My journey toward Christianity began when I examined the gospels in order to uncover the words of Jesus. I was interested in Jesus as nothing more than a source of ancient wisdom and my curiosity about him caused me to begin sifting through the New Testament gospels. I was immediately struck by the appearance of what I call “unintentional eyewitness” support; a feature I often see in multiple accounts from eyewitnesses at crime scenes. This caused me to examine the accounts in much more detail and I eventually applied principles of Forensic Statement Analysis to the gospel of Mark. I wrote Cold-Case Christianity from the perspective of a cold-case detective examining the claims of the gospel writers and testing them for eyewitness reliability. Several skeptics have questioned this foundational premise however, and challenged the premise that the gospels are eyewitness accounts in the first place. One significant objection is the fact that the gospel writers often include information for events they simply could not have personally observed (i.e. the birth narratives in Matthew and several instances in all the gospels where Jesus is described as being alone). How can the gospels be eyewitness accounts if they include things that the authors could not have witnessed? When reading eyewitness statements from cold-cases that were originally investigated decades ago, I find these statements (accounts) include three kinds of firsthand information:
Eyewitnesses include descriptions of events and occurrences that they personally observed and experienced.
Eyewitnesses include descriptions of events and occurrences that they did not personally observe, but were aware of on the basis of information given to them by someone else at the time.
Eyewitnesses include descriptions of general cultural conditions and truths that were a part of the common knowledge of the time, even though they had no direct experience or observation upon which to rely.
It’s true that in most criminal court settings, “firsthand experience” and “firsthand knowledge” are typically the only areas of testimony that are admitted as evidence. Testimony related to what I call “firsthand access” is generally considered to be hearsay (because the original source for this information is unavailable for cross examination). But this does not mean that information in this category is untrue or invalid. There are a number of conditions in which hearsay is admissible in criminal cases, but beyond that, the hearsay standard in criminal trials is narrowly designed to provide the highest possible protection for those being accused of a crime. We would rather set one hundred guilty people free then falsely convicted one innocent person. For this reason, we want to be able to vigorously cross examine witnesses who are providing accusatory information.
But this high standard associated with hearsay testimony is completely unreasonable when examining the claims of eyewitnesses related to historical events. Once an eyewitness of an historical event dies, everything that witness claims is no longer open to cross examination. Under the criminal court standard for such testimony, we would have to ignore anything that can’t be offered by a living eyewitness (and therefore vigorously cross examined). If we applied this standard to our personal lives, none of us could have confidence in our own family history beyond the generation of living parents and grandparents. That’s an unacceptably high standard when examining the claims of eyewitnesses related to historical events. Eyewitnesses provide information in light of their own personal experience and observation, their own access to information from other living eyewitnesses, and their own intimate knowledge of the culture in which they live. I find this to be true in every case I have ever worked. The fact that an eyewitness would choose to provide information from “firsthand access” does not discredit what they are providing from “firsthand experience” or “firsthand knowledge”. In fact, the inclusion of additional details simply provides the investigator with more data to investigate, corroborate and elaborate to the jury.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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January 11, 2021 at 7:21 am
Question: How do eyewitness accounts play a role in the writing of the gospels?