The following is a thought experiment.
In 1827 to 1830, a popular story about an American hero was widely told. Later, separate authors writing in different parts of the country published their version of the story in newspapers and magazines. The story was reprinted so often that today no one can agree on which version of the story is the earliest. It is assumed that the original manuscript of each author is lost. By now the story has been quoted and reprinted so many times that it is well known, but some doubts remain as to whether the story can be proven to be completely factual.
There are some basic propositions agreed upon by everyone, but widely different conclusions. Read each of the following propositions and choose either “a” or “b” as the better logical conclusion based on the facts and common sense.
1. The four most widely accepted accounts of the story purportedly come from two eyewitnesses and two reporters. Each has written a similar story. Why are they so similar?
a. The writers must have copied from each other.
b. The two eyewitnesses arrived at a similar account independently; the reporters by interviewing the other eyewitnesses available to them.
2. Each of the four stories has minor variations in details, chronological order, wording, spoken words by the main characters, etc. Why do these variations exist?
a. These variations can be explained by examining hypothetical motivations and personal agendas on the part of the writers.
b. These variations are taken for granted in that they are due to normal differences in point of view.
3. Each of the stories has a named author. What can we know about him?
a. The eyewitness claim of the author is not to be believed; rather each story was compiled by a committee of editors who used a name of a popular figure from the time period as a pseudonym.
b. The story was most likely written by the named author.
4. In the story, the main character correctly predicts that a war will take place in a few years during which the capital city of his state will be burned. What are we to make about this fulfilled prediction?
a. The story was obviously not written prior to 1865, but was probably written 10 to 50 years after the event.
b. This prediction shows remarkable foresight on the part of the main character.
5. If one wishes to test the truthfulness of the accounts, which method is better?
a. We should be skeptical and distrust the accounts of friends and acquaintances as “biased” and distrust even the testimony of credible historians because they were not necessarily contemporary eyewitnesses to the events.
b. We should examine the corroborating testimony of people who were personal acquaintances of the authors or of credible historians who lived within a generation of the events.
6. In order to discern whether or not the account is to be understood as fiction or non-fiction, as factual or allegorical, which method is better?
a. The reader must make some educated guesses using the modern tools of source criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism. Each person reading the account in the 21st century must decide for himself what the characters in the story really did and said way back then.
b. The reader must take into account exactly how the stories were accepted and interpreted as recorded in the source literature and commentaries of the 19th century.