Are The Gospels All Just Hearsay?


One of the more popular arguments at a lay-level against the reliability of the gospels is that the evidence for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is all based on hearsay. While you won't find too many scholars or historians making this point, it is such a prevalent assertion among the masses that I think it's important to take a critical look at the argument and determine whether or not it impacts our ability to trust the content of the New Testament documents.

Courtroom One Gavel by Lambda Chi Alpha / CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0
So firstly we need to ask the question: What is hearsay? One atheist website I looked at defined hearsay as "information received from other people that one cannot adequately substantiate". Often when people use the word hearsay, they are referring to information that comes from a third-hand source. It's important to note that these are common usages of the term, because there is also a legal definition that is considerably different in meaning.


Hearsay in the Legal Setting

In a day and age of fictional legal dramas, everyone is familiar with the idea that hearsay is inadmissible as evidence in a court of law. In U.S. law, hearsay refers to a statement made out of court that is then used in court to assert the truth of a matter. Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, only statements made in a trial, under oath, by someone who can be cross-examined, can be used as evidence. 

In a simple example on the Wikipedia page for hearsay in US Law, if a witness makes a statement such as "Sally told me Tom was in town", this would be inadmissible evidence that Tom was in town, because it relies on a statement made by Sally outside the courtroom. To satisfy the requirements for evidence, Sally would need to make this statement herself in court. The hearsay rules are similar across most legal systems around the world.

However the common misconception that hearsay is never permitted in court is factually incorrect. Under U.S. law there are nearly 30 exceptions to the hearsay rule, which mean that out-of-court evidence may be used if it falls into a particular category, such as business records, spontaneous or excited statements, recorded past recollections, or my personal favourite - statements in authentic ancient documents (more than 20 years old).

So it's not enough to say that hearsay is unreliable evidence - such a blanket statement doesn't accord with the reality of the legal courts, where precision in the use of evidence is sometimes literally a matter of life and death. The truth is that certain kinds of hearsay evidence are used to prove the innocence or guilt of a defendant on a regular basis.

This is a great system for determining truth in contemporary legal matters, where we can examine witnesses directly in a court setting and compare their claims to the evidence provided by the prosecution and defense attorneys. Here only the strictest rules for evidence apply.\


Hearsay in Historical Inquiry

But is such a high standard of proof logical or even workable when it comes to determining the truth of past events in which all the witnesses are no longer alive? Under such circumstances, documentary evidence is all we have. While this would be considered hearsay in a court of law, historians have developed more appropriate methods for establishing historical truth.

By examining primary and secondary source documents, and cross-checking these with external sources such as archaeological evidence, historians formulate hypotheses about what happened in the past and determine the probability of an event having occurred.

Using this process, professional historians have come almost unanimously to the conclusion that Jesus was a real person who actually existed, on the basis of the New Testament documents, along with some brief external evidence from the historians Tacitus and Josephus.  As fiercely critical atheist scholar Bart Ehrman puts it:

“He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees.”

Beyond this, historians use criterion of authenticity to sift through statements in the New Testament writings to determine their historicity. Rather than deciding on the reliability of the books as a whole, individual sentences are compared to the criterion to determine their historical credibility one-by-one.

As for ancient historians, the vast majority of what they have recorded for us must be considered hearsay by the consistent critic. Given the limits of technology in early times, what alternative did historians have other than to record their own testimony concerning the statements they had heard from eyewitnesses?

In the words of Polybius, one of the founders of Roman historiography:

"For since many events occur at the same time in different place, and one man cannot be in several places at one time, nor is it possible for a single man to have seen with his own eyes every place in the world and all the peculiar features of different places, the only thing left for a historian is to inquire from as many people as possible, to believe those worthy of belief and to be an adequate critic of the reports that reach him." (The Histories 12.4C.4-5)

Neither modern scholars or ancient historians reject indirect evidence as hearsay, instead they probe the sources they have to determine their reliability.


Hearsay Can Communicate Truth

The reliance of historical investigations on documents and recorded testimony to determine the truth of history proves an important point - hearsay can communicate truth. This becomes obvious as soon as we imagine a simple scenario.

I was born too late to meet any of my great-grandparents. The only information I have about them comes from my parents, who knew them and could provide eyewitness testimony about them. But as soon as I tell my friends about my great-grandparents, repeating the things my parents told me, that information becomes hearsay.

Provided the testimony of my parents is true, the hearsay I pass on is also true. The fact that a statement is hearsay doesn't make it false, it just means that the truth factor needs to be investigated in order to be established as fact - which is exactly what historians do.

In the meantime, should my friends be automatically skeptical about the details I give them about my great-grandparents? Should they reject my claims until I provide further evidence? If we presume that all hearsay is untrustworthy, then we should reject any kind of indirect news reporting out of hand - yet nearly everybody believes that there is a basis of truth to current events news stories that they hear from a reporter who was not an eyewitness to the actual events.

This kind of hyper-skepticism is unworkable and impractical. By all means critically examine the New Testament texts to see if they tell the truth - but don't reject them because they contain hearsay. This is a historical investigation, not a criminal trial.


Are The Gospels Even Hearsay?

The last consideration we need to make is whether or not the gospels, along with Acts and the letters of Paul, are even products of hearsay in the first place.

Using the common definitions in regards to hearsay, we want to determine how many mouths each gospel passed through to determine whether it is second or third-hand. We also want to decide whether or not the information within the gospels can be adequately substantiated.

In the case of John and Matthew, much of what occurs in their gospels is their own eyewitness testimony. Both men were members of the inner circle of Jesus and were positioned to hear and record statements directly from other eyewitness as well.

In addition to multiple secondary sources that link Mark's gospel to the eyewitness testimony of the apostle Peter, notable scholar Richard Bauckham points out internal evidences within Mark that support this claim. An inclusio device bookends Peter's involvement as a disciple and witness of Jesus, indicating that he is the original source of the material. There is also a literal framing device throughout Mark that records events initially from a plural perspective ("we went there", "we did this") that moves to a singular perspective as the action gets underway. This is as clear an indication of eyewitness testimony as we can get from a writing system that didn't have a mechanism like speech marks for indicating quotations. At worst, Mark's gospel is secondary reporting of Peter's eyewitness testimony, and on par with anything recorded by Polybius.

Luke seems more vulnerable to the claim that his gospel is hearsay. While the evidence shows he was closely connected with Paul, there aren't too many links to the original disciples who were eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus. Nevertheless, the material he shares fits with the things established in the other gospels, and in fact Luke often uses portions of Matthew and Mark directly and unabridged. He explains in the prologue to his work that he has carefully interviewed eyewitnesses and is connected enough within the early church to plausibly gain access to them.

Luke benefits more than the other gospel writers from the corroborative historical evidence that has validated him as an outstanding and accurate recorder, so even though he is further from the inner circle of Jesus than the others, we can be confident that he has carefully recorded the events as they took place.

The gospels are a mixture of direct eyewitness testimony, along with secondary reports from eyewitnesses. While some of this would not be admitted as evidence in an actual court, this is no problem for the Christian, since this is not a legal matter but a historical one. The fact that there are four separate accounts of the life of Jesus, each of which contains original material not found in the others, mean that the accounts can be substantiated. This is made even more certain by the references to Jesus in Acts and the other New Testament documents.
Are The Gospels All Just Hearsay? Are The Gospels All Just Hearsay? Reviewed by Nathan on 12:51 AM Rating: 5

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