Back in 1998 I had a murder case which had an issue similar to the issue in Lincoln’s Almanac Trial. The state’s star witness claimed to have seen something at night, and an almanac figured prominently in deciding whether she was telling the truth or not. I thought about mentioning my case in the book, but I decided not to. I was working within a word limit imposed by the publisher, and I felt mentioning the case would take up space better occupied by more pertinent information. Nevertheless, it was an interesting parallel to a key issue in the Almanac Trial.
I had supper last night with the defense attorney from that old case, and we reminisced about it. If you have ever seen the movie Gigi, you will remember Maurice Chevalier’s duet “I Remember It Well.” In that duet Chevalier and a lady friend recalled their first date, and they couldn't agree about anything that happened on the date. That’s the way my attorney friend and I were about the circumstances of the case.
As I recalled, the witness said she saw something by the light of a full moon just above the treetops, and the defense attorney produced an almanac showing that there was no moon at all that night. Somewhat chagrined, I waited until sundown and went to the scene to see what I could see. At the scene I found a lamppost off in the distance. It was topped by a brightly glowing lamp encased in a huge globe. Obviously, this lamp was the “full moon” which gave our witness enough light to see by.
My friend recalled things very differently. He remembered that the witness said she could see by the light of a distant lamppost which was topped by a large globe. He produced proof that there was no lamppost in that vicinity, and I countered with an almanac which showed a full moon just above the treetops at the time our witness made her observations. Either way, the witness had ample light to see by.
I told my friend that I had access to the transcript of testimony from the trial, and I would go back and read the testimony to see which of us was right. I plan to do so next week, and I’ll post a follow up on which of us was right.
The problem my friend and I had about remembering the trial is identical to the problem I confronted trying to sort out the facts of the Almanac Trial. The witnesses to the Almanac Trial, all of whom spoke years after the trial, had widely diverging memories about what happened at the trial. Although my friend and I will easily be able to sort out or diverging memories by looking at the trial transcript, there is no transcript of the testimony given at the Almanac Trial. Consequently, I had to study and piece together what I thought was the most plausible course of events.
When a historian (or anyone else for that matter)sorts through conflicting evidence, it is very easy to credit the evidence which is congenial to the historian’s preconceived opinions and pronounce the contrary evidence to be unworthy of belief. A lot of this type of evidentiary analysis goes on in Historical Jesus research. Dozens of historians, theologians, and others have looked at the Gospels and come up with widely diverging opinions about who Jesus was and what he did. Questers after the Historical Jesus have found him to be many things—a revolutionary, a Pharisee, a Cynic sage, a first century guru of postmodern political correctness, a magician, a peasant, a charlatan—everything except who the Gospels say he was.
The last thing I wanted to do was to come into the research on the Almanac Trial with a preconceived notion of what happened and a subconscious agenda of twisting the evidence to fit my preconceptions. As luck would have it, I had already worked out a system of evidentiary evaluation for a previous book I wrote, and I used it in my research of the Almanac Trial. You can read about my system in chapter two of my book The Case against Christ: A Critique of the Prosecution of Jesus. The heart and soul of my system of evidentiary analysis is the exact opposite of the system employed by most questers after the Historical Jesus. Their method is basically to believe the witnesses are lying until you can find proof that they are telling the truth. My system is to provisionally accept a witness’s testimony as true until I find a reason to disbelieve it.
I said earlier that I did not want to come into my research with a preconceived notion of what happened, but I must admit that I began with an idea about what I thought had probably happened. I did not, however, invest any emotional capital into the idea. I was not going to feel that my human worth would be diminished if it turned out that I was wrong. I looked at my idea about what probably happened not as a theory to be confirmed, but as a hypothesis to test. I tried to model my methodology as much as possible after the methodology taught by the philosopher Karl Popper in his excellent book Conjectures and Refutations. I had two other role models to emulate in evaluating evidence, but I think I’ll save them for another post.
How successful was I in resisting the temptation to twist facts to fit my hypothesis? I was very successful. I discarded my hypothesis about halfway through my investigation—it just couldn’t stand up under scrutiny. How successful was I in ferreting out the true facts about the Almanac Trial? You’ll have to read the book and judge for yourself.