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Why I Know the Story of Jesus Wasn’t Changed Over Time
by J Warner Wallace
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
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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…
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