Cold-Case Christianity, by retired cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace, has been strongly endorsed by Rick Warren, Lee Strobel, Craig Hazen, and Greg Koukl. And either due to a tremendous marketing campaign or great word of mouth (or both), the book has racked up nearly 200 “Five Star” reviews on Amazon.com in its first year of publication.
My own experience with the book is very positive. After reading it upon its release, I enjoyed it so much that I immediately selected it as the curriculum for discussion groups at Harvard and Boston College Law School in the spring semester of 2013.
I chose the book primarily because it offered a fresh look at the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus from the perspective of an experienced detective. Jim tells great crime stories to open each chapter and illustrate his points. And he deploys his investigative skill set to unearth new insights into the historical data. This is a wonderful new angle to approach the topic of Jesus’ resurrection and it is carried through with thoroughness and creativity (magnifying glasses are the symbol for explanatory notes, the ‘callout bag’ of tools for investigation is a summary device at the end of each chapter, etc.).
Overall, the book is focused, clear, engaging, fun, and interesting throughout. Each chapter contains a very useful summary of the data presented. Further, one of my main criteria for apologetics books is readability and Cold-Case Christianity has this quality in spades.
One of the unique arguments in the book comes from the field of ‘forensic statement analysis.’ I also found Wallace’s reconstruction of the ‘chain of custody’ to be particularly excellent. Additionally, I was very glad to see Tal Ilan and Richard Bauckham’s research on the use of names in the Gospel accounts. To illustrate the strength of the book, let’s look at these three sections of Cold-Case Christianity in further detail. In each case, Wallace goes into far greater detail than I can in this brief review, crisply summarizes the overall picture, and then draws straightforward conclusions from his presentation.
Forensic statement analysis (FSA) is an interpretive art of reading between the lines to identify patterns and clues in eyewitness testimony that are relevant to solving a case. Jim applies this methodology to the Gospel of Mark to see what evidence exists for seeing the Gospel of Mark as the eyewitness account of Peter. Chapter Five covers his findings, starting with a gripping detective story.
In the chapter, Wallace recounts the early church tradition about Mark (a kind of external evidence). Second, using FSA, he closely observes how Mark mentions Peter frequently, in both familiar and respectful language, and includes details that can best be attributed to Peter. Further, Mark’s gospel is structured using Peter’s name and is analogous in its outline to the format of Peter’s sermons recorded in Acts. All of these are intriguing clues, internal to the text itself, that point towards Peter as the source of Mark’s gospel. Together, the alignment between the internal and external evidence makes it reasonable to conclude that the gospel of Mark is largely based on eyewitness testimony from the apostle Peter.
The chain of custody information is part of early church history that many Christians are simply not aware of. I remember introducing 2 Timothy during a Bible study and one of the students saying, “Wait. Timothy was a real person?!” How much less likely is it that Christians have heard of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement of Rome? Wallace explains, in specific detail, how “the letters of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement confirm the accuracy of the Gospels. Even if, as skeptics, we had some doubt about the minute details that exist in each eyewitness account, there can be no doubt about the major themes and claims of the Gospels” (Kindle 4213-4214). The geographical range and chronological continuity of the broad historical record are indeed a significant rational confirmation of the major themes of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection. Christians and seekers benefit from knowing about this material.
Regarding the use of names in the Gospel accounts, Jim sets up the significance of this data well:
The gospel writers are believed to have written from a number of geographic locations. Mark probably wrote from Rome, Matthew may have written from Judea, Luke from either Antioch or Rome, and John from Ephesus. Skeptics have argued that these accounts were not written by people who had firsthand knowledge of the life and ministry of Jesus but were simply inventions written generations later by people who weren’t all that familiar with the locations they were describing (Kindle 3325-3329).
So what do we find when we compare common Jewish names in extrabiblical resources in Palestine and Egypt with the frequency of Jewish names in the Gospels?
The most popular names found in the Gospels just happen to be the most popular names found in Palestine in the first century. This is even more striking when you compare the ancient popular Palestinian Jewish names with the ancient popular Egyptian Jewish names…Many of the popular Jewish names in Palestine were different from the popular names in Egypt, Syria, or Rome. The use of these names by the gospel writers is consistent with their claim that they were writing on the basis of true eyewitness familiarity (Kindle 3363-3384).
Despite my great appreciation for Cold-Case Christianity, there is room for improvement. I offer these critiques in a spirit of gratitude for Wallace, who is a highly valued and respected co-laborer in the gospel.
First, as with many other apologetics books, I am a bit disappointed that Cold-Case Christianity is written specifically to Christians. I believe that many skeptics and seekers would benefit from the book. Why not invite them to engage with the arguments and specifically raise questions for their consideration throughout? This alone would greatly enhance the value of the book as a small group discussion resource. It would also therefore model the kind of gracious engagement that Wallace invites his current readers to have with their nonChristian friends. (There are a few brief words to skeptics in the Preface, but this drops off quickly and ‘skeptics’ are regularly addressed in the third person, e.g., “They would like us…” (Kindle 2406)).
Second, I also found the book to be a little bit structurally disorganized and therefore uneven in places. Section One is meant to develop ten important principles for the investigation and Section Two is the application of these principles to the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. However, all of the chapters both explain principles for investigating the historical evidence and apply them to the Christian ‘case’ in some form or another. As one example, Chapter Eight details the importance of the chain of custody and Chapter 13 explains the documentary evidence for the preservation of the New Testament. These chapters could easily be combined. Meanwhile, the problem of evil only gets a few pages of attention at the end of Chapter Nine. For the sake of my discussion groups, I found myself needing to rearrange the order of the chapters or adding supplemental material for certain sections.
Finally, the book oversells its case in places. For instance, Chapter 14 concludes with this:
We’ve examined the four important areas that jurors must consider when determining the reliability of eyewitnesses. The most reasonable inference is that the gospel writers were present, corroborated, accurate, and unbiased. If this is the case, we can conclude with confidence that their testimony is reliable. We’ve done the heavy lifting needed to determine the reliability of these accounts; we’ve been diligent and faithful as jurors and have considered the evidence. It’s time to make a decision.
Perhaps I say this because I read this book with sincere skeptics who researched nearly every claim and came prepared with counter-perspectives to each week’s discussion. Therefore, they did not feel that this introductory text had done the heavy lifting needed to establish that Jesus rose from the dead. Many of them agreed that it provided some evidence, and good reasons for that conclusion, but not a determinative case in favor. Why? Because the book generally presents evidence favorable to its conclusion and minimizes the significance of contrary lines of evidence. When we factored in their arguments against Wallace’s case, the overall picture was a bit less clear (though I would maintain that affirming the resurrection of Jesus remained an eminently reasonable conclusion for the members of our group).
I understand from Jim that he is planning to write additional books that will deal with some of the inevitable limits of any one book. His plans for additional titles will give him the space to more fully deal with objections to the Christian worldview and develop some of the arguments that were more illustrative in Cold-Case Christianity.
Wallace is a prolific blogger, writing regularly at ColdCaseChristianity.com. (This is one of the places where he demonstrates his ongoing concern to directly dialogue with skeptical perspectives). If you have any doubts about the quality of his writing, the graciousness of his tone, or his ability to carefully weigh the evidence, I encourage you to go read some of his articles for free. I believe you’ll find him to be a fair and genuine thinker, who sincerely wants to know and share the truth. His own story is that of coming to faith late in life:
J. Warner Wallace was an atheist for 35 years. He was passionate in his opposition to Christianity, and he enjoyed debating his Christian friends. In debating his friends, J. Warner seldom found them prepared to defend what they believed….When he finally examined the evidence fairly, he found it difficult to deny, especially if he hoped to retain his respect for the way evidence is utilized to determine truth. J. Warner found the evidence for Christianity to be convincing.
With a few significant criticisms of the book in mind, I still strongly recommend Cold-Case Christianity. It is a fresh, interesting, detailed, and compelling case for the central truth of the Christian faith: the resurrection of Jesus. I believe you will find it to be a fun and very informative read.
You can buy a copy of Cold-Case Christianity at Amazon.com.