Eye witness testimony and hearsay

The Gospel accounts record the period of Jesus life where he allegedly performed miracles, was put to death, buried, and raised from the dead.  One reason skeptics deny the reliability of the accounts is they were not penned by actual eye-witnesses, but instead are hearsay accounts.  Putting aside that a case can be made for Matthew and John being authored by the Apostles themselves, what if all four Gospels were not written by eye-witnesses, but are instead hearsay? So what?

One problem I have with this objection is how selective it is.  Generally speaking, unless the skeptic is defending turf, he will not offer this objection to other ancient histories.  Nearly all the ancient historians recorded events to which they were not contemporaries.  If hearsay were an absolute disqualifier, no history could be taught or learned from but skeptics are not so heavy-handed as to reject all ancient records of events on the basis they are hearsay.  So why is this objection so appealing to the skeptic when it comes to the Gospel accounts?

First, some skeptics may offer that hearsay testimony is inadmissible in court, therefore, we are justified in rejecting the testimony just as a court would.  So what?

Hearsay testimony as evidence may very well be inadmissible in a 21st century court.  However, the Gospel accounts were not written with the intent to pass muster in a modern court of law.  To anachronistically impose modern standards of documentary protocol upon these records is holding them to a standard they were never intended to be examined under by the authors.  This move is wholly disingenuous.  If we were to hold every piece of ancient documentation to the standard that it must pass modern legal protocol to be considered a reliable source of information, we would be forced to reject nearly everything we know about history.  Skeptics don’t hold every historical account to this standard, why not?  They don’t all contain a religious message.  This of course is arbitrary, and is thick with special pleading.

I have my doubts as to whether hearsay is really that important to the skeptic anyway.  If there was a first century written account, or even multiple secondhand “hearsay” accounts which recorded that no miracles took place and that Jesus was in fact buried in a mass grave and didn’t rise, skeptics all over would laud these documents as unimpeachable proof the Gospels were false.  No objections of hearsay would be mentioned, ever.

Hearsay is not the real issue even if it were a valid objection.  The Gospel accounts are dismissed because they report supernatural events.  The presupposition of atheism and naturalism poisons the investigation and defeats the purpose of investigation all together.  The investigation is to see whether we can take the Gospels as reliable records of the events surrounding the preaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Dismissing these accounts because supernatural events are recorded is dishonest since we are trying investigate whether supernatural events occurred.

The skeptic is essentially saying “Show me reliable documentation of the miracles of Jesus.  Any document which records supernatural events is unreliable.  The Gospels record supernatural events.  Therefore we have no reliable accounts for the miracles and resurrection of Jesus.”  They’ve defined away the evidence, then claim there is none.  Pretty clever, huh?  If the only source for a supernatural event is recorded in ancient written testimony, we cannot rightly say the only valid testimony is that which doesn’t contain a record of supernatural events.  It doesn’t get any more intellectually dishonest than that.

Rejecting a source because of non-conformity to modern standards of documentation is dishonest, especially when it has no bearing on their accuracy.  We rely on hearsay testimony all the time in many contexts in our lives and have no problem considering it reliable.  Arguing for an exception for the Gospel and New Testament accounts because they are religious in nature is nothing more than rigging the argument.  The skeptic’s bias toward atheism and against the supernatural requires them to hold the Gospels to a higher — and arguably impossible —  standard for reliability and defeats the entire purpose of investigation.

Comments

  1. Based on some pretty good research I’m not sure that it is appropriate to concede that the gospels are hearsay. “The Testimony of the Evangelists” and “Cold Case Christianity” both look at the evidence and make a pretty compelling argument for the gospels. Of course, you are totally correct that skeptics demand much more from the Bible than from any other book of a similar age,

    • Im not even making that concession. I think its particularly suspect that they rest so heavily on a complaint like this. Especially when whether it’s hearsay is irrelevant.

  2. I think skeptics demand so much more from the bible for three reasons:
    1. Arguably, no other book effects the beliefs and behavior of so many people.
    2. There are supernatural events that have not been witnessed or documented at any other point in history.
    3. Most of the stories in the bible are not backed up by other, independent, historical documents.

    Christians inconsistently scrutinize the bible compared to other religious texts. The book of Mormon, Native American oral tradition, and the Koran were all composed by similar means as the bible – yet Christians do not take those religious texts and stories seriously. Why?

    At least skeptics examine all texts with equal scrutiny.

    • Just because skeptics hand-wavingly dismiss religious texts doesnt mean Christians do this, nor does it mean they all have the se quality and quantity of supportive evidence.

      Just because an account contains supernatural events doesnt mean its false. If you do think that then thats a bias the skeptic has, its not a liability on the part of the text.

      • “Just because skeptics hand-wavingly dismiss religious texts”

        That’s not the case. Skeptics have been very thorough in the research. Taking the matter very seriously and earnestly attempting to discover the historical accuracy of the texts. Scholars and historians have dedicated their lives to it. So saying they “hand-wavingly dismiss” the texts is insulting.

        “Just because an account contains supernatural events doesnt mean its false.” I agree. And again, people have dedicated their lives to studying such things.

        I just find it interesting that Christians can accept the supernatural accuracy of the bible, but reject it in other religions as false.

        • I have yet to meet a skeptic who didnt have a caracicatured knowledge of the bible. They rely on atheist blogs for the kost part, from my experience.

          And again, you still seem to presume that all religious texts and traditions have an equal quality and quantity of evidence to support them.

          • There is a book called “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan you should read. The book itself is a pretty good summary, but the real gem is the giant bibliography and references at the end of the book.

            It’s a pretty good foundation for understanding a skeptics view and would be a good starting point to compare against accepted Christian Apologetic historical accounts.

            • Ive heard of it. Ive also read from skeptics and Christians that some of the info is greatly exaggerated and misleading. Bit I haven’t read it yet.

              • The biggest critique I’ve read about the book is that sometimes it oversimplifies a complex or disputed part of history. But in an overview style book I think that is expected. The one thing everyone praises is the thorough and sited research.

  3. One reason skeptics deny the reliability of the accounts is they were not penned by actual eye-witnesses, but instead are hearsay accounts.

    This is irrelevant. I would still be skeptical of anyone claiming to see bigfoot himself. The eyewitness account does not make it any more a credible source without evidence.

    … but skeptics are not so heavy-handed as to reject all ancient records of events on the basis they are hearsay. So why is this objection so appealing to the skeptic when it comes to the Gospel accounts?

    Can you please provide me any ancient record of a supernatural event outside the bible that is accepted as history?

    … impose modern standards of documentary protocol upon these records is holding them to a standard they were never intended to be examined under by the authors.

    It sounds like you’re simply complaining about the scientific methodology used to evaluate a claim.

    The Gospel accounts are dismissed because they report supernatural events. The presupposition of atheism and naturalism poisons the investigation and defeats the purpose of investigation all together.

    So you’re saying we must presuppose your conditions to validate your claim? Nonsense.

    If you’re going to make claims involving supernatural events, you’re going to have to come up with some evidence to actually support those claims other that a bunch of other people saying that they happened and we should just believe them.

  4. Wow, what a stupid question.

    • Stupid is thinking the scientific method can tell us if an event happened in the past.

      I claim I left my home using the front door today. How do you prove that using the scientific method?

  5. @Glenn – do you have any books you recommend? Also, way to site all super-conservative websites that border the nutty. And biased? The guy is a Muslim. You do realize that Muslims revere Jesus so there would be no conflict of interest in a Muslim studying Jesus.

  6. So tell me, John – how do you know if ANY history we learn is factual?

    How do you, John Barron, evaluate a claim made by anyone about any event that has been said to have happened?

  7. You were supposed to actually answer the questions…

  8. Let me help you out.

    Even though I wasn’t there for any of these events throughout history, I believe there is enough evidence put through the rigors of scientific methodology to confirm that they occurred: The holocaust, the US Civil War, the Roman Empire and the civilization in Egypt that built the pyramids.

    By contrast, however, I do not believe there is enough evidence that withstands the same scientific rigors to support many of the stories found in the bible.

    My question to you is: Why do you believe it? Outside of itself, what evidence is there to think that the bible is factual?

  9. Shame, John, I thought you were smarter than that.

    Here’s a flowchart as outlined in a 5th grade class. (http://bowenpeters.weebly.com/scientific-method.html)

    1. Have a question or purpose – (Did the holocaust happen?)
    2. Research – (There seems to be a lot of evidence that it did. Gather evidence)
    3. Hypothesize – (I’m going to say that it did in fact happen)
    4. Observe and test your hypothesis – (Examine evidence. Is the evidence reliable? The evidence does in fact support the hypothesis)
    5. Conclude – (Yes, based on the evidence, we can conclude that the holocaust did happen)

    Gee, that wasn’t too hard, was it?

    At this point, I would usually ask you to go back and answer any of my questions for you, but I know you won’t. You’ll probably take the conversation in some other direction to deflect any defense of your beliefs or try to attack some angle of my statement because you didn’t get the gist of what I was trying to say. Or, you’ll just ignore it and make a new post on some other straw man argument…

    • You #4 and #2 are essentially the same. You cant test and repeat a historical event. Why not just admit the scientific method is not used to examine history…you know like actual historians do history.

  10. This set of criteria also means, John, that you will have to place the same “belief” in every other religion or their history or any type of supernatural event.

  11. Aslan rejects the virgin birth, the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, the story of Jesus in the Temple, Jesus’ trial before Pilate, and again Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas, yet insists that Jesus had Twelve Apostles, cast out demons, healed people, and died on the cross. He treats the Gospels like a buffet, for Christ’s literal sake. He tries discrediting the Gospels WITH the Gospels.

    Aslan’s book is a joke.

  12. Atticus,

    Yes, I can recommend books:
    “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be An Atheist,” by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek.
    “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel.
    “The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict,” by Josh McDowell

    All these give the historical evidence for the veracity of the Bible and events recorded in it.

    So, because they are “conservative” reviewers their reviews are no good? It is a liberal, non-believer who has false claims of credentials, who wrote the book and that is okay, but conservative reviewers aren’t okay – they are just biased?!?!?

    I know all about Muslims and their beliefs. Which is why he is not an unbiased author when it comes to Jesus. They believe he is just one of a long succession of prophets.

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