By Eric Chabot: Director: The Ohio State University
Epistemology: Knowledge By Testimony
We all know that many events that we study in history are things in the past. Since historians can’t verify the events directly (they weren’t there to participate in the events), they rely on things such as written documents (both primary and secondary sources), external evidence/archaeology, and the testimony of the witnesses to the events. As a Christian, I share the faith of the early witnesses to the life of Jesus. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that investigates the nature and origin of knowledge. We as humans come to know things by a variety of ways such as reason and logic, intuition, by making inferences, personal and religious experience, the scientific method, listening to authorities on a subject matter, and trusting the testimony of others.
Epistemologically speaking, one of the tools that plays an important element in discovering the past is the testimony of witnesses. New Testament faith is portrayed as knowledge based upon testimony.
Given the emphasis on education in the synagogue, the home, and the elementary school, it is not surprising that it was possible for the Jewish people to recount large quantities of material that was even far greater than the Gospels themselves. Jesus taught in poetic form, employing alliteration, paronomasia, assonance, parallelism, and rhyme. Since over 90 percent of Jesus’ teaching was poetic, this would make it simple to memorize. (1)
As Paul Barnett notes, “Jesus was a called a “Rabbi” (Matt. 8:19; 9:11; 12:38; Mk. 4:38; 5:35; 9:17; 10:17, 20; 12:14, 19, 32; Lk. 19:39; Jn. 1:38; 3:2), which means “master” or “teacher.” There are several terms that can be seen that as part of the rabbinic terminology of that day. His disciples had “come” to him, “followed after” him, “learned from” him, “taken his yoke upon” them” (Mt. 11:28-30; Mk 1). (2)
Let’s Look at The Seven E’s of Testimony in the New Testament
1. Early Testimony
We don’t want to forget the advice of historian David Hacket Fisher who says, “An historian must not merely provide good relevant evidence but the best relevant evidence. And the best relevant evidence, all things being equal, is evidence which is most nearly immediate to the event itself.” (3) So keeping that in mind, when I am asked as to why Christians don’t put as much weight into extracanonical Gospels, here is something to think about: The Gospel of Mary has been dated at 160 A.D, the Gospel of Peter at 170 A.D. etc. One of the earliest records for the death and resurrection of Jesus is 1 Corinthians 15:3-6 which contains a creed that can be traced back possibly as early as three to ten years after Jesus was crucified! So keeping in mind the comment by Fisher, what source is more reliable?
2. Ethical Testimony
There is no reason to distrust the character of those that wrote about the life of Jesus. Given they were predominately Jewish, they were familiar with the principles of the Torah. As Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology notes, the biblical concept of testimony or witness is closely allied with the conventional Old Testament legal sense of testimony given in a court of law. Its validity consists in certifiable, objective facts. In both Testaments, it appears as the primary standard for establishing and testing truth claims. Uncertifiable subjective claims, opinions, and beliefs, on the contrary, appear in Scripture as inadmissible testimony. Even the testimony of one witness is insufficient—for testimony to be acceptable, it must be established by two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15). It can also be observed that the emphasis on eyewitness testimony was carried on through the early church.
3. Eyewitness Testimony
One book that has recently handled the issue of the Synoptic Tradition is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham.
As Bauckham notes, the Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events. Bauckham has followed the work of Samuel Byrskog in arguing that while the Gospels though in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period.
These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted. Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy).” In other words, Byrskog defines “autopsy,” as a visual means of gathering data about a certain object and can include means that are either direct (being an eyewitness) or indirect (access to eyewitnesses).
Byrskog also claims that such autopsy is arguably used by Paul (1 Cor 9:1; 15:5–8; Gal 1:16), Luke (Acts 1:21–22; 10:39–41) and John (19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1–4). As Bauckham says, “This, at least, was historiographic best practice, represented and theorized by such generally admired historians as Thucydides and Polybius. The preference for direct and indirect testimony is an obviously reasonable rule for acquiring the testimony likely to be reasonable.
4. Embarrassing Testimony
Another issue that speaks to the character and trustworthiness of those that wrote about Jesus is what is called The Principle of Embarrassment- a test that was put forth by John P. Meier in his A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Vol. 1. This criteria seeks out material in the Gospels that would have been would create awkwardness or difficulty for the early church. This type of material would most likely have not been created by the early church because it would have been provided material useful for the early church’s opponents.
Let me go ahead and give an example: All four Gospels attest to Jesus’ baptism by John at the very beginning of his ministry. Would the Gospel authors make up such a tradition? In the Jewish culture, it was understood that the one who was being baptized was spiritually inferior to the baptizer himself. A careful reading throughout the Gospels demonstrate embarrassing issues such as where the disciples portray themselves as dim-witted, uncaring, uneducated, cowardly doubters who are rebuked by Jesus.
Furthermore, it can be observed that the disciples did not believe in Jesus’ prediction of his own resurrection (Mark 8:31–33; 9:31–32; 14:27–31). Given that the disciples had spent time with Jesus and had personally witnessed His messianic sayings and actions, what benefit would it be for Mark to leave such an incident in His Gospel? Furthermore, after the resurrection, Mary does not recognize Jesus (John 20: 11-15) and Thomas is seen as disbelieving it (John 20:24-25). It seems that if John wanted to convince his audience of the truthfulness of the event, he would portray Jesus’ followers in a more positive light. The fact that John decided to leave these details in the story only lends credibility to the authenticity of the event.
But the one embarrassing detail that stands out in the Gospels is the proclamation of a crucified Messiah. In relation to a crucified Messiah, Jewish people in the first century were familiar with Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “If a person commits a sin punishable by death and is executed, and you hang the corpse on a tree, his body must not remain all night on the tree; instead you must make certain you bury him that same day, for the one who is left exposed on a tree is cursed by God. You must not defile your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” The context of this verse is describing the public display of the corpse of an executed criminal.
The New Testament writers expanded this theme to include persons who had been crucified (Acts 5:30; 13:29; Gal 3:13;1 Pet.2:24). To say that crucifixion was portrayed in a negative light within Judaism in the first century is an understatement. “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse”- the very method of death brought a divine curse upon the crucified. In other words, anyone who was crucified was assumed not to be the Anointed One of God. A crucified Messiah would be a tough sell to a Jewish audience that was still waiting to return to the glory days of the Davidic Dynasty (2 Sam. 7:5-16; 1 Chr.17:7-15; Ps.89:28-37).
5. Excruciating Testimony
If you read through the book of Acts, it is obvious that the early Messianic community was willing to die whether than recant their faith in the risen Lord. It is true that martyrdom doesn’t make a belief true. People die for things that they think are true all the time. But many of the disciples/apostles were given the opportunity to live, if they would only say that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. A witness who is willing to die rather than change his story is a very strong witness.
Chuck Colson, one of the well known participants in the Watergate scandal who is now a Christian says the following:
Critics of Christianity often try to explain the empty tomb by saying the disciples lied–that they stole Jesus’ body themselves and conspired together to pretend He had risen. The apostles then managed to recruit more than 500 other people to lie for them as well, to say they saw Jesus after He rose from the dead. But just how plausible is this theory? To support it, you’d have to be ready to believe that for the next fifty years those people were willing to be ostracized, beaten, persecuted, and (all but one of them) suffer a martyr’s death–without ever renouncing their conviction that they had seen Jesus bodily resurrected.
Does anyone really think the disciples could have maintained a lie all that time? No, someone would have cracked, just as we did so easily in Watergate. Someone would have acted as John Dean did and turned state’s evidence. There would have been some kind of smoking gun evidence, or a deathbed confession. Why didn’t they? Because they had come face to face with the living God. They could not deny what they had seen. The fact is that people will give their lives for what they believe is true, but they will never give their lives for what they know is a lie. The Watergate cover-up proves that 12 powerful men in modern America couldn’t keep a lie–and that 12 powerless men 2000 years ago couldn’t have been telling anything but the truth.(4)
6. Extra-Biblical Testimony
Jesus of Nazareth is mentioned by ten non-Christian sources, including Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Thallus, Phlegon, Pliny the Younger, and the Jewish Talmud! For example, Jesus’ crucifixion is attested by all four Gospels. Therefore, it passes the test of multiple attestation. It is also one of the earliest proclamations in the early Messianic Movement (see Acts 2:23; 36; 4:10). It is also recorded early in Paul’s writings (1 Cor.15), and by non-Christian authors Josephus, Ant.18:64; Tacitus, Ann.15.44.3.
Even John Dominic Crossan, one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar (not some hyper-evangelical group) says the following:
Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if no follower of Jesus had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixition, we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus. (5)
7. Enemy Testimony
Historian Paul Maier notes that “positive evidence within a hostile source is the strongest kind of evidence.” There are several places where we can see a hostile source testifies to the events in the New Testament. Enemy attestation can be recognized in the fact that the Jewish leadership did acknowledge that Jesus’ tomb was empty (Matt. 28:11–15) as well as the confirmation about the resurrection from the conversion of many of the Jewish priests (Acts 6:7).
What is significant about Richard Bauckham’s book is his mentioning of Thomas Reid. Reid was a Scottish philosopher and contemporary of David Hume who played an integral role in the Scottish Enlightenment. It was in Reid’s “common sense” philosophy of the eighteenth century where Reid understood testimony as an integral part of the social character of knowledge. In other words, for Reid, to trust the testimony of others is simply fundamental to the kind of creatures we are. I hope the 7 E’s help in your study of the New Testament.
Note: The 7 E’s were created by my friend Frank Turek. He actually appeals to 6 E’s. But I have expanded on them a bit. But to see more on this, see his book which he co-authored with Norman Geisler called I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist.
1. Reid, D. G., The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament: A One-Volume Compendium Of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2004, 460
2. Barnett, P., Jesus and the Logic of History. Downers Grove, IL: InterVaristy Press. 1997, 138.
3. Fisher, D.H., Historian’s Fallacies:Toward a Logic of Historical Thought: New York: Harper Torchbooks. 1970, 62.
4.Colson, C. The Impossible Cover Up. Available at www.breakpoint.org/commentaries/2094-the-impossible-cover-up
5. Crossan, J.D., Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. 1994, 145.