Can we trust eyewitness testimony? I have seen this conversation arise in my own outreach efforts. Perhaps you have as well. Generally speaking, testimony is one of those common sense beliefs that we take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them. We rightly accept what others tell us without having first established that they are worthy of trust. Without testimony, we could never be able to learn a language or accept something we learned before checking out for ourselves.
But in my experience of talking with skeptics about eyewitness testimony, it generally boils down a worldview issue. In other words, skeptics are only hyper skeptical about the issues of the testimony of the witnesses of the New Testament because they just can’t bring themselves to ever say a resurrection has taken place. So in the end, we are back to the same arguments that David Hume put forth against miracles. I think there has been sufficient answers to Hume. So I won’t waste this post in dealing with him. If you want to read up on that issue, see here , here, or here.
A Look at Eyewitness Testimony in the New Testament
Hopefully, both the Christian and the non-Christian should be able to agree that since historians can’t verify the events directly, they rely on things such as written documents (both primary and secondary sources), external evidence/archaeology, and the testimony of the witnesses to the events. New Testament faith is portrayed biblically as knowledge based upon testimony. It is common for the Christian to cite some of the following passages:
• Acts 2:32: “This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it.”
• Acts 3:14-15: “But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses.”
• Acts 5:30-32: “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. “He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. “And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”
• 1 John 1:1: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life”
• Acts 10:39 : “We are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and (in) Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.”
• Acts 4:19-20: “Peter and John, however, said to them in reply, “Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.”
• 1 Peter 5:1: “So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed.”
• 2 Peter 1:19: ” We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
• John 21:24: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.”
Despite the Christian’s appeal to testimony and witness in the New Testament, the skeptic assumes that it has been shown that eyewitness testimony is very unreliable in a court of law. How can the Christian possibly try to propose that eyewitness testimony is one of the reasons we can trust the events in the New Testament?
The problem with this objection is that it is a case of dicto-simplicter or what is called a sweeping generalization. This is the fallacy of making a sweeping statement and expecting it to be true of every specific case.
Secondly, when it comes to antiquity, how do we evaluate eyewitness testimony?
One book that has recently handled the issue of eyewitness testimony issue within the New Testament is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham.
What is significant about Richard Bauckham’s book is his mentioning of Thomas Reid. Reid was a Scottish philosopher and contemporary of David Hume who played an integral role in the Scottish Enlightenment. It was in Reid’s “common sense” philosophy of the eighteenth century where Reid understood testimony as an integral part of the social character of knowledge. In other words, for Reid, to trust the testimony of others is simply fundamental to the kind of creatures we are.
As Bauckham notes:
“Trusting testimony is indefensible to historiography. This trust need not be blind faith. In the “critical realist” historian’s reception and use of testimony there is a dialectic trust and critical assessment. But the assessment is precisely an assessment of the testimony as trustworthy or not. What is not possible is independents verification or falsification of everything the testimony relates such a reliance on testimony would not longer be needed.
Testimony shares the frugality of memory, which is the testimony’s sole access to the past, while also, when it predates living memory, existing only as an archived memory, cut off from the dialogical context of contemporary testimony. But for most purposes, testimony is all we have. There are indeed, other traces of the past in the present (such as archaeological finds), which can to a degree corroborate or discredit testimony, but they cannot, in most cases, suffice for the study and writing of history. They cannot replace testimony. In the end, testimony is all we have.” (7)
As Bauckham notes:
” The Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events. Bauckham has followed the work of Samuel Byrskog in arguing that while the Gospels though in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted. Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy).” (8)
In other words, Byrskog defines “autopsy,” as a visual means of gathering data about a certain object and can include means that are either direct (being an eyewitness) or indirect (access to eyewitnesses). Byrskog also claims that such autopsy is arguably used by Paul (1 Cor 9:1; 15:5–8; Gal 1:16), Luke(Acts 1:21–22; 10:39–41) and John (19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1–4).
One of the greatest assets of Bauckham’s book is the reminder that ancient historians thought that history had to be written during a time when eyewitnesses were still available to be cross-examined.
Historically speaking, eyewitness testimony is generally considered more reliable than testimony that is heard from a second-or third hand source. But as Bauckham notes, the Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), means that the historian was a firsthand observer of the events. But what if those recording the historical events in the Gospels were not direct eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus?
As Bauckham says:
“Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy). This, at least, was historiographic best practice, represented and theorized by such generally admired historians as Thucydides and Polybius. The preference for direct and indirect testimony is an obviously reasonable rule for acquiring the testimony likely to be reasonable.”
The Jewish People and Bearing False Witness: What About a Character Test?
One of the primary stipulations in the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people was that bearing false witness had serious ramifications (Exod 20:16). As Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology notes, the biblical concept of testimony or witness is closely allied with the conventional Old Testament legal sense of testimony given in a court of law. Its validity consists in certifiable, objective facts. In both Testaments, it appears as the primary standard for establishing and testing truth claims. Uncertifiable subjective claims, opinions, and beliefs, on the contrary, appear in Scripture as inadmissible testimony. Even the testimony of one witness is insufficient—for testimony to be acceptable, it must be established by two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15). It can also be observed that the emphasis on eyewitness testimony was carried on through the early church.
As Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy note in their book The Jesus Legend: A Case For the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition, Christianity cannot be understood apart from it’s first century Jewish context. The Sinai teaching that multiple witnesses was retained Mark 14:56,59; John 5:31-32; Heb. 10:28) and also used for church discipline (Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1;1 Tim 5:19). Also, the principle of giving a true testimony and making a true confession are evident in the early church (Matt 10:18; Mark 6:11;13:9-13;Luke 1:1-2;9:5;21:12-13;22:71;John 1:7-8,15,19,32,34;3:26,28;5:32; Acts 1:8,22;3:15;5:32;10:37-41;13:31;22:15;18;23:11;26:16).
How can the witnesses in the New Testament remember and record the information accurately?
We all know memory can be a tricky thing. But as Bauckham has noted, a high impact event such as the Holocaust or an event such as the death and resurrection of Jesus would leave a lasting impression on the witnesses to the event. Many of us have experienced events in our own lives that can be recalled reasonably free without error even decades later.
And given the emphasis on education in the synagogue, the home, and the elementary school, it is not surprising that it was possible for the Jewish people to recount large quantities of material that was even far greater than the Gospels themselves. Like many of the great Jewish rabbis and sages, Jesus employed didactic techniques. He taught in poetic form, employing alliteration, paronomasia, assonance, parallelism, and rhyme.
As Paul Barnett notes, “Jesus was a called a “Rabbi” (Matt. 8:19; 9:11; 12:38; Mk. 4:38; 5:35; 9:17; 10:17, 20; 12:14, 19, 32; Lk. 19:39; Jn. 1:38; 3:2), which means “master” or “teacher.” There are several terms that can be seen that as part of the rabbinic terminology of that day. His disciples had “come” to him, “followed after” him, “learned from” him, “taken his yoke upon” them” (Mt. 11:28-30; Mk 1). (Jesus and the Logic of History. Downers Grove, IL: InterVaristy Press. 1997, pg 138).
Since over 90 percent of Jesus’ teaching was poetic, this would make it simple to memorize. In the rabbinic tradition, disciples were taught to memorize, repeat, and recite (and often write) their masters teachings exactly and accurately, and were often rewarded for doing so. Novelty, expansions, and additions, and free interpretations were neither taught nor rewarded. (James R. Edwards, Is Jesus The Only Savior? pg, 59).
The External Test: Is there a way to cross-check the testimony of the events that the witnesses write about?
Something else that helps solidify the truthfulness of eyewitness testimony is the use of archaeology or external evidence.
Perhaps another illustration will help. I graduated from high school in 1987. If someone accurately described my hometown that year by pointing out specific politicians, laws, the town’s topography and geography and then told me they had gathered the information from people who had been there, should I assume this individual can’t be trusted? Should I just dismiss it? So keeping this in mind let’s look at The Gospel of Luke as well as The Gospel of John.
In his book The Reliability of John’s Gospel, Craig Blomberg has identified 59 people, events, or places that have been confirmed by archaeology such as:
1.The use of stone water jars in the New Testament (John 2:6).
2. The proper place of Jacob’s well (2:8)
3. Josephus in (Wars of the Jews 2.232), confirms there was significant hostility between Jews and Samaritans during Jesus’ time (4:9).
4. “Went Up” accurately describes the ascent to Jerusalem(5:1).
5. Archaeology confirms the existence of the Pool of Siloam (9:7)
6. The obscure and tiny village of Ephraim (11:54) near Jerusalem is mentioned by Josephus.
7. “Come down” accurately describes the topography of western Galilee.(There’s a significant elevation drop from Cana to Capernaum). (4:46;49, 51).
8. Caiaphas was the high priest that year (11:49); we learn from Josephus that Caiaphas held the office from A.D 18-37.
To see a complete list, click here:
Luke 1:4: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received”
We see that Luke:
- Was not a direct eyewitness of the events recorded in his Gospel
- He was acquainted with earlier accounts
- He had used personal information from those who “from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word.”
- The results of his won careful research had simulated him to write his gospel.
- He was a man of scholarly methods and could claim thoroughness, accuracy and reliability of his production.
- He was a man of considerable literary ability. This is evident in the from the balanced literary structure of the prologue. This shows Luke was probably familiar with other classical writers such as Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybious.
Furthermore, Luke’s Gospel shows displays a variety of historical figures that have been confirmed. For example, Luke gives correct titles for the following officials: Cyprus, proconsul (13:7–8); Thessalonica, politarchs (17:6); Ephesus, temple wardens (19:35); Malta, the first man of the island.
Each of these has been confirmed by Roman usage. In all, Luke names thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands without an error. (see See Geisler, N. L., BECA, pg 431).
In his monumental work called The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, classics scholar Colin Hemer has shown that Luke has also done his work as anare at least 84 events, people, locations, etc, which have been confirmed by archaeology. Some of them are:
1. A natural crossing between correctly named ports (13:4–5). Mount Casius, south of Seleucia, stands within sight of Cyprus. The name of the proconsul in 13:7 cannot be confirmed, but the family of the Sergii Pauli is attested.
2. The proper river port, Perga, for a ship crossing from Cyprus (13:13).
3. The proper location of Lycaonia (14:6).
4. The unusual but correct declension of the name Lystra and the correct language spoken in Lystra. Correct identification of the two gods associated with the city, Zeus and Hermes (14:12).
5. The proper port, Attalia, for returning travelers (14:25).
6. The correct route from the Cilician Gates (16:1).
7. The proper form of the name Troas (16:8).
8. A conspicuous sailors’ landmark at Samothrace (16:11).
9. The proper identification of Philippi as a Roman colony. The right location for the river Gangites near Philippi (16:13).
10. Association of Thyatira with cloth dyeing (16:14). Correct designations of the titles for the colony magistrates (16:20, 35, 36, 38).
11. The proper locations where travelers would spend successive nights on this journey (17:1).
12. The presence of a synagogue in Thessalonica (17:1), and the proper title of politarch for the magistrates (17:6).
13. The correct explanation that sea travel is the most convenient way to reach Athens in summer with favoring east winds (17:14).
14. The abundance of images in Athens (17:16), and reference to the synagogue there (17:17).
Accurate representation of the Jewish law regarding Gentile use of the temple area (21:28).
15. The permanent stationing of a Roman cohort in the Fortress Antonia to suppress disturbances at festival times (21:31). The flight of steps used by guards (21:31, 35).
16. The two common ways of obtaining Roman citizenship (22:28). The tribune is impressed with Paul’s Roman rather than Tarsian citizenship (22:29).
17. The correct identifications of Ananias as high priest (23:2) and Felix as governor (23:34).
18. Identification of a common stopping point on the road to Caesarea (23:31).
19. Note of the proper jurisdiction of Cilicia (23:34).
The proper title protos (tes nesou) for a man in Publius’s position of leadership on the islands.
20. Correct identification of Rhegium as a refuge to await a southerly wind to carry a ship through the strait (28:13).
21. Appii Forum and Tres Tabernae as stopping-places along the Appian Way (28:15).
22. Common practice of custody with a Roman soldier (28:16) and conditions of imprisonment at one’s own expense (28:30–31).
To see the complete list, check here:
What About Bias?
A common objection is that since the New Testament documents were written by the “insiders.” After all, if the witnesses were “believers,” does this means we can’t trust their testimony? After all, they are biased, right? Once again, this is an unqualified generalization. It is also a gross oversimplification. Many historians admit that some bias is a good thing. If bias means they didn’t tell the truth, than how is it that Luke is such an accurate historian? (see above). Also, as Norman Geisler says:
“The objection that the writings are partisan involves a significant but false implication that witnesses cannot be reliable if they were close to the one about whom they gave testimony. This is clearly false. Survivors of the Jewish holocaust were close to the events they have described to the world. That very fact puts them in the best position to know what happened. They were there, and it happened to them. The same applies to the court testimony of someone who survived a vicious attack. It applies to the survivors of the Normandy invasion during World War II or the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. The New Testament witnesses should not be disqualified because they were close to the events they relate.”
” Related to the charge that Jesus lacks testimony by unbelievers is that there is strong evidence, but a lack of weak evidence. Suppose there were four eyewitnesses to a murder. There was also one witness who arrived on the scene after the actual killing and saw only the victim’s body. Another person heard a second-hand report of the killing. In the trial the defense attorney argues: “Other than the four eyewitnesses, this is a weak case, and the charges should be dismissed for lack of evidence.” Others might think that attorney was throwing out a red herring. The judge and jury were being distracted from the strongest evidence to the weakest evidence, and the reasoning was clearly faulty. Since the New Testament witnesses were the only eyewitness and contemporary testimonies to Jesus, it is a fallacy to misdirect attention to the non-Christian secular sources. Nonetheless, it is instructive to show what confirming evidence for Jesus can be gleaned outside the New Testament.” (BECA, pg 381).
What about the other so-called eyewitness testimony in other religions?
For starters, in evaluating any religious claim, here are a few guidelines:
1. What does it claim to know?
2. How does it claim to know it?
3. What is the evidence for it?
We should avoid false analogies and sincerely attempt to evaluate each claim in it’s own theological and historical context.
The skeptic shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the reliability of the New Testament because of the supposed unreliability of eyewitness testimony. If we truly care about this issue, we should do our homework and evaluate the usage of testimony and witness in antiquity-especially in the New Testament.
Note: Here are some more sources on this topic: