Matthew and John on the Witness Stand

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/21/2013

Were John and Matthew reliable witnesses to the life of Christ? Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah? Did He work miracles? Did He rise from the dead? The court is convened.

The whole of the Christian faith is based on certain historical realities, occurrences and statements that happened sometime in the past. These events have to do, fundamentally, with the identity of one man, Jesus of Nazareth. Can we trust the information we have about Him?

The witnesses in question are Matthew and John, companions of Jesus. The details of their testimony consist of lengthy narratives of the life and teachings of Jesus from the time the witnesses first became involved with Him until His death almost four years later.

We are concerned with the credibility of these witnesses. Can we believe their account? Are these men biased? Was their perception distorted? In short, is their testimony impeachable?

The field of law is helpful in answering that question. The legal system is a dispute resolution system. In order to resolve disputes, one must first get the facts. A jury arrives at a verdict by applying established rules of evidence to determine the facts.

Since the question of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth entails claims about facts, they can be processed in the same way the courts process any other fact. The rules of evidence can help us determine if the assertions about Jesus are actually true.

The historical events are made known to us by the testimony of people who claimed to have witnessed them. Their account is contained in documents—commonly known as the Gospels—that detail the events.

The specific questions are these. According to established rules of evidence regarding the testimony of eyewitnesses, can we believe certain specific and pivotal elements of the witnesses’ testimony? Were they correct in their contention that Jesus claimed He was the Son of God, the promised Messiah, the Savior of the world? Did they, in fact, see Jesus work miracles? Did they meet with, converse with, and eat with Jesus on any occasions after his execution and burial?

The Problem of Miracles

The testimony these men give is remarkable in many respects. The supernatural quality of Jesus’ life is an element of the testimony that’s woven throughout the fabric of the account.

Some argue that the miraculous elements of the testimony—especially the claim that Jesus rose from the dead—are patently unbelievable. The events described are contrary to the laws of nature and inconsistent with ordinary human experience. Any reasonable person would reject them out of hand, just as they would reject the claim that an unaided man leaped over a ten-story building or flew faster than a bullet.

This particular objection, however, is inadmissible because it is one of the things at issue before the court. The verdict can’t be presumed; it must be proved by evidence. That’s the legal method. We must decide if the witnesses to these extraordinary events are believable given the standard tests of evidence.

The initial question regarding the credibility of a witness is whether he had personal, first-hand knowledge of the matter. The Hornbook McCormick on Evidence states: “A witness who testifies to a fact which can be perceived by the senses must have had an opportunity to observe, and must have actually observed, the fact.”1 That determination is made by the nature of his testimony and any other corroborating evidence.

The Witnesses

The author of the testimony commonly referred to as “The Gospel of John” is John the apostle, one of Jesus’ inner core of disciples. He identifies himself simply as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”2 He claims to be an accurate and truthful witness to these things.3

Matthew makes no direct claim in his narrative to being an eyewitness. However, he establishes himself as an eyewitness based on the internal evidence of his account. Though he doesn’t name himself, the author reports in the first person about events that he sees and participates in.

We’re not concerned here with the details of the events as much as with the occurrence of the events themselves, what might be called the essential and central facts.

According to this testimony, both were present when Jesus taught about his identity and when he allegedly worked miracles. John personally witnessed the death of Jesus,4 and both Matthew and John testify they saw him on a number of occasions after his death and burial.5

Details of events may be obscure in some instances. This does not, however, weaken the case. Reliability does not require that every detail be perfectly remembered and every item inerrantly recorded.6

McCormick On Evidence states:

“While the law is exacting in demanding first-hand observation, it is not so impractical as to insist upon preciseness of attention by the witness in observing or certainty of recollection in recounting the facts.”7

Here are two men who said they saw and heard something remarkable. Were they right? Were John and Matthew reliable witnesses to the central facts in question? Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah? Did He work miracles? Did He rise from the dead?

Testing the Testimony

A prosecutor has a formidable battery of weapons at his disposal to discredit a witness. In fact, with all of the sources of distortion possible from the perception of an event to its recall, it’s hard to believe any witness can be trusted. What about these witnesses?

In McCormick on Evidence, Edward Cleary offers a five-pronged attack on the credibility of a witness:

The first, and probably the most effectively and frequently employed, is an attack by proof that the witness, on a previous occasion has made statements inconsistent with his present testimony. The second is an attack by showing that the witness is biased on account of emotional influences such as kinship for one party or hostility to another, or motives of pecuniary interest, whether legitimate or corrupt. The third is an attack upon the character of the witness. The fourth is an attack by showing incapacity in the witness to observe, remember, or recount the matters testified about. The fifth is proof by other witnesses that material facts are otherwise than as testified to by the witness under attack.8

I will defend Matthew and John by examining each of Cleary’s points to determine if the witnesses’ testimony can be impeached.

We are concerned with two specific people, Matthew and John, and their testimony regarding particular words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. Their testimony should be judged on its own individual merits, as outlined in the following defense.

Conflicting or Inconsistent Testimony

There is no evidence that the witnesses claimed at a previous time that the events in question never happened. There is no record that they contradict themselves regarding the salient facts at issue. They never altered their story. They began proclaiming this testimony from the outset and it hasn’t changed.

Had there been any variation, it would have been seized upon immediately by the witnesses’ detractors. New Testament Scholar F.F. Bruce notes:

The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracies which would at once be exposed by those who would be only too glad to do so. On the contrary, one of the strong points in the original apostolic preaching is the confident appeal to the knowledge of the hearers (Acts 2:22) ....Had there been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the possible presence of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served as a further corrective.9

Bias and Self-Interest

Clearly, because of the close relationship between those involved, the question of bias is a fair one. And what of self-interest? These witnesses clearly had a personal investment in this issue.

Isn’t it understandable that Matthew and John would present Jesus in the most favorable light possible? Isn’t it reasonable that such bias, such personal affection and caring, would cause Jesus’ friends to overstate His actions or exaggerate His claims, especially if such overstatement and exaggeration would make Him more attractive or desirable to others?

The problem we encounter in this line of reasoning is that bias and self-interest generally work in concert. A person’s bias influences him to give testimony in his own self-interest. This is not the case, however, with these two witnesses.

Because of the nature of the testimony and the time and social conditions under which the testimony was given, any bias in favor of the accused would conflict with the powerful self-interest the witnesses had for personal survival.

These men gave testimony in a hostile atmosphere. In the eyes of both the Jewish ruling authorities and the Romans, the proclamation of this message was a capital crime. Many like these men had met their death at the hands of the Jews early on. Later came the tremendous persecutions of the Christians under the Romans, particularly under the rule of Domitian, and Nero.

The lives of the witnesses to Jesus Christ were continually in peril. In many cases, the early Christians were driven underground and into hiding, yet they clung fervently to their testimony, affirming the teachings and the miracles of Jesus, including His resurrection from the dead.

For this testimony they were crucified en mass, fed to the lions, sacrificed by the Roman gladiators, or beheaded. One simple thing would have saved them this torment: recanting.

The Apostle Peter, a companion of Matthew and John, is a case in point. His personal identification with the convicted Christ put him at risk, so much so that at one point he succumbed to the temptation to deny the association.10

No, Matthew and John did exactly the opposite of what self-interest would dictate. It was in their best interests to ignore what might have been a favorable bias towards the defendant. Though they may have been disposed to exaggerate their claims about Jesus because of their deep affection for him, their legitimate concern for self-preservation would win over any competing tendency to bias.

Simply put, these witnesses would not jeopardize their lives for the sake of distorting or embellishing their testimony about a person they cared deeply for. A better explanation is that they told the truth in spite of the peril that such honesty represented. The issue of bias and interest, therefore, actually works in this case to substantiate the testimony of the witnesses rather than to discredit it. It lends credibility to their testimony.

One might suggest that the witnesses had a hidden religious motive. What about their expectation of eternal reward for faithfully preaching the message that was “entrusted” to them? Under those conditions, the threat of loss of life would be a reasonable price to pay, maybe even one to be desired. Isn’t martyrdom an appealing goal for a religious fanatic?

That’s a fair suggestion, but it overlooks a very critical fact about the nature of this testimony. The promise of eternal reward would only represent self-interest for the witnesses if it were a genuine offer and not a fabricated one. That motive simply would not exist for them if they knew they were misrepresenting the facts.

Any expectation John or Matthew might have of divine reward for their sacrifice supports the contention that they believed they were giving truthful and accurate testimony. Once again, this expectation does not bias them to lie. It biases them to tell the truth. The issue of bias and self-interest does not weaken the credibility of these witnesses’ testimony, it strengthens it.

The Witnesses’ Character

Generally, an attack on a witness’s credibility begins with an effort to discredit the witness through cross examination or an appeal to extrinsic evidence. If this tactic fails or is not an option, the focus turns to discrediting the character of the witness. This can only be accomplished by marshaling external proof, usually from other witnesses. A witness’ character can only be impeached if there is reasonable grounds to do so.

Where is the evidence of bad character or corruption in this case? There is not a shred of documentation that impugns the character of these witnesses. Not only was it totally inconsistent with the moral standard they professed and lived by, but also, as noted above, there was no motivation to fabricate. In fact, the opposite was the case.

Observation and Recall

There is no evidence that the witnesses’ capacity to observe was distorted. There is no hint that these witness were mentally inept, habitually drunk, or under the influence of drugs. Their writings are clear and lucid with an abundance of detail.

They had no difficulty recognizing Jesus. Matthew and John spent more than three years with Him in intimate, personal contact. His distinctive features were unmistakable, including nail prints in his hands and feet and a spear wound in his side.

What of their memory? It’s an accepted fact that memory deteriorates with the passage of time. In this case, however, there were a couple of compelling factors that were powerful aids to accurate recall.

First was the frequency of the events in question. Loftus notes that an event repeated often will be remembered with greater detail and accuracy than one that is singular and unique.11 According to John and Matthew, Jesus’ miracles, claims to be Messiah, and post-resurrection appearances were numerous, witnessed many times by them.

Second, the testimonies are in the form of narrative accounts. Since these are personal recollections and not responses to specific questions, it is less likely that the material is distorted by leading or suggestive questioning that may be considerations in a different type of judicial investigation. Liabilities such as the way a question is worded or who is asking the questions—things that may have been distorting factors—simply are not an issue here.

Third, these men did not wait 30 or 40 years before they began to review the events and write them down. On the contrary, this testimony was communicated immediately and became a firmly established part of the teaching of the early church. This strong oral tradition served as a review and a reminder of the details of the life of Jesus Christ.

F.F. Bruce notes that there was a large group who had witnessed the same things first hand that could corroborate the testimony of these Gospel writers:

“The first three gospels were written at a time when many were alive who could remember the things that Jesus said and did, and some at least would still be alive when the fourth Gospel [John] was written.”12

Dr. Norman Geisler, an expert in ancient Biblical documents, points out that the numerous eyewitnesses to all the major of events and teachings of Jesus served as a cross-check for the memory of the other.13

Finally, the essential or central facts of an incident are much less vulnerable to distortion than are peripheral details, especially when these events are unusual or novel and long lasting. The duration of the event is a critical issue in the ability of the witness to accurately perceive and remember the event.14

Stone observes that the vast majority of crimes are of a stark and unmistakable nature.15 This is precisely the kind of circumstance we’re facing here. The events in question are, by their very nature, stark and unmistakable. There is little danger of suggestion, which would be a problem in more ambiguous events.

There are a number of liabilities inherent to eyewitness testimonies. When the testimony concerns an issue of fact that occurred in a moment of time, like a holdup or an unheralded act of violence, then these liabilities become critical considerations.

However, this changes when the claims in question involve unique and dramatic events repeated over an extended period. When we note that the miracles Jesus performed were visible and open to scrutiny, then these criticisms lose their force.

Though memory may dim with the passage of time or become altered by intervening influences, the central facts don’t fade. Loftus writes, “The results [of research] indicated that salient or central items were recalled with significantly greater accuracy and were much more difficult to alter with misleading information than were peripheral items.”16

Seeing a blind man healed, for example, is not the kind of thing you miss or distort because your personal expectations get in the way, your line of observation is temporarily impaired, or you had a bias towards believing your teacher was a miracle worker. Hair color, height, or time of day may be forgotten, but the fact that a blind man (or lame, or deaf, or deceased) is restored to wholeness and full health would not be obscured over time.

Stone is graphic here:

“A robbery or a theft is unlikely to mellow in the fullness of time into a donation of property. A rape will not be transformed into a romance. A vicious assault will probably not be converted into an accidental collision in the street.”17

The unique nature of the events of Jesus’ life and the opportunity of Matthew and John to witness them lend themselves to accurate observation and recall.

Corroboration or Contradiction

Disproving the facts of the first witness is generally accomplished using the testimony of a second witness. Of course, at best this can only show that the first witness may be mistaken, or the second witness may be mistaken, or they both may be mistaken. However, if the second witness agrees with the first, then instead of being impeached, the first witness is supported.

In this case, John and Matthew corroborate each other. When we compare their testimony, their accounts don’t clash. They mesh. Each, of course, is given from a different point of view. Their experiences with Jesus were not identical, so there are some differences, as you’d expect.

Yet they are clearly in concert on the vital issues. Each records numerous times Jesus claimed to be Messiah. Each records various miracles and both go into detail about the appearances of Jesus alive after his crucifixion and burial.

Matthew is not only consonant with John. Both their accounts also coincide with the historical summaries given by Luke, the companion of Paul, and Mark, Peter’s companion.

There is sufficient unanimity between these witnesses to demonstrate corroboration, but sufficient variation in details and viewpoints in the accounts to eliminate the charge of collaboration.

Such extrinsic support silences other concerns. A host of possible errors in perception—compromised memories, the freezing effect, transference—can be eliminated as concerns. The testimonies are in concert, suggesting that these other elements have not been distorting factors. This verifies the reliability of the witnesses.

There is no impeachment by contradiction here. There is no conflicting or inconsistent testimony, no demonstrated incapacity to observe or remember, and no suggestion of faulty character to discredit the testimony of John and Matthew. Further, the issue of self-interest and corroboration supports their credibility rather than discredits it. In the absence of contrary evidence, the witnesses are to be trusted.

Closing Arguments

Here we have two men, Matthew and John, who testify about another man they knew intimately. They say Jesus taught He was the promised Messiah, the Savior of all mankind, who called for an allegiance of both faith and obedience. They testify that Jesus verified these claims by working numerous miracles, acts of supernatural power.

Both witnesses claim Jesus was brutally executed and buried. Both affirm He appeared to them alive after his death, spending time with them, teaching them, sharing meals with them, and offering many other proofs of his resurrection. Their testimony is not based on a fleeting glimpse in a crowd. It’s based on detailed, personal, face-to-face discourse with Jesus on numerous occasions over an extended period of time after the purported resurrection. These experiences turned them from skeptics into confident believers.

Rather than being biased in favor of the events in question, these witnesses were actually disinclined to trust what they saw. Their first response was doubt and disbelief until their senses verified for them what simple belief earlier would not allow them to accept.18

Though the content of the testimony is extraordinary, its character is compelling. The accounts are clear and lucid, giving an abundance of detail. They read like the testimony of one intimately acquainted with the facts of the issue, someone who was personally involved with the process, who was proximal to the events in question, and who had repeated opportunity to observe the events.

The witnesses’ repeated exposure to Jesus both during the time of His ministry and after His alleged resurrection rules out any possibility of psychological deception or delusion. In short, their testimony rings true.

What extrinsic evidence exists to impeach these witnesses? There are no contrary witnesses to these events. In fact, all others corroborate the content of the testimonies in question. In American law, the identification of a single witness is enough to sustain a conviction, yet here we have multiple witnesses.19

There is no evidence of faulty observation or impaired recollection due to disease, illness, intoxication, or mental or emotional instability. These men were physically hearty and resilient rather than senile. There is no evidence of moral laxity.

The specific “event” in question was not something that happened in a split moment of time. Instead, this testimony relates to actions and statements made by Jesus many times, over an extended period of time, under conditions that were optimal, most favorable to accurate recall.

John and Matthew expressed the utmost confidence in their account. There is no vacillation, no uncertainty. They clung to their testimony in spite of the tremendous personal peril that resulted. These men were so certain of the accuracy of their observations that they were willing to stake their lives on them. This kind of testimony compels confidence.

The Defense Rests

Far from being mistrusted, John and Matthew are model witnesses. I suggest they are the very best of witnesses and that their testimony is utterly reliable.

A witness who has personal knowledge of the subject matter should be believed if his testimony cannot be effectively impeached. There are no reasonable arguments or evidence to impeach these men. Rather, the evidence supports them. The testimony of Matthew and John stands.