Is Eyewitness Testimony Reliable Evidence?

Is Eyewitness Testimony Reliable Evidence?

Dear Lenny,

Ask any judge, prosecutor or defense attorney about the value of such first- hand accounts in a court of law and you will learn that they are the least reliable and consistently the most subjective of all evidence types.

The second- or third-hand recounting of feverishly related long ago tales in the bible are no less suspect.

Granted, much of biblical wisdom is logical and humanistic and of everyday value, but please spare us the ghost stories, rational adults are offended and children are deceived and manipulated by such faith marketing.

Martin Z.

Hi Martin,

Thank you for writing and expressing your views. I think your statements are a little subjective, and so I'd like to review them in context of the larger issue of reliability of Scripture.

The claim that eyewitness accounts are the least reliable of all evidence types must be contrasted to what other evidences you are offering. If you mean that DNA testing and forensic science can be more objective and accurate than eyewitnesses, you'd probably be right. However, this is a false comparison. In discussing the legitimacy of the Biblical account, you must remember that we are determining the reliability of historical data. Therefore, we must compare the evidence the Bible offers with that of other ancient historical documents and determine how trustworthy they are at recording events as they actually occurred. The Bible claims to be true, therefore it should be true historically.

We derive our knowledge on events of ancient history primarily from written sources. These sources consist of historians' annals, official proclamations, personal correspondence, genealogies, or someone recording a song or tale previously only transmitted orally. The historian will combine these with other sources (such as paintings or relics, monuments, archaeological remains, etc.) and try to derive the true events and development of the society which he is studying.

Eyewitness accounts of events taken from the period which they chronicle, then, becomes one of the most important pieces of evidence the historian has. Because the material comes from the same time culture and time as the events he chronicles, we get a much more accurate view of how those events were viewed, and their importance in the society. We can also see more clearly some of the customs and procedures of the time.

Now, it is also important to verify the documents as not being forgeries or quoting from other works that can be in error. This study of historical manuscripts, analyzing their accuracy and understanding their significance, is called textual criticism and plays a vital role in judging the merits of a source. If the manuscript does indeed record eyewitness accounts, it becomes one of the most valuable sources for reconstructing the events of a period. This same basic technique is even used today in any historical research or term paper.

The Bible does rely on eyewitness accounts to construct its narratives, so it becomes a very reliable source. Luke has been called a historian of the first rate by some modern historical scholars. Eyewitness testimony may be more subjective than other types of legal evidences, but the fact remains that it is strong enough to be admitted as evidence in a court of law. It is not conjectural or circumstantial evidence. Even all newspaper reporters are taught to interview eyewitnesses in order to corroborate their stories. We don't consider them as unnecessary in these instances, but important support.

Before dismissing the Biblical accounts as "ghost stories" or third and forth hand knowledge, I would propose that you could research how we account for our current view of all ancient events. Contrary to what may be assumed, the New Testament documents were all composed within sixty years of the events which they record. This is hardly enough time to develop them into incredible fairy tales. Previously I had said that it would be tantamount to someone constructing the idea in the 1990's that Kennedy never really died after the Dallas shooting, but the whole thing had been faked by Hollywood. This story won't go anywhere, because there are too many eyewitnesses still alive today who could contradict it.

Josh McDowell supports this in his book Evidence That Demands a Verdict. He quotes F.F. Bruce, a noted authority on the reliability of the New Testament, who writes: "The earliest preachers of the gospels knew the value of... first-hand testimony, and appealed to it time and time again. 'We are witnesses of these things,' was their constant and confident assertion. And it can have been by no means be so easy as some writers think to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of Jesus' disciples were about, who could remember what had and had not happened.

And it was not only friendly eyewitnesses that the early preachers had to reckon with; there were others less well disposed who were also conversant with the main facts of the ministry and death of Jesus. The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracies (not to speak of willful manipulation of the facts), which would at once be exposed by those who would be only too glad to do so. On the contrary, one of the strong points in the original apostolic teaching is the confident appeal to the knowledge of the hearers; they not only said, 'We are witnesses of these things' but also, 'As you yourselves know' (Acts 2:22). Had there been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the possibility of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served as further corrective."

When examining the evidence given, the life and resurrection of Christ stands out as the most well documented and supported events of ancient times. No other facet of ancient history has as many manuscripts, from so many different areas, in such a short time from the instance of occurrence as does this. There is no good historical reason to deny the events took place. For more on historical support of the Bible, please see my page "Is the Bible REALLY from God?"

I hope this will help to clarify the comments I had made in my web posting. Please let me know if anything I've said is confusing or vague in any way. I hope that you will continue to investigate all claims by seeking the truth objectively, because the truth is the only thing really worth believing.

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