2007-09-29

eyewitness tales (Ms Head vs Bauckham)

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by Neil Godfrey

I am not interested in “disproving the Bible”. My interest is in understanding it and its origins. I do not believe that that interest — or any longterm worthwhile interest — is served by taking it at face value and rationalizing the contradictions that inevitably arise when we do that. Nor does graphical detail establish eyewitness testimony.

The point of this post is to offer one of many possible demonstrations of the fallacy of the taking the bible at face value or assuming graphical detail arises from eyewitness reports. So I’m tossing out here, for comparison with assumptions made about the Gospels, a few passages from a report of the eyewitness tale by Ms Head that The New York Times has exposed as a fabrication.

The NY Times article by David W. Dunlap and Serge F. Kovaleski says “no part of her [Ms Head’s] story has been verified.”

Not verified? But what of the many people who were witnesses to what Ms Head reported and who spoke to her, interviewed her, and passed on her story into the public domain? Surely given the number of other possible witnesses for corroboration, her story would never have had any credibility from the start if it were not true? She was “the voice of the survivors” after all. They were her witnesses, surely.

“And few people, it seems, who embraced the gripping immediacy and pain of her account ever asked the name of the man whose ring she had returned, or that of the hospital where she was treated, or the identities of the people she met with in the south tower on the morning of 9/11.

She never shared those details, and it was nothing we wanted to probe . . . I felt it was too private and painful for her.”

But there were details.

“[F]or three years she has given a gentle face and passionate voice to the survivors of the tragedy. They have seen, they said, the scars and marks on her arm that she said she suffered in the terrorist attack.

“But they did not know may details about her life before September 2001.”

But how could she be doubted?

“I still get moved when I think of her dignified, understated talk about an unimaginable and horrible loss . . . . During the dinner she said she still had her burned clothing . . . . She explained that her clothes were on fire and that our son took a jacket and put out the flames. She told us that she said, ‘Don’t leave me,’ and he replied, ‘I won’t. Don’t worry. I’ll get you down.

“She seemed so heartfelt and genuine about what she said to us . . . ”

So there you had Richard Bauckham’s trust at work. Trust that saw no reason to question her horrific eyewitness testimony. You also had the moving “understated” testimony that Bauckham makes so much of. If there were gaps or apparent contradictions in the account, one had to respect the privacy and pain of her experiences and trust, not probe. Trust was charitable, probing was simply not ethical.

If one does not like the thought of attributing ethical motives to reporters who did eventually decide to probe, one might even say that a neutral professional stance to establish veracity is not ethical.

But can one imagine how the NY Times would have been crucified if they had attempted to probe Ms Head’s story from the beginning. Would the public mood at the time have tolerated such “uncharitable” behaviour? Religious beliefs still will not tolerate “uncharitable” probing of the inconsistencies in the gospel accounts.

No part of the gospels story has ever been verified by any contemporary witness. Inconsistencies and contradictions are viewed as the inevitable consequence of the way humans tell their personal stories. Inconsistencies and contradictions in Ms Head’s story could be — and were — overlooked or charitably explained by the survivors whom she represented.

Thanks to more objective minds with more willingness to question and seek more honest answers consistent with the evidence — and thanks to the passing of time that has probably also helped to give them a climate in which they can question without being accused of “uncharitable” or “unethical” probing — truth has won out over faith and trust.

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Neil Godfrey

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