Can we believe the Gospels?
A former chief magistrate examines the witnesses to the resurrection
Published: 28 March 2007 (GMT+10)
Clarrie Briese, B.A., Diploma of Criminology (Cantab), A.O., is a former Chief Magistrate (judge)1 of N.S.W., Australia (now retired). He is renowned in Australia for his work in rooting out corruption—no matter where it was found—and in Christian circles for defeating a high-profile humanist attempt to destroy creation ministry with lies (see interview, Blowing the whistle on corruption). Here he applies his formidable legal knowledge to the testimony of the Apostles.
The truth of the Resurrection stands or falls on the truth of the witnesses. Are they reliable? Of the New Testament writers, there are six witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, if we include the apostles Peter and Paul. These people have left us writings in the form of historical documents which give us their testimony concerning the resurrection.
The question is—are these historical documents reliable? Can we trust them? One way of determining whether the documents are reliable is to put the people who wrote them through the test a good magistrate or judge would put them through. The accuracy of these witnesses depends on five things: their honesty, ability, their number and consistency of their evidence, the conformity of their testimony with our own personal experience, and lastly, the coincidence of their testimony with other circumstances and facts.
Were the authors of the four accounts of the Resurrection—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, together with Paul and Peter in their letters—honest? There is general consensus that Mark and Luke were almost certainly the writers of the Gospels that bear their name.2 There is no doubt that all were dedicated followers of the man Jesus Christ.
As for Paul, we know that he began his career as Saul, the learned Pharisee who was steeped in the knowledge of the Old Testament, who had studied at the feet of the famous Gamaliel. He was a bitter opponent of the early Christian church and did his best to stamp out the Christian movement by persecution and death for its adherents. Then he had an experience which revolutionised his thinking, changed his life, converted him to the cause of Christ, and made him the most powerful advocate for it in the then known world.
Well, how does one ascertain if witnesses are honest in the sense of being sincere?
Taking character first. What observations are available? First, a general reading of the writings of the witnesses gives the distinct impression that these men are men of integrity and truthfulness.
They portray Jesus as one who taught with great authority and conviction, as one who had a passion for truth, who abominated hypocrisy and abhorred lying and deception. They themselves were committed disciples of the man they were writing about. As men of Jewish stock, steeped in the Old Testament, they knew the requirements of their law that witnesses be true. The only logical and sensible inference from all this is that they themselves were honest men who were concerned for the truth. They were not deceitful.
Put in another way, the writings of these five men contain some of the highest moral and ethical teaching the world has known. If these men were not honest, then they represent a baffling contradiction of what they themselves were proclaiming.
As dishonest, conspiratorial men, the character they have created in the man Jesus Christ is such that it would have been an impossible task for them to have done it. How could five men conspire together to create a sublime character in a superb piece of fiction which surpasses anything to be found in the literature of the world? That does not ring true. Indeed it is so preposterous that there is scarcely a single intelligent critic who argues today that the testimony of these witnesses is deliberately false.
When one turns to the motives of these men, if the story they were telling about Jesus Christ was not believed by them to be true, what possible motive could have prompted them to proclaim it as they did and to die for it as they did? They certainly knew when they went out to challenge the world with the proclamation that Christ had been raised from the dead that the only reaction they could expect from the authorities, both Jewish and Roman, would be opposition, persecution and death.
Now it is true that many people in history have died because they believed in and fought for a lie, but in every case these people did not believe it to be a lie. They thought it to be the truth, worth dying for.
The second test for witnesses is their ability. To be believed, the witness must at least be a person of sound mind and intelligence. He must have powers of observation which enable him to observe clearly, and a good memory which enables him to recall what he has seen or heard. The law presumes that a witness is of sound mind with average intelligence and this presumption continues until evidence is brought which establishes otherwise. This legal presumption would apply also to the witnesses we are considering but, apart from that presumption, there are indications which lead us to the conclusion that these men are well qualified as witnesses of ability.
First, we note that they wrote in Greek, although they were themselves Hebrews, so they were obviously men of some literacy. Secondly, the writings themselves show the authors to be men of intelligence and ability. For example, Luke, who wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, has been shown by careful research to be an historian of the first rank, so accurate and professional was his approach to his work.3
One criticism levelled against these witnesses is that they testified from a position of bias, that being ardent disciples of Jesus their testimony must be greatly affected by that bias and colour everything they wrote about Him.4 There is the suggestion that this would have resulted in exaggeration and distortion of the facts. On the face of it I suppose that sounds plausible. However, when you read their writings, you do not encounter the language of fanaticism, the language of prejudice, or language normally associated with a lack of objectivity.
Another example: The Gospel writers include in their accounts some of their own stupid actions and mistakes, even recording that Jesus called their leader ‘Satan’. Calculating, subjective and prejudiced men do not operate in this fashion.
Experience teaches us that where a witness divulges material or facts which belittles the witness and puts him or her under criticism or in a bad light, and that material could have remained hidden but for the witness volunteering it, you can be pretty sure that such a person is telling the truth. Men and women do not invent stories to their own discredit. So why would the Gospel writers include incidents which showed up their past weaknesses, mistakes and stupidities? And why would they assert that women were the first witnesses to the Resurrection, when that society regarded women’s testimony as worthless, unless women really were the first witnesses?5
They also included difficult sayings of Jesus which could be misinterpreted and place Jesus in a bad light. For example, we think of His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane where He shrinks from the thought of death and again His cry of God-forsakenness on the cross. Men who wrote with a lack of objectivity, for example with the agenda to present Jesus in the most heroic light, would be sorely tempted to omit that view of Him. That the authors of the Gospel did not is a tribute to their honesty, to their obvious desire to be accurate in the facts about Jesus.
Finally we have to ask ourselves whether these witnesses had the opportunity to witness the facts and circumstances about which they were testifying. Their testimony comes from two sources.
First, they were themselves eyewitnesses of many of the events about which they testified, in particular, the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.
Secondly, they also obtained material from other eyewitnesses and other reliable sources. These five men were therefore in an excellent position to record the events of the Gospel histories because a great deal of their testimony rests on the best testimony of all—eyewitness testimony.
There is one final objection to the accounts of these witnesses on the ground that these accounts were written so long after the events that they had forgotten them or had confused them with various traditions and legends which had grown up about Jesus. This was pretty effective criticism up until the last century, before which it was thought that the Gospels had not been committed to writing until the second century AD. It has now been established that the Gospels were written between 30 and 60 years after the death of Jesus.3
Classical historians have shown that even two full generations would not be sufficient for myths to overcome a historical core. Thus the time gap between the Gospel writings and the events they record are not long enough to affect matters of substance in their accounts.6
Number of Witnesses
Lawyers all know the value of witnesses who corroborate each other. The credibility of a witness is greatly improved, if what he says is corroborated by other witnesses who say substantially the same thing. The more supporting witnesses there are, the greater the credibility of the witness who is corroborated. Corroboration requires that there is reasonable consistency between the testimony of the witness testifying and the corroborating witnesses. Where you have discrepancies occurring in matters of substance, the credibility of one or more of the witnesses tends to be destroyed.
On the other hand where witnesses support each other verbatim word for word, in every minor detail, one inference that can be drawn is that the witnesses have put their heads together and concocted the evidence.
Now apply this test to the witnesses concerning the resurrection. They certainly corroborate each other on the major issues, in particular that Jesus had been crucified, was dead, buried in a tomb, and had risen from the dead, and was alive. But there is a seeming discrepancy in some of their details. Are these discrepancies such as to weaken or destroy their evidence as to the resurrection itself?
I think not. Indeed I believe it is just those kinds of discrepancies, so familiar to us in the courts, which give integrity and authenticity to their story. In the first place they clearly indicate that they did not put their heads together. They are independent accounts of what happened. Furthermore it is becoming clearer with research that the four Gospel writers had different audiences and different purposes in mind. This factor has a great bearing on some of the discrepancies and of course some of the discrepancies are mere omissions of details. Secular historians dealing with identical events also could be accused about discrepancies of that kind.7 Yet they are not discredited on that account, and quite properly so. It is to be expected that would be the case.
Attention to the discrepancies in the Gospels can divert us from the fact that there is a huge amount of corroboration between the four accounts. In some cases the kind of corroboration is so significant as to give special support for the proposition that these men were recording the facts of history concerning Jesus with minute accuracy.
We pass now to the fourth test and that is to whether the testimony of the evangelists fits in with human experience. When people testify in court or they relate an incident out of court to somebody else, that testimony or account of an incident will usually be subjected to a mental process of analysis by the person listening to it. The question will be asked: ‘Is what this person is saying in harmony with my own experience of the world? Is it possible that what the person is saying could have happened?’
This brings us to what is probably regarded to be the most serious criticism of the Gospel narratives. They solemnly report that Jesus performed miracles, that He had complete power to alter or suspend the laws of nature. Indeed, that He had the power to restore life to a person who was dead, for example Lazarus. Miracles are not part of the experience of most people.
We know, too, that both within and outside church traditions there have been from time to time claims made of miracles taking place and we know or we think we know that these claims are false or highly suspect. Add to that our own life and there is a conclusion by many people, perhaps a great many people, that the miracles of the New Testament are also false or highly suspect.
So how do we account for miracles over nature, miracles over death, miracles which are outside our own personal experience and the experience of people generally when evaluating the credibility of the Gospel writers?
Does the report of miracles performed by Christ destroy the credibility of our witnesses and hence the truthfulness of their accounts? Now, I don’t pretend to be an authority on miracles, nor do I know how they might occur or what physical or other processes are involved when they do occur. However, in my view of the world, not only is it possible for miracles to occur, it would, given my view of the world, be quite strange, indeed odd, if at certain points in the history of the world they did not occur.
Reduced to essentials, there are two ways in which this world is sought to be explained. The first is the materialist explanation, which says that the world has been in existence for countless millions of years and, in the course of time, matter in the world has evolved into the forms of life and nature. This development and the processes which underlie it are not controlled by any independent intelligence. Essentially, the world as we know it today has happened by chance, by accident.
The second explanation is that the world as we know it was brought into being by the power of an Almighty God, a God who is infinitely superior to and separate from nature—the world did not happen by chance.
I am not an academic, but I regard myself to be a person of average intelligence. Over the years I have looked at the work of a number of eminent people who expound the first explanation, as well as those who support the second. I can only say that I believe the second explanation to be the true explanation and the first one false.
If that explanation of the world is true, then ipso facto the God who created this world and the laws which govern it has also the power to override or addto those laws. That He has from time to time through history exercised that power to serve His purposes is the claim of the people of God from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.8
In particular, during the three years of the ministry of Jesus, the claim is made by Jesus and attested to by four witnesses, that it is by His miracles as well as by His teaching that He demonstrated Himself to be uniquely related to the God of the Old Testament, that He was indeed the Divine Son of God.
So my view is this—not only does the appearance of miracles in the account of the Gospel writers not destroy their credibility, it would be their absence which would destroy it. For if Jesus did not have the power to perform miracles, He could not have been the Messiah, prophesied and spoken about in the Old Testament. And we know that the New Testament writers deliberately portrayed Jesus to be the Messiah.
Without the power over nature, He could not have been the special Son of God which He Himself claimed to be. It is those very miracles, in particular His resurrection, which gave authenticity to His claims to be God, and give authenticity to His teaching about the Kingdom of God.
And if He was not what He claimed to be as recorded by the evangelists, the Divine Son of God, the Son of Man, then He is shown to be nothing more than a grand megalomaniac. A great deal of His teaching would then just be simply gobble-de-gook.
Coincidence of Witnesses
Finally, there is the fifth test—that there be coincidence between the testimony of witnesses and the collateral and contemporaneous facts and circumstances.
This involves, or should involve, potential knowledge of a considerable amount of surrounding detail on the part of witnesses who testify to a particular fact or event. Anybody who goes in for perjury is well aware of this. Multiplicity of details is studiously avoided by a false witness. A perjurer confines his or her evidence to one or two crucial facts whose attendant facts and circumstances are few and simple.
The truthful witness on the other hand, is usually candid, ingenuous and copious in his statements. He shows a willingness to answer all questions, even those involving the most minute details, and seems totally indifferent to the question of verification or contradiction. The texture of his testimony is therefore equal, natural and unrestrained.
There are many instances where the Gospel writers give detail which we find coincides with details described by secular writers of the time. The most obvious one concerning the resurrection is of course Pontius Pilate.
The Gospels state that he sat in judgement on Jesus Christ. Both Josephus and Tacitus tell us that Pilate was governor of Judea at that time. Now from secular historians, both ancient and modern, we are told that the power of life and death had been taken from the Jews and vested in the Roman government. So they are in agreement with what the apostle John wrote in John 18:31.
To summarise, one is left to say that the only rational conclusion is that the witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ are witnesses of the highest credibility. If we are unable to accept their histories, why would we accept the histories of any other incident in the human race?
Millions of Christians of all denominations celebrate the events of Easter. They remember time and again the facts surrounding the crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of our Lord. When on Easter Sunday we hear the declaration ringing in our ears once again: ‘The Lord is risen’, it is comforting to know that on the basis of highly credible evidence, we can confidently respond: ‘He is risen indeed.’
- In Australia, judges of the local courts are called magistrates. In the US, the term ‘judge’ is used for both local and higher court judiciary figures. Return to Text
- See for example, Holding, J.P., Gospel Dates, Gospel Authors, Gospels Freedoms: Profiles of Key Issues Concerning the Four Gospels. Return to Text
- See the documentation in Jaronczyk, R,. The Nativity: Fact or Fiction? 23 December 2006. Return to Text
- This objection also reverses cause and effect. Did the bias cause them to report as witnesses to the Resurrection, or rather, did the witness to the Resurrection cause the bias? J.P. Holding argues cogently in The Impossible Faith: Or, How Not to Start an Ancient Religion that there are at least 17 factors that meant Christianity could not have succeeded in the ancient world, unless it was backed up with irrefutable proof of the Resurrection. Return to Text
- [Ed: Consistent Christian teaching has done more to elevate women than any other philosophy; see the concluding section of Cosner, Lita, Abortion: an indispensable right or violence against women? 6 February 2007.] Return to Text
- According to Sherwin-White, A.N., classical scholar of Oxford University, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, pp. 189–19, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1963. Return to Text
- See Holding, J.P., Harmonization: The Issue of Complementary Accounts, with the ‘Lincoln Challenge’. Return to Text
- See also Sarfati, J., Miracles and science, 1 September 2006. Return to Text