Updated: Sep 6
In my past career in law enforcement, I was very familiar with the chain of custody when dealing with evidence. If the chain is broken then the case that you worked so hard to put together can quickly fall part. When investigating a crime, physical evidence is often obtained at the scene of the crime. For instance, if a defendant is found illegally possessing a weapon, the weapon is confiscated from the subject, the investigator puts his personal mark on the weapon and then he takes the weapon to the property and evidence section of the police department for safe keeping. Upon the weapon being transferred to the evidence custodian at the property and evidence section, the property and evidence form will reflect this change in custody by dating and signing the custody form for that weapon. After the weapon is logged in for the first time, any time the weapon is needed for testing or for court testimony, the property and evidence form will show the custody of the weapon being transferred to the respective official and then back again to the property and evidence section.
The recording of this chain of custody information is vital in the administration of the criminal justice system and if this chain is broken then the prosecution will not be able to use the weapon as evidence. A proper chain of custody that is never broken is essential to proving that the weapon that I now have in court with me is the same weapon that I retrieved from the defendant when I encountered him on the street. If I cannot prove that the weapon I have in court is the same weapon that I originally seized, then the weapon cannot be used as evidence against the defendant.
A recent example of a broken chain of custody causing problems with a criminal case was reported in 2014 by the Roanoke Times. In their article, they reported that the prosecutor’s office in Pulaski County, Virginia recently dropped murder charges against a Texas man who was charged with murdering his wife. Marcus Long, the judge presiding over the matter stated that it’s clear “something drastic” happened to the evidence. Because it’s “not the same evidence” anymore, the chain of custody was broken.
With our modern day New Testament, we have similar “chain of custody” authentication that the words written down by the original authors of the NT books are what we read today. In looking back at the chain of custody for the NT we can see the transmission from one generation of Christian leaders to the next. An example of this is the Gospel of John. In addition to John’s Gospel in written form, we also have the writings of other leaders of the early Christian church in succeeding generations who testify about how they received John’s teachings. Irenaeus reports in his letter (Letter to Florinus) that he received the teachings of John from Polycarp and that Polycarp related to him that he was a student of the apostles specifically, the Apostle John. In the generation following Irenaeus we observe that another church leader, Hippolytus, received John’s teachings from Irenaeus (See Christopher Wordsworth’s St. Hippolytus and the Church of Rome in the earlier part of the third century, Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010). This pattern has repeated itself until the present day where John’s teachings are transmitted from one generation to the next. Because of this historical chain of custody, we can know that we have the actual accounts of the Apostle John regarding the life, ministry, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is a similar chain of custody with the other NT writers as well. This “chain of custody” not only assures us that we have the actual words of the Gospel authors but this also aids Christians when skeptics challenge the validity of the NT Scriptures.