Tough Questions Answered

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How Can Two Witnesses See the Same Event Differently? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1, we read about J. Warner Wallace’s account of a grocery store robbery from his book Cold-Case Christianity. Two witnesses, Sylvia Ramos and Paul Meher, gave seemingly contradictory accounts of the robbery suspect. Wallace explained why Ramos saw things the way she did, but now we need to see why Meher saw things the way he did. Here is Wallace:

Paul Meher was visiting the cashier when the robbery occurred. The cashier was an old friend from high school, and Paul was standing behind the counter with his friend at the time of the crime. Paul couldn’t remember many details related to the suspect’s clothing, but believed that he was wearing a T-shirt. He was certain, however, that the robber pointed a gun at his friend, and he recognized this pistol as a Ruger P95 because his father owned one that was identical. Paul focused on the gun during most of the robbery, but he also observed that the suspect scowled and had a menacing expression on his face. The robber spoke his words slowly and deliberately in a way that Paul interpreted as threatening. Paul described the man as just slightly older than him, at approximately twenty-four to twenty-five years of age. He was certain that the suspect made no effort to purchase anything prior to the crime, and afterward, Paul had a visual angle through the glass storefront that allowed him to see that the robber walked to the end of the parking lot, then ran to a tan-colored, 1990s Nissan four-door.

Now that we know the circumstances behind Ramos’s testimony and Meher’s testimony, can they be harmonized? Can Wallace determine what actually happened during the robbery? Wallace explains just how he handled the two different eyewitness accounts:

Once I interviewed these two witnesses, I understood why they seemed to disagree on several key points. In the end, many things impact the way witnesses observe an event. A lot depends on where a witness is located in relationship to the action. We’ve also got to consider the personal experiences and interests that cause some witnesses to focus on one aspect of the event and some to focus on another.

Sylvia was older and had difficulty estimating the age of the suspect, but her design interests and experience with her husband helped her to correctly identify the kind of shirt the robber wore. Paul had personal experience with pistols and was sitting in a position that gave him an entirely different perspective as he watched the robbery unfold.

As the detective handling the case, it was my job to understand each witness well enough to take the best they had to offer and come to a conclusion about what really happened. Every case I handle is like this; witnesses seldom agree on every detail. In fact, when two people agree completely on every detail of their account, I am inclined to believe that they have either contaminated each other’s observations or are working together to pull the wool over my eyes. I expect truthful, reliable eyewitnesses to disagree along the way.

Take note of Wallace’s summary. He stated, “Every case I handle is like this; witnesses seldom agree on every detail.” He added, “I expect truthful, reliable eyewitnesses to disagree along the way.”

What is the takeaway with regard to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection? We should expect divergences in the accounts if they are truthful. This is the complete opposite expectation of the skeptic, who expects that the accounts be practically identical if they are truthful. The skeptic, in the end, simply does not understand the nature of eyewitness testimony, and therefore demands something of the Gospel accounts that should never be there, if they are true.


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Comments

  • rericsawyer

    I remember Lewis making a similar point, in that he reguarded the variation in accounts, along with some of the “more difficult” statements of Jesus as evidence of the veracity of the accounts in that they are pretty strong evidence that there had not been a campaign to clean them up.
    They each stand as an accurate record of what that observer understood himself to see, and what the author selected from all the things he may have seen.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Dagoods,
    The point being made is not that eyewitness testimony cannot be trusted, but that even when divergent accounts are given, it is still possible to figure out what really happened. So skeptics who use the divergent details in the Gospels to prove that the whole Jesus narrative should be thrown out are dead in the water. They are hyper-skeptics who will never be satisfied with any testimony about Jesus.

    I don’t worry much about the divergent details in the Gospels, because just as in the grocery store robbery, we can piece together what really happened from all of the different accounts. What really happened is that Jesus of Nazareth performed miracles, claimed to be God, and rose from the dead after being crucified. The divergent details are a distraction from these central truths.

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/ DagoodS

    Bill Pratt: “The point being made is not that eyewitness testimony cannot be trusted…”

    Then it seems curious the story goes a long way toward demonstrating their testimony can NOT be trusted (as it points out the numerous errors made).

    Are the gospels comparable to eyewitness police reports or not? If they are, then we should expect (like eyewitness accounts) variances and inaccuracies depending on the person’s perspective, age, ability to see, ability to hear, etc. And–like J. Warner Wallaces’ example–we see the variances and point out where the details are incorrect.

    What is so hard about that?

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Why do you insist on claiming that the point of the story is the inaccuracy of the witnesses when that is exactly the opposite conclusion of Wallace, who is telling the story?

    Obviously their testimony was used to arrive at what really happened because that is exactly what Wallace did! If their testimonies were so badly unreliable, then how did Wallace arrive at his conclusions about what really happened? How did so easily find simple ways to harmonize their two perspectives on what they saw, if they were so wildly inaccurate and unreliable?

    The point of this post is to give an example, from actual detective work, of how divergent details given by two witnesses can be harmonized to arrive at the truth. Wallace’s story does exactly that.

    This point can be applied to the Gospels, which are derived from eyewitness accounts of the events of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

    Again, to make this abundantly clear, if Wallace can figure out what really happened given the diverging details provided by the two witnesses, then we can also figure out what really happened to Jesus. Why? Because the Gospel accounts agree with each other on all the major points, and only diverge on minor points.

    A reasonable person would want to know what things the Gospels agree upon so that they could find out what really happened. You show absolutely no interest in what they agree on. You just keep asking about what they disagree on, which shows that you have zero interest in knowing what happened.

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/ DagoodS

    Bill Pratt,

    I have been quite involved with eyewitness testimony; I think I have a pretty good handle on weighing credibility and determining reliability.

    Look, what Mr. Wallace describes is common—two or more differing testimonies (you should see the vast differences in testimony in bar fight cases!) What we do then is (Like the detectives in this example) question further as to the witness’ credibility—are they involved in the situation, what was their point of view, how far away were they, what was their eyesight, what was their interest, etc. And as we question, we begin to give some witnesses greater weight and others less when it comes to reliability.

    In this example, Paul’s testimony is given greater weight because of his interest (he saw it was a robbery), his angle and his previous history. For this reason we find him credible regarding the gun, the robbery and the get-away car, finding Sylvia NOT credible. Sylvia recognized the shirt because of her knowledge, and we give her credibility on this sole issue, finding Paul NOT credible.

    Where do we see Christian apologists performing the same analysis? Where do we see them weighing the credibility of Mark as to Matthew as to Luke or John? Where do we see them comparing interest, ability to see, knowledge, etc? If the Gospels are to be treated like eyewitness testimony (a highly speculative endeavor in my opinion) then we have no tools to employ like Mr. Wallace uses in his example! In other words, we are left with JUST the two stories of Paul and Sylvia without even the information whether a robbery occurred at all!

    If the only point one wants to draw from this is two (or more) stories can continue both true facts and untrue facts…this seems to be pretty mundane and obvious. This would be true whether the stories were eyewitnesses or not.

    I was asking on the comparison to gospel divergences to see if you would stay consistent in this methodology on applying this example to the gospels and admit there were errors on one or more of the author’s parts. I was curious whether an inerrantist would stay consistent.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    A few years back, I served on a jury in Chicago in a gang shooting case. There was a car chase followed by a collision and shots were fired from a van. As I listened to the prosecution’s case, it was clear to me that the shots couldn’t have come from where the defendant was sitting in the van. I saw no way to fit together the testimony of the prosecution’s witnesses, the damage to the vehicles, and the victim’s wounds. It seemed clear to me that the shots must have come from where the prosecution’s chief witness—a leader of the gang—was sitting, and that’s what I expected the defense to show. However, when the defendant testified, it was not at all what I expected and it left just as many unanswered questions.

    After the trial was over, I talked to the defense attorney about the discrepancies in the evidence. He acknowledged the problems, but said he had no doubt that his client sincerely believed that the events had occurred in the way he described them on the witness stand. The attorney was counting on the defendant’s sincerity to convince the jury that he was being scapegoated by the gang leader. Although the jury remained skeptical of the defendant’s sincerity, we did acquit as the many holes in the prosecution’s case left us with extremely reasonable doubts. Sometimes it’s impossible to piece together divergent stories into what really happened. Sometimes the facts are utterly lost and sometimes the best you can do is to come up with a range of possibilities.

    It may be perfectly true that sincere truthful witnesses can disagree about details; it is equally perfectly true that insincere liars can disagree about details. The presence of those disagreements tells you absolutely nothing about whether or not the witnesses are testifying truthfully. It merely tells you whether they are colluding on their testimony. On the other hand, the fact that the witnesses are colluding wouldn’t prove that they were lying. Had Sylvia and Paul gotten together and discussed the incident, they might well have each realized where they had been mistaken and afterward told stories that were entirely truthful without being in any way inconsistent.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    Again, to make this abundantly clear, if Wallace can figure out what really happened given the diverging details provided by the two witnesses, then we can also figure out what really happened to Jesus. Why? Because the Gospel accounts agree with each other on all the major points, and only diverge on minor points.

    Really Bill? Is that why Wallace was able to figure out what really happened? Might it not also have something to do with the fact that he was able to extensively interview the known eyewitnesses shortly after the robbery occurred before they reinterpreted the events in their memory as people are well known to do? Might that case be just a wee bit different from anonymous ancient writings based on unknown sources removed an unknown number of times in an oral tradition that might or might not have originated from anyone who was actually an eyewitness to the original events? The hubris of maintaining that the situations are analogous in any relevant way is really quite stunning.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    So Vinny, you are arguing that we can only believe eyewitness accounts where we are able to interview the witnesses immediately after the event occurred? Really?

    If we followed your methodology for determining the the truth of eyewitness testimony, we would literally have to throw out all written history except for what happened a few weeks ago. Any written testimony that was written by dead people would be right out.

    The Gospel accounts repeatedly claim to contain eyewitness accounts and they have all of the internal hallmarks of containing eyewitness accounts. We can date these accounts to within decades of the original events, which is extremely rare when dealing with ancient history.

    Your hyper-skepticism is disappointing, but at least you are consistent.

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/ DagoodS

    Bill Pratt: “So Vinny, you are arguing that we can only believe eyewitness accounts where we are able to interview the witnesses immediately after the event occurred? Really?”

    I do not see where Vinny is arguing this at all. Is there any charity left in observing other’s arguments? I thought he was quite clear with:

    Vinny: “The hubris of maintaining that the situations are analogous in any relevant way is really quite stunning.”

    No, Bill Pratt, it is not an “all-or-nothing.” We have said this many times. Just like we take other historical accounts at the time with a grain of salt, we treat the Gospels the same way.

    It is the Christian apologist (Wallace) who is attempting to compare the gospels to police interviews. Personally, I think the genres are too different to be compared….but if one wants to, I want to see if they can even stay consistent with other claims they make. So far, I have no seen it.

    It is an inapplicable comparison that turns out to contradict other claims the same Christians make. Why use it?

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    How could you possibly think that I was arguing that Bill? I am reluctant to accuse you of deliberately misinterpreting my position in order to create a straw man, but I find it hard to otherwise explain such a gross misrepresentation of my point.

    All I am saying is that sometimes our sources make it possible to reconcile inconsistencies and sometimes they don’t. Wallace has given an example of the best case scenario for reconciliation whereas the gospels represent one of the worst cases. Since the conditions in Wallace’s case are not even remotely analogous, it constitutes extremely pour precedent.

    We don’t have to throw out anything, but we do have to scrutinize everything. Some written accounts stand up to scrutiny and some don’t.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    There is another point about eyewitness testimony that I may not have made on this blog before:

    It seems that every month or so I read about a man being released from prison after being exonerated by DNA evidence that wasn’t available at the time of his trial. Often the original conviction was obtained based on eyewitness testimony, but that doesn’t matter. When science says that things couldn’t have happened the way the eyewitnesses say they did, the court goes with science.

    I wonder how often Wallace dealt with witnesses identifying a suspect who turned out to have an airtight alibi, such as being in jail on other charges. Would he conclude that the witness must be mistaken based on the simple scientific principle that people cannot be in two places at the same time, or would Wallace engage in an effort to harmonize the conflicting evidence?

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    You should read his book to find out.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Vinny,
    Do you go on to websites that discuss the historical data about Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar, or Aristotle, or any of the other people we know from ancient history to inform the website contributors that their historical conclusions are unwarranted and likely false because we just don’t have enough evidence to know anything about these people from antiquity?

    If not, why not? The historical data for the lives of these people are much weaker than for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    No I don’t Bill, but I read books on these topics. I would recommend Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past by Paul Cartledge. The author does a great job discussing the nature of the sources and how historians use them.

    For a good example of a real historian trying to make sense of conflicting eyewitness accounts, I would recommend Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. In The Passage of Power, Caro does a masterful job of telling the story of the day that John F. Kennedy asked LBJ to be his running mate and Bobby Kennedy tried to talk Johnson out of it. Even having interviewed several evewitnesses, Caro still finds it impossible to completely unravel the real course of events.

    I read a fair amount of history from a variety of eras. If real historians made the kinds of arguments that apologists do, I think I would probably argue with them, too. Happily, they don’t.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    Bill,

    Just so you know where I’m coming from. For most of my adult life, I devoted little time to arguing with Christian apologists. However, about ten years ago, my son’s high school put on a production of The Laramie Project which stirred up the ire of some local Christian fundamentalists who managed to get one of their own elected to the school board. This woman proceeded to try to have certain books banned from the curriculum. My first venture into the blogosphere was arguing with her supporters who insisted that the curriculum should be determined by their interpretation of a book of ancient myths rather than the best peer reviewed research from leading universities in the fields of biology, sociology, psychology, and history.

    If someone had demanded that the high school economics curriculum include discussions of rainbows and pots of gold, I might be arguing about the existence of leprechauns instead.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    Nothing I have read on his website leads me to believe that reading his book would be worth my time.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Vinny,
    I have never argued for banning books, so why is it that you target my blog posts for criticism in particular? In fact, I would likely stand with you in arguing against the fundamentalist that argued for book banning. Why don’t you treat me as an ally instead of an enemy?

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Vinny, what apologists like me say about the historical reliability of the NT documents is not the point. All I do is cite expert testimony from professional scholars who study these topics for a living. Picking on the likes of me is pointless.

    Real historians support the facts I cite about the historical reliability of the NT. Your problem is that you do not like what real historians say about the NT, so you attack people like me because I’m an easy target, in your mind.

    That’s OK. I asked for the abuse when I started this blog and you have been happy to heap it on me.

    But you might want to ask yourself why you keep coming back to this blog to rehash the same arguments over and over and over and over. I’m afraid I don’t understand what you’re trying to accomplish.

    You clearly have it in for Christian theism and you come around every few weeks or so to remind me. I get it. You hate what I write. You think I’m wrong about everything. Anything I’m missing?

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    Bill,

    In what sense is Wallace a real historian or a professional scholar? In what sense is he anything more than a hack apologist? What real historian would endorse any of his arguments?

    I keep coming back to this blog because you keep misrepresenting the arguments and positions of those who do not share your faith. I keep coming back because you keep portraying apologetic propaganda as legitimate scholarship.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Hack? Propaganda? Sorry, Vinny. I have been incredibly patient with you over the last few years, but I’m afraid you’re done here.

  • Steven Carr

    Conflicting Eyewitness testimony?

    Mark 14
    Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’” 59 Yet even then their testimony did not agree.

    Even a kangaroo court, rigged to produce a guilty verdict, knows you can’t accept testimony where the witnesses disagree on the details, even if they agree on the main point.

    And. of course, not one person in history has ever put his name to a document saying he saw an empty tomb.

    Christian converts in Corinth were openly scoffing at the idea that their god would choose to raise corpses.

    Paul calls them ‘idiots’ and reminds them that Jesus ‘became a life-giving spirit’.

  • Steven Carr

    This is totally fair.

    The very name of the blog is ‘Tough Questions Answered.’

    Vinny thinks you should question the answers.

    But there is nothing in the name of the blog to suggest that the answers can be questioned.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘They are hyper-skeptics who will never be satisfied with any testimony about Jesus.’

    No a hyper-skeptic is somebody who disputes the evidence of their own eyes.

    There is documented photographic proof of the fraud, plagiarism and lies of the Gospellers at http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/mirc1.htm

    It is the same sort of fraud found in all religious books , like the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the Koran.

    But no amount of documented proof of frauds and lies will persuade Christians , Mormons and Muslims that there are 3 books of frauds , rather than just 2.

    Their books are perfect, while the other books are wrong.

    Just ask a Mormon, a Christian or a Muslim and they will tell you that the evidence against other books is fine – but it doesn’t work against their book.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Steven,

    I have a three strikes and you’re banned comments policy (please read it). It was strike three for Vinny. I am incredibly lenient with this policy, and have only banned 3 people since instituting it 2 years ago, so there is nothing unfair about my banning him.

  • Don Sciba

    Bill, I applaud you for your intelligent defense of our faith. Don’t let a couple or three skeptics (atheists?) get you down.

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