- Religion and Philosophy
The Gospels on Trial
Christian faith is based on certain historical realities, occurrences and statements made by disciples, prominent personages and other eyewitness accounts of the time. They all deal fundamentally with the identity of one man, Jesus Christ. Testimony about this one lone historical figure consists largely of narratives on the life and teachings of Jesus by the 12 apostles from the time they first became involved with Him until His death about four years later. These accounts are commonly known as the Gospels.
How reliable are their accounts and can we believe them? Were they biased, was their perception distorted or were they simply lying? These are questions men have been asking for centuries. Some have taken the information at face value and believed on faith. Others remain skeptical. That’s understandable, its’ human nature to question.
But, since questions about Jesus entail claims about facts, can they be proven? Some have tried to do so by using methods found in man’s legal court process. The specific questions are these: Were they correct Jesus claimed He was the Son of God, the promised Messiah? Did they actually see Jesus perform miracles? Did they see the risen Christ following His burial?
Some argue the claim of Jesus’ resurrection is unbelievable because it goes against the laws of nature and is inconsistent with ordinary human experience. Any reasonable person, without further investigation, would normally reject them out of hand. However, no verdict can be presumed before examining the evidence. It must be decided if the testimony submitted by the witnesses is credible. For instance, Matthew never directly claims to be an eyewitness. However, he does write in the first person about events he sees and participates in. In contrast, John describes himself simply as, “the disciple whom Jesus loved," and claims to be an accurate and truthful witness to many events.
Both claimed to be present when Jesus taught about his identity and worked miracles. John personally witnessed the death of Jesus and both testify they saw him a number of times after burial. Here are two men who said they saw and heard remarkable things. How would their testimony hold up in a court of law today? A prosecuting attorney would no doubt have a field day trying to disprove their credibility.
First, the prosecutor would try to discover if the defendants had previously made statements inconsistent with their current testimony. Secondly, the prosecutor would try to show if the witnesses were biased because of a kinship for one party or hostility to another. Third would be to cast doubt on the character of the witnesses. The prosecutor would follow up by trying to prove the defendant’s incapacity to observe, remember, or recount the matters testified about and produce other witnesses to refute their testimony.
However, no evidence has ever been produced showing the witnesses ever claimed the events in question never happened, contradicted themselves regarding any of the facts, or altered their story. They began proclaiming their testimony from the beginning and never changed it. Surely, had there been any variation, it would have been seized upon immediately.
Did the disciples have motivation to lie? Every apostle, except John, was killed because of their belief in Jesus. They knew being a Christian would subject them to ridicule, persecution and the same fate as their Master. ~Matt. 10:23-25~
But, because of the close relationship between the apostles the question of bias arises. These witnesses clearly had a personal stake in these issues. It’s reasonable to assume they would naturally portray Jesus in the most favorable light. Would such bias cause them to exaggerate their claims concerning Jesus?
The problem encountered with this line of reasoning is bias and self-interest generally go hand in hand. A person's bias generally influences them to present testimony in their own self-interest. This is not the case, however, with these witnesses because the time and social conditions, under which testimony was given, would put them in peril of their lives. It was given in a hostile atmosphere. Proclaiming Jesus’ message meant a certain death sentence. Many had already met their death at the hands of the Jewish leaders. Later on the Romans also tried to wipe out every vestige of Christianity. Christians were continually in peril.
Sometimes we tend to forget the apostles were simply human and subject to the same fears and weaknesses we all have. The Apostle Peter, at one point succumbed to fear and denied three times any association with Jesus. Note, he didn’t deny his belief in Jesus, only he had no association with him.
Simply put, the apostles did the opposite of what any self interests would dictate. They jeopardized their lives for the sake of a person they cared deeply for. The issue of bias and interest, therefore, actually works to substantiate their testimony rather than discredit it.
One might suggest they had an expectation of being rewarded with eternal life for preaching their message. Wouldn’t martyrdom be a reasonable price to pay? Perhaps, but it would only be true if the offer was a real prospect and not a fabricated one. Therefore, the issue of bias and self-interest only serves to strengthen their testimony.
There is not a shred of evidence smearing the character of these witnesses. None to suggest the witnesses' capacity to observe was distorted, mentally inept, habitually drunk or under the influence of drugs. Their writings are clear entailing an abundance of detail and made by those who had spent over three years in intimate contact with Jesus.
These men did not wait 30 or 40 years before writing down what they had witnessed. Therefore deteriorating memories would not be a viable charge here. In fact the first three gospels were written while many who had seen the things Jesus said and did were still alive. So on the contrary, this testimony was communicated immediately and became firmly established in early church teachings. There were eyewitnesses to all major events and teachings of Jesus.
To be fair, eyewitness testimonies can be notoriously unreliable in some cases, especially if it concerns an isolated instance like a holdup or shooting. However, this changes when claims involve unique, dramatic events spread over an extended period. The miracles Jesus performed were visible and open to scrutiny.
A blind man being healed isn’t something one misses or distorts because one had a bias towards believing their teacher was a miracle worker. Hair color, height, or time of day may be facts not recalled clearly later on but the fact the blind man was now able to see would be vividly remembered.
What evidence exists to accuse these witnesses of lying? There are no contrary witnesses to these events. In fact, the gospels support each other. There is no evidence of faulty observation or impaired recollection due to disease, illness, intoxication, or mental or emotional instability. These men were physically healthy, not senile and there is no evidence of moral laxity. The apostles expressed the utmost certainty in their accounts. They clung to their testimony in the face of death.
The apostles could have saved their lives simply by recanting their statements. Why didn’t they? Would you have?