Gospel Tip Line: Reliability of Anonymous Reports
by Dan Grossenbach
Connecticut residents can breathe a bit easier now that the “East Coast Rapist” was caught after an anonymous citizen called police leading to an arrest. Anonymous tips are nothing new. I get them in my narcotic investigations where they solve crimes and uncover new ones. Drug cases are commonplace for anonymous tips because the retaliation can be swift and violent when the reported party’s identity is disclosed.
But it’s not just drug investigations where anonymous tips are used. Police departments often have anonymous caller programs with dedicated “tip lines” to encourage citizens to do what the Connecticut caller did. Beyond crime reporting, tip lines are employed to expose corporate abuse, dirty restaurants, bad customer service, breaking news, and unsafe driving. They obviously are a valuable source of information and embraced by our culture, so why are people so skeptical about anonymous reports when it comes to the Bible?
Authorship of many books in the Bible, including all four gospels, are commonly disputed. Some early gospel manuscripts don’t explicitly attribute them to the traditional authors Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So, if we can’t know who wrote these books, skeptics allege, how can they be trusted? After all, if we don’t know the writers, how do we know what position they were in to report an accurate description of events? Or worse, maybe the writers deceptively made it appear as the authoritative works of early church figures.
While the question of who wrote the gospels is disputed, it’s important to recognize there are strong arguments in favor of traditional authorship. The gospels are internally supported as in the case of Luke and John and enjoy wide external evidence in citations made very early by other writers. However, in this brief blog post, we’ll assume the agnostic position for the sake of argument and instead focus on the nature of anonymous reports themselves.
I’ll present two reasons why we should reject the claim that a source’s anonymity necessitates unreliability in general and in the case of the gospels specifically. The first is a logical rebuttal. The skeptic claims the gospels are unreliable because of authorship. But the truth of something is totally independent of the source of information. This criticism is an ad hominem attack on the person (or unknown person in this case) rather than on the truthfulness of the message. The skeptic attacks the author and just assumes what that person wrote is false without providing reasons. To illustrate, let’s put this concept to practice.
Consider a flight where an anonymous note passed to a crewmember stating that the passenger in seat 10C is planning to high-jack the plane. Should this note be discarded because the author is unidentified? Or should the crew take a moment to examine its truthfulness? It seems reasonable to assume the crew member would at least take some basic steps before dismissing the report. Perhaps they’d want to see who the passenger is, if they are with anyone else, if they appear capable of the threat, if their name is on the watch list, or if other passengers report suspicious behavior. If aisle 10 is filled with giggling children, occupied by an elderly sleeping woman, or if the seat is empty, we may be justified to dismiss the report as a hoax. But when a claim attaches real consequences to our response, like in scripture or with this example, we must at the very least investigate the claim even if we can’t know the source…
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