Eyewitness Testimony is Unreliable – NOT!

One of the frequent complaints raised by skeptics focuses upon the claim that there were eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus. People are taught that eyewitness testimony to an event is unreliable. Examples such as a car accident are given with ample demonstrations that eyewitness testimony is conflicting at best and not good evidence in court. But this fails to recognize the vast difference between eyewitness testimony to an event versus a series of events.

The case of the resurrected Jesus is not a momentary, one-time event to which eyewitness testimony is subject to fallibility. The apostle Paul recounts a list of appearances to different people at different times over a 40 day period. Consider the following list from 1 Cor. 15:

  1. he appeared to Cephas [Peter]
  2. and then to the Twelve.
  3. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
  4. Then he appeared to James,
  5. then to all the apostles,
  6. and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

This is an incomplete list of all of Jesus’ appearances, but Paul tells us that more than 517 people saw Jesus alive and some of those on multiple occasions. Cephas [Peter] for example would be included as one of “the Twelve”. Exactly who “all the apostles” are is unclear. It seems to be a different set than “the Twelve” and we don’t know how many of them there were or if it included “the Twelve” and/or James as well, but for my figures I simply use 2 as the number since it was the least I could get in the plural.

Others are reported to have seen Jesus as well. They include the following:

  1. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (Matthew 28:9)
  2. The Eleven (Matthew 28:16)
  3. If Mark 16:9-14 reflects history accurately, then Mary Magdalene, “two . . . walking in the country”, and the “Eleven” all saw Jesus.
  4. Luke 24:13-16 records the appearance to two men on the road to Emmaus (probably the “two . . . walking in the country”).
  5. Luke 24:33-36 says the same two men who had been with Jesus on the road to Emmaus returned to tell the Eleven and that Jesus appeared to all of them at that time.
  6. Luke 24:49-50 has an unmentioned time lapse between the two verses because Acts 1:3 records the fact that he appeared to them over a forty-day period of time. So the ascension in v. 50 is actually another appearance to the same group of disciples.
  7. In fact, Acts 1:3 tells us that not only did Jesus appear, but he gave signs that he was alive. “After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days . . .” This is important because the eyewitness testimony was not just to a single appearance event but multiple events. In addition to the appearances, he also intentionally demonstrated to them that he was alive. Again, these are eyewitness events.
  8. Acts 1:4 mentions the fact that Jesus was eating with his disciples on at least one occasion: “On one occasion, while he was eating with them . . . .” So an appearance coupled with the physical act of eating was considered eyewitness proof of Jesus’ vitality.
  9. Acts 1:21-23 also records a bit of information about others who were not part of the Eleven who saw Jesus. When choosing a 12th disciple to replace Judas, Peter lists these qualifications: “Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, 22 beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection. 23 So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias.” These two men were apparently disciples of Jesus but not part of the Twelve. Here it is noted that they saw the risen Jesus at least once and likely on many occasions since they were part of the group of disciples.
  10. John 20:11-18 recounts an appearance to Mary of Magdala.
  11. Luke 24:34 mentions that Jesus appeared to Simon (aka Cephas, Peter)
  12. Luke 24:36-53 to the Eleven in the upper room. Here is another proof of his being alive demonstrated by eating. “‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.” Additionally, he invited them to touch him to see that he had flesh and bone as they have. “‘Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ 40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet.”
  13. John 20:19-23 records a first-day-of-the-week appearance to Ten of the Eleven, Thomas being absent.
  14. John 20:24-29 records the Ten testifying to Thomas that they had seen Jesus. Thomas doubts and Jesus appears to the Eleven a week after his first appearance. Thomas is invited to inspect the physical body of Jesus. “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’”
  15. John 21:1-25 records an appearance to Seven of the disciples who had gone fishing. The text also notes that this was the third time Jesus appeared to them. 13 “Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.”
  16. Acts 9 & 21 recount the appearance to Paul on the way to Damascus.
  17. 1 Cor. 9:1 Paul claims again to have seen the risen Jesus.

So by a very conservative count, Jesus appeared to a minimum of 520 people after his resurrection. And this number does not attempt to guess how many people were in some of the groups such as “all the apostles”.
Appearances
Cephas-Peter-Simon (1 Cor. 15; Luke 24)
The Twelve (1 Cor. 15)
500+ (1 Cor. 15)
James (1 Cor. 15)
All the apostles (1 Cor. 15)
Paul (1 Cor. 9 & 15; Acts 9 & 21)
Mary Magdalene/of Magdala (Matt 28; Mark 16*; John 20)
the other Mary (Matt 28)
The Eleven (Matt. 28; Mark 16*; Luke 24 [plus the 2 at Emmaus])
Two in the country (Mark 16*; Luke 24 two going to Emmaus*)
Group at his ascension including the Eleven (Luke 24)
Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias (Acts 1)
Ten of the Eleven (John 20)
Ten of the Eleven plus Thomas (John 20)
Seven of the Eleven (John 21 the “third time” he appeared to them)
*Mark 16:9-18 is not found in the earliest manuscripts we have of Mark. Nevertheless, this material reflects the early church tradition of appearances to Mary Magdalene, the two on the road to Emmaus, and the Eleven that is confirmed in other sources.

From the list above we can calculate that Jesus appeared at least 13 times, not counting subsequent visions of Paul, Stephen, or John and assuming only one appearance for a group mentioned, such as the 500.  In all likelihood, these appearances had significant overlap in attendance. For example, Peter saw Jesus at least 7 times by a conservative count. At least seven of the Eleven saw Jesus at least 6 times. The two men on the road to Emmaus saw Jesus at least twice, once with them and once when they reported to the Eleven.

Signs
Acts 1:3 “many convincing proofs that he was alive”
Acts 1:4 he ate with them
Luke 24 Jesus ate broiled fish
Luke 24 Jesus invited them to touch him (So also Thomas, John 20)
Luke 24 Jesus claimed to have flesh and bones
Luke 24 Jesus showed them his hands and feet (Thomas hands, John 20)
John 20 Jesus invites Thomas to touch his pierced side

At the least, Jesus ate twice with his disciples.  He invited people to touch him on at least two occasions. He showed them his wounds on at least two occasions.

Multiple Attestations
The skeptic will challenge the number of appearances, people, and signs by claiming that we only have one source for this information: the Bible itself.  This simply tells us that the skeptic doesn’t know anything about how the New Testament was compiled. It was written by different authors over time and later collected and preserved by the church which eventually put it into one compiled book as we know it. Skeptics are also usually unaware of the complex relationship of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the independent nature of the Gospel of John.

If we take the lists above and only count those that have multiple and independent attestations we get the following:

Multiply Attested Appearances: Peter 2, Paul 2, Mary Magdalene 3, The Eleven 3, Two on the road to Emmaus 2. So we have at least five of the 13 appearances confirmed by multiple, independent sources.

Multiply Attested Persons: At least 16 people are confirmed to have seen Jesus by this reckoning.

Multiply Attested Signs: Jesus invited touch and demonstrated showed them his wounds according to two different sources.

So the internal historical evidence has a sound core and there is no real reason to doubt some of the other occurrences either. Those listed by Paul in 1 Cor. 15 are listed as proof of his credibility and were open to investigation at the time the letter was written. So whether or not we have additional evidence of these things, Paul’s readers were expected to know of them. The skeptic should understand that simply because a historical fact is recorded in only one location and cannot be confirmed by a second source that it does not immediately discredit the fact mentioned. History is replete with examples of one-source bits of information so this is nothing new to the historical investigator. The plausibility regarding the accuracy of the fact is determined by other means. Pauline scholars do not doubt that Paul’s list of appearances in 1 Cor. 15 is a true list that he believed to be accurate and reliable when the letter was written.

Conclusion
The skeptic’s claim that eyewitness testimony is not reliable is simply misapplied. For a single, momentary event we can have discrepancies among eyewitnesses. The New Testament’s evidence about the appearances of the resurrected Jesus are not of that nature. These were appearances that had duration. There were conversations that took place, eating events, teaching and questioning of Jesus. These did not happen one time but multiple times, to different people in different locations as well as to a number of the same people over this 40 day period. Such eyewitness testimony would be highly reliable and regarded by historians as extremely valuable because of its credibility.

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