies and contradictions cited in the New Testament. Sometimes, however, my experience as a homicide detective has been helpful in understanding the nature of death scenes (such the crucifixion of Jesus and the suicide of Judas). In this particular case, it appears Judas’ money was used to purchase the Potter’s Field and he later hanged himself in this location. His body remained undiscovered until it experienced post mortem swelling, and when it fell to the ground it broke open in the one area most distended by this swelling. There is no contradiction in Matthew and Luke’s account. They describe the same morbid scene, giving us consistent details we can reassemble to recreate the scene.
I’ve been slowly working through a number of alleged Bible “contradictions” and “difficulties” here at ColdCaseChristianity.com, using simple investigative principles I’ve adapted from my casework as a cold-case homicide detective. Here is short list of the rules I typically use when evaluating eyewitness statements. The first ten principles are derived directly from my casework related to homicide investigations (modified to address the Biblical narratives), and I’ve added three rules specifically applicable to the study of the New and Old Testament:
Rule #1: Maintain A Fair Attitude
When you begin to read the Bible and examine what it says, it’s important to start off with a fair attitude. Before you jump up and call it a liar, take a second to examine what it says fairly.
Rule #2: Examine the Statement in Its Context
Remember, “Any text taken out of context is a pretext (an effort or strategy intended to conceal something or prove a point missing in the text). So never read a single Bible verse; always read the entire chapter and all the other accounts related to the narrative.
Rule #3: Recognize the Perspective of Each Eyewitness
Every witness offers a view of the event from his or her unique perspective. I’m not just talking about geographic or locational perspectives here, but I am also talking about the personal worldview, history and experience every witness brings to the crime. All witness testimony is colored by the personal interests, biases, aspirations, concerns and idiosyncrasies of the eyewitnesses. We’ve got to be careful not to confuse differences in perspective with Biblical “error”.
Rule #4: Consider the Capacity and Viewpoint of the Witness
When I described an event to my daughter (when she was still very young), I often described it with language relative to her perspective of the world. The Bible was also written from the perspective of common humans standing on the surface of the planet.
Rule #5: Let the Witness Clarify Their Own Statement
Most modern translations of the Bible include Scripture references in the margin of the Bible to help us make sense of difficult passages. Allow the Bible to explain itself by reading these additional passages.
Rule #6: Differentiate Between Complimentary and Conflicting Accounts
When comparing two eyewitness accounts, I am more concerned about unresolvable contradictions than complimentary details. In fact, I have come to expect some degree of resolvable variation in true, reliable eyewitness accounts.
Rule #7: Don’t Confuse “Imprecision” with “Error”
The Bible was written at a time when the culture commonly used general figures or descriptions to discuss more specific issues. This is particularly true when the Bible discusses numbers. As a matter of cultural device, specific numbers are often rounded off.
Rule #8: Identify the Common Details of Parallel Accounts
When interviewing multiple eyewitnesses, I listen carefully for common features in their testimony. In every witness observation, some details are more important than others; some aspects of the event stick out in the mind of the observers more than others. Common details are often the most important to the account, and I expect there to be variation in the ancillary information.
Rule #9: Remember A Description is Different Than An Approval
Sometimes critics of the Bible (or critics of Christianity in general) point to an evil or corrupt situation described in the Bible to argue God (or Christianity) approves of the situation (or is the source of the evil). Remember, just because a Biblical author writes about something, this does not mean God condones it or supports it. A condition described in the lives of Biblical characters isn’t always a condition God would want for those same Biblical figures.
Rule #10: Assess the Opportunity for Collusion
When people have the opportunity to align their statements, yet still refuse to do so, I know I am getting the nuanced observations I need to properly investigate the case. The Gospel authors (and the early Church) certainly had the opportunity to eliminate alleged contradictions, but they refused to do so. As a result, we can have even more confidence in the reliability of these accounts. They display the level of variation I would expect to see if they were true, reliable eyewitness descriptions.
Rule #11: Don’t Fret Copyist Variants
I’ve addressed the variations we see between the Biblical copies we presently have. We can trust our Scriptures for several reasons, however, even in spite of these variations. None of these variations change the theology or content of the Bible. In addition, the variations existing in the ancient manuscripts can be found in the margins of the modern translations so you can investigate them for yourself (to see how important or unimportant they really are). The vast majority of these variations are single letter or number variations, and the copyists were extremely honest in the way they transmitted these errors down through the ages. As a result, the variations come down to us in complete honesty.
Rule #12: Don’t Treat Every Old Testament Citation as an Old Testament Quote
There are often times when New Testament writers cite a passage from the Old Testament to show a prophecy is being fulfilled. Some of the citations are not perfect “verbatim” quotes from the Old Testament. Our modern translations have added the quotation marks to the New Testament Scriptures. The original manuscripts did not contain the punctuation, paragraph delineations, or chapter divisions. The New Testament authors often paraphrase Old Testament passages without intending them to be verbatim quotes.
Rule #13: Remember Who’s Boss
As we wrap up our assessment of simple rules for reading the Scriptures, we’ve got to remember the Bible describes the work of God here on planet earth and the history of God’s people. Sometimes we’ll read something in the Old Testament and wonder how God could act in such a way. Sometimes the God of the Old Testament can seem pretty harsh. Critics look at certain passages and argue the judgment seen in God’s nature in the Old Testament contradicts the mercy seen in God’s nature in the New Testament. But we need to read the Scriptures carefully and remember God alone is God. He knows the end from the beginning, and He is the source of all morality. He gets to make decisions over life and death, even when we don’t understand all the details.
I’ve used these simple principles repeatedly to evaluate alleged contradictions related to the number of angels at the tomb of Jesus, the number of women who visited the tomb, the variations in the wording of the sign over Jesus’ cross and the differences between the genealogies of Jesus. I hope these rules will help you begin to work through apparent discrepancies as you encounter them. Be sure to visit the homepage and download this list as a free Bible Insert from the link the in the right toolbar.
It’s not uncommon for skeptics of Christianity to point to differences between the New Testament Gospel accounts as evidence of corruption or unreliability. I’ve discussed many of these alleged contradictions in my talks around the country, and I’ve written about many of them here at ColdCaseChristianity.com. One example sometimes offered by critics is the sign posted above the cross of Jesus. The simple, brief message of this sign is recorded by all four Gospel authors, yet none of them record precisely the same words. How could these four men fail to record the same sign, given the importance of the moment and the brevity of the message? Look at the variations offered by the Gospel authors:
“This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37)
“The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26)
“This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38)
“Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19)
In evaluating alleged “contradictions” of this nature, I think it’s important to remember a few overarching principles related to eyewitness testimony (I describe many of these principles in my first book, Cold-Case Christianity). Even though I accept and affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, inerrancy is not required of reliable eyewitnesses. In fact, I’ve never had a completely inerrant eyewitness in all my years as a homicide detective. In addition, I’ve never had a case where two witnesses have ever agreed completely on the details of the crime. Eyewitness reliability isn’t dependent upon perfection, but is instead established on the basis of a four part template I’ve described repeatedly in my book and on my website. But beyond these generalities, much can be said specifically about the variations between descriptions of the sign over Jesus’ cross. I take the following approach when evaluating multiple eyewitness accounts, and the same methodology can be used to evaluate these signs:
Identify the Common Details
When interviewing multiple eyewitnesses, I listen carefully for common features in their testimony. In every witness observation, some details are more important than others; some aspects of the event stick out in the mind of the observers more than others. In this case, one expression is repeated by all four authors: “the King of the Jews”. Why does this one aspect of the sign appear repeatedly without variation? These words describe the crime for which Jesus was executed. Jesus was crucified because He proclaimed Himself a King; He was executed for His alleged rebellion against Caesar. This is consistent with the trial accounts we have in the Gospels and also accurately reflects the actions taken by the Roman government against other popular rebels. While we, as Christians, now understand God’s plan related to the death and resurrection of Jesus, the authors of the Gospels are simply recording the one most prominent feature of the sign: the description of Jesus’ crime.
Recognize the Perspective of Each Eyewitness
Every witness offers a view of the event from his or her unique perspective. I’m not just talking about geographic or locational perspectives here, but I am also talking about the personal worldview, history and experience every witness brings to the crime. All witness testimony is colored by the personal interests, biases, aspirations, concerns and idiosyncrasies of the eyewitnesses. In this particular case, an important clue was recorded by John to help us understand why there might be variation between the accounts. John said, “Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.” The sign was written in a variety of languages and we simply don’t know how much variation occurred between these translations. The perspective and life experience of each author now comes into play. Which translation was the author referencing? Even more importantly, what were the concerns of the author related to the event? Some witnesses are more likely to repeat a victim’s name than others (if, for example, they knew the victim personally). Others will focus on something about which the witness had firsthand knowledge. I’ve seen an incredible amount of variation between reliable accounts on the basis of nothing more than personal perspective.
Consider the Conditions of the “Interview”
In working cold cases over the years, I’ve read my fair share of investigative supplemental reports containing eyewitness accounts. I’ve come to recognize the role interviewers have on the accounts given by eyewitnesses. Years later, when re-interviewing these same eyewitnesses, I’ve uncovered additional information simply because I asked questions neglected by the first interviewer. When evaluating an account from the past, it’s important to recognize the location, form and purpose of the interview. This will have a direct impact on the resulting account. Something similar must be considered when evaluating the description of the sign on Jesus’ cross. We simply don’t know precisely the purpose of each author or the conditions under which each author wrote his Gospel. Why, for example, is Mark’s version of the sign so brief? Why, for that matter, is Mark’s entire Gospel so brief? Was there something about Mark’s personality accounting for his brevity (there does seem to be some evidence of this given the short, emotionally charged nature of his account), or was something even simpler involved (like a shortage of papyrus)? We’ll never know for sure, but we simply cannot assume each author was writing under the exact same conditions. No two witnesses are interviewed in precisely the same way.
Differentiate Between Complimentary and Conflicting Accounts
When comparing two eyewitness accounts, I am more concerned about unresolvable contradictions than complimentary details. In fact, I have come to expect some degree of resolvable variation in true, reliable eyewitness accounts. While there are clearly variations between the sign descriptions in the Gospels, these dissimilarities don’t amount to a true contradiction. Consider the following reasonable message on the sign:
“This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”
If this was the message of the sign, all four Gospel accounts have captured a complimentary, reliable summation of the sign, even though there is some expected variation between accounts. None of these accounts contain an unresolvable, troublesome claim like:
“This is Judas Iscariot, the King of the Jews”
If one of the accounts contained this information, we would truly have a conflict worthy of our attention. There’s a difference between complimentary variation and conflicting description.
Assess the Opportunity for Collusion
Whenever I am called to a crime scene as a detective, the first request I make of the dispatcher is to separate the eyewitnesses before I get there. I request this so the witnesses won’t have the opportunity to talk to one another about what they’ve seen. Witnesses will sometimes try to resolve any variations before I get there. I don’t want them to do this; that’s my job, not theirs. Instead, I want the messy, sometimes confusing, apparently contradictory accounts offered by every group of witnesses in such a situation. There have been times, however, when witnesses have the opportunity to consult with one another for several hours before I arrive on scene. When this is the case, and their individual accounts still vary from one another, I usually have even more confidence in the reliability of these accounts. When people have the opportunity to align their statements, yet still refuse to do so, I know I am getting the nuanced observations I need to properly investigate the case. The Gospel authors (and the early Church) certainly had the opportunity to change the descriptions to make sure they matched, but they refused to do so. As a result, we can have even more confidence in the reliability of these accounts. They display the level of variation I would expect to see if they were true, reliable eyewitness descriptions.
If the four authors of the Gospels had written precisely the same words throughout their Gospel accounts, skeptics would be no more confident in their content. In fact, I suspect, critics of the New Testament would be even more vocal in their opposition. The Gospels are appropriately varied and nuanced, just like all multiple eyewitness accounts. The variations between the sign descriptions is further evidence of this expected variation. This level of dissimilarity should give us confidence in the accounts, rather than pause. Why are there four versions of the sign on Jesus’ cross? Because the accounts are written on the basis of eyewitness observations. They demonstrate the characteristics we would expect if they are reliable descriptions of a true event in history.