Assessing the Eyewitness Testimony of the New Testament
Something that is often overlooked when reading the New Testament, in particularly the Gospels, is that it is based upon eyewitness testimony. However, when reading the New Testament, it becomes obvious that the authors intended for this to be understood, and it is clearly seen in the number of times the words witness and eyewitness are used. Furthermore, as Geisler notes,
The number of eyewitnesses supporting or writing the New Testament accounts is large. The direct eyewitnesses who either wrote or superintended what was written of Christ’s miraculous life and teachings are Matthew, Peter (through Mark), and John. Add to this the numerous eyewitness accounts used by Luke and Paul, and the resultant testimony is more than substantial.
As noted, Luke was not an actual eyewitness. However, in Luke 1:1-2, he clearly indicates that his Gospel is based upon sources who were eyewitnesses of the events recorded. Luke’s use of these primary sources along with the historical verifications of his accounts have led many scholars to view Luke as a “historian of the first rank.”
Some, however, have questioned the reliability of these eyewitness accounts. New Testament scholar and critic Bart Ehrman says,
But the reality is that eyewitnesses cannot be trusted to give historically accurate accounts. They never could be trusted and can’t be trusted still. If eyewitnesses always gave historically accurate accounts, we would have no need for law courts. If we needed to find out what actually happened when a crime was committed, we could just ask someone. Real-life legal cases require multiple eyewitnesses, because eyewitnesses’ testimonies differ.
In view of Ehrman’s reference to courts and crime, it is worth considering the discoveries of the former atheist and homicide investigator, J. Warner Wallace. Appling his detective skills to the New Testament accounts, particularly the resurrection, he came to a startling conclusion. In his book Cold Case Christianity, Wallace outlines his techniques and his conclusion. His insight is especially helpful in assessing the credibility of the eyewitnesses of the New Testament. This is very important because without credible witnesses it would be impossible to establish the validity of the New Testament accounts.
In assessing such eyewitnesses, Wallace has identified four different tests in determining credibility. First, it must be proven that the witnesses were actually present at the time of the event in question. Here, the dating of the writings is of great importance, and the evidence suggests that “all New Testament books were written before A. D. 100.” Even the atheist John A. T. Robinson acknowledges that “most New Testament books, including all four Gospels, were written somewhere between A. D. 40 and 65.” This dating is very important because it establishes the fact that the eyewitnesses actually lived during the time of the events recorded in the New Testament. Geisler and Brooks suggest, “This gives their account credibility and assures a fair degree of accuracy.” Regarding the Gospels, Bauckham adds, “They embody the testimony of the eyewitnesses, not of course without editing and interpretation, but in a way that is substantially faithful to how the eyewitnesses told it, since the Evangelists were in more or less direct contact with eyewitnesses.”
Another test, identified by Wallace, assesses the honesty of the eyewitness. In particular, it must be determined that the witness is indeed telling the truth. When dealing with an ancient document, historians look for certain literary clues. One is known as “the principle of embarrassment. This principle assumes that any embarrassing details to the author are probably true.” From a literary perspective, most authors usually omit any details that show them in a bad light. However, in the New Testament, there are numerous embarrassing details about the disciples. For example, Jesus is continually having to reprove them for their carnality and lack of spiritual understanding. Even worse, they all forsake Him on the night of His arrest. Then, when informed of His resurrection, they are skeptical and unbelieving. These details, along with many others, prove the “principle of embarrassment” in the New Testament, and this is further evidence that the eyewitnesses are telling the truth.
The next test focuses on corroborating evidence, and this is where history plays an important role. In comparing non-biblical sources of that time, it becomes quite obvious that the New Testament is historically reliable, reflecting honest and accurate accounts of other events. “All in all, there are at least thirty characters in the New Testament who have been confirmed as historical by archaeology or non-Christian sources.” In his Gospel, Luke references eleven historically confirmed individuals in the first three chapters. For example, he mentions John the Baptist who was referenced by the Jewish historian Josephus in Antiquities. In his Gospel, John provides specific details about the Pool of Bethesda that have been proven by important archaeological discoveries. “Since that structure did not exist after the Romans destroyed the city in A.D. 70, it’s unlikely any later non-eyewitness could have described it is such vivid detail.” These details are important because as F. F. Bruce has noted, “A writer who thus relates his story to the wider context of world history is courting outside trouble if he is not careful; he affords his critical readers so many opportunities for testing his accuracy.” As a result, Hauer and Young conclude, “The overall picture suggests sources well informed about the world of which they speak.” Moreland says, “The cumulative weight of this evidence provides substantial grounds for taking the Gospels to be reliable historical sources.”
Wallace’s fourth and final test centers on motivation. Here, the motives of the New Testament authors come into play. Some have suggested that the accounts are biased. Lennox argues otherwise, saying,
It is often said that, because the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ comes from predominantly Christian sources, there is a danger of it being partisan, and therefore not carrying the weight of independent testimony. This objection seems plausible at first, but it looks very different in light of the following considerations. Those who were convinced of the resurrection of Jesus became Christians. But they were not necessarily Christians when they first heard of the resurrection. 
Craig echoes this when he says, “The faith of the disciples did not lead to the resurrection appearances, but it was the appearances which led to their faith.”
Others claim that the New Testament accounts were written and proclaimed as a means of gaining power and influence. However, if this was the goal, it obviously failed. As Peter Kreeft observes, “Why would the apostles lie? If they lied, what was their motive, what did they get out of it? What they got out of it was misunderstanding, rejection, persecution, torture, and martyrdom. Hardly a list of perks.” It must be remembered that these eyewitnesses were in a position to know if the resurrection actually happened. Their continued proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, even in the face of severe persecution and death, is very telling. As Strobel says, “People will die for their religious beliefs if they sincerely believe they’re true, but people won’t die for their religious beliefs if they know their beliefs are false.” In view of this, it is fair to conclude that these eyewitnesses were motivated by a desire to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
After reviewing the evidence and considering the objections, it is reasonable to conclude that the New Testament accounts of the resurrection of Jesus were provided by credible and trustworthy eyewitnesses to the events. As such, this affirms the key tenant of Christianity, proving Christianity true. This, of course, has serious implications. As C. S. Lewis noted, “Christianity is a statement which if false, is of no importance, and if true, is of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” While it is ultimately up to the individual to decide, those who ignore the New Testament and its eyewitness accounts do so at their own peril.
 Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1976), 314.  Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 262.  Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009), 103.  Geisler and Turek, 235.  Ibid.  Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks, When Skeptics Ask (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1990), 103.  Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 6.  Geisler and Turek, 275.  Ibid., 269.  Geisler and Turek, 264.  Ibid., 262.  Christian Hauer and William Young, An Introduction to the Bible: A Journey into Three Worlds (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986), 217.  J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with all Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2012), 207.  John Lennox, Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists Are Missing the Target (Oxford, England: Lion, 2011), 217.  Geisler and Turek, 310.  Geisler and Turek, 274.  Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 247.  J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013), 18.
Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans
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Ehrman, Bart. Jesus, Interrupted. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009.
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Geisler, Norman and Ron Brooks. When Skeptics Ask. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1990.
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Hauer, Christian and William Young. An Introduction to the Bible: A Journey into Three Worlds.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986.
Lennox, John. Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists Are Missing the Target. Oxford, England: Lion Books, 2011.
Lewis, C. S. The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2002.
Moreland, J. P. Love Your God with all Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul.
Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2012.
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.
Wallace, J. Warner. Cold Case Christianity. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013.
About the Author
Bro. Tim Hudson has a Bachelor of Arts in Government and International Relations, a Master of Arts in Theology, a Master of Arts in Christian Apologetics and a Doctor of Ministry degree in Theology. A former pastor, he and his wife now travel preaching/teaching and are doing mission work in the country of Myanmar (Burma).