Thursday, August 21, 2014

Simon Greenleaf

The following is an excerpt from a debate between a 
Christian,  Fitzpatrick, and Farrell Till on the alleged 
resurrection of Jesus Christ--from the Errancy Discussion 
list, November 15, 1998:

Now let me address the question of whether the NT is 
historically accurate in claiming that the resurrection of 
Jesus of Nazareth took place. In other words, are 
the four Gospels good evidence for the events they 
declare? The inquiry into the goodness of this
evidence is actually a legal question.

One man who was highly skilled at dealing with evidence 
was Dr. Simon Greenleaf. He was the famous Royall Professor 
of Law at Harvard University and succeeded Justice Joseph 
Story as the Dane Professor of Law in the same university. 
The rise of Harvard law School to its eminent position 
among the legal schools of the United States is to be 
ascribed to the efforts of these two men. Greenleaf produced 
his famous three-volume work, A Treatise on the Law of 
Evidence, which still is considered one of the greatest single 
authorities on this subject in the entire literature of legal 

Greenleaf examined the value of the historical evidence for the
resurrection of Jesus Christ to ascertain the truth. He rigorously
applied the principles contained in his three-volume treatise on
evidence. His findings were recorded in his book, An 
Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the 
Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice.

Greenleaf came to the conclusion that, according to the laws
of legal evidence used in courts of law, there is more evidence 
for the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ than 
for just about any other event in history.

Dr. Simon Greenleaf's great work, "An Examination of the 
Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence 
Administered in the Courts of Justice" can be found at the 
following Web page: (no longer available, but check here
kwh) Now although I am a Registered Patent Agent, am  
somewhat familiar with legal reasoning, and can practice
Patent Law before the Patent Bar, I am not a regular  
attorney, and am not, therefore, legally competent to 
pass judgement on this work. It is highly convincing to me 
and seems to cover all the bases, legally speaking. Perhaps 
one of your skeptic friends who is an attorney of law can 
assess the strength of Dr. Greenleaf's legal reasoning 
here. If, as I believe, the evidence for the resurrection of  
Jesus Christ is good enough to stand up in any court of law, 
then, on that basis, I re-present the argument of my 
previous e-mail. Mr. Till, what is your answer to the legal 
reasoning of Dr. Simon Greenleaf concerning the strength
of the evidence for the four Gospels and thus for the 
resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead?

Simon Greenleaf was a [19]th-century professor of law 
at Harvard University, but he was also a devout believer 
in Christianity and the inspiration of the Bible.  That, of 
course, would not prove that his claims that Mr. Fitzpatrick 
summarized above are incorrect, but it does give sufficient 
reason to question his objectivity.  One thing that is very 
evident in apologetic literature is that those who believe in 
the Bible have no difficulty finding reasons to believe that 
it is "the word of God," and so it was with Simon Greenleaf.  
I don't have a copy of Greenleaf's work that Fitzpatrick 
cited above, but I have read quotations from it in apologetic 
literature.  From what I have seen, it is evident that 
Greenleaf, like Fitzpatrick and almost all biblical inerrantists, 
based his defense of the resurrection on the assumption 
that the NT records were historically accurate.  The following 
is a quotation from Greenleaf that can be found in Josh 
McDowell's *Evidence That Demands a Verdict, * p. 192.  
In reading it, please notice that from beginning to end 
Greenleaf assumed the accuracy of the NT.  I will 
interrupt the quotation from time to time to comment on 
Greenleaf's reasoning.

 "The great truths which the apostles declared, were, that 
Christ had risen from the dead, and that only through 
repentance from sin, and faith in Him, could men hope for 

Now how could Greenleaf possibly have known that the 
apostles preached that Christ had risen from the dead and 
that only by repentance and faith in "Him" could men have 
hope of salvation? He could make this statement only by 
assuming that the NT records are historically accurate, 
because as I have already pointed out several times in 
the short duration of this debate, there were no unbiased,
disinterested contemporary records left about preaching 
activities of a group of men who believed that someone 
named Jesus had risen from the dead, so what Greenleaf 
said that the apostles did is what the NT claimed that 
they did. Hence, Greenleaf assumed the historical accuracy 
of the NT.

"This doctrine they asserted with one voice, everywhere, 
not only under the greatest discouragements, but in the 
face of the most appalling errors that can be presented to 
the mind of man.  Their master had recently perished as 
a malefactor, by the sentence of a public tribunal. His 
religion sought to overthrow the religions of the whole 

This reads more like a sermon than the work of a legal 
scholar trying to find objective evidence to prove the 
accuracy of certain ancient documents. The fact is that 
Greenleaf did not present (at least in the parts of his 
work I have seen quoted) any line of argumentation 
intended to prove that the accuracy of the NT could be 
trusted.  He merely assumed that the NT was accurate 
and proceeded on that assumption to argue that the 
zeal and conduct of the apostles gave credibility to
what they preached. This is an argument that may have 
been fresh in Greenleaf's time, but it has certainly been 
rebutted many times since then. How could Greenleaf 
possibly have known that the apostles "asserted with 
one voice" the doctrine of the resurrection and did so in
the face of "the greatest discouragements" unless he 
had assumed that the NT was historically accurate in 
making these claims. A stubborn fact that Mr. Fitzpatrick 
must deal with in this debate is that NO unbiased, 
disinterested contemporary reports of the activities of 
a religious group known as the "apostles" exist.  Therefore, 
to state that the apostles did such and so and then argue 
that they would not have done this unless they had 
known that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead is a 
flagrant resort to begging the question of the historical
accuracy of the NT.

"The laws of every country were against the teachings of 
His disciples...."

Such as?  What laws?  Of what countries?  The NT claims 
that the apostles were opposed in some places, but it also 
teaches that they were accorded the courtesy of being 
allowed to speak in synagogues. In addition to begging 
the question of NT accuracy, Greenleaf also made unproven 
assertions that conflicted with what the NT says.

"The interests and passions of all the rulers and great 
men in the world were against them...."

Oh, really? That's a strange comment coming from 
someone who has obviously assumed the accuracy of 
the NT.  What was Greenleaf's explanation for the speech 
attributed to Gamaliel in Acts 5, in which he urged the 
Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to let the apostles alone 
in their activities (v:39) and leave it to God to determine 
what should be done about them?  Why did the Epicurean 
philosophers in Athens accord Paul the opportunity to 
speak to them and explain what "this new teaching was" 
that he was preaching in the city (Acts 17)?  Why was 
Paul allowed to reason daily in the school of Tyrannus in 
Ephesus for a period of two years (Acts19:9-10)?  If 
Greenleaf was going to assume the accuracy of the NT, 
he should have at least recognized that the NT doesn't 
teach that everyone opposed the apostles. The NT does 
claim that the apostles confronted considerable opposition, 
but since there is no independent corroboration of this 
claim, competent historians would look with suspicion 
on the claims, especially since they were made by zealous 
adherents of the Christian religion.

Greenleaf's quotation continues at length in McDowell's 
ETDAV, but it is just more of the same, i.e., argumentation 
that was based entirely on the assumption that the NT 
was true in whatever it said.  Whether Greenleaf, who 
died in 1853, started the trend I'm not qualified to say, 
but it has become fashionable in Christian apologetics to 
whine about the great abuses and persecutions that the 
apostles suffered and then to argue that this must prove 
that the resurrection really happened, because they would 
not have been willing to die for what they knew to be a lie. 
That within itself is a fallacious claim that is not supported 
by cases of martyrdom in other religions, but it is also an 
argument that is based on the assumption that the NT 
accurately reported persecutions that the apostles 
experienced. The fact is that the NT recorded the death
of James (Acts 12:2) but says nothing else about the 
death of other apostles, and we really have no way to 
determine if the NT account is accurate in its claim that 
Herod killed James.  Those who have been on the list for 
some time know that many would-be apologists have been 
put on the spot by our demands that they present more
than just contradictory traditions that the apostles suffered 
martyrdom and that early Christians were persecuted to the 
extremes that it has become fashionable to claim in 
present-day apologetic circles. If Mr. Fitzpatrick knows of 
any unbiased, disinterested contemporary records that 
corroborate these claims, we would like to hear about

As for the NT claims about the resurrection itself, the 
simple  fact is that the only "testimony" to the resurrection 
was all  of the hearsay type with the possible exception 
of the  apostle Paul's claim that he saw Jesus, but Luke's 
secondhand  account of Paul's testimony about this 
sighting in Acts 26:19 was that he had seen Jesus in a 
"vision."  I don't know if Greenleaf ever commented 
directly on this statement or not, but I wonder if he really 
believed that testimony of what someone had seen in a 
vision would be accepted in "any court of law."  If he 
really believed that visionary evidence was reliable evidence 
suitable for presentation in the courtroom, then he had no 
business teaching law.  As for the so-called testimony of 
the others, it was all hearsay.  Paul SAID that about 500 
"brethren" had seen Jesus at one time (1 Cor 15:6), but 
there are no records of anything that any of these 500 ever 
wrote themselves.  Hence, this kind of statement is hearsay 
of the crassest sort.  Furthermore, the same is true about 
the "testimony" of the women who allegedly saw Jesus while 
leaving the tomb. Where is the firsthand testimony that 
any of them left?  It simply doesn't exist.  Certain anonymous 
writers of books that are called "gospels" SAID that these 
women said that they had seen Jesus, and that is again 
hearsay evidence.  I don't know what Greenleaf thought 
about this kind of evidence, but if he had ever been my 
lawyer in a trial, I would have asked the court to appoint
another one if he had allowed without objections witnesses 
to testify that they had HEARD so and so SAY such and such.  
Surely Mr. Fitzpatrick has seen enough courtroom dramas on 
TV to know that secondhanded testimony would bring a 
lawyer immediately to his feet to object on the grounds 
that such statements were hearsay.

To conclude the matter of Greenleaf's competence in this 
area, let's look at another quotation from him that McDowell 
cited on pp. 243-244.

"The grave-clothes lying orderly in their place, and the napkin
folded together by itself, made it evident that the sepulchre 
had not been rifled nor the body stolen by violent hands; for 
these garments and spices would have been of more value 
to thieves, than merely a naked corpse; at least, they would 
not have taken the trouble thus to fold them together. The 
same circumstances showed that the body had not been 
removed by friends; for they would not thus have left the 
grave-clothes behind.  All these considerations produced in 
the mind of John the germ of a belief that Jesus was risen 
from the dead."

So once again we can see that Greenleaf's approach to 
proving the reliability of "evidence" in the NT was simply to 
assume that whatever the NT said was accurate. With that 
kind of reasoning, one could prove the historical accuracy of 
any book.  How could Greenleaf have known that the 
grave-clothes were left lying orderly in their place and 
the napkin folded together?  This is something that was 
said in "John's" gospel account, and so Greenleaf simply 
begged the question of NT accuracy.  All of this leaves 
Mr. Fitzpatrick right where he has been from the beginning 
of the debate, i.e., begging the question of NT accuracy. 
He will have to do better than that if he hopes to present 
a credible case for his position on the resurrection.

Farrell Till

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