XFiles Friday: What the eyewitnesses saw

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 10.)

We’re just about done with Chapter 10, subtitled “Do We Have Eyewitness Testimony About Jesus,” and I thought it would be good to wrap up by doing what Geisler and Turek did not do: surveying exactly what it is that was allegedly eyewitnessed, and seeing if it lives up to the same standard of consistency with the truth as the trivial historical details that they spend so much time and space on.

For brevity, we’ll follow G&T’s lead by taking Luke as representing the Synoptic Gospels, plus John’s Gospel, and the book of Acts. Geisler and Turek make a big deal out of Luke being an “eyewitness” (without specifying “eyewitness of what?”), but in fact there is no indication that Luke himself was an eyewitness of anything in the Gospel that bears his name. G&T try to get around this by saying that Luke was an eyewitness OR “had access” to eyewitnesses.

There’s a major flaw in this approach, however, because all of the examples they cite to prove that Luke was a careful, meticulous, and accurate historian are examples that only apply to Luke. They tell us nothing about the reliability of the eyewitnesses (or supposed eyewitnesses) that Luke presumably relied on. Who were these witnesses? Were they accurate? Did they get all the relevant details? Were they biased in their presentation? Did Luke understand them correctly? We don’t know and we never will, since we have no record of who these alleged witnesses were.

We do know, however, that the stories at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, concerning the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, would have been a good three or four decades old by the time Luke would have collected them. Luke may have carefully recorded the stories he heard, but there’s no guarantee those stories didn’t “improve” with 40 years of retelling—if indeed they were being told that long. We don’t have any independent evidence of any remarkable history for John the Baptist before the gospels have him appearing as “a voice in the wilderness,” and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a prophet turned up with a remarkable back story.

Here are several significant details, therefore, which Luke supplies and which do not have that independent verification which G&T boast of in regards to Luke’s ability to name real people. Josephus does confirm that a John the Baptist did exist, but the significant details about God intervening in the temple to strike a high priest mute—these things get no mention from Josephus, which is rather a remarkable omission considering that Josephus was reporting on how the Jews thought God was punishing Herod for killing John.

Remember, people who stray from the truth are not typically liars about everything. Rather, they are prone to distort the truth when dealing with certain specific topics about which they are biased, ignorant, or both. While it’s interesting to know that Luke was reliable concerning mundane facts, it’s more important to test Luke’s reliability regarding topics (like Christianity) about which he would be likely to be biased and more easily swayed to “improve” things in his presentation. It does not help Luke’s credibility to have started out with a fabulous story about God intervening in the births of John and Jesus, when there is no independent contemporary evidence that these alleged events excited any kind of comment or notice at the time they are alleged to have occurred.

Luke 2 gives us the birth of Jesus, and again ascribes to it a number of remarkable events, including angels appearing and prophecies in the temple and so on. Historians are unable to locate the census that Luke alludes to as being the cause for Joseph and Mary’s trip to Jerusalem, sadly, and there’s no independent evidence at all for the supernatural events which he claims accompanied the birth, which is odd considering the number of independent eyewitnesses that should have been produced by such manifestations.

Luke 4 portrays Jesus as being tempted in the wilderness by Satan, an event for which only Jesus himself could have been the eyewitness. Jesus was dead and gone by the time Luke wrote his gospel, however, so once again we have a non-eyewitness account. There follow a number of accounts of Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons, such as you can see today at any Benny Hinn concert, er, service. Or try the 700 Club or pick your favorite charismatic preacher. (Mine is Marjoe.)

Now, these miracles are particularly interesting because you can still get eyewitness testimony about similar events today, from eyewitnesses who deeply and sincerely believe in the truth of what they are telling you. That’s important, because when you go back and research these “miracles,” you never fail to discover that the miracle is either greatly exaggerated, purely subjective, and/or completely false. But the eyewitnesses present them as truth nonetheless, and a careful historian like Luke would faithfully report them even if the alleged miracles themselves were pure bunkum.

Today, we see reports of miracles, and we find that they are exaggerated beyond what the facts themselves can justify. We do not see God behaving in a way that would be consistent with the behavior Luke ascribes to Him. Even a Christian like our good friend Mr. JP Holding can tell you that it would be “idiotic” to suppose that God behaves the way Luke describes Him as behaving, because we all know that God doesn’t act that way in real life.

It’s more consistent with the actual facts, therefore, to conclude that Luke is reporting instances of eyewitness testimony that is most like the testimony of the eyewitnesses we see today, who claim astonishing miracles where there is actually only astonishing gullibility, superstition, and self-deception.

Let’s move on to John. John’s Gospel is one of the later books of the New Testament. It might possibly have been written as early as the AD 60’s, or as late as the 90’s, or anywhere in between, but by most reckoning it was written after the other Gospels and most of the rest of the NT books (except possibly Revelation). Since John was supposed to be an actual eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus (unlike Luke), you’d think Geisler and Turek would focus primarily on him instead of devoting most of Chapter 10 to Luke. The late date for John’s Gospel, however, undercuts their goal, which is to try and prove that we have early eyewitness testimony.

John’s Gospel is written a good few decades after the events they purport to describe, and is remarkable for the lack of overlap with the material covered by the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Christian apologists attribute this to John not wanting to repeat what had already been said, which sounds plausible. There are a few features, however, that raise the possibility that at least some of what John tells us is not reported by anyone else because no one else had heard of it until John reported it.

Take the resurrection of Lazarus, for instance. According to John, Jesus foreshadowed his own (alleged) resurrection by raising Lazarus from the dead three days after the latter’s burial. This would be an astounding miracle, if it actually occurred—not even Benny Hinn could pull that one off. Not only would this have conclusively demonstrated God’s ability to raise the dead when there was no chance they were only in a coma, but the symbolic and evangelistic implications of a man lying in a tomb for 3 days and then coming back to life, would have made Lazarus a central figure of the core gospel story, as well as a major symbol for use in Paschal celebrations.

Yet strangely nobody seems to have heard of this resurrection until after John told the story in his Gospel. Luke mentions a Lazarus, but in Luke’s Gospel, Lazarus is only a character in a parable told by Jesus (a character who dies and stays dead, by the way). Nor does Paul make any reference to a resurrected Lazarus (or any other allegedly resurrected person) in I Cor. 15, despite the fact that he’s looking for evidence he can use to convince certain Corinthian Christians that there really is a resurrection. None of the other NT writers ever mentions Lazarus, or his supposed resurrection, at all.

Geisler and Turek make the argument that NT eyewitnesses like John should not be regarded as unreliable just because decades passed between the stories they tell and the events the stories describe. They ask whether you or I cannot remember certain details from long ago, especially if those details are somehow significant to us. And it’s true, it can be possible for people to accurately recall things that happened decades earlier.

The question we need to ask, however, is not whether it’s possible that John could remember the ministry of Jesus accurately, but whether or not his recollections are consistent with what we see in the real world. That’s the important standard, you see. We shouldn’t be measuring the reliability of a historian based on whether we can imagine the possibility that he might have a good memory, but on whether his testimony is consistent with the real-world evidence. That is, after all, the standard by which Geisler and Turek themselves evaluated Luke’s reliability regarding the names of famous ancient political leaders.

On to Acts. I’ve already commented on some of the reports in Acts, but I did want to mention specifically the point at which we can begin to call Luke an actual eyewitness of the events in his account. Based on the change in pronouns, (“They arrived in Ephesus,” Acts 18:19 versus “These men…waited for us at Troas,” Acts 20:5), it is likely that Luke joined Paul in Ephesus, possibly having been converted during Paul’s ministry there. That’s roughly 2/3rds of the way through the book, so only the last 1/3 (8 or 9 chapters) can really be called eyewitness testimony.

The bottom line is that Geisler and Turek make a big deal out of “eyewitness testimony” as though this were some kind of standard of infallibility that magically spreads over everything the New Testament writers wrote. When we actually look at the specific, supernatural claims that these “witnesses” claim to have seen, we find descriptions that have a lot in common with the kind of “eyewitness” testimony you get from Pentecostal revivals, and nothing at all in common with what we see actually happening in real life.

The conclusion that is most consistent with the real-world truth, therefore, is that the New Testament witnesses are reporting only the same sort of religious fakery and credulity as is still common today. It may be eyewitness testimony, but it’s not the sort of evidence that holds up in the absence of a real-world God.

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