The value of testimony

I read a news article the other day about archaeologists digging around Jamestown, Virginia, and finding a sorry set of bones. They belonged to a young woman who lived there in the early part of the town’s history. There was a famine between 1609 and 1610, and she probably died of hunger. After her burial, her body had been dug up again and butchered for food by some desperate people who didn’t want to die as she had done.

The news article gave the impression that this gruesome discovery of 2013 ‘proved’ that the stories of cannibalism were true. Why, I ask, didn’t the archaeologists believe the written testimony of George Percy, who was a leader of colony in its early days, or that of John Smith who was also associated with the colony? Apparently, there are about six accounts of this sort of behaviour that have come to us from around that time.

What is the matter with testimony? What would motivate independent witnesses to invent stories like this? Why should modern researchers doubt it? As much as people might hope things like this did not happen, we oughtn’t let our fond imaginings about the past prevent us from accepting good testimony to the contrary.

Sometimes we think we are so much smarter and more rational than those who have lived before us. Henry Rogers in 1850 aimed a clever piece of writing against such presumption. In his day there was a very real and angry debate in England over what was called ‘Papal Aggression’.  The pope had appointed Dr Wiseman as his legate to England, and Wiseman issued a statement saying that the reformation had then been overturned and England was Catholic once more. It was in all the papers. Around the same time, John Henry Newman and his brother Francis William Newman had both rejected England’s Protestantism. John left the Church of England for the Church of Rome, and Francis became a Christ-rejecting theist. Henry Rogers imagined what future historians would make of these events in 2000 years’ time.

He supposed that those future historians would dismiss the written evidence from 1850 and conclude that the whole thing was an allegory. With key figures having names like Wiseman and Newman at such a time of change, the whole story would be thought of as something like Pilgrim’s Progress and dismissed as a myth. And yet Rogers  and his readers knew that it really did happen.

Why am I writing about this? I write because people often disregard the testimony of the Old and New Testaments simply because it is testimony and not something they have seen for themselves. Again, people see that the Bible records extraordinary happening, which we don’t see happening today, and they conclude that these things could never have happened. This is not a wise attitude to have.  Sure, some people have made up stories to trick other people; sometimes with malicious intent. But the New Testament records eye-witness accounts by people who did not seek wealth or fame, but in fact suffered great material and physical loss in spreading the message of Jesus. Again, the message they spread was not something that they were tricked into believing at second hand. They themselves saw Jesus risen from the dead on a number of different occasions and in various circumstances over a period of forty days. If they died because of the message they preached, it was because they knew it to be true. They knew that Jesus’ resurrection reconciled them to the God they had offended. They knew that Jesus would raise them on the last day. People might die because they believe someone else’s lie, but would these followers of Jesus face danger, perils and death preaching a message they knew to be false? Unlikely.

C. S. Lewis was an expert in myth. He had read lots of it. It was his job. When he read the New Testament, he did not see myth there. He said that those who claimed to see myth in the Bible were like people who claimed to see fern-seeds (there are no such things) but would not see a real elephant that was 10 feet away from them.

I recommend that we all give the Old and New Testaments a careful and honest reading.

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