As an unbelieving skeptic, I was willing to accept the possibility that Jesus lived and taught as a 1st Century Rabbi, but I rejected much of the gospel accounts as fiction. I suspected the gospels had been corrupted and altered through the centuries. Defense attorneys often have similar questions about the status and condition of evidence over time. How do we know, for example, that a particular piece of evidence hasn’t been tampered with (or added) over the years between the time of the crime and the time of the eventual trial? As a detective, I know one way to determine if evidence has been altered: I simply examine the “chain of custody”.
I begin by looking at the documentation at the crime scene. Was the piece of evidence documented by someone at the scene? Did an officer take a Polaroid photograph and describe the evidence? When the evidence was collected and booked into property, was the transfer properly recorded? At some point later in the investigation the evidence may have been delivered to the crime lab for further examination. Was this transfer documented with photographs and reports? When the evidence was retrieved from the crime lab, did the investigating detective document the process? Did he take additional photographs? If this process was documented properly, the photographs and reports related to the piece of evidence can be compared to one another to make sure the evidence hasn’t been tampered with over time. The chain of custody helps us to determine evidential reliability.
Something similar can be done with the gospel eyewitness accounts. We have an “officer” at the scene of the crime (the Apostle John) who took a “Polaroid” of Jesus (the Gospel of John). How do we know that the gospel we possess today is the same gospel John allegedly wrote in the 1st century? We can follow the “chain of custody.” John handed the evidence over to two additional “officers” in the chain, the Church Fathers we know as Ignatius and Polycarp. These two men took their own “Polaroids” of Jesus (Ignatius wrote 7 letters to local churches describing Jesus and Polycarp wrote one letter to the church at Philippi). They then handed the evidence related to Jesus over to another “officer” in the chain of custody, their student, the well-known second century church apologist, Irenaeus. He also wrote extensively about Jesus and passed on the information to another “officer” in the chain, Hippolytus. See the pattern here? We can trace the evidence related to Jesus down the chain of custody from one “officer” to another, verifying the content of John’s original message to make sure the story of Jesus wasn’t corrupted over time.
In my book, Cold-Case Christianity, I made the effort to reconstruct the New Testament chain of custody. More importantly, I provided a detailed description of Jesus as described by three of the second-tier “officers” in the chain: Ignatius, Polycarp and Clement. When these three men described Jesus (based on what they learned from John and Paul), they described Him in the following way:
Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary
A star announced His birth
He was baptized by John the Baptist, taught and had a “ministry” on earth
He was humble, unassuming and sinless
He spoke the words of God and taught the Sermon on the Mount
Ointment was poured on Jesus’ head
He was unjustly treated and condemned by men
He was whipped, suffered and was crucified
This all took place under the government of Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch was king
Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected
He had a physical resurrection body
He appeared to Peter and the others after the resurrection
He encouraged the disciples to touch and He ate with the disciples
The disciples were convinced by the resurrection appearances and were fearless after seeing
the risen Christ
Jesus returned to God the Father
He is our only Master and the Son of God
All things are subject to Jesus and all creation belongs to Him
He is the “Door,” the “Bread of Life,” and the “Eternal Word”
Jesus is our “Savior”, “Lord” and “God”
Faith in Christ’s work on the cross saves us
This salvation and forgiveness are gifts of grace from God
Jesus will judge the living and the dead
Even without the original descriptions from John and Paul, we can reconstruct the nature of Jesus from the second tier “officers”. It’s clear that Jesus was a miracle worker who claimed to be God, died on the cross for our sins and demonstrated his Deity by rising from the dead. The New Testament “chain of custody” provides us with certainty that the gospel eyewitness accounts have not been altered over time.
The “New Testament Chain of Custody Bible Insert” is the free ColdCaseChristianity.com resource for the month of June. You can download it by visiting the site and looking for the Bible Insert link in the right toolbar. Be sure to check back every month for additional downloadable resources.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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