Tag Archives: eyewitness testimony

Are All Memories Created Equally?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

According to former cold case detective J. Warner Wallace, there are certain kinds of events that are better remembered than others. Wallace explains in his book Cold-Case Christianity.

Much has been written in recent years about the “unreliability” of eyewitness testimony over time, especially as cases that previously hinged on eyewitness identification have been overturned by new DNA evidence. In fact, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently pointed to cases such as these and cited a “troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications.” As a result, the court issued new rules to make it easier for defendants to challenge eyewitness evidence in criminal cases.

Given that DNA evidence has overturned some eyewitness identifications, Wallace asks why we should “trust eyewitness testimony about an event in the past.” Here is his explanation:

In my experience as a cold-case detective, I’ve learned that not all memories are created equally. Let me give you an example. If you asked me what I did five years ago on Valentine’s Day (February 14 here in the United States), I may or may not be able to remember many of the details. I probably took my wife out for dinner or maybe a short vacation. I could probably tax my memory and recall the day with some accuracy, but I may confuse it with other Valentine’s Day memories; after all, I’ve got thirty-three memories of Valentine’s Day with my wife to sift through . . . . This day was important to me, so it may stick out in my memory a bit more than other days in February, but if you ask me for specific chronological details, I may struggle to recall the particulars from Valentine’s Day five years ago.

But if you ask me to recall the specifics of Valentine’s Day in 1988, I can provide you with a much more accurate recollection. This was the day that Susie and I were married. It definitely sticks out in my mind. I can remember the details with much more precision because this event was unequaled in my life and experience. It’s the only time I’ve ever been married, and the excitement and importance of the event were unparalleled for me. Valentine’s Day stands out when compared to other days in February, but this Valentine’s Day was even more special.

Wallace’s explanation seems quite reasonable. We better remember events that produced a strong emotional reaction in us. I can remember quite well events like my marriage, the births of my son and daughter, and even when the Challenger space shuttle exploded when I was in the 10th grade. Wallace continues:

Not all memories are equally important or memorable. When eyewitnesses encounter an event that is similarly unique, unrepeated, and powerful, they are far more likely to remember it and recall specific details accurately. . . .

Now put yourself in the shoes of the apostles as they witnessed the miracles and resurrection of Jesus. None of these eyewitnesses had ever seen anyone like Jesus before. He did more than teach them important lessons; He astonished the eyewitnesses with miracles that were unique and personally powerful. The apostles experienced only one Jesus in their lifetime; they observed only one man rise from the dead.

The resurrection was unique, unrepeated, and powerful. The gospel eyewitnesses observed a singularly powerful and memorable event and provided us with accounts that are distinctive, idiosyncratic, personal, and reliable.

Wallace’s point is compelling. Anyone who witnessed the kinds of things that happened when Jesus walked the earth would have no problem remembering them. Jesus’s deeds were emotionally powerful, and likely burned into the memories of the eyewitnesses. If anything that happened in the ancient world could be remembered, it would have been Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

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


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


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


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


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.

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.

How Can Two Witnesses See the Same Event Differently? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In a previous post, we saw that the state of California explicitly instructs jurors not to disregard eyewitness testimony that seems to be inconsistent with other testimony. But how exactly can two witnesses see the same event and describe it differently?

J. Warner Wallace was a detective for many years and had to dig through divergent eyewitness accounts frequently. In his book, Cold-Case Christianity, he recalls one particular robbery where he received seemingly conflicting reports from two witnesses.

Many years ago I investigated a robbery in which a male suspect entered a small grocery store, walked up to the counter, and calmly contacted the cashier. The suspect removed a handgun from his waistband and placed it on the counter. He pointed it at the cashier, using his right hand to hold the gun on the counter, his finger on the trigger. The suspect quietly told the cashier to empty the register of its money and place it in a plastic bag. The cashier complied and gave the robber all the money in the drawer. The robber then calmly walked from the store.

This robbery was observed by two witnesses, who were properly separated and interviewed apart from one another. When the crime report was assigned to me as the investigator, I read the officer’s summary and wondered if the witnesses were describing the same robber.

One witness, named Sylvia Ramos, was a 38-year old interior designer. She was married with kids and picking up milk on the way home from work. Her description of the robbery suspect was as follows: younger boy in his teens, very polite with sweet voice, did not have a gun, bought something at the store, wore an Izod polo shirt, had no vehicle.

Another witness, named Paul Meher, was a 23-year old apprentice plumber. He was single with no kids, and visiting the cashier on his day off. His description of the suspect was as follows: man about 24-25 years old, threatening scowl, had a Ruger P95 9mm handgun, bought nothing at the store, might have worn a t-shirt, ran to a 90’s tan Nissan.

Wallace continues his account of the investigation:

At first, these statements seemed to describe two different men committing two different crimes. But, the more I spoke with the witnesses, the more I realized that both were reliable in spite of the fact they seemed to be saying different things about the suspect.

Sylvia Ramos was hurrying home from work and stopped at the store to purchase some milk and a few small items. She stood in line behind the suspect as he calmly committed the robbery. While she heard the tone of his voice, she never heard his words distinctly, and she never saw a gun. She described him as a polite young man in his teens. Based on the way the cashier handed the robber the bag, Sylvia believed that the robber made a purchase prior to committing the crime. Sylvia immediately recognized the suspect’s blue shirt as a classic IZOD polo because many of the men in her office wore this style of shirt when she first started her career as a designer. In fact, she had recently purchased one for her husband. Sylvia watched the robber walk slowly out of the business and across the parking lot as he left the area. She was sure that he didn’t have a “getaway” car.

We will see how Paul Meher viewed events in part 2.

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.

Is Testimony Really That Unreliable? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Recall that in part 2, we looked at a couple skeptics’ views on testimony.  The first skeptic’s view appeared to be self-defeating, but the second skeptic singled out testimony about supernatural events, thus avoiding the self-defeating approach of the first skeptic.  However, the second skeptic has a different sort of problem, which I flesh out below.

I (Bill) trust people who tell me that some supernatural claims are legitimate; he (the skeptic) trusts people who tell him that no supernatural claims are legitimate.  How do we decide whose testimony to trust without begging the question?  For if the skeptic starts out by knowing that all supernatural claims are false (which he seems to have done in this case), then he clearly has begged the question of whether a specific supernatural event occurred.

This is where worldview presuppositions come in.  Skeptical atheists will generally claim that their worldview has nothing to do with their skepticism.  They claim that they are able to remain neutral when assessing any evidential claim (it is religious folks who are hopelessly biased).  But this is clearly false.  Because I believe that a theistic God who can perform miracles exists, I am very open to the possibility that some miracle reports from history are true.  Because the atheist denies that such a God exists, then he is closed to these miracle reports.

So when the Christian asks atheist skeptics to look at the historical testimony supporting a miracle claim, most of these skeptics, though not all, will argue that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, that people make mistakes all the time, that magicians can fool us, that ancient people were gullible, that witnesses in trials are sometimes wrong, that UFO sightings are bogus, that hypnotists can trick us, and on and on and on.

My response to all of these points is this: I know about all of these things, but we trust eyewitness testimony to tell us about much of what we know about the world.  Therefore, when I hear testimony about a seemingly unusual event that I personally have not ever experienced, instead of ruling it out immediately, I should apply criteria developed by experts on testimony of the kind I want to investigate to determine if the testimony is credible.  That way, I can hopefully detect false testimony.

Some skeptics have retorted: “You disbelieve miracle claims from other religions, and you don’t apply the same criteria to them as you do to the miracle claims of Christianity.  Therefore, you are inconsistent and biased, just like you accuse us of being.”

My response is this: I do not categorically deny all miracle claims from other religions, so the accusation is false.  I believe that God is able to perform whatever miracles he wants whenever he wants.  In addition, I believe in the existence of angelic beings who are also able to perform feats that are supernatural in nature, and they may be involved in alleged miracle claims of other religions.  Bottom line, I don’t take a hard position on any miracle claim until I have really looked into the testimony evidence for it.

Where does this leave us?  First, testimony is a fundamental way we learn about the world.  To cast serious doubt on testimony is ultimately self-defeating because you have to rely on testimony to doubt testimony.  The more rational and reasonable way to approach testimony is to apply criteria that have been developed by experts who have studied testimony in a particular discipline (e.g., law, history).

For my Christian friends, when you are dialoguing with a skeptic who starts denigrating the reliability of testimony, ask them to list their criteria for establishing  when testimony is credible or not.  That will move the conversation on to something more profitable.

For my skeptical friends, please understand that telling us all the ways that testimony can be wrong is just not a fruitful approach.  We know about all that.  Move on to giving us your non-question-begging criteria for determining whether particular testimony is credible or not.  If you cannot do that, then our suspicion that your worldview is driving your skepticism starts to become confirmed.

Is Testimony Really That Unreliable? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the previous post, we talked about the role of testimony in our everyday lives.  There are some, however, who cast serious doubts on the reliability of testimony.  Here is a typical quote from a skeptic who commented on this blog:

As we all should know, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. There are numerous examples of situations in which large numbers of people have individually presented eyewitness testimony which has later turned out to be false (UFO sightings are a case in point). Numerous trial convictions hinging on eyewitness testimony have been shown to be wrong when the evidence is analyzed more fully.

Here is what is interesting to me.  First, note that the skeptic fails to give a balanced account of testimony, in general.  Why, for example, doesn’t the skeptic note that there are also numerous examples of large numbers of people who reported testimony that turned out to be true?  With regard to trial convictions, the skeptic does not remind us that the vast majority are never overturned because the eyewitnesses got it right.  We only hear about the overturned convictions because they are so rare.

The second thing to note, and this is really important, is that the only way the skeptic knows about most of the cases where large numbers of people got something wrong, or that trial convictions have been overturned due to false testimony, is through other testimony!  The skeptic did not personally experience most of these cases himself.  He had to hear about these cases from other people (through books, blogs, magazines, etc.) who did, supposedly, experience these cases.  So, in tearing down the reliability of testimony, the skeptic must rely on testimony.  This approach is clearly self-defeating.

Here is another typical quote:

In thinking about the past, we can only reason about unknowns using knowns. Among the knowns are the laws of science and the propensity of eyewitnesses to make mistakes. Among the knowns when it comes to tales of supernatural events are human foibles such as prevarication, gullibility, superstition, wishful thinking and ignorance.

Notice the skeptic’s negative outlook on eyewitness testimony.  He says that we know when people report supernatural “tales” that they prove to be gullible, superstitious, ignorant, and engage in wishful thinking.

How does the skeptic know these things?  You guessed it: through testimony.  The skeptic relies on the testimony of people he trusts to tell him that most people who report supernatural events are gullible, superstitious, and ignorant.  Here again, the skeptic tears down the reliability of testimony by relying on testimony.

At this point, the second skeptic may cry foul and say the following: “I was specifically writing of testimony about supernatural events, not testimony in general.  So there is nothing wrong with me using testimony from people I trust to back up my claims.”  And he has a point; it seems he may have escaped the self-defeating approach of the first skeptic.  However, it leads to another difficulty.

In the next post, we will discuss this difficulty and wrap up this series on the reliability of testimony.

Is Testimony Really That Unreliable? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

There are 3 ways that a person can gain knowledge: experience, reason, and testimony.  Experience simply means that we observe something directly with one of our five senses for ourselves (e.g., “There is a computer screen in front of me”).  Reason means that we make rational and logical inferences from knowledge we already have to new knowledge (e.g., syllogisms).  Testimony means that we gain knowledge by hearing it from another person (e.g., “Napoleon was a short man”).

For the average person, it would seem that much of what we know about the world comes from testimony, from facts we hear from other people.  Think about it.  If you just start listing in your mind all the things you know about every sort of subject, a tremendous amount of it you read in books, were taught by teachers and professors in school, read on a blog, and heard from your friends and family.

We rely very heavily on testimony because as a person who is limited in space and time, we cannot possibly experience everything directly that we want to know.  Any knowledge you have about places in the world you’ve never been is because of testimony.  Any knowledge of people whom you have never met is because of testimony.  Any knowledge of human activity from before you were born is known from testimony.

Let’s take two special cases of where testimony is used: law courts and human history.  Every day, criminals are convicted of serious crimes based on evidence from testimony.  Attorneys and judges always want to know who saw what.  There are other kinds of evidence used in courts, to be sure, but there is no doubt that our legal system would completely fall apart if testimony was disallowed.

Are there sometimes mistakes made by witnesses in recalling what they saw?  Sure there are.  But often the way we know a  mistake was made is because of someone else’s testimony!  In other words, we trust one person’s testimony about the facts over another person’s testimony.  We don’t just throw out all testimony and call it all unreliable.  We work to determine whose testimony is credible by using standard criteria.

What about human history?  The truth is that just about everything we know from human history is based on testimony.  We read written accounts left behind by people who directly experienced the events of history.  Are there testimonies from history that we think are false?  Absolutely.  How do we know they are false?  Often because they contradict other testimony that we trust more.  Without testimony, however, we would know precious little about anything that happened before we were born.  Historians, like jurists, employ criteria to discern which testimony from history is credible and which is not.

If testimony is so important to our everyday lives, to our legal system, and to our knowledge of history, then why do skeptics of Christianity seem to downplay its reliability so much?  We tackle that in the next post in this series.