Thinking Out Loud

September 28, 2015

Resolving the Four Different Versions of the Sign on The Cross

sign on Jesus' cross

A few weeks ago here I reviewed the new book by J. Warner Wallace God’s Crime Scene and back in 2013 we looked at his first book Cold Case Christianity. Of all the various possible approaches to Christian apologetics, the methodology used by this cold case detective is really resonating with reviewers and readers as the internet is abuzz with positive responses from the denominational spectrum.

Still there are times when I look back at my reviews — especially after a book really takes off — and wonder if I could have done more to whet my readers’ appetite for the author. So when I saw this excerpt sitting unattended in an unlit corner of the blogosphere, I figured, ‘Hey, Wallace is all about crime, let’s do some stealing.’ I think you’ll agree what follows is worth reading, and since my own detective work reveals you guys don’t always click through, the excerpt is here in full. (Click the title below to read at source.)

Why Are There Four Versions of the Sign on Jesus’ Cross?

It’s not uncommon for skeptics of Christianity to point to differences between the New Testament Gospel accounts as evidence of corruption or unreliability. I’ve discussed many of these alleged contradictions in my talks around the country, and I’ve written about many of them here at One example sometimes offered by critics is the sign posted above the cross of Jesus. The simple, brief message of this sign is recorded by all four Gospel authors, yet none of them record precisely the same words. How could these four men fail to record the same sign, given the importance of the moment and the brevity of the message? Look at the variations offered by the Gospel authors:

“This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37)
“The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26)
“This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38)
“Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19)

In evaluating alleged “contradictions” of this nature, I think it’s important to remember a few overarching principles related to eyewitness testimony (I describe many of these principles in my first book, Cold-Case Christianity). Even though I accept and affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, inerrancy is not required of reliable eyewitnesses. In fact, I’ve never had a completely inerrant eyewitness in all my years as a homicide detective. In addition, I’ve never had a case where two witnesses have ever agreed completely on the details of the crime. Eyewitness reliability isn’t dependent upon perfection, but is instead established on the basis of a four part template I’ve described repeatedly in my book and on my website. But beyond these generalities, much can be said specifically about the variations between descriptions of the sign over Jesus’ cross. I take the following approach when evaluating multiple eyewitness accounts, and the same methodology can be used to evaluate these signs:

• Identify the Common Details
When interviewing multiple eyewitnesses, I listen carefully for common features in their testimony. In every witness observation, some details are more important than others; some aspects of the event stick out in the mind of the observers more than others. In this case, one expression is repeated by all four authors: “the King of the Jews”. Why does this one aspect of the sign appear repeatedly without variation? These words describe the crime for which Jesus was executed. Jesus was crucified because He proclaimed Himself a King; He was executed for His alleged rebellion against Caesar. This is consistent with the trial accounts we have in the Gospels and also accurately reflects the actions taken by the Roman government against other popular rebels. While we, as Christians, now understand God’s plan related to the death and resurrection of Jesus, the authors of the Gospels are simply recording the one most prominent feature of the sign: the description of Jesus’ crime.

Cold Case Christianity• Recognize the Perspective of Each Eyewitness
Every witness offers a view of the event from his or her unique perspective. I’m not just talking about geographic or locational perspectives here, but I am also talking about the personal worldview, history and experience every witness brings to the crime. All witness testimony is colored by the personal interests, biases, aspirations, concerns and idiosyncrasies of the eyewitnesses. In this particular case, an important clue was recorded by John to help us understand why there might be variation between the accounts. John said, “Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.” The sign was written in a variety of languages and we simply don’t know how much variation occurred between these translations. The perspective and life experience of each author now comes into play. Which translation was the author referencing? Even more importantly, what were the concerns of the author related to the event? Some witnesses are more likely to repeat a victim’s name than others (if, for example, they knew the victim personally). Others will focus on something about which the witness had firsthand knowledge. I’ve seen an incredible amount of variation between reliable accounts on the basis of nothing more than personal perspective.

• Consider the Conditions of the “Interview”
In working cold cases over the years, I’ve read my fair share of investigative supplemental reports containing eyewitness accounts. I’ve come to recognize the role interviewers have on the accounts given by eyewitnesses. Years later, when re-interviewing these same eyewitnesses, I’ve uncovered additional information simply because I asked questions neglected by the first interviewer. When evaluating an account from the past, it’s important to recognize the location, form and purpose of the interview. This will have a direct impact on the resulting account. Something similar must be considered when evaluating the description of the sign on Jesus’ cross. We simply don’t know precisely the purpose of each author or the conditions under which each author wrote his Gospel. Why, for example, is Mark’s version of the sign so brief? Why, for that matter, is Mark’s entire Gospel so brief? Was there something about Mark’s personality accounting for his brevity (there does seem to be some evidence of this given the short, emotionally charged nature of his account), or was something even simpler involved (like a shortage of papyrus)? We’ll never know for sure, but we simply cannot assume each author was writing under the exact same conditions. No two witnesses are interviewed in precisely the same way.

• Differentiate Between Complimentary and Conflicting Accounts
When comparing two eyewitness accounts, I am more concerned about unresolvable contradictions than complimentary details. In fact, I have come to expect some degree of resolvable variation in true, reliable eyewitness accounts. While there are clearly variations between the sign descriptions in the Gospels, these dissimilarities don’t amount to a true contradiction. Consider the following reasonable message on the sign:

“This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”

If this was the message of the sign, all four Gospel accounts have captured a complimentary, reliable summation of the sign, even though there is some expected variation between accounts. None of these accounts contain an unresolvable, troublesome claim like:

“This is Judas Iscariot, the King of the Jews”

If one of the accounts contained this information, we would truly have a conflict worthy of our attention. There’s a difference between complimentary variation and conflicting description.

• Assess the Opportunity for Collusion
Whenever I am called to a crime scene as a detective, the first request I make of the dispatcher is to separate the eyewitnesses before I get there. I request this so the witnesses won’t have the opportunity to talk to one another about what they’ve seen. Witnesses will sometimes try to resolve any variations before I get there. I don’t want them to do this; that’s my job, not theirs. Instead, I want the messy, sometimes confusing, apparently contradictory accounts offered by every group of witnesses in such a situation. There have been times, however, when witnesses have the opportunity to consult with one another for several hours before I arrive on scene. When this is the case, and their individual accounts still vary from one another, I usually have even more confidence in the reliability of these accounts. When people have the opportunity to align their statements, yet still refuse to do so, I know I am getting the nuanced observations I need to properly investigate the case. The Gospel authors (and the early Church) certainly had the opportunity to change the descriptions to make sure they matched, but they refused to do so. As a result, we can have even more confidence in the reliability of these accounts. They display the level of variation I would expect to see if they were true, reliable eyewitness descriptions.

If the four authors of the Gospels had written precisely the same words throughout their Gospel accounts, skeptics would be no more confident in their content. In fact, I suspect, critics of the New Testament would be even more vocal in their opposition. The Gospels are appropriately varied and nuanced, just like all multiple eyewitness accounts. The variations between the sign descriptions is further evidence of this expected variation. This level of dissimilarity should give us confidence in the accounts, rather than pause. Why are there four versions of the sign on Jesus’ cross? Because the accounts are written on the basis of eyewitness observations. They demonstrate the characteristics we would expect if they are reliable descriptions of a true event in history.

~J. Warner Wallace

Both Cold Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene are available from David C. Cook Publishing where you buy quality Christian products.

August 3, 2015

J. Warner Wallace: Another Cold Case Solved

Two years ago here I reviewed the book Cold Case Detective by J. Warner Wallace, in which the principles by which this police investigator has operated in his vocation are applied to fleshing out the reliability of the Bible’s gospel narratives. At the time I wrote,

Every decade or so a great work of apologetics appears which breaks the boundaries of the discipline and reaches a wider audience.

I enjoyed the book, and in the time that has passed since I wrote that review, have enjoyed recommending it to a variety of readers, though at times, I also feel it is Christian apologetics’ best kept secret.

God's Crime SceneA few weeks ago, Wallace returned with God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe (David C. Cook) in which he applies the same skills to the idea of God being behind what we might call creation. But we need to watch using the word creation in describing this book, since creation science is concerned with origins and answering the “How did we get here?” type of questions. Rather, this is more about intelligent design and bypassing the How? and When? questions to look more at What?; or more specifically the complexity that exists in the world pointing to a master designer; a designer who exists outside the realms we can observe or quantify.

The last distinction is important to Wallace’s argument; he compares it to cases where detectives would have to determine if the killer was in the room or came from outside the room. The analogy is very fitting, but the proof isn’t contained in one chapter or another, but in the aggregate of a case built on a foundation consisting of an amalgam of evidence and syllogistic logic.

The evidence “inside the room” points to a very specific “suspect.” He’s not a malicious intruder. Although I’ve titled this book God’s Crime Scene (in an effort to illustrate an evidential approach to the investigation of the universe), God hasn’t committed any crime here. In addition, God is not an unconcerned intruder; He isn’t dispassionate about His creation. (p. 201)

God’s Crime Scene is intended therefore to make the argument for the existence of God accessible to the average reader through the comparisons to anecdotal cold-case detective work, and the use of cartoon-like illustrations. But make no mistake, this is not light reading.

This time around, I found myself gladly absorbing the chapters that were more philosophical and epistemological in nature, but totally over my depth in the sections that relied more on biology and physics. I could only marvel that the author was able to present such a wide swath of material which was so multi-disciplinary.

Still there were elements of the argument that were not lost on me. Even a child could see the resemblance of a machine-like mechanism in the human body and a man-made machine that forms a similar function, the latter being something we know was intelligently designed. Or the logic that if we agree that the brain is distinct from the mind, then it’s not a huge leap to the idea that a soul exists.

This is a textbook-quality product that will appeal to a variety of readers with an assortment of interests in this topic and offers the additional payoff of further insights into detectives’ investigative processes. You don’t have to understand every nuance of every issue to both appreciate and learn from Wallace’s writing; and it is in the cumulative assembly of all the various subjects raised here that Wallace is able to mark the case closed.

I give this a very high recommendation both for Christian readers and those who doubt God’s existence. I’d be interested in seeing links to articles where non-believers have interacted with its various chapters, as I believe Wallace has been very thorough in his documentation and his logic.

At 340 pages in an oversize paperback, this book with ‘crime’ in the title is a steal at only $17.99 U.S.

June 18, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Wednesday Link List 2

It’s summertime and you don’t need an Angler’s License to fish for Christian news and opinion pieces on the net. 


Typically, my youngest son includes his youth pastor as a reference on job applications; but for this summer job there is the terse admonition, “You may omit names of ministers of religion.”

Typically, my youngest son includes his youth pastor as a reference on job applications; but for this summer job there is the terse admonition, “You may omit names of ministers of religion.”

May 28, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Our pastor drew this on Sunday morning. Any guesses? I know it cleared everything up for me.

Our pastor drew this on Sunday morning. Any guesses? I know it cleared up everything for me.

It appears that all my news gathering algorithms were no match for the slow news cycle of a Memorial Day weekend. Nonetheless, we have a great list for you, but our deal with PARSE is that you need to click through to their site and then select the story you want to see. Click anything below to link.

Got a suggestion for next week’s links? Find the contact page at Paul’s blog, Thinking Out Loud or via @PaulW1lk1nson and make some noise by noon on Monday.

Roger Bucklesby

May 21, 2014

Wednesday Link List

John Wesley quotation

Out of several hundred potential links, these were some things that got my attention this week. Clicking anything below will take you to PARSE, the list’s owner, a blog of Leadership Journal in the Christianity Today family. From there, click the stories you want to see.

When not hunting down links for you, Paul Wilkinson blogs at Thinking Out Loud, Christianity 201, and Christian Book Shop Talk.

November 22, 2013

November 22, 1963: A Day to Remember

Filed under: current events — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:17 am

As I look out over this day, and also the people I’ve met online through years of having this blog, it is occurring to me that an increasing number of people weren’t alive on the day that changed history in the United States, and affected the entire world, the death of President John F. Kennedy.

Clive Staples Lewis, after whom the Staples office supply store is named

Clive Staples Lewis

But as regular readers know, I’ve always used the opportunity to remind people of faith that this was also the day that author and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis died at age 64. Often overlooked also is that on the same day Aldous Huxley, the man sometimes called (Charles) “Darwin’s bulldog” died at age 69.

As I covered this earlier this month, I simply want to point out an interesting contrast between Lewis and Kennedy. At the time of his death, JFK was the President of the most powerful nation on earth in terms of economics and military might. You could say that his popularity was at a high that cannot be matched. But Lewis was still relatively unknown in either Christian circles, or the world of children’s literature. His popularity continued to climb after his death, and he continues to gain new readers even now.

Because his death (and Huxley’s) was pushed off the newspaper pages by what happened to Kennedy in Dallas, Texas; there is a sense in which Lewis is still very much alive, that his influence is still growing. Because I work in and around the area of publishing, I often meet people to whom C. S. is a “new” author; even a few longtime readers are surprised to learn he is no longer with us. “Did that happen recently?” one asked..

All in all, not a bad legacy to have; to have one’s words and thoughts and ideas continuing to gain traction long after you are gone. Just because you don’t live to see it doesn’t mean your efforts are not going to bring results.

It is, very literally, what Jesus had in mind when he talked in agricultural terms about the planting of seeds; the seeds of the Kingdom being planted in hearts and lives.

November 1, 2013

C.S. Lewis: Still Very Much Alive

Filed under: apologetics, books, children — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:16 am

If you die on the same day as someone more famous, you probably don’t make the evening news. Your newspaper obituary will probably be hidden away on a back page, if space allows it to run at all. So it was with C. S. Lewis.

Clive Staples Lewis, after whom the Staples office supply store is named

Clive Staples Lewis, after whom the Staples office supply store chain is named

Much will be made with month about the 50 year anniversary of the passing of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, but only on Christian websites and blogs will you read about Lewis. In some respects, I like to think it keeps him very much alive; that Lewis is at the same time one of our best classic writers and one of our best contemporary writers.

But a blog post a few days ago at Faith Village suggests that Lewis’ appeal is more focused in the United States (and Canada) and less so in his native Britain:

Lewis may be the most popular Christian writer in history, with millions of copies of his books sold, the vast majority in the United States where his influence is far greater than in his native country.

Many readers of the Narnia series have no knowledge of Lewis the Christian apologist, while others who enjoy books like Mere Christianity often forget the connection to the children’s fantasy series.

It’s not uncommon to read other authors where his approach to the claims of Christ are reiterated, or hear them interviews such as this one with U2 frontman Bono:

…Bono imitated C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, where Lewis argued that Jesus had to be a lunatic, liar or Lord.

“When people say ‘Good teacher,’ ‘Prophet,’ ‘Really nice guy,’ … this is not how Jesus thought of Himself,” Bono said. “So, you’re left with a challenge in that, which is either Jesus was who He said He was or a complete and utter nut case.”

“And I believe that Jesus was, you know, the Son of God…”

The 50th anniversary of his death has already been remembered in Oxford, England with a September festival,  with guest speakers such as Alister McGrath:

“Lewis is now read by more people today than during his lifetime. What makes people keep reading him?” said McGrath.

Answering his own question, McGrath ranged over the ‘three Lewises’ – Lewis the Oxford don, Lewis the Christian writer, and Lewis the creator of Narnia.

“The latter two are why he is remembered,” said McGrath, a professor of theology at King’s College London.

In addition to The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’s best known writings include The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed and Mere Christianity.

McGrath praised Lewis for his skill in explaining the Christian faith in a way that “made sense” while still managing to “engage the imagination”.

“Lewis does need to be heard,” he said.

On Narnia, McGrath said academics were still unsure as to what motivated Lewis to write a series of children’s books seeing as he did not have children of his own and there was, he asserted, some evidence to suggest he did not particularly like children.

“Maybe Lewis is saying: I wish I had this kind of thing when I was younger, I might not have lost my faith,” he speculated.

We’ll have more on the Jubilee celebration of C. S. Lewis’ life and death later this month.

September 7, 2013

Apologetics Fail: Berating Your Audience

Filed under: apologetics — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:17 am

My wife and I have been discussing writing about the title of this 2009 book for some time, but honestly, words fail us, and we’re both prolific writers. What were they thinking? Oh wait, they were accusing their intended audience of not thinking.  Here’s the publisher marketing for Ray Comfort’s You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence But You Can’t Make Him Think: Answers to Questions from Angry Skeptics

You Can Lead an Atheist To EvidenceThere is a new breed of atheist which our educational system is pumping out like mad. These are militant atheists who have an agenda to eliminate Christianity from the face of the earth. Believers are in a war and we need powerful weapons to “fight the good fight of faith.” This book reveals not just the weakness of the atheists’ arguments and the solid foundation on which the Christian stands, but does so with humor and warmth. Few books take the time to address the atheist’s conscience. By way of a lively Q&A format, “You Can Lead an Atheist” gives empirical evidence for the existence of God. Not only that, this book shows the existence of God can be proven and anyone can do it!

Fine. But do you need to be totally condescending in the book’s title? The subtitle is interesting, too. Angry skeptics? Maybe the reason they’re angry is because you just called them stupid.

I’m sorry, but as much as I agree with the existence of God, as an atheist I would be totally offended by that title, and as a Christian… I am totally offended by it as well.

If I’ve learned anything from discussions with skeptics, agnostics and atheists, it’s that they are not lacking in any critical faculties. Thinking? Maybe they think too much, but last time I checked having intellectual doubts was not a crime. I hated the book’s title when it was released four years ago, and I hate it now.

May 30, 2013

A Homicide Investigator Looks at History’s Most Famous Death

Cold Case ChristianityEvery decade or so a great work of apologetics appears which breaks the boundaries of the discipline and reaches a wider audience. Josh McDowell did it years ago with Evidence That Demands a Verdict; Frank Morrison with Who Moved the Stone? and more recently Lee Strobel brought a large audience to the discussion with The Case for Christ series.

Enter former Los Angeles County homicide investigator J. Warner Wallace and his book Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. (2013, David C. Cook).  Like Strobel, Wallace was a skeptic turned believer, and like McDowell, Wallace leaves no stone unturned in his study of the reliability of scripture, from obscure passages to those central to core doctrine.

The book is divided into two parts, the nature of cold case investigation — and this case is 2,000 + years old, and the particular evidence that the Bible offers. But first one other book comparison, and you won’t see it coming. Years ago Philip Keller wrote A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. People loved that book because there were particular insights that only one who tended sheep could offer toward interpretation of the text that begins “The Lord is my shepherd.” In many respects, Cold Case Christianity offers the same type of intimacy with the subject matter that only an insider who has worked in this vocation can contribute. So if you feel you’ve read enough apologetics titles to last a lifetime, allow me to offer you one more! 

It’s important to note that Wallace approached this originally from the perspective of an atheist. While the evidence in this case is compelling, I found the first part of the book (which is more than half of the total) most interesting. Possible recipients of this book would include men (Father’s Day is coming) and anyone who reads mysteries or watches mystery or suspense or programs related to the justice system on video or TV.

In a sense, in Cold Case Christianity you, or someone you know who is sitting on the fence in terms of belief, are the jury. So the other possible recipients of this book would be anyone who is investigating Christianity; including people who might not read other books in the apologetics genre.

The second part of the book is the evidence itself. Here, Wallace brings in much from non-Biblical sources, satisfying the oft-voice complaint that some apologists are simply using the Bible to prove the Bible.

J. Warner Wallace is now part of the ministry of Stand To Reason, and posts articles and blogs at . This is a handbook I intend to keep within reach and will no doubt refer back to many times.

December 28, 2012

Why Mere Christianity Still Works: An Analysis

Mere Christianity C. S. LewisYou’re expected to review current books online, and this review is therefore 60 years too late. However, John Stackhouse has saved the best wine (so to speak) for the last (of the year) with a landmark analysis of the continuing popularity of the C. S. Lewis bestseller Mere Christianity.

I know not everybody clicks through, so I’ll include a few highlights here, but if you treasure good writing, you need to read the article now, because it is every bit as delightful as the book itself. 

john_stackhouseStill here? Okay, those highlights include:

  • A somewhat disjointed set of C. S. Lewis’s views on a wide range of theological, philosophical, and ethical matters, the book became the most important and effective defense of the Christian faith in its century.
  • The first reason why MC should not have worked is rather basic: It doesn’t deliver what its title promises. It does not do even what John Stott’s classic Basic Christianity does—namely, outline at least the basics of evangelicalism’s understanding of the gospel.
  • A second reason why… it is, after all, an extended set of philosophical and theological arguments. Even worse, it is front-loaded with its densest material, a reworking of the moral argument for the existence of God…
  • MC works because Lewis was a master at two rhetorical arts, which he combined fluently: argument and depiction.
  • Lewis can both show and tell. He can tell us what he thinks we should think, and then make it appear for us in an image that usually lasts long after the middle steps of the argument have vanished from memory.
  • What seems effortless for Lewis is actually extraordinarily difficult to emulate. The market is now flooded with books by Ph.D.s who cannot write an interesting and intelligible paragraph, and by wannabe pop apologists who just aren’t very smart.
  • People today do want arguments, but they want them the way Lewis delivered them: in plain language, about issues that matter, in a methodical step-by-step fashion, and with illustrations that literally illustrate and commend the point being made. For scholars to write this way today is at least as much of a challenge as it was in Lewis’s day.

Okay, that’s enough bullet points (aka spoon-feeding!) You really do need to read the article.

C. S. LewisBut then, if you haven’t already had the pleasure, you need to read Mere Christianity. I would suggest taking a chapter at a time; no more than one per day and don’t try to rush through it. Even better, if you can find an interested friend or relative, read it out loud to them daily for several days. (It was, after all, originally a radio broadcast.)

It may also whet your appetite for apologetics, a subject frequently discussed here, that is simply too foreign to too many Christ-followers. I encourage you to develop a taste for it.

If you make it through MC and do indeed find yourself wanting more, I would suggest your next stop be Classic Christianity by Bob George, a man who also knows the power of a good illustration.  Review here.  Excerpt here.

Images: I figured it rather obvious which one is John Stackhouse, Jr. and which one is C. S. Lewis, but, for the record, they appear in that order.  (Actually, the first image is the book in its most recent North American paperback edition from HarperCollins.)

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