On Testimony and History

In an earlier post I suggested that, when comparing different religions with Christianity, one must take seriously the centrality of the person of Jesus. That means, rather than starting with ethics or metaphysics, comparisons of Christianity should start with Christ. (Admittedly, this is not an original idea.) What this means in practice, however, is that one has to begin with history. Whatever else we may conclude about Jesus, he was also a first century Jewish man living and working in Palestine (the Roman provinces of Galilee and Judaea).

But what can we really know about Jesus? The New Testament contains four different Gospels (referred to as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John after their traditional authors), which are accounts of the life and work of Jesus, with particular interest in his ministry, and death in the early 30’s CE. (Jesus’ death is particularly important for these authors because according to them [and the earlier writer Paul as well] death was not the end for Jesus – he rose and now reigns as lord over all.)  All four are different, with different points of view on various events and controversies, though three of them are closely related and share a number of sources (though the precise connection has been debated since antiquity and doesn’t look like it’s letting up any time soon). They (or parts of them) were probably written sometime from ten years after Jesus’ death to the end of the first century or perhaps beginning of the second century CE. These facts have led some to ask, “Can we really trust these accounts of Jesus?”

I would like to suggest that we can and that the case of the gospels is not really different in principle from any other historical text. Historical events and persons are not subject to proof, i.e. they are not verifiable, in the same way that contemporary events are and certainly not in the same way that one proves a mathematical or scientific hypothesis. But even contemporary events are difficult to understand. If three people witness the same event, say, a convenience store robbery, it is unlikely that their descriptions will be the same. Each has their own point of view, and it is further affected by their relationship to, in our example, the robber: the store owner’s account would likely be very different from the account of the doting mother who happened to be there. In reconstructing the event, the police rely on human testimony (even alongside such fancy technology as a security camera) to understand what happened.

Working with events and persons in history is even more complicated than that, but the crux remains the same: do you trust the one giving the testimony? If not, then it is unlikely that even a very plausible event would be accepted. If so, then even some difficulties in the testimony might be allowed within the limits of that trust. But all history, and indeed most knowledge about anything, is based on one sort of testimony or another. The historian’s job is to weigh the various accounts of an event and decide what is coherent and what does not fit.[1] The Gospels (along with the whole New Testament) testify that Jesus was more than he seemed. He was the Messiah of the Jews, who was also the very presence of God among his people. This Jesus, as Paul testifies with the Gospels, “died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”[2]

This is what they testify. The question is, do you trust them?

Ben Edsall
[1] Of course, we bring our own presuppositions to the table too, but that is a matter for a different post.
[2] 1 Corinthians 15:3-4


One response to “On Testimony and History

  1. Well said. It might also be pointed out to skeptics of that trust, that they are trusting someone or something, if only themselves and their own skepticism. Those who propose such fierce unbelief often imagine or even promote themselves as intellectually brave but that is not demonstrated. Rather, the fortress mentality of the hardened skeptic imitates that of the most convinced fundamentalist.

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