Eyewitnesses – accuracy, reliability and trustworthiness

In two of her posts to the biblical-studies list colloquium on Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Liz Fried has raised the issue of witness reliabilty vs truth. Reading them has clarified for me a half-formed thought that has been annoying me for weeks. I was trying to get at it in my post “Testimony as History” but couldn’t quite articulate the problem.

In her post entitled Question for Prof. Bauckham, Fried says that in the discourse of psychology and statistics, her former area of study, “reliability” refers to whether or not a test elicits the same results each time a particular person takes the test. A reliable witness is one who tells the same story every time s/he is asked to say what happened. The test may not be accurate (ie it may not really test what it purports to test) and the witness may be repeating a totally fabricated account, but they are still reliable in the sense that they are consistent.

and in her post RE: [biblical-studies] Bauckham replies to Fried, she says:

A very important experiment was done in the 50’s. Subjects were shown a scene of people standing on a crowded bus. Two people were standing in the middle of the bus facing each other holding on to a pole. One was black, wearing a suit and tie, and holding a briefcase. The other was white, wearing overalls, and holding a wrench.

Subjects were to report back, the next week I believe, to tell the researcher privately what they saw.

The majority of subjects switched the races, they believed they saw the black man in overalls and the white man in a suit and tie. Some reported additionally that the black man was holding a knife (not a wrench). And rather than simply facing each other on a crowded bus, some subjects saw a hostile confrontation.

The point is that people’s perceptions are affected by their prior beliefs. People see what they expect to see.

Besides the research on eye-witness testimony, another important research area is that of story-embellishment . . . Personal stories are embellished with each telling. Gaps are filled in by the teller to supply details poorly understood or unavailable, and they are filled in according to the teller’s idea of what “must have been.” With the next telling these embellished details are recounted as part of what he saw, not part of what he invented.

So, it is not enough to provide evidence that the written versions of the canonical gospels were eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry. As Fried points out, eyewitnesses can misremember what they saw if it conflicts with what they already know/believe/expect, and they can embellish their accounts. Bauckham draws attention to the possibility of embellishment when he mentions Rossini’s account of his attempt to meet Beethoven.

As I understand him, Bauckham is saying that the written version of the canonical gospels were produced in communities where eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus ministry, death and resurrection were still alive and controlled the way in which accounts of these events were recorded. In order for this to be of any value, we need also to be able to identify which eyewitnesses were in control of the accounts and that be sure that they were producing accurate (ie trustworthy) rather than simply reliable (ie consistent) accounts. Bauckham, I think, is assuming that an account that has been controlled by an eyewitness up to the point where it is recorded in writing is more likely to be accurate than one than an account that has gone through a number of iterations of oral transmission between its accuracy being checked by an eyewitness and being written down.

While this may be true, to what degree it is true will depend on a variety of things, including how comfortable the eyewitness in question is about having a “warts and all” account of her/his role in events being recorded for posterity and how seriously a community might take its role in preserving an accurate account. Many communities have at least one person with a memory like a steel trap and an inclination to say “hey, wait a minute – last time you told this story you said X, not Y”, whereas some people are very uncomfortable about appearing in a bad light in public. I think it’s quite clear that most of the people who appear in the canonical gospels would benefit from the services of a good public relations officer, but whether this means that the accounts of their actions are accurate or simply written by someone who didn’t like them much is something that I don’t think we can determine empirically from this far away in time from the actual events.

I don’t think that we can assume that accounts recorded under the influence of eyewitnesses are necessarily more accurate than those recorded some time after eyewitnesses ceased to have influence over their transmission without making some assumptions about the eyewitnesses. On the other hand, I don’t think we have to assume that they are necessarily less accurate, either.

Christian scholars start from the assumption that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, a teacher/miracle worker who lived in first century Palestine. The majority also assume that the people who recorded the canonical accounts of his life and teaching (and death and resurrection) are trustworthy people who were doing their best to record these accurately (although there are some who would make more radical claims about the accuracy of the gospel texts). Atheist/agnostic scholars do not necessarily assume that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person and may well assume that the early Christians were engaged in a careful conspiracy to trick people into becoming involved in their religious movement. In other words, whether or not you consider a leader of the early church to be a trustworthy eyewitness will depend on your faith stance about Christianity.

So while I am happy to accept Bauckham’s argument that eyewitness testimony was an acceptable form of recording history at that time, I am not sure where it gets us, because we have no independent standard against which to judge whether or not these eyewitnesses were trustworthy ie whether or not they provided accurate accounts of what they witnessed. Without that, Christians are still making faith claims about the trustworthiness of the eyewitnesses, which I don’t think is any different to making faith claims about the trustworthiness of the process of community-based oral transmission without eyewitness influence. I would want to make those faith claims, but I can also see why those outside Christianity might not find them especially convincing. I think we are still left with the reality that it is not possible to “logic” someone into faith, no matter how much we would like it to be otherwise. 🙂

4 thoughts on “Eyewitnesses – accuracy, reliability and trustworthiness

  1. One of my theology professors used to point out that Paul never used the resurrection as evidence to convince anyone, he simply stated it as fact.

    I think you could say that Bauckham has done with gospel scholarship in convincing the atheist what NASA did in 1969 for convincing the Flat Earth Society that the earth is a globe.

  2. Pingback: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses « εν εφέσω: Thoughts and Meditations

  3. Pingback: Hiatus explanation « Judy’s research blog

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