Atheist Incredulity and Eyewitness Testimony

How should we handle eyewitness testimony? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Earlier this week I wrote a piece on atheist incredulity. In response, I got asked a question about eyewitness accounts of things like UFOs. Should we believe in those? It’s quite amazing to me that it’s taboo apparently to suggest that skepticism should be held in an unquestioning way.

This isn’t new. Hume had the same skepticism to eyewitness claims of miracles and sought any chance he could to dismiss them. Today, we do have a sort of doublespeak going on in the atheist community. How does that happen?

Go to the Gospels and what are you told often? These Gospels were written decades after the event! It means either the story of the original viewers of the event, otherwise known as the eyewitnesses, were changed, or that the writers never got to speak to any eyewitnesses.

Then, if you go and show that eyewitnesses were involved, well, eyewitness testimony isn’t always reliable. Sometimes you get told that it’s notoriously unreliable. So if the Gospels do not contain eyewitness accounts, we can’t trust them. If they do contain eyewitness accounts, we can’t trust them.

So let’s look at the above topic of UFOs as an example. Should we trust them? In some cases, yes. All a UFO is is an Unidentified Flying Object. Do some people see such objects? Yes. Does that mean an extraterrestrial craft was sighted? No.

Keep in mind also that for those who hold to science, science itself has SETI set up about the question of extraterrestrial intelligence and this is an active question in the scientific community. If we have an active question and we have an eyewitness of an event, should we not at least listen to them?

Note that this is a fine line to walk on. Should eyewitness testimony be believed blindly? No. Should it be dismissed arbitrarily? No.

It’s important to realize that many of us will measure what we see in the world against our own worldview and background. If you are an atheist, you will have a natural tendency to question any claim of a miracle. If you are a theist, you will be skeptical of naturalistic explanations of events you deem to be miraculous.

This is why each of us must rise above our own skepticism. I think atheists, for example, would do a lot better in convincing on evolution if they did not make it be the case that it is to be seen as evolution vs. God. Many theists could be more open to an evolutionary creationism, but if you tell them going the route of what you say is science means abandoning God, they won’t, because God is much more important in their lives.

On the other hand, those of us who are theists could bear to be more skeptical of some miracle claims and many other claims. When we share claims easily as golden proofs that are easily disproven, then we do ourselves a disservice. We should test all the claims we encounter like that.

Note also with eyewitness testimony, I have no problem with taking the character of the person into consideration. Many of us would be skeptical of the words of a stranger. What if it’s a close family member that you know to be trustworthy? Do you just dismiss it?

At this, I want to also answer one other claim about miracles. Would I accept eyewitness testimony for a miracle outside of Christianity? Well, why not? If a miracle happened, then it happened. I can’t give my faith tradition a special exception on the rules of evidence. I think the atheist has more at stake here because if a miracle did happen, well, atheism is in trouble.

Which brings me to a fun little saying of Chesterton on miracles which I will paraphrase. The theist believes in the miracle, rightly or wrongly, because of the evidence. The skeptic disbelieves in the miracle, rightly or wrongly, because he has a dogma against them. Consider a work like Craig Keener’s Miracles. If just one miracle in that book is a bona fide miracle, naturalism has a lot of explaining to do. If everyone of them is fake, theism can still be true and even Christianity. Who has more at stake?

The solution is really simple. Don’t believe blindly, but don’t dismiss blindly either. Try to put aside your own biases every time for the investigation. Follow the evidence where it leads.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Deeper Waters Podcast 11/11/2017: Richard Bauckham.


What’s coming up? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Can we trust the Gospels? One of the questions that this comes down to often is the question of who their sources are. Were they written by eyewitnesses? Did they use eyewitnesses? Can we really trust anonymous sources like the Gospels? Did the Gospels even cite their sources?

Even if the Gospels are eyewitness testimonies, can we still trust them? Can’t eyewitnesses get things wrong? Why should we treat the Gospels as if they are serious historical works and their information is something that we can base our lives on?

In order to discuss this, I decided to have come on a second time a scholar who has done in-depth research on this. He has done so much that he has updated his great work on this topic. The work is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses and the author and scholar is none other than Richard Bauckham. So who is he?

I am a biblical scholar and theologian. My academic work and publications have ranged over many areas of these subjects, including the theology of Jürgen Moltmann, Christology (both New Testament and systematic), eschatology, the New Testament books of Revelation, James, 2 Peter and Jude, Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature, the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, the New Testament Apocrypha, the relatives of Jesus, the early Jerusalem church, the Bible and contemporary issues, and biblical and theological approaches to environmental issues. In recent years much of my work has focused on Jesus and the Gospels. Probably my best known books are Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (2006), God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (1998), The Theology of the Book of Revelation (1993) and Bible and Ecology (2010). As well as technical scholarship and writing aimed at students and those with some theological background, I have also written accessible books for a wider readership, of which the best known is At the Cross: Meditations on People Who Were There (1999), which I wrote with Trevor Hart. A recent book is Jesus: A Very Short Introduction (2011), published in Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series, and providing a historical account of Jesus for the general reader. Various of my books have appeared in translation in Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Farsi.

Until 2007 I was Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. I retired early in order to concentrate on research and writing, and moved to Cambridge. For more information about me, see my Short CV. On this site, you will find complete lists of my publications. You can find out about my forthcoming books. You can read unpublished papers, lectures and sermons. You can find out about the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha project (directed by myself and James Davila).

You can also read some of my poetry, and two story books written for children (adults also enjoy them) about the MacBears of Bearloch.

I hope you’ll be watching for this episode. We’re going to get a good in-depth look at this important book that every student of the New Testament needs to know about. Please be watching for this one and go on iTunes and leave a positive review of the Deeper Waters Podcast.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Second Edition

What do I think of Richard Bauckham’s book published by Eerdmans? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I want to think Eerdmans and Bauckham himself for making sure I got a review copy of this book. The first edition was indeed a classic and something all interested in the reliability of the Gospels should read. The second one is no exception and expounds further than the last one did.

Something that is striking to me about this book as I read through it is how different the argument is from most works. Most works will start with dating the Gospels and then argue from there by pointing to events like archaeological findings. Bauckham doesn’t do that, well not in the exact sense. Archaeology I think is only mentioned once that I recall and this concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and Josephus. The closest you get to dating is by looking at the names that show up in the Gospels.

Why would anyone do that? Because when we look at the Gospels, we see the names used in them match the commonly used names at the time and the ones that are exceptions match that same ratio as well. This is not the kind of thing that a later writer would easily produce. We can tell the common names today because we have a whole catalog available to us of all the names being used. Back then, you couldn’t jump on Google and see what popular names were so a writer would not know about that.

Interestingly to me, much of the time Bauckham spends examining Mark and John. Not much is said about Luke or Matthew, though some is of course. I find this surprising since for many of us, the place we’d go to the most for eyewitness testimony is Luke. He specifically mentions eyewitness testimony and there’s much archaeological evidence for Luke and Acts.

Meanwhile, John is usually seen as highly unreliable. Bauckham argues that the Gospel is likely from the perspective of the beloved disciple. He doesn’t believe this to be John, the son of Zebedee, but he does say that this person was part of Jesus’s entourage and was an eyewitness of what he reported. If this is so, then scholars really need to rethink how they see John.

But isn’t eyewitness testimony unreliable? You can see stories about how people got facts wrong about 9/11 when interviewed later about it. How can this be? These people were eyewitnesses. Bauckham does make a case for eyewitness testimony being reliable in many many cases.

Still, as I thought about this, I thought that many of these “eyewitnesses” were really “TV witnesses.” If we really wanted eyewitness testimony about an event like 9/11, what would be best would be to interview people like survivors who worked in the building, people who lost loved ones on that day, and firefighters and police officers who went in and got people out. These are all people who had skin in the game.

This would be the closest parallel perhaps to Jesus. If you want to know who to talk to about the life of Jesus, talk to the people who were active participants in it and not just bystanders. Sure, bystanders can get some things right, but they won’t remember long-term details. A college student watching 9/11 on TV won’t know as much about it as someone who had a loved one in the towers wondering if they would get out.

Speaking of this, many people like Carrier and others often talk about how the Gospels didn’t cite their sources like other writers did. One thing to say about this is there weren’t exactly many written materials to cite. A second thing to say is that ancient writers didn’t use footnotes and endnotes like we do and did not cite all their sources. A third thing is that if Bauckham is right, they did. When they named someone in the Gospels who was not a famous figure, this was a method of citation. Names could drop out then because that person had died and was no longer available.

One example I can think of immediately with this is the resurrection of Jesus in John. In his Gospel, only Mary Magdalene is named, but in the story she uses the word “we” to describe going to the tomb. Could it be that there were other women there, but only Mary is named because only she was still alive?

One other point worth mentioning is that according to Bauckham, form criticism is dead. One can certainly hope so. We have learned so much since the time of Bultmann and others that we should discard an ideology if it is no longer being used. Unfortunately, we do live in the day and age of the internet where an idea being dead doesn’t mean it can’t be used. (Those of you who argue Jesus never existed and is a copy of pagan gods? I’m talking to you especially.)

This book is full of many in-depth arguments, many of which are too in-depth to go into here. Anyone wanting to discuss the reliability of the Gospels owes it to themselves to check out this work. Bauckham is no slouch in the field and his reputation should not be taken lightly. I hope this study will be the start of many many more such studies.

In Christ,
Nick Peters