In his engaging book “Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels” (2013), former atheist J. Warner Wallace brings his unique background as a widely respected murder investigator with a graduate theological degree to bear on the reliability of the New Testament.
Among the many topics that he addresses is the date of composition of the four New Testament gospels. Some critics have argued that they were written very late, and, accordingly, that they’re more legend than history. Wallace defends their early origin, arguing that they represent genuine eyewitness testimony.
The list and discussion below summarizes pages 161-169 of his thoroughly enjoyable book, necessarily omitting much of its detail and all of his responses to counterarguments:
1. The New Testament doesn’t mention the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple in A.D. 70. Coming at the conclusion of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, that catastrophe fundamentally changed the nature of Judaism and, arguably, of Christianity. Moreover, it fulfilled the prophecy of Jesus recorded at Matthew 24:1-3. It would have offered a powerful illustration of Jesus’ prophetic ability, but no gospel mentions it.
2. The New Testament says nothing about the three-year-long Roman siege of Jerusalem. Jewish suffering during that time was appalling, but none of the gospels refer to it.
3. Luke doesn’t refer to the deaths of the apostles Paul and Peter. Peter was executed in Rome in A.D. 65, and Paul, Luke’s one-time traveling companion, was martyred there in A.D. 64. But neither Luke’s gospel nor his sequel, “The Acts of the Apostles,” mentions those devastating losses. In fact, at the conclusion of Acts, Paul is clearly still alive (under Roman house arrest).
4. Luke also doesn’t mention the martyrdom of James (Jesus’ half-brother) in A.D. 62. He chronicles the deaths of other early Christian leaders — for example, the A.D. 34 martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60) and that of James, the brother of John, in about A.D. 44 (Acts 12:1-2) — but, although Acts 15 assigns an important leadership role to James, Luke never refers to his death.
5. According to Acts 1:1-2, Luke wrote his gospel before Acts, which is the second installment of a two-part work often called “Luke-Acts” by scholars.
6. The New Testament’s 1 Timothy 5:17-18 apparently quotes Luke 10:7, which would demonstrate Luke to have been written earlier. Some scholars, of course, argue that 1 Timothy was written quite late and not by Paul. Others contend, however, that it was written by Paul (and, thus, necessarily before A.D. 65), possibly as early as A.D. 58.
7. In his letters to the Romans, the Corinthians, and the Galatians — dated between A.D. 48 and A.D. 60 and accepted as genuinely Paul’s by virtually all scholars — Paul echoes the principal claims of the gospel writers. For example, Jesus — “the Son of God” — died for our sins, was buried, and rose again on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Romans 1:4). And Paul claims to have received his information directly from the eyewitnesses Peter and James at least 14 years earlier (Galatians 1:15-19; 2:1).
9. In its turn, Luke’s gospel seems to quote Mark in roughly 350 verses and Matthew in approximately 250. Luke never claims to be an eyewitness; instead, he describes himself as a historian working from eyewitness sources (Luke 1:1-4).
10. Mark’s gospel seems to be a first and preliminary report. Here, Wallace’s background as an experienced analyst of evidence and police reports kicks in. I cannot summarize here the impressions he shares on pages 166-168, but I recommend them. He offers an intriguing argument for regarding Mark as a rather hasty early account
11. In his gospel, Mark appears to “protect” certain “key players.” Whereas, for example, John identifies Peter as the man who attacked the servant of the high priest at Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane and Mary as the woman who anointed Jesus (messianically) in the home of Simon the leper, Mark leaves both anonymous. Was he trying to avoid putting living people at risk? (Some early Christian traditions report that Mark was personally close to Peter.) John 12:9-11 reports that the Jewish leadership sought to kill Lazarus because his miraculous restoration to life had led many to believe in Jesus; Mark omits the story altogether.
At Christmas, it’s good to be reminded that the gospels aren’t merely stories. They’re history.