The Early Martyrs Were Cross-Examined to Death

asdSkeptics often challenge believers by claiming that the “evidence” for Christianity would never hold up in a courtroom. They contend it’s hearsay; they can’t cross-examine the witnesses, so the case would never even see the inside of a courtroom. For many unfamiliar with the legal system, this challenge seems solid. After all, why should we trust our eternity to a message that wouldn’t pass muster in a court dealing with comparatively less important issues?

A bit of reflections shows the problem with this line of reasoning. First, it doesn’t take into consideration that we know many things that could never be “proven” in a courtroom, using the rules of evidence. Just about any historical event that is beyond the lifetime of living persons would suffer from similar problems, as well as problems of authenticating documents and physical evidence relating to the case. Yet, we have little doubt that these events occurred.

More importantly, the legal system provides the right to see and confront one’s accusers, and the related right to cross-examine them about their testimony, for a reason – “confrontation” is a reliable way to test evidence, to ensure that it is credible. But there are other ways to assure oneself that a person’s testimony is credible. In the case of the early martyrs, the way they demonstrated credibility – steadfastness in the face of persecution – is even more reliable.

Consider: if a witness testifies that he saw the defendant point a gun at the victim and fire the fatal shot, the defense will want the right to test the reliability of that account of what occurred. But what will they test? Generally speaking, the attack will take one of two possibles tacks: show that the witness is mistaken – he believes that he saw what he says but he is mistaken – or show that the witness is lying – he knows the defendant did not commit the crime but he is saying so for other reasons. If neither is the case, the witness’ testimony will prove very damaging to the defendant.

In preparing to cross examine, a skilled attorney does not rely simply upon his oratorical skills. He needs to plot out an approach. If he wants to challenge the witness as mistaken, he will inquire into the types of things that could cause a mistake: how well does the witness know the defendant? How long did he see him? Were there impediments to clear viewing? How did the stress of the event affect the witness’ ability to perceive the event; Were drugs or alcohol a factor and if so, to what extent did they effect the witness’ ability to observe and record what occurred? Each of these avenues may prove productive in undercutting the conclusion the witness reached.

But if the witness says that the defendant is his brother and he saw him from a few feet away with nothing blocking his view, then attacking the witness as “mistaken” will not be very productive. That leaves the other possibility – that the witness is lying. What is the relationship of the witness to the defendant? Does the witness stand to gain financially or otherwise by seeing the defendant convicted? What is the witness’ reputation in the community for honesty and integrity? These factors could be of great assistance – perhaps the witness is a “jailhouse snitch” who is trying to get out from another charge by telling the police what they want to hear. Or, by contrast, maybe the witness is the defendant’s brother who just happened to be present when the defendant committed the crime and is unwilling to lie for him. The only way the trier of fact can know what to make of the witness’ statement – “I saw the defendant shoot the victim” – is for a vigorous inquiry as to all these areas to occur. Only by fleshing out exactly what the witness saw, and as much about the witness as can be gleaned, will the fact-finder be in a position to decide the likelihood of mistake or misleading.

The skeptic’s refusal to even consider the testimony of the early martyrs on hearsay grounds stems from a misunderstanding of the point of cross-examination. The strength of a person’s testimony can be shown, perhaps even more reliably than by answering questions in court, by the person’s behavior as it relates to that testimony. To put it bluntly: is he willing to die for it?

The skeptic will immediately object: but many people are willing to die for false beliefs? Yes, that’s true, but that is not the situation when we consider what those first martyrs faced. This group of men and women knew Jesus and were actual witnesses to the fact and the circumstances of his death. This was their testimony: he died a gruesome death, he was later placed in a sealed and guarded tomb, and after three days he began to interact with them in a resurrected and enhanced body. If we had them on the witness stand, which of the challenges would we pursue. Mistake would not take us very far. No attorney with any sense would claim that Jesus survived the crucifixion or that the man the apostles saw after the resurrection was not Jesus. Jesus was well known to these individuals, and they witnessed the “effectiveness” of Rome’s favored way of ensuring a tortured and humiliating death. The tomb was empty and even if an imposter had tried to play Jesus’ role, he would not have been able to fool the apostles. That would be like telling the defendant’s brother that he actually saw someone else commit the murder – not a likely way to persuade anyone.

Perhaps then the apostles were lying. They knew Jesus had died on the cross but they wanted the world to believe that he had escaped death. They knew this was false but persisted anyway. How would a skilled attorney cross examine these witnesses? He would begin with the basics: is there a motive to lie? Do the apostles stand to benefit in some way, either financially, emotionally, or through the acquisition of power? Do the apostles have some animus against the “other side?” Are there prior inconsistent statements or actions that would undercut their present testimony? How committed are they to the position they are taking?

Having cross-examined countless witnesses, I for one would not want to take on these witnesses? Committed? They went to their deaths rather than retract would be easy enough to retract – “okay, you’re right, we just really wished that he was the messiah so we fabricated this whole thing.” Prior inconsistencies? Quite the contrary. The change in their behavior shortly after Jesus’ death – from meek and broken to brave and bold – actually corroborates their testimony. Animus against the other side? They preached a message of love, forgiveness and reconciliation. They gave unto Caesar the things of Caesar. Motive for gain? Hardly. Insisting that Jesus was the messiah brought them nothing; in many cases it took what little they had away. They gained neither position, nor power, nor wealth, nor anything else of earthly value. Where does the cross-examiner go? What could watching them answer questions on the stand possibly add that their behavior and actions in the face of persecution not already tell us – with much greater force?

The missionary Jim Elliott once said “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Having witnessed the risen Lord, the early martyrs had a level of confidence in their message that few today can manage. They might accept the label fool, but liar?

It is the fool who would stake his case on that argument.

Posted by Al Serrato

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