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A-Week: Testimony of the Evangelists: Quality of Testimony: Part 5

Continuing my posts about The Testimony of the Evangelists by Simon Greenleaf...

As I covered in my previous post, Greenleaf attempts to show that the authors of the Gospels were eye-witnesses, but utterly fails to do so. Let's continue on, however, and look at his eye-witness argument because it leads us to a very important point.

Here are the legal criteria Greenleaf uses for his eye-witness argument:

In trials of fact, by oral testimony, the proper inquiry is not whether it is possible that the testimony may be false, but whether there is sufficient probability that it is true. (pg 28)
A proposition of fact is proved, when its truth is established by competent and satisfactory evidence. (pg 28)
In the absence of circumstances which generate suspicion, every witness is to be presumed credible, until the contrary is shown; the burden of impeaching his credibility lying on the objector. (pg 29)
The credit due to the testimony of witnesses depends upon, firstly, their honesty; secondly, their ability; thirdly, their number and consistency of their testimony; fourthly, the conformity of their testimony with experience; and fifthly, the coincidence of their testimony with collateral circumstances. (pg 31)

Then Greenleaf attempts to prove his case by making an argument for the honesty, ability, consistency, conformity and coincidence of the Gospels.

Sufficient Probability and Credibility

Let's say I'm giving testimony and I claim to have a car. Can we and should we assume I'm telling the truth? Well, I live in the United States in the year 2012 and I'm generally well-off business owner with a couple pieces of real-estate. Of course it makes perfect sense to assume I'm telling the truth without the need for hard evidence. After all, cars exist. We've all seen them. Everyone reading this probably has one. It's very very VERY common.

Now let's say I claim I have 10 cars. Well, I'm not Mitt Romney or anything, but maybe I love cars so I have a bunch of them. Are you willing to accept that claim without evidence? Probably, but not as much as you would be willing to accept I have one car.

Now let's say I claim I have 1000 cars... and each of my cars is gold-plated... and they can fly... and instead of emitting carbon monoxide and other dangerous chemicals, these cars just produce wonderfully crispy bacon. (Great, now I'm hungry.)

Do you need to see some evidence yet? The absurdity of my increasingly crazy claims inherently generate suspicion, as well they should!

Once again reaching back to Carl Sagan...

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

If the Gospels simply claimed that a dude named Jesus existed around this time period and that he got in trouble with the religious establishment for calling them hypocrites... just told people that its good to be nice to each other and take care of our fellow man... and then those religious leaders he was insulting manuevered politically to have him killed... I would have NO trouble saying: "I don't know if it all happened for sure, but it seems reasonable enough."

However, add the virgin birth, casting out demons, ressurecting from the dead, walking on water, rising from the grave and ascending to heaven.... even if you disregard all of the inconsisties of the stories, it is unreasonable to accept those claims without evidence. No court would assume I was telling the truth if I claimed my friend walked on water... or if I claimed my friend raised someone from the dead.


Were the authors being honest? Maybe. I don't know. Was Mohammad being honest? Was Joseph Smith being honest? Greenleaf says:
... men ordinarily speak the truth, when they have no prevailing motive or inducement to the contrary. (pg 31)
Mohammad and Joseph Smith certainly had motive to lie, didn't they? After all they became very powerful in their times and locations. What about the Gospel authors? Well, we don't know who they were, but we do know that if you are considered to be the agent of the divine... that people will do what you say and power is a very corrupting influence. Do I know if that's what happened? No, absolutely not. Could they be telling the truth? Yes and I'm willing to accept all of their ordinary claims as reasonably true, but for their extraordinary claims, I'll need to see some evidence. If you don't agree, then I'd like to sell you one of my flying, gold-plated, bacon-emitting cars. Contact me privately and we'll discuss terms.


This claim is merely that we can assume, in general, that a witness is of sound-mind and reasonable intelligence until shown otherwise. That seems like a fair rule to me, I have no problems with it in general and I'm ok with assuming the authors were of sound-mind and reasonable intelligence for their time and place.

Number and Consistency, Conformity, and Coicidence with Collateral Circumstances

Greenleaf makes the argument that the inconsistencies found within the Gospels prove that they are not the product of collusion. So he attempts to use inconsistency to prove his case for consistency.

This chart is a favorite of mine:

The Gospel of John is... well, just doesn't match up well with any of the other three Gospels. This chart shows what are known as the Synoptic Gospels and how the information contained within is shared between the others.

How well do the shared parts coincide?

As I described before, Matthew and Luke put the year of Jesus' birth 10 YEARS apart.

What about the most important part of the Gospels of Jesus?

Matthew: Mary Mag and Other Mary go to the tomb. The stone is still in place, but an earthquake moves the stone and an angel appears and sits on it outside the tomb. There were guards at the tomb. The women tell the disciples who meet Jesus on a mountain in Galilee. No ascension is mentioned.

Mark: Mary Mag, Other Mary and Salome go to the tomb. The stone is NOT in place, the women go inside the tomb and find one angel. No guards. The women never tell anyone... or in the other version of Mark, Jesus appears to Mary Mag and she tells the disciples he has risen. Jesus appears to the 11 Apostles at dinner, then ascends to Heaven.

Luke: Mary Mag, Other Mary, Joanna and others go to the tomb. The stone is NOT in place, the women go inside the tomb and find TWO angels. No guards. The women tell the apostles, but the apostles don't believe (except Peter). Jesus appears to them in Jerusalem, then ascends to Heaven.

John: Just Mary Mag goes to the tomb. The stone is NOT in place, Mary doesn't go in. Leaves, comes back with men, then while staying outside sees two angels inside. No guards. Jesus appears to 10 Apostles in a locked room, but Thomas wasn't present. A week later, Jesus appears again to all of them. Jesus performs many other signs for the apostles, but John doesn't document them. No ascension is mentioned, although Jesus says to Mary earlier in the book that he will at some point ascend.

So, to be clear, these four bits of testimony cannot agree on who went to the tomb, the state of the tomb, whether or not there were guards at the tomb, how many angels were seen at the tomb, where those angels were standing at the tomb, when Jesus first appeared to people, who Jesus first appeared to, what city Jesus appeared to them in, and whether or not he ascended.

Considering this event is one of THE most pivotal moments for Christianity, arguably THE most important, if this testimony really was divinely inspired by God, don't you think this story would match up even a LITTLE bit better?

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