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Analyzing the Gospels from a legal viewpoint, “Evaluating the Gospels: A Lawyer’s Perspective” offers a compelling exploration of the New Testament’s veracity. Witness firsthand accounts, manuscript evidence and historical corroborations stand the test of rigorous legal standards.
Lawyers specialize in sifting through claims to determine their validity. They prioritize evidence, often dismissing claims that lack solid support. Notably, numerous esteemed lawyers, judges, and legal scholars throughout history have embraced Christian beliefs. A major reason? The reliable testimony found in the Gospels regarding Jesus Christ.
The Gospels meet the criteria of the “ancient documents rule,” making them admissible as evidence in a common law court. They claim to be direct, firsthand accounts of Jesus Christ (1 Jn 1:1, etc.) or results of meticulous research about Him (Lk 1:1–4). The principle that documents, like individuals, are assumed innocent until proven guilty holds true here. The Gospels have withstood critiques and remain credible.
The reliability of the Gospels rests on their early composition and their origins with those closely acquainted with Jesus. External support emerges from early writers like Papias, a pupil of the Apostle John. Papias confirms that the Gospels were penned by an apostle (Matthew and John) or by someone closely linked to an apostle (Mark with Peter, Luke with Paul). This means the Gospels were available while those who might contest Jesus’ ministry were still alive. As F. F. Bruce articulates, these potential detractors were like present-day cross-examiners. They had the means and motivation to dispute the Gospel accounts if they were inaccurate. Their inability to do so solidifies the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus.
Given that the first three Gospels were composed before Jerusalem’s fall in A.D. 70, and John’s Gospel shortly after, it’s unreasonable for liberal Bible critics or secularists to argue they evolved from changing oral traditions about Jesus. There simply wasn’t enough time. A. N. Sherwin-White notes that the Gospels provide a more trustworthy account of Jesus than the four sources that document Tiberius Caesar, a notable figure from Jesus’ time.
Harvard professor Simon Greenleaf, a renowned 19th-century expert on evidence law, stated, “All that Christianity asks of men on this subject is [that the testimony of the Gospels] be sifted as if it were given in a court of justice.… The probability of the veracity of the witnesses and of the reality of the occurrences which they relate will increase, until it acquires, for all practical purposes, the value and force of demonstration.”
Let’s dive into some additional insightful details:
Legal Rules on Eyewitnesses:
- In many legal systems, the testimony of two or three eyewitnesses can be decisive. The Gospels present not just one, but multiple independent eyewitness accounts. This multiplicity enhances their credibility, as established in Deuteronomy 19:15: “A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
Cross-Examination of Gospel Accounts:
- In legal proceedings, cross-examination seeks to find inconsistencies in testimonies. Though the Gospels have variations in details, their core message about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is consistent. This kind of variance without contradiction is typically seen as evidence of independent witnesses, rather than collusion.
External Corroborative Evidence:
- Aside from the Gospels, other historical documents and archaeological findings from the same period indirectly support the New Testament’s narrative. For instance, historians like Tacitus and Josephus, although not Christians, mentioned Jesus and early Christian beliefs in their writings.
Criteria of Embarrassment:
- Legal experts often note that statements against one’s interest (admissions that might be seen as embarrassing or detrimental) are typically deemed as reliable. The Gospels contain several instances that, from a first-century perspective, might be seen as embarrassing, such as the disciples’ frequent misunderstandings or Christ’s crucifixion (a humiliating form of execution). These would be unlikely inclusions if the accounts were fabricated.
Chain of Custody:
- Lawyers often establish a “chain of custody” to trace how evidence has been handled, ensuring its integrity. Historically, one can trace the teachings of the apostles through their disciples and successive early Christian leaders, showcasing a consistent message about Jesus and the Gospels.
- The sheer volume of New Testament manuscripts, with thousands in Greek alone, and their close dating to the original events, surpasses that of many ancient texts. This manuscript evidence provides a robust basis for the accurate transmission of the Gospels’ contents over the centuries.
Incorporating these insights further underscores the solidity and trustworthiness of the Gospels, especially when evaluated through a legal lens.