What Should We Expect If the New Testament Accounts are From Multiple Eyewitnesses?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

J. Warner Wallace, a former cold case detective and expert on eyewitness testimony, tells us in his book, Cold-Case Christianity, what we should expect to see if the New Testament accounts are provided by multiple eyewitnesses. Wallace’s first observation is that

THEIR STATEMENTS WILL BE PERSPECTIVAL.

Each eyewitness will describe the event from his or her spatial and emotional perspective. Not everyone will be in the same position to see the same series of events or the same details. I will have to puzzle together statements that might at first appear contradictory; each statement will be colored by the personal experiences and worldviews of the witnesses.

Wallace’s second observation is that

THEIR STATEMENTS WILL BE PERSONAL.

Each eyewitness will describe the event in his or her own language, using his or her own expressions and terms. As a result, the same event may be described with varying degrees of passion or with divergent details that are simply the result of individual tastes and interests.

Wallace’s third observation is that

THEIR STATEMENTS MAY CONTAIN AREAS OF COMPLETE AGREEMENT.

Some aspects of each eyewitness statement may be completely identical. This is particularly true when witnesses describe aspects of the crime that were dramatic or important to the sequence of events. It’s also true when later witnesses are aware of what others have offered and simply affirm the prior description by telling me, “The rest occurred just the way he said.”

Wallace’s fourth observation is that

LATER STATEMENTS MAY FILL IN THE GAPS.

Finally, as described earlier, I expect late witnesses who are aware of prior statements to simply fill in what has not been said previously.

Do the New Testament accounts contain these elements? According to Wallace, they do. With respect to the four Gospels, Wallace writes:

All four accounts are written from a different perspective and contain unique details that are specific to the eyewitnesses. There are, as a result, divergent (apparently contradictory) recollections that can be pieced together to get a complete picture of what occurred. All four accounts are highly personal, utilizing the distinctive language of each witness.

Mark is far more passionate and active in his choice of adjectives, for example. Several of the accounts (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) contain blocks of identical (or nearly identical) descriptions. This may be the result of common agreement at particularly important points in the narrative, or (more likely) the result of later eyewitnesses saying, “The rest occurred just the way he said.”

Finally, the last account (John’s gospel) clearly attempts to fill in the details that were not offered by the prior eyewitnesses. John, aware of what the earlier eyewitnesses had already written, appears to make little effort to cover the same ground. Even before examining the Gospels with the rigor we are going to apply in section 2, I recognized that they were consistent with what I would expect to see, given my experience as a detective.

Wallace, in his book, goes on to provide in-depth analysis of how well the Gospels meet these four criteria, but at first glance, the Gospels all seem to have the hallmarks of reliable eyewitness testimony.

Why should we care about Wallace’s thoughts on this subject? Because skeptics regularly accuse the Gospel accounts of being manufactured because they contain divergent details.  But Wallace points out that there are divergent details because we are dealing with multiple eyewitnesses who see things from their own perspective. If the Gospels all said exactly the same thing, in all the details, then we would have serious reason to doubt that they came from multiple eyewitness sources.

  • J. Warner Wallace: “Several of the accounts (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) contain blocks of identical (or nearly identical) descriptions. This may be the result of common agreement at particularly important points in the narrative, or (more likely) the result of later eyewitnesses saying, ‘The rest occurred just the way he said.’”

    Curiously, Mr. Wallace demonstrates no knowledge whatsoever regarding the similarities arising out of copying previously written material (although in one article he does indicate Luke copied Mark, but only uses this fact to argue for dating—not reliability.). Indeed Mr. Wallace demonstrates no knowledge whatsoever regarding the synoptic problem—he certainly fails to engage with it!

    J. Warner Wallace: “…I recognized that they were consistent with what I would expect to see, given my experience as a detective.”

    But are they consistent with the bios genre? Does J. Warner Wallace even understand the genre, what it would entail, why it would or would not include such information, etc.? We never know because Mr. Wallace treats the gospels like police reports—not the genre they were written.

    Bill Pratt: “Why should we care about Wallace’s thoughts on this subject?”

    Frankly, I don’t think we should. Until J. Warner Wallace engages the historical nature of the gospels, within their genre, context, culture and society, all he provides is a 21st Century American Police Officer’s perspective. This may be interesting for an article or blog entry, but not much beyond that.

    Please understand, I do not fault him for taking this approach—I just don’t see how it provides any insight and certainly there is little to learn when he treats the gospels in a way they are not written. Like critiquing the continuity of Star Trek episodes. Interesting…but ultimately not informative.

    Dr. Licona would be a far more interesting person to cite regarding his study—much more applicable.

  • I think his perspective is informative because he deals with eyewitness testimony day in and day out. You yourself have claimed to have special insight into the NT documents because of your legal background. Why is it that your legal background is a legitimate source of insight into the NT documents, but Wallace’s legal background is not?

    The NT claims to consist of eyewitness testimony and Wallace knows a lot about that. It seems perfectly reasonable to learn from his perspective.

  • Bill Pratt,

    To clarify, I do not have any special insights whatsoever in the early Christian writings because of my legal background. The gospels are not written by eyewitnesses, and to the extent the information comes from people who observed the events, the genre of Greek bios is so dissimilar to the genre of modern day legal testimony, I seriously doubt one’s insight in one genre provides any information as to the other.

    I do appreciate you recognize and are consistent that to the extent J. Warner Wallace would have insight into the New Testament…based upon his legal experience…so would I. And every other attorney, police officer, prosecutor, judge, law student, investigator, etc. Again, to me any such insight is slight enough; it is only worth a blog entry or small article at most.

    My concern with J. Warner Wallace (after reading his blog, reading his articles, reading numerous reviews of his book, reading excerpts of his books and listening to his podcasts), is he fails to recognize the genre the writings were written in. I cannot find a single reference to bios. He does not refer to the arguments regarding authorship (other than the extremely low-hanging fruit of “the gospels were written too late to be by eyewitnesses.”) Nothing about the internal problems, about the anonymity, about the robust debate surrounding Matthew, or the integrity of John.

    He never mentions the synoptic problem. And, absent one aside I could find, never mentions Matthew copying Mark or Luke copying Mark, or Luke copying Matthew. Or “Q.”

    I cannot find a reference to other similar historical documents and writings comparable to the gospels (such as you and I have discussed) like Josephus’ miracles, Tacitus, etc.

    He repeatedly approaches the New Testament writings with, “I do ____ when reviewing 21st century police reports on eyewitness testimony. I will do the exact same when reviewing the New Testament documents.” Further, he appears to be inconsistent in utilizing this methodology. As we discussed, he refers to “divergent” stories in modern-day eyewitness reports, yet claims the New Testament reports are not divergent! I cannot tell if it is inconsistent methodology or the differing genres causing this problem.

    In short, Christian apologists have much better resources with much stronger arguments with persons like Licona, Bauckham, McGrath, etc. who understand the genre and do not attempt to “smash” it into a modern-day mold.

  • The gospels are written by eyewitnesses and/or people who interviewed eyewitnesses. You can deny that all day long, but you’re simply wrong about that.

    Moving on, I have no problem with Wallace not covering every single issue you mention. Why should he? An author is not obligated to cover all previous ground every time he writes a book. This would make new contributions to scholarship impossible.

    One thing you seem to misunderstand about his book, and I would recommend that you actually read it instead of read about it, is that he doesn’t interact with scholarship or other ancient writings. He actually does both. His book is full of citations of ancient primary sources and contemporary scholars.

    When I searched his book for “Josephus” the search engine generated 44 matches. “Tacitus” generated 16 matches.

    Finally, I find it odd that you mention Licona, Bauckham, McGrath, etc. as having stronger arguments than Wallace. You have consistently claimed the arguments from these kinds of scholars are very weak whenever I have posted about them on this blog. Are you saying that you have changed your mind about these guys, that you are now finding their arguments to be more persuasive?

  • Bill Pratt,

    If you find J. Warner Wallace’s approach helpful…then good. I am sharing why it is not particularly persuasive to a skeptic familiar with the material, genre and with the modern legal system. No, I do not think an author needs to handle ever item I find important; BUT, if his foundational methodology would be to handle these documents the same as modern day eyewitness reports, I do find it both odd and damning he fails to address the differences between the genres. Especially in light of other authors who recognize these differences.

    Did he ever compare Josephus’ miracle accounts or Tacitus miracle accounts (or any other contemporary accounts) to the gospels in his book? I am sure he mentioned Josephus and Tacitus regarding their references to Christ, Christianity and possibly Josephus’ mention of John the Baptist—did he compare genres?

    Regarding Licona, Baukham & McGrath—some of their arguments are stronger than others. Even they would agree with that! I do not recall you ever interacting with Licona’s claim the gospels are bios and as such, certain recorded events did not actually happen. Such as the resurrected saints, or John’s putting Jesus’ death the day before Passover. I never claimed Licona’s argument the documents are bios are “weak”—quite the opposite, I find those arguments compelling.

    Equally, I do not recall you discussing Baukham’s claim Matthew the disciple did not write Matthew the Gospel. Again, I find Baukham’s arguments in this regard persuasive. On the other hand, his claim regarding inclusion is not as strong, and I note other historians have equally not been persuaded by it.

    All that being said, I do think they demonstrate a far greater working knowledge regarding the documents in their time, culture, society, etc. than J. Warner Wallace does. While I personally do not find it persuasive, Dr. Bauckham’s inclusion is a better argument than J. Warner Wallace’s “eyewitness police reports.”

  • barry

    “Each eyewitness will describe the event from his or her
    spatial and emotional perspective.”
    ————–But the issue Christian scholars cannot agree on is whether

    and to what extent the 4 canonical gospels contain eyewitness testimony.

    “THEIR STATEMENTS WILL BE PERSONAL.
    Each eyewitness will describe the event in his or her own language,
    using his or her own expressions and terms.”
    ———–The Muratorian Fragment asserts that all of the apostles
    contributed to the material now found in John’s gospel, that is, after they
    all fasted for three days to see what visions would be revealed
    to them. Yet most scholars agree that John’s gospel is highly unique

    and nearly nothing like the Synoptics, arguing that any apostle who
    authored a Synoptic, gave no input for John’s gospel.

    “As a result, the same event
    may be described with varying degrees of passion or with divergent
    details that are simply the result of individual tastes and interests.”
    ———-As if Wallace didn’t know that sometimes divergencies exist because
    one or more witnesses is lying or mistaken.

    “Some aspects of each eyewitness statement may be completely
    identical. This is particularly true when witnesses describe aspects of
    the crime that were dramatic or important to the sequence of events.
    It’s also true when later witnesses are aware of what others have
    offered and simply affirm the prior description by telling me, “The rest
    occurred just the way he said.”
    ———-And sometimes the reason two testimonies are identical is

    because one witness is simply copying and pasting the testimony

    of another witness, and passing it off as his own, as in the case of

    apostle Mathew allegedly using most of non-eyewitness Mark’s material
    (the most popular of the Synoptic Problem theories).

    “All four accounts are written from a different
    perspective and contain unique details that are specific to the
    eyewitnesses. There are, as a result, divergent (apparently
    contradictory) recollections that can be pieced together to get a
    complete picture of what occurred. All four accounts are highly
    personal, utilizing the distinctive language of each witness.”
    ———–Ensuring that Wallace and you probably do not agree
    with the Muratorian Fragment that says John’s gospel is the result

    of all 12 apostles giving significant input. You will say maybe John
    later reworked what they all said into his own style of writing,

    but since you have no patience for skeptical speculation, fairness
    demands that you allow skeptics to reject your own speculation.

    “Finally, the last account (John’s gospel) clearly attempts to fill in
    the details that were not offered by the prior eyewitnesses.”
    ———Are you ever bothered by the fact that a) statements by

    early church fathers on gospel authorship are always considered important

    by most Christian scholars to deal with gospel introduction issues, and

    yet b) Wallace never makes any serious analysis of such patristic statements?

    Wallace, in his book,
    goes on to provide in-depth analysis of how well the Gospels meet these
    four criteria, but at first glance, the Gospels all seem to have the
    hallmarks of reliable eyewitness testimony.
    ———-“at first glance” is hardly a substantial criterion.

    “Why should we care about Wallace’s thoughts on this subject? Because skeptics regularly accuse the Gospel accounts of being manufactured because they contain divergent details.”
    ———-And Wallace never follows his own logic, and allows the divergences to sometimes be the result of a gospel author being mistaken. If he did, he’d open the door to discussions of how many mistakes a gospel author must make before we can rationally view their credibility as impeached to one degree or other.

    “But Wallace points out that there are divergent details because we are dealing with multiple eyewitnesses who see things from their own perspective.”
    ———-or we are dealing with gospels whose original form was a core of eyewitness testimony, which did not reach us until they were substantially reworked by later editorial hands, the extent of whose influence on each gospel we’ll likely never know. So the gospels in their present form are hardly worthy of the title “eyewitness testimony”, unless you think an original eyewitness statement in a police file can continue being called an eyewitness statement even after the testimony therein has been added to, subtracted from, and otherwise altered and modified by various unknown hands for years?

    If the Gospels all said exactly the same thing, in all the details, then we would have serious reason to doubt that they came from multiple eyewitness sources.