Updated: Nov 21, 2020
00:45 Topic Intro
1:00 Apologetics and arguments
2:10 Critique 1: Are eyewitness testimonies a good thing?
5:37 Bias and eyewitnesses
12:00 Doubting Authorship
Hello and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast. This podcast is brought to you in association with “Culture at a Crossroad”, which is a new podcast hosted by David Mann from Life 100.3. His goal is to help navigate different cultural challenges, and how we can engage with those around us on these pertinent issues. So far he has had people on like former Premier Kathleen Wynne, marijuana advocate “the prince of pot” Marc Emery, and former senior cabinet minister Tony Clement. You can check out his podcast on all platforms or by going to davidmannmedia.com/podcast.
Today on the Ultimate Questions podcast, we’re going to be diving into a new topic, but it’s still quite related to what we’ve been doing in terms of the history of the New Testament. We’re going to be looking at the nature of eyewitness testimony, and evaluating whether the New Testament really is the writings of people who witnessed the events they’re describing. I’ve been really excited to get into this topic for a while now, and had a lot of fun researching this.
Apologetics, by its nature, quite often revolves around arguments. Not necessarily “arguments” in the sense of being mean to someone, but just in the sense that people disagree with each other, and then have dialogue and even debate on the issue. Some arguments can get nasty, but it’s also quite common for arguments to be civil, and even enjoyable! Some of the best and most meaningful conversations I’ve had have been polite arguments with people that I disagree with. One tip I’ll give you in terms of having good arguments, is that you always want to make a real effort to understand the opposing viewpoint. It’s crucial to understand where the other person is coming from. In apologetics, we always need to be aware of the non-Christian view on any given issue, and not just to the extent of how to attack it, but also to genuinely appreciate where the other person is coming from. We do this by looking at and evaluating the best possible arguments our opposition has. To start off our topic of looking into the nature of eyewitness testimony, I thought we would begin by looking at two of the major critiques made against the New Testament.
When discussing eyewitness testimony, skeptics have attacked the New Testament firstly by challenging whether eyewitness testimonies are even a good thing, and secondly by questioning whether the New Testament was even written by eyewitnesses. So lets’ start with that first issue, are eyewitness testimonies even a good thing to have? I image quite a few people listening to this are a bit confused as to how that can be a legitimate question, so I will elaborate. One reason that some people question the importance of eyewitness testimony is that having an eyewitness is usually just circumstantial evidence. To clarify that point, direct evidence is something that directly leads to the conclusion, like literally watching a murder take place firsthand. Circumstantial evidence is bits of information that infer the conclusion, but it’s not considered direct, because an inference is needed. An example of this would be seeing a man enter the house at 10pm, hearing screaming, then seeing him leave the house with a bloody knife. You arrive at the same conclusion, quite logically, but in one case you observe it directly, and in the other case inference is required. In terms of the New Testament, some skeptics might say that they want something more direct and concrete than merely the observations of a few people that were present.
However, I would argue that eyewitnesses are quite an invaluable resource to have when trying to piece together the past. In some places, during court cases for murder investigations, it is stated that circumstantial evidence is treated with just as much respect as more direct evidence. In fact, many murder investigations are solved by nothing but circumstantial evidence! If we were to diminish and devalue this type of argumentation, we would actually lose quite a bit. We treat circumstantial evidence with respect in other circles, so why not with the New Testament? I think ultimately, the answer is bias.
One of the books I read for this podcast was J. Warner Wallace’s book, “Cold Case Christianity”, which I highly recommend by the way. It deals with academic content, but at a much more pop level, so that anyone can read it. In his book, he tells his story. He was a detective for many years, and helped solve many cold cases, which are murder investigations that couldn’t be solved, and are then returned to years later. He was originally an atheist, but upon investigation of the New Testament, he converted to Christianity. I found it interesting that he realized at a certain point that he was bringing a different standard to critiquing the Bible than he was for his murder investigations. Basically, in court, when deciding the fate of a person’s life, trying to convict them of murder, he would actually apply a WEAKER standard of proof than he was doing for the Bible! He was demanding a high enough standard for the Bible, that he wouldn’t have to seriously consider the claims found within it. He actually had to admit to himself that he was biased, and started to treat the evidence fairly. When he did this, it quickly became apparent that the argument for Christianity was actually quite strong, which eventually led him to his conversion.
So to come back to the question of whether eyewitness testimony is valuable. Yes, it’s circumstantial evidence, but that’s totally acceptable. We just have to do a good job compiling the evidence, and then inferring logical conclusions as best we can.
Some also argue against the value of eyewitness testimonies by pointing out that the authors of the New Testament were biased in favour of Christianity, so their records would be tainted, and we can’t really respect their testimonies. This is actually an incredibly common complaint against the Bible, even if it’s not always worded the way I just did. Skeptics will often criticize anyone arguing for Christianity by saying things like, “you can’t use the Bible to prove Christianity!” They will demand that the Christian use non-biblical sources, because, after all, the Bible was written by Christians, so obviously they’re biased in favour of their cause. The thought is that unbiased testimonies will always be better, and even that biased testimonies can’t be trusted at all.
Before we evaluate that sort of claim, it’s important to know what bias is. When someone has a bias for some position, it means they have an inclination to lean a certain way, and it’s typically understood to be unfair. They have some kind of motivation, or predisposition, to naturally think one opinion is better than another. This is usually a negative thing, when the bias encourages prejudice, meaning, the person looks down on the other perspective, and isn’t willing to consider it. So, to answer the question, were the writers of the New Testament biased? Not really. They weren’t really biased in an unfair kind of way where they had a prejudice, but they did strongly believe the truth of Christianity, and they wanted to share it with the world. After all, that’s why they wrote the books of the New Testament. That said, I don’t think we should find this surprising, in fact, we never find it surprising in anything else we come in contact with. For example, if you wanted to read a book about archery, would you not choose a book written by someone who was passionate about archery? Even someone who would be considered a world class archer? That’s just common sense. It makes sense that people who write passionately about a topic are going to be the ones that are the most passionate about the topic. In terms of the New Testament, we shouldn’t find it odd at all that Christian texts are our main source of information about the life of Jesus and the history of the Early Church. In fact, it would actually be incredibly odd if the source that gave us the most information about Jesus was someone that was quite disinterested in Him.
Additionally, even though we admit the New Testament authors were passionate about what they were writing about, that alone doesn’t eliminate their writings as being evidence and testimony regarding the events they describe. If this still sounds odd, and you still think it sounds like the writers of the New Testament were biased, let me give you a little analogy.
Suppose for a moment someone was murdered, and the victim’s brother witnessed the murder. In this case, the brother of the victim would obviously have very strong feelings against the murderer. They feel quite passionate about trying to get the murderer convicted of the crime and do as much time in jail as possible. They might even get emotional, to the point of angry outbursts, because they’re just so emphatic about wanting the murderer to be punished.
With this case of extreme passion in favour of one position, would it be fair for the judge to dismiss the brother’s testimony, saying his testimony is useless, because he’s biased? Obviously not! If anything, the passion the brother has actually works in favour of his testimony, because he believes so strongly that this person is the murderer, based on what he witnessed with his own eyes. He’s not really “biased”, because he’s giving an account of what he witnessed, and his experience has affected him on an emotional level. In the case of the New Testament, the eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus were so passionately in favour of Christianity, because they had seen firsthand what Jesus did! They had witnessed the miracles, heard His teaching, and even observed His death and resurrection. The interesting point about the eyewitnesses is that they weren’t “Christians” before all the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They became Christians because of what they experienced and witnessed. Prior to that, they were confused about Jesus’ death, wondering how that could make any sense. They were even disillusioned, and abandoning the cause, going back to their old jobs. However, after witnessing the resurrection of Jesus, they became incredibly impassioned for the Gospel. As an example, the apostle Thomas, known by the nickname “doubting Thomas”, refused to believe in the resurrection until he saw it with his own eyes. When Jesus revealed His wounds to Thomas, he finally accepted the resurrection. Of course an event like this would make you feel strongly about the situation! You’ve seen it firsthand!
So, I don’t think it’s fair to say the New Testament writers were “biased”, because it wasn’t just an opinion, but instead, the experiences they observed firsthand. However, yes, the writers of the New Testament were passionate, but we should expect that, and it doesn’t diminish their testimonies at all. If anything, we need to explain why they were so passionate, and it ends up working as an argument in favour of Christianity. The eyewitnesses were passionate because they had witnessed firsthand the amazing things Jesus said and did, but we shouldn’t confuse passion for bias.
Moving on, there’s another argument that tries to devalue the nature of the eyewitness testimonies found in the New Testament. Perhaps the biggest argument skeptics make against the reliability of the New Testament is to doubt the authorship of the books. Let’s focus in on the Gospels. Skeptics will quite commonly try to cast doubt on the idea that Matthew was actually written by Matthew, John by John, and so on. From the skeptic’s perspective, if Matthew wasn’t actually written by Matthew, and instead, was written by someone else, quite a bit later, who had merely heard from someone who had heard from someone, then it’s definitely not an eyewitness testimony, and wouldn’t hold nearly as high a level of credibility.
Now, we’ll be diving into this more in the future, because there’s a ton of really great stuff we can look at to determine whether the New Testament books were written by eyewitnesses, but for now, let me just make a broad point. One of the best arguments in favour of the truth of Christianity is the martyrdom of the eyewitnesses. We’ll go much deeper into this idea in future podcasts, but the basic idea is that, if someone is willing to die for a belief, that says they very strongly believe that thing. However, if someone is willing to die for what they witnessed, that’s an entirely different mater. It’s not just that the person strongly believes something; instead, they actually witnessed something firsthand, and are so unwilling to deny what they saw, that they will die for it. In terms of the New Testament writers, they were going around teaching and writing about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They died for what they taught, they taught what they wrote, they wrote what they witnessed, and we still have those writings today! This amounts to quite a strong argument for the claims in the New Testament. However, the skeptic comes in by asking the question, do we really know that these writings are from the eyewitnesses? What if they were written by other people, who just used the names of popular people, so their books would get more attention?
We’ll go further into this in the future, but for now, I think it’s quite interesting to note that the books of the New Testament were written very soon after the events they describe. There are debates about the exact dating, but Jesus was crucified somewhere around 30ad, and the books all date within only a few decades of that, with the Gospel of John being quite late, in the end of the first century. In other words, all of the New Testament books were written early enough that they could have easily been written by actual eyewitnesses. For someone to say that the books of the New Testament were written within the time period that the eyewitnesses were still alive, by people who were incredibly passionate about the Gospel, but that they couldn’t have possibly been written by their namesakes, would require a pretty strong argument.
So we’re going to be diving more into this idea in the next few future podcasts, so I hope you’ll join me next time, on the Ultimate Questions podcast, from Power to Change Students.