Saturday, October 12, 2013

Cold Case Christianity (Part 1)

J Warner Wallace is a 'cold case' homicide detective in California. When he was in his mid 30s he converted from being an 'angry atheist' (his words) to being a 'born again' Christian after apparently applying his detective skills to the gospel accounts. His experience and understanding led him to conclude that the gospels are genuine 'eye-witness' testimony and that they report the true events of Jesus life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection.

His book 'Cold Case Christianity' is not his biography, but is an apologetic vehicle, aiming to convince the reader of the truth of Christianity, but through the 'unique' perspective of a detective who is used to sifting though evidence and building a case strong enough to convict a suspect. The methods used by detectives are described, 'real life' examples of how these work in murder cases are given (with all the names changed), and  the methods are then applied to the gospel stories.

My review of this book got unnecessarily long, so I'll review Part 1 of the book in this post, and take the chapters in Part 2 of the book, individually, in future posts.

Given the supposedly unique perspective of this author, its astounding how much of this reasoning and these arguments we've heard before. Most of the first half of this book is standard apologetic fayre, slightly 'sexed up' with the inclusion of 'gritty' detective stories. The actual apologetic arguments are expressed in fairly basic form and it appears that the main contribution of the first half of this book to the debate is the murder analogies, which sometimes distract us away from the biblical evidence rather than supporting the case being made.

But having said all that, there are a few interesting conclusions and claims in here which need some thought.

In what follows, I'll be looking at the apologetic arguments in the first half of the book, without much reference to the detective analogies. I'll take this bit chapter by chapter, starting at the very beginning. I'll deal with the meatier content of the second half of the book in subsequent posts.

In the first section of the book (which makes up almost exactly half of its length), the author goes through ten 'principles' of detective work which can be applied to the gospel stories. There is a chapter for each principle.

The first one is "don't be a know-it-all", that is, don't approach the gospels with your mind already made up or with anti-supernatural presuppositions. There is nothing particularly noteworthy here. 

This is followed by "learn how to infer" in which the author tries to draw a distinction between what is possible and what is reasonable. The claim is that the simplest of a range of 'possible' causes is the most reasonable. The claims are: (1) the truth must be feasible, (2) the truth will usually be straightforward, (3) the truth should be exhaustive, (4) the truth must be logical, and (5) the truth will be superior. We are then led through the usual 'minimal facts' argument of Habermas and Licona and a few 'possible' theories are presented which might explain these. These are: (a) Jesus wasn't really dead when he was taken down from the cross (in which the author states that it was 'the disciples' who 'pulled Jesus from the cross', which is something denied in the actual gospels, but hey... He also makes the claim that the gospels (plural) record the fact of the blood and water coming out of Jesus side. Of course this is only in one gospel...), (b) the disciples lied, (c) the disciples were delusional, (d) the disciples were fooled by an imposter, (e) the disciples were influenced by limited spiritual sightings, (f) the disciples' observations were distorted later, and (g) the disciples were accurately reporting the resurrection of Jesus.

Along the way in here the author says: "I've discovered that the first recollections of the eyewitnesses are usually more detailed and reliable than what they might offer thirty years later. Like other cold-case detectives, I rely on the original reports as I compare what witnesses once said to what these witnesses are saying today." What he doesn't seem to notice is that the thing we are missing in the gospels, even on the most conservative dating and traditional interpretation, is the early recollections. At the very best what we have is the recollections from 40 or more years later.

Of course, the author dismisses options (a) to (f) and concludes that option (g) is the most reasonable, even if it contains the miraculous and supernatural. Somehow he thinks that the simplest solution is the one that invokes the God of infinite possibilities. Given that, by definition, the God of infinite possibilities is consistent with all possible hypotheses, there is no case for concluding on only one here.

It is also worth noting that there is at least one possibility which is not considered - that the stories contain fiction. The disciples lying is considered, but not the possibility that the whole story, including the disciples' testimony, is fiction. Surely that needs considered before it can be dismissed?

The third principle is "think circumstantially", in which we get the classic 'cosmological argument', 'fine-tuning argument', 'argument from intelligent design' and the 'moral argument'. William Lane Craig does each of these better than they are presented here. Along the way he says "Darwinian evolution has great difficulty accounting for the existence of objective moral obligations..." which presupposes, as do many apologists, that if they can show that the Darwinian theory of evolution fails to account for some observation unrelated to the origin of species, that it fails as a world view. Sorry, "Darwinian evolution" is not an entire worldview, only a part of one. Plate tectonics can't explain morality either, but that doesn't invalidate the theory...

The argument that you can build a strong case purely on the basis of 'circumstantial' evidence is one that the author uses extensively later on in the book, so it is worth noting that the 'circumstantial' evidence presented in this chapter isn't that strong. But I think the author wants to get the reader to accept the idea of circumstantial evidence early on, so that we won't question it again later.

The fourth chapter is "test your witnesses" in which the author seeks to explain away the contradictions in the conflicting gospel accounts. Here, for the first time, it is totally clear that the detective stories have been selected to fit the apologetic perfectly, which makes you feel like someone might be trying to deceive you. Were the gospel writers liars or were they telling the truth? The possibility that they might have been sincere but misinformed is never considered (here), the author is convinced that they are eyewitnesses, and says that they (plural) identified themselves as eyewitnesses. Erm, no they don't, except the author of the Johannine appendix, who may not be the author of the whole book of John.

Chapter 5, "hang on every word" is the first chapter that needs some wrestling with. The idea presented is that you can glean 'evidence' from the way in which a witness presents their story. That is, the choice of words may give insight into the real opinions of the witness, which may sometimes be at odds with what they say. One of the examples given is of a man suspected of murdering his wife. If during questioning he describes the victim as "my beautiful wife" we may learn something about their relationship, if however he calls her "the wife" we perhaps get a different picture of his view of her. Of course, a turn of phrase proves nothing, but it may help as part of a cumulative case.

So when the author points out that John never names 'the mother of Jesus' in his gospel, he claims that this is consistent with the behaviour of an adopted son, who couldn't bring himself to use the name of someone he had called 'mother' for many years. So this observation corroborates the story of Jesus giving the responsibility of his mother to John, while he was on the cross.

But the main issue the author wants to address here is Peter's alleged eye-witness testimony in the gospel of Mark. Papias, and later Irenaeus, made the claim that Mark was Peter's interpreter and the gospel was his recollections of the actual stories told by Peter. The claim here is that this assertion is corroborated by the way in which Mark's gospel is written. Specifically: (1) Peter is the main character after Jesus, (2) Mark is familiar in the way he talks about Peter, (3) Peter is the 'inclusio' character, (4) Peter is painted in a positive light, even when he has shamed himself, (5) some minor details in the story are consistent with a Petrine origin, and (6) Mark's story is consistent in style and content with the teaching of Peter, as recorded in Acts.

Is all that right? Well, some of those claims are obvious, but not necessarily proof of anything. Sure, Peter is a main character, sure, Mark shows some familiarity with him. Neither of those really say anything about Mark's relationship to Peter, just that he is making a collection of 'Peter stories' that he knows. The 'inclusio' thing is not compelling, especially as it isn't clear at all. Yes, Peter features right at the start of the gospel and, yes, he is mentioned again near the end. But only mentioned, not featured. The closing words of Mark are by the angels to the women, with no sign of Peter. 

Point 4 is an odd one, especially as I have heard the exact opposite case made. The author here claims Mark is kinder to Peter than the other 3 gospel writers, but I've heard others claiming that Matthew has softened the scathing text of Mark to make the disciples (including Peter) not look like the idiots the do in Mark. So which is it, is Matthew harsher or kinder to Peter than Mark? If its not clear, then this point is not valid.

Point 5 is so vague as to be useless on its own, and even as part of a cumulative case, I'm not convinced there is any evidence here. And finally, for point 6 to be valid, we have to assume that Luke kept an accurate record of Peter's teaching, which he built into Acts, but then didn't use the same record when compiling his own gospel, for his gospel seems to have different details than the ones in Mark which make this case. And furthermore, many have pointed out that the preaching of Peter in Acts is barely (if at all) distinguishable from the preaching of Paul in Acts, which suggests that no Petrine characteristics are recorded there.

All this suggests to me is that the evidence here supports whatever preconceptions you approach the text with, so really there is nothing in this 'evidence' to build a case on.

Chapter 6 is "separate artifacts from evidence". Here the author acknowledges that the gospel accounts we have are not the originals, but have been edited and changed a bit over time. That is, they contain stories, like the woman taken in adultery, which were not there originally. The claim is that it is possible to identify these "artifacts" and discount them. However, it appears that the author only discounts artifacts for which we have two variant manuscripts, so we can clearly see that something has been added or changed. He gives us no methodology (beyond a vague reference to "textual criticism") for identifying artifacts when we have no variant texts, yet presumably these must exist - it would be amazingly unlikely if we had all the manuscripts we need to identify all the redactions in the bible. So here, I think he is trying to fight off some skeptical arguments, but he does shoot himself in the foot a bit. It is odd that this chapter features no citations at all.

Chapter 7 urges us to "resist conspiracy theories". Here the author rehashes the old claim that the disciples wouldn't have died for their faith if they knew it to be a lie. He says: "None of these eyewitnesses ever recanted, none was ever trotted out by the enemies of Christianity in an effort to expose the Christian "lie"... These men and women either were involved in the greatest conspiracy of all time or were simply eyewitnesses who were telling the truth." He also writes off the movies "The god who wasn't there" and "Zeitgeist" as being conspiracy theories, without giving them any consideration. But, as far as I can tell, we have nothing but legends, and late legends at that, about how the apostles died. They might have been martyred, but maybe not. In the document where we learn about Paul's beheading, he also makes a post-mortem appearance. The second half of that appears legendary, so why take the first part as gospel?

Chapter 8 tells us to "respect the chain of custody" and aims to show that the gospel stories were faithfully and accurately transmitted from the time of Jesus ("1-33AD") to the Council of Laodicea in 363AD, when the canon of scripture was formalised. This chapter serves only as a placeholder, putting ideas in the mind of the reader, without actually discussing any content. We'll get to that in Part 2 of the book. The suggestion made here (with no evidence, that comes later) is that the disciples of Jesus accurately remembered the stories, and faithfully passed them on to their disciples, who faithfully passed it on... and so on. As with chapter 6, this chapter features no citations.

Next we get "know when enough is enough". Basically this chapter is all about what constitutes 'beyond reasonable doubt' and how you don't need to have the answer to absolutely every question before you can decide to accept a particular hypothesis as being probably true. Here we are urged to distinguish our rational (i.e. evidence based) doubts from our emotional or volitional (i.e. not evidence based) doubts. If we can satisfy our rational doubts, the chapter urges us to ignore the other doubts as worthless. The aim of this chapter is to get the reader to dismiss certain of the common issues raised by atheists, such as the problem of evil. Sorry, I'm not convinced that this issue isn't rationally based. But the author tries to use the 'problem of evil' against the atheist by claiming that the existence of evil, or rather, the existence of absolute, objective moral facts, points to a higher power than man.
"In order for an act to be objectively 'bad', there must be some standard of objective 'good' by which to measure it. What might that standard be if not God? Can the standard come from some evolutionary process? Can it come from the slow development of cultural groups? If so, morals are simply a matter of opinion (albeit a largely held opinion), and there is nothing objectively evil to complain about."
Hmmm. I really must do another post on this issue again soon. But anyway, this digression kind of feels out of place in this chapter and doesn't really help the argument.

And so we get to Chapter 10 "prepare for an attack" and the end of Part 1 of this book. The main thrust of this chapter is to pre-empt the challenges of atheists by likening them to the wiles of a defence attorney. The tools employed by a good defence attorney are discussed, and many of them are shown to be ploys to try and confuse or distract the jury away from the evidence. So by analogy, this chapter is claiming that atheists have no real points to make and are just throwing lots of spurious arguments into the mix to muddy the waters and mask the truth. Here the author builds a 'straw man' of his own devising and then tears it apart. Not convinced.

So armed with these ten principles, we are now ready to consider the evidence for ourselves. Or so the book claims. What it has also done is sneakily undermined some arguments before they've even been raised, and subtly suggested to us things about the evidence that might not turn out to be as clear cut as we're being led to believe, but we'll get there in my review of Part 2...