Is Simon Greenleaf Still Relevant By Robert R. Edwards?

Is Simon Greenleaf Still Relevant By Robert R. Edwards?

     By Robert R. Edwards, B.A., B.S., J.D.

Part I

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.1 Challenged 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.

Part II

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:

[t]he docility which true philosophy requires of her disciples is not a spirit of servility, or the surrender of the reason and judgment to whatsoever the teacher must inculcate, but it is a mind free from all pride of opinion, not hostile to the truth sought for, willing to pursue the inquiry, and impartiality to weigh the arguments and evidence, and to acquiescence in the judgment of right reason.

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:

Lives lived under the greatest discouragements in the face of the most appalling terrors, their master having recently perished as a malefactor by the sentence of a public tribunal. His religion sought to overthrow the religions of the whole world. The laws of every country were against the teaching of his disciples. The interests and passions of all the rulers and great men in the world were against them. The fashion of the world was against them. Propagating this new faith, even in the most inoffensive and peaceful manner, they could expect nothing but contempt, opposition, revilings, bitter persecutions, stripes, imprisonments, torments and cruel deaths. Yet this faith they zealously did propagate; and all these miseries they endured undismayed, nay, rejoicing.As one after another was put to a miserable death, the survivors only prosecuted their work with increased vigor and resolution. The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like, heroic constancy, patience and unclenching courage. They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted; and these motives were pressed upon their attention with the most melancholy and terrific frequency. It was therefore impossible that they could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated, had not Jesus actually rose from the dead, and had they not known this fact as certainly as they knew any other fact.If it were morally possible for them to have been deceived in this matter, every human motive operated to lead them to discover and avow their error. To have persisted in so gross a falsehood, after it was known to them, was not only to encounter, for life, all the evils which man could inflict, from without, but to endure also the pangs of inward and conscious guilt; with no hope of future peace, no testimony of a good conscience, no expectation of honor or esteem among men, no hope of happiness in this life, or in the world to come…Now, though, in a single instance, a good man may fall, when under strong temptations, yet he is not found persisting, for years, in deliberated falsehood, asserted with the most solemn appeals to God, without the slightest temptation or motive, and against all the opposing interests which reign in the human breast. If, on the contrary, they are supposed to have been bad men, it is incredible that such men should have chosen this form of imposture; enjoining, as it does, unfeigned repentance, the utter forsaking and abhorrence of all falsehood and of every other sin, the practice of daily self-denial, self-abasement and self-sacrifice, the crucifixion of the flesh with all its earthly appetites and desires, indifference to the honors, and hearty contempt of the vanities of the world; and inculcating perfect purity of heart and life, and intercourse of the soul with heaven.  It is incredible, that bad men should invent falsehoods, to promote the religion of the God of truth. The supposition is suicidal.If they did believe in a future state of retribution, a heaven and a hell hereafter, they took the most certain course, if false witnesses, to secure the latter for their portion. And if, still being bad men, they did not believe in future punishment, how came they to invent [that] which was to destroy all their prospects of worldly honor and happiness, and to insure their misery in this life? From these absurdities there is no escape, but in the perfect conviction and admission that they were good men, testifying to that which they had carefully observed and considered, and well knew to be true.

Near the end of his life, Greenleaf concluded in correspondence with the American Bible Society, Cambridge, November 6, 1852, as follows:

Of the Divine character of the Bible, I think, no man who deals honestly with his own mind and heart can entertain a reasonable doubt.  For myself, I must say, that having for many years made the evidences of Christianity the subject of close study, the result has been a firm and increasing conviction of the authenticity and plenary inspiration of the Bible. It is indeed the Word of God.6 

Part III 

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 conclusionsincredible 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:

the interval…between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, especially when compared to the dates of academically accepted Historical documents such as those detailing Roman History.  The last foundation for any doubt that the scripts of the Old and New Testaments have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.  Both the authenticity and the general integrity of those works may now be finally established and proved, probably to be the most authentic historical documents known to man.9

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.

  Deeper: Recommended Resources 
1In 1833, Greenleaf acceded to the Royall Professorship at Harvard University and, in 1846, he succeeded Judge (later Justice) Joseph Story as Dane Professor of Law at Harvard.  Greenleaf contributed extensively to the development of the Harvard Law School, including expansion of the Harvard Law Library.

2 Greenleaf’s two most famous works are The Testimony of the Evangelists, written in 1847, and his Treatise on Evidence, written between 1844 and 1846.  The latter is considered by many to be the greatest treatise on evidence ever written.

3 The disciple John was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he died circa 90 A.D.

4This is provided, of course, there is no material inconsistency between copies of the Gospels and other New Testament books available to Greenleaf in his day and copies of the same books available to us in ours.  I have found none.  To the contrary, the additional copies discovered since his day are consistent with those on which Greenleaf relied, thereby bolstering their authenticity by function of numerical probability, as further discussed in Part III, below.

5According to Professor Greenleaf, we must:

  1. begin with an open mind, not  clouded or congested by the impediments of prejudice;
  2. subject the testimony of the disciples to no greater burden of proof than to which any fair courts would hold any other witnesses;
  3. realize that the factual foundation for the basis of the Christian religion as to birth, ministry, miracles, death and resurrection is based upon professed personal knowledge of our witnesses (i.e., “the Gospels are altogether free of Gnosticism and of the other aberrant theologies that pervade many writings from the second century);
  4. accept our conclusions regardless of where they lead;
  5. give no consideration to special or express revelation beyond the factual accounts of the evangelists;
  6. begin with the assumption that copies of the Gospels we have today are accurate unless and until proved otherwise—the burden of contesting their accuracy being on the person(s) contesting their accuracy, similarly to the presumption of innocence placing the burden of proving guilt on the one alleging guilt;
  7. presume that individuals are conversant (“knowledgeable”) about their own affairs;
  8. examine who and what manner of men the disciples were (e.g., were they men of moral and sincere purpose, or men given to foolishness and frivolity?);
  9. understand that, in trials of fact by oral testimony, the proper inquiry is not whether is it possible that the testimony may be false, but whether there is sufficient probability that it is true;
  10. understand that a proposition of fact is proved when its truth is established by competent (i.e., admissible) evidence unless and until refuted by greater evidence;
  11. recognize that, in the absence of circumstances which generate suspicion, every witness is to be presumed credible, until the contrary is shown; the burden of impeaching his credibility being on the one seeking to impeach;.
  12. appreciate that the credit due to the testimony of witnesses depends firstly upon their honesty; secondly, their ability; thirdly, upon their number and the consistencies of their testimony; fourthly, upon the conformity of their testimony with experience; and fifthly, upon the coincidence of their testimony with collateral circumstances;
  13. consider that the disciples declared their “great truths” with one voice (e.g., that Christ rose from the dead and only through repentance from sin and faith in Him could men hope for salvation);
  14. consider their varied and unique “qualifications,” Mark and John  being much too unlearned to forge the story of their Master’s Life; Matthew and Luke too learned to be duped;
  15. evaluate the paradoxes in their narratives—men contriving a lie would be consistent in every respect; men telling the same truth(s) from their own perspectives would tell it differently, albeit without contradiction;
  16. dispense with faulty logic, e.g., the argument against miracles, which supposes that the Creator of all things first made a code of laws, and then put it out of his own power to change them;
  17. consider the “coincidence” of the disciples’ testimonies with collateral and contemporaneous facts and circumstances (e.g., the works of other authors and discoveries of subsequent archeologists).  In Greenleaf’s own words:

 A false witness will not willingly detail any circumstances, in which his testimony will be open to contradiction, nor multiply them where there is danger of his being detected by a comparison of them with other accounts, equally circumstantial. He will rather deal in general statements and broad assertions…As a specimen of the argument, let us confine our observations to the history of our Savior’s trial, and execution, and burial.  They brought him to Pontius Pilate we know both from Tacitus and Josephus, that he was at that time governor of Judea.  Yet, in none of the Gospels is there any anachronism or any error suggesting the author’s unfamiliarity with or long separation from the geographical, historical, and cultural setting of the events he relates. To the contrary, the Gospels mention details of place, culture, and politics that could have been known only to contemporaries of Jesus.

[Greenleaf continues], “a sentence from him [Pilate] was necessary before they could proceed to the execution of Jesus; and we know that the power of life and death was usually vested in the Roman governor.  Our Savior was treated with derision; and this we know to have been a customary practice at that time, previous to the execution of criminals, and during the time of it.  Pilate scourged Jesus before he gave him up to be crucified.  We know from ancient authors, that this was a very usual practice among Romans.  The accounts of an execution generally run in this form:  he was stripped, whipped, and beheaded or executed.  According to the evangelists, his accusation was written on the top of the cross; and we learn from Suetonius and others, that the crime of the person to be executed was affixed to the instrument of his punishment.   According to the evangelists, this accusation was written in three different languages; and we know from Josephus that it was quite common in Jerusalem to have all public advertisements written in this manner.  According to the evangelists, Jesus had to bear his cross; and we know from other sources of information, that this was the constant practice of those times.  According to the evangelists, the body of Jesus was given up to be buried at the request of friends. We know that, unless the criminal was infamous, this was the law or the custom with all Roman governors.”

6See A Cloud of Witnesses, by Stephen Abbott Northrop, D.D., (Portland, Oregon: American Heritage Ministries, 1987), p. 198. 

7At some point I should dispense with any “objection” that the Gospels are “hearsay.”  I choose to do so by endnote, in part, because only the uninformed or insincere would raise a “hearsay” objection to the admissibility of the Gospels.    First of all, all written documents are “hearsay,” by definition.  Therefore, if “hearsay” was a sufficient objection to preclude consideration of all written documents, then no document could ever be admitted into evidence, not even an original.  Second, the federal “hearsay” rule has been virtually swallowed up by its 29 exceptions, the last of which (Rule 807) provides a “residual exception” by which the court can admit hearsay that doesn’t meet any of the 28 other exceptions but falls within the “spirit” of the hearsay rules and its exceptions.  Third, and most importantly, Rule 803 (16) expressly excepts from the application of “hearsay,” “statements in a document in existence twenty years or more the authenticity of which is established.”  I address the issue of “authenticity” in the text and submit it is the only prerequisite to the admissibility into evidence of extant copies of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament.  


8Among other things, Greenleaf’s analysis predated by a hundred years the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which validated extant excerpts from the Old Testament as quoted in extant copies of the New Testament, including the four Gospels.

9I take this quotation from an article entitled, “Is the Bible Authentic”, which can be found at  Bruce himself evidently adopted his conclusion from that of Frederic Kenyon, then set it forth in his own words in Bruce’s Article, “The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?”  

10See capitalize the “T” in “Truth” because I am referring here to truth in an absolute sense.  In other words, “Truth” [upper case “T”] is that which is “true” [lower case “t”] in an absolute sense.   See text infra.



13See .


15See .

16See, citing Josh McDowell’s, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Vol. 1 (1972) at pgs. 40-48; and Time magazine, January 23, 1995, pg. 57. 


18By “manuscript,” I am referring to any portion or part of a manuscript, not necessarily even one complete copy of the original. 

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