Book Review: J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013)

Wallace starts out with some general observations about how to reach evidence-based hypotheses. This is not at all presented as a densely worded, technical or scientific set of explanations. Instead, based on the kind of situations Wallace has encountered numerous times as a detective, he takes these situations as a springboard into a very user-friendly discussion of how we can take the facts that we encounter at face value and use them to reason to an explanatory hypothesis (in much the same way that a homicide detective uses the available facts to reason towards a hypothesis about whodunit). After discussing the way to approach any such explanation, Wallace then picks the “cold-case” at the centre of the Christian faith – the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

In an age where many evangelicals are still apparently very focused on bending over backwards to defend a very narrow concept on inerrancy, Wallace’s focus when it comes to treating the New Testament records as evidence for Christianity is on “evaluating their reliability as eyewitness accounts than their inerrancy as divine communiqués.”

Similar approaches follow in subsequent chapters: First a look at the nature of evidence as circumstantial, then an application of the principles learned there to the apparent circumstantial evidence of the origin and fine tuning of the universe as well as the existence of moral facts. The fact is, Wallace explains, we routinely accept circumstantial evidence and base a wide variety of beliefs on it. Wallace also spends a good amount of time explaining the role that eyewitnesses play in providing evidence via testimony. Of course it’s not the case that you believe fantastic claims simply on the grounds that someone wrote that it happened. Who would be so credulous? The fact is, says Wallace, not all testimony is equal. In the same way a court assesses the reliability and usefulness of witnesses, we can ask questions like: Were they there? Are there grounds for thinking that they have been honest with us? Can any of what they say be corroborated (not all of what they say of course, otherwise we wouldn’t even need their testimony)? Do they have an ulterior motive? What do we do when witnesses don’t agree? There’s some particularly enlightening observation here from Wallace’s experience when witnesses definitely saw the same event, disagree wildly in many of the details, miss out a large amount of what they saw and can easily recall, and yet still provided valuable evidence in solving crimes. Witnesses speak from their own point of view, from their own interests and background knowledge, their own assumptions about what information is being asked for and their own motives (or lack thereof) in describing what they saw. In an age where many evangelicals are still apparently very focused on bending over backwards to defend a very narrow concept on inerrancy, Wallace’s focus when it comes to treating the New Testament records as evidence for Christianity is on “evaluating their reliability as eyewitness accounts than their inerrancy as divine communiqués.” And measured by standards that those who have spent time working with screeds of eyewitness, says Wallace, they fare very well indeed. And of course, not all memories, he stresses, should be regarded as neither more nor less reliable than all other memories. What I had for breakfast six weeks ago is a bit beyond my recollection just now, and any recollection I might have would be pretty unreliable. But some of the events of my wedding day – or at very least the fact that my beautiful bride walked up the aisle to meet me, that is something I’m pretty sure of. Similarly, the alleged unreliability of memories from, say, five years ago, should be no barrier at all to the clarity of the memory that someone you know had come back from the dead after being publicly executed.

What about verbal clues? Can the way that an author says something tell us anything about the reliability of what they say? Certainly, the way that a suspect phrases his recollection of events can be very telling. So too can the way a Gospel writer expresses himself. Wallace uses as an example the fact that John doesn’t mention the name of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Why might this be the case? Surely any reliable account of Jesus’ life could not fail to name his mother. Well, as Wallace notes, that really depends on who’s doing the writing. The Gospels depict John as a young man who, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, entered a son-mother relationship with Mary. Most older men (myself included – and remember that John was considerably older when writing his Gospel) would not call their mother by first name. If you read between the lines, Wallace helps the reader to see, you’ll notice things that the writers didn’t have to say (or not say), but which help the Gospels to bear the candour that is a hallmark or reliability.

Wallace moves on to a crash course in textual criticism. The New Testament evidence about the life of Jesus – the material that matters – needs to be distinguished from “artifacts”: pieces of data that get caught up in the collection of material that we observe (again using examples from the courtroom) but which are not really part of the salient evidence (Wallace uses an old favourite example of mine in textual criticism, John’s account of the woman caught in adultery, which was never part of the Gospel John wrote. This is a crucial area for young Christians to come to terms with, if only because of the truly naïve way that they may see their sceptical peers approaching textual variants. Comments along the lines of “see? The Bible has been changed so much we don’t even know what it said,” egged on by some who know better (e.g. Bart Ehrman).

Without reproducing all the main points of the book (read it yourself!), Wallace moves through a number of important issues in approaching the New Testament portrait of Jesus – each of which has significance to a sceptical case against the historical Jesus as presented by the Christian faith. The plausibility of conspiracy theories about how the stories about Jesus gained circulation; the church’s guardianship of the Gospel accounts; and the issue of what the threshold of evidence ought to be. Wallace’s catalogue of numerous techniques used to defend against the case for Christianity is helpful as well, and as the readers navigate the list they are sure to recognise the techniques as commonplace if they spend any time reading internet message boards and blogs where the New testament portrait of Jesus is discussed among sceptics: But the case isn’t perfect; but this other detail over here is more important, hey everyone, look at it!; the messengers were evil; there’s another possibility; we can entertain you; but their very best evidence is inadmissible.

The groundwork is laid. Wallace spends the next few chapters making a case that the Gospels pass the tests that detectives ask of witnesses: Were they there (with the wider issue of how early/late the Gospel accounts are), are they corroborated, are they accurate etc. Make no mistake about it, there’s nothing original here (nor is there any pretence of originality). The uniqueness of this work is really the context into which the discussion of the evidence for the reliability of the Gospels is place, namely in a side-by-side comparison of modern investigations of cold-case crimes, which the key features of the latter picked out and the former are scrutinised to see if those features are present and how well the evidence for the Gospels fares when compared to what would count as good evidence in, say, a murder cold case. Many of the well-known arguments for the reliability of the New Testament are put to use here (and credit is given to the sources that provide much in-depth further reading for those wanting to go further in an excellent annotated bibliography at the close of the book). The early dating of the Gospels is briefly defended primarily via internal evidence, corroboration is defended via linking statements in the Gospel to facts about the first century Roman world as well as via the appeal to “undersigned coincidences”: Recollections that an author makes that may seem unusual or unexpected (sometimes because of the incompleteness or brevity), but which, in conjunction with the observations of other authors, ideally complement the other so that a fuller picture is given – where there would be no reason at all to offer the apparently strange or incomplete observation on its own. For example, Matthew 8:16 indicates that people waited until sunset before bringing the sick to Jesus for healing, but we are left with no clue why anyone would do this. Mark 1:21 and Luke 4:31 fill out the picture, explaining that it had been the Sabbath day (which ends at sunset). Corroboration with early sources on the historic Jesus are described in passing, along with a few significant archaeological finds like the pool of Bethesda. In covering the accuracy of the Gospels Wallace’s demonstration of the historical connection between biblical figures, their students and later church leaders is a strong point of interest, and one not covered by a lot of the popular books on the evidence for the reliability of early Christian belief. Lastly, Wallace looks at the issue of bias. What did the Apostles have to gain by lying about Jesus (if that’s what they were doing?). The answer is very little indeed – if anything.

The book ends with a postscript in which Wallace explains what many, many practicing Christians (in my part of the world and elsewhere) don’t fully appreciate. The religious faith of those Christians who gladly became Christians but never took the time to examine the evidence is simply less secure and more prone to wane than that of those Christians who actually took the time to investigate the historic and evidential basis of the faith they proclaim. How could it be otherwise? Revival and personal transformation is great, but it’s part of the story. And the truth is, you don’t have to be the recipient of graduate degrees to do it. Jurors, as Wallace reminds us, aren’t lawyers, but they are called on to make important decisions based on the evidence. Christians too are called on to be able to give at least some account of the hope they have. What’s more – and this isn’t something Wallace commented on in closing but I’ll add it – all you need is a sound understanding of the most basic facts concerning the evidence for the historical reliability of the Gospels, and you’ll be in a position of knowing significantly more than some of the vocal critics of the Christian faith that Wallace mentions such as Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins (to say nothing of the even more vocal fans).

So should I buy the book?

Give this book to someone who doesn’t read a lot of heavy books. It’s conversational, full of whimsical anecdotes and eminently readable.

When reviewing a book or documentary I’ll pick out the negative features of a book I like, for the sake of balance. What was wrong with this book? One brief moment of irritation was the mention of the old canard that today’s critics of Christianity reject the notion of objective truth. Christian critiques of relativism were all the rage a little over a decade ago, but the truth is, virtually none of the critics that this book appears to have in mind (namely, the “new atheists” Wallace refers to, among others) actually believe that truth is relative when it comes to matters of fact. Dogmatic commitment to naturalism, and not relativism, is the stumbling block for most of these critics, and in general Christian responses to those who reject the notion of objective truth seem pretty tired and do not represent time well spent. My only other gripe is that in a book that is clearly about New Testament and other historical evidence, the author quotes people like Penn and Teller or Sam Harris as critics. I wouldn’t even give them the illusion of credibility by bringing them up in the discussion of a field they frankly know nothing about. But other than that, the truth is that many of the “negatives” here aren’t flaws with the book. They are limitations of scope and decisions about its audience. You’ll be disappointed if you read the book expecting something that the book isn’t. Give this book to someone who doesn’t read a lot of heavy books. It’s conversational, full of whimsical anecdotes and eminently readable. Partly because of this style it’s bound to also turn some readers off (people who have a disdain for “popular level” Christian books or “rational sceptics” who think it’s “not a serious book”), which is more than a little unfair. The book was written for willing listeners, and is perfect (in my humble opinion) for senior high school students. This doesn’t mean that it’s “unscholarly.” That would suggest that the book falls afoul of some sort of rules of scholarship – and it doesn’t. It delivers precisely at the level that it (as far as I can tell) was intended to deliver. But the book clearly isn’t intended as weighty, scholarly material to grapple with. Bear in mind, too, that I’m someone who expects more of high school aged readers than some people might. For some people, “it’s perfect for a high school student” might suggest that it’s for people who can’t really think carefully and in depth yet. That’s not what I mean because I think that high school aged people should be in the throes of training their analytical reasoning skills – which is why this book would be good for them. So I suppose what I mean is not that this book would suit a high school student. What I mean is that I think that high school students should ideally be at a level in their reading and thinking that this book would be at their level. The diagrams/visual aids and layout make the book especially appropriate for this audience (or for a lot of men, let’s be honest).

This makes the book particularly helpful from a pastoral/discipleship point of view precisely because that is the age at which people start thinking more independently about whether or not “this whole church thing is for me or not.” That’s the age when young people from a Christian background need to start investigating the evidence for the Christian faith in earnest, and Wallace’s book provides an ideal resource for that purpose.

Given what (I think) this book is meant to be, it delivers superbly. J. Warner Wallace’s approach and style is winsome, irenic, humble, he knows when to defer to others, he is eminently readable (although I say the work is ideally suited to a high school senior, it is easily enjoyable by older people including college and seminary graduates) and he makes his case with remarkable candour, not requiring the reader to adopt a whole pile of theological baggage in order to be able to appreciate the arguments made. I’m pretty certain that if the book’s not for you, it’s almost certain to be for someone you know. My fifteen year old son is getting a copy and I’ll be sure to go through it with him.

Glenn Peoples