When I was growing up, one of the local television news channels had the upbeat brand “Eyewitness News.” They prided themselves on being on location as news events unfolded, providing sharp analysis and snappy interviews with those who had participated in the events.
When some biblical scholars theorize that the Gospels were written long after the events took place by people who were from a different culture and time, we have to stop and correct them. It just isn’t true. It reminds me of another TV show when I was growing up. Joe Friday, the detective from Dragnet would growl out, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
The reason some Bible scholars say the Gospels were written later is because they believe the supernatural elements of the Gospels — visits by angels, miracles, and the idea that Jesus was the Son of God — must have been invented much later by the early Christians who were influenced by pagan culture.
But if we do a bit of detective work like Joe Friday, we’ll soon see that this was impossible and that the Gospels are rooted in eyewitness news.
No late date
The first type of evidence showing that the Gospels were rooted in eyewitness accounts is the dates the Gospels were written. In the last article in this series (see the June/July/August 2018 print issue), we showed how the first three Gospels must have been composed before the deaths of Sts. Peter and Paul around the year 65 A.D.
To summarize, Peter and Paul are still alive at the end of the Acts of the Apostles; therefore, it was completed before 65 A.D. St. Luke, the author of Acts of the Apostles, wrote the Gospel bearing his name before Acts. Scholars believe Luke used Mark and Matthew as sources, which means that they also must have been written before 60 A.D.
Some scholars date Mark as early as the mid-50s and place an early Hebrew or Aramaic version of Matthew in the early to mid-40s. This means that at the very latest the Gospels were completed just 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection around 33 A.D.
It is possible, of course, that in the first century later editions of the Gospels amended or altered the stories, but it is unlikely because the consistency of the texts in the earliest manuscripts show that the changes that were made were slight — usually just copying errors or corrections.
At the very latest the Gospels were completed just 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection around 33 A.D.
If the Gospels were completed about 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, then not only were most of the apostles still living, but so were other members of the early Christian Church who would have known Jesus and remembered the events of his life. Most telling is the fact that the apostle John lived to old age and died in the 90s A.D. If the Gospels were inaccurate or editors added events or ideas that were inauthentic, John and his followers would have pointed it out.
They said it up front
There must have been some disputes about the Gospel accounts even in the first century because the New Testament authors insist that they are reporting what they have seen and heard.
In the last chapter of his Gospel, St. John writes, “It is this disciple who testifies to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24).
In addition, in 1 John we read:
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands … what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you. (1 John 1, 3)
Likewise, in the second epistle of St. Peter we read:
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)
Luke admits that he is not an eyewitness to the events, but in the first few verses, he insists that he is relying on the true eyewitnesses for his information. The early Church writers also affirm that the Gospels are rooted in eyewitness accounts. Papias of Hierapolis, who died in 130 A.D., says the Gospel of Mark, for example, was based on the memories and preaching of St. Peter. The burden of proof should be on those who believe otherwise.
Do they have the evidence for their theories? The Gospels themselves contain the evidence, and they tell a different story.
English scholar Richard Bauckham has done an amazing piece of research and collected it in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. In the book he goes through the Gospels with an incredible eye, not only for detail but with sharp, deductive reasoning.
Among other things, Bauckham points out that the Gospels name real people. This is not something that occurs in myths and fairy tales. Not only are people named, but their brothers and sisters, and other family members also are identified. This level of personal detail indicates not only the reality of the event, but the fact that the account was written within the context of a community where the named people were known and could be identified.
The Gospels name real people. This is not something that occurs in myths and fairy tales.
Furthermore, Bauckham reveals from a detailed knowledge of the original languages that some of the people are not only named, but nicknames are used. James and John are called “Sons of Thunder.” Bartholomew (which is a Greek name) is also known by his Hebrew name Nathaniel. Thaddeus, which means “courageous heart,” was probably a nickname for the apostle Jude. Why does this matter? Because awareness of both personal names and nicknames indicates intimate knowledge that could only be known by eyewitnesses and participants in the events being described.
Bauckham’s book is sometimes heavy going because of the great detail, but several of those details are worth recounting: Who is the young man who flees away naked from the Garden of Gethsemane (see Mark 14:51–52)? Who would know that detail except an eyewitness? Some people think it could have been Mark himself.
Other curious details are Jesus asleep in the boat with his head on a pillow (see Mark 4:38), and Mark mentioning that Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus with his cross was “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mark 15:21). The early evidence says Mark was writing his Gospel to the church at Rome and St. Paul mentions someone named Rufus in Romans 16:13. Was that member of the Roman church the son of Simon of Cyrene?
These details and many more come together to reveal a document rooted in an early Christian community where eyewitnesses and participants were still alive and remembered vividly what happened in the astounding life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Apologist Josh McDowell has written a book that has become a classic. In Evidence That Demands a Verdict, he compiled an encyclopedia of facts about the world at the time of Christ that match up with the Gospel accounts.
He shows that Luke has expert, detailed knowledge about the proper names of Roman officials, dates of official events, and the names of districts of the Roman Empire. McDowell shows how Luke ensures that his history in both the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel is accurate.
John’s Gospel, too, is correct in its detail. For example, he says the pool of Bethesda had five porticos (see John 5:2). Archeology has shown that to be true. He also describes Jacob’s Well accurately (see John 4:5–6). John knows the layout of Jerusalem and the local geography of Judea and Galilee, is accurate in the times and seasons of the Jewish religious festivals, recounts accurately the customs and traditions of the time, and refers to places and names that archeological research has uncovered only recently.
John’s Gospel, too, is correct in its detail.
Therefore, from the evidence of the New Testament itself, the documents of the early Church, and the external evidence that connects with the Gospel accounts, we can conclude that these unique documents were written by and for the early Christian community of disciples so they might have a permanent record of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Jewish New Testament scholar David Flusser wrote:
My research has led me to the conclusion that the Synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] are based on one or more non extant [sic] early documents composed by Jesus’ disciples and the early church in Jerusalem.
Just the facts, ma’am
It is important that we get “just the facts” because our faith is grounded not in clever myths, fairy tales, fables, or vague theories, but in historical reality.
This is more important than ever in our age, where the faith is too often reduced to sentimental spirituality, personal therapy, or a social justice agenda. While those things may be good and helpful, they are not the core of the Catholic faith.
Our faith is rooted in the historical events of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These events accomplished the salvation of our souls and those of the whole world. If they did not really happen, then our salvation was not won. This was the passionate message of the first Christians, and it is still our passionate message today, 2,000 years later.