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Eyewitness Testimony

Updated: Mar 13

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the writers of the four accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible. The traditional view of who these men were has been handed down throughout church history from the early church fathers. They taught that the writers were either eye-witnesses (John and Matthew were Jesus' disciples) or they were travelling companions of eye witnesses (Mark was a companion of Peter the disciple and Luke travelled with Paul).

Paul was not one of the original disciples who travelled with Jesus. Instead, Paul had a face-to-face encounter with Jesus after the Resurrection[1] which converted him from being a persecutor of the church to a fully fledged member! Paul met with Jesus’ disciples during his ministry[2] and as we know about these meetings via the book of Acts (written by Luke [3]) then it is well within the realms of possibility that Luke too met with the disciples when he travelled with Paul.

Some modern scholarship has contested this traditional view in recent centuries, arguing that the Gospels were written under pseudonyms. They theorise that if we have no idea who the true authors were, then we can hardly treat their accounts as reliable history. As the Gospels describe many miracles being performed, which are viewed as impossible, then the Gospels should be classified as myths or symbolic stories. However, I have three main reasons for accepting the traditional view:

  1. If the four Gospels were fabricated, why choose names for them which would carry far less weight than giving them more famous authors? For example, why not claim that the three Synoptic Gospels were written by Mary, Peter and James? Matthew would have been viewed by many Jews at the time as a controversial choice for a disciple due to his despised tax-collector background. Why choose his name as the author if it was written under a pseudonym? Likewise with Mark and Luke; they were not as well known as the main disciples. Why choose their names?

  2. These Gospels were chosen to form part of the official Bible because three of the Gospels in particular are some of the earliest written accounts we have of Jesus’ life. As a competent history student, you are taught to look for sources that are written as close to the event as possible, which makes them more likely to be reliable. There is evidence that Mark’s Gospel was written approx. 40 years after Jesus’ death. That may seem like a long time gap but to give you a comparison: Alexander the Great’s biography (written by Plutarch) was written 400 years after Alexander’s death in 323 BC and yet historians consider this text to be generally trustworthy. Why are the Gospel accounts not treated with at least the same amount of credibility if not even more, when the time gap is incomparably shorter?

  3. The early church fathers (such as Papias in AD 125 and Irenaeus in AD 180) are among some of the many names who accepted the traditional view for who the authors of the Gospels were. Following on from point 3, if reliable historical sources are close in time to the events that they record, then why should modern scholarship theories of who the authors were be given more credibility than the early church fathers? They lived far nearer the time in question and were entrusted with rich oral teaching/history and potentially the earliest copies of the documents.

Why does it matter who wrote the Gospels? Well, I would far rather hear about an event from an eye-witness or failing that, a close friend of an eye witness who has been entrusted with the details. And that is exactly what the early church fathers claimed to have in their possession – accounts from the disciples themselves, or descriptions entrusted to Gospel writers like Mark and Luke. These Gospels attest to the miracles of Jesus, His ministry, His Death and Resurrection, and the claims of Divinity He made about Himself.


They weren’t written to be interpreted as myths and fables. Luke (who was a doctor) wrote at the beginning of his account: “just as [the events] were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses... I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning [and] decided to write an orderly account for you,”[5]. John, the disciple, wrote a letter to an early church in the New Testament which said, “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have gazed upon and touched with our own hands--this is the Word of life,”[6] (John refers to Jesus as “the Word” in Chapter 1 of his Gospel). At the end of his Gospel, he wrote about himself, validating that he, John, was the author of this account: “this is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down,”[7].

Yes, it could still be possible that the disciples were deluded, or forgot key details, or had something to gain from reporting false/exaggerated tales about Jesus[8], but at least we should treat the accounts with the same level of reliability that we ascribe to other texts from antiquity which have far less copies, and had a far greater gap between the time they were written and what they were writing about. The late F. F Bruce, professor at the University of Manchester wrote: “there is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament”. And Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director of the British Museum wrote: “in no other case [in antiquity] is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament”.


In that case, maybe it is worth exploring further the four accounts of Jesus’ life and what they claim about Him, as they are considered reliable eyewitness testimonies.


References

[1] Acts 9:1-9

[2] Galatians 1:18-24

[3] Acts 21:17-20

[4] https://leestrobel.com/books There is much to be explored in Chapters One & Two of Lee Strobel’s book to support the traditional view which was handed down by the early church fathers. These chapters will take you deeper into the evidence and demonstrate the weaknesses of the modern position.

[5] Luke 1:3

[6] 1 John 1:1

[7] John 21:24

[8] See Next Post: Investigating the Eyewitnesses

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