Guest Blog Introduction
|Jacob and Hayley Prahlow|
Were the Gospel Writers Eyewitnesses to the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus?
In Religulous, Bill Maher makes a number of claims concerning organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. In so doing, Maher poses a number of claims that, if true, present the Christian tradition with considerations that could potentially undermine the historicity and understood veracity of the Christian faith. If Maher’s position is demonstrably correct, the faithful Christian must consider the significance of faith in Jesus of Nazareth if He did not live, die, and rise from the dead. As was argued previously on this blog, there is sufficient warrant to believe in the existence of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. While many would argue that the issue we will consider below does not carry with it the weight of the question of the historical figure of Jesus, it nevertheless remains a formative question for the Christian faith, especially in the American context. A great deal of modern Christian belief and practice finds its foundation in the words of the New Testament, especially in the words and actions of Jesus as recorded in the four theological narratives that are referred to as the Gospels. These writings have been viewed as authoritative accounts (though occasionally in differing capacities) of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The English term ‘gospel’ is derived from the Greek for ‘good news,’ demonstrating the purpose of the writings, to tell the good news of Jesus Christ for the world. Concerning these formative writings, Maher asks an important question, and one that we will consider here, namely, were the gospel writers eyewitnesses of the life and events recorded in their narratives?
|Figure 1: Early Icon of the Twelve Apostles|
|Figure 2: Icon of St. Mark the Evangelist|
The Gospels found first and third in the canon, Matthew and Luke, respectively, have had a long and varied history of interpretation and understanding, especially with respect for their relationship to Mark. Approximately 76% of Mark finds itself replicated in both Matthew (45%) and Luke (41%), with an additional 18% of Mark finding its way into Matthew’s gospel (10%). This interesting occurrence has been labeled the ‘Synoptic Problem,’ and has led to endless speculation concerning the reasons for the different uses of the same material and relationship between the three ‘Synoptic’ gospels. Like Mark, Matthew’s gospel makes no explicit reference to the author, date, or place of writing. Early church tradition holds that the Apostle Matthew wrote the book, likely before 70 CE and the destruction of the Jewish Temple. Additionally some evidence suggests that it may have been originally written in Aramaic for the Jewish people. But if Matthew were an eyewitness, why would he rely so heavily upon the Markan account, as his use of common material seems to indicate? First, it should be noted that Matthew includes a great deal of material that he does not find in Mark, and thus one would expect his gospel (especially if for a different audience-- i.e. the Jewish people) to demonstrate material rearranged for his emphasis and purpose—which anyone reading Matthew and Mark in parallel immediately notices. Second, if Mark’s gospel was, in essence, the teaching of the Apostle Peter concerning the Lord Jesus, given Peter’s apparent position of high standing within the early church, it would seem at least probably, if not highly likely, that Matthew would use a great deal of his material in writing his own narrative account. Like Mark, Matthew includes a great deal of material that remains hard to fully explain at a pre-70 CE date if not for eyewitness knowledge. Thus, while we can again not verify that Matthew was an eyewitness of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, there exists evidence to suggest such a position remains defensible.
It should be noted that Luke’s gospel immediately indicates that the author is likely NOT an eyewitness of the events that are recorded afterward. The introduction to the account reads, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” Luke assures Theophilus that while he himself is not an eyewitness of the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, he has done his research as a historian to demonstrate the veracity of the story that he is telling. It should further be noted that no such preface is included in Acts, where we eventually see Luke employ firsthand knowledge of some events and persons. Thus, Maher’s claim concerning Luke on one hand appears to be accurate—Luke was not an eyewitness to the gospel events. However, as indicated earlier, Maher’s purposes in making such a claim ultimately point to his deeper motivation to discredit the historical veracity of the gospel accounts. Unfortunately for Maher, the historical viability and reliability of the Lucan accounts remains one of the best attested records of the New Testament, as numerous archeological finds and other historical datum continue to demonstrate that the Lucan record of events corresponds to reconstructions of Ancient Mediterranean culture and known chronology.
|Figure 4: Rylands Fragment|
What then can we conclude concerning Maher’s claim that none of the gospel writers were eyewitnesses to the events that they describe? First, on one level it must be admitted that Maher’s position could be correct—none of the gospels bear identification of the author or date of writing— and it bears repeating that none of the writers had to be an eyewitness for the gospel accounts to be authoritative. Second however, it must be remembered that Maher’s goal of undermining the historical reliability of the canonical gospels does not necessarily follow from any conclusion concerning the eyewitness status of the events recorded. As modern studies concerning trial testimony has demonstrated, eyewitnesses can be wrong. Each gospel account must stand or fall on its own historical merits. Third, it must be emphasized that while we cannot be certain that any of the gospel writers were eyewitnesses, there exists evidence that the writers of Matthew, Mark, and John were in fact eyewitnesses of the events that they recorded. Fourth, Luke’s account, while admittedly not an eyewitness account, relies heavily upon early eyewitness accounts, and remains one of the most historically verifiable sources of ancient western literature. Thus, it must be concluded that while Maher’s claim could be correct, it remains unlikely that none of the gospel writers were eyewitnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of the Jesus of Nazareth, and even less likely that the gospel writers were unhistorical in their research and writing methodologies. This claim of Maher’s falls short of critical acceptance, as does the underlying goal of undermining Christian reliance on the historical reliability and veracity of the canonical Gospel accounts.
Suggested Resources for Further Study
“Thoughts on Life” (www.jprahlow.blogspot.com)
Re-Dating the New Testament, John Robinson
Holy Writing, Sacred Text, John Barton
The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content, Bruce Metzger
Canon of the New Testament: Its Origins, Development & Significance, B. Metzger
The Biblical Canon: Its Origins, Transmission, and Authority, Lee Martin McDonald
Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Craig Blomberg
Jesus, Interrupted, Bart Ehrman
The Canon Debate, Ed. McDonald and Sanders
The Formation of the Christian Bible, Hans Von Campenhausen
Early Christian Doctrines, J.N.D. Kelly
Fortress Introduction to the Gospels, Mark Allan Powell
A History of the Early Church, J.W.C. Wand
A History of Christianity, Darmaid McCullouch
The Story of Christian Theology, Roger Olson
More Blog Posts >>>
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 Though some argue for a later date based upon the datum inferring the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple; As noted, the evidenced used for this post will by-and-large be broad.
 See Mark 16.8 in any critical edition of the New Testament
 See Blomberg’s Historical Reliability of the Gospels for brief synopsis’ of explanations for the Synoptic problem
 Evidence from Thomas Tradition Christians on the Indian-Subcontinent only supports such an early dating of the Gospel
 Luke 1.1-4, English Standard Version
 Apocalypse of St. John (Revelation) 1.1
 P52- the John Ryland’s Fragment of John 18
 A great deal has been written on the subject of the reliability of the Gospel accounts; please see the Suggested Resources section.