Eyewitness TestimoniesUltimate Questions
Join Jon as he dives into a new topic on the Ultimate Question podcast - eyewitness testimony, bias, and authorship. Sound & Editing by Laura Saad
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.
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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
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 favor 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 favor 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 favor 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 favor 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 favor 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 favor 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 favor
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
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.