Reviewing The Case for Christ (The Eyewitness Evidence Can the Biographies of Jesus Be Trusted?: Pages 19-21)
In reading the introduction to Strobel’s Case for Christ I have to say I was relatively impressed. I have read a lot of Christian apologetics books and this was certainly one of the most well-written and (unlike most) did not seem to be overly patronising. While I did not agree with the conclusion he came to, I can see why this is incredibly popular among Christians. However, that was just simply the introduction so there’s still plenty of time to disagree with him. With that being said, we are now getting into the important topics, so let’s start at the beginning with the issue of whether the biographies of Jesus can be trusted, so let’s get going!
Before we get into the main part of the chapter; the interview with Craig Blomberg, I have a number of objections to his introduction of the interview which is all about the reliability of eyewitness testimony. So before we analyse Evans’ case for the reliability of the Gospel’s account of Jesus, we first need to see how much we can trust eyewitness accounts, given this plays a key role on Evan’s case for the trustworthiness of the Gospels.
As with the previous chapter, Strobel begins with a recollection of a brutal crime which had been committed. This time, he recounts when Leo Carter witnessed Elijah Baptist shooting Sam Blue… I’m starting to see a pattern here! But anyway, the purpose of this account is to attempt to argue that:
“Eyewitness testimony is powerful. One of the most dramatic moments in a trial is when a witness describes in detail the crime that he or she saw and then points confidently toward the defendant as being the perpetrator.” (p. 19)
While I certainly agree that there is a certain degree of drama when eyewitnesses recounts details and this can be incredibly powerful and to many is persuasive. However, none of this lends support for the notion that eyewitness testimony is reliable, which is surely what he should be arguing for! So if Evans’ (and thus, by extention Strobel’s) case hinges upon the reliability of eyewitness testimony, it seems strange Strobel does not give any of a defence of it. So let me fill you in and perhaps why Strobel seemed to word this very carefully.
Now, you may not know this, but back in one of my former lives, I did my undergraduate degree in psychology and in my final year, I focused specifically on false memories. In particular, I was interested in the issue of what degree we can trust eyewitness testimony in the context of how easy it is to create false memories. So the question of the reliability of trusting people’s memories is something I’m incredibly familiar with! So as Strobel seems to like proving his case using thought-provoking stories, let me share one of my own.
In 1975 Australian psychologist, and attorney Donald M. Thomson, was at the centre of a controversy when he was informed by the police that he was the prime suspect in a rape case. This occurred as a description matching him almost perfectly was provided by the victim, who had been sexually assaulted the night before. Thompson was bewildered because at that time, he had an alibi, he could not have done this because at the time, he was taking part in a live TV interview…all about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony. It was later discovered that the victim had been watching Thomson on TV just before the rape occurred and had confused her memory of him with that of the rapist.
Now this is just one of a number of cases which show that human memory is incredibly prone to distortions which therefore renders eyewitness testimony to be incredibly unreliable. In the book Miscarriage of Memory, it details just thirteen of the from over 2000 on record at the British False Memory Society of allegations of historic child sexual abuse and five cases of women who have retracted their accusations. Such is the problem of eyewitness testimony, The Innocence Project which reports that:
Eyewitness misidentification is by far the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Nationwide, 75% of wrongful convictions that were overturned by DNA testing involved erroneous identifications from victims or witnesses. Decades of solid scientific research, combined with a growing body of real-world experience, show that eyewitness identification is often fallible. Simple reforms have been proven to increase the accuracy of identifications. Several exonerations in recent months have highlighted the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. 
However, this seems to be something unknown to Strobel, who seems to be completely reluctant to defend the reliability of eyewitness testimony and merely seems to assume it is reliable without argument. Thus, when Strobel talks about the power of eyewitness testimony, what is lacking, is a defence of why we should trust any eyewitness account, let alone from 2,000 years earlier. This is especially problematic given that there are countless examples from witnesses you or I could personally talk to today, which have come to profoundly mistaken conclusions based on eyewitness testimony.
What the above means, is that when we consider this introduction, it is important to note what isn’t said, more than what is. It is significant to note that nowhere in this introduction does Strobel refer to eyewitness testimony as reliable. He merely refers to eyewitness accounts as being “powerful”, “compelling,” and “convincing” but not reliable or trustworthy. What’s more, he gives very specific instances in which these conditions are met:
“When a witness has had ample opportunity to observe a crime, when there’s no bias or ulterior motives, when the witness is truthful and fair… Do we have any records from first-century “journalists” who interviewed eyewitnesses, asked tough questions, and faithfully recorded what they scrupulously determined to be true?“ (p. 20)
So when we consider the Gospels in light of these issues, this surely leaves us to ask a number of questions. Even if we assume the Gospels were written, or at least based on eyewitness accounts (something we will consider in more detail later):
- Did the authors of the New Testament have “ample opportunity” to witness the life of Jesus before reporting what they did?
- Did they have no bias?
- Did they have no ulterior motive?
- Were they recording what they saw truthfully and fairly?
What’s more, we can also ask some questions regarding the accounts if they were not written by eyewitnesses:
5. If they were not eyewitnesses themselves, or did any of the authors interview eyewitnesses?
6. Did the authors identify themselves in their collection, or in any way indicate where they got their information from or cite the sources they used?
7. Did any of the authors weigh up the evidence for the accounts for plausibility?
8. Did they use any specific methods recognised by historians when it came to competing traditions to get to the true account of what happened?
9. Did the authors show any modicum of scepticism of their accounts?
10. Do any of the authors write their account from the perspective of an eyewitness, or do they seem to play the role of an omniscient narrator?
11. Do we have any accounts written by people critical of what happened?
12. Do we have any archaeological evidence to support the accounts?
13. Do the authors think they are writing critical pieces of historical work?
14. Can we trust accounts which seem to rely on reporting instances of events fulfilling prophecies from the Jewish Bible?
15. What genre do the Gospels fall into?
16. Do the Gospels deal with inconsistencies in the same way historians of that era did?
17. Who were the audience of the Gospel and what was their reception?
These are just some of the questions we can ask about the Gospels, which Strobel and Evans’ do not seem to contemplate. Instead, they seem to be basing their entire case on the completely unfounded assumption that eyewitness testimony = reliable historical information. While I could literally talk all day about how unreliable eyewitness accounts are, this is not the only issue. The above questions highlight that when we have a source, these are the sorts of questions we should always keep in mind. So when Strobel asks us to question the reliability of the accounts, what he really is getting at, is if these are eyewitnesses then this is the most important factor and so we can trust what they are reporting. However, if we always keen in mind that when we are examining any source, we must always remember that eyewitness testimony is incredibly poor, given that memories are prone to distortion and errors and sometimes people just make shit up! But equally importantly, there is more to consider than just whether they were eyewitnesses.
Now we have got into some of the issues with the reliability of eyewitness accounts and carefully thought about the problems of uncritically reading any accounts, we can now get into the main part of the chapter, the interview with Craig Evans. So that should be fun!