Eyewitness Testimony and Apologetics

Most Christian apologists believe that the case for Christianity is strong because of alleged eyewitness testimony to the life, death and supposed resurrection of Jesus Christ. I say alleged eyewitness testimony because it is not an established fact that we have the actual testimony of eyewitnesses in the Gospels. What we have are second hand accounts from those who claim they spoke with eyewitnesses (Luke 1:5) or we have anonymous writings (all four Gospels) from those who claim to have been eyewitnesses to some of the events. Even if we assume, however, that there is genuine eyewitness testimony in the Gospels, then there is still the question of the reliability of that testimony.


Below is a quote from Oral Tradition as History by Jan Vansina (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985). Vansina is widely recognized as one of the leading authorities on the subject of the oral transmission of history. Here is what he says about eyewitness testimony.

In the best of circumstances, even the best of witnesses never give a movie-like account of what happened, as all accounts of accidents show. Eyewitness accounts are always a personal experience as well and involve not only perception, but also emotions. Witnesses often are also not idle standers-by, but participants in the events. Furthermore, an understanding of what happened cannot occur through mere data of perception. Perceptions must be organized in a coherent whole and the logic of the situation supplies missing pieces of observation. The classical cases of car accidents or purse snatching document this to satiety. A witness reporting a car accident typically first heard a smash, then saw it, then deduced how it happened—how both cars were traveling before the accident after which he or she built up a coherent account of the incident. Usually he did not see the two cars before the accident drew attention to them. Most witnesses cannot resolve themselves to build up a story starting with a noise and the result of the accident first. If a witness was traveling in one of the stricken cars, much of what took place happened at a speed greater than his own reaction time allowed him to perceive. Such persons often only remember one or two images of the accident. Yet when called upon to tell what happened, they must become coherent and build up a tale in which the logic of the situation makes up most of the account. (pp.4-5) Eyewitness accounts are only partly reliable. Certainly it is true that complex or unexpected events are perhaps rarer than simple, expected events. Yet even here the account remains imperfect. The expectation of the event itself distorts its observation. People tend to report what they expect to see or hear more than what they actually see or hear. To sum up: mediation of perception by memory and emotional state shapes an account. Memory typically selects certain features from the successive perceptions and interprets them according to expectation, previous knowledge, or the logic of “what must have happened,” and fills the gaps in perception. (p. 5)

Note several things from Vansina's statements.

1. Eyewitness accounts are always a subjective experience and involve not only perception but also emotions.

Witnesses often are not idle standers-by but participants in the events. If there is genuine eyewitness testimony in the Scriptures, it is from individuals who are not unbiased by-standers but individuals who have a "stake in the claim." This automatically makes their testimony somewhat suspect.

2. An understanding of what happened cannot occur through mere data perception but must be interpreted.

Perceptions must be organized in a coherent whole and the logic of the situation supplies missing pieces of observation. If there is genuine eyewitness testimony in Scripture, it is from individuals who had to "make sense" of what they saw. They interpreted what they saw in accordance with their world view, which in the first century, was one in which the supernatural realm (angels, demons, God) regularly invaded the natural realm. So, their testimony is "colored" by their world view, a world-view which is largely rejected since the Enlightenment.

3. The expectation of the event itself distorts its observation.
People tend to report what they expect to see or hear more than what they actually see or hear. In other words, all personal testimony is subjective. People interpret the events in light of their emotional connection to the person(s) involved and in light of what they see as compatible with their overall set of beliefs about a person or an event. As Vansina says: mediation of perception by memory and emotional state shapes an account. Memory typically selects certain features from the successive perceptions and interprets them according to expectation, previous knowledge, or the logic of “what must have happened,” and fills the gaps in perception. (p.5)So, the claim to eyewitness testimony in Scripture, even if true (and that is far from certain), does not guarantee the authenticity of the events. While many apologists seem to think that this alleged eyewitness testimony is the strongsuit of evangelical Christianity, to me it seems more like an achilles heel.

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