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Courtroom Apologetics: You Call Them Eyewitnesses?

Many people blanch when a “jury duty” letter shows up in the mail. Nevertheless, some popular evangelical authors believe that recruiting jurors for an imaginary trial for Christianity is the best way to defend the faith. Courtroom apologists are recognizable by the way they season their arguments with courtroom jargon and analogies. They put Bible scholars on the stand to defend the strength of the scriptural evidence. Above all, they give great weight to four eyewitness accounts, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. At trial’s end, they ask their jury of readers to reach an objective verdict based on an unbiased examination of the evidence.

But a trial analogy for Christianity is absurd unless both sides get to make their cases. Because the courtroom apologists I will highlight did not provide a genuine rebuttal case, I will present the beginnings of such a case below. Not only did these apologists misidentify the gospel authors, they ignored how these authors could not have been eyewitnesses to many famous scenes in the gospels. Hence my question: “You call them eyewitnesses?”

Three Courtroom Apologists

Three evangelical authors stand out as popularizing courtroom apologetics over the last several decades. The first is Josh McDowell, a minister with Campus Crusade for Christ (website www.josh.org). McDowell is perhaps best known for his 1977 bestseller More Than a Carpenter, which went into detail on his personal investigation of Christianity and his conversion while in college. However, I would argue McDowell planted the seed for courtroom apologetics with the startling title of an earlier bestseller, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, first published in 1972.

That seed sprouted with Lee Strobel (website www.leestrobel.com), author of the 1998 book The Case for Christ. Strobel was formerly a reporter and legal affairs editor at the Chicago Tribune, often covering crime stories. In his book, he described how his wife stunned him in 1979 by becoming a Christian. Baffled, he launched himself into a nearly 2-year investigation into the claims of Christianity, which led to his conversion in 1981. In The Case for Christ, Strobel revisited this investigation and laid out the categories of proof he examined. He used these categories to shepherd his readers into the jury room: “These are the same classifications that you’d encounter in the courtroom. And maybe taking a legal perspective is the best way to envision this process—with you in the role of a juror” (Strobel, p. 15).

The third author is J. Warner Wallace (website www.coldcasechristianity.com), who wrote Cold-Case Christianity in 2013. Wallace is a homicide detective who has appeared on the NBC series Dateline. In Cold-Case, he explained his ten principles of cold-case investigations and showed how each could be used to examine the Gospels. He then tested whether the Gospels pass muster as eyewitness accounts by answering four questions:

  • Were they present?
  • Were they corroborated?
  • Were they accurate?
  • Were they biased?

Wallace also likened his readers to jurors: “Jurors aren’t experts, yet they are required to make the most important decision in the courtroom…. Our justice system trusts that folks like you and me can examine the testimony of experts and come to a reasonable conclusion about the truth” (Wallace, p. 259).

The authors had similar backstories in their evangelical journeys. All converted to Christianity as young adults, although Wallace pushed the young part by waiting until he was a wizened 35-year-old. Before their conversions, all describe being an agnostic or atheist who sneered at religion, until a seminal event triggered them to investigate Christianity. Also, when they began their inquiries, none had academic backgrounds or theological expertise in the religious matters they sought to investigate. Instead, they offered the authority of a fresh set of eyes from legal disciplines (legal affairs journalism and homicide detective) that applied cold rationalism to the examination of evidence. Even McDowell raised his college kid legal expertise: “I was a prelaw student, and I knew something about evidence. I would investigate the claims of Christianity thoroughly and come back and knock the props out from under their sham religion” (McDowell, Carpenter, p. 11).

Once converted, all devoted their lives to the faith. McDowell has written or coauthored an Everest-like stack of 153 books and preached in 139 countries. Strobel has gone on to write a series of popular “Case for” books, such as The Case for Faith and The Case for a Creator. Wallace has continued to use his detective skills for more apologetics books like God’s Crime Scene and Forensic Faith. Strobel hit upon the idea of engaging youngsters with his book Case for Christ for Kids. Wallace hit upon the idea of engaging youngsters with his book Cold-Case Christianity for Kids. Do they have office cubicles at Evangelism HQ just across from each other or something?

Some Courtroom Criteria

Because these authors speak of eyewitnesses, juries, and verdicts, I expected their books to include the following basic courtroom features:

  1. both sides get an equal opportunity to present their cases and challenge the other’s case;
  2. the burden of proof falls on the prosecution;
  3. the prosecution must meet the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt; and
  4. procedural rules govern the trial and the admissibility of evidence.

For Bullet 4, some widely recognized rules on witnesses can be found in the Federal Rules of Evidence (website www.rulesofevidence.org). Under Rules 602 and 603, a fact witness must have personal knowledge of a matter and be placed under an oath or affirmation. The credibility of the witness can also be attacked (Rule 607). Experts can also give testimony (Rule 702), to offer opinions on the trial evidence based on their specialized knowledge. However, “hearsay” testimony is inadmissible (Rules 801 to 807). Generally, hearsay is when one side tries to offer as evidence the statements from someone that were not made under oath during the trial.

Sadly, these authors shortchanged their readers by failing to include all four of these features. Under Bullet 1, the authors did not give equal time to the case against Christianity, other than to attack its perceived weaknesses. None of the authors clearly addressed Bullets 2 and 3, as they never said whether the case for Christianity was the prosecution or defense case, nor did they articulate a clear standard of proof they were using. They also proposed an odd rule change under Bullet 4 to banish philosophical naturalism from the courtroom.

To get this imaginary trial moving so I can make my rebuttal, I’m going to assume the case for Christianity is the prosecution case and the proof standard is beyond a reasonable doubt (any lower standard, and the apologists would be conceding that atheists like me CAN have a reasonable doubt, an admission they would find anathema). I summarize the prosecution case below, followed by my defense case. Because I could not cover all the prosecution’s arguments from three books in one essay, my summaries focus on their shared points about eyewitnesses.

The Prosecution Case

As I visualize this trial, I see each author playing a different role. Strobel devoted each chapter of his book to a category of evidence, which he explored with “thirteen leading scholars and authorities who have impeccable academic credentials” (Strobel, p. 15). Thus, I see him as the prosecuting attorney who calls his expert witnesses to the stand. The first two chapters of The Case for Christ discuss eyewitness evidence and the interviewee is Craig Blomberg, currently professor emeritus of New Testament at Denver Seminary in Colorado.

Is see Wallace as the detective called to the stand to explain his investigation and conclusions from Cold-Case. As the earliest author, I see McDowell as a pre-law assistant for the prosecution, since many of the arguments and evidence he developed years earlier for Evidence were echoed in the latter authors’ books. If you can imagine a thick trial binder sitting on prosecutor Strobel’s desk, McDowell played a role in assembling it.

This sentence summarizes the heart of the prosecution case: “The writers of the New Testament either wrote as eyewitnesses of the events they described or recorded eyewitness firsthand accounts of the events” (McDowell, Evidence, p. 5). The prosecution accepts that the gospel authors are anonymous but underlines that the earliest church fathers from the 2nd century (such as Papias and Irenaeus) were unanimous in attributing authorship to four people: the apostles Matthew and John; John Mark, an associate of the apostle Peter, who wrote Mark; and Luke, an associate of the apostle Paul (Strobel, pp. 23-25; Wallace, pp. 77-79). While not a direct witness, Luke was like an early historian, investigating everything anew and examining what eyewitnesses had handed down (Luke 1:1-3).

The prosecution pursues what I would call a “win-win-win” strategy in examining the Gospels. In areas where the Gospels agree, then the Gospels corroborate each other, so can be accepted as eyewitness accounts (win 1). If they disagree, then the prosecution explains how eyewitnesses in real trials often recall events differently, based on their unique perspectives (Wallace, p. 74). In the case of the Gospels, their perspectives sometimes differed because of the authors’ target audiences and the differing theological aspects of Jesus they wanted to emphasize. Because we should expect such disagreements, they make the Gospels even more credible as eyewitness accounts (win 2). Goodness, how could a gospel be considered a genuine independent eyewitness account, if it was just a verbatim match to another gospel?

Then comes win 3. If a gospel records scenes that are a verbatim match to another gospel, then there is a satisfactory explanation why, leaving both eyewitness accounts credible. In The Case for Christ, Strobel asked Blomberg why Matthew would copy Mark in many places, since Matthew was a direct eyewitness while Mark was not. Blomberg responded that “It only makes sense if Mark was indeed basing his account on the recollections of the eyewitness Peter…. Peter was among the inner circle of Jesus and was privy to seeing and hearing things the other disciples didn’t” (Strobel, p. 28).

Another part of the prosecution case is assuring the jury that these eyewitness accounts remained uncorrupted as they went from oral traditions, to written documents, to Biblical canon by the 4th century. This was a particular concern for Wallace as he addressed his “Were they present?” question in Chapter 11 of Cold-Case (Wallace, pp. 159-180). Surprisingly, Wallace did not use this chapter to dissect various scenes from the Gospels and, using his cold-case skills, show his readers how the gospel authors were present in those scenes. Instead, his sole focus was defending his conclusion that the Gospels were written early, within a few decades after the death of Jesus.

As I noted earlier, the authors did not present the case against Christianity, although they implied they had. Strobel, for example, said he hit his interviewees “with the objections I had when I was a skeptic, to force them to defend their positions with solid data and cogent arguments” (Strobel, p. 15). In effect, he did the defense’s cross examination of the prosecution witnesses, perhaps as a professional courtesy to the opposing counsel. But in a real trial, defense attorneys cross-examine witnesses with leading questions that only allow a short answer, to force painful admissions from the stand. Strobel’s questioning was just the prosecutor ploy known as the prebuttal, where you ask your witnesses open-ended questions about the defense’s evidence, so they can expound at length on how weak it all is.

Strobel employed the prebuttal most clearly in Chapter 6, “The Rebuttal Evidence,” the sole chapter devoted to anything resembling the defense case (Strobel, pp. 119-138). Strobel’s interviewee was Gregory A. Boyd, currently senior pastor at Woodlawn Hills Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Most of Boyd’s testimony was devoted to heaping abuse on the Jesus Seminar (website www.westarinstitute.org), an organization that dared conclude that Jesus did not say about 82 percent of what the Gospels attributed to him (Strobel, p. 120). Boyd dismissed them as “an extremely small number of radical-fringe scholars,” not representative of mainstream scholarship (Strobel, p. 124). But did Strobel interview any members of the Jesus Seminar, to give them an equal opportunity to defend their positions with solid data and cogent arguments? No.

Finally, in what I consider a rule change that would be rejected in any real trial, the prosecution attacks philosophical naturalism and its “bias” against the supernatural (Strobel, p. 125; Wallace, pp. 25-29; McDowell, Evidence, pp. 7-9), and effectively wants to exclude it from the courtroom. They claim this bias infects those Bible scholars who seek only the historical Jesus. To reach the verdict that the Jesus of history is the Jesus of faith, they caution the jury to maintain an open mind and avoid this naturalism bias in their deliberations.

The Defense Case

My first goal as defense attorney would be to convince the jury that the prosecution has failed to prove its core claims about gospel authorship beyond a reasonable doubt. I would begin sowing that doubt via my cross-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses, to draw out admissions about the limitations of the historical evidence and how divided scholarly opinion is in many areas. I would then put my own expert witnesses on the stand.

My lead-off witness would be Bible scholar Bart D. Ehrman, author of bestsellers like Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted. In the latter book, he described the majoritarian opinion among scholars about the Gospels: “They were not written by Jesus’ companions or by companions of his companions. They were written decades later by people who didn’t know Jesus, who lived in a different country or different countries from Jesus, and who spoke a different language from Jesus” (Ehrman, Interrupted, p. 112). So much for eyewitness accounts! For some payback, I would call some top Jesus Seminar scholars to the stand, so they can rebut the outrages in Boyd’s testimony. I would also call additional New Testament scholars to the stand, as many as necessary, to drive home to the jury that the prosecution’s task is impossible, because no scholar can know beyond a reasonable doubt who the gospel authors were.

The prosecution, I suspect, would counter by calling rebuttal expert witnesses to split hairs about what my expert witnesses said. I’d then call back my witnesses to nitpick about what the rebuttal expert witnesses said. Torturing the jury for weeks on end with competing conga lines of Bible scholars may seem cruel, but I’m confident the fatiguing debate would lead to a verdict in the defense’s favor.

But a good trial also needs a good surprise witness. Imagine the gasps as I say, “I now call to the stand … the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God, His Holiness POPE FRANCIS.”

The Pope? My goal is to have a respected Catholic scholar walk the jury through my first defense exhibit, a Catholic study bible. Since this is an imaginary trial, why not the Pope?

Exhibit A – Fireside New American Bible, 2006-2007 Personal Study Edition

My copy of the Fireside New American Bible (Fireside NAB) is loaded with commentary and verse footnotes giving a Catholic perspective on the Bible. I would ask Pope Francis to read from the introductory material on each of the four Gospels. The scholarly speculation found in these introductions is clearly at odds with the prosecution’s case and much more in line with Ehrman’s position:

Matthew: The author was possibly from Antioch in Roman Syria, where there was a mixed population of Greek-speaking Gentiles and Jews. It was probably written about a decade after the Jewish revolt of 66-70 AD (Fireside NAB, pp. 1009).

Mark: The author was possibly a Hellenized Jewish Christian, writing in Syria shortly after 70 AD, who’s target audience appeared to be Gentiles unfamiliar with Jewish customs (Fireside NAB, p. 1065).

Luke: The likely author was a non-Palestinian writing to a non-Palestinian audience that was largely made up of Gentile Christians. The author was not part of the first generation of disciples. Most scholars date Luke’s composition to after the Jewish revolt of 70 AD, and many propose 80-90 AD (Fireside NAB, p. 1091).

John: Critical analysis finds difficulties with any theory of eyewitness authorship, such as John’s highly developed theology. The gospel may have had more than one author and the final editing and arrangement probably took place between 90-100 AD, with opinions differing as to where (Fireside NAB, pp. 1135-1136).

The Fireside NAB contains Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur declarations from Catholic officials, meaning it was deemed free of doctrinal or moral error. I do not think these declarations, as a matter of church doctrine, prohibit Catholics from accepting the prosecution’s proposed authors. But they do show that a Christian church with some 1.3 billion members is fine with its followers accepting that the Gospels were likely written late and by non-eyewitnesses.

This observation upends the prosecution’s notion that philosophical naturalism is behind any criticism of their case. For example, in Cold-Case, Wallace offers the Gospels’ failure to describe the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD as his first piece of circumstantial evidence that they were written before then (pp. 161-162). Later, He attacks skeptics by saying, “The naturalistic bias of these critics prevents them from accepting any dating that precedes the destruction of the temple” (Wallace, p. 173). But the Pope could contradict Wallace directly in regards Matthew, testifying that a date after 70 AD is “is confirmed within the text by 22, 7, which refers to the destruction of Jerusalem” (Fireside NAB, p. 1009). What a dilemma! To salvage Wallace’s testimony, imagine an embarrassed prosecutor Strobel asking the Pope under cross, “Your Holiness, isn’t it true that your church accepts a composition date for Matthew after 70 AD because it is infected with philosophical naturalism?”

The second goal of my defense would be to dissect famous scenes from the Gospels to show how they fail one or more of Wallace’s four tests for eyewitness accounts. My exhibits fall in three categories:

  • scenes where neither Jesus nor his disciples could be eyewitnesses (Exhibits B through F);
  • a scene where Jesus was alone (Exhibit G); and
  • scenes where Jesus and some or all the disciples were present (Exhibits H and I).

Exhibit B – The nativity narratives (Matthew 1 and 2; Luke 1:5-80; Luke 2:1-40)

Are there any Christians in the world who do not know the true story of Jesus’ birth? Yes, all of them, because the true story is lost to history. Most Christians could probably describe a crèche, but only devoted Gospel readers would know that the nativity stories are only found in Matthew and Luke and that their stories differ in many details. Still fewer Christians would know that many scholars question the historical accuracy of the nativity accounts and accept that Jesus was likely born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem.

But what about the eyewitnesses? In my cross-examination of Wallace, I’d show the jury that the nativity stories fail Wallace’s “were they present?” test for eyewitnesses. To illustrate, below are just a few of the questions I would ask him regarding Matthew (I’d have similar questions for Luke). I cannot be certain how he would respond, but I provide what I think are the unavoidable admissions he would have to make:

“Detective Wallace, you concluded that the gospel of Matthew was written by the apostle Matthew, is that correct?” Yes.

“Does the apostle Matthew say anywhere in his gospel that he was a direct eyewitness to the nativity events he describes?” No.

“Does he state in his gospel that any of the other apostles were present at the nativity?” No.

“In fact, isn’t it likely that Matthew and the other apostles were either children or not even born yet at the time of Jesus’ birth?” Yes.

“Did the apostle Matthew identify, by name, any direct eyewitnesses he spoke with to create his nativity narrative?” No.

So, if the apostles were not there and Matthew and Luke did not name the direct eyewitnesses they spoke with, where did these nativity stories come from? The prosecution might claim Jesus himself or his mother Mary were the sources. Granted, Jesus was there, but he was just born. Even Jesus (the historical Jesus that is) would have learned from others his birth stories as he grew up, likely from Mary. But Mary as the eyewitness presents many problems. If Mary told Jesus’ apostles, why would Peter (via Mark) and John leave these important nativity accounts out of their gospels? Why would Mary only tell Matthew about the magi, the star of Bethlehem, and the flight to Egypt, and Luke only about the Roman census, the manger, and the shepherds? Also, both narratives have scenes where Mary was not present to be an eyewitness, such as Zechariah’s meeting with an angel in the temple sanctuary (Luke 1:11-20), King Herod’s meeting with his chief priests and the scribes (Matthew 2:4), and the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem after Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus to Egypt (Matthew 2:16).

The nativity stories fail Wallace’s other three eyewitness tests as well. Corroborated? Matthew and Luke only agree on a few details, such as Mary’s virginity, husband Joseph, and Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Otherwise, their accounts differ wildly, and Mark and John ignore the nativity altogether. Accurate? Scholars have identified many elements of the nativity stories that are clearly inaccurate, such as a lack of any Roman census that Luke reported at the time of Jesus’ birth. Biased? The anonymous Christian authors of Matthew and Luke wanted to convince people that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah of the Jews. Thus, they would have had a motivation to manufacturer legends of Jesus being born of a virgin in Bethlehem to fulfill supposed prophecies from Isaiah 7:14 and Micah 5:1-2.

With no direct eyewitnesses, the prosecution would have little choice but to open the floodgates of speculation as to what kind of hearsay evidence Matthew and Luke relied on. Maybe this is what happened: one of the shepherds abiding in the field (Luke 2:8) told his son, who years later told his wife, who told her fisherman cousin in Capernaum, who later joined the Jesus movement as one of the three thousand at Pentecost (Acts 2:41), and it was this cousin who told the story to Luke. Believers can claim this is plausible, but under the cruel constraints of the courtroom such evidence is inadmissible. This cousin is just the last link in a hearsay daisy chain, and for convenience I’ll contrive an acronym for the rest of the trial: HEArsay DAisy CHain Eyewitness (HEADACHE) evidence.

Exhibits C through F are additional scenes where neither Jesus nor his disciples were present. Since they could not be eyewitnesses, the prosecution’s only gambit would be to offer HEADACHEs to the jury, which the defense will strongly oppose!

Exhibit C – The death of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:6-11; Mark 6:21-28)

Matthew and Mark describe how John’s fate was decided at a party for King Herod Antipas. Herod’s daughter-in-law dances for him, so he foolishly offers her half his kingdom. Instead, she asks for John’s head on a platter because her mother wants it. Strange family. The eyewitness problem: neither Jesus nor his disciples were invited to this party. So which drunken official sitting near King Herod started this story on its HEADACHE journey to Matthew and Mark?

Exhibit D – The treachery of Judas (Matthew 26:3-5 and 14-16; Matthew 27:3-10)

All four Gospels have scenes of Judas misbehaving out of sight of Jesus and the other disciples. In the Matthew verses, Judas meets with the chief priests to betray Jesus. They pay him thirty pieces of silver. After Jesus’ arrest, Judas tries to return the money out of guilt, but the priests insult him, so he flings the money into the temple and wanders off to hang himself. The issue in all four Gospels is the same. If the only people present in these scenes were Judas and the chief priests, how did the gospel authors find out about it? HEADACHEs.

Exhibit E – Pilate authorizing tomb guards (Matthew 27:62-66)

Only Matthew places guards at Jesus’ tomb. To get them there, Matthew describes a meeting between the chief priests and the Pharisees with Pontius Pilate himself. But unless one believes that Pilate graciously admitted Matthew into the meeting to take notes, Matthew was not an eyewitness to this meeting. More HEADACHEs!

Exhibit F – The women fleeing the tomb (Mark 16:8)

The two earliest manuscripts of Mark end with Mark 16:8 (NAB): “Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Scholars widely accept that verses 9 to 20, which appear in later manuscripts, were an addition written by someone other than the author of Mark (Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, pp. 65-68). But the prosecution claims that the apostle Peter gave his eyewitness testimony to Mark, so verse 8 should be considered his final word. But this presents a testimonial impossibility. If the women were the only eyewitnesses, and they told no one, then their story ended with them. How, then, did Peter find out about it?

Exhibit G – Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13)

My defense would next turn a different type of Gospel scene, ones where Jesus was without his disciples so none of them saw what he did. Short scenes like this are scattered throughout the Gospels, but the temptation in the wilderness is the clearest example. According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Satan tempted Jesus during his forty-day sojourn in the wilderness. This event happens after Jesus is baptized in the Jordan but before he gathers his disciples. Mark’s account provides few details, but Matthew and Luke give every verbal lunge and parry between Jesus and Satan, in almost identical language.

Many scholars believe Matthew and Luke were copying from a theorized manuscript of sayings called “Q,” but Q cannot be treated as an eyewitness account. The Q manuscript has never been found, the author is unknown, and the story describes Jesus and Satan as being alone anyway. The prosecution’s proposed gospel authors are even more problematic. What eyewitness could historian Luke have interviewed for his account, given that he could not have interviewed Jesus? Where did the outer-circle apostle Matthew get the additional details for his account that inner-circle apostle Peter (via Mark) failed to include in his two-verse summation? Why would the apostle John ignore the temptation story altogether in his gospel?

Because the Mark and Q sources do agree that the temptation took place, I find it likely that there were early oral traditions of Jesus preaching some version of this story during his ministry. But as Jesus himself reportedly said in John 5:31 (NAB): “If I testify on my own behalf, my testimony cannot be verified.” With no independent eyewitnesses to verify it, this scene could not be established as true beyond a reasonable doubt in a courtroom. Also, there are explanations for this preaching that would not require the jury to believe that a supernatural clash took place (here comes naturalism again!). Perhaps Jesus had a sincere conviction this confrontation happened, but it was due to delirium brought on by prolonged fasting in the desert. Or, perhaps Jesus was just the first preacher to invent a pious fiction about himself to teach about temptation, just as pastors today will sermonize about getting pestered endlessly by Satan to sin.

Exhibit H – The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 7)

My final two exhibits are famous scenes where Jesus was with some or all of his disciples. The first is the lengthy Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus preaches the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and other teachings. It is only found in Matthew (a much shorter “Sermon on the Plain” is found in Luke 6:20-49). As with Exhibit G, scholars suggest that Matthew got the sermon from the Q source, which again cannot be considered an eyewitness account.

The apostle Matthew as the eyewitness makes little sense. First, according to Matthew 9:9, Jesus does not even make Matthew a disciple until after the sermon takes place. Two of the prosecution’s other apostle authors, John and Peter (via Mark) could have been eyewitnesses, as they were already disciples when Jesus spoke. But in a glaring omission, neither one records this most famous of sermons in their gospels. If they were eyewitnesses, what possible reason could John and Peter have had to exclude the Lord’s Prayer from their gospels? How can the jury accept the Sermon on the Mount as an eyewitness account at all, if the two disciples who should have been there wrote nothing about it, and the one disciple who described it wasn’t among Jesus’ followers yet?

Exhibit I — The Last Supper (Matthew 26:20-30; Mark 14:17-26; Luke 22:14-39; John 13:2 to 18:1)

My final exhibit is the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples before his arrest. No need for HEADACHE evidence here, as all twelve disciples are present, sitting mere feet from Jesus and hanging on his every word. Given this, one would expect that the testimony from the prosecution’s three eyewitnesses who were in the room would match closely, with Luke’s account in substantial agreement.

But there is a huge problem. All four Gospels quote Jesus’ words during the last supper, between the time he sat down with the disciples to when they all left for the Mount of Olives. Jesus was likely speaking Aramaic, but any Bible translation can give an approximation of the total words he said. My count: Mark – 116; Matthew – 136; Luke – 396; John – 2,887! Incredible! John’s word count is almost 25 times longer than Peter’s supposed account in Mark, and the Matthew account matches Mark’s account nearly verbatim. But all the disciples were in the same room. Were Peter and Matthew hard of hearing? Did they just dose off during Jesus’ long speech?

There are also eyewitness issues when it comes to content. Why is it that John would recall Jesus and Peter discussing the washing of Peter’s feet (John 13:6-10), while Peter apparently did not mention it to Mark? Why would John ignore the important words Jesus said to invest the Passover meal with new meaning (“this is my body,” “this is my blood”), which the other gospel authors all focus on? Who was Luke’s source for Jesus’ comments on the disciples bickering over who was greatest (Luke 22:24-30), a scene the other gospels omit?


I would close this imaginary trial by asking the court to throw out the prosecution’s case entirely, by filing a motion for a change to two new venues. I will illustrate by focusing on one final, famous verse from the last supper:

John 14:6 (NAB): “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'”

Did Jesus say this? For the secular, this is a historical question, and the proper venue for examining the historical Jesus is within the halls of academia. A courtroom is not the right venue, because the conclusions reached by Biblical historians come with varying degrees of certainty and rarely rise to proven beyond a reasonable doubt. That said, the only source for this statement is the gospel of John, written anonymously some 70 years after Jesus died. Scholarship supports that the Christian author of John promoted his theology by inventing lengthy discourses for Jesus to say, which include this verse. Simply put, decades after Jesus’ death, someone who was not an eyewitness put words in Jesus’ mouth. So no, it is highly unlikely that Jesus said this.

For many believers, this is both a historical and a faith question, and the proper venue for the latter is the church pew. Probably all Christians believe that the Bible was divinely inspired. Many accept that the Holy Spirit moved through many human authors over the course of centuries and was not constrained to using direct eyewitnesses only. As noted earlier, the Pope (fictionally) testified that the late authorship of John by a non-eyewitness can be accepted by Christians without doing violence to the faith. In this view, whoever wrote John may have put words in Jesus’ mouth, but the Holy Spirit put the right message in that author’s mind. I cannot join them in this belief, but it does mean that many believers would answer “yes,” they can accept John 14:6 as the words of Jesus as a matter of faith.

But courtroom apologists reject all this. They insist that the eyewitness evidence is so overwhelming that they want to drag everyone into the courtroom, both the secular and the faithful. Reason and historical analysis can take us all the way to the Jesus of faith, they claim, provided we put naturalism aside and embrace the Gospels as early eyewitness accounts. Wallace even says in all caps in Cold-Case, “IF THE GOSPELS ARE LATE, THEY’RE A LIE” (Wallace, p. 159). Well, they are late, and the author of John was not an eyewitness, so per Wallace’s standard John 14:6 is a lie.


Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1977). Revised and updated edition by Josh McDowell Ministry and Sean McDowell (2009 Kindle edition).

Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Volume I (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1972). (The Kindle edition is cited here.)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998).

J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013). (The Kindle edition is cited here.)

Federal Rules of Evidence, 2023 Edition. <https://www.rulesofevidence.org>.

Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005).

Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009).

Fireside New American Bible, Personal Study Edition [2006-2007 Edition]. (Wichita, KS: Catholic Bible Publishers, 1970.) [This book cites multiple copyrights. The copyright holder for scriptural texts was the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C., as follows: Old Testament, 1970; Revised New Testament, 1986; and Revised Psalms, 1991.]