Can We Trust Eyewitness Memory?

A ways back I wrote a post called A Look at the Jesus Story, Oral Tradition and Eyewitness Memory.

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.

One thing that should be noted: high impact events that have strong emotional involvement can be remembered with great accuracy over a long period. For example, my sister died in 1973. Even though I was four years old at the time, I can still remember much of the details of the day it happened. Obviously, high impact events such as a death of a loved one, or an event like the Holocaust can leave a lasting impression on the witnesses who participated in the event. In other words, a survivor of the Holocaust can testify by saying, “I was there.”  Many of us can concur that we rely on the testimony of others on a regular basis.  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.”

I also wanted to mention the following. One book in the New Testament that plays as indispensable role in evaluating the resurrection of Jesus is the book of Acts. It is within Acts that we see the resurrection was part of the early apostolic preaching and the evidence given that Christianity is true (Acts 2:25-32; 3: 15; 10:39-41; 17:2-3, 18, 31). It is also within Acts that records Paul’s testimony to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 9:1-9; 22: 1-11; 26: 9-19).

Eduard Meyer, the distinguished historian of classical antiquity, commented that Luke’s work in spite of a more limited content, “bears the same character as those of great historians, of a Polybius, a Livy and many others.”(See Meyer, E.M. and Strange, J., Archaeology, the Rabbis and Early Christianity. London:SCM, 1981).

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 an historian. On pp. 108-58, Hemer chronicles Luke’s accuracy in the book of Acts almost verse by verse. Here is a list of eighty-four facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological research. I should note that I am thankful to Dr. Tim McGrew for adding some additional research to these 84 points.

As you read the following list, keep in mind that Luke did not have access to modern-day maps or nautical charts.

Luke accurately records:

1. A natural crossing between correctly named ports. (Acts 13:4-5) Mt. Casius, which is south of Seleucia, is within sight of Cyprus.

2. The proper port (Perga) along the direct destination of a ship crossing from Cyprus (13:13)

3. The proper location of Iconium in Phrygia rather than in Lycaonia. (14:6) This identification was doubted because it challenges some sources reflecting boundary changes from a different date, but the ethnic inclusion of Iconium in Phrygia is confirmed by the geographical distribution of Neo-Phrygian texts and onomastic study.

4. The highly unusual but correct heteroclitic declension of the name Lystra. (14:6) This is paralleled in Latin documents.

5. The Lycaonian language spoken in Lystra. (14:11) This was unusual in the cosmopolitan, Hellenized society in which Paul moved. But the preservation of the local language is attested by a gloss in Stephanus of Byzantium, who explains that “Derbe” is a local word for “juniper.” Hemer lists many other native names in the Lystra district.

6. Two gods known to be so associated—Zeus and Hermes. (14:12) These are paralleled epigraphically from Lystra itself, and the grouping of the names of Greek divinities is peculiarly characteristic of the Lystra district.

7. The proper port, Attalia, which returning travelers would use. (14:25) This was a coasting port, where they would go to intercept a coasting vessel, by contrast with Perga (13:13), a river port.

8. The correct order of approach (Derbe and then Lystra) from the Cilician Gates. (16:1; cf. 15:41)

9. The form of the name “Troas,” which was current in the first century. (16:8)

10. The place of a conspicuous sailors’ landmark, Samothrace, dominated by a 5000 foot mountain. (16:11)

11. The proper description of Philippi as a Roman colony, and the correct identification of its seaport as Nea Polis, which is attested both in manuscripts and in numismatic evidence. (16:12)

12. The right location of the Gangites, a small river near Philippi. (16:13)

13. The identification of Thyatira as a center of dyeing. (16:14) This is attested by at least seven inscriptions of the city.

14. The proper designation for the magistrates of the colony as strategoi (16:22), following the general term archontes in v. 19.

15. The proper locations (Amphipolis and Apollonia, cities about 30 miles apart) where travelers would spend successive nights on this journey to Thessalonica. (17:1)

16. The presence of a synagogue in Thessalonica. (17:1) This is attested by a late 2nd AD inscription. (CIJ 693)

17. The proper term (“politarchs”) used of the magistrates in Thessalonica. (17:6) See Horsley’s article in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, in loc.

18. The correct implication that sea travel is the most convenient way of reaching Athens, with the favoring “Etesian” winds of the summer sailing season. (17:14-15)

19. The abundant presence of images in Athens. (17:16)

20. The reference to a synagogue in Athens. (17:17) See CIJ 712-15.

21. The depiction of philosophical debate in the Agora, which was characteristic of Athenian life. (17:17)

22. The use of the correct Athenian slang word for Paul (spermologos, “seed picker,” 17:18) as well as for the court (Areios pagos, “the hill of Ares,” 17:19)

23. The proper characterization of the Athenian character. (17:21) This, however, might be attributed to common knowledge.

24. An altar to an “unknown god.” (17:23) Such altars are mentioned by Pausanias and Diogenes Laertius. Note also the aptness of Paul’s reference to “temples made with hands,” (17:24), considering that Paul was speaking in a location dominated by the Parthenon and surrounded by other shrines of the finest classical art.

25. The proper reaction of Greek philosophers, who denied the bodily resurrection. (17:32) See the words of Apollo in Aeschylus, Eumenides 647-48.

26. The term “Areopagites,” derived from areios pagos, as the correct title for a member of the court. (17:34)

27. The presence of a synagogue at Corinth. (18:4) See CIJ 718.

28. The correct designation of Gallio as proconsul, resident in Corinth. (18:12) This reference nails down the time of the events to the period from the summer of 51 to the spring of 52.

29. The bema (judgment seat), which overlooks Corinth’s forum. (18:16ff.)

30. The name “Tyrannus,” which is attested from Ephesus in first-century inscriptions. (19:9)

31. The shrines and images of Artemis. (19:24) Terracotta images of Artemis (= Diana) abound in the archaeological evidence.

32. The expression “the great goddess Artemis,” a formulation attested by inscriptions at Ephesus. (19:27)

33. The fact that the Ephesian theater was the meeting place of the city. (19:29) This is confirmed by inscriptional evidence dating from AD. 104. (See OGIS 480.8-9.)

34. The correct title “grammateus” for the chief executive magistrate in Ephesus. (19:35) This is amply attested in inscriptional evidence.

35. The proper title of honor “neokoros,” commonly authorized by the Romans for major cities that possessed an official temple of the imperial cult. (19:35) See Wankel, Die Inschriften von Ephesus, 300.

36. The term “he theos,” the formal designation of the goddess. (19:37) See the Salutaris document, passim.

37. The proper term (“agoraioi hemerai”) for the assizes, those holding court under the proconsul. (19:38)

38. The use of the plural “anthupatoi,” (19:38), a remarkable reference to the fact that at that precise time, the fall of AD 54, two men were conjointly exercising the functions of proconsul at this time because their predecessor, Silanus, had been murdered. See Tacitus, Annals 13.1; Dio Cassius 61.6.4-5. This is one point where Ramsay’s work has been superseded in a way that reflects great credit on Luke’s accuracy.

39. The “regular” assembly, as the precise phrase is attested elsewhere. (19:39) The concept is mentioned repeatedly in the Salutaris inscription, IBM 481.339-40 = Wankel 27, lines 468-69.

40. The use of a precise ethnic designation, “Beroiaios.” (20:4) This is attested in the local inscriptions.

41. The employment of the characteristic ethnic term “Asianos,” meaning “Greeks in Asia.” (20:4) Cf. IGRR 4.1756, where the Greeks honor a Sardian citizen with this designation (lines 113, 116).

42. The implied recognition of the strategic importance assigned to the city of Troas, where Paul spent as long as his tight schedule would permit. (20:7ff.)

43. The naturalness and geographic feasibility of Paul’s decision to travel twenty miles overland, rejoining the ship’s company at Assos, while they doubled Cape Lectum (modern Cape Baba), the westernmost point in Anatolian Turkey. (20:13) The ship’s trip, though only about 40 miles, was somewhat precarious; the west coast of the Troad south of Troy has many miles of low exposed cliffs with no good natural harbour north of Cape Lectum, and the alternative harbor at the offshore island of Tenedos affords poor shelter.

44. An entirely natural sequence of places—Assos, Mitylene, Kios, Samos, Miletus—for the next leg of the return trip. (20:14-15)

45. The correct name of the city, “Patara,” as a neuter plural. (21:1) This is confirmed in the local epigraphy.

46. The appropriate route passing across the open sea south of Cyprus favored by persistent northwest winds. (21:3)

47. The distance from Ptolemais (Akko) to Caesarea, which is 30 miles, a suitable day’s journey by either sea or coastal road. (21:8)

48. a characteristically Jewish act of piety (21:24)

49. The Jewish law regarding Gentile use of the temple area (21:28) (Archaeological discoveries and quotations from Josephus confirm that Gentiles could be executed for entering the temple area. One inscription reads: “Let no Gentile enter within the balustrade and enclosure surrounding the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will be personally responsible for his consequent death.”2)

50. The permanent stationing of a Roman cohort (chiliarch) at Antonia to suppress any disturbance at festival times (21:31)

51. The flight of steps used by the guards (21:31, 35)

52. The common way to obtain Roman citizenship at this time (22:28)

53. The tribune being impressed with Roman rather than Tarsian citizenship (22:29)

54. Ananias being high priest at this time (23:2)

55. Felix being governor at this time (23:34)

56. The natural stopping point on the way to Caesarea (23:31)

57. whose jurisdiction Cilicia was in at the time (23:34)

58. The provincial penal procedure of the time (24:1-9)

59. The name Porcius Festus, which agrees precisely with that given by Josephus (24:27)

60. The right of appeal for Roman citizens (25:11)

61. The correct legal formula (25:18)

62. The characteristic form of reference to the emperor at the time (25:26)

63. The best shipping lanes at the time (27:5)

64. The common bonding of Cilicia and Pamphylia (27:4)

65. The principal port to find a ship sailing to Italy (27:5-6)

66. The slow passage to Cnidus, in the face of the typical northwest wind (27:7)

67. The right route to sail, in view of the winds (27:7)

68. The locations of Fair Havens and the neighboring site of Lasea (27:8)

69. Fair Havens as a poorly sheltered roadstead (27:12)

70. a noted tendency of a south wind in these climes to back suddenly to a violent northeaster, the well-known gregale (27:13)

71. The nature of a square-rigged ancient ship, having no option but to be driven before a gale (27:15)

72. The precise place and name of this island (27:16)

73. The appropriate maneuvers for the safety of the ship in its particular plight (27:16)

74. The fourteenth night – a remarkable calculation, based inevitably on a compounding of estimates and probabilities, confirmed in the judgment of experienced Mediterranean navigators (27:27)

75. The proper term of the time for the Adriatic (27:27)

76. The precise term (Bolisantes) for taking soundings, and the correct depth of the water near Malta (27:28)

77. a position that suits the probable line of approach of a ship released to

run before an easterly wind (27:39)

78. The severe liability on guards who permitted a prisoner to escape (27:42)

79. The local people and superstitions of the day (28:4-6)

80. The proper title protos t’s nsou (28:7)

81. Rhegium as a refuge to await a southerly wind to carry them through the strait (28:13)

82. Appii Forum and Tres Tabernae as correctly placed stopping places on the Appian Way (28:15)

83. appropriate means of custody with Roman soldiers (28:16)

84. The conditions of imprisonment, living “at his own expense” (28:30-31)

One more thing. Cambridge New Testament scholar G.M. Stanton has discovered that the grammar, literary style, theological motifs and emphases, tone and use of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament are different from Acts 1-12 than those in chapters 13-28. Also, the speeches in Acts 1-12 contain a number of Semitic phrases and other features that indicate that it is a Greek translation from an early Aramaic source. This is what we should expect if these speeches were historically accurate. Since Peter is the speaker in Acts 12, he is addressing Jewish audiences in Aramaic. But since Paul is speaking in Acts 13-28, he is addressing a Gentile audience. Hence, he is speaking in Greek. So these issues only strengthen our confidence in these speeches as being historically reliable.

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’s Gospel

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:

  1. Was not a direct eyewitness of the events recorded in his Gospel.

  2. He was acquainted with earlier accounts.

  3. He had used personal information from those who “from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word.”

  4. The results of his won careful research had simulated him to write his gospel.

  5. He was a man of scholarly methods and could claim thoroughness, accuracy and reliability of his production.

  6. 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).

Also, I posted last week the following: Here is an interview with Craig Evans on “Is the Bible Reliable?” Note that in this interview here he says:

“Archaeology usually clarifies things. If Jesus didn’t exist and the Gospels are fictions, then how is it that they get so much right? Why, at every place where they can be tested, do we find they are talking about real people, real events, real things that we can unearth? If we are talking about a nonexistent person who grew up in a nonexistent village, as some people actually allege, there was no Nazareth. Yet when we dig there, we find it. Historians are very interested in that. If you have an old document, one of the first tests is to ask, Does it really reflect life back then as we know it? If it does, the historian takes it seriously. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the book of Acts—these are the basic narrative books of the New Testament. They talk about real people, real events, real places, and the archaeologist can show that; so a fictional, nonexistent Jesus makes no sense of the actual hard data we have.”

Interviewer: You mention solid first-century evidence of Jesus. What does it consist of?

Evans: “Well, it says He goes to a synagogue at a certain place. The place exists, and there is a synagogue there. He talks about being in a fishing boat with His disciples and crossing the Sea of Galilee. We have pictures of fishing boats and we actually have a fishing boat that probably was old and out of service in the time of Jesus; it would hold the disciples. So what we find is that every time the Gospels say something, it coheres with the way it was. You also have sources outside the Bible talking about Jesus. Historians know who He is. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, explains to his readers who He is and what happened to Him and how He was crucified by the Roman governor. If you are not willing to listen to those sources and take them seriously—Christian ones, Jewish ones, pagan ones—then you are not interested in doing history. You are not open-minded at all. You really don’t want to hear what the evidence has to say.”

If you want to go deeper on the kinds of archaeological  finds on the NT, see Peter S. Williams examines the historical reliability of the New Testament in the light of the findings of archaeology.

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