Legal viewpoint on the Reurrection

In another thread, JubilationTCornpone and I got into a discussion of thee legal vlaidity of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, which was a bit of a hijack, so I’ve started a separate thread. The subject for this debate is: is there admissable evidence for the Resurrection?

I don’t have the evidence right now, I’ll get it to you later.

No, I’m saying that only eyewitnesses can testify as to what happened.

Only eyewitnesses can directly testify as to what happened. Historians do not have a problem with using second-hand accounts, provided that there is reasonable cause to believe that they are reliable. Luke, for example, was a prominent companion of Peter and company, and as such, was in a prime position to report on what the Apostles said and what was commonly reported (e.g. the reports of miracles from those who had encountered Jesus).

Skeptics may dismiss accounts that don’t come from eyewitnesses, but that’s now how historians operate. And, if Simon Greenleaf’s opinion as a legal authority means anything, even these second-hand testimonies were compelling in his reluctant view.

Yes, but I’m focusing on the legal aspect.

If he haas given a reason why hearsay would be admissable, I’d like to hear it.

Well, despite the Greenleaf’s legal authority (which is considerable) some folks find faults in his analysis[sup]1[/sup]. For those who wish to argue the merits of his position rather than the authority of it, the full text of Testimony of the Evangelists is in the public domain.

BTW–a few highlights for those who point to Greenleaf as either atheist or Jewish at the time of this writing (I have seen both claims), here are a few quotes from the text.

Mighty strange words to be coming from either a Jew or an atheist as a preface to an examination of the gospels, eh? I quick google search showed me lots of people repeating the claim, “he was an [atheist|jew] . . .” It has shown me no evidence to support that statement. Certainly the implication of the above quotes is that whatever his religious or philosophical positions may have been at some earlier date, he was a commited Christian at the time he compsed this oft-cited work.

This point has no necessary bearing on his analysis (though it might bear consideration when considering his objectivity), but I hope it can put to rest the “stunning conversion of an atheist upon examining the evidence” story. Unless, of course, someone would care to substantiate that claim.

[sup]1[/sup][sub]The first link above actually points to a critique of a book by John Warwick Montgomery, but said book relies heavily on Greenleaf’s analysis.[/sub]

I haven’t read Greenleaf’s book, but from what I’ve read, he seems to treat the gospels as circumstantial evidence, not necessarily as eyewitness testimony. (Remember, Greenleaf’s forte was the admissibility of legal evidence , which isn’t necessarily limited to eyewitness testimony.

Also remember that Greenleaf literally wrote the book on legal evidence and its quality. He also set out specifically to refute the Bible accounts, yet was ultimately compelled to believe in their truth and convert to Christianity.

So while some may disagree with Greenleaf’s analysis, he nevertheless comes with incredible credentials and an extraordinary testimony. IANAL, but I do find those facts very difficult to ignore.

I think you’re missing the obvious. Those don’t sound like the words of an atheist because he was no longer an atheist at the time he wrote Testimony of the Evangelists.

If the gospel evidence compelled Greenleaf to defend the historicity of the Resurrection, then of course he would be a committed Christian “at the time he composed this oft-cited work.”

If it’s so obvious, then I’m certain you will be able to provide substantiating information. The text does not support any assertion that he was either an atheist or a Jew immediately before beginning his investigation. In fact, the wording of the his introductory statements quite strongly argues that he began his investigation from a perspective of commited theism. But really, the full text of his article is available–feel free to highlight the passages you think support the idea of his very recent conversion to Christianity.

Hey–I was simply curious until I actually read the work. Now I am skeptical. I see absolutely nothing in the work itself to support the assertion that Greenleaf began his investigation as an atheist determined to prove the gospels unreliable.

Also, now that the ful text of his article is available to you, do you find his actual presentation as impressive as the authority of his name?

First, I wouldn’t rely on Greenleaf to prove much of anything these days. His work in the legal field of evidence, while exemplary for his time (late 18th century/early 19th century) has been rendered obsolete by the adoption in most (all?) U.S. jurisdictions (including the Federal courts) of codified Rules of Evidence. Relying on dusty old common-law maxims, as the distinguished Mr. Greenleaf did, will get you tossed out of court today. But looking at it under today’s standards:

Hearsay is an out of court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted. So everything in the Gospels dealing with everything except whether Jesus rose from the dead is admissible. (Provided it is relevant – for example, truth of His holy nature might be relevant to the question of whether He would be subject to resurrection, without embracing the ultimate issue of whether He was, in fact, resurrected.)

More specifically, the gospel accounts of the resurrection might be admissible as present-sense impressions, excited utterances, or statements of the witness’s then existing mental or emotional condition – all of which are admissible exceptions to the hearsay rule. The fact that the witnesses in question are all dead makes it more likely, not less, that a judge will try to admit the evidence – especially when second-hand accounts are literally all the evidence there is. Would the accounts be admitted? I don’t know. Maybe; maybe not.

Note that I have addressed myself to the admissibility of the proferred evidence and not to the likelihood of proving the case. Even if the gospel accounts are admitted, is that enough to make it more probable than not that Jesus was resurrected? As a lawyer, I say probably not. As a Christain, I point out that belief in the resurrection is to most Christians an article of faith, not generally considered amenable to proof anyway.


It seems to me that you are presupposing that the people in question were indeed witnesses, when there is no such claim in any of the Gospels.

I disagree with that evaluation. His introductory statements clearly reflected his mindset at the time of writing, but there’s no definite reason to surmise that they reflected his viewpoint prior to his investigation.

As for the text allegedly not stating that he was an atheist… I’d like to point out that Greenleaf’s book takes up 128 pages in paperback form. 128 pages! Thus, I think it is rather unlikely that the web page which you cited (a mere 20 pages long in large print) contains the entirety of his book. In contrast, a simple web search revelas numerous references which do affirm that he was an atheist at the time of his search.

As I said, I haven’t read his book in its entirety. However, I do hope to obtain a copy soon, so that we can explore this issue more thoroughly.

Incidentally, Greenleaf is by no means the only legal authority who examined the evidence for the Resurrection and concluded that it was compelling. Leading Lawyers’ Case For The Resurrection (available from covers several such cases, including contemporary law professor John Warwick Montgomery. (Earlier, Spiritus Mundi expressed disagreement with Montgomery’s work. Nevertheless, he is an example of a learned present-day attorney, holding eight degrees, a law professorship and other prestigious positions.

As for Greenleaf, while there have been modern revisions to the standards of legal evidence, his work is still highly revered, still available and still published, in hardbound form no less. Moreover, Greenleaf also attested that the Resurrection account passed every test for legal admissibility, so even if we allow for the passage of time and changing legal standards (for better or for worse, I must add), that’s still a rather extraordinary claim.

Sure there is. Barring a textual statement from Greenleaf, of course, surmise is all that we can do. Nevertheless, I am confident that I can find more textual support for the supposition that Greenleaf approached his study from a theist perspective than you will be able to find for the converse. Here’s an easy one to start: It should be pursued as in the presence of God, and under the solemn sanctions created by a lively sense of his omniscience, and of our accountability to him for the right use of the faculties which he has bestowed. Greenleaf straightforwardly argues that the investigation of the evidence for the teachings of Christianity should be pursued “as in the presence of God”. One migh treasonably surmise, therefore, that such an attitude is the one he himself brought into his investigations.

There–basic textual analysis of a literary source. Your turn: find support within the essay for the proposition that Greenleaf was an atheist when he began his investigation.

Well, I see reference to a 1995 aperback publication by Kregel Publications. One review on Amazon mentions “bonus material” of Dupin’s Trial of Jesus Before Caiaphas and Pilate and the Barnes and Noble listing includes a second author’s credit fo someone named Tischendorff.

Greenleaf’s essay is in the public domain, and I see nothing on the site I linked to indicate that th ematerial is incomplete. The essay presented is not fragmentary nor is the argument presented lacking obvious structural elements. So, have you anything other than a page count for a recent edition containing extra material to support your contention that some of the text is missing?

By the way, I just realized that I apparently blew the url for the first site in my initial response. Here is the correct one. Interestingly, in talking about a different book Richard Packham writes, It is a relatively small book, consisting of three essays by Montgomery and a reprinting of Simon Greenleaf’s “Testimony of the Evangelists.” . . . The reprint of the Greenleaf article is 50 pages long." So, another piece of evidence for essay & less-than-128-pages.

Now, I ask again. Is there something in Greenleaf’s (or Montgomery’s) arguments that you find particularly compelling, or is it just the authority of their names with which you are enamored?

Well, my simple web search revealed lots of living people repeating that claim, but nothing authoritative (either from Greenleaf himself or contemporaneous with him and from a reliable source). If your simple web search did reveal such evidence, please post it.

Well, Matthew Levi was one of the twelve, as was John bar Zebedee. Both are claimed to be the authors of the Gospels bearing their names. Both are named in all three Synoptics as members of the Twelve (Eleven without Judas) and all three Synoptics list the Eleven as having been present at Resurrection appearances – and Luke specifically states that Jesus instructed them that they were to be “witnesses of these things.” John does not name himself in the Gospel attributed to him, and there is a majority view that he referred to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” That disciple is specifically stated in the Gospel according to John to be one of the Resurrection witnesses.

To continue our analysis, Mark is supposed on the authority of Papias to have written down the teachings of Peter concerning Jesus, and Peter is clearly spelled out as a witness; Luke is on record as having stated that he collected all the variant stories that had arisen about Jesus and attempted to choose among them the most accurate (see Luke 1:1-4).

From this I would say that we do have witness testimony regarding the Resurrection.

To what extent the testimony recorded is (a) reliable, (b) based on the actual statements of witnesses, © written by those to whom it is attributed, (d) accurate in the conclusions drawn from it as to what actually happened — all these questions are debatable. But I believe that on the basis of your OP and your question above there are a plethora of witnesses and four generally-coherent reports of what they witnessed. (Like any set of testimonies, there are minor variations in who precisely was present at what time relative to other accounts, etc. Much like two people describing an aqua-colored Neon involved in a traffic mishap as “a blue Plymouth Neon” and “a green Dodge Neon,” their minor apparent contradictions do not in fact contradict each other.)

In legalese, Jesus wasn’t Resurrected: he recovered from a transient life cessation episode.

Let’s see:

Mark is not claimed as an eyewitness by anyone. He is supposed to be reporting Peter’s recollections, so this falls under “hearsay” and is only admissible to the extent it meets the exceptions already mentioned.

Matthew’s gospel reproduces 90% of Mark nearly word-for-word. IANAL, but if on a jury I would be extremely sceptical of two witness statements that agreed 90% word-for-word. Obviously some form of collaboration there.

The author of Luke’s gospel doesn’t identify himself in the text, and the identification is based on extra-biblical sources e.g. Papias. In fact, Luke’s introduction explicitly states that his gospel is based on other written documents. In fact, Lk 1:2-3 seems to distinguish between Luke himself and the “eyewitnesses”. By the tradition (Papias again), Luke was a follower of Paul, who was not an eyewitness on Easter Sunday, whatever might have happened later. But in any case, Luke is not supposed to have been an eyewitness. Hearsay again.

John’s author is also not identified in the text. The identification of the author with “the disciple Jesus loved” of the text is pure conjecture. Still, here is maybe the best case for an actual eyewitness account, but many scholars consider John to be the latest and least historically reliable gospel.

My reading of his work is that he IS considering the gospels as eywitness testimony. He also seems to make a tacit assumption that the gospels were in fact written by those to whom they are attributed. Since the earliest copies of the gospels do not have names assigned to them, I would say that assumption is not warranted (FriendRob sums up the authenticity problems of the gospel documents very well in his post, I think). By modern rules of evidence, testimony that goes to prove the matter at issue must be direct. The exceptions are very specific, and I don’t see how the gospels fall under any category by which hearsay evidence would be acceptable.

Well, if he did indeed set out to refute the Bible accounts, it is painfully obvious in his writing that he lost his objectivity at some point, and his agenda goes beyond merely examining evidence.


Well, according to Chief Justice Rehnquist, in the presence of an alleged conspiracy, hearsay testimony becomes admissible in an effort to prove or disprove the culpability of the accused as regards the conspiracy (see Ex parte Merryman).

Nearly every argument that I’ve ever run into that alleges that the Resurrection did not occur either (a) makes some contrary-to-probability arguments such as “Jesus did not exist” or “They were all victims of a mass hallucination” or (b) suggests a conspiracy either to put over a hoax or to defend a common viewpoint not shared by most of the rest of first century civilization.

Hearsay testimony of third parties concerning eyewitnesses would thus be legally acceptable.