The Resurrection of Jesus: Why Eyewitness Testimony is not Enough

Apologists on the Resurrection

“There are four facts agreed upon by the majority of scholars who have written on these subjects which any adequate historical hypothesis must account for: Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection. Now the question is: what is the best explanation of these four facts? Most scholars probably remain agnostic about this question. But the Christian can maintain that the hypothesis that best explains these facts is ‘God raised Jesus from the dead.'” – William Lane Craig

“The most crucial aspect of an argument for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is that the disciples were totally convinced that they had seen appearances of the risen Jesus. The community of critical scholars holds that these experiences are thoroughly historical. These same scholars nearly always recognize that natural alternative responses do not explain the data. Therefore, the impressive evidences that establish the disciples’ experiences, especially in light of the failure of these alternatives, now become impressive evidences for the resurrection ap­pearances themselves.” – Gary Habermas

“The resurrection hypothesis fulfills all five criteria for the best explanation of the relevant historical bedrock… Accordingly we are warranted in placing it on our spectrum of historical certainty at “very certain.” The only legitimate reasons for rejecting the resurrection hypothesis are philosophical and theological in nature: if supernaturalism is false or a non-Christian religion is exclusively true. However, if one brackets the question of worldview, neither presupposing nor a priori excluding supernaturalism, and examines the data, the historical conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead follows.” – Mike Licona

“How we interpret the above historical data depends significantly on our prior philosophical assumptions. If I am convinced that the laws of nature are the only things regulating the universe…then I will refuse to accept any evidence as sufficient to demonstrate the occurrence of a ‘miracle’, whether a healing or a resurrection. But those of us who don’t share this atheistic assumption…can logically conclude that, since we have exactly the kind of evidence you would expect a resurrection to leave behind, we are warranted in declaring that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead.” – John Dickson


Examining the quotes presented above from some leading Christian apologists, we see a common thread. Namely, the claim that the only plausible explanation for certain established historical facts (in particular, the claims of the disciples to have personally seen and spoken with the risen Jesus) is that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. Only a philosophical objection to the supernatural or miracles in general, it is said, could serve to undermine such a conclusion, for the evidence itself is strongly compelling. I have written elsewhere outlining my proposed HBS Model, a proposal for a plausible naturalistic explanation of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. In this article I will not defend this account as a whole, but will restrict myself to an analysis of the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

In particular, I will focus on Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, in which he defends the position that the gospels faithfully preserve eyewitness testimony concerning the words and deeds of Jesus. For my purpose here, I am happy to accept much of the argument of the book (which I have not read in its entirety), as I do indeed believe that, in particular, the disciples (among others) strongly believed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them in bodily form. Whilst I do not accept every detail of the gospels as historical, that core fact I do not deny. What I want to focus on, rather, is what we can infer from this fact, particularly with reference to some of the claims made by Bauckham about the reliability of memory and testimony. My claim, in brief, is that eyewitness testimony of emotionally-charged anomolous events (e.g. the resurrection appearances as described in the gospels), is unreliable, and that therefore we cannot infer from such testimony that Jesus actually did rise from the dead.

Bauckham on Eyewitness Testimony

The reliability of eyewitness testimony is an issue I believe Christian apologists have for the most part not addressed satisfactorily in their arguments for the resurrection. Bauckham likewise makes a very similar claim at the beginning of Chapter 13:

Psychologists have been studying recollective memory for well over a century. There is a large body of data and interpretation available that is highly relevant to these questions about the reliability of eyewitness memories. New Testament scholars have rarely made any use of these resources, and this chapter (chapter 13) represents a first attempt to access the relevant data and theory and relate them to the gospel traditions in a systematic way.

Bauckham then proceeds with an analysis of certain aspects of the psychological literature on memory, including a discussion of the different types of memory (of which ‘episodic’ memory is the sort of most interest to us here), a comparison of the ‘copy’ and ‘reconstructive’ theories of memory, a discussion of schemas and how they are used in memory storage and recall, and an overview of some of the factors which effect the accuracy of memory. Much of the material he presents is fairly expository and as such, although I do not always agree precisely with some of his interpretations, I do not have a great deal to say about it. What is of most interest to me here is the section ‘Remembering Jesus’, in which he compares the gospel narratives against the factors mentioned earlier that mitigate for more or less reliable memory storage and retrieval. He summarises this section as follows:

The eyewitnesses who remembered the events of the history of Jesus were remembering inherently very memorable events, unusual events that would have impressed themselves on the memory, events of key significance for those who remembered them, landmark or life-changing events for them in many cases, and their memories would have been reinforced and stabilized by frequent rehearsal, beginning soon after the event. They did not need to remember — and the Gospels rarely record — merely peripheral aspects of the scene or the event, the aspects of recollective memory that are least reliable. Such details may often have been subject to performative variation in the eyewitnesses’ tellings of their stories, but the central features of the memory, those that constituted its meaning for those who witnessed and attested it, are likely to have been preserved reliably. We may conclude that the memories of eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus score highly by the criteria for likely reliability that have been established by the psychological study of recollective memory.

Although I have quibbles about some of these claims (in particular, I think the gospels do include a number of tangential details about the resurrection appearances which I think are quite questionable), overall I agree with Bauckham that the gospel accounts share a number of features which would tend to increase our credence in the testimony having been accuracy preserved and recalled. There is, however, another side to this question that I do not think Bauckham adequately addresses in this section, nor do I believe has really been dealt with in any considerable depth by other Christian apologists in their discussion of the evidence for the resurrection. This concerns the psychology surrounding memories of what I shall call ‘anomalous events’.

Memory of Anomalous Events

Most of the studies on the reliability of memory to be found in the literature are concerned with fairly ‘ordinary’ types of episodic memory: remembering the details of a story, forgetting curve for remembered events, remembering what took place in a film, producing false memories of being lost in a shopping centre, etc. In such circumstances, Bauckham is correct in his assertion that we generally are more likely to remember the general gist of novel, unusual events when we engage in frequent rehearsal (i.e. as per the situation with the resurrection appearances). As Bauckham himself goes to some lengths in various sections of his book to point out, however, the experiences of the apostles with respect to the risen Jesus were not by any means ordinary – they were exceptional. They fall into a broad class of events which I call ‘anomalous events’, which encompasses miracle reports, paranormal experiences, mass hysterias, and perhaps also certain types of traumatic experiences (though I will not discuss these in much depth). These sorts of events have a number of key elements in common:

  • They are often experienced in groups, and so remembering takes on a very distinctive communal form, not being a purely individualistic activity of the sort most studied in psychology
  • They have very high emotional content
  • They can often be life-changing for those who experience them (less applicable for mass hysterias)
  • They often involve people reporting to have experienced or witnessed very strange phenomena quite far outside ordinary experience
  • These memories are often maintained with high levels of confidence in spite of lack of corroborating evidence or even in the presence of strong counter-evidence

These quite unique attributes mean that eyewitness testimony concerning anomalistic experiences involves distinct factors beyond those captured in investigating memory in ordinary contexts. This is not at all to say that the findings of memory research are irrelevant – they are still very relevant – but it does mean that to neglect the particular literature on the psychology underpinning these sorts of anomalistic experiences, as I believe Bauckham does, is to miss a very sizeable component of the evidence relevant to the case of the resurrection appearances.

I believe that the relevant question here is not, as per Bauckham’s analysis, ‘are memories of anonalous events reliable?’, but rather the broader question of ‘how likely are such eyewitness reports to be veridical?’ The difference between these two questions is that the former supposes that events were originally perceived in essentially a correct manner and that only later may memories become corrupted, whereas the latter considers the reliability of eyewitness testimony of such events to be a broader question incorporating a diversity of psychological and sociological processes, including the effects of expectation, group interaction, perceptual biases, suggestibility, and a variety of other such factors, many of which I discuss in my HBS Model. It must be acknowledged that the literature concerning such events and processes is not nearly as extensive as we would like, and I believe there is still a great deal that we do not understand about the psychological and sociological mechanisms behind these sorts of events.

Nevertheless, I think one broad conclusion can be drawn from the available evidence, and this I will state as follows: in the right circumstances, it is quite possible for psychologically healthy people to form confident, detailed memories of highly emotive and unusual occurrences, even when such events did not in fact occur in anything resembling the manner in which they are remembered. In some cases, something may well have happened, but very different to how it is later remembered. In other cases, such memories can be completely falsified, with no basis in reality at all. This claim will doubtless strike many as far-fetched, however I think it can be quite readily substantiated.

Examples of False Anomalous Memories

I have presented a large number of additional cases in my HBS document, and I so will not attempt a full analysis at present. Here I seek only to give a few key which I believe serve as strong evidence in support of my claim that people can confidently come to believe in having experienced or witness very strange, memorable things which they did not.

  1. False memory of Satanic abuse: ‘The Thurston County ritual abuse case was a case in which Paul Ingram…was accused by his daughters of sexual abuse, by at least one daughter of satanic ritual abuse… Psychologist Richard Ofshe claimed that Ingram, because of his long-standing and routine experiences in his church, was inadvertently hypnotized by authority figures who conducted his interrogation, although no mental health professionals were present, and that the confessions were the result of false memories being implanted with suggestion. Ofshe tested this hypothesis by telling Ingram that a son and daughter had accused him of forcing them to commit incest with each other. Interrogating officers had previously accused Ingram of this, but he denied it, and also denied Ofshe’s accusation. Ofshe instructed Ingram to pray on the idea, and later Ingram produced a full, detailed written confession. Questioning the daughter who was supposed to have been involved, despite many other accusations against her father, she denied that such an incident had ever occurred. Upon being told that no such accusation had been made by either his son or daughter, Ingram refused to believe the incident wasn’t real, maintaining “it’s just as real to me as anything else”. Ofshe became convinced that Ingram’s confessions were solely the result of extensive interrogation sessions and questions being applied to an unusually suggestible individual.’ (see the wikipedia article).

  2. Mass hysteria resulting in psychogenic illness: though not exclusively a matter of memory, I think this case (and others like it that I document) is highly instructive for the social processes it illustrates: ‘In 1962 a mysterious disease broke out in a dressmaking department of a US textile factory. The symptoms included numbness, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. Word of a bug in the factory that would bite its victims and cause them to develop the above symptoms quickly spread. Soon sixty two employees developed this mysterious illness, some of whom were hospitalized…After research by company physicians and experts from the US Public Health Service Communicable Disease Center, it was concluded that the case was one of mass hysteria. While the researchers believed some workers were bitten by the bug, anxiety was probably the cause of the symptoms. No evidence was ever found for a bug which could cause the above flu-like symptoms, nor did all workers demonstrate bites.’ (see wikipedia).

  3. False identification of rapist: ‘Donald M. Thomson, an Australian psychologist and lawyer, undoubtedly will never forget the day 15 years ago when he walked into a Sydney police station on routine court-related business and was arrested for assault and rape…The evening before his arrest, Thomson appeared on a local television program, where he discussed psychological research on eyewitness testimony and how people might best remember the faces of criminals observed during a robbery. As he spoke, a Sydney woman watching the show was attacked, raped and left unconscious in her apartment. When she awoke several hours later, she called the police and named Thomson as her assailant. The following day, after Thomson’s arrest, the woman confidently selected him as the perpetrator from a lineup of possible rapists at the police station. Thomson, of course, professed his innocence. “The police didn’t believe me at first,” he recalls, but I had appeared on a live television show when the crime occurred, so I had a good alibi.” Officials quickly dropped the charges when they realized the woman had unwittingly substituted Thomson’s televised face for that of the attacker.’ (see here for more on this).

  4. Alien abduction accounts: see for instance this excellent study ‘Autobiographical memories are often suspect. For example, a  surprisingly large number of people  report having been abducted by extraterrestrials. We offer a prototype of the abduction experience and an assessment of the frequency of such reports. These accounts are hard to dismiss on the basis of mendacity or insanity, but there are ample reasons to doubt their literal accuracy. We offer a cognitive-motivational explanation for how spurious memories of unidentified flying object (UFO) abductions can be created and maintained. The motivational roots lie in the desire to escape from ordinary self-awareness, and this explanation is supported by parallels
    between UFO abduction accounts and masochistic fantasies. The cognitive bases involve the integration and elaboration of hallucinations, general knowledge, and contextual cues into full-blown accounts, usually with the aid of hypnosis. Due to the pitfalls of hypnosis, people develop a high degree of confidence in the veridicality of spurious UFO abduction memories.’ The masochistic elements of their account have been criticised, but I think it is clear from this paper and others that many non-psychotic people confidently claim to have been abducted by aliens, and that such claims can be understood to be the product of psychological and sociological processes leading to false memories. (see here for original article).

  5. Jesus appears to a crowd in Nairobi: ‘On 11 June 1988, a man suddenly appeared before a vast crowd in Nairobi, Kenya, gathered to witness healing prayers. Instantly recognizing the tall, white-robed figure as “Jesus Christ,” the crowds fell down overcome with emotion. The editor of the Swahili edition of the Kenya Times, veteran journalist Job Mutungi, witnessed the event and took some pictures’ (see for example this article. Interested readers can contact me for additional sources I’ve collected on this, or search for their own. It is a very unusual event).

Note that I am not arguing the eyewitness testimony of these sorts of events is unreliable because we know that miracles etc do not occur, and therefore all testimony of them must be mistaken. What I am saying is rather that, irrespective of whether there are real miracles or genuine paranormal occurrences, there are a very large number of eyewitness reports of such things which we know (by corroboration with other evidence, and in some cases by direct experimental manipulation) are not veridical. That is, we know that confident, detailed eyewitness testimony can be completely mistaken. Of course, a key question here is ‘how frequently does this happen?’ I believe that there are enough documented cases of religious miracles, paranormal encounters, mass hysteria, false memories of crime, and other such things to make the claim that with respect to such anomalistic events, eyewitness testimony is quite unreliable. That doesn’t mean that it is always unreliable in such circumstances, nor does it mean that such events never actually occur. What it does mean, however, is that the mere existence of eyewitness testimony for such events is itself insufficient evidence for such events, because we know that such evidence is in general quite unreliable.

Eyewitness Testimony in Courts

In concluding his section on the reliability of memory, Bauckham makes some comments regarding the use of eyewitness testimony in courts:

An important problem for the use of eyewitness testimony in court is that, as we have noticed, recollection is usually accurate as far as the central features of an event are concerned but often unreliable in remembering peripheral details. But it is often precisely the latter that a court needs: exact words of a statement made long ago, exact times of day, voice recognition of a person met only once, faces of people merely glimpsed fleetingly. Witnesses may have been wholly uninvolved bystanders who had no reason to notice or remember the details required…Interviewing techniques, especially leading questions, may serve to feed information to witnesses who come to think they remember it. But these aspects of testimony in court that have led psychologists to question its accuracy in significant respects bear scarcely at all on the kind of eyewitness testimony with which we are concerned in the Gospels. The witnesses in these cases were not mere uninvolved bystanders, but participants in the events. What their testimonies needed to convey were not peripheral details but the central gist of the events they recalled. They were not required to recall faces (so important in modern legal trials), nor were they pressed to remember what did not come easily to mind.

I think Bauckham here is somewhat understating the degree to which the evidence points towards there existing very considerable limitations and distortions to memory in legal and courtroom settings. Consider this extract from a very useful review article on the subject:

Sixty-four psychologists were asked about their courtroom experiences and opinions on 30 eyewitness phenomena. By an agreement rate of at least 80%, there was a strong consensus that the following phenomena are sufficiently reliable to present in court: the wording of questions, lineup instructions, confidence malleability, mug-shot-induced bias, postevent information, child witness suggestibility, attitudes and expectations, hypnotic suggestibility, alcoholic intoxication, the cross-race bias, weapon focus, the accuracy–confidence correlation, the forgetting curve, exposure time, presentation format, and unconscious transference

Furthermore, I do not agree with Bauckham that all of these courtroom factors are of limited relevance to the resurrection appearances. Clearly some of them are not relevant, such as mugshot-induced bias or lineup instructions, however others I think are of immense relevance, such as unconscious transference, post-event information, and hypnotic suggestibility (note I am not claiming that the disciples hypnotised each other explicitly, but there is nothing mystical about hypnosis – its just a form of heightened suggestibility, and suggestibility may well have played a considerable role in shaping their experiences, as it has been documented to do in other cases of miracle and paranormal reports). Even something like the recognition of faces is of potential relevance, as in some of the accounts Jesus is not first recognised by those who seem him, but they only realise who it is later on, which to me is possibly indicative of later memory distortion (though of course we cannot say for sure). In any case, I think the literature on the problems with the use of eyewitness testimony in courts is both more extensive and more relevant to the gospels than Bauckham admits in this section, and I believe it is something Christian apologists should address in more detail.


People will doubtless infer from this article that I am saying that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Indeed, people have even characterised my HBS model as stating or implying that the disciples invented their stories, or engaged in conscious deception in some way. I am not making any such claims here. The disciples and others claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. They believed what they said, and were sincere enough to suffer persecution for their claims. These claims were made by eyewitnesses who knew Jesus personally, and are not (at least in their essentials) the later accretions of legend. All these facts notwithstanding, the claim I have defended is that eyewitness testimony of emotionally charged anomalous events is unreliable, and therefore we cannot infer from the testimony of the apostles that Jesus actually did rise from the dead and appear to them.

I therefore am in disagreement with the Christian apologists quoted at the beginning of this piece. I do not believe it is the case that the only reasonable interpretation of the historical facts is that Jesus actually did rise from the dead, and nor does a reluctance to assent to this explanation require philosophical predispositions against supernaturalism. Rather, my reluctance to accept such an explanation stems, first and foremost, from my belief that the available literature shows clearly that memory and eyewitness testimony about such occurrences is unreliable, and that people can and do make confident eyewitness reports about such things even when the events in question demonstrably did not occur. Bauckham, despite his commendable efforts to engage with a body of literature heretofore largely ignored by Christian apologists, has nevertheless in my view failed to address this fundamental point. For this reason, I do not believe that the resurrection appearances constitute sufficient evidence to warrant confident belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Maybe he did rise from the dead, but the historical evidence and eyewitness testimony we have is by itself insufficient evidence to warrant such a belief.


11 thoughts on “The Resurrection of Jesus: Why Eyewitness Testimony is not Enough

  1. James,

    The “eyewitness” testimony would be rejected in any present day court because it is not actually eyewitness testimony. What we have is better described as hearsay, which is inadmissible with only rare exceptions. Mostly it is explicitly hearsay (eg ), in other cases the authorship of the document concerned is not clear so it is not known to be an eyewitness account.

    It is also worth noting the enormous psychological stress the disciples would have been under, which would add further to the doubtfulness of their recollections.

    It is also interesting that on at least two of the occasions when he was sighted, the people concerned did not recognize him at first, even though they knew him well. This seems strange.

    Two questions:

    1. Can you recommend a good book on how the Bible was put together including the provenance of the various pieces?
    2. I am also looking for a systematic demolition of Richard Carrier’s argument that Jesus did not exist as an actual historical person.



  2. Thanks for your thoughts mate. I’m curious, what would you consider to be “the missing piece” when it comes to the historical case for the resurrection? That is, if eyewitness testimony isn’t enough, then what would be enough? What evidence could we expect to have and yet don’t have, that would convince you of a legitimate resurrection? Thanks again!


    • That is an awesome question. Here’s one scenario which would greatly increase my credence. If we had all of the following:
      1) First century accounts by Jewish authorities that non-Christian Jews had seen the risen Jesus (maybe they’d say it was the work of the devil or something)
      2) First century accounts that Roman authorities had seen a risen Jesus (maybe they’d say it was some form of trickery or a bad omen or something, but the sighting would be claimed)
      3) First century accounts by followers of Jesus (we do have those, though I would be more convinced if the gospels were not anonymous, but that’s probably not a major point)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I find it puzzling that so much valuable time and toner should be spent discussing ancient legends concocted in a pre-scientific age. Let’s accept, on a purely theoretical basis, that Christ did rise from the dead etc.: where is he now? Rotating in space somewhere? It’s all so totally absurd…


  4. Pingback: If Jesus was Raised, Could the Bible be False? | The Godless Theist

  5. “For this reason, I do not believe that the resurrection appearances constitute sufficient evidence to warrant confident belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Maybe he did rise from the dead, but the historical evidence and eyewitness testimony we have is by itself insufficient evidence to warrant such a belief.”
    It seems to me that you have missed something important here.
    I think that the Christian apologists mentioned at the beginning of the article (and certainly I myself) would also not believe that the resurrection appearances constitute sufficient evident to warrant confident belief that Jesus rose from the dead. In fact they explicitly say that the resurrection appearances to the disciples are only *one* of the minimal facts that must be explained by naturalistic accounts.
    By the way, I believe that you have given a more plausible account than any other I have encountered as to how these resurrection appearances might be explained from a naturalistic perspective. Well done! However it’s not enough because it doesn’t concurrently explain the other minimal facts (which perhaps you are not trying to do here). You are right. Resurrection appearances are not enough, but Christian apologists do not think they are enough either. So only explaining the resurrection appearances naturalistically is not enough either.
    Another key minimal fact is that the tomb of Jesus was empty, and no authorities (Jewish or Roman) ever refuted the claim that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Knowing what we do about contemporary 1st Century Jewish post-death customs for the bodies (eventually for the *bones* of the dead person to be placed in an ossuary – see for instance NT Wright), any naturalistic explanation must account not only for the resurrection *appearances* to the disciples, but also for the missing body and the failure of the authorities to produce the body. Naturalistic accounts must also account for other things not mentioned, such as the Jewish disciples of Jesus (the most fiercely monotheistic people in the world at the time) calling Jesus ‘Lord’ (the earliest Christian confession was ‘Jesus is Lord [ie Jesus is Yahweh]) and worshiping him as God within much less than a year of his death. And the sacraments of baptism and holy communion, the conversion of staunch skeptics like Paul and James, etc…I’m sure you know all these things.

    One more question for you: How does your model of collective memory etc explain the resurrection appearance to Saul of Tarsus? This does not seem to fit the model you have offered for the other disciples.


    • You are correct Nathan, my model does not explain either the empty tomb or the experience of Paul. I’ve been working on incorporating these into the model, and hope to post more about this soon 🙂


  6. Whether or not you believe it, I respectfully wish you a Happy Easter (can I do that respectfully to a philosophical atheist?!!) and look forward to continuing a thoughtful dialogue…maybe even meeting in person one day!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

    But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus’ death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60’s, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

    How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

    I challenge Christians to list the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

    If you can’t list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole…or…the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?


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