How to Detect Deception
Whether dealing with ancient texts or contemporary speech, when it comes to detecting lies, "the devil is in the details."
Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Amsterdam released the results of a new study aimed at improving our ability to spot lies. The study was conducted at the university’s “Leugenlab” (LieLab) and was recently published in Nature Human Behavior. According to the press release,
In nine studies, 1,445 people were asked to rate the accuracy of honest and deceptive handwritten statements, video transcripts, video interviews, or live interviews. Under the standard condition, participants were free to use all possible signals—from looking people in the eye to looking for nervous behavior or a particularly emotional story—to assess whether someone was lying. In this situation, they found it difficult to distinguish lies from truths and scarcely performed above the level of probability.
However, when participants were instructed to focus exclusively on the details of a given statement, “they were consistently able to discriminate lies from truths.” Therefore, the authors of the study concluded that “the simplicity and accuracy” of this new approach which focuses exclusively on detailedness, “provides a promising new avenue for deception research.”
According to Bruno Verschuere, who is the associate professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of Amsterdam and the principal author of this study, “It feels very counterintuitive to just listen to what people are saying and not to pay attention to all kinds of other signals, such as how convincingly or emotionally someone conveys their story.” But he went on to say that “people who tell the truth can give a rich description because they actually experienced the event, whereas although liars can come up with details, this increases their risk of being caught.”
This entire subject ties in nicely with issues I’ve been addressing on The Humble Skeptic podcast. In fact, on a recent episode, Cambridge New Testament scholar, Richard Bauckham observed that,
The Gospels are actually full of all kinds of little details about places and people and the religious groups and the controversies—all kinds of stuff about the historical context in which the stories take place. So that’s one way of verifying that the Gospels are credible from that geographical historical context that they claim to be about. And that I think is actually one of the most important historical methods of confirming testimony. You see, the term “testimony” of course implies that we can’t actually verify independently everything a witness says, but what you can do is assess witnesses as either trustworthy or untrustworthy. And if you decide a witness is trustworthy—then you trust him.
Peter J. Williams agrees with this approach. Williams is the principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge, and the author of Can We Trust The Gospels? which is a very helpful and accessible book on precisely this topic. During this same episode, Williams points out that it’s “striking just how much geography there is in the Gospels, and how grounded it is in the customs of that time and place.” Not only are they filled to the brim with details of this kind, but it also turns out to be accurate information. Whether you’re talking about the distance between cities, the kinds of names people had, coinage, architectural details, and even botanical information, whenever you compare the Gospels with what we know about early first-century Judea from a variety of sources, the writers of the Gospels consistently get things right.
By contrast, however, Williams says there are essentially no geographical details in the writings of the later Gnostic Gospels. In fact, when you read The Gospel of Thomas, he says, “You have no idea where Jesus is. You have no idea whether [he’s in] heaven or…in Rome or Jerusalem or Galilee—you just don’t know!” But the four Gospels of the New Testament, he says, are “very down to earth.” Jesus not only teaches his disciples, but he does this sort of thing “in a synagogue in Capernaum.”
Richard Bauckham makes this same point, saying:
One of the things about the four Gospels, when compared with the Gnostic Gospels, is that the four Gospels do situate Jesus very precisely in history [with] all kinds of historical detail. The Gnostic Gospels are not interested in that at all — there Jesus is purely a mythic figure [with] no real connection to history. So in that sense, there’s no way of checking them in terms of historical context and so forth.
Australian historian John Dickson (who also makes an appearance on this program), argues that our most important task is to “set the claims of the Gospels against the background of everything we know about the Roman Empire, about Jewish history at the time of Jesus, the economics of the time [etc.], and then you place [the Gospel narrative] in the foreground to see if it fits. That is the ultimate method.” So what is the end result of this kind of approach? When the Gospels are treated “as testimony that you assess against the background,” Dickson argues that they come out looking “very good!”
Along these same lines, Oxford mathematician, John Lennox encourages believers and skeptics alike to, “Check what Scripture asserts about things that are checkable and researchable, and see whether it’s accurate.” This kind of work, he says, “has been done in great detail [and] authenticity is something that’s well worth investigating!”
Earlier this year I also discussed this topic with Lydia McGrew, who recently released a new book titled, Testimonies to the Truth: Why You Can Trust The Gospels. Her first book, Hidden in Plain View, focused on “undesigned coincidences,” which are incidental interlockings between various details in the Gospels that point to authenticity. McGrew gives examples of this in her latest book and also spends time comparing all kinds of little details mentioned in the Gospels with what we know from external sources. So, she evaluates geographic details, naming conventions, first-century Jewish customs, etc., and she even has an entire chapter devoted to a discussion of “unnecessary details.” The result of her study is that the writers of the four Gospels come across, not as embellishers or hoaxers, but as extremely credible and reliable historians who were either eyewitnesses of the events they describe or accurate recorders of other people’s testimony.
According to the researchers at the University of Amsterdam, the best way to detect deception, whether in written statements, on video, or in person, is by paying close attention to the details. And it seems to me that when you begin to pay attention to all the little details recorded throughout the New Testament Gospels, it becomes increasingly clear that we’re dealing here, not with “cleverly devised myths” (2Pet. 1:16), but with actual history. Certainly, the events recorded in these documents are unusual—to say the least—but upon close examination, these same reports appear to have been written by careful, trustworthy, and honest men. And as Richard Bauckham states, “If you decide a witness is trustworthy—then you trust him.”
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the creators of the White Horse Inn which he also served as host from 2019-2021, and he received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary in California.
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION
• Click here to listen to “Faith Founded on Facts, Part 1, featuring Richard Bauckham, Peter Williams, John Lennox, John Dickson, and D.A. Carson.
• Click here to listen to “Faith Founded on Facts, Part 2, featuring D.A. Carson, Daniel Wallace, Craig Blomberg, Lydia McGrew, Richard Bauckham, Peter Williams, and John Dickson.
• Click here to read, “Authenticating the Fourth Gospel,” by Shane Rosenthal
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