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Picture of the title page of The Tryal of the Witnesses
The resurrection goes to court

Posted on 16 September 2011, 17:39

I was in the basement of Quinto’s second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road the other day and came across a slim, battered volume from the 18th century with the gloriously misspelled title, The Tryal of the Witnesses of the Ressurection of Jesus, by Thomas Sherlock.

The cover was falling off, but in the musty pages I was surprised to find a little work of fiction which presents the case for the resurrection as a courtroom drama. The story is that a group of m’learned friends fall into a conversation about the resurrection, and agree to stage a trial for their own entertainment. When they next meet, their project has drawn a small crowd, so they elect a judge and jury and start to interrogate the accounts of the key witnesses in the four gospels.

The book concludes with the judge asking the jury, ‘Are the apostles guilty of giving false evidence in the case of the resurrection of Jesus, or not guilty?’ To no great surprise, the verdict of the jury is ‘not guilty’.

This copy of The Tryal of the Witnesses was published in 1794, the year The Terror ended in France. I was intrigued by its age, because the standout book for me arguing the resurrection forensically is Frank Morison’s celebrated Who Moved the Stone? which was first published in 1930 but has been in print ever since. That book was written by an English advertising exec (real name, Albert Henry Ross) whose ad agency also employed the novelist Dorothy Sayers as a copywriter and whose greatest success was the ‘Guinness is good for you’ campaign.

Morison borrows the language of the courtroom in examining the death and resurrection of Jesus, with breathless chapter titles such as, ‘The real case against the prisoner’, ‘The situation on Friday afternoon’ and ‘The evidence of the principal fisherman’. Thinking about it, those headlines sound more like the work of a tabloid hack scribbling at the back of the courtroom than a learned barrister.

Despite that (or maybe because of it) Who Moved the Stone? remains a classic on both sides of the Pond partly because Morison started writing it as a sceptic who wanted to disprove the resurrection, but ended up convinced by the case he sought to destroy – and no Christian can resist a testimony like that. It has something of John Newton’s ‘I once was blind, but now I see’ about it.

Frank might have written a memorable book, but he was not the first to tackle the gospels like this. I did a small amount of digging and found that ‘resurrection meets forensics’ goes back much earlier than 1930. It goes back 80 years earlier, in fact, to 1846. That’s when snappily-titled An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists: By the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice, by Simon Greenleaf, was published in Boston, Massachusetts. (You can buy the book on Amazon or read it on Google Books.) Greenleaf was one of the founders of the Harvard Law School, where he was Professor of Law.

What made Greenleaf’s book special was that he used technical legal tools for examining the reliability of the gospels and for cross-examining the testimony of the claimed eyewitnesses of the resurrection. His methods and arguments have been followed by Christian writers ever since, up to and including tireless apologist Josh McDowell.

However, even Greenleaf must give way to the little book I found in the basement room of Quinto’s, so far as originality goes. The copy of The Tryal of the Witnesses I stumbled on was published in London in 1794, but the first edition hit the bookshops in 1729. When I found that out, I realised that despite its size this must be a significant work. Any book still in print after 65 years (and with 15 editions under its belt, one every four years or so) is worth a second look.

Like Greenleaf’s book, it’s full of the detailed, lawyerly argument you would expect when the resurrection stories are put in the witness box. For example, here’s Thomas Sherlock’s defence lawyer quizzing the testimony of the Roman guards who claimed the disciples stole Jesus’ body while they, the guards, were fast asleep: ‘I wish the guards were in court, I would ask them how they came to be so punctual in relating what happened when they were asleep?’

Thomas Sherlock was a Bishop of London, although he wrote the book while he was further down the food chain as mere Bishop of Bangor. He produced several books in response to the anti-miracle arguments of the Deists, this one included, and he’s regarded as an important figure in the history of apologetics.

So who invented this idea of taking Peter, Mary Magdalene and Pilate to court? If it wasn’t Thomas Sherlock, he must be an early adopter of the genre, and I think the fact he wrote a fictional narrative makes him highly creative. The Tryal of the Witnesses, despite its ancient-looking title, is still entertaining and readable. It’s not Twelve Angry Men, but it’s good nevertheless.

Amazingly, Amazon is selling The Trial of the Witnesses, which is still in print after 300 years thanks to a specialty publisher who describes it as ‘one of the most famous – and least read – works of Christian apologetics’. That sounds about right. The text of the book can also be read online for free.

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