The Verdict A Judge Applies the Rules of Evidence to the Resurrection Accounts
The Verdict A Judge Applies the Rules of Evidence to the Resurrection Accounts
History is full of instances where a person’s special experience changed the course of his life. The Apostle Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is one such example. According to both Luke (Acts 9) and Paul (1 Corinthians 15), the encounter Paul had with the risen Christ revolutionised his life. The experience was real and dramatic. It convinced Paul that Jesus must have risen from the dead, as the Christians whom he had been persecuting were proclaiming. It changed his understanding of God and the Old Testament Scriptures, and converted him immediately to the cause of Christ. Soon he became the most powerful advocate for Christianity in the world of the first century AD.
Paul’s experience, if true, supports the accounts of the four Gospel writers. They give us details showing that after his death and burial Jesus made a number of appearances to his disciples to make plain to them that God had raised him from the dead.
Christians believe the evidence concerning the physical resurrection of Jesus because, being in the Christian Bible, we accept it to be the Word of God on this issue. However, we don’t always realize that, as the Christian faith is based on actual historical events, accounts of these events come to us through human witnesses whose credibility one can scrutinise and assess in the same way that witnesses are judged today in settings like courts.
We note too that Jesus told his disciples that they were to be witnesses to him, which means that their testimony should be open to tough scrutiny and assessment.
Famous lawyers of the past have devised tests and rules of evidence which assist in assessing the credibility of witnesses as follows:
The credit due to the testimony of witnesses depends upon, firstly, their honesty; secondly, their ability; thirdly, their number and the consistency of their testimony; fourthly, the conformity of their testimony with experience; and fifthly, the coincidence of their testimony with collateral circumstances.
So what is the result if we examine the four gospel writers and the Apostle Paul using the tests of lawyers?
Honesty: It is crucial to know whether a witness is sincere. In other words, does this witness believe that what he is saying is true? In the case before us, did Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as well as Paul believe that what they put down in writing was true?
To decide whether a witness is honest, you have to look to his or her character, then to the motive in giving the testimony.
As to character, when I read the accounts of the five witnesses I get an overall impression that they are men of integrity and truthfulness. They portray Jesus as one who taught with great authority and conviction, who was passionate for truth, and who abominated lying, hypocrisy and deception. As men of Jewish stock steeped in the Old Testament, they knew that the Law required witnesses to be true. I logically infer that they can be presumed to be honest men who were concerned for truth. They do not appear to be deceitful.
Their writings contain some of the highest moral and ethical teaching the world has known. If these men were not honest, then they represent a baffling contradiction of what they themselves were proclaiming. If they were dishonest and deceitful, then the character they have created in the person of Jesus Christ is such that it is inconceivable that they were the real authors. How could these five men with their very different backgrounds and interests conspire to create a sublime character in a superb piece of fiction — if that’s what it is. It seems so preposterous, there is scarcely a single intelligent critic who argues today that the testimony of these five witnesses is deliberately false.
A motive to lie also presents a problem. What possible motive could have prompted them to proclaim the gospel as they did, and die for it, if they believed it false? They certainly knew when they went out to challenge the world with the claim that Christ had been raised from the dead that they would be persecuted and put to death — and that’s what happened.
Judge Chandler of the American Supreme Court, put it this way:
Nothing could be more absurd than the proposition that a number of men banded themselves together, repudiated the ancient faith of their fathers, changed completely their mode of life, became austere in professing and practicing principles of virtue, spent their entire lives proclaiming certain truths to mankind, and then suffered the deaths of martyrs — all for the sake of a religion which they knew to be false.
The conclusion would have to be that these witnesses must have believed that what they wrote was the truth, namely that Jesus had risen from the dead. Now, as witnesses to that event, they had a solemn duty to tell the world.
Ability: The law assumes that a witness is of sound mind and with average intelligence until evidence is brought which contradicts it. This legal presumption applies to Paul and the Gospel writers, but there is strong evidence to suggest that these men are well-qualified as witnesses of ability.
First, we note that they wrote in Greek, even though their background was Jewish. So they were obviously men of some literacy. Second, the writings themselves show the authors to be men of intelligence and ability. For example, modern scholars have shown that Luke, who wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, was an historian of the first rank. His writings show him to be both professional and accurate in his approach to his work.
Some critics claim that the four gospel writers testified from a position of bias, and therefore exaggerated and distorted the facts. However, when we read their writings we do not encounter the language of fanaticism, prejudice or bias. Indeed, the gospel writers include instances of their own obtuseness, foolishness and mistakes. Calculating, biased and prejudiced people do not operate in this fashion. Men and women do not invent stories to their own discredit. So why would the gospel writers include incidents which showed up their past weaknesses, mistakes and stupidities? The inference is that they were concerned for the truth.
They also included difficult sayings of Jesus which could be misinterpreted and place Jesus in a bad light. For example, they mention his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane where he shrank from the thought of death. They refer to his cry of God-forsakenness on the cross. Men who wrote to present Jesus in the most heroic light would be sorely tempted to omit that view of him. That the authors of the gospels did not is a tribute to their ability and their honesty.
At least two of the gospel writers were eyewitnesses of many of the events about which they testified. In particular, they were present at some of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. All four, as well as Paul, obtained information from other eyewitnesses and sources considered reliable. These five were in an excellent position to record the events of the gospel histories because a great deal of their testimony rests on the best testimony of all — eyewitness testimony.
There is one final objection to the accounts of these eyewitnesses. Critics often claim that their accounts were written so long after the events that they had forgotten them or had confused them with various traditions and legends which had grown up about Jesus.
However, it has now been established that the gospels were written between 30 and 60 years after the death of Jesus, and that Paul wrote most of his letters earlier. That period is not long enough to affect matters of substance in their accounts.
But can we be sure that the Greek text of the New Testament as we now have it is the same text as the one originally written by the authors? One of the most reputable scholars today concerning the witnesses to Jesus is Paul Barnett, the Anglican Bishop of North Sydney, who has written Is the New Testament History? and The Truth About Jesus. He approvingly quotes Stephen Neill:
Anyone who reads the New Testament in any one of half a dozen recent Greek editions, or in any moderns translation, can feel confident that, though there may be uncertainties in detail, in almost everything of importance he is close indeed to the text of the New Testament books as they were originally written.
The number of witnesses: Lawyers know the value of witnesses who corroborate each other. The credibility of a witness is greatly improved if what he or she says is corroborated by other witnesses. Where witnesses disagree on matters of substance their credibility is weakened. On the other hand, where witnesses support each other word for word in every minor detail, it’s easy to infer that they may have been putting their heads together and concocting the evidence.
When we apply this test to the witnesses before us, we note that there is a considerable number of them, namely five. They corroborate each other on the major issues. They agree that Jesus had been crucified, was dead, buried in a tomb, and had risen from the dead and was alive.
But there is a seeming discrepancy in some of the minor details. Are these discrepancies such as to weaken or destroy their evidence as to the resurrection itself? Not necessarily. Sometimes it is just these kinds of discrepancies that are so familiar to us in the courts, which give integrity and authenticity to their story.
In the first place, they indicate that the authors did not put their heads together. They are independent accounts of what happened. Furthermore, research work has shown that the four writers of the gospels had different audiences and different purposes in mind. This factor has a great bearing on some of the discrepancies, whilst others are mere omissions of details, a common problem in secular histories.
When we concentrate on the discrepancies in minor details, we can often be diverted from the fact that there is a huge amount of corroboration on matters of substance as well as some of the other minor details. In the gospels, the corroboration is so strong that we have special support for the proposition that these men were recording the facts of history concerning Jesus with minute accuracy.
Human experience: When people testify in court, the judge or magistrate will mentally ask, “is this person’s testimony in harmony with my own experience of the world? Could this have happened?” This brings us to what is probably the most serious difficulty for people reading the Gospels. They report that Jesus continually performed miracles. If this is true, he had the power to alter or suspend the laws of nature. Indeed, the Gospel writers tell us that he had the power to restore life to people who were dead.
However, miracles of that kind are not part of our experience. When we hear of miracles today they are usually bogus ones or highly suspect. Add that to our own life experiences, and it’s not surprising that many people believe that the miracles of the New Testament are also false or highly suspect.
Does the report of miracles performed by Christ destroy the credibility of the five witnesses and hence the truthfulness of their accounts? I am not an authority on miracles. I do not understand how they occur or what processes are involved. Nevertheless, in my Christian world-view not only is it possible for miracles to occur, but it would be quite strange if there was no sign of them in history.
The four gospel writers themselves seem to wrestle with the meaning of the miraculous events they record as performed by Jesus. They were also outside their previous experience. We see that it took a long time to draw their conclusion that here was the Lord of the universe in action. And the physical resurrection of Jesus was for them the final piece of evidence that put it beyond all doubt.
Surrounding facts: The fifth test is that there should be agreement between the testimony of witnesses and the surrounding facts and circumstances. In most cases, if a witness is truthful he will be willing to supply a considerable amount of surrounding detail. Anyone who intends to commit perjury is wary of this. So false witnesses studiously avoid providing lots of details. On the other hand, the truthful witness is usually candid, free and unrestrained in his statements, willing to answer all questions, even those involving the minutest detail. Applying this test to the Gospel writers, Judge Chandler said this:
The Gospel writers wrote with the utmost freedom and recorded in detail with the utmost particularity the manners, customs, habits and historic facts contemporaneous with their lives. The naturalness and ingenuousness of their writings are simply marvellous ... They were seemingly indifferent to whether they were believed or not. Their narratives seem to say — these are records of truth and if the world rejects them it rejects the facts of history. Such candour and assurance are always overwhelmingly impressive and in every form of debate are regarded as unmistakable signs of truth.
There are many instances where the gospel writers give details which we find coincide with details given by secular writers of the time. The most obvious one concerning the resurrection is, of course, Pontius Pilate. The Gospels state that he sat in judgement on Jesus Christ. Both Josephus and Tacitus, secular historians, tell us that Pilate was Governor of Judea at that time. Also, secular historians, both ancient and moderns, tell us that at the time of Jesus’ death the power of life and death had been taken from the Jews and vested within the Roman Government. They are in agreement with what the Apostle John wrote in John 18:31.
The important point is this: if the five witnesses can be shown from other sources to be accurate with regard to many matters of minor detail, and they certainly can be, that suggests that they should be accepted as accurate with regard to the major incidents and events they record, even when those events are extraordinary miraculous and outside our personal experience of life.
Applying the tests of lawyers, the most reasonable conclusion is that the witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus are witnesses of the highest credibility. If we are unable to accept their history, why do we accept other ancient historical accounts where the supporting evidence is much less than provided for the resurrection of Jesus?
Christians of all denominations are soon to celebrate the events of Easter again. As we hear the statement “The Lord is risen”, it’s comforting to know that on the basis of highly credible evidence we can respond, “He is risen indeed”.
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