In history, only twenty or so people in succession separate us from the eyewitnesses to Jesus' Resurrection. Wendell Berry, in his novel Jayber Crow, has Jayber, an aging village barber, reminisce:
History grows shorter. I remember old men who remembered the Civil War. I have in my mind word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old. It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ. Fifteen or twenty memories such as mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light in the manger at Bethlehem. So few rememberers could sit down together in a small room.
Our modern schools do much to undermine the closeness of history. Our history textbooks encourage us to think of ourselves as separated from the past. We are taught to assume the past to be a foreign and exotic place. A vast distance is supposed to exist between us and the eyewitnesses to the Resurrection. Trusting the reported events in the New Testament is considered a "leap" of faith, something risky, possibly unreasonable. But Jayber Crow is right. A small room of people is all that is needed to link us personally to the eyewitnesses. No leap is necessary.
The New Testament writers knew well that spreading the story of Jesus' Resurrection throughout the world and into the future would depend on trusting eyewitness accounts and subsequent chains of rememberers. Human senses or self-evident intuition cannot communicate unique historical events. To keep alive a historical fact, Christians turned to standards established in Greek and Roman schools for the proper handling of oral and written testimony. Luke, in the classical tradition, is careful at the beginning of both his Gospel and Acts to make it clear to his readers that though he was not an eyewitness, he had interviewed eyewitnesses and investigated their stories. Paul, declaring the centrality of the historical event of the Resurrection, rehearsed for his readers the critical foundation of eyewitnesses: Peter, the twelve, the "more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living," and last of all "he appeared to me also" (1 Cor. 15: 3-8).
Eyewitnesses were the first rememberers. The Gospel and letter writers were either eyewitnesses or early hearers of eyewitness reports who wisely created a strong bond between oral and written testimony that could pass across deserts and seas and on into the future. Confident knowledge of the event of the Resurrection could pass through time and space by human links of people trusting each other's memories with the additional support of the New Testament as a memory aid. A testimonial succession of rememberers could reach through the centuries to us. To reach us, a minimum of twenty or so trustworthy and nongullible people are all that is needed.
One of Christianity's modern intellectual problems is that academic society has done much to downgrade the authority of eyewitnesses and responsible hearsay witnesses, both in oral and written form. Modern education enjoys teaching distrust. Richard Marius in A Short Guide to Writing About History writes that "Skepticism is one of the historian's finest qualities. Historians don't trust their sources…. They question everything. . . . The writing of history is a brave business because good historians are willing to question all the evidence and all the assumptions." Marius recommends to the student, "Come to history as a doubter." Nowhere in his book or in any other history methods textbook is the student taught the reality that historians have to trust more than doubt and that a methods course should teach more about the responsibilities and techniques of reasonable trust than heroic skepticism.
This academic romance with doubting hinders our ability to listen well and trust responsibly-especially when dealing with an extraordinary alleged event such as the Resurrection. An influential academic source for downgrading the authority of historical testimony is John Locke, who took upon himself what he thought was a sober duty to downplay what he believed was the overly optimistic trust in witnesses and hearsay evidence presented in the most popular logic textbook of the era: The Port-Royal Logic (1662). The Port-Royal Logic was extraordinarily popular for two hundred years and offered several arguments supporting the reasonableness of trusting reports of the Resurrection of Jesus and later miracles in church history. Locke thought The Port-Royal Logic to be too nave. He worried that it encouraged gullibility. He did not want to undermine people's faith in the historical Jesus; however, he wanted to emphasize the weaknesses of trusting eyewitness testimony passed down through history.
This story gets complicated by the way both The Port-Royal Logic and John Locke looked to mathematics to help their arguments. The Port-Royal Logic was famous for introducing mathematical probabilities into decision making-especially to support the reasonableness of Christianity. (What we call Pascal's Wager was first published in this famous logic textbook. Pascal's Wager encourages a decision for Christ by equating eternal salvation with mathematical infinity, then introducing infinity into a probability equation, unavoidably causing the formula to indicate that a decision for Christianity is anyone's best bet.) In order to encourage trust in historical facts, The Port-Royal Logic used the example of the way a deed of land comes down through time. A copy of a deed is signed by two notaries who attest that the copy maintains the information of an original. Since it is highly improbable that the notaries would be lying or bad at their job (the improbability, says the book, would be something like 999 to 1), it is mathematically reasonable to assume that the deeds contain correct facts (IV.15). The principal facts in documents and copies of documents passed through time and attested by conscientious people along the way should be trusted-the mathematical improbability of error or deceit should give us confidence.
John Locke, however, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) chose to respond by presenting an alternative mathematics. He presented a sobering formula for diminishing credibility of historical reports. It is good to read Locke's exact words on this: "any testimony, the farther off it is from the original truth, the less force and proof it has." An eyewitness is credible, "but if another equally credible, do witness it from his report, the testimony is weaker; and a third that attests the hear-say of an hearsay, is yet less considerable. To that in traditional truths, each remove weakens the force of the proof: And the more hands the tradition has successively passed through, the less strength and evidence does it receive from them" (IV.xvi.10). Against the Port-Royal authors, Locke, using mathematical analogies, asserted that information, at every stage of being passed on, becomes proportionally less credible. Locke extended this formula to both oral and written testimony. As for deeds and copies of deeds, "the farther still it is from the original, the less valid it is, and has always less force" (IV.xvi.11).
The Port-Royal Logic had emphasized the credibility of historical reports coming to us down through history through a chain of people. John Locke, on the other hand, emphasized the weakness of historical reports and went so far as to create the rudiments of a mathematical formula for steadily diminishing credibility. Ten years after Locke published his Essay, a theologian named John Craig tried to develop a more exact Lockean formula for the diminishing credibility of New Testament history. In his Mathematical Principles of Christian Theology (1699), Craig proposed an exact proportion of diminishing credibility and concluded that the New Testament story of the Resurrection would have zero credibility in the year 3150.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was much academic debate about mathematical analogies for the credibility of historical testimony; however, in the long run Locke's position won out in American schools and culture. It became standard in our schools to emphasize the weakness of testimony-especially the diminishing credibility of historical reports passed down through time. Although Locke wrote about this in terms of mathematicians and probability, his ideas have mostly come to be taught as common sense. Although the American practice of economic and contract law teaches the confidence in deeds and oaths attested by notaries through time, it has become common to teach distrust and diminishing credibility for history. "Come to history as a doubter," says the teacher. In general, our forward-looking culture has enjoyed diminishing the hold that the past has on us.
For Christians, however, it behooves us to remind ourselves that the past presented in the Gospels is not so long ago and not too far away. We Christians have erringly been caught up in John Locke's sobering attempts to undermine the confidence taught in The Port-Royal Logic. We have become accustomed to teaching the image of a "leap" of faith, of jumping a chasm, rather than the more prosaic image of simply conscientiously passing on what has been passed to us. We have too easily fallen into John Locke's seemingly mathematical reasonableness that says that credibility diminishes proportionally through time.
The nice thing about Jayber Crow's historical insight in Wendell Berry's novel is that it bridges the gap between both The Port-Royal Logic and John Locke's Essay. Even if you agree with Locke and think historical credibility diminishes in proportion to the number of people it passes through, Jayber Crow points out that the story of Jesus only has to pass through twenty or so people to get to you and me. Credibility can't have diminished that much even by this time. On the other hand, if you think of twenty or so people who have attested like a notary to the basic facts of the written gospel story, we can claim, at minimum, the confidence of a real estate deed coming down to us through time.
A few years ago my grandmother gave me a Griswold #8 frying pan when she was packing to move into a place where she would not have to cook. She told me that my grandfather gave that frying pan to her on their first wedding anniversary. She was born in 1911 and the pan would have been given in 1931. I am forty-five years old now, and my kids are not yet in high school. If I pass that frying pan and story on to a future grandchild, that pan and true story could easily still be passed on almost two centuries after the fact having gone through only two people: me and my grandchild. A good and true story can easily be carried over hundreds of years by just a few people who want to tell a true story. To help my memory, my grandmother also wrote down the story. Even if my memory of the story gets fuzzy, I can attest to her written testimony as what she had initially told me. As Christians founded upon the historical fact of the Resurrection of Jesus, we need only twenty or so conscientious people linked through time to give us the confidence of listening to the eyewitnesses. And to give us greater confidence, we have the written attestations that have been passed along to keep the testimony on track.
Jayber Crow is not offering a Christian apologetic; rather, he is simply meditating on how history is so close and personal. Our schools want to make history too hard. They want us to over-think it by a half. Jayber is not promoting gullibility; rather, he stands in the classical tradition of knowing that history is linked to us by humans. John, who stood at the base of the cross, calls to us in his first letter to trust him as a testifier to what he has seen, heard, and touched so that we can have fellowship with him (1:1-3). He calls not from long ago and far away, but only from across a small room of friends and family.