Tag Archives: legal evidence

A Law Professor’s Analysis of the Gospels – Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of this post, we discussed Simon Greenleaf’s conclusion that the Gospel writers’ testimony about Jesus Christ should be considered true, based on the canons of legal evidence, an area in which he was an undisputed expert.  Some skeptics, however, have argued that the standards for judging the credibility of the Gospels should be much higher than what Greenleaf has proposed.  It is to this question we now turn.

Greenleaf makes a strong case for the kind of evidence that skeptics should be requesting, with regard to the Gospel narratives.  Here I provide his detailed thoughts:

It should be observed that the subject of inquiry is a matter of fact, and not of abstract mathematical truth.  The latter alone is susceptible of that high degree of proof, usually termed demonstration, which excludes the possibility of error, and which therefore may reasonably be required in support of every mathematical deduction. . . . In the ordinary affairs of life we do not require nor expect demonstrative evidence, because it is inconsistent with the nature of matters of fact, and to insist on its production would be unreasonable and absurd. . . . The error of the skeptic consists in . . . demanding demonstrative evidence concerning things which are not susceptible of any other than moral evidence alone, and of which the utmost that can be said is that there is no reasonable doubt about their truth.

In the case of the Gospel narratives, “A proposition of fact is proved, when its truth is established by competent and satisfactory evidence.”  What is competent and satisfactory evidence?

By competent evidence is meant such as the nature of the thing to be proved it requires; and by satisfactory evidence is meant that amount of proof, which ordinarily satisfies an unprejudiced mind, beyond any reasonable doubt.  The circumstances which will amount to this degree of proof can never be previously defined; the only legal test to which they can be subjected is their sufficiency to satisfy the mind and conscience of a man of common prudence and discretion, and so to convince him, that he could venture to act upon that conviction in matters of the highest concern and importance to his own interests. . . . When we have this degree of evidence, it is unreasonable to require more.  A juror would violate his oath, if he should refuse to acquit or condemn a person charged with an offense, where this measure of proof was adduced.

Greenleaf rejects the call for apodictic proof in the case of the Gospel testimonies because nobody ever requires this kind of evidence when it comes to the affairs of human history.  We only require enough evidence to show that the events were probable.  Even in courts of law, where the jury must determine whether a defendant is to die for his alleged crimes, the bar for conviction is no reasonable doubt.

When the accounts of Jesus’ life are subjected to the rigors of legal analysis, they fare quite well.  Greenleaf urges his readers to set aside their prejudices and take a look at the evidence.  If they do so, they will be left with no reasonable doubt.

A Law Professor’s Analysis of the Gospels – Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I recently read a short book entitled The Testimony of the Evangelists by Simon Greenleaf.  Greenleaf was one of the most respected American jurists of the nineteenth century.  He taught law at Harvard University and wrote a judicial classic, Treatise on the Law of Evidence. This work was used as a standard textbook for the latter half of the nineteenth century in American law schools.

The Testimony of the Evangelists is Greenleaf’s analysis of the four Gospels using the principles of legal evidence, an area in which he was an undisputed expert.  Put simply, Greenleaf treated the Gospel writers’ testimonies as if they were being presented in a courtroom.  How would they stand up?

In Greenleaf’s own words, “His business is that of a lawyer examining the testimony of witnesses by the rules of his profession, in order to ascertain whether, if they had thus testified on oath, in a court of justice, they would be entitled to credit and whether their narratives, as we now have them, would be received as ancient documents, coming from the proper custody.”

Greenleaf systematically applied the rules of evidence to the Gospel writers and found them to be entirely credible.  How did he do so?  He first argued that the documents themselves, as originally composed 2,000 years ago and reproduced from that time down to the present day, met the legal standards of admission in a court of law.  He then explained the kind of evidence needed to show that the authors of the documents were trustworthy in their testimony.

It is universally admitted that the credit to be given to witnesses depends chiefly on their ability to discern and comprehend what was before them, their opportunities for observation, the degree of accuracy with which they are accustomed to mark passing events and their integrity in relating them.

After careful historical analysis, Greenleaf finds that each Gospel writer meets these criteria, and thus their testimony about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus should be judged true, based on the canons of legal evidence.

Some skeptics have charged that the standards for judging the truthfulness of the Gospel accounts should be much higher than the canons of legal evidence.  We will examine Greenleaf’s response to this challenge in part 2 of this post.