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.
A disclaimer: Frank Turek, President of CrossExamined.org and author of I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist is a friend of mine. More than that, I consider Frank one of my closest friends and a true partner in ministry. But that’s not why I’m writing about his new book today. If I didn’t think Frank had written something important and special, I wouldn’t use my platform to tell you about it (regardless of my relationship with him). But Frank’s written a book you need to read and give to your friends. In fact, Frank’s new book, Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case, is the first book you need to read in 2015. When Frank shared the concept of the book with me over a year ago, I will admit I thought, “Dang it, why didn’t I think of that book?!?” After all, doesn’t it sound like something written by a police detective? If you’ve enjoyed my approach to Christian Case Making, you’ll relish Stealing from God. It will help you understand why the Christian worldview is unique in its ability to explain (and make sense of) our world, even as it demonstrates the fatal weaknesses of an atheistic worldview.
What if your best reasons to doubt God actually proved He exists? Frank examines claims critics of Christianity (and theism) typically offer to make the case against God’s existence, and shows how these aspects of reality actually require God’s existence in the first place. Frank’s book is brilliantly concise, including six chapters examining C – Causality, R – Reason, I - Information & Intentionality, M – Morality, E – Evil, and S – Science. As always, Frank presents the material in a memorable way, demonstrating how “…in order to construct any valid argument for atheism, the atheist has to steal tools from God’s universe because no such tools exist in the world of atheism.” Frank’s arguments are pointed and supported by many illustrations and examples. He demonstrates how theism forms the foundation for reason, morality and science, and how it best explains the causality, information and evil we see in our universe. These aspects of our existence are typically offered by skeptics as evidence against theism, but as Frank often says in his talks and presentations, “Atheists must sit in God’s lap in order to try to slap Him in the face.” Unless theism is true, none of these features of the universe could actually exist.
I’m encouraging you to read Frank’s book for two reasons. First, as Christians, we need to master the arguments and evidences described in Stealing from God. These broad categories of reality are under direct attack from critics of Christianity and we need to be ready to give a defense (and help our young people master their response as well). Stealing from God is yet another important resource to help all of us become better Christian Case Makers. But there’s another reason I am recommending Frank’s book: I believe in Frank’s ministry and approach. When I first met Frank, I knew right away we would hit it off. His “New Jersey” approach to the evidence for God’s existence (and the truth of the Christian worldview) is desperately needed in this age of “New Atheism”. There are times when Frank takes a “gloves off” approach to the issues, and his “apologetics with an attitude” approach seems perfectly suited for the time in which we live. Look, for example, at the titles of Frank’s books: of I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist and Stealing from God. These are provocative titles, perfect for the provocative climate in which we live. I speak at college campuses all over the country and I can tell you students (especially atheist students) respond to Frank’s messages because they are appropriately provoked by the titles. Frank has written yet another book you can give to skeptical friends, and I bet the title just might provoke them to read it. Frank has written a great book, and he’s written it with a great approach.
Frank gets right to the task at hand and systematically works through each of the six points skeptics typically use to argue against God, showing how these aspects of reality are all dependent upon God’s existence. Frank then reviews the four-part case for Christianity he first presented in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist (Does truth Exist? Does God exist? Are miracles possible? Is the New Testament historically reliable?) So if you’re looking for a book to strengthen what you believe as a Christian or a book you can give to a skeptic, Stealing from God will achieve both goals. To top it off, Ravi Zacharias even took time from his incredibly busy schedule to write the book’s foreword.
If you read my blog often, you know I don’t typically take time to write book reviews or offer endorsements of this nature. But there aren’t many books I wish I’d have written, so Stealing from God has earned a spot here at Cold Case Christianity. It’s an important book written by an important Christian Case Maker, and it’s the first book you should read in 2015.
During the busy Christmas season, it’s easy to get caught up in the cultural trappings of the holiday and forget the real reasons for the season. While most of us, as Christians, take the nativity narrative for granted, many of our unbelieving and skeptical friends reject the miraculous, virgin conception of Jesus altogether. The following articles will help you understand why the virgin conception is so important to Christianity and help you defend the virgin conception against those who argue against this miracle of God:
The Essential Nature of the Virgin Conception
The Virgin Conception is an important piece of evidence, fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy initially given by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14). It also explains an essential aspect of Jesus’s nature, retaining Jesus’ sinlessness (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Was the Virgin Conception Borrowed from Prior Mythologies?
First and foremost, the pre-existing mythologies described by critics are not as similar to the “virgin conception” of Jesus as they would like people to believe. It’s also unreasonable to presume that Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian or other pagan mythologies related to the birth of God would be embraced as part of a narrative targeted at Jewish believers. Early Christian converts were called to a new life in Christ and repeatedly told that they were merely travelers passing through this mortal (and pagan) world. They were called to live a life that was free of worldly influences and told to reject the foolish philosophies and stories of men. This group, in particular, would be the last to return to pre-existing pagan stories and superstitions.
Does the “Unreasonable” Nature of the Virgin Conception Invalidate the Story of Jesus?
We cannot reject the virgin conception on naturalistic grounds without first examining the larger claims of the Christian Worldview. If there is sufficient reason to believe God exists (and created everything from nothing), then the virgin conception is certainly within His power and equally reasonable.
Why Didn’t Paul Mention the Virgin Conception?
Paul may not have mentioned the virgin conception simply because it was widely understood or assumed. Paul may also have been silent because it was not the focus or purpose of his letters. If Paul believed that Jesus was born of a human mother and father, we would expect Paul to describe how a normal man, born of human parents, could be God Himself. Paul never does that, and this is consistent with the fact that Paul was aware of the virgin conception
Why Doesn’t Mark Say Anything About Jesus’ Birth?
The outline of Mark’s Gospel is very similar to the outline of Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost. Like Peter’s sermon in Chapter 2 of the Book of Act’s, Mark is focused only on the public life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. At the same time, Mark does not appear to be ignorant of the “virgin conception” (see Mark 6:1-3). This early reference in the Gospel of Mark may expose the fact that Mark was aware of the “virgin conception” and that the first eyewitnesses of Jesus were also aware of Mary’s marital status at the time of her conception.
The virgin conception of Jesus is important to defend, especially during the Christmas holiday. Every season at about this time, media outlets across the nation release stories and programs attacking either the historicity of Jesus, the reliability of the New Testament or the reasonable nature of the virgin conception. Now is the time to prepare ourselves (as good Christian Case Makers) to defend what we believe. Be sure to print the free downloadable Bible Insert (on the ColdCaseChristianity.com homepage) and reference it in the future when making a case for the virgin conception.
I’m sometimes surprised to see how quickly young Christians are shaken when they first encounter a well-articulated objection (or opposing claim) from someone denying the truth of the Christian worldview. When we first started taking missions trips to the University of California at Berkeley, I watched my Christian students to see how they would react when confronted by impassioned atheists. Some were genuinely disturbed by what they heard. Protected by their parents for most of their young Christian lives, it was as if they weren’t even aware of alternative explanations. Now, as juniors and seniors in high school, they were hearing the “other side” for the first time, and the atheist ambassadors we placed before them were eloquent, passionate and thorough. Many of these students wondered how these atheists could be wrong, given the length and earnest (even zealous) nature of their presentations. But after sitting in hundreds of criminal trials of one nature or another, I’ve learned something important: The fact the opposition can make a case (even an articulate, robust and earnest case), doesn’t mean it’s true.
Last Friday, I attended the sentencing hearing for my latest cold-case murder investigation. Douglas Bradford killed Lynne Knight in 1979 and we convicted him of this murder in August of 2014, nearly 35 years (to the day) after the murder. The investigation and trial appeared on Dateline (in an episode entitled, “The Wire”). I arrested Bradford in 2009 and he retained Robert Shapiro (famed attorney from the O.J. Simpson case). Shapiro and his co-counsel, Sara Caplan, presented a robust defense of Bradford, and he thanked both of them during the sentencing hearing. Along the way, Shapiro and Caplan articulated the opposing case thoroughly and with conviction. In addition, Bradford made a short, emphatic statement of his own at his sentencing, saying: ““The murder of Lynne Knight is a terrible tragedy. I want you to hear me very clearly now. I did not murder Lynn Knight. I am an innocent man, wrongly convicted. I’m mad as hell. I’m paying for somebody else’s crime. This is a horrendous, horrendous miscarriage of justice.” That’s a pretty direct (and perhaps convincing) denial, and these were the first words any of us heard from Bradford during the entire investigation, arrest, and trial (Bradford refused to talk to us and did not take the stand in his own defense). His attorneys were even more passionate and direct in their statements to the jury during the criminal trial and the sentencing hearing. They spent hours articulating the many reasons why the case against Bradford was deficient and inadequate as they continued to proclaim his innocence.
My cold-cases are incredibly difficult to investigate and communicate to a jury. Remember, these cases were originally unsolved, and for good reason. There were no eyewitnesses to any of my murders and none of my cases benefit from definitive forensic evidence like DNA (or even fingerprints). My cases are entirely circumstantial. Defense attorneys love to argue against these kinds of cases, and I have seen many attorneys present compelling alternative explanations over the years. Jurors have sometimes been moved by these defense presentations. But none of them have been fooled. I never lost a single case in my career as a cold-case detective, in spite of the robust arguments of the defense attorneys involved.
A few years ago I investigated another cold-case (this time from the early 1980’s). Michael Lubahn killed his wife, Carol, and disposed of her body, telling her family she left him. This case also went unsolved for over 30 years. Lubahn’s attorney whole-heartedly believed Lubahn was innocent and passionately defended him in front of the jury. Unlike Bradford, Lubahn actually took the stand during his defense and repeatedly denied he was involved in any way. Lubahn and his attorney articulated their case ardently and earnestly, and Lubahn’s attorney presented a lengthy closing argument in support of his position. But, like Bradford, none of it was true. At his sentencing hearing, Lubahn eventually confessed to killing Carol. His attorney was dumbfounded. He truly believed Lubahn was innocent and had crafted a through defense. But Michael Lubahn was a killer all along (this case was also covered by Dateline in an episode entitled “Secrets in the Mist”).
I’ve come to expect the opposing defense team will present a well-crafted, earnest, engaging, and seemingly true argument. But an argument isn’t evidence. Since that first trip to Berkeley, I’ve been teaching this to my students. Don’t be shaken just because the other side can articulate a defense. This happens all the time in criminal trials, even when our defendants are obviously (and even admittedly) guilty. Be ready in advance for passionate, robust, articulate, alternative explanations. But remember, the fact the other side can make a case doesn’t mean it’s true.