Do Discrepancies in Eyewitness Testimony Render It Unreliable?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

If there is one thing I have heard dozens of times from skeptics, it is that eyewitness testimony cannot be trusted. Skeptics constantly point this out to me. Why? Because this is the the best way, in their estimation, to discredit the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s life recorded in the New Testament.

My response has always been, from common sense, that some eyewitness testimony is better than other eyewitness testimony. One cannot sweep aside all of it, as we rely on this kind of testimony every day of our lives. We literally could not function if we did not believe anything that other people told us about what they witnessed.

Many skeptics, however, don’t go so far as to impugn all eyewitness testimony from ancient history. Their problem with the NT accounts of Jesus’s life is the apparent inconsistencies and divergences among the sources. One Gospel says that two angels were at Jesus’s tomb and another Gospel says that one angel was at Jesus’s tomb. Based on these kinds of discrepancies, skeptics claim that all, or nearly all, of the testimony in the NT should be thrown out.

Is this position reasonable? Do discrepancies rule out the reliability of testimony? Recently I ran across some actual legal language about eyewitness testimony which applies to court proceedings in the state of California. This language was cited by J. Warner Wallace in his book Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. Here it is:

Do not automatically reject testimony just because of inconsistencies or conflicts. Consider whether the differences are important or not. People sometimes honestly forget things or make mistakes about what they remember. Also, two people may witness the same event yet see or hear it differently. (Section 105, Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions, 2006).

According to Wallace, “Jurors are instructed to be cautious not to automatically disqualify a witness just because some part of his or her statement may disagree with an additional piece of evidence or testimony.”

Skeptics, then, are being unreasonable when they demand that there be no apparent inconsistencies within the Gospel accounts. This standard is not ever applied in California law courts (and I suspect courts in other states), where matters of life and death are decided. What a reasonable person should do, when reading the Gospels, is set aside the apparent discrepancies and look at the areas where the witnesses agree.

  • rericsawyer

    I wonder if among the difficulties is one we Christians cause ourselves. If we make the claim (I do not) that every word of the Bible is authored by God, in such a fashion that the human vehicles were more like clerks taking dictation than they were like authors, well then, the accounts ought to be the same! After all, if God is the author, He was there. He should know.
    At least some of the objection may be less a objection as to the dependability of eye-witness accounts, as it is an objection to a (perhaps incorrect) view of what we claim by “inspired and authoritative” Word of God.
    But I hear your point when you cite the sometimes intense rejection of eye-witness accounts -it almost seems as if some take reports of what people saw as evidence that something did NOT happen, rather than partial evidence (not proof) that it did.

  • barry

    First, as an atheist I do not automatically reject biblical claims. I count the differences about one angel v. two angels as significant because if an author believed there were two angels, no reason can be thought why he should make reference to only one. If you saw two angels descend from heaven to the scene of a car accident, what is the likelihood that you would “chose” to mention just one in your eyewitness report? Very low.

    Second, Wallace digs his own apologetics grave by using legal rules of evidence used in modern day American courts. a) how does he know American rules of evidence are better than rules of evidence used in other countries? b) there are other American rules of evidence that instruct juries they can rationally disregard any testimony that is miraculous, and/or justify them to construe silence as a positive denial:

    “The testimony of a disinterested witness which is in no way
    discredited, or contradicted by other evidence, to a fact within his knowldege,
    which is not in itself improbable or in conflict with other evidence, must
    usually be accepted by the jury and may not be arbitrarily disregarded or
    rejected. It does not necessarily follow, however, that a verdict or finding
    must be made in favor of the party introducing such evidence, where the issue
    remains in dispute or doubt. Although the testimony of a disinterested
    witness is not directly contradicted by other witnesses, if there are
    circumstances which controvert it or explain it away, or if the testimony is
    clouded with uncertainty or improbability, or if it otherwise appears to be
    unworthy of belief, the trier of fact is not bound to accept it. Where
    testimony is on its face incredible, contrary to physical facts, settled
    scientific principles, or the laws of nature, or if it is opposed to common
    knowledge or to judicial notice, it may properly be
    disregarded…” (“Summary of American Law, “Evidence: 11:5.
    Weight and Sufficiency of Evidence” p 289, italics mine)

    “Silence, omissions, or
    negative statements, as inconsistent: (1) Silence, etc., as constituting the
    impeaching statement. A failure to assert a fact, when it would have been
    natural to assert it, amounts in effect to an assertion of the non-existence of
    the fact. This is conceded as a general principle of evidence.”
    See 3A J. Wigmore, Evidence s 1042 (Chadbourn rev. 1970):

    TQA:
    Skeptics, then, are being unreasonable when they demand that there be no
    apparent inconsistencies within the Gospel accounts.
    ———–barry jones: You are correct, that is why no professional academic critiques of the resurrection of Jesus simplistically argue that apparent inconsistencies trash the entire hypothesis. Yes, some skeptics are rank amateurs who don’t know better. Which means your critique here really isn’t touching the substantial material put out by skeptics who know better.

    TQA:
    This standard is
    not ever applied in California law courts (and I suspect courts in other
    states), where matters of life and death are decided. What a reasonable
    person should do, when reading the Gospels, is set aside the apparent
    discrepancies and look at the areas where the witnesses agree.
    ————barry jones: Wrong, because obviously a discrepancy or inconsistency can also mean that the witness is lying or asserting more knowledge than they actually have, which would then justify viewing their credibility as impeached. You certainly wouldn’t ask jurors to set aside apparent discrepancies in the testimonies of witnesses against you for murder, if you knew you were innocent, for then those discrepancies properly function as impeachment evidence.