I often receive emails (or posts) from skeptics who contest my trust in the gospel eyewitness accounts given recent studies and articles that challenge the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Eyewitness testimony, they argue, is “the least reliable form of evidence in a criminal trial”. If this is the case, why should we trust the gospel authors? It’s true that there are several examples of court cases in which jurors trusted a witness for his or her testimony, convicted a defendant, and then later discovered that the witness was mistaken about the testimony. It’s also true that witnesses occasionally lie about their observations! But this has little impact on my decision to trust the gospel writers, because I understand the need that juries have to test eyewitnesses.
In Cold-Case Christianity, I begin by providing readers with ten principles of cold-case investigations. The fourth chapter is simply entitled, “Test Your Witnesses”. In this chapter, I offer the template that is used in the State of California by judges who instruct juries in criminal trials. It includes a series of fourteen questions that jurors can ask themselves as they examine the reliability of any witness on the stand. The important probative questions can be divided into four large categories. In essence, it’s important to find out if an eyewitness was actually present at the time of the crime, can be corroborated by outside evidence, has been accurate and consistent in the past, and is free of bias that might prejudice his or her testimony or motivate him or her to tell a lie.
I’m not foolish enough to suggest that every witness should be trusted without vetting. Heck, I don’t even trust my own teenagers without vetting! But once these four areas have been examined and an eyewitness is found to pass the test in these important categories, it’s reasonable to accept their testimony as reliable. In fact, if an eyewitness measures up in these four areas, Jurors have a duty to assume the best in them until they have a reason to do otherwise. Section 105 of the Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instruction (2006) instructs jurors to set aside “any bias or prejudice [they] may have,” including any based on the witness’s gender, race, religion, or national origin. In addition, jurors are instructed: “If the evidence establishes that a witness’s character for truthfulness has not been discussed among the people who know him or her, you may conclude from the lack of discussion that the witness’s character for truthfulness is good”. In essence, witnesses are to be trusted unless you’ve got a specific reason not to.
In the second section of Cold-Case Christianity, I spend four chapters looking at the gospel eyewitness accounts and testing them with the template used by jurors in criminal trials. It’s true that there are occasions when the testimony of a false witness can slip through a trial because the witness is not properly vetted. I try not to let that happen with the gospel writers. It’s critical that we test witnesses before accepting what they say, and I take a rather vigorous approach with this courtroom template. Many who’ve now read the book (it was just released last week), tell me that this second section of the book was incredibly helpful to them. I am hopeful objective readers will see how well the gospel writers measure up. Yes, witnesses can be unreliable. That’s why I wrote a book about how we can determine who is to be trusted and who is not. I don’t trust the gospel writers simply because they are eyewitnesses. I trust them because they can be vetted and determined to be reliable eyewitnesses.
J. Warner Wallace is the author of Cold Case Christianity