Gospels as jury
Last week, a guest host on the Stand to Reason podcast asked listeners to consider California’s standard instructions to juries regarding witnesses in criminal trials and judge the Gospels in the terms of those instructions. The host thought that the Gospels were reliable witnesses in these terms. Let’s take a look.
The instructions begin:
You alone must judge the credibility or believability of the witnesses. In deciding whether testimony is true and accurate, use your common sense and experience.
Fair enough. I will say that this seems to stack the deck against religion since both common sense and — more importantly — experience tell me that magic doesn’t happen.
You must judge the testimony of each witness by the same standards, setting aside any bias or prejudice you may have. You may believe all, part, or none of any witness’s testimony. Consider the testimony of each witness and decide how much of it you believe.
Again, that’s fair. It’s worth noting that these instructions go against the reasoning of apologists who argue that if we can prove some parts of the Bible to be historical then we should believe that it is all historical.
In evaluating a witness’s testimony, you may consider anything that reasonably tends to prove or disprove the truth or accuracy of that testimony. Among the factors that you may consider are:
- How well could the witness see, hear, or otherwise perceive the things about which the witness testified?
The Gospels are presented as reliable because they are eye-witness testimony. If they are nothing but eye-witness testimony, then the four authors of the Gospels must have been present for all of the events they describe. These would include Jesus praying when all of his disciples were asleep, the discovery of Jesus’ tomb by a group that included only women, and all the events in Jesus life that occurred before he had disciples. Clearly, there is at least some second-hand information here.
- How well was the witness able to remember and describe what happened?
That’s a tough one to judge. Some of the accounts include very specific dialogue even though they were written decades after the event. That actually seems like it might be too much detail to be believable. There’s even significant evidence that at least two of the Gospel writers copied from another one.
- What was the witness’s behavior while testifying?
- Did the witness understand the questions and answer them directly?
I don’t know if we can apply these easily to a historical text.
- Was the witness’s testimony influenced by a factor such as bias or prejudice, a personal relationship with someone involved in the case, or a personal interest in how the case is decided?
There seems to be bias or prejudice, particularly in the testimony of John which seems at times to be very anti-Jewish. If the Gospels were indeed written by apostles, then they definitely had a personal relationship with the story and personal interest it its being believed.
- What was the witness’s attitude about the case or about testifying?
They are strongly motivated to convince people that they are correct. No neutrality here.
- Did the witness make a statement in the past that is consistent or inconsistent with his or her testimony?
We don’t have any past writing from these authors, so it’s hard to say.
- How reasonable is the testimony when you consider all the other evidence in the case?
Some of it does not, on the face of it, seem reasonable at all. In fact, those who defend the Gospels sometimes have to go to great lengths to explain how certain actions (cursing a fig tree, for example) make sense in the context of the whole story. Descriptions written long after events sometimes seem to have more details than descriptions written closer to the events, which may indicate embellishment. The stories disagree about certain details, and while it is true that eye witnesses often disagree, some points on which they disagree (for example, whether one person or a group of people was at Jesus’ tomb) seem difficult to be so thoroughly mistaken about.
- [Did other evidence prove or disprove any fact about which the witness testified?]
Some historical information — such as facts about how censuses were conducted at the time — seems to contradict the Gospels.
- [Did the witness admit to being untruthful?]
- [What is the witness's character for truthfulness?]
- [Has the witness been convicted of a felony?]
I think the Gospels are pretty solid on these counts. There were no admissions of untruth, these were supposedly honest men, and if they were conviced of felonies, it was by governments whose laws and intentions I am not inclined to take into consideration.
What do you think? How do the Gospels hold up under California’s jury instructions? Anything I missed or got wrong? Let me know in the comments.