Because of some today’s psychological studies of eye witness testimonies, one might think that eyewitness testimonies, like those found in the New Testament, are suspect. So, can we, the believers of God in the 21st century, believe the accounts written within the pages of the New Testament?
If one performs a Google search on the words “eyewitness testimony” one will find results that criticize the accuracy of eyewitness accounts. One website1 states “eyewitness accounts provide crucial evidence… [and play] an important role in the trial process…. [But] psychological investigations are beginning to reveal the factors that can influence eyewitness accuracy.” The same site then enumerates that “the crime location may be too dark, or that an encounter may be too brief to accurately perceive the perpetrator.” And that “eyewitness accuracy may be reduced by errors that occur within the memory process.”
It is plausible that the previous are true results of psychological investigations of eyewitness testimony. And on the face of it, these things seem worthy considerations for raising a red flag regarding the eyewitness testimonies recorded in the New Testament. But let us examine each of the three enumerations listed.
The lighting of the crime scene. When one reads the Gospel accounts, the reader notices that Jesus is betrayed during the night and taken to trial, but the events continue into the morning hours to his final crucifixion.
The brief length of the encounter. When one reads the Gospel accounts, one sees that the death, burial and resurrection are only three days within about a three-year time span. Additionally, the resurrected Jesus is seen by several people over a period of about 40 days.
The memory engram. Consider your memory engram of 9/11. Can you envision the flights into the Twin Towers? Do you know the perpetrators? Neither I, nor you, can identify the perpetrators of that attack, but we can certainly testify that the buildings received a deliberate attack with subsequent deaths. As of now, those buildings have not been rebuilt (in other words, resurrected). But we know what happened. That event is burned into our memories.
Keep in mind that the reported psychological investigations are of eyewitness testimonies which involve crimes where the witness is attempting to identify the perpetrator; whereas the New Testament eyewitness testimony is matter-of-factly about the man named Jesus. Although historical names can be found, the New Testament testimonies do not try to identify the perpetrators of Jesus death, instead they testify that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected.
We give similar eyewitness testimony routinely, saying something like, “Dear, you would never guess who I saw today.” This is the type of eyewitness testimony given by Peter in II Peter 1.15-18 regarding Jesus. Peter is telling of events he saw, heard, and observed – and then provides reasoning from Jesus teachings and the Old Testament Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah and not a cunningly devised fable.
Although not spiritually equivalent, believing eyewitness historical testimonies of George Washington is no different than believing eyewitness historical testimonies of Jesus of Nazareth. The question is: Do we believe the eyewitness testimonies about Jesus?
1 Eyewitness Identification: Cognitive Aspects; February 6 2006. http://psy.ucsd.edu/~hflowe/eyepsych.htm