By Robert R. Edwards, B.A., B.S., J.D.
SIMON GREENLEAF DIED October 6, 1853. Born on December 5, 1783, Greenleaf was an agnostic, some say atheist, who believed the resurrection of Jesus Christ was either a hoax or a myth. No stranger to truth, and to the proof of the truth, Greenleaf was a principal founder of the Harvard Law School and a world-renowned expert on evidence.1Challenged by one of his students one day to “consider the evidence” for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Greenleaf set out to disprove it, but ended up concluding that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was indeed fact, not fiction. Being a man of conviction and reason, and in accordance with his conclusions, Greenleaf converted from Agnosticism to Christianity. His life and works went on to inspire such scholars as John Warwick Montgomery, Josh McDowell, Ross Clifford and Lee Strobel. But is Simon Greenleaf still relevant today?
Greenleaf’s most famous apologetic is an essay entitled, Testimony of the Evangelists Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice.2 Therein, Greenleaf applied the evidentiary rules of his day to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and concluded that the admissible evidence emitted thereby was sufficient to prove in any fair court of law that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was indeed fact—not hoax, myth or fiction. In short, Greenleaf reasoned that copies of the original Gospels extant (i.e., known to be in existence) in his time were at least as authentic as other works of antiquity the authenticity of which was acceptable in courts of law; that the veracity of the testimonies contained therein was demonstrable by internal and external examination (i.e., by examining the consistencies and resolving the paradoxes contained between them, and by comparing the Gospel accounts to corroborating works of other known writers of the time, such as Tacitus, Josephus and Seutonius, etc.); and that the most plausible, the most reasonable, conclusion to be drawn therefrom was that Jesus Christ not only lived and died, but that he arose again from the grave.
Why else, Greenleaf surmised, would twelve disciples (not to mention the Apostle Paul) give up everything they had or could possibly ever have had on this earth, all, but for John,3 to face an executioner’s death? Certainly no man would do so for a lie, let alone all twelve.
At the suggestion of a colleague, I decided to apply the more modern 2011 Federal Rules of Evidence to the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament to see if they could still withstand judicial scrutiny and warrant the same conclusion drawn by Greenleaf. In a court of law, a judge would consider first whether copies of the Gospels in existence today would be admissible in evidence in accordance with the applicable rules of evidence, then, assuming they were admissible, we as jurors would determine how much weight to give or credibility to assign the testimonies of the witnesses contained therein. Finally we would determine what conclusion(s) logically follow from the greater weight of all the evidence emitted by the Gospels, as amplified by the balance of the other New Testament books at our disposal.
For our present purposes, for determining whether Simon Greenleaf is still relevant today, I am going to take the process in reverse. After all, one cannot gauge the “relevance” of Greenleaf’s argument without knowing his argument first. Then we will examine whether discoveries since his time have made more reliable or less reliable the legal “authenticity” of the documents on which he relied. The more reliable our current evidence as to authenticity, the more relevant Greenleaf’s argument today.4 The less reliable our evidence, the less relevant his argument. Included in our day, of course, are copies of all documents available to Greenleaf in his day, provided that none has been destroyed. To the best of my knowledge, none has. To the contrary, and as further discussed in Part III below, we have even more evidence today for the authenticity of the Gospels available to Greenleaf than Greenleaf had in his own day. With that in mind, let’s consider his argument.
Greenleaf began by postulating a number of lengthy, logical and legal premises which, for ease of reading, I have condensed into 17 shorter premises and relegated to an endnote.5 Perhaps Greenleaf encapsulated them best, however, when he wrote at the outset of his essay that:
From these premises, and from the evidence for the authenticity of the copies of the Gospels known to exist in his time, Greenleaf concludes his argument by inviting his readers kindly to consider objectively the consequences and the implications of the lives the Evangelists lived:
Near the end of his life, Greenleaf concluded in correspondence with the American Bible Society, Cambridge, November 6, 1852, as follows:
But is Greenleaf still relevant today? Would existing copies of the Gospels (and the rest of the New Testament) be admissible in evidence today in accordance with the 2011 Federal Rules of Evidence that govern every federal trial court in America? Or have archeology and the evolution of legal thought rendered his conclusions incredible or irrelevant because they are based on documents no longer sufficiently authenticated to be admissible in evidence?
We must begin with the fact that copies of lost original documents are admitted into evidence all the time.7 Rule 1003 (of the Federal Rules of Evidence) allows for the admissibility of duplicates, or copies, unless (1) a genuine question is raised as to the authenticity of the original or (2) in the circumstances it would be unfair to admit the duplicate in lieu of the original. Thus, as in Greenleaf’s day, the burden to preclude admission of a copy falls first on the party objecting to its admissibility, not on the party offering it into evidence. Even so, I know of no one, let alone anyone of scholarly import, who questions whether the “original” Gospels actually existed, i.e., whether the copies we have today trace back to an original source or, more precisely, four original sources. There is too much similarity between the copies we have today to conclude that they emanated from anything other than an original source.
Scholars refer to these originals as the “autographs.” Presuming they existed, as the overwhelming weight of scholarship and evidence suggest, then they were (as originals) necessarily “authentic,” by definition. One cannot challenge the “authenticity” of something acknowledged to be an original. Given that, to the best of our present knowledge, no copies of the originals still exist, we must next determine whether the copies of the originals we do have are sufficiently “authentic” to be admitted into evidence pursuant to the 2011 Federal Rules of Evidence. The particular Rule implicated [Rule 901] is markedly broad, meaning it provides wide latitude for the admissibility of documents. More specifically, and merely by way of illustration, Rule 901(b) (8) provides that ancient documents are sufficiently authentic to be admissible if they are (1) in such a condition as to create no suspicion concerning their authenticity; (2) in a place where, if authentic, they would be expected to be; and (3) have been in existence 20 years or more at the time they are offered into evidence.
The data in favor of the authenticity of New Testament manuscript copies we have today (including the Gospels) are so overwhelming that I can only scratch the surface and otherwise refer the reader to other works or websites by endnote.8 The two factors on which I will rely to “scratch that surface,” however, are the proximity of the copies to the originals in time (i.e., how old the earliest copies are) and the number of copies in existence today. We will then compare those factors to other works of antiquity. These two factors are the most significant because (1) as lawyers and historians will tell you, the closer a document is in time to the event it describes, the more reliable it is; and (2) the more copies we have of those documents, the better we can compare them to each other and thus gauge their comparison to an “original.” As long ago as 1943, having reviewed the information available to him at his time, and drawing from the conclusion reached by Sir Frederic Kenyon, the late Professor F.F. Bruce concluded:
But even more has been discovered since 1943. In an article published March 5, 2007, Discovery News Channel contributor, Jennifer Viegas, reported that the oldest known manuscript copies of the Gospels of Luke and John date from 175-225 A.D., and were found in 1952 at Pabau, Egypt, near the ancient Dishna headquarters of the Pachomian order of monks.10 They are presently housed in the Vatican where they are on display and available for scholarly review.11 Saint Pachomius was born circa 292 A.D. in the Upper Thedaid in Egypt. In circa 318 A.D., he helped build a monastery on the banks of the Nile at Tabenniski. In a short time, about 100 others had joined him and in 320 A.D. he organized them on principles of communal living. So renowned did he and his monks become, that he eventually established ten other monasteries for men and two nunneries for women. Before his death in 346 A.D., there were 7000 monks in his various houses. While St. Anthony is often regarded as the founder of monasticism, it was really St. Pachomius who founded the Christian monastic movement.12
It is no wonder that it is in his monasteries that we find the oldest known copies of two of the four Gospels. A monastery is precisely the type of place where we should expect to find them. Meanwhile, the oldest extant fragment of Mark (contained in “Papyrus 45,” along with parts of Matthew, Luke and John) dates to no later than 250 A.D,13 and the oldest extant manuscript fragment of Matthew (i.e., the Magalene Manuscript fragments of Matthew 26) purports to coexist with the original.14 Papyrus 45 was also found in Egypt, and is currently housed at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland, except for one leaf containing Matthew 25:41-26:39, which is housed at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna.15 Historically speaking, these copies are remarkably close in time to the originals of which they purport to be copies.
With respect to number, we have in our possession today over 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (of which the Gospels are the first four books), another 10,000 Latin Vulgates, and 9,300 other early versions, giving us more than 24,000 extant manuscript copies of at least portions of the New Testament.16 Of those, 230 manuscript portions pre-date 600 A.D., consisting of 192 Greek New Testament manuscripts, five Greek lectionaries containing scripture, and 33 translations of the Greek New Testament.17 Each of these manuscripts can be, and has been, compared with the others for consistency. Therefore, even though we do not have the originals, the sheer number of consistent manuscript copies we do have weighs heavily in favor of their authenticity as accurate copies of the originals. The fact that they have been found throughout the Middle East and the known world as of the dates on which they purport to have been written is consistent with the Great Commission where, in Matthew 28:16-20, Christ tells his disciples to go into “all the world” preaching the gospel, or “good news,” of eternal life through his death and resurrection.
Compare the above with other works of antiquity, the authenticity of which few, if any, think to question. Aristotle lived from 384 to 322 B.C. The earliest manuscript copies of his works, or parts thereof,18 date from 1100 A.D, leaving over 1,400 years between the dates on which he penned the originals and the date of the earliest known copies. Moreover, we have only five of those copies. Caesar lived from 100 to 44 B.C. The earliest manuscript copies of his original writings date from 900 A.D, leaving almost 1,000 years between the originals and the copies. Still, we have just ten. Herodotus lived from 480 to 425 B.C. The earliest of his manuscripts date from 900 A.D., leaving over 1,300 years between the originals and their copies. We have eight of those manuscripts.
Homer lived circa 900 B.C. The earliest of his manuscripts extant today dates from 400 B.C., leaving some 500 years in between. We have a total of 643. Plato lived from 427 to 347 B.C. We have seven manuscript copies of his original works, dating around 900 A.D. That leaves more than 1,200 years between his life and the date of the earliest known manuscript copy of his works. Thucydides lived between 460 and 400 B.C. We have eight copies of his manuscripts dating back to around 900 A.D., leaving 1,300 years between his life and the earliest existing copy of his works. Seutonius lived from 75 A.D. to 160 A.D. Eight manuscript copies of his works are extant, the earliest of which dates to 950 A.D., almost 800 years after his death. And, even with the Quran, while the number of extant manuscripts is a matter of debate, the earliest known manuscript dates to 750 A.D., 100 years after the original was written in circa 650 A.D.
In light of the above, any objection to Greenleaf’s relevance today should, and must necessarily be, summarily denied. He is as credible and relevant today, perhaps even more so, as he was in his own day because the evidence for the authenticity of the documents on which he based his argument is more conclusive today than it was then. Accordingly, if one is to “pick him apart,” one must pick him apart on his argument, not his evidence. (Why would all twelve die for a lie, let alone the millions who have died in their footsteps?). There is a certain, sardonic irony in the fact that anyone who would dare to do so, anyone who would dare challenge Greenleaf to a debate even in our modern-day courts of law, would first have to take the witness stand himself (or through “expert” proxy), raise his right hand and place his left hand upon the Bible the authenticity of which he denies, then proceed to deny the authenticity of that on which his credibility is based. That makes me smile.