Hearsay or Reliable Testimony

Recently, I've come across some who insist that the students of the Disciples (i.e. Iraneus) cannot be trusted, because, according to them, it is defined as either "hearsay” or “from a ‘friend of a friend.’” Some even go so far as to say that the disciples themselves cannot be trusted! This made me do some research. Here is what I’ve come up with: Simon Greenleaf, author of the book The Testimony of the Evangelists (which I highly recommend) and Professor of Law in the mid-1800s, said that when there are no suspicious circumstances, all the witnesses are to be assumed credible, unless the objector can prove otherwise, the burden of proof falling on him to do so. He further states that the testimony of one is not to be more important than another’s, not even if the testimony is the defendant’s. However, the Christian’s testimony is usually assumed to be false until proven true! His testimony should be held true until proven false, just like everyone else’s testimony is. Ronald Herman Nash, Ph.D., provides a good example of indirect testimony: “[David] Hume was wrong when he suggested that miracles are supported only by direct evidence cited in the testimony of people who claim to have witnessed them. There can also be important indirect evidence for miracles. Even if some person (Jones, let us say) did not observe some alleged miracle (thus making him dependent on the testimony of others who did), Jones may still be able to see abiding effects of the miracle. Suppose the miracle in question concerns the healing of a person who has been blind for years. [see John 9:1] Jones may be dependent on the testimony of others that they saw the healing occur, but perhaps Jones is now able to discern for himself that the formerly blind person can now see. The situation is analogous to that of someone who hears the testimony that a tornado has ravaged his city. Since he was not an eyewitness to the storm, he is dependent on the testimony of eyewitnesses who were there. But when this person arrives on the scene and sees the incredible devastation --- cars on top of houses, other houses blown apart, trees uprooted --- all this functions as indirect evidence to confirm the eyewitness testimony of others. In this way, certain effects of a miracle that exist after the event can serve as indirect evidence that the event happened [Such as the resurrection: the disciples were transformed from “scared rabbits” into “bold lions.” Why? Because Jesus DID rise from the dead. They were scared because they did not remember that He would nor believe that He did rise from the dead. (The Bible says that they thought that the people who had seen Jesus after His resurrection were telling fairy tales.) When the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentacost, they were given great boldness and began to proclaim the truth of the resurrection to everyone (Even Peter who had denied Christ was suddenly extremely bold. He was the one who got up and began to address the crowd and tell them about Christ’s resurrection! - Acts 2)].” (Faith and Reason, page 233; brackets, mine) The term “Hearsay” basically means “rumor.” Rumors are stories that go around that may or may not be true. The phrase “indirect eyewitness testimony,” is not used to signify a rumor. It is used to signify a fact that was passed down by eyewitnesses to their children and everyone else around them. Since it is from eyewitnesses, it is not a rumor; it is a fact. Much of the “indirect” testimony comes from disciples of the Apostles (i.e. Iranaeus). Iranaeus probably didn’t see anything that John wrote, but John taught him all that he knew to be true AND all that he saw, so Iranaeus was well capable of writing about the Apostles and the life of Jesus. When indirect eyewitness testimony is called, “hearsay,” it is implied that their testimonies are not valid until someone proves them true and therefore they cannot be trusted. Simon Greenleaf, a lawyer, who would know the laws, seems to think otherwise. Throughout his book, he consistently says that the Apostles’ testimonies should be considered true until proven false, claiming that the burden of proof is on the one opposing to prove the testimony false if they believe it to be so. It has even been said that if there were no New Testament, the sayings of the rabbis would outline the main story of the gospel (There are approximately 86,489 quotations from the church fathers). Why, if so many people, especially in the years following Jesus’ resurrection, repeated the same things (including enemies of Jesus), is it counted as “hearsay”? Supposing it was “hearsay,” something must have happened, since everyone kept talking about it! Something can’t just be dismissed as “hearsay” without finding out where the information came from. Louis Gottschalk asks, “Was the author of the document able to tell the truth; and if able, was he willing to do so?” (Understanding History, page 148) All those who joined the disciples of the Lord after His resurrection were certainly willing and able to tell the truth. In fact, many of them endured great torture to the point of death for what they believed. And those who did write the Gospels were certainly able: Matthew was a tax-collector who was used to keeping accurate records of taxes; Luke, a physician, wrote much about the miracles and took note of the conditions of the people before and after their healings (He paid extreme attention to the details of miracles) -- His document possesses the characteristic of an official investigation, according to Greenleaf; John was a close companion of Jesus; and Mark was a disciple of Peter and he traveled with Paul. Some of them even stated why they wrote: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4) The Apostle John says, “that which we have seen and heard we declare to you also…” (1 John 1:3) Peter says, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16) They passed along the truths about Christ not only because they did believe that these things that they had seen had actually occurred, but also because they wanted to keep these accounts from dying—they wanted to keep the true story of Jesus’ life alive, to preserve it – so that everyone else could know about the saving grace of Jesus Christ. “[Rudolf] Bultmann in particular has correctly observed that the New Testament believers were committed followers of Jesus, but has then drawn the conclusion that this made them less accurate observers and reporters of what happened. The assumption is that their positive bias toward Jesus and his cause made them less careful in reporting what they observed and in preserving it; they even exaggerated somewhat in the interest of promoting belief in him. Such arguments are usually made with the assistance of an analogy involving courtroom testimonies. But a different analogy, drawn from a classroom setting, may be closer to the situation of the Gospel writers, who were, after all, disciples of the Teacher: In a classroom, who is likelier to catch every word the teacher says and to record correct and complete notes, the casual listener or the student strongly committed to the teacher’s view? We would prefer the notes carefully retain the wisdom of the teacher; because the person writing them down believes they will have value beyond the final examination. As believers in the special value of all that Jesus said, the disciples surely made extra efforts to preserve his teachings accurately,” says Milllard, J., Erickson. (The Word Became Flesh, page 131-132) McCullagh explains that, “If they had not been based upon a careful and fairly exhaustive study of relevant evidence, if they had not been based upon well-established particular and general beliefs about the world, and been arrived at by sound inductive arguments, then they would not deserve to be believed. But those conditions generally do yield reliable beliefs about the world, and the conclusions drawn in accordance with them are generally true.” F. F. Bruce states, “The earliest preachers of the gospel knew the value of…first-hand testimony, and appealed to it time and again. “We are witnesses of these things,” was their constant and confident assertion. And it can have been by no means so easy as some writers seem to think to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of His 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 preaching 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 also know” (Acts 2:22). [Remember that Paul said to Festus and King Agrippa, “I am not mad, but [I] speak the words of truth and reason… this thing was not done in a corner.” (Acts 26:25-26)] Had there been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the possible presence of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served as a further corrective.” Greenleaf says (paraphrased), “Even if the burden of proof were on those who are witnesses in support of the evangelists’ testimonies, it would be easily determined if the testimony was true or false if the nature and character of the testimonies were considered. The rule of law states that the integrity of the testimony of witnesses depends upon honesty, ability, the amount of witnesses and how reliable their testimonies are, how the testimony fits experience, and how it fits with supporting circumstances…. All that Christianity asks of men…is, that they would be consistent with themselves; that they would treat its evidences as they treat the evidence of other things; and that they would try and judge its actors and witnesses, as they deal with their fellow men, when testifying to human affairs and actions, in human tribunals. Let the witnesses be compared with themselves, with each other, and with surrounding facts and circumstances; and let their testimony be sifted, as if it were given in a court of justice, on the side of the adverse party, the witness being subjected to rigorous cross-examination. The result, it is confidently believed, will be an undoubting conviction of their integrity, ability, and truth.” (page 46) William Lane Craig says, “…an item can be regarded as a piece of historical knowledge when it is related to the evidence in such a way that any reasonable person ought to accept it…. in a court of law, the verdict is awarded to the case that is made most probable by the evidence. The jury is asked to decide if the accused is guilty—not beyond all reasonable doubt. It is exactly the same in history: we should accept the hypothesis that provides the most probable explanation of the evidence.” (Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, page 184) “The benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself…. Therefore one must listen to the claims of the document under analysis, and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualified himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies.” (John Warwick Montgomery)


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