The case is strong. As lead detective you have uncovered all the evidence and drawn the best conclusions. Eyewitness testimony is a key part of the evidence. But what if the jury members do not trust the witnesses? Why should they believe them? As the investigator you already have confidence in the eyewitnesses because you have already asked the important questions to establish trust.
When it comes to investigating Jesus, why should we trust the eyewitnesses? As we continue the journey of following the lead of cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace let us consider four key questions which Wallace says must be asked about eyewitnesses. Here again, we are only scratching the surface, please see Wallace’s book Cold-Case Christianity, where each question is the topic of an entire chapter. So what four questions are to be asked?
Were the eyewitnesses actually there?
Some who would love to discredit the eyewitnesses and strike their testimony from the investigation will claim that the writings of the New Testament, including the four Gospels were written far too late to contain any valid eyewitness testimony. However, if we can determine that they were written close to the events, then we can have confidence the eyewitnesses would have had the opportunity to review them, or be involved in the writing of them. So are there reasons we should consider the books of the New Testament as being written early? Though not Wallace’s full list, here are a few things to consider:
- The siege and destruction of Jerusalem including the destruction of the Temple is not mentioned in the works of the New Testament beyond a prophecy of Jesus. There are plenty of times where one would expect such to be mentioned. The simplest explanation for such absence is that these writings predate the Fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, and so while the eyewitnesses of Jesus are still alive.
- Luke, who wrote the history-focused book of Acts never mentions the deaths of Peter, Paul, or James in the 60’s AD. Since Luke would have been keen to point to their martyrdoms as examples of how they picked up their crosses and followed Jesus, it is reasonable to conclude that Luke wrote Acts before their deaths.
- As you can tell from his opening words in each, Luke wrote his Gospel before he wrote Acts, and so during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. It is widely agreed that the Gospel of Mark was written before that of Luke.
- Paul’s speaks of the eyewitnesses as being still alive to corroborate the testimony in 1st Corinthians 15:6
Can we verify what the eyewitnesses have said in some way?
Is there any corroborating evidence to show that the eyewitness testimony is genuine? Or does the evidence suggest that it is fabricated? Here are some things to consider:
- Wallace points to the “unintentional eyewitness support” which he encounters in crime cases. These happen one witness unintentionally says something that answers questions that another witness has raised. Wallace gives many examples, but here is one: We might wonder from reading Matthew 4:18-22 why Simon Peter and Andrew simply get up and follow Jesus. We learn from Luke 5:1-11 that Jesus had previously been fishing with them and was the cause of a miraculous catch of fish. Of course they get up and follow when he calls!
- There is a genuine feel to the testimony with the little discrepancies in the stories which you expect when people remember the same events, but from different perspectives. For an example of how people remember the same things slightly differently, ask someone how long this week’s sermon felt! If every person in church that day answered with 53 minutes and 12 seconds, you you would suspect a collusion and a memorized answer. Genuine witnesses do not need to memorize what they know to be true. Discrepencies are a mark of authenticity.
- The Gospels were written from different parts of the Roman Empire. However, they all reference names which are appropriate to the location of Palestine in that time. This is an extra piece of evidence that the Gospel writers know what they are talking about.
- Other writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish make reference to Jesus, and while they are sceptical about the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead, they do confirm the kinds of things that were being said about Jesus whether they liked it or not.
Have the eyewitnesses changed their story over time?
You don’t want to trust witnesses who change their stories. Did the followers of Jesus say one thing early on, then something quite different later? Some things to consider:
- The evidence points to the students of the eyewitnesses as being trustworthy in keeping and handing on their testimony. We will look at this next week.
- Through something called “textual criticism” we can be quite certain about the reliability of the texts which we have. This will be covered two weeks from now.
- The Jewish people were very good at keeping important records. The Christian Church inherited this passion for integrity in guarding the truth.
To sum this point up, the apostles never changed their tune despite pressure to do so, and the early Christians kept right on playing the same tune.
Do the eyewitnesses have a reason to lie?
Does the evidence suggest that the apostles were simply telling what they knew to be true, or did they have some motive to conspire together in a lie? Consider:
- Wallace points out that the three key motives for being involved in a crime revolve around money, sex, or power. The apostles did not stand to gain in any of these things, in fact they stood to lose their lives for sticking to their testimony that Jesus was risen.
- Some would say that we should not even consider the testimony of the apostles, for they had become Christians, and their testimony therefore is biased toward a “Christian slant.” Of course they were biased. They became biased because of what they saw and knew to be true. To not admit their testimony would be like not admitting the testimony of a witness because they were now biased regarding the guilt of the person they saw commit a murder. To quote Wallace from Cold-Case Christianity: “The disciples were not prejudicially biased; they were evidentially certain.”
Jesus called the apostles to fulfil the role of witnesses:
After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. . . . He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:3,7,8 (NRSV emphasis mine)
While we often apply this text to all Christians, we should not lose sight of the fact that Jesus is talking specifically here to the apostles. They were to fulfil the role of witnesses, telling everyone they knew, and everyone they didn’t know, about what they had seen and knew to be true. In the writing of the documents that make up the New Testament, their testimony has been preserved. They are still eyewitnesses down to this day. They are good witnesses, of some very very Good News! What will you do with their testimony?