This will be my first in a series of posts on questions of reliability and the gospels. I will give a high level overview of some major topics in comparative gospel study. My first discussion will focus on eyewitness claims. Other topics I’m considering include:
Do the gospels contain eyewitness accounts of Jesus?
Let’s first note that these gospels do not claim to be written by anyone in particular; they are anonymous. They also do not claim to be eyewitnesses. In fact, Luke says fairly directly that he is not an eyewitness. So why do we think they have anything to do with eyewitnesses? This seems to be largely based on church tradition to lend authority to these accounts. My guess is that the belief came about as a defense mechanism against critics and against competing gospels.
Evangelical Christians commonly claim that the gospels were either written by eyewitnesses or the authors had access to eyewitnesses. Ultimately, these claims are not very convincing to those outside that group. These gospels were likely written between 70-95 C.E. and the authors were dispersed throughout the region. To assume that followers of Jesus would have been in this situation and actually able to read and write is highly suspect.
Let’s first consider whether the gospels contain purely eyewitness testimony. This is surprisingly common, even though the claim can basically be dismissed immediately. Let’s think about what takes place in these gospels. Two of them start before Jesus was born. Were the writers there? Do they know what Joseph dreamed? Were the authors in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus went off alone to pray? Were all four writers present throughout the whole life and ministry of Jesus? It’s pretty clear though that none of them could possibly have seen all of this. So, one should at least grant that they cannot contain only eyewitness accounts.
But could the authors be eyewitnesses to the major events, just not those mentioned above? Again, this does not seem likely. It is pretty clear that Luke and Matthew used Mark as a source, as well as the “Q” source. They contain many of the same stories, which scholars believe were from copying written work. The reason it seems to be from written work, rather than multiple eyewitnesses recounting the same stories, is due to the many instances of verbatim similarity. This kind of congruence (wording, sentence structure, etc.) does not come from independent eyewitness testimony or oral interviews. So, we can dismiss Matthew and Luke from serious consideration as eyewitness accounts. You then have just Mark and John. Since John differs so much from Mark, it doesn’t seem to be copied. Yet, because of that stark difference, both cannot be correct.
John is often called the Maverick Gospel because of how different it is from the synoptic gospels. These differences are so interesting and numerous, I will provide a separate post just to deal with this gospel, and why I conclude it is the least reliable.
What about Mark, though? It has a lot of things going for it – it was the earliest, it was obviously popular and widely circulated, and it is the least embellished in many ways. A common apologist claim is that Mark travelled with Paul and used Peter as a primary source for accounts of Jesus. We have no real reason to believe this; it is simply later church tradition and it still wouldn’t make Mark an eyewitness. This also relies on Mark being the person mentioned in Acts and 1 Peter. First, Acts and 1 Peter are anything but reliable. Second, the name Mark was just a later addition to the gospel, which again is anonymous. We simply have no reason to think this name is actually the name of the author. The arguments for these claims go nowhere and rely on circular logic.
Since the authors do not claim in any way to be eyewitnesses, then that should not be our starting point. The real starting point is admitting we do not know, and then we go on to examine the evidence. The evidence, in this case, does not favor assigning eyewitness status to the authors. The vast majority of scholars agree with this view.
- Gospel Truth: Important Contradictions
- Recap of Bart Ehrman Lectures
- Gospel Truth: A Christmas Story(ies)