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A Tale of Two Sundays
The time was 30 January, 1972, Sunday afternoon, about a quarter after 4 PM. The place was Derry, Northern Ireland. In a car park surrounded by flats, a group of men and women took shelter in a huddle. They had no weapons, but someone was shooting at them.
“I don’t want to die alone! Somebody help me!”
The cries were coming from Patrick Doherty, a 31-year-old working class father of six. He was lying on his stomach when he was shot, trying to crawl to safety. The bullet entered his backside, tore through his internal organs, and exited from his chest. The others couldn’t see him from behind the wall, but they could hear him moaning. It would stop for a few moments, then start up again.
“Somebody help me! God help me!”
After a few interminable minutes, Barney McGuigan couldn’t stand it anymore. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and shook it out like a white flag. “If I go out waving this, they can’t shoot me.” The others told him to stay sheltered. He was resolute. Slowly, he came out and stepped forward, making his careful way towards the dying younger man.
At the first shot, a woman remembers he turned back to face the group. The second shot found his head, taking out one of his eyes. She can’t remember what happened next, but they would tell her later that she couldn’t stop screaming.
There were fourteen deaths, all told. One man lived several more months. The others all died within ten minutes of each other. The paratroopers who shot them had their story and stuck to it: The victims were not victims. All of them held guns or bombs as they fell. Not a single shot was taken in error or malice.
It was all lies. But it would take thirty years to prove it.
The final round of inquiry was launched in 1998, named after the man who spearheaded it, Lord Saville. In 2004, after six painful years of questioning, digging and sifting, the book was finally closed on Bloody Sunday. The two surviving soldiers who stood accused, Soldier “F” and Soldier “H,” walked calmly out of the court. They walked away free, but they did not walk away innocent.
The full findings would not be available to the public for several more years, but they were finally released in 2010. That same year, Douglas Murray published his book Bloody Sunday, a fresh look at the tragedy which distilled the mountains of new evidence in an engaging, accessible way. As a budding young journalist, he had attended every day of the proceedings for a year from 2002 to 2003. The case fascinated him. Its layers had layers. Nothing was as it seemed. It was a tragic mystery of epic proportions, where the nature of truth itself seemed to hang in the balance. Could such a bloody matter really be laid to rest, all these decades later? Could it be quarried out of the scattered, collective recollections of traumatized eyewitnesses? How was an investigator to tease apart truth from deception…or self-deception?
As it turned out, Soldiers F and H weren’t the only ones lying. Players on both sides of that fateful day had something to hide. A great strength of Murray’s work is its resolute refusal to skew the story either way, with heroes all lined up on one side and villains all on the other. It simply tells the story, in all its bloody, murky horror. The result serves not only as an engrossing commentary on the events of one particular historic day, but as a meta-commentary on the force of eyewitness testimony.
Such commentaries have always held a special fascination for me, because the proper evaluation of testimony has been a primary research focus in my mother and father’s scholarly work. As analytic philosophers, they bring the technical tools of their trade to bear on the problem, tools which complement the work of the historian and the journalist. In particular, they have concentrated their energies on the most celebrated and controversial witness case study of all: the apostolic testimony of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
Too often, from both the atheist and Christian sides of the aisle, you will hear talk about what it means to “read the gospels as a Christian” versus “reading the gospels as an historian.” This carries the unspoken implication that we as Christians need to engage in a kind of elaborate compartmentalization enterprise, whereby we’re able to accept certain bits of the gospels “as historians,” but other bits, we don’t have enough evidence to embrace except “as Christians” — translated, “with no evidence.”
I have long thought such a distinction is meaningless and pointless. I’d like to demonstrate this today by examining the witnesses of these “two Sundays” — Bloody Sunday and Easter Sunday. This isn’t going to be a terribly well-structured Stack, I should warn readers in advance. But I hope it provides a sense of the integrated mind that I would encourage every Christian to cultivate as he thinks about history.
Most historians are agreed: Jesus’ disciples saw something. But what was that “something,” exactly? Theories vary. We’re reminded that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, after all. The apostles were traumatized and grieving, after all. Intensely grieving people have been known to “see things,” sometimes. One could accuse them of colluding to lie, but perhaps it needn’t even be so crude. Perhaps they really did believe. Was it the truth? For them, it was.
In Bloody Sunday, Murray relates one grisly tidbit which, to him, serves as a prime example of how complicated such things can become. After the bloodbath, as people stood at the spot where poor Barney McGuigan had been shot on his mercy mission, a strange sighting was multiply reported: an eyelid, perfectly preserved, stuck to the brick wall nearby. It was carefully peeled off, placed in a matchbox, and set on the ground beside the dead man’s eyeless head. But by whom?
Thereby hang many different variations on a tale. Murray gives examples, then tells us that was just a sampler:
The story has a number of other variants from numerous other sources. Some claimed to have taken the eyelid down themselves. Others claimed that they were with the person who did but name different people. One said her daddy took it down, others a friend. For some it happened straight after the shooting, for others the next morning, some late the next day. Others claimed that they saw two eyelids. No two stories match, and if you named all the number of people who claimed to have been the person or to have been with the person who did this small act, the list would run to more than twenty.
Were any of these people wrong? Certainly. Possibly all of them. But were they lying? Almost certainly not. They were saying what they remembered.
How is that possible? Quite easily, Murray argues. Three decades had made an already messy truth even messier in memory, amalgamating, shifting, remaking. And “for some, who had never had any intention to mislead, the subconscious and indeed the conscience played a consoling trick.” (Murray goes on to speculate that people wracked with guilt for not having done more might have “created” some “facts” in order to rewrite their own parts in the play.)
This may be plausible, under some circumstances. But it seems doubtful in this one. A man’s subconscious doesn’t simply conjure up an entire prolonged memory of this kind, in a moment when bullets aren’t actually flying through the air. Where variations on the tale flatly contradict each other in this respect, I’m more convinced than Murray that somebody (indeed, many somebodies) had to be fibbing. But this hardly strikes me as implausible. This was not a hostile environment for such a story to circulate—quite the opposite. It was also cost-free: What did a man in his cups stand to lose by telling his pub mates that “sure it was I who took Barney McGuigan’s eyelid off the wall”?
Consider, by contrast, the environment of Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion. There was nothing to be gained and everything to be lost by announcing a resurrection in such an environment. But announce it, the disciples did. Further, if we take it that they were announcing it in the kind of detail we observe in the written resurrection accounts—that they didn’t simply see Jesus but spoke at length with him, ate with him, touched him—our options shrink to a few possibilities. Like the claim of having peeled a dead man’s eyelid off a wall and placed it in a matchbox, this is not the sort of thing about which one could be honestly mistaken. But then what is left? Either it is a lie, or it is insanity, or it is the truth. (As a side note, I’m well aware that those details are commonly chalked up to legendary accretion. I think that theory fails on multiple levels, but space doesn’t allow for a full treatment. I’m simply noting that if once you include these claims in the pool, your options are limited.)
But there’s more: A little examination of Murray’s sample variations on the Case of the Dead Man’s Eyelid will reveal that not all are irreconcilably contradictory. Some of them can be at least partly harmonized, with a bit of allowance for error. One man claims he took it down in a small crowd on the day of, immediately after the shooting was over, and left the matchbox on the ground. A second man recalls being at the scene that day and seeing the matchbox on top of a blue civil rights banner. Someone gave it to him to take away, telling him it contained the dead man’s eyelid. A third man vividly remembers being in a crowd the day after the massacre, watching someone else do the deed. Curiously, though, he also notes that the matchbox was set down on a blue civil rights banner. Of course, there is a timing clash here, but it’s not a stretch to suppose someone’s memory could be off by a day. Meanwhile, other witnesses in the sample are scrupulously cautious in their accounts, explicitly refusing to be definite where their memories are fuzzy. One man even spontaneously says that while he was transfixed at the sight of the eyelid on the wall, and would stand by this memory until he died, it could have been the day of or the day after.
In the end, one gets the cumulative impression that everyone is circling around something which really happened, some honestly, some less so. Murray’s take-home moral is that after thirty years, people’s minds can innocently invent anything. They can still be honest, if unreliable narrators. But this seems misplaced.
Discrepancies among the gospels have also led critics to call their reliability into question. However we assess the honesty or sanity of the authors, it is frequently insisted that we certainly can’t take them as coherent, dependable reportage. Bart Ehrman holds forth in typical fashion here, from a 2010 debate:
There are small discrepancies between the gospels, hundreds of them. Was Jairus’s daughter sick but still alive when Jairus came to ask Jesus to heal her, as in Mark, or did she just die before Jairus came so that he asked Jesus to raise her from the dead, as in Matthew? Hard to see how it could be both ways. The Gospel of John says explicitly that Jesus died on the day of preparation for Passover the afternoon before the Passover meal was eaten. The Gospel of Mark says explicitly that Jesus died the morning after the Passover meal was eaten. Don’t take my word for it, read John 19 and Mark 15 for yourself. They contradict each other.
Or look at the resurrection accounts in the four gospels some time and ask yourself, how many women went to the empty tomb? What were their names? Was the stone rolled away before the women arrived or after they got there? What did they see there? One man, two men, or two angels? What were they told to do? To tell the disciples to go to Galilee or not? Did they tell the disciples or not? Did the disciples go to Galilee or not? It depends which gospel you read. You get a different story every time. We should not say that these are “a bunch of details” and don’t affect the larger picture. The larger picture is made up of nothing but details. The big pictures are vastly different too, as you’ll see once you allow yourself to admit that the details are all different up and down the line.
Ehrman is right that an apologist would be unwise to wave his hands and say the details don’t matter, as some apologists very unfortunately have made a habit of doing. The larger picture is, indeed, made up of details, as any historical picture is. The problem is that Ehrman’s presentation disingenuously clouds the issue, as is his wont, in a plethora of ways I don’t have space to treat here. (My father does a detailed breakdown in this lecture, for the curious.) Suffice it to say that in all my study of the gospels, I haven’t yet encountered any real discrepancy that couldn’t be put down to the sort of honest mistake one regularly finds in generally reliable ensemble eyewitness testimony, like we’ve just seen in the case of the Bloody Sunday witnesses. For that matter, there’s discrepancy even around McGuigan’s death itself. Some witnesses recalled that his hands were empty as he stepped out, whereas others vividly recalled him holding a white handkerchief. One can hear Ehrman’s voice: “W-e-e-ell? Was he carrying a handkerchief or wasn’t he?”
By comparison with murkier bits like the eyelid incident, we find the gospel accounts even less “staticky,” including nothing so blatantly contradictory as a man and a woman separately insisting they had done something they couldn’t both have done. And where plausible, there’s no reason not to look for harmonization, as one would with any two or three alleged testimonies to the same course of events. So far from being the exclusive purview of the desperate fundamentalist, it is simply what historians do.
There are many ways in which the gospel accounts display the texture of history, impossibly many for me to get into here. (At The Spectator, I wrote a whole article devoted just to some examples from John’s gospel.) Before I unpack just one especially neat way, let me tell one more story of Bloody Sunday. Though the accused soldiers were typically referred to by alphabetic ciphers—F, G, etc.—a little more identifying info was in the public domain about Soldier “F.” This was thanks to one of the day’s survivors, a teenage boy named Joe Mahon who had also fallen among the flurry of casualties in Glenfada Park. Wounded in the stomach, with other men dropping around him, he remained conscious and played dead. As he lay still, he heard a para shout, “I’ve got another one!” Then he heard, “We’re pulling out, Dave.”
Meanwhile, from another angle, there was the account of Joseph Doherty, who saw Soldier F shoot Barney McGuigan from down on one knee. He then recalls “that the other soldier came back up to him and called him back,” after which the two soldiers turned around and left together.
It was open and shut. The accounts interlocked, artlessly and perfectly, exactly as we would expect from two different witnesses to the same true thing.
This sort of artless interlocking is a commonplace in the gospel accounts. J. J. Blunt referred to them as “undesigned coincidences,” a phrase which tends to confuse today since our usage of the word “coincidence” has shifted. Substantively, it means interlocking—specifically, the unintentional kind that doesn’t have the fingerprints of collusion. This is most intriguing when one account leaves a “loose end” which gets tied up in a wholly unrelated context. In such cases, given the awkwardness of the information gap in Account #1 and its specific filling-in with Account #2, the simplest explanation is that both writers were up close to the facts—either witnesses themselves, or working from witness testimony in preparing their report.
By its nature, this particular argument is cumulative. One or two examples could be chalked up to chance. But as they build up, they become harder to account for without concluding that the documents are a product of reportage. Unfortunately, the essence of bullet-point blogging is precisely such that I can’t convey this cumulative power. But here’s a small taste:
1) Green grass
References: Mark 6:39; John 6:4
Mark alone says that Jesus tells the people to lie down on “green” grass before feeding them. This passing detail is both gratuitous and surprising. “Green” is not the adjective one reaches for to describe Palestine most of the year. But John then tells us the event happened close to Passover—which Mark doesn’t tell us.
2) Herod’s servants
References: Matt. 14:1-2; Luke 8:3
Matthew tells us that Herod is speaking “to his servants” about his uneasiness over Jesus’ popularity. But why would Matthew know what Herod is saying to his servants? Again, assuming for the moment that we’d like to give these documents a fair shake qua historical documents, it’s a natural question to ask. But it’s answered in Luke, because we learn there, once again, in a totally unrelated context, that one of the women donating food to the disciples was the wife of Herod's household steward.
3) Are you a king?
References: Luke 23:2-4; Jn. 18:36
In Jesus’ trial scene in Luke, Pilate interrogates him on the mob’s charge that he’s made a claim to be king of the Jews—the moment when the mob has begun to get Pilate’s attention in earnest. Jesus’ answer, σὺ λέγεις, more or less translates as “You said it.” Hardly a denial. Whereupon Pilate turns around and says he finds no basis for a charge. This is a puzzler. But turning to John 18:36, which doesn’t include the Jews’ accusation, we find the well-known line where Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world. In this case, the interlocking goes both ways. Pilate’s questioning seems to come from nowhere in John, and his reaction seems to come from nowhere in Luke.
4) Philip who?
References: John 6; John 1:43-44; Luke 9:10
This is an especially pleasing example, because it involves three puzzle pieces—two unrelated bits of John and a bit in Mark. In John 6, it’s rather odd for Jesus to ask a bit player like Philip where the disciples can buy bread before the feeding of the five thousand. Someone like Peter or Judas would make much more sense if the story were a legend. Meanwhile, in an unrelated context in John 1:43-44, we glean that Philip is from Bethsaida. Then, turning to Luke 9:10, we pick up that the five thousand sequence takes place in Bethsaida, but without the detail that Jesus asks Philip. Now it finally snaps together: Philip was from Bethsaida, so that’s why Jesus asked him. But it requires all three bits of arbitrarily scattered info to get the whole picture.
That should be enough to go on with. For the curious, I would be a bad daughter if I didn’t point you to my mother’s excellent book-length treatment of this particular topic, Hidden in Plain View.
If you’ve made it this far, and you’re an atheist or agnostic reader, my point with this exercise has not been to convert you on the spot. This is simply my rough attempt to show how I, as a Christian, think about the gospels as history, using another piece of history as a comparative case study. When I listen to the witnesses of Bloody Sunday, I hear the ring of truth. When I look at the collective body of their accounts, I see glitches, yes. But on the whole, I see substantial agreement with circumstantial variety. And this, I would assert, is what we also see as we examine the witnesses of that other Sunday whose echoes we still hear, whose ripples we still feel, though some have come to doubt their origin.
If this has whetted your appetite, I can assure you there’s much more where this comes from. In the meantime: Happy Sunday!