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In a previous question addressing skeptical analogies aiming to cast doubt on the evidential worth of testimonies for extraordinary claims, I cited this source which I'd like to revisit here with a different focus:

Stephen Meyer: And then that there were reports that he had been, that he had appeared to many after being resurrected. So there's a whole ...

Joe Rogan: Right, but there's reports of Bigfoot.

Paulogia: Right again Joe, but at least for Bigfoot we have first-hand reports. For Jesus's resurrection all we have are reports of reports. At best. More likely, reports of reports of reports of reports. Bigfoot is in higher evidential standing.

Suppose I pick up a modern Bible, say, a contemporary King James Version, and peruse the four gospels. How can I ascertain that I'm indeed delving into a reliable eyewitness account sourced directly from about 2000 years ago? How do I know I'm not just perusing a 'report of a report of a report of a report' that might have undergone significant manipulation and alteration over time due to tradition, vested interests pushing certain agendas, and so forth?

What lines of evidence and arguments should persuade any rational, neutral, and open-minded individual into believing that the gospels we possess today genuinely preserve trustworthy eyewitness testimonies, and aren't merely dismissible as 'reports of reports of reports of reports' as Paulogia seems to suggest in the quote?

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8 Answers 8

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Although the question is worded with a kind of sarcasm that could be considered on the border of rude, I would simply rephrase it to say 'Why do so many people believe the that the gospel accounts are true?' It's a pretty wide question because it is not that different from 'Why do so many people believe the Bible?'

I can only speak from my own observations as someone raised without religion and naturally a cynic myself. I have a very long list of points to make but will try to keep it brief to the first random 20 that pass through m y mind.

  1. Jesus is too perfect a story for me to imagine that a human being could have made it up.

  2. Jesus as written, presents perfection in a way I could never have imagined.

  3. Jesus was a real human that was crucified, it is historically validated.

  4. The story itself, that God would send his son to die for sinners, is revolutionary and had the impact of overwhelming the pagan practices of the most powerful nation on earth at that time.

  5. I know no other story that is able to cleanse a conscience. I know no other story (the gospel) that would be able to calm me personally and cleanse my conscience of my many many sins.

  6. I have never met a human being, in my lifetime, that has ever said anything as penetrating to my own heart as that written in the gospels.

  7. My life was severely changed by one simple verse John 3:16 when I was radically converted from a criminal to a regular person. Many have similar experiences.

  8. I imagine no story has been read more in human history.

  9. Every human you know will be forgotten soon but these 4 gospels will never be.

  10. A large portion about what was recorded about Jesus satisfies many prophecies, hundreds of years prior to. Yet the decryption of those prophecies, by his story, was not understood until after the event. Seems quite remarkable.

  11. Their is the classic liar, lunatic or true argument. The same applies to those who wrote the accounts. The stories are so outrageous, if not true, that we must conclude those who wrote them were either crazy, or evil, for spinning their lies, if not true. However, the character of those early believers seem above the character of those who doubt them. Making it more likely that they, at a minimum, believed what is written and did not attempt to deceive people.

  12. Made up stories usually do not include real references to historical situations. The gospels do have many historical references that are backed by history. It's not just religious mumbo-jumbo.

  13. The credibility of Bible manuscripts have been proven to be more authentic that any other literature in the entire world, due to the many-many copies and careful preservation of the Jews.

  14. The consistency of all the books of the bible centered on these 4 stories, as a middle connector, written by so many different authors on so many topics, over hundreds of years, without any solid contradictions, seems nearly humanly impossible.

  15. The prophecies such as that a man born of David would make Abraham a 'father of many nations' (indicating that the Jewish religion would expand into Gentile nations) seems very unlikely to occur, yet did in Christ.

  16. The emotionalism that unbelievers have about the Bible, in hatred towards it, indicates both their natural animosity substantiating its claims and their fear and uncertainty, indicating that it convicts them. If people really did not believe the bible at all, it would not bother then and they would never think about it.

  17. When people get angry they often curse Christ. Again this validates his existence in a weird way. If they did not believe he existed they would curse someone they think does, not a story. I never hear of people cursing Buddha when they are angry at God, or cursing natural laws of the universe.

  18. The scriptures on the whole are perfect. I have never encountered the same wisdom in any other literature. When I read scripture it immediately reproves my stupidity. I have never encountered a human that has the same power over me. Especially the gospels make me feel dumb.

  19. The scriptures alone declare I am a godless sinner. I am, so what other book should I turn to?

  20. The scriptures alone, hinging on the gospels, provides me a means to rescue me from death and guilt, so what other book or podcast should I turn to?

I could make this a 1000 point list but basically some people have encountered God in the scriptures and it has changed their life and they genuinely believe therefore. What some random men say on a podcast is entirely irrelevant to them.

If I share my faith, in all honestly, I feel like I am trying to see if a homeless man on the street would like me to put a gold bar in their pocket. If they don't want it, I only sigh in sorrow for their loss.

You decide what you will do. For me Christ is worth so much more than gold because in Him my conscience is clear. A clear conscience is very underrated especially to someone as sinful as me.

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    Up-voted +1. The evidence is scripture itself : four authors, in perfect agreement ; profound structure ; divine order in the use of words across all four, independent accounts ; staggering events, with profound conclusions. Then there is the testimony of solemn, serious, holy and intelligent men, generation by generation since, who agree in word and behaviour and experience. And then there is the witness of Spirit within the reader, undeniable and moving. There is simply something deeply wrong with anyone who does not receive this breathtaking evidence and this accompanying testimony.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 20 at 7:18
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    In Luke 16, the Rich Man and Lazarus parable ends thusly: “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” The Biblical response is a mixture of apathy and sympathy. Apathy, because you cannot change it, and sympathy because they do not believe. Similarly, Jesus also said "Let the dead bury the dead". Apr 20 at 20:42
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Human lines of evidence, and arguments, are slippery things. Verbal ones can unintentionally end up as "Chinese whispers". Arguments can appear sound until a new piece of evidence is discovered, blowing the first one out of the water. As the Bible puts it, "The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him". (Proverbs 18:17 NIV)

The gospel accounts have always been dismissed by many - right from them first being penned, to today. Some effectively claim that nothing but a video sound-recording of the man born blind from birth being given his sight by Jesus will do. Others want a forensic chemistry test in a laboratory to see if the water at Cana really was turned into superb wine.

Of course nobody is going to get that kind of evidence! And that is why so many insist that there is no proof; it can only be reports of reports, ad infinitum. They are supremely confident that all they have to do is claim there is no proof (of the sort they would accept, that is) and therefore they will never believe.

One fact that stops gospel lines of evidence from being unbelievable is the way the Spirit of Christ that inspired their writing makes sense of the whole. A second fact is that centuries have passed, with millions of people in every generation discovering that it is a 'living word' that remains alive despite massive efforts to 'kill' it. Not to forget massive efforts to kill the people who publicly declared that word, and who translated the gospels so that others could read them.

When global efforts to that extent have been going on for centuries, one has reason to think there must be something in it that others don't want the public to either know about, or to believe. What are they trying to hide, or destroy? Why should it bother them that others believe the gospel accounts? Why such relentless attacks to discredit them? "Methinks they protest too much" (to misquote Shakespeare.)

Anyway, the power of the gospels is greater than the power of the sword. It slays in a way that mockers have no idea about. Well, until it slays them, that is. Such an event will happen in one of two ways. Disbelievers can suddenly find that it convicts them of what it calls 'sin' - exposing them to be guilty sinners, but that believing in the Jesus of the gospels leads to unmerited forgiveness and peace. Failing that, it will slay them on the Day of Resurrection and Judgment, when the Jesus they mock will return, as he promised in the gospel accounts. That judgmental 'slaying' will have eternal consequences.

But there is no line of evidence, or argument, that will convince mockers. They will never believe the Bible statement that warns :

"Be not deceived; God is not mocked : for whastsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting." Galatians 6:7-8 A.V.

"Oh, but we are not mocking," they usually insist. "We are genuinely wanting to know how you can convince us with evidence and reasonable arguments." Who are they trying to convince?

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The objection presented by Paulogia is a textbook example of the fallacy of begging the question.

The question, as posed, is essentially a historical one. This post will review:

  • The fallacious nature of the "reports of reports of reports" objection
  • A brief survey of the historical evidence on Gospel authorship
  • The spiritual side of this question


Fallacious reasoning

Those who wish to dismiss the Gospel narratives as fiction have long engaged in a form of naturalistic, circular reasoning, as follows:

  • There is no such thing as the supernatural
  • The Gospels report supernatural events
  • This must be because the Gospels are unreliable embellishments to the real story of Jesus
  • People couldn't have widely published such fictitious accounts in a time/place where people knew what had actually happened
  • So the Gospels must have been written after eyewitnesses of Jesus' ministry were dead

The entire exercise presupposes its own conclusion. Because this manner of thinking was pushed to the mainstream of New Testament scholarship by the Tubingen School in the 19th century, New Testament scholarship has seen something of a divide between:

  • Scholars who assume naturalism before evaluating the New Testament text (or rely on the work of others who do)
  • Scholars who do not make this assumption

Scholars in the former camp regularly assign later dates to New Testament documents than do scholars in the latter camp. Scholars in the former camp must do so, not on the basis of historical evidence, but because late dates for these documents are required by the premises they started with.

It has been a great disservice to rational, historical inquiry that sources claiming to be objective have presented the conclusion -- the gospels are late, unreliable documents -- without acknowledging the premises upon which that conclusion relies.

For a review of why naturalism is not a rational, methodological assumption in biblical studies, see the section entitled "Naturalism" in my post here.

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Historical evidence

When the historical evidence for the Gospels is examined without imposing prior theological commitments (whether that be a commitment to naturalism, or a commitment to inerrancy, or anything in between), and the evidence is simply permitted to speak for itself, we find the following:

  • Matthew: A historically rigorous, logically valid deductive argument can be made to show that 2nd generation Christian leaders -- people taught by the apostles themselves -- believed that the apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew (see Appendix 1). This wasn't something Christian apologists invented a century after the fact. If 2nd generation Christian leaders (who were very much in a position to know) believed Matthew wrote Matthew, it almost certainly means that Matthew really did write the Gospel that bears his name.
  • Matthew again: The Gospel of Matthew--both in content and in audience--presupposes a very narrow slice of time and space, when the Christian movement was still overwhelmingly Jewish, "Jew" & "Christian" were not distinct identities, Jerusalem was still the movement's "headquarters", a majority of Christians still observed Mosaic customs, and almost all church leaders were baptized Jews. The world Matthew wrote to existed for only a few years after Easter.
  • Mark: the evidence from the most well-placed Roman & Christian historical sources allows us to place the composition of Mark in Rome within a generation of Easter, probably early in the reign of Nero (see a detailed presentation of this argument here).
  • Luke: The author of Luke reports that his information comes from eyewitnesses (see Luke 1:1-4), and his accuracy, awareness, and attention to detail (see here) do him credit as a responsible, reliable author. A robust historical case can be made that the two-part work Luke-Acts was completed approx. AD 62. Luke-Acts is written to a world that existed prior to AD 64, but that world permanently, dramatically changed when Rome burned in July of that year; the original target audience of Luke-Acts no longer existed after the mid-60s. A more detailed presentation of this argument can be found here.
  • John: Irenaeus of Lyons is our most important external witness to Johannine authorship. He was from the part of the world where John lived in his later years, and was a pupil of Polycarp of Smyrna, who was a disciple of John. Irenaeus is just one link removed from apostolic testimony and, crucially, only one link removed from the author he claims wrote the Gospel of John. Irenaeus grew up in a world saturated with John’s influence. He studied the works of Papias (another disciple of John). If Irenaeus believed John wrote John, that is enormously important historical evidence. So did Irenaeus just make it all up, or did he genuinely believe John wrote John? See an argument clearly favoring the latter option here.

With naturalism relegated to the penalty box, the evidence is straightforward that the Synoptic Gospels were written within a generation of Easter, and Matthew in particular was written not only in a time but in a place where numerous eyewitness sources were available to contradict the account if it falsified the record. 100% of early sources agree on the authorship of these documents--even the early, scholarly foes of Christianity are unable to contest this.

The Gospel of John was probably written later, but still within the lifetime of John the son of Zebedee. If he is the author, as the most well-informed historian on the matter states (see Irenaeus above), there is no need for a game of "telephone" or "whispers": he was himself an eyewitness to all but a few verses of the 4th Gospel.

I'll shamelessly recommend those seeking more in-depth arguments take a look at my video series Who, When, and Why, the Writing of the Gospels.

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The Spiritual Side

As other users have already noted, most Christians believe the Gospel accounts are reliable not because some historian told them to believe, but because of the personal conviction they have received from the Holy Spirit.

This is consistent with the New Testament itself:

4 And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Cor. 2:4)

Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth (John 16:13a)

If there is an Omnipotent, Omniscient God, He knows whether these documents are reliable and is capable of revealing that information. From my own personal experience I can attest that He does exist, He does know, and He has revealed.

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Conclusion

The OP raises a historical question, and the historical evidence contradicts the claim that the Gospels are reports of reports of reports. Almost all of the content in the Gospels was authored by someone who was present at the events described, or personally knew those who were.

The Gospels were written in temporal proximity (and Matthew in geographic proximity as well) to people who knew what really happened, and the accounts could be readily rejected if they wrote the kind of fiction that skeptics so often accuse them of writing.

The case for the Synoptic Gospels is particularly strong. If the strictly historical case for John is somewhat less robust, John would probably in fact be pleased -- he didn't want you to believe his words on pain of ridicule because it was impossible to disbelieve. The case for John is strong enough not to be dismissed out of hand, but still invites the rational, neutral, and open-minded individual to gain a surer knowledge from the source of all truth, just as John directs (see John 14:26, 16:13, etc.).

Although I believe the case for the historical reliability of the Gospels is strong, I also recognize that most Christians haven't done the homework to be able to make that case (this is not a phenomenon unique to Christianity: most people who believe in the Big Bang Theory--which is a mathematical model--don't understand the math). Most Christians accept the reliability of the Gospel accounts because of the living, abiding voice of revelation that is available today just as it was when Jesus promised it, and when Matthew wrote it:

7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you (Matthew 7:7).



Appendix 1 -- the deductive argument for Matthew

The following is a deductive argument I published on my channel--a more extensive presentation of the argument is found here.


KEY

Ax: attributed by X

WK: the text was well-known

CA: the text was considered authoritative

AA: attributed to an authority

S: a substantial stir or debate

I: by Irenaeus

AF: by Apostolic Fathers


Formal logic

P1: AI = Matthew

P2: WKAF

P3: CAAF

P4: ~AAAF => ~(WKAF ^ CAAF)

P5: (AAAF ^ ~S) => (AAF = AI)

P6: ~S

C1: AAAF (P2,P3,P4)

C2: AAF = AI (P5,P6,C1)

C3: AAF = Matthew (P1,C2)


English interpretation of formal logic

P1: The text was attributed to Matthew by Irenaeus

P2: The text was well-known to the Apostolic Fathers

P3: The text was considered authoritative by the Apostolic Fathers

P4: If the text was not attributed to an authority by the Apostolic Fathers, it could not have been both well-known and considered authoritative by them

P5: If the text was both attributed to an authority by the Apostolic Fathers and there was no substantial stir or debate on authorship, the attribution by the Apostolic Fathers was the same as the attribution by Irenaeus

P6: There was no substantial stir or debate on authorship

C1: The text was attributed to an authority by the Apostolic Fathers (this follows deductively from premises 2, 3, and 4)

C2: The attribution by the Apostolic Fathers was the same as the attribution by Irenaeus (this follows deductively from premise 5, premise 6, and conclusion 1)

C3: The text was attributed to Matthew by the Apostolic Fathers (this follows deductively from premise 1 and conclusion 2)

Ergo, multiple, geographically separate sources, who personally knew apostles and were in a position to clearly know the facts, believed that Matthew wrote Matthew.

--

Appendix 2 -- misc.

Counting scrolls

A user suggested in related comments elsewhere--which I understand helped to inspire the OP's question here--that we have only 4 historical documents claiming to relate eyewitness testimony of the resurrection.

This is objectively false as a matter of simple arithmetic. Matthew + Mark + Luke + John + Acts + 1 Corinthians + Revelation = 7 documents. Other sources with less distribution or less-detailed claims could also be added, but these are the 7 that launched the message around the globe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.

--

Does a contemporary Bible preserve what was said?

The OP asks Suppose I pick up a modern Bible, say, a contemporary King James Version, and peruse the four gospels. How can I ascertain that I'm indeed delving into a reliable eyewitness account sourced directly from about 2000 years ago?

A contemporary Bible is not an exact replica of every word used by the original authors, and no responsible historian (Christian or otherwise) makes this claim. No copies of documents from the ancient world meet this unrealistic standard. Historians like Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, and many more are regularly cited as factual with little or no dispute. We don't have an exact replica of every word they wrote either.

A more detailed discussion of textual criticism can be found in my post here. The salient point as it pertains to the OP's question about history, though, is not that we have perfection in our hands (Perfection ascended into heaven as recorded in Acts 1:9), nor that we have every thing the apostles ever taught or knew (e.g. see John 21:25), but that what we do have meets a high standard of reliability. This is sufficient grounds to put enough confidence in the testimony of the apostles to "seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written". (source)

We're still not off the hook for turning to the Holy Spirit (not historians, archeologists, or philosophers) to lead us into all truth.

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    "It has been a great disservice to rational, historical inquiry that sources claiming to be objective have presented [various conclusion] without acknowledging the premises upon which that conclusion relies." This is true of a lot more than just the authorship of the Gospels!
    – Matthew
    Apr 22 at 17:04
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Being primary witnesses ourselves.

The only way to eliminate the quandary is to remove dependence on all intermediaries between ourselves and unvarnished truth.

Secular methods cannot discern the truthfulness or authenticity of an account.

In general there is no reliable secular way to tell whether a textual account is genuine or fraudulent, whether its authors spoke truth or colluded to lie, or to triangulate the exact origin of a piece of information. Moses quoted and summarized earlier accounts going all the way back to Abraham, Noah, Enoch and Adam, but those accounts are not even purported to be reproduced in full in the Bible as we have it today. Moreover, a report of a report of a report of a report can robustly transmit the original data and material facts, as we can today experimentally verify using our own copying and digital transmission technologies, while on the other hand it is trivially easy to fabricate a "firsthand report" that is completely spurious.

One can of course employ some "tools" of textual criticism, but their usefulness is limited. It is similar in some respects to how measuring current radioactive decay rates emanating from a bone does not tell you how old the rock actually is or where it came from. Just as geologists are often beguiled and cannot with certainty distinguish between a rock that emerged from a volcano 2000 years ago and one that emerged yesterday, there are in fact multiple plausible paths that could in theory produce the text we see today. (None of these plausible paths involve conspiracy or dishonesty on the part of the witnesses of the resurrection, by the way.) All of this to say that people come to different conclusions when they use unaided secular means to try to judge the veracity of a claim.

What if both reports are equally removed from the source?

For simplicity's and fairness's sake we could consider the scenario where we know that both accounts are firsthand (of Bigfoot and of the resurrection), or that both accounts are removed by the same number of retellings from the original account. The fact of something being retold by someone else could corrupt the message, it could do so selectively, and this is worth being aware of. It could only plausibly add reliable information if the editor/reteller/transmitter is a reliable witness to such supplemental information (in other words, he knows it). In some cases the reteller could even be the original witness, who is ameliorating his own earlier account with more information, or correcting a corrupted retelling. In general we do not know in advance whether an intermediate communicator is reliable, truthful or knowledgeable--nor can this necessarily be inferred from his report. This is important!

In the case where both accounts are firsthand, one can obviously lie and another can obviously tell the truth. The textual critic's tool of "steps removed from the source" plainly fails to distinguish between a false firsthand account and a true one! (Not to mention it cannot so much as tell us for certain how many steps removed an account is from the source.) As such in general, it is of no necessary discriminative value. We can also construct cases where the true account is distorted by retellings so as to be false and read opposite of the original, and where a false account is corrected by an intermediary so as to be true and opposite the original. Again, textual criticism fails. We might assume that all intermediate reporters are not reliable, and therefore that if an account was repeated, it is necessarily less reliable, but this assumption is tenuous and only amplifies our biases. It does not eliminate them. (Careful when reading this answer! It might have passed through half a dozen servers on its way to you, and so might be entirely different from the original!)

Evaluation is the act of injecting another layer of "reporting"

Whenever we resort to textual criticism or other critical techniques, there is a temptation to consider it a crystal ball that allows us to "see" exactly when and where a piece of information originated, and as a magic wand to restore it where has been corrupted. In reality, it is more like Photoshop, where we get to manipulate the pixels directly, including drawing whatever we want to see, to fill in gaps or even overwrite the original data. Do you see how textual criticism exacerbates the problem of being removed from the source, and does not offer a solution at all? Textual criticism is arrogating to ourselves the right to be a reporter, a retransmitter, and an editor of the content we are "evaluating". This evaluation is not read-only, because the purpose of our evaluation is always to deliver a report.

Sites like Wikipedia that are overrun and frequently dominated by secular voices have even come to insist that articles that "rely too much on primary sources" need to be offset by plenty of secondary and tertiary opinions in order to be deemed reliable. The devil likes it this way because it makes history much easier to rewrite; he no longer has to engage in intricate forgeries; all he has to do is gag the truth tellers and plaster over inconvenient witnesses with abundant cheap rumors and purchased credentials.

By engaging in textual criticism, we ourselves are merely becoming another pair of ears and another mouth in the chain of the telephone game.

Again, you must be a firsthand witness

Admittedly no piece of information can be more trustworthy than the source you witnessed delivering it to you.

There is no epistemology anywhere that circumvents this dire gap.

For secularists, they are constrained to admit when cornered that they actually know nothing, as far as they know, because according to themselves they have never encountered an infallible messenger.

There only three plausible ways of knowing truth:

  1. It must be innate. Knowledge you are born with. Darwinists call this instinct and by the same token they doubt its reliability. True knowledge is the conscience, which literally means "the knowledge with(in) you". This is spoken of as the Light of Christ in the Scriptures.
  2. It must be delivered by a Messenger who cannot lie. This only describes God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. These three cannot lie. Any other being is capable of deception.
  3. It must be an infallibly derived consequence of knowledge already had. Verifying the infallibility of an inference is impossible without resort to #2, so really although reasoning can prepare us for revelation, sure knowledge is impossible without revelation.

The Holy Ghost is the universal witness of truth.

The late apostle M. Russell Ballard said,

No truth ever came into the heart of man except by the power of the Holy Ghost.

This is unequivocally true.

It does not matter how many or how few times removed a message is from the original speakers and authors. If it is true, the Holy Ghost will bear witness to the hearer that it is true. If it is not true, the Holy Ghost will give no such witness.

In short, textual criticism is an unreliable weapon that is often misused to try to dismiss things or accept things that in reality it cannot touch. So-called "scientific" methods often incur the misnomerism of merely amplifying the subject's biases under the disguise of objectivity.

A dismissal of the witnesses of the resurrection of Christ on the basis that the texts have been is purely arbitrary. Scholars and laymen routinely cherry-pick their criteria until they appear to match what they are trying to accept or reject. However, they very often do not apply those same criteria when the veracity of a claim such as human descent from apes is in question.

I keep repeating this simple testimony because it is true and it is so needed:

In the genius of the gospel plan, there ultimately only has to be one witness, but that witness must be you. (Knowing that we Know, Douglas Callister)

The witness of the Holy Ghost is the only way to come to know anything for certain. All people should apply themselves to receiving His witness.

This is how I know that the testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is absolutely true, and claims that distract us from this are immaterial.

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How can I ascertain that I'm indeed delving into a reliable eyewitness account sourced directly from about 2000 years ago?

The Gospels themselves attest to first-hand, or at worst second-hand witness. All other things being equal, a neutral examiner would give at least some weight to this evidence. In order to evaluate whether the Gospels' own authorship claims are valid, one would consider also a) what evidence exists that the copies we have are accurate reproductions of the original manuscripts, and b) what evidence exists that the original manuscripts are accurate.

The former is the field of textual criticism, and is sufficiently well defended that I don't feel the need to regurgitate those arguments. To hit a few high points, however, there is extremely high consistency among existing copies (indicating a high probability that copies are, for the most part, accurate) and there are very early citations.

To the second point, there are many extra-scriptural sources that reference Scripture or the existence (and effects!) thereof. In particular, we have many early church writings that testify to the authorship of the Gospels and Epistles.

There are a number of articles defending the authorship of the Gospels; for example, Cross Examined defends the authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

What lines of evidence and arguments should persuade any rational, neutral, and open-minded individual into believing that the gospels we possess today genuinely preserve trustworthy eyewitness testimonies, and aren't merely dismissible as 'reports of reports of reports of reports' as Paulogia seems to suggest in the quote?

I would support that the above are sufficient. Their lack of effect goes to illustrate not that they aren't effective arguments, but that people aren't neutral. Anne's Answer makes this point in more detail. The average person would accept equivalent evidence as compelling for any other claims; indeed, many parts of history are accepted on much less reliable evidence. The problem when it comes to Scripture isn't that the evidence is inadequate, it's that the average person really doesn't want to hear the obvious implications of that evidence.

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  • The former is the field of textual criticism, and is sufficiently well defended that I don't feel the need to regurgitate those arguments - Would you mind at least citing a few sources for those who would like to dig deeper into those arguments?
    – Mark
    Apr 20 at 15:39
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    @Mark, see just about anything on textual criticism, and especially e.g. anything that comes up in a search like "is the bible full of errors [textual criticism]". As I say, that particular topic has been discussed to death and any claims that what we have differs (significantly) from the original manuscripts are... ignorant (appallingly so), at best.
    – Matthew
    Apr 20 at 21:54
  • @Mark, I haven't come across anything I would call a "best" article, but the many, many articles that exist all tell the same story. Here is an example from Blue Letter Bible. As noted, a search will easily turn up many others.
    – Matthew
    Apr 20 at 21:55
  • I decided to ask this question.
    – Mark
    Apr 20 at 23:11
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The problem is not the span of 2000 years. The problem is the very concept of "trustworthy eyewitness testimonies". Unless you have absolute trust in somebody, there are two aspects that determine your relative trust in somebody's testimony: the trustworthyness of the eyewitness, and the credibility of the testimony. Whether my neighbor tells me about a new bakery down the street, or about Martians performing an opera in our backyard, makes a huge difference for my propensity to believe her. The mathematical expression of this is Bayes' theorem, which connects prior and posterior probabilities. Not accidentally, it goes back to a theologian.

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    – agarza
    Apr 20 at 13:44
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Let's restrict this "report of a report of a report" to the gospel accounts about Jesus who is the central figure of Christianity as well as the most recent "fact of history" (otherwise the answer will be too unwieldy).

How do I know I'm not just perusing a 'report of a report of a report of a report' that might have undergone significant manipulation and alteration over time due to tradition, vested interests pushing certain agendas, and so forth?

The straightforward answer is: YES, it is a report of a report of a report, etc. The reason why Christians believe the report is trustworthy is because it contains sufficient historical kernels about Jesus and living-contact testimonies by Jesus's apostles, who wouldn't distort the identity of Jesus beyond recognition. The report is preserved by the early church who trusted those apostles.

What lines of evidence and arguments should persuade any rational, neutral, and open-minded individual into believing that the gospels we possess today genuinely preserve trustworthy eyewitness testimonies, and aren't merely dismissible as 'reports of reports of reports of reports' as Paulogia seems to suggest in the quote?

Some lines of evidence (I try to be wide-ranging rather than detailed):

  1. The gospels include embarrassing account about the apostles, including how Peter betrayed Jesus after the arrest, and most others fled in fear. If the stories are fabricated, why include it?

  2. For the Resurrection, the gospels include eyewitness account of women, who at that time were not considered prime witness. If the story was fabricated and was meant to be believed, why do this?

  3. For the most part, the historical setting implied in the gospels matched secular details, allowing them to be dated at least within the first 100 years after the event.

  4. The 12 apostles were all martyred except John.

  5. There are nothing that is intrinsically improbable (unless one is already prejudiced about supernatural possibility). The picture of Jesus which came out off the pages was quite convincing as a plausible Jewish prophet, a miracle worker greater than the greatest from the OT, someone whose teachings resonate with the best instincts of the human heart, and someone who truly demonstrated the best love for humanity.

  6. About Jesus claiming divinity about His own nature, assuming the report is credible, as C.S. Lewis put it we have a Trilemma about the divinity of Jesus: "Lunatic, Liar, or Lord".

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  • @Mark I'm sure there are more lines of evidence, but I'm curious for your cross examination for the first six. Apr 20 at 4:40
  • Thanks for the answer. As cross examination, I would succinctly say that most of the points would benefit from citations (i.e., I would insert #citationneeded in many parts of this answer). Are they ideas that you came up with on your own or are they based on previous works that could be cited? For instance, how do we know that point 4 is true? Citation needed.
    – Mark
    Apr 20 at 16:09
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The thing is the very premise that the gospels constitute solid eyewitness testimony is risible. We have no way of verifying the chain of custody, so to speak, for these documents over the centuries. All we possess are copies of copies of copies, separated from the alleged events by decades at minimum. Precisely whose eyewitness accounts are we meant to take at face value?

These texts were crafted by unknown authors with clear theological agendas to promote certain narratives about this itinerant Jewish preacher turned Christ figure. We have no originals, only edited and redacted versions that have been amended, translated, and transmitted ad infinitum by generations of monks and scribes with their own bailiwick of vested interests. To blithely assert these are trustworthy, unadulterated eyewitness testimonies is a act of bottomless credulity and special pleading. There are far older manuscripts and records that have been systematically mutated and distorted over time through human error, embellishment, or intentional revisionism. Why should we exempt the gospel accounts from this inexorable process?

No, we absolutely are dealing with at minimum 'reports of reports' - a vast game of theological whispers over centuries and continents. Any rational review must concede we possess not eyewitness accounts, but heavily sculpted moral fictions and mythologies born of oral traditions that became systematized as doctrine. To claim special dispensation for their authenticity is a fallacy of nouveauté.

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    This post doesn't answer the question, or attempt to do so, and is unlikely to be salvageable by editing.
    – Conrado
    Apr 19 at 13:32
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    – agarza
    Apr 19 at 13:51

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