Sunday, November 2, 2008

Eyewitness testimony

In history and law, eyewitness testimony is of great importance. Both of these fields are concerned with establishing whether or not some event actually happened. While indirect evidence can obviously be important, the testimony of eyewitnesses can often be of crucial importance.

With eyewitnesses, of course, there are important questions to be asked. Is it possible the eyewitness is mistaken, and is it possible the eyewitness is lying? These are obviously crucial concerns, as not all eyewitness testimony is credible. People can be mistaken, and people can be intentionally deceptive in their testimony.

When it comes to the Resurrection, we are confronted with claims of having eyewitness testimony of several events. First, there is the death of Jesus by crucifixion. Second, there is his burial in a tomb. Third, there is the finding of the same tomb empty on the third day. Fourth, there are reports of several different appearances of Jesus to his followers after his resurrection. There are no eyewitness reports in the New Testament of anyone actually observing the Resurrection itself. The question, however, is if we actually have credible eyewitness testimony of these events, and if so, is there some explanation of them other than that offered by the New Testament writers: that God raised Jesus from the dead.

One skeptic on another website argued that Luke never claimed to have met anyone who was an eyewitness to Jesus. Note that this wasn't simply a claim that Luke hadn't met an eyewitness to the risen Christ, but that Luke never claimed to have met anyone who saw Jesus when he was alive. I pointed out that Luke writes in Acts 21:18-19 about a meeting between Paul and his traveling companions (including Luke) and James, along with all the elders in Jerusalem. Keep in mind that this was not James the son of Zebedee, one of the original twelve apostles. That James was executed by Herod in Acts 12:2. This was James the brother of Jesus mentioned in Matthew 13:55 who became one of the leaders of the early church in Jerusalem. This is also the James whom Paul records in 1 Cor. 15:7 as one of the witnesses to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection. So not only was James an eyewitness of Jesus's life (having been his brother), but was also a witness of the resurrection. But, this skeptic argued, Luke didn't specifically say that James was an eyewitness of Jesus. But this point is moot. Paul specifically identified James as the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19) and as an eyewitness to the Resurrection. Luke was present when Paul conferred with James and the elders in Jerusalem. It's impossible to believe that Luke wasn't aware of James's background just because he didn't write about it. What this does, however, is point to the importance of eyewitness testimony. The skeptic wants to exclude any possibility of the Gospels being actual eyewitness accounts.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
1 Cor. 15:3-8

Scholarly consensus, even among critics of the New Testament, is that 1 Cor. 15:3-8 is an early church creed. 1 Corinthians was written around AD 55-57. Paul says that he had previously passed this creed on to the Corinthians, which would have been at the latest during his previous visit to Corinth, which was around AD 51. This is already within 20 years of the crucifixion. But he also says that he had passed on "what he had received", which means he received this tradition even earlier. It's probable that he received it during meetings with the apostles in Jerusalem or Damascus around AD 32-38, within a few months to a few short years after the crucifixion. There is no question then that we have actual claims of eyewitness testimony to the post-resurrection appearances. These were not legends that developed over a long period of time.

Were the eyewitnesses mistaken? We're not talking about an "Elvis" sighting at a distance for a brief moment. The independent testimony of the Gospels (which corroborate most of the specific details of Paul's testimony) record several encounters with the risen Christ which included extended conversations. It's impossible to conceive that the witnesses were mistaken. If Jesus did not actually appear to them, they were in a position to know it.

Were the eyewitnesses lying? It has been often observed that the conviction of the disciples in the truth of their message was that they died for their belief. While it's true that tradition records that all of the apostles except for John were martyred, the independent evidence is not always that strong in every case. But, as philosophers Tim and Lydia McGrew point out in a chapter in the upcoming Blackwell's Companion to Natural Theology, there are several cases where we do have strong evidence for the martyrdom of those who claimed to be eyewitnesses. The earliest of these is in the book of Acts itself, James the son of Zebedee (see above). The rest of the apostles knew, then, that death was a highly probable outcome of continuing to proclaim the Resurrection. And yet they persisted in that proclamation in spite of that fact. Thus, not only did the disciples have no good reason to lie about their testimony, they had very good reason not to lie, namely to save their own skins.

Legal scholar Simon Greenleaf, whom many regard as one of the greatest experts on eyewitness testimony who ever lived, applied the rules used in courts of law to the testimony of the evangelists. He wrote, "The result, it is confidently believed, will be an undoubting conviction of their integrity, ability, and truth."


Steven Carr said...

Not Greenleaf!

Was David Whitmer lying when he said he had seen Jesus?

Was Paul lying when he said Jesus had become a spirit?

Why didn't such a 'historian' as Luke ever record any appearance to any 500, or any appearance to James?

Perhaps because he had researched those stories?

John Fraser said...


You said, "Not Greenleaf!"

Yes, Greenleaf! (You sure know how to come up with the toughest objections!)

I'm no student of Mormon history, but I don't anything about David Whitmer claiming to have seen Jesus. If he made such a claim, it would have to be subjected to the same kind of evaluation as the Gospel writers - could he have been mistaken, could he have been lying? But as I say, I have no evidence to evaluate, and my initial web search on Whitmer didn't even turn up any such claim, so I don't know where you've gotten it from.

You said, “Was Paul lying when he said Jesus had become a spirit?”

Perhaps you’re referring to 1 Cor. 15:45 where Paul says “So also it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living soul.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” You’ll notice from the context that Paul is contrasting the natural body with the resurrection body. This is clear from the immediately preceding context where he says: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” So no, Paul doesn’t mean Jesus became a spirit in the sense that I think you’re trying to manufacture, as in a ghost or something.

Notice there is also the contrast between “living” and “life-giving”. Adam became alive when God breathed life into him. Jesus became life-giving through the resurrection, life-giving in a new sense – having the power to confer immortality.

You say, "Why didn't such a 'historian' as Luke ever record any appearance to any 500, or any appearance to James?"

I don't know. But Luke doesn't claim to have given an exhaustive account of every appearance, and in Acts he directly implies that there are things he has left out when he says, "To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God." So we know there is material that Luke was aware of which he chose not to include, which is a decision every historian has to make.

If you're making an argument from silence such that "Luke didn't mention those things so therefore they didn't happen", that's just a very weak argument, resting on nothing more than speculation on your part.

About me

My photo
My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.