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.