Perry Mason and the Case of the Resurrected Man
I was recently introduced to an interesting phenomenon known as Perry Mason Syndrome, a term for a cluster of popular misconceptions about legal procedure derived from watching Perry Mason on , or more generally any legal drama. In particular, this can lead jurors to assume that defendants who are guilty will confess under questioning, or even that the prosecution case can only be adequately countered by forcing a confession out of a different witness, effectively reversing the burden of proof. This use of attack as the best form of defence, gaining an acquittal through confession, is sometimes known as the Perry Mason Method.
The reason why I bring this up is that I immediately found this reassignment of the burden of proof strangely familiar, having encountered something very similar several times in the last few weeks, especially over Easter. Jesus must have been resurrected, the argument goes, because the Bible says so and there’s no other plausible explanation for the recorded events. In other words, if you want to argue that the resurrection didn’t happen, you need to provide a convincing alternative explanation.
So in classic Perry Mason style, it’s expected that in order to refute a specific claim, the defence should not just explain why that claim is flawed or inadequately supported, but prove a case of their own to demonstrate exactly what did happen – making one of the prosecution witnesses confess, if you like. Maybe the people who advance this argument would be happy to stand trial under these conditions, but I wouldn’t.
It’s easy to be lulled into this line of argument by the age of the claim – 2,000 years down the line, the resurrection almost seems like an established event, requiring a heavyweight response built around a strong supporting narrative. But when you get down to the details, it’s a claim that a dead man came back to life. How can anyone seriously expect to pass the burden of proof on to those who doubt the story? Extraordinary claims, extraordinary evidence, etc.
This is a truly remarkable and unlikely claim, and in support there are a handful of documents dating from many years after the event, and nothing else. If such a thing was claimed today with that evidence, any reasonable reaction would involve a strong degree of scepticism, pending better evidence or a thorough debunking. Why give it more weight just because it happened long ago?
I realise that it would be easy to ask for evidence that simply couldn’t be delivered, and maybe it looks like I’m doing just that. Well, it would be great to have independent medical, video and DNA evidence, for example, but that’s tangential to my argument. My point is that the evidence we have would be regarded with extreme suspicion at best if these claims were made today, so there’s no justification for concluding that there’s a strong case, let alone one that merits a reversal of the burden of proof. The patchy evidence doesn’t become compelling just because video cameras hadn’t been invented.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the resurrection didn’t happen, of course. Even though I consider it incredibly unlikely, it can’t be categorically disproven. But if you do believe in it, you can’t get away with expecting other people to disprove your claim – it doesn’t qualify as a default position simply by virtue of age. And seeing that the supporting evidence is so unsatisfying, you’d be ill-advised to make it a central pillar of your beliefs.
Maybe I’m being harsh on this point, but I’ve encountered a lot of people who acknowledge tensions and apparent contradictions in their beliefs, and fall back on the resurrection as the one thing they can’t dismiss, the single event that underpins everything else. So would they be so quick to believe the latest poorly-attested claim of the dead being raised in Brazil, or Uganda, or China? If not, it looks like there’s a touch of Perry Mason Syndrome in their assessment.
So anyway, there we are. I’m not particularly intending to dismiss the resurrection (or at least I wasn’t when I started), but if you want to tell me that I’m wrong about anything, I’d be interested to hear your views, so have at it.