Sunday, March 6, 2011

Gospel Tip Line: Reliability of Anonymous Reports

Connecticut residents can breathe a bit easier now that the “East Coast Rapist” was caught after an anonymous citizen called police leading to an arrest. Anonymous tips are nothing new. I get them in my narcotic investigations where they solve crimes and uncover new ones. Drug cases are commonplace for anonymous tips because the retaliation can be swift and violent when the reported party’s identity is disclosed. 

But it’s not just drug investigations where anonymous tips are used. Police departments often have anonymous caller programs with dedicated “tip lines” to encourage citizens to do what the Connecticut caller did. Beyond crime reporting, tip lines are employed to expose corporate abuse, dirty restaurants, bad customer service, breaking news, and unsafe driving. They obviously are a valuable source of information and embraced by our culture, so why are people so skeptical about anonymous reports when it comes to the Bible?

Authorship of many books in the Bible, including all four gospels, are commonly disputed. Some early gospel manuscripts don’t explicitly attribute them to the traditional authors Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So, if we can’t know who wrote these books, skeptics allege, how can they be trusted? After all, if we don’t know the writers, how do we know what position they were in to report an accurate description of events? Or worse, maybe the writers deceptively made it appear as the authoritative works of early church figures.

While the question of who wrote the gospels is disputed, it’s important to recognize there are strong arguments in favor of traditional authorship[1]. The gospels are internally supported as in the case of Luke[2] and John[3] and enjoy wide external evidence in citations made very early by other writers. However, in this brief blog post, we’ll assume the agnostic position for the sake of argument and instead focus on the nature of anonymous reports themselves. 

I’ll present two reasons why we should reject the claim that a source’s anonymity necessitates unreliability in general and in the case of the gospels specifically. The first is a logical rebuttal. The skeptic claims the gospels are unreliable because of authorship. But the truth of something is totally independent of the source of information. This criticism is an ad hominem attack on the person (or unknown person in this case) rather than on the truthfulness of the message. The skeptic attacks the author and just assumes what that person wrote is false without providing reasons. To illustrate, let’s put this concept to practice.

Consider a flight where an anonymous note passed to a crewmember stating that the passenger in seat 10C is planning to high-jack the plane. Should this note be discarded because the author is unidentified? Or should the crew take a moment to examine its truthfulness? It seems reasonable to assume the crew member would at least take some basic steps before dismissing the report. Perhaps they’d want to see who the passenger is, if they are with anyone else, if they appear capable of the threat, if their name is on the watch list, or if other passengers report suspicious behavior. If aisle 10 is filled with giggling children, occupied by an elderly sleeping woman, or if the seat is empty, we may be justified to dismiss the report as a hoax. But when a claim attaches real consequences to our response, like in scripture or with this example, we must at the very least investigate the claim even if we can’t know the source.

The second problem relates to the skeptics' failure to appreciate sound investigative methodology. In historical as well as criminal investigations, anonymous tips are never considered in a vacuum. Skeptics object to anonymous authors because they think the source is unreliable. On the surface, I agree. Upon hearing a report from an unidentified source, I start off skeptical. For me, the caller is guilty until proven innocent as far as their credibility goes. There are many biased people who wish revenge upon their enemies for a jilted love affair or for competing criminal territory. For this reason, an anonymous lead is never the only information in the investigation and the burden is on the source until confirmed by independent corroborating evidence. In our legal system, a suspect has a constitutional right to confront their accuser in court so an anonymous witness alone can be unusable for prosecution. If after some preliminary research the report is confirmed by no other findings or contradicts established facts, the case dies a natural death. However, if the investigation reveals that the tip fits with other evidence, we are justified in believing the tip as reliable unless and until other reliable information points to an alternate and incompatible hypothesis. So although we are initially skeptical of anonymous reports, we must remember that the anonymity doesn’t make them unreliable (see my first point showed above). Despite my initial skepticism with anonymous tips, an eye-witness is the best piece of evidence we have. So an a priori rejection of historical claims simply because their authorship is uncertain is not enough to stop the investigation. Interestingly, famous secular sources of antiquity share this characteristic as early manuscripts of the Roman historian Tacitus are missing his name as well[4]. Yet, this concern doesn’t seem to bother Roman historians as much as it does biblical scholars.

Like the high-jacking example above, there is simply too much riding on biblical claims to stop at the authorship objection. Even if the historical evidence left us agnostic as to the source, the authorship objection is irrelevant to the truth of the message. But we can know many important things ancient writers even if unnamed. Using our example case, we can learn much simply from the immediate context which indicates the writer of the note was a passenger aboard the plane which put him in the position to know certain details. In the same way, the gospel writers give us specific, culturally consistent, early, independent, and multiply attested accounts which indicate their intimate familiarity with the events they report. The standards of historiography grant authenticity to this kind of textual evidence. In fact, it’s this kind of evidence that lead historians to approve the gospels' historicity while biblical scholars, untrained in historiography, are generally much slower to accept such[5]. So whether or not the gospels were written by the traditional authors, we have no reason to reject them for being anonymous and are on good grounds to say they contain source material at or close to the eyewitnesses themselves. But we can go even further to say the corroborating historical evidence gives us good reasons to assign high probability to traditional gospel authorship.

[1] See Gundry, Robert Survey of the New Testament, 4th ed, 2003. Grand Rapid, MI: Zondervan, pp 126, 160-161, 208-209, 256 also The Apologetics Study Bible, 2007. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing pp. 1401, 1463-4, 1507-8, 1568, and Keener, C. S., & InterVarsity Press. (1993). The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

[2] Acts 16:10–17, 20:5–15, 21:1–18, and 27:1–28:16 (cited from

[3] Jn. 13:25; 18:16; 19:26; 20:2 (cited from

[4] Holding, J.P.

[5] Licona, Michael cited from A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University, 1963; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978).

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