As a lawyer, I am keenly aware of the central importance of eyewitnesses to getting at the truth of any matter. There is no better proof in the law than eyewitness testimony. The rules of law allow hearsay testimony (the testimony of what someone else said) only in extreme and limited circumstances because eyewitness testimony is considered inherently much more reliable.
Eyewitness testimony is light years more reliable than secondhand testimony, but even eyewitness testimony needs to be carefully considered along with the credibility of the eyewitnesses. People aren’t always good at observing details accurately. People sometimes fill in the gaps in understanding of what happened with details that are assumed, but which aren’t accurate. People do this consciously and unconsciously.
Eyewitnesses can also be influenced by subconscious biases and influences. Sometimes eyewitnesses even lie about what they have seen.
Because eyewitness testimony isn’t foolproof, we always compare eye witness testimony with other eye testimony and look for other evidence that will either corroborate or contradict the eyewitness testimony.
Still, most cases are built on eyewitness testimony. A case can be built on the testimony of a single, good eyewitness, but multiple eyewitnesses is always better. The more eyewitnesses that agree with each other on key facts (they will never agree on all details), and the more evidence that corroborates that testimony, the stronger a case is.
We see this principle at work in the narrative accounts contained in the Bible that we call the Gospels. The Bible expressly focuses on the testimony of eyewitnesses. Following is a summary of the eyewitness testimony that runs throughout the New Testament.
The Testimony of Jesus
I begin with Jesus, himself. The Pharisees, at one point, accused Jesus of giving false testimony because he was bearing witness about himself. (John 8:13) Jesus acknowledged the law that applied in Jewish courts that presumed the truth of two witnesses that agreed with each other, (John 8:17) adding, “I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” (John 8:18)
Those words sound kind of strange, especially to one who is not convinced that Jesus was who he claimed to be. Immediately, following those words, Jesus spoke of future things (his death) that would not have been convincing at the moment, but which people might later recall. Some people took Jesus at his word, but a largely skeptical world needed more than that.
The Testimony of Miracles
Jesus said, “[T]he works which the Father has given Me to accomplish — the very works that I do — testify about Me…” (John 5:36); and “[T]he works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me.” (John 10:25) Jesus appealed to the things that he did for corroboration, and he was able to appeal to those things that he did because they were well-known.
The Pharisees, who opposed Jesus, didn’t deny the miracles Jesus that did. They even acknowledged them, but they argued that the miracles were not from God. They focused on the fact that he often performed miracles on the Sabbath when they believed Jews should not be “working” (so they reasoned). (John 9:16) They claimed he performed miracles by Beelzebub (Satan) (Matt. 12:24), but they didn’t deny that he performed miracles.
The Testimony of God the Father
Jesus claimed the miracles he performed were evidence of his sanction from God, the Father. At other times, Jesus alluded to the testimony of the Father. (See for example John 5:37)(presumably, appealing to peoples’ knowledge of God the Father, who would recognize the source of the authority Jesus claimed.)) When Jesus was baptized, a “voice from heaven” was heard by people who were there, saying, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17) Another time, a voice was heard by eyewitnesses coming “out of the cloud”, saying, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” (Luke 9:35)
The Testimony of John the Baptist
The incident in which the voice was heard coming from a cloud occurred when Jesus went to John the Baptist to be baptized by him. John the Apostle says that “John the Baptist was sent as a witness to the light [Jesus] that people might believe in him.” (John 1:7) John claimed himself to be the voice of the one crying in the wilderness that Isaiah foretold calling people to repent and to make way for the Messiah. (John 1:23, quoting Isaiah 40:3)
The Testimony of Premonitions
Indeed, John the Baptist’s role was foretold from before his birth by visitations and visions experienced by his parents at separate times and in separate ways. (Luke 1:5-23; 57-63 and 67-79) In those visions, his parents were told that John would be the one to call people to “prepare the way for the Lord” and “make straight paths for him” as foretold by the Prophet, Isaiah. (Mark 1:1-3; Luke 3:3-4; and John 1:19-23)
Thus, key people received forward-looking visitations and visions that were fulfilled years later as they were originally described. The same is true of Jesus when Mary and Joseph were separately visited by angels (Luke 1:26-38 and Matt. 1:18), foretelling his birth.
The Testimony of Prophecies
More importantly, perhaps, the birth, life and death of Jesus was foretold generations and centuries before. As referenced above, John the Baptist took his instruction from the Prophet, Isaiah. Jesus said to the religious leaders who were struggling to accept him for who he claimed to be: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me….” (John 5:39-40)
Jesus, after his resurrection, explained to his disciples, “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets… the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27), and he helped them understand what the Scriptures (which would have been what we call the Old Testament), said about him. (Luke 24:45-47)
Throughout the Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament, references are made in places too numerous to recount here to the statements in the Old Testament that find their fulfillment in Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew, in particular, which was written primarily to the Jews, is full of examples of prophetic fulfillment in the things Jesus did. Thus, the specific and general ways in which Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecies bears witness to Jesus.
The Testimony of Eye Witnesses
Witnesses to What Jesus Said and Did
Most significantly, though, we have the eyewitness testimony of all the followers of Jesus. Jesus made a point of telling them – before his death, before they really understood him or what was going on – “[Y]ou will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles.” (Matt. 10:18; see also John 15:27 (“[Y]ou will testify … because you have been with Me from the beginning.”)) Thus, Jesus highlighted to them the importance of their eyewitness testimony.
The Gospels are a testament to that statement. Luke, who was not a companion of Jesus, but who gathered his facts from those who knew him, said,
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word….” (Luke 1:1-2)
When Jesus explained to his disciples, “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets… the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27) and what the Scriptures said about him (Luke 24:45-47), he added, “You are witnesses of these things!” (Luke 24:48)
The very last instruction Jesus gave his followers before leaving them for good was to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) and to “make disciples of all nations”. (Matt. 28:19)
The followers of Jesus were able to testify from firsthand accounts about the words Jesus spoke and the things he did. These same people were the eyewitnesses to his death and (more importantly) to his resurrection.
Witnesses to the Death & Resurrection of Jesus
Luke recounts how Jesus “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs….” (Acts 1:3) After his death, the followers of Jesus saw him, spoke to him, put their hands and fingers on the wounds he suffered (John 20:24-27) and ate with him, among other things. (Mark 16:14; John 21:14-15)
Paul recounted about 25-30 years later the various people to whom Jesus revealed himself after his death. These people included not only his immediate followers. They included over 500 people who saw him together at one time – most of whom were still alive at the time Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians. (1 Cor. 15:3-8).
The importance of eyewitnesses was of such significance that, when the disciples sought to replace Judas as a disciple, the criteria for the replacement was 1) someone who “accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us— from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” and 2) someone who was “a witness to his resurrection.” Acts 1:21-22 ESV
The disciples began to testify to what they witnessed immediately on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit empowered them, and their message was this:
“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.” Acts 2:32
When the disciples were warned to stop preaching about Jesus, Peter said:
“we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:19
Throughout the Book of Acts, which is the record of the early church, the prominence of eyewitness testimony is front and center. Luke records,
“And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus….” (Acts 4:33)
Peter told the Sanhedrin,
“The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross…. [W]e are witnesses of these things…..” (Acts 5:30, 32)
Years later, the message was the same. Peter recounts being a witness of the sufferings of Jesus in his first letter (1 Pet. 5:1) and says in his second letter,
“For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” (2 Pet. 1:16)
John opens his first letter by emphasizing the firsthand nature of his testimony:
“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands….” (I John 1:1)
Paul, speaking to a synagogue in Antioch, said:
“[T]hey took [Jesus] down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.” (Acts 13:29-31)
The importance of firsthand, eyewitness testimony to the first followers is evident throughout the Gospels, the Book of Acts and the Epistles.
The Testimony of an Opponent to Jesus
Paul was not initially a follower Jesus. He wasn’t even remotely sympathetic to Jesus or his message. Paul was not only opposed to Jesus; he aggressively persecuted the first followers of Jesus (Acts 7:58; 8:1-3; 9:1-9), which he confessed many years later (Gal. 4:49).
Paul changed his view of Jesus, though, after an encounter with the risen Jesus, and Paul became a believer and champion of Jesus to the non-Jewish world. That encounter is described in detail by Luke, who became a companion of Paul. (Acts 9:1-31) Paul also describes the encounter in his own words to various audiences. (Acts 22:1-21 and 26:12-28)
In the hierarchy of evidence, there is no greater evidence than a witness who is predisposed to be unfavorable and even hostile on the point for which the testimony is offered. Paul is that witness. He turned from being an aggressive opponent of Jesus to being his greatest witness, taking the message all the way to Rome, the center of power at the time. (Acts 23:11) Indeed, the legacy of Paul’s testimony is seen throughout his many letters.
The Testimony of the Holy Spirit
Last, but not least, is the witness of the Holy Spirit. Recalling the day Jesus was baptized, John the Apostle describes that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus “in bodily form like a dove” when a voice was heard from heaven, “‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’” (Luke 3:22)
Jesus spoke while he was still with the disciples, before his death, of the Holy Spirit: that He would be a Helper from the Father (John 15:26) and would “guide them into all truth”, speaking what He hears from the Father. (John 16:13)
Many years later, toward the end of his life, Paul described that “the Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God”. (Rom. 8:16) So, we have the ongoing presence of God, available to all who believe and trust in the name of Jesus, that confirms for us by an inner witness that the word of Jesus is true and trustworthy.
The case for Jesus is strong. At the center and foundation of it are eyewitnesses. The prominence and the importance of testimony from reliable sources (eyewitnesses) is evident throughout the New Testament. These followers of Jesus who saw him die, and claimed that he rose from the dead, did not recant their claims when they suffered persecution for what they claimed.
Important witness is provided in the prophecies of the Old Testament that are fulfilled in Jesus, in the premonitions of the parents of John the Baptist and of the parents of Jesus which came to pass, and in the predictions of Jesus who foretold his own death and resurrection.
The signs and wonders done by Jesus also bear witness of the imprimatur of God, the Father, on his life and the message he spoke. The Testimony of his followers who were eyewitnesses of everything Jesus said and did, including his death and resurrection from the dead, is central.
The testimony of Paul, who aggressively opposed Jesus and his followers, after his own encounter with the risen Jesus underscores the transformation of Paul from opponent to the greatest witness for Jesus who ever lived. There is no more reliable testimony from a witness than the testimony from a hostile witness.
Finally, the Holy Spirit remains with us, witnessing within us to the truth of the Gospel, the Lordship of Jesus and the salvation he offers to people. Some people come to believe on no basis other than an encounter with the Holy Spirit, who changes their lives dramatically from darkness to light. such a transformation that can be observed by friends and family also bears witness to Jesus.