Eyewitness Testimony and the Gospels

Between work, Christmas and jury duty I lost track of time, but had an interesting thought while on a case.

The judge was reading the jury instructions and told us that even if we hear different accounts of the same incident from differing eyewitnesses that both or all are to be weighed for validity.

It made me think of how many times I have heard/read a “new atheist” state that the differences of the eyewitnesses in the four gospels prove errancy.  While this can be answered on two fronts: testimony and errancy, I’ll stick to testimony for this post.

I especially like what Richard Bauckham had to say over on Chris Tilling’s blog on the subject:

Like most historical evidence, what we have is testimony, and it is the kind of testimony ancient historians most valued: the testimony of involved participants who spoke of the meaning of events they experienced from the inside. Dispassionate observers are not the best sources for much of what we want to know about history. Especially with uniquely significant, history-making events, where crude ideas of uniformity in history break down, we need testimony from the inside. The Holocaust is the signal modern example of an event we should have no real conception of without the testimony of survivors. Moreover, trusting testimony is a normal, perfectly rational thing to do. One can try to test the reliability of witnesses, but then they have to be trusted. We cannot independently verify everything they say and that’s the point of testimony. So while I’m not trying to remove faith in the special sense of faith in God and in Jesus or that such faith is response to the disclosure of God in the Gospel history, I do think that historiographical and theological considerations converge in the nature of the Gospels, rather than tearing faith and history apart.

I guess lawyers don’t get much of a choice whether their witness is a “dispassionate observer” or not.  During the trial, the best witnesses were those who were indeed passionate about what happened.  They had the most detail and the most information.  Those who literally were there on the street had a story to tell, but it lacked precise detail and clarity.  Indeed, it was confusing at times to tell who had it right. 

So, I see a connection with the eyewitnesses to the gospel accounts and the stories of Jesus.  Seems it would be difficult to find a dispassionate eyewitness to the things Jesus said and did!  He couldn’t even keep it a secret by asking, for people who experienced Jesus rarely, if ever, went away unchanged physically, mentally or spiritually.

It is fair to assess, then, that the eyewitnesses told the Jesus stories because of the effect he had on their world.  As such, it makes perfect sense to weigh all the testimony for validity – and that testimony is significant. 

What do you think?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s