People have asked me why I can't accept the New Testament as an entirely reliable record of the events it describes. Here's an expanded version of of some things I posted in a debate on TitusOneNine.
The Hearsay Rule: What Theology Must Learn from the Legal System
I’m a technology litigator by background. In a prior career phase, I spent a number of years working on complex lawsuits, trying to reconstruct the history of particular pieces of technology.
In any given case, my colleagues and I had to locate and interview potential witnesses. We had to analyze whatever surviving documentary evidence we could find. In general, we had to try to piece together a coherent picture of what actually happened in the matter under consideration, so that we could present it to the judge and jury.
In that work, I received a real education about the failings of human perception and memory. I saw any number of instances of such failings — for example:
• People sometimes remembered things the way they wanted them to be, as opposed to the way they actually were. I interviewed seasoned business executives who heard about Event A, and then unconsciously filled in (imaginary) events B and C on their own, because the three "events" together formed a story that made sense to them. (I also saw first-hand how jurors do that when I served on a capital-murder jury.)
• I would read a document that seemed to say A, but then when I reviewed still more documents, it became clear that the first document actually meant B, not A; or the first document's author had not known about a crucial piece of the puzzle; or the first author had an axe to grind; or the first author was simply mistaken.
• I would interview someone who told me that that So-and-So had said X. Then later, So-and-So would tell me that he had actually said something quite different.
That’s why, in litigation, we have a hearsay rule even for routine legal matters. With certain exceptions, hearsay is excluded from evidence in legal proceedings.
The legal system is all too familiar with the limitations of oral tradition; consequently, it insists that legal decisions be made on the basis of first-hand evidence that can be dissected and tested, via cross-examination of a live witness, or that has comparable guarantees of reliability.
More Examples: The Limitations of Perception, Memory, and Story-Telling
The hearsay rule is based on the recognition that that human beings are far from perfect in perceiving and remembering events. They have active imaginations. They sometimes catch only part of what they see and hear. At times they misunderstand what they do see or hear. They often jump to conclusions before it's appropriate. And their stories can mutate in the retelling, especially with the passage of time.
Let me list a few illustrative examples, mindful of the limitations of anecdotal evidence.
• The Imagined Red Beret. In 1972, David Tereshchuk, then a junior TV journalist, was caught up in a protest in Northern Ireland that unexpectedly turned violent. British paratroopers suddenly fired on the mostly-Catholic crowd, killing 14 of them. The incident became known as Bloody Sunday. Writing 27 years later, Tereshchuk recounted that “One recollection is stronger than any other – a soldier in a red beret, down on one knee, leveling his self-loading rifle toward me and shooting.” (Emphasis added.) But, Tereshchuk goes on, “as all the photographs clearly demonstrate, he was wearing a helmet.” Tereshchuk concluded that “I was simply wrong.” Tereshchuk ends his essay with this: “And yet, even with an indisputable set of photographs in front of me, I close my eyes and still see a red beret.” (David Tereshchuk, An Unreliable Witness, NY Times Magazine, Jan. 28, 2001, p. 66.)
• Fine-Tuning a Fonda Story. In The Fate of Stories, Bruce Jackson, a professor of English at SUNY Buffalo, tells how, in his class lectures, he recounted a story he had heard from actor Peter Fonda about his father Henry Fonda -- and how he (Jackson) discovered from checking transcripts that, over the years, he had inadvertently “tuned” the story. Jackson says, “Did I change the substance of Peter’s story? Oh, did I ever! I did what oral storytellers and novelists do all the time. I populated an event I knew a little about with sufficient detail to make it more effective and dramatic, so it would do what I wanted or needed it to do."
• The Case of the Misremembered Case. When I was a new lawyer, a senior partner sent me to the firm's library to look for a particular court opinion. The case had involved Party A and Party B, he said, and the court's holding had been X. I searched and searched the case books. All I could find was a case involving Party A and Party C (not Party B), and the court's holding had been Not-X. When I reported this information back to the partner, his response was, in essence, "that's crazy, that's not the way the law is." But there was no mistaking it: The partner had remembered the case, not the way it actually turned out, but the way he thought it should have turned out.
• Cassie Bernall at Columbine. After the tragic Columbine school shootings, reports circulated that one of the killers asked student Cassie Bernall if she believed in God. Supposedly, she replied "yes" and then was shot to death. But according to one urban-legends Web site, "There are witnesses and investigators who say that there was no verbal exchange about God between Cassie and her killer and that it was actually a different girl who was near Cassie who was asked about her belief." The Web site summarizes numerous stories told by various eyewitnesses; see also the BaptistFire Web site for other reports of conflicting evidence.
• My Dad the (Alleged) Daredevil. My dad is a retired USAF fighter pilot. On more than one occasion, he's told how, not long after his return from the Korean War, he flew a routine training mission that took him near his very small home town. He made a pass over the town, waggled his wings, and headed for his destination, a nearby airfield. After landing, he eventually made his way home to visit his parents. In town, someone who didn’t know him told him about all the excitement that had occurred earlier in the day. It seems that some unknown pilot had repeatedly buzzed the town, flying back and forth along the main street, so low that he went right under the telephone wires, scaring everyone half to death. My dad had done no such thing (or so he says ....). But the other guy – who, if I remember my dad's tale correctly, had not even seen the event – was utterly convinced of it. In half a day and one or two retellings, the story had mutated.
• Who Was Weird Al's Dad? Here's a trivial example: Evidently, many people persist in thinking that musical parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic is the son of accordionist Frankie Yankovic. Not so, according to Weird Al's own Web site; he and the late Polka King were not related.
Human psychology is just that way. Lawyers have to deal with that in every lawsuit. There can be no reasonable dispute about it.
Applying These Lessons to the New Testament
That's why it's impossible for me to treat the New Testament as a completely-accurate historical record. Scholars think the Gospel stories were circulated by oral tradition for decades before finally being written down. I have no reason to believe the oral tradition wasn't subject to the same subtle corrupting influences described above.
There is added reason for concern here because the first-hand observers of the Gospel events were Galilean Aramaic-speakers, whereas the Gospel authors who wrote down their stories were Hellenized Greek-speakers -- two different cultures, two different languages. (Luke is thought to have been, not just a Hellenized Jew, but a Gentile, someone completely outside The Law.) This had to have been an especially-fertile environment for stories to mutate in the retelling over the decades.
The New Testament itself confirms that the early church quickly became fragmented -- geographically, ethnically, and theologically. And the text of the New Testament hints of possible textual corruption in several places; see these two postings I wrote last year for more details.
As I said above, that’s why we have a hearsay rule even for routine legal matters. We don't want to base important decisions on the vagueries of oral tradition. Here, we’re not talking about mere legal matters -- we're talking about perhaps the most important decision of one's life, to commit to a faith that purports to be based on historical events.
Can I “prove” that the New Testament oral tradition was corrupted as I describe above? No. But I don't have the burden of proof. As with any historical fact, the burden of proof lies with those who assert that the NT is factually accurate concerning any particular matter.
Some Possible Counterarguments
"But the Early Disciples Died For Their Beliefs!" Some argue that the early disciples died for their beliefs, and that they would not have died for a known hoax. This is certainly a noteworthy piece of data. But it's not dispositive, in part because people of all kinds of faiths have died for their beliefs. Just ask the residents of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Or Masada. Or Jonestown. Or the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. Or the Heaven's Gate adherents. For that matter, ask the Jews of the past 2,000 years.
"But Informal Controls Guaranteed the Accuracy of the Oral Tradition!" In an attempt to to defend the oral tradition underlying the New Testament, eminent theologian (and now Bishop) N. Thomas Wright has argued that what we have is an "informal controlled oral tradition." Wright cites a print article by one Kenneth Bailey on that subject, which supposedly was bolstered by Bailey's long residence in the Middle East. I found a long essay by one Ted Weedens, which raises some interesting challenges to Bailey's scholarship. A Google search revealed that Weedens is an emeritus professor of theology at the Colgate Rochester Divinity School. In his essay, Weedens looks at Paul's letters to the Galatians and Corinthians, which complained that those churches were deviating from the "true" gospel. Weedens points out that those deviations show the uncontrolled mutation of oral tradition. Paul, he says, was forced to try to undo the mutations through written corrections. Weedens also thinks Bailey misrepresented his sources when he gave examples of controlled oral tradition. Bailey cited a book by Rena Hogg, the daughter of a Christian missionary in the Middle East. He said the Hogg book confirmed various stories about Hogg's father that were still being told in the villages where her father had served. But Weedens says that Rena Hogg's book not only didn't confirm some of the stories, as Bailey claimed, but flatly contradicted them. [UPDATED 4/25/08: Found it! For several years I've been trying unsuccessfully to put my hands on a copy of Rena Hogg's book. Google, God bless 'em, has digitized it and made it available for download. ]
Weedens is a member of the Jesus Seminar. Some traditionalists will seize on that as a reason to dismiss his analysis. But Weeden's challenges to Bailey's scholarship will stand or fall on their merits. To me they have the ring of truth. If they are valid, they undermine some of Wright's most crucial arguments.
"But the Holy Spirit Guided the Scriptural Authors!" Some say we should accept Scripture on faith because it is not the product of human psychology, but of the Holy Spirit. This would assume facts not in evidence, which is a problem in itself. But even if we grant the premise, it doesn't mean the human authors (and copyists and translators) completely and correctly expressed what the Holy Spirit was trying to say. In any event, as my 13-year-old daughter said not long ago — unprompted — "a thousand-page book can't contain everything God has to say to us." Finally, if we assume that the Holy Spirit guides certain authors, we then must explain why we assume he guided one set of authors but not another; why the authors of the Bible were inspired and guided by the Spirit, but Muhammad and Joseph Smith and David Koresh were not.
"But You Can't Reject Part of Scripture Without Rejecting All of It!" Some believe that if we cannot accept Scripture as factually accurate, then we must necessarily reject it entirely and cannot rely on it for anything. That's a false dichotomy. Scripture is not an all-or-nothing proposition. We can be skeptical about some things in Scripture, without having to reject it in its entirety. By the same token, we can — and do — choose to rely on Scripture for many things. But that doesn't mean we have to accept all of it at face value.