Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels is one of the latest books to examine the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament. Detective Jim Wallace was an atheist before he began putting Christianity to the same tests that he places witnesses and suspects to in his investigations of crimes. He split his book into two sections. The first deals with the methods used in detective work. He uses his own experiences to illustrate and applies them to different aspect of Christianity. In the second part he specifically targets the reliability of the four gospels as eyewitness accounts of history. This review will be a chapter-by-chapter summary but should not be taken as comprehensive of Wallace’s presentation:
Section 1: Learn to Be a Detective
Chapter 1: Don’t Be a “Know-it-All”
In the first chapter Wallace begins his training of the reader by speaking a bit about presuppositions. He explains that presuppositions are ideas that we come to an investigation with prior to any investigating. They usually determine our conclusion before we examine the evidence. Though everyone has these, it is required that an investigator or juror set them aside to be able to come to an objective conclusion. The consequences of allowing our presuppositions to guide our investigation are that we are likely to come to a conclusion that is not accurate. This goes for investigating murders and investigating truth-claims of worldviews.
Chapter 2: Learn How to Infer
Next Wallace introduces the reader to abductive reasoning. He explains that this is nothing new and most people are well trained to think this way; there is just an official name for it. Explains how it works and the process of thinking abductively by taking the reader through an exercise. He provides the reader with a short list of information about a crime scene and asks the reader to choose from a list of explanations. He explains that the list cannot be narrowed down until more information is known. Step-by-step he introduces a new piece of evidence that removes one more option from the list until the list contains only one option- a process of elimination. He also explains the difference between “reasonable” and “possible,” and that the hypothesis that explains the most evidence is likely to be the correct one.
Wallace then presents the different hypotheses regarding the “minimal facts” (popularized by Drs. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona) that point to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He describes the explanations, then shows which of the evidence they can and cannot account for. To remain fair and consistent with his discussion about presuppositions in the previous chapter, he does not exclude the hypothesis of the resurrection from this examination.
Chapter 3: Think “Circumstantially”
In the third chapter Wallace discusses two different types of evidence: direct and indirect (circumstantial). Direct evidence being evidence that can prove a conclusion on its own, while indirect being pieces of evidence that may have multiple possible conclusions individually, but combined point reasonably to a single conclusion. He explains that in a court of law jurors are given instructions to regard direct and indirect evidence with the same level of quality—meaning that they both hold the same weight. Neither is inferior or superior to the other. This is important when investigating events of history, since there may not be direct evidence available. In Wallace’s case, if indirect evidence were inferior to direct evidence, then he would not be able to successfully prosecute perpetrators of cold murder cases.
After going through that, Wallace puts forth four different arguments for God’s existence. He explains the arguments and explains that on their own, none of them can prove God’s existence. On their own, multiple explanations do exist. However, taken together God is the only reasonable explanation for all this circumstantial evidence. Again, he grants that other explanations are possible, but reminds the reader that as a juror, only presuppositionless and reasonable conclusions are acceptable. As long as the reader has not rejected God’s existence as a presupposition, the conclusion that God exists based on the circumstantial evidence is an extremely reliable conclusion.
Chapter 4: Test Your Witnesses
The fourth chapter focuses on the reliability of eyewitnesses. Wallace explains that even though eyewitnesses generally can be trusted, they do need to be tested. He provides four different questions that one must ask to verify the reliability of eyewitnesses. The questions cover their presence to witness the event, their past trustworthiness, their testimony’s verifiability, and their motives.
Wallace also gives an example of witnesses with differing testimony about the same event, that appear to conflict. For that reason it is important to take into account perspective; not just physical, but emotional and personal (education, interests, etc.). He also gives an example of witnesses who may leave out many important elements of an event, yet provide key facts about the occurrence.
He does not go into much detail testing Christianity using these criteria yet. He takes a quick look at the disciples as reliable eyewitnesses and the general reliability of the Bible. He touches a bit on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and how authorial perspective is accounted for. These final discussions begin to prepare the reader for the second part of the book, where Wallace will put the Gospels to a much more rigorous test.
Chapter 5: Hang on Every Word
In the fifth chapter Wallace introduces the reader to forensic statement analysis (FSA). This is the art of drawing information from statements beyond the immediate content provided by the statement. He explains how a person’s choice of specific words or phrases and inclusion or exclusion of certain details can provide the investigator with much more information than may have been intended.
He explains how he used FSA to analyze the Gospel of Mark. By listing and explaining seven unique pieces of circumstantial evidence (see Chapter 3) provided by his FSA of the text, he builds the case for Mark’s source being the apostle Peter- a claimed eyewitness of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Chapter 6: Separate Artifacts from Evidence
The next chapter points out that both useful and useless items are located at every crime scene. Wallace helps the reader to know what is applicable to the case regarding a specific event (evidence) and what is not (artifacts). Examples provided were items that were later found but were not present at the scene initially, or items that were obviously part of a rescue effort and not the crime. Wallace explains that it is important to make this distinction to get to the truth—later additions (intentional or unintentional) can cast needless doubt on an explanation or conclusion.
Wallace uses this information to help explain the transmission of scripture- how we can be certain that what we have in our Bibles today is what was originally written. He compares the manuscripts that we possess to photographs of a crime scene- they are evidence of a snapshot of what was present at the scene at a particular point in time. Textual critics use this information to identify and note (or remove) artifacts from scripture (passages that were not present in the original writings). Wallace explains that contrary to those who wish to use artifacts in scripture to cast doubt on the reliability of scripture as historical, eyewitness accounts, textual criticism can reliably distinguish between the actual evidence and artifacts- thus knowing what needs to be harmonized into one coherent account and what information may be ignored in such attempts.
Chapter 7: Resist Conspiracy Theories
In Chapter 7 Wallace describes his experiences with conspiracies among suspects in crimes. He explains that in his years as a detective he found that conspiracies are extremely difficult to maintain for more than a couple days. He presents five different conditions that must all be met for a conspiracy to be successful: small number of conspirators, short time-span to maintain the conspiracy, personally close relationships among conspirators, little or no pressure to reveal the conspiracy, and effective communication among conspirators.
Wallace then examines the claims that the apostles maintained a conspiracy about Jesus’ resurrection. He shows that this conspiracy meets practically none of the criteria required to successfully pull it off. He makes note that the apostles maintained their conspiracy over great distances without effective communication while under immense physical pressure for decades.
He also addresses the challenge that many people die for what they believe to be true but is actually false. Wallace explains that the apostles were in a unique position to know from their own experience if the resurrection actually happened or not, while those who came after them are merely in a position to trust the prior testimony.
He concludes this chapter by warning Christians that in order to consistently argue against such an apostolic conspiracy, we need to make sure that we do not maintain beliefs in conspiracies unless they meet the requirements- secular conspiracy theories must be put to the same tests and scrutiny that religious ones are. Same goes too for non-believers- if they are to reject conspiracy theories that meet more of the requirements than does the apostolic conspiracy theory, they cannot consistently accept the Christian conspiracy theory.
Chapter 8: Respect the “Chain of Custody”
Conspiracies can not only take place on the side of the perpetrators, but also on the side of those investigating. In the next chapter Wallace looks at the path that evidence must travel between the crime scene and the courtroom. It is important that we can trace where evidence has been due to the possibility that evidence can be contaminated, removed, or planted. Wallace explains how the “chain of custody” of evidence works and how it is reliable if followed properly. He points out that some New Testament critics believe that the Gospels may have been “planted” by conspirators between the time that Jesus lived (the “crime”) and the time that the books (the “evidence”) made it to the Council of Laodicea (the “courtroom”) to be ultimately accepted or rejected as reliable eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life (the “crime”). Again, Wallace does not go into details regarding the New Testament documents because of the rigorousness that will be applied using this test in the second part of the book.
Chapter 9: Know When “Enough is Enough”
After going over all these different criteria for investigations, Wallace recognizes that there can still be doubts—either in the investigator or the juror. He distinguishes between reasonable and emotional doubts and explains how to identify what category doubts may fall into. He points out that no event will be fully known and understood by a person, thus there will be questions. But those questions do not necessarily invalidate a conclusion. He shows how someone can be comfortable with a conclusion yet still have doubts and uncertainties. He uses this to help skeptics work through the problem of evil.
Chapter 10: Prepare for an Attack
In Chapter 10 Wallace warns that cases, regardless of the strength of the evidence presented, do not go unchallenged. He describes several different tactics used by defense attorneys in court to undermine cases against their clients. Wallace focuses on challenges to the very nature of truth, alternative explanations without evidence, personal attacks on the investigators and focusing on individual pieces of evidence rather than the cumulative case. He explains how each of these are invalid and can be addressed.
He encourages all Christians to be aware of the facts and evidences surrounding the Christian worldview and to be able to address fallacious attacks. He shows that being a Christian “case-maker” is actually a form of worship along with being practiced in an effort to expand the Kingdom. With that he launches into the second part of the book where he will apply his criteria to scripture.
Section 2: Examine the Evidence
Chapter 11: Were They Present?
Wallace now begins to apply his tests to the gospels. His goal is to show the reader roughly the investigation that he did and how he came to the conclusion of the reliability of the gospels. The first case that he attempts to build is targeted at the presence of the authors at the events. If a “witness” was not present, then they are not useful as an eyewitness.
Wallace puts forth 11 pieces of evidence to build a circumstantial case for the early authorship of the gospels- early enough that the authors could have been who tradition has attributed them to. He also examines counter-evidences. Five different evidences against the early dating of the gospels is presented, and addressed. Wallace shows how the conclusion that they were written after the death of the eyewitnesses cannot account for the majority of the evidence, thus he concludes that this is not a reasonable (though, still possible) explanation. He shows that all the evidence (including the counter-evidence) can be explained, without contradiction, by the claim that the gospels were written early.
Wallace concludes that the gospels were, in fact, written early, but he does not rest his case on this alone. There is still three more questions that need to be addressed before he can reasonably conclude that the gospels are reliable eyewitness accounts.
Chapter 12: Were They Corroborated?
The second case that Wallace builds is of corroboration. He distinguishes between internal and external corroboration. Internal looks for corroboration within the testimony (intentional or not). External looks for verification by sources other than the testimony being tested.
For internal corroboration Wallace examines several examples of “undesigned coincidences” among the different gospels. These would be instances where one witness leaves details out of an account that another includes. Wallace also looks at the usage of names in the gospels. He cites research that indicate that the names used in the gospels were in line with the frequency used during that time.
Wallace then offers extra-biblical authors and archeology as external corroborators. He provides several instances of each to bolster his circumstantial case. Finally, Wallace examines critiques and offers responses. Ultimately he concludes that the circumstantial case is overwhelmingly reasonable for the corroboration of the content recorded in the four gospels. However, he does not conclude that the gospels are eye-witness accounts just yet. He still must look at two other potential defeaters to the hypothesis.
Chapter 13: Were They Accurate?
In Chapter 13 Wallace submits the Gospels to the test for accuracy over time- is the copy we have today the same what was written then? He examines the chain of custody and establishes two different lines beginning with Peter and Paul and ending at the Council of Laodicea. In this examination he shows that the early Church fathers affirmed the vast majority of the New Testament books as scripture by their quoting and referencing their content. He also shows that the early Church fathers affirmed much theology found in the New Testament.
Not only must there be a chain of custody, but there must be a way to ensure that copies are created accurately. Wallace examined the methods for copying the texts in the ancient world and used the copy of Isaiah found in the Dead Sea Scrolls as confirmation that the methods were effective and reliable. Wallace concludes that this third test is passed. Due to the continuous chain of custody and a reliable method for copying, we can trust that we have the same as what was originally recorded. But this is still not enough to conclude that the gospels are reliable eyewitness accounts. Wallace has one more test that must be passed.
Chapter 14: Were They Biased?
Chapter 14 submits the Gospels to the final series of tests for the reliability of eyewitness account: motive to lie and bias. Wallace explains that behind nearly every crime the motives of money, sex, or power is present. He states that if the apostles did lie about their experiences, they would need a motive. He looks at each motive individually and the evidence for and against each motive being present. He concludes that none of these motives were present in the apostles.
Finally Wallace looks at the charge of general bias: the idea that since the apostles believed the events, that they can’t be trusted as eyewitnesses. He provides an example of a robbery being committed by a person that a witness would never have expected to commit. However, having seen the robbery, the witness became convinced. This is the kind of bias that makes a reliable witness, not an unreliable one. Since the apostles did not possess a motive to lie and became convinced based on what they saw (not someone else’s accounts), it is not reasonable to believe that the apostles lied about their experiences. Since the Gospels have now passed all four tests, it is reasonable to conclude that they are accurate eyewitness accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Postscript: Becoming A “Two Decision” Christian
Wallace concludes the book with a discussion about “believing that” versus “believing in”. He explains the issues with only “believing that” Christianity or only “believing in” Christ. He urges Christians, who already “believe in” Christ, to investigate the truth of Christianity to become more confident in their presentation of the Gospel. He also encourages nonbelievers to investigate the truth of Christianity without any presuppositions. His hope is that people will realize that the truth of Christianity is not merely an opinion, but a fact that is based on reasonable conclusions.
Cold-Case Christianity is a fantastic book. The fact that many readers are familiar with detective work either through their own experience in our jobs or through watching the latest episodes of CSI on TV, makes his way of presenting very understandable but not shallow. Wallace places the reader in the courtroom as the juror and himself as the attorney defending the truth of Christianity using expert witnesses that are cross-examined for reliability. The fact that he begins with the importance of jurors leaving presuppositions at the door in cases and ends with valid reasons to maintain a bias (often mistaken as presuppositions), he urges the reader to take an objective look at the evidence and come to a conclusion based upon reason and not emotion.
This book is highly recommended for anyone who is even remotely concerned with the reliability of the New Testament. It is not a dry presentation of just facts, rather it brings a detective’s investigation for the truth to life for the reader. However, a specific recommendation would be for anyone who is a detective, has aspirations of becoming a detective, or is a fan of crime-dramas on TV. This book was written from that specific perspective and will not disappoint. If one is an apologist or pastor or small-group leader, this book needs to be on your shelf, not only for yourself, but for those you come across who may appreciate the unique perspective that a detective of 30 years will bring to the worldview courtroom.
Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Luke Nix is a Computer Systems Administrator in Oklahoma, USA. He has a beautiful and supportive wife, but no kids yet. In his spare time he enjoys studying theology, philosophy, biology, astronomy, psychology and apologetics. If you liked this review, more of his writing can be enjoyed at lukenixblog.blogspot.com.