Book Review: Person of Interest by J. Warner Wallace

[Editorial note: An earlier version of this review of J. Warner Wallace’s book, Person of Interest, had been previously published on this site. Due to concerns about the tone with which I addressed the work of a brother in Christ, I made the decision to unpublish the article. Having now carefully considered the responses to my criticisms of the book, including from personal communication with Wallace himself, I have now decided to rework and republish this essay. The goal here is not to tear down a brother in Christ or to dis-incentivize my readers from reading his other work (much of which is in fact quite good). Rather, my goal here is to encourage a culture of accountability in apologetics, where internal critique of each other’s published work is seen as a positive contribution to the public discourse. My sole motivation behind publishing this essay, and others like it, is to ensure that the average Christian, as far as possible, is being given only the most robust arguments for the defence of the Christian faith.]

J. Warner Wallace is a former homicide detective who has written a number of popular level books defending the existence of God, the veracity of the gospel, the historicity of the resurrection, and the divine and Messianic identity of Jesus of Nazareth. Wallace is an extremely gifted communicator, both orally and in writing, and his numerous personal anecdotes, engaging illustrations, and creative use of electronic presentation make him an entertaining and winsome public speaker. Wallace is also to be commended for his robust evidentialism, and I have found many of his popular-level explanations of concepts in epistemology (especially in regards to the epistemology of testimony) to be quite helpful.

Recently, Wallace published a new book, entitled Person of Interest — Why Jesus Still Matters in a World that Rejects the Bible. [1] Wallace explains the objective of his book: “If Jesus was truly the smartest, most interesting, and most transformative man who ever lived — if he was truly God — we ought to be able to make a case for his existence and impact, even without a body or any evidence from the New Testament. When our investigation is complete, we’ll determine if Jesus matters. We’ll discover if he was a work of fiction, just another ancient sage, or history’s unique divine person of interest,” (p. xviii). Wallace elsewhere asserts that we do not “need the evidence provided by the Gospels to know the truth about Jesus. If some evil regime had destroyed every Christian Bible before I was born — if there hadn’t been a single New Testament manuscript to testify about the life or deity of Jesus — I would still have been able to determine the truth about him. If I had investigated the case for Jesus like a no-body homicide case, I would have discovered everything I needed to know,” (p. xvii). To assert that one can make a case for Jesus being, as Wallace puts it, “history’s unique divine person of interest” without using the New Testament is an exceedingly bold claim. Wallace has since suggested that his purpose was only to assert that Jesus’ incredible and far-reaching impact on the world contributes to a larger cumulative case for Christianity, and is not sufficient to warrant the conclusion on its own — that the real goal is to point readers to further study of the primary evidence, found among the pages of the New Testament. This intent has been expressed both to me privately, as well as publicly in a social media thread on the Facebook timeline of esteemed colleague, Dr. Lydia McGrew, who has independently come to the same conclusions about the book as I have (though she has told me that she disagrees with me about the need to inform readers about when one departs from mainstream scholarship). 

Here is Wallace’s defense of Person of Interest:

“It is indeed a worst case scenario approach, making a case for the claims of the New Testament from nothing but the tremendous impact of Jesus on history and the fingerprints and details that can be reconstructed at every turn. I hold the same view of the primacy of scripture as you do I think. This book is not denying the importance of the New Testament at all. This is just another layer to add to the overwhelming cumulative case for Jesus. I’ve written a book about the Gospels, this book adds the rest of the story. If someone hasn’t read the New Testament but has wondered who could have single handedly inaugurated the ‘common era’, the details of the Jesus story can be reconstructed in surprising areas with surprising detail. The influence of Jesus is better explained if He is God incarnate than if he is a mere ancient sage. That’s really what [Person of Interest] is all about. Not trying to replace the New Testament. Not trying to cast aspersions on it. Just demonstrating that you’d have to do a lot more than destroy the New Testament to erase Jesus from history.”


Wallace notes elsewhere in the same thread,

“I wrote [Cold Case Christianity] first for a reason. The Gospels are the primary sources for sure. [Person of Interest] just adds to the data (but doesn’t replace the need for) the Gospels. I’m taking this worst case scenario approach like I often do in closing arguments at murder trials to show that even with the smallest pieces of evidence available to us, the case is still overwhelming. When we then add back the primary pieces it makes it even harder to deny the conclusion.”


Unfortunately, this produces puzzlement about Wallace’s intentions, and indeed his position on what can be shown without use of the New Testament. On the one hand, Wallace appears to be saying that there is a need for the gospels and that demonstrating Jesus’ extraordinary impact upon human history and culture is only the icing on the cake, a small part of a broader cumulative argument. On the other hand, he seems to be saying that the case without the gospels for the truth of Christianity is overwhelming. This makes Wallace’s actual position quite difficult to understand.

In any case, this interpretation of Wallace’s intent (that Jesus’ impact is a relatively minor part of a broader cumulative argument for Christianity) seems to me to be at odds with these particularly strong statements in the introduction of his book. He even states in the book that, though “we don’t have Jesus’s body, and we don’t have a ‘crime scene’ to provide us with physical evidence…we can still make a case for the historicity and deity of Jesus. We can do it without a body — and without any evidence from the New Testament. You read that correctly. [Emphasis in original]” (p. xvii). Statements like these appear to be quite emphatic that you could demonstrate the truth of Christianity without any appeal to the New Testament. Wallace’s assertions that the impact upon the world of one man is only an aspect of a much broader cumulative case is also at odds with his statement that we do not “need the evidence provided by the Gospels to know the truth about Jesus,” (p. xvii). This is a much stronger epistemological claim than what Wallace now appears to want to make. This strong epistemological language occurs not just once in the book, but multiple times.

Furthermore, Frank Turek (a mutual friend of Wallace and myself) introduced a recent interview with Wallace by stating: “What if I were to tell you that you could burn every manuscript in existence, that you could destroy every Bible in existence and you could still show, basically, almost everything the New Testament says about Jesus, by other means. Well, you can do that. And in fact, you can do it in an overwhelming fashion, in my opinion, by looking at my friend, J. Warner Wallace’s brand new book, about to come out, called Person of Interest.”

In this review, I shall evaluate whether Wallace’s book is able to produce sufficient goods to substantiate this claim. I will not discuss every aspect of the book, but will review what I consider to be some of the key elements of Wallace’s argument. First, I shall discuss Wallace’s section on prophetic evidences of Christ (what Wallace calls “the prophetic fuse”). Second, I shall review Wallace’s argument from the impact of Jesus’ ministry on extrabiblical writers.

The book attempts to approach the historical Jesus as one might investigate a homicide when there is no body, no crime scene, no murder weapon, and no witnesses. In the first chapter, Wallace defines the “investigative template” that he typically uses, which establishes a framework for the remainder of the book. Wallace compares his examination of the historical Jesus to investigating an explosion caused by a bomb — just as every explosion has a fuse and a fallout, Wallace explains, every important event has events that lead up to it (the fuse) and an aftermath resulting from it (the fallout). Wallace notes, “If Jesus was who Christians claim, I would expect the fuse to be long. Impactful events, after all, typically have longer fuses. The events building toward the appearance of Jesus should span centuries… I also expected the fuse to act as a timer. If Jesus was something more than human, was the timing of his appearance significant? Was there a reason why he didn’t arrive centuries earlier or decades later? Was there a historic “deadline” he had to meet? The fuse would reveal the answer,” (p. 6). Furthermore, Wallace explains that he “would also expect significant fallout after the life and teaching of Jesus. He clearly affected our calendar, but if he’s the divine person of interest…I would expect a considerable ‘ripple effect’ beyond the demarking of time. In addition, the evidence in the fallout would point uniquely to Jesus as the cause of the transformation. In fact, I would expect to identify Jesus specifically and reconstruct the details of his life robustly from nothing more than the debris, even without the descriptions offered on the pages of Christian Scripture. The debris on this side of the explosion would describe Jesus in an unmistakable way,” (p. 7). “Finally,” Wallace states, “if Jesus was truly the smartest, most transformative, and most influential man in history, I would expect the fallout to affect diverse aspects of our world. If Jesus was more than a mere human, I would expect the appearance and teaching of Jesus to change nearly every aspect of the world, and I should find evidence of this impact in unexpected places,” (p. 7).

The Prophetic Fuse

In chapter 4, Wallace discusses “the prophetic fuse.” He draws a distinction, which I think is correct, between “clear” and “cloaked” evidence. Wallace explains, “Every crime scene provides two types of evidence. Sometimes a piece of evidence points specifically to a suspect with great clarity — fingerprints or DNA evidence, for example. If the suspect’s fingerprints or DNA is already in our databases, we can identify him (or her) before we make an arrest. ‘Clear’ evidence points unambiguously to the person of interest from the onset,” (p. 50). On the other hand, other evidence “is less clear. ‘Cloaked’ evidence is often confusing — it may not point to the suspect at all. Imagine finding a button at the same crime scene, lying on the floor a few feet from the victim’s body. Does this belong to the suspect or to the victim? Did it arrive here as a result of the crime, or was it lying in the room before the crime occurred? The button may be useful evidence, or it may be a useless artifact. We won’t know for sure until we meet the suspect. If one of the suspect’s shirts is missing a button that matches the one at the crime scene, this piece of evidence will become an important part of our case. While ‘clear’ evidence points to the suspect from the onset (before he is contacted), ‘cloaked’ evidence points to the suspect only in hindsight (after he is identified),” (p. 50). I believe this insight is correct. While some predictive prophecies (such as the text of Isaiah 53) set out clear expectations of the Messiah and His mission, other Old Testament foreshadows (e.g. Christ’s fulfilment of the feasts, such as the Passover) is only apparent in hindsight, though this does not necessarily render it of no evidential value.

Controversial Premises

Wallace discusses the importance of having reliable informants in a homicide investigation. He correctly notes that Moses defined a reliable informant as one who had a perfect track-record of successfully forecasting the future (Deut 18:22). Wallace then provides examples of successful predictive prophecies that he takes to be evidence for the reliability of a prophetic witness. One concern I had with this section of the book is that Wallace relies on highly controversial premises but fails to alert his readers to any of the scholarly objections that may be levelled against his arguments. For example, though Wallace mentions very briefly the prophecies of Daniel regarding Alexander the Great, Wallace does not — either in the text or in a footnote — inform his readers that the majority of scholars believe that Daniel’s prophecies were composed ex eventu (after the events they purport to predict), being written around 164 B.C. during the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and that pinpointing the dating of Daniel’s composition is in fact a quite complex matter (see my essay here for a detailed discussion of this). Wallace is of course welcome to (as I have done myself on various issues, including this one) depart from the prevailing scholarly consensus. However, if Wallace is going — as I presume is his intent — to persuade non-Christians to follow Jesus (as opposed to merely shoring up the faith of those who already believe), then it is, in my opinion, imprudent to simply ignore the reasons that are typically adduced in support of a consensus which you reject, as though those reasons do not exist. I worry that this will be a significant turn-off to the very people whom Wallace seeks to reach. At a minimum, it seems to me, it would have been good to include a footnote that cites a resource where interested readers can read more.

Another instance of this is in Wallace’s discussion of Ezekiel’s prophecy against Tyre (Ezek 26:1-14). Wallace maintains (and I agree with him) that Ezekiel’s prophecy about the rubble of Tyre being thrown into the sea (Ezek 26:12) was fulfilled by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., whom Wallace correctly notes “built a land bridge from the mainland to the island of Tyre… It is believed he took the rubble from Tyre’s ruins and threw it (stones, timber, and soil) into the sea to build the land bridge.” However, Wallace fails to inform his readers that the majority of scholarly opinion disagrees with his interpretation of the text, maintaining instead that the entire prophecy was intended by Ezekiel to be fulfilled by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and that Ezekiel in fact later acknowledged the failure of this prophecy (Ezek 29:17-20). To be clear, this is not my own view. However, given that this is the prevailing consensus among scholars, one owes it to one’s readers to interact with those arguments. For a good summary of the arguments for the mainstream scholarly interpretation, I refer readers to chapter seven of The Atheist Handbook to the Old Testament: Volume 1, by Josh Bowen. [2] For my own take on this text, I refer readers to my discussion of it here.

A yet further example is Wallace’s treatment of Isaiah, whom he asserts “was also accurate when he predicted the destruction of Babylon. Between 701 and 681 BCE, Isaiah made a prediction that was not fulfilled until 539 BCE,” (p. 55). Quoting Isaiah 45:1, Wallace notes that “Isaiah said God would open the gates of Babylon for Cyrus and his attacking army. Despite Babylon’s remarkable defenses, which included moats, walls, and watchtowers, Cyrus was able to enter the city and conquer it. He did so by diverting the flow of the Euphrates River into a large lake basin before marching his army across the riverbed and into the city,” (p. 55). However, Wallace fails to acknowledge or discuss the scholarly consensus that Isaiah 40-55 (referred to as Deutero-Isaiah) was composed within the period 550–539 BCE (with Trito-Isaiah, i.e. Isaiah 56-66) being composed even later, after the return from exile. Wallace of course is welcome (as I do) to depart from the scholarly consensus on this point. But I fear that leaving all of the arguments for this consensus, even in a footnote, runs the risk of turning-off those with a skeptical disposition.

Cherry-Picking

Another concern I had about this section is that Wallace fails to discuss purported examples of failed prophecy, and so a skeptic may be forgiven for thinking that Wallace is cherry picking. For example, he notes that “the prophet Daniel also confirmed his reliability by accurately predicting the fall of Alexander the Great in Daniel 8:5-8, over two hundred years before his demise,” (p. 58). However, given that Wallace’s own criteria of a reliable prophetic witness, derived from Deuteronomy 18:22, is a perfect track-record of successful predictions, I believe owes it to his readers to discuss Daniel 11:40-45, which, though seeming to be a continuation of previous predictions concerning Antiochus IV Epiphanes, cannot plausibly be correlated with Antiochus’ demise. For example, though the text implies that Antiochus would die in Jerusalem, he in fact died in Persia. Indeed, so difficult is this text to square with the career of Antiochus that the majority of conservative commentators have given up trying, and instead assert that these verses pertain to the eschatological antichrist. But such an interpretation is, in my assessment, extremely far-fetched. Though it is true that the identity of “the king of the north” changes throughout Daniel 11, there is no indication of any such transition between verses 39 and 40 (in fact, it states, “At the time of the end, the king of the south shall attack him…”), the most face-value reading of which is that the “him” refers back to the king of the north of verse 39.

More liberal commentators argue that verse 40 marks the transition point between ex eventu prophecy and a genuine (but failed) attempt at true prophecy. Any treatment of the prophecy of Daniel must grapple with those verses, and it is in my opinion the strongest challenge to the traditional neo-Babylonian dating of the book of Daniel. Though I personally believe the balance of evidence points in the direction of the neo-Babylonian dating of Daniel (for reasons I have discussed here), one must recognize the negative evidential relevance of these verses in any discussion of Daniel’s prophecies.

Another example of this is Wallace’s treatment of Isaiah. Though he cites the reference to Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon in 45:1 (discussed above), Wallace fails to discuss Isaiah 19:1-8, which implies that the Nile of Egypt would dry up. Critics argue that, since this has never happened in recorded history, this is a false prophecy. A yet further example is Wallace’s use of Ezekiel’s prophecy against Tyre (Ezek 26:1-14), though he fails to discuss Ezekiel 30:10-12, which also speaks about the Nile of Egypt being caused to dry up. This text also has another difficulty, and that is that, while there are indeed sources that indicate that at least some of the Nile delta was invaded by Babylon, they did not by any means fully conquer Egypt. If one assigns these texts a non-literal interpretation, one might object that one is cherry-picking when to take the prophecy literally and when to take it less literally. For example, if the debris of Tyre had not literally been cast into the sea, as per the oracle in Ezekiel 26, we might be suggesting that the prophet was using figurative, non-literal, language, to describe God’s judgment on Tyre. To be clear, I do not believe that these texts necessitate that we view them as failed prophecy, and in my opinion plausible interpretive approaches to these texts are available. However, leaving those texts (and others like them) completely unacknowledged and discussed is likely to be a turn-off to knowledgeable skeptics. For a discussion of how I would address these texts, I refer readers to my article here.

The Psalms

On page 60, Wallace presents a figure that shows details from the Psalms that “can now be added to the growing messianic summary.” Among these are that the Messiah will be called God’s “son,” that he will be known for righteousness, executed without broken bones, that he doesn’t see decay, and that he makes known the paths of life.” Psalm 2, however, which refers to the “Son” (v. 12) is generally understood to be a royal inauguration song, and the title of “son of God” is used in the Old Testament of the Davidic heir (2 Sam 7:14) and Israel (Hosea 11:1). Wallace may disagree with this interpretation, but he does not offer any discussion of this mainstream view. Furthermore, to interpret Psalm 34:20 (“He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken”) as describing the Messiah is problematic, since that text is referring to God’s protection of the righteous, and is not referring to any specific individual. Though John 19:36 states, “For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken,'” I think it more likely that this text is alluding to the fact that the bones of the Passover lamb (which points to Christ) were not to be broken (Exod 12:46).

Wallace also appeals to Psalm 16:10, which says, “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” This, however, is generally understood to express the Psalmist’s confidence that God would spare him from death, and indeed the Psalmist pleas for God to “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge,” (v. 1). Though Wallace identifies verse 11 as Messianic (“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore”), this refers to God and has nothing to do with the Messiah. Though the apostles Paul and Peter identifies Christ as the one referred to in Psalm 16:10 (Acts 2:27-32; 13:35-36), this is not at all apparent to one who does not already accept their authority. One is also not necessarily bound to accept their statements in these speeches in Acts as offering infallible interpretations, even as a Christian.

The examples already discussed are those which Wallace considers to be the “clear” Messianic prophecies in the Psalms (hence, in his illustration, he prints them in bold font). His examples of “cloaked” prophecies in the Psalms are also problematic. For example, he cites Psalm 41:9: “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” However, earlier in the Psalm, the Psalmist (using the first person pronoun, “I”, as we also find in verse 9), says, “As for me, I said, ‘O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you!’” Given that the Messiah is understood to be sinless (2 Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15; c.f. Isa 53:9), this surely cannot be a reference to the Messiah!

Isaiah

Wallace then discusses the prophecies of Isaiah, most of which I would agree with (though the discussion would be enhanced with an interaction with popular critiques of these texts, such as the popular orthodox Jewish view of Isaiah 53 as referring to the nation of Israel, which I discuss here). However, Wallace lists among Isaiah’s prophecies that the Messiah would be “called a Nazarene.” However, this does not appear in the book of Isaiah at all, and indeed Matthew 2:23 has prompted much scholarly debate about what precisely Matthew is alluding to. Some scholars do suggest that Matthew may be doing a wordplay on the word netser, used in Isaiah 11:1 (which means “branch”), though this interpretation is far from certain, and other plausible interpretations exist. But to assert that Isaiah states that Jesus would be born in Nazareth is completely false.

Extrabiblical Attestation to Jesus

In chapter 6, Wallace discusses the apocryphal gnostic gospels, which arose in the centuries following Jesus’ death. Wallace notes, “Years after the completion of the four canonical gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John), dozens of noncanonical gospels and writings emerged across the empire. The authors of these texts hoped they would be taken seriously. In fact, religious groups of one kind or another used most of these noncanonical writings alongside the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. The authors liked Jesus and recognized his influence and power. But their desire to co-opt the power and authority of Jesus led them to contradict, falsely supplement, or alter the canonical narrative. Groups that embraced the teachings of these texts (many of whom were Gnostic) strayed so far from orthodoxy that they were not recognized or identified as Christians by the earliest church leaders. While the noncanonical authors certainly liked Jesus, these non-Christians sought to co-opt his story for their own purposes,” (p. 105). Wallace contends that, “despite the legendary distortions, these noncanonical documents presupposed and acknowledged the claims of the canonical gospels, just as the legendary distortions of Elvis assumed and affirmed the core truths related to Elvis’s life, accomplishments, and death,” (p. 106). As an example, Wallace states concerning the gnostic gospel of Peter, “despite many distortions, the Gospel of Peter affirms many details of the Passion Week as described in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. It also lists the names of the disciples and affirms critical features of the canonical gospels, such as the resurrection of Jesus,” (p. 107). Wallace’s wording gives the reader the strong impression that Wallace is intending to use the gnostic gospels as independent, even hostile, testimony to Jesus’ ministry and resurrection. This, of course, will not work, since the gnostic gospels were written extremely late (the gospel of Peter was written in the mid-second century), and they have no claim to historical credibility at all. Indeed, any information of historical value that may be gleaned from the gnostic gospels is derivative from the canonical gospels. There is no reason to believe them to have independent access to the events of Jesus’ life.

In response to this critique, Wallace has indicated that he is not attempting to argue from these sources that Christianity is true, or that we can independently establish the events of Jesus’ life and resurrection. Rather, he is simply attempting to show that the person of Jesus was so compelling that the gnostic authors knew a lot of information about him, even though they distorted his message. However, this again offers a reinterpretation that is not consistent with what Wallace’s some of the above-quoted strong statements in the book. Indeed, Wallace concludes this section by asserting that “These details about Jesus and his followers come not from the church fathers but from the authors of heretical texts. Even if you destroyed every page of Christian Scripture and the writings of Christians who liked Jesus, you would still know a lot about him from these non-Christians who liked him,” (p. 107). No, we would not know a lot about Jesus if we did not have the pages of the New Testament and early church fathers. Indeed, we would have no way of distinguishing truth from falsehood in the apocryphal gnostic gospels if we did not have the canonical gospels to compare them with. 

This also, by the way, is one reason why it is incorrect to assert that we could reconstruct almost the entire New Testament from the early church fathers. Most early Christian quotations of the New Testament do not explicitly introduce the quotation, and in many cases we would not know they were quoting the New Testament unless we already knew the New Testament (or, for that matter, where in the New Testament the quoted text was located). A related question is what it actually means to make a case “without the New Testament.” To most people, the phrase “without the gospels” is not going to refer to a hypothetical scenario where we had so many careful quotations of them elsewhere that we had strong reason to believe accurately represented their contents, even if not continuous, from sources that we trusted to be extremely careful in their representation of the content of the New Testament, and carefully distinguished such quotations from their own beliefs and summaries. And, as a matter of fact, it is quite doubtful that we do have something that extensive and trustworthy even from the church fathers (who are often alluding, loosely paraphrasing, and do not have quotation marks available to them).

Of course, these gnostic Christians would have considered themselves to be Christians, and at any rate these writers are not at all disinterested in regards to Jesus, as Wallace’s argument presupposes. If the only purpose of Wallace’s discussion of the Gnostics was to show Jesus’ influence upon those writers, then, at a minimum, based on the quotations from the book supplied above, the way it is written gives the reader a different impression about Wallace’s goal.

Wallace also mentions ancient non-Christian authors who affirm the broad contours of the gospel accounts. For a discussion of why appeal to these sources is problematic, I refer readers to my article on the subject here (see also my article here for the proper way to argue from extrabiblical sources for the reliability of the gospels). Wallace, moreover, discusses more modern references to Jesus’ ministry, which are of course of even less historical relevance than the ones already discussed. 

Wallace’s arguments get increasingly problematic — he asserts, for instance, that “without a single New Testament document or ancient text describing Jesus, you could still reconstruct every detail of Jesus’s life, ministry, death, resurrection — and his impact on the lives of believers — from the hundreds of screenplays that have been written and movies that have been made in just the past one hundred years. That’s the kind of impact Jesus had on our collective literary imagination,” (p. 117). It is not at all clear, however, what relevance this is supposed to have. Should we care how many screenplays have been based on the book of Mormon and depicting the life of Joseph Smith? Surely, this would not entail that Joseph Smith really saw the angel Moroni. Even in a cumulative case, I think the number of screenplays and movies is not worth mentioning. Yes, Jesus has been highly influential in world history. But, then, so has Muhammad.

Much of the remainder of the book carries on in the same vein. Wallace is right that Christianity has had a major impact on many aspects of subsequent world history. However, this in itself provides no really significant evidence that Christianity is true (which is what Wallace is attempting to show). Even if Wallace is only intending to make the weaker claim that Jesus’ influence on world history contributes some relatively minor evidence to a broader cumulative argument, instances of Jesus’ influence are not epistemically independent. The case from this category of evidence cannot be made stronger by multiplying examples indefinitely.

The Gospels

Finally, on page 252, Wallace gets to the gospels, and argues that the impact of Jesus’ life on history means that we should go back and investigate the gospel accounts, and he refers interested readers to his earlier work in Cold Case Christianity, which investigates the veracity of the gospels and conducts a more direct examination of the argument for the resurrection. [3] This is in fact the only portion of the book (which, I note, appears only in the postscript) that lends support to the interpretation that Wallace has subsequently sought to give it. He writes (pp. 251-252),

“…I also would have preferred testimony from eyewitnesses who saw Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection before rendering a verdict. Christians believe the New Testament gospels contain that kind of eyewitness testimony, but when I started investigating Jesus, I didn’t trust the Bible and I was unwilling to rely on it for information. But the evidence from the fuse and the fallout alone exposed two important truths. First, no person had the kind of impact Jesus had on history. Second, every reconstruction of the Jesus story from the literature, art, music, education, and science fallout describes Jesus as God incarnate. Was that true? Was it possible that Jesus was something more than a man? Would the gospel eyewitness accounts provide some context and explain why the explosive appearance of Jesus inaugurated the Common Era? That’s the question that caused me to suspend my skepticism of the Bible and investigate the gospels. […] The Gospels — the eyewitness accounts of ancient Jesus followers — helped me to understand why the appearance of Jesus changed our calendar and inspired the world.”


If this section reveals the true authorial intent behind Person of Interest — that is, to prepare the ground for presenting the evidence for Christianity found in the New Testament — then it would have been helpful to inform readers of this earlier in the book. As things stand, the strong statements found earlier in the book, especially in the introduction, leave the reader with a very different impression about the book’s purpose — that is, that the book presents an argument that avails to establish the veracity of Christianity, to at least a reasonably high degree of plausibility, apart from the New Testament. If the book’s purpose is merely to emphasize Jesus’ incredible impact on the world, then it succeeds in its mission. If its purpose rather is to make the case for Christianity without the New Testament (which was my impression from reading the strong statements in the book), then I would contend that it has failed to deliver.

Moreover, it is interesting that Wallace, in the above text, states that he “would have preferred testimony from eyewitnesses who saw Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection before rendering a verdict.” In my view, this should not be a mere matter of preference. If we are to believe that a miracle has indeed taken place, we should be looking for eyewitness testimony.

Conclusion

To conclude, though Person of Interest highlights various aspects where Jesus has significantly impacted world history, it also, at several places, overstates what it is able to accomplish — as such, it leaves the reader feeling underwhelmed. Towards the end of the book, Wallace does attempt to soften the objective of the book to be merely a praeparatio evangelica — i.e. with a view towards getting people to look at the gospels for themselves and consider the evidence found therein. If this were all the book had set out to do, then I would have no criticisms of it. The evidence for Jesus’ life and teachings that is wholly independent of the New Testament is intriguing. We should be interested in this person, and should wish to know more about him. At times, Wallace writes as though this is all that he is saying in the book. But then at other times he moves over to the other, less defensible, claim that the evidence for Christianity apart from the New Testament is overwhelming. It is overwhelming indeed that Jesus is an intriguing figure who had a large impact on history. But this conclusion is not particularly interesting, since this claim is so weak as to be obvious to any thoughtful person. If Wallace means that it is overwhelming in support of the claim that Jesus was the son of God who rose from the dead, then I have to strongly disagree.

Footnotes

[1] J. Warner Wallace, Person of Interest: Why Jesus Still Matters in a World that Rejects the Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2021).

[2] Joshua Bowen, The Atheist Handbook to the Old Testament, Volume 1 (Digitial Hammurabi Press, 2021).

[3] J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (Colorado Springs, Colorado: David C Cook, 2013).

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Person of Interest by J. Warner Wallace”

  1. Insightful review. I think it’s important to read criticisms of arguments offered by popular apologists, whether offered by Christians or skeptics. As a random suggestion, I’d be interested to see you review The Case for Christ or a different book by Lee Strobel. I’ve heard you speak negatively of his books before but I’d be interested to see what thoughts you have on the general arguments he develops.

  2. So in writing a book about one’s personal view on Christianity, is it a rule with non-scholars (which I am assuming Wallace is) to cite all prevailing scholarly views? I don’t see how he is required to discuss what the majority (not all) of scholars feel- it is his personal opinion and interpretation of the evidence.

  3. I think this is a very fair review. Presenting controversial arguments as if there was no controversy does a great disservice to readers. I think it was shortsighted of Wallace to use predictive prophecy as his so-called fuse. Wallace is right about there being a fuse. Jesus didn’t come out of nowhere; rather, he emerged from a long-standing religious tradition. Furthermore, that religious tradition was unique. There was nothing else like it. In fact, the Old Testament prophets are a good example of the uniqueness of the tradition. But predicting the future is only one part of a prophet’s role, and not the most important part.

    Wallace is also right when he says that the fuse led up to an “explosion”. But, again, there is a better way of looking at that than the one chosen by Wallace. If we want to study the explosion then we shouldn’t be particularly concerned about the apocryphal gospels. The writings of the Church Fathers are a better place to look. There is also the existence of the Church itself and the remarkable way in which survived and spread.

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