J. Warner Wallace, apologist and author of best-selling book “Cold Case Christianity“, insists that all four of the New Testament gospels were written between the 40s and 60s CE (i.e., prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE). Wallace dismisses all other non-canonical gospels as unreliable because he asserts that they were written later than the “earliest four” appearing in the New Testament. Regarding the non-canonical gospels, Wallace writes:
“These documents are late fictions, written by authors motivated to use the name of Jesus for their own purposes. The four canonical Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) are the earliest record of Jesus, written within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses who knew Jesus personally.”ColdCaseChristianity.com
Wait a second… not so fast! First, Wallace is begging the question. How can he summarily rule out that the writers of the New Testament gospels weren’t themselves “motivated to use the name of Jesus for their own purposes”? Wallace’s assertion here circularly assumes the truth of its conclusion without providing any supportive basis for it. But never mind that for now. There’s another bigger problem…
Wallace’s claim that the four canonical gospels “are the earliest record of Jesus” is just factually wrong. A careful reading of the New Testament gospels reveals that they explicitly admit to not being the earliest gospel accounts. Case in point: the prologue to the Gospel of Luke openly acknowledges that “many” gospels had already been written beforehand. Indeed, the very first sentence of the first verse of Luke’s gospel reads:
“Many have undertaken to write an account of the things that have been most surely believed among us, as had been passed down to us by those who were at the beginning eyewitnesses and servants of the word. It seemed good also to me, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write an account for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus.”Luke 1:1-3
The author of Luke’s gospel is explicitly saying that his text is not among the first accounts to be composed –his written account is just another among “many” predecessors. Luke’s author even suggests that the preceding written narratives were purportedly the result of eyewitnesses having passed down the information to those authors, thus attesting to the ostensible reliability of those prior gospel accounts. Still, Luke, as a Johnny come lately, decides that he’s nonetheless going to compose yet another gospel as if his version could be more reliable and accurate than the many that came before his? By Wallace’s own standard, Luke’s gospel should be excluded from the New Testament canon since Wallace reasons that the earliest versions are more reliable, and later accounts are less trustworthy and are encumbered by the writer’s own narrative agenda. In terms of tardiness, add also the Gospel of John. Being the so-called fourth gospel, John is even later than Luke’s gospel (and it was almost certainly not written by the apostle John).
J. Warner Wallace made his career as a homicide detective, and he occasionally boasts of his detective work bona fides. He claims that he applies his persnickety investigative methods to examining the record of early Christianity. I would think having attention to detail would be chief among the requisite skills of a competent detective. Yet, Wallace asserts here that the four gospels of the New Testament are the earliest and thus most reliable accounts (while dismissing later accounts as fictional narratives composed under self-serving agendas) –when in fact Luke’s gospel contradicts Wallace, as it BEGINS with a salutation admitting that many narrative accounts of Jesus were penned prior to his own. Given that Luke’s gospel –and possibly even the other three NT gospels– are later compositions, should we then presume (as Wallace insists) that the author(s) co-opted the name of Jesus for their own theological and thematic purposes? To be fair, I’m sure Wallace was a solid criminal detective. But it’s abundantly clear that he is not quite as objective as he might think when it comes to matters concerning Christianity and the Bible. Wallace has his blind spots, as betrayed by his glaring oversight highlighted above.
So, now Wallace is faced with a dilemma. If it is accurate to say that the earliest narrative accounts of Jesus are preferred to later versions, then we are forced to exclude at least Luke and John for the same reasons that we exclude any other later gospel (e.g., Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, Proto-Evangelium of James, Acts of Pilate, Gospel of the Hebrews, and more than 30 others). On the other hand, if we are going to grant that earlier gospels are not necessarily the most reliable or credible, and that gospels coming appreciably after the fact (such as Luke and John) can be deemed reliable and authoritative, then we must also make room for that possibility as it concerns other gospels written some time after the original texts –lest we succumb to the fallacy of special pleading. The legs of Wallace’s apologetic are undercut by his own rationale. This is what can happen when we put apologetic fervor ahead of measured critique and analysis.
Post script: As an editorial aside, I find it interesting that “Luke” never bothers to identify himself or otherwise provide authorial self-attribution, which would be customary and expected if his narrative correspondence contains a formal salutation to a named addressee (Theophilus). Same for Acts. This is quite anomalous to say the least.
It is the growing view of numerous respected scholars (some Christian) that canonical Luke is the product of one or more redactional passes, and that the most primitive version of Luke’s gospel begins at chapter 3. The prologue, salutation, and Nativity narrative were appended later on. There are several layers of argumentation for this view, whereas Luke’s lack of self-identification in the text is another feature evincing redactional overlay. Perhaps those details are the subject for a separate blog article.