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Are the Gospels Reliable Sources? Part Two: ‘Handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses…’ – The Gospels as Eyewitness Accounts Part A

Written by Alex Smith. In this second part of his new series on historicity of the Gospels, Alex Smith discusses the importance of eyewitness accounts in their creation and examines some of the prevailing scholarship regarding personal testimonies.

This is the second part of an article series entitled: Are the Gospels Reliable SourcesThe entire bibliography for this series can be found here.

“I suggest that we need to recover the sense in which the Gospels are testimony. This does not mean that they are testimony rather than history. It means that the kind of historiography they are is testimony. An irreducible feature of testimony as a form of human utterance is that it asks to be trusted. This need not mean that it asks to be trusted uncritically, but it does mean that testimony should not be treated as credible only to the extent that it can be independently verified. There can be good reasons for trusting or distrusting a witness…Gospels understood as testimony are the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical reality of Jesus.” 

Dr Richard Bauckham: Professor emeritus of New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews 

Richard Bauckham’s landmark 2006 book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses transformed how many scholars saw the Gospels. He argued that the Gospels were written within “living memory” of Jesus’ life, and that they were either written by eyewitnesses or based on eyewitness accounts. It was a direct challenge to the extant view from the form critics that a long, uncontrolled period of transmission existed between the events described in the Gospels and their conception. In some ways, Bauckham built upon the work of Samuel Byrskog, who had made the case that ancient historians had a very high view of eyewitness testimony. If possible, the historian himself should have been at the events he recorded. Ancient historians did not always live up to their own standards and used written sources if they had to. Still, eyewitness testimony was the ideal scenario, especially if the eyewitness had been involved in the events, rather than just having viewed them. Byrskog then hypothesised that the same was true for the Gospel authors. 

One of our best sources for the origins of the New Testament Gospels is Papias, bishop of Hierapolis and a member of “the third Christian generation”. This means he would have known some of the first Christians and would have been close to those they had taught. He knew Philip the Evangelist’s daughters, the “Philip who was one of the seven”. From them he heard stories about the apostles. He wrote around the beginning of the second century, perhaps as early as 110 C.E. Unfortunately, only fragments of his five books remain, preserved by the Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea. However, the time Papias was actually listening to oral accounts about Jesus was earlier in his lifetime, around 80 C.E. This difference in timing and early obtainment of information makes Papias a very important source for our understanding of the origins of the Gospels. 

In his prologue Papias wrote: 

I shall not hesitate also to put into properly ordered form for you [singular] everything I learned carefully in the past from the elders and noted down well, for the truth of which I vouch. For unlike most people I did not enjoy those who have a great deal to say, but those who teach the truth. Nor did I enjoy those who recall someone else’s commandments, but those who remember the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the truth itself. And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders – [that is,] what [according to the elders] Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice. 

(Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3-39.3-4). 

The people ‘who had been in attendance on the elders’ are those who had been taught by the elders, though this does not mean that the elders were dead. Instead, they were simply taught by the elders before they came to Hierapolis. Bauckham argues that the elders and the disciples are not the same group and adds the square brackets above. He agrees with the second century Greek bishop Irenaeus, that the elders are the church leaders in the Asiatic cities cited by Papias, who pass on the teachings of the disciples. The reason that ‘Aristion and the elder John’ are separated may be because they were the only ones still alive, as well as church leaders in the province of Asia. Many scholars failed to consider the time difference between the period Papias described and the period in which he wrote; they concluded that Aristion and John the Elder could not possibly have been disciples of Jesus. They could not have lived that long, and Papias appears to be describing a time after Jesus’ contemporaries had died. Even if the most common date for Papias finishing his book, 130 C.E., is accepted, then it is still perfectly reasonable that when he was a younger man, in around 80-90 C.E., Aristion and John the Elder were still alive. If Papias wrote his life’s work even earlier, and consequently could have been born much earlier, there is an even higher chance that he was alive at the same time as Aristion and John the Elder. As they were likely in Smyrna and Ephesus, he would have been geographically close to them, and it makes sense that their disciples would have passed through Hierapolis. If Papias is talking about 80-90 C.E. then it is the same time as most scholars think that Matthew and Luke were written – this can be seen as evidence that the eyewitness tradition referenced in Luke 1 took place. If Matthew and Luke were written earlier, then they would have been even closer to more of the eyewitnesses. Papias appears to be reliable because he does not make large claims. He does not say he knew any of the disciples personally, and that the information he did find only came from their own followers.  The most important point that can be taken from this passage is that the eyewitness tradition was closely associated with named eyewitnesses. There was a clear line of transmission between those who were witnesses to and involved in the events described in the Gospels and those they told. This stands in direct contrast to the assumption left over from the form-critics that, by the time of the Gospels, the traditions were anonymous. 

As those closest to Jesus, his twelve disciples would have formed the core of the early church and some of the key eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus. They had all been there since the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: even Judas Iscariot’s replacement, Matthias, had attended John’s baptism of Jesus. It was one of the prerequisites for him being chosen. In Acts, Luke reports Peter preaching a summary of the Gospel: 

You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning (arxamenos) in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.

(Acts 10:36-42 NRSVA). 

Peter draws a link between the gospel message and their testimony as eyewitnesses to the whole of Jesus’ ministry. What qualifies the disciples is that they have been there since the beginning. Luke uses arxamenos here to point back to the beginning of Jesus ministry in Galilee: he uses the same verb (archein) to do the same thing in both his Gospel and elsewhere in Acts (Luke 3:23, 23:5, Acts 1:1). In John’s Gospel, Jesus says ‘You are able to testify because you have been with me from the beginning’. Luke and John both agree on the link between authority to teach and lead and being a witness to the events being described, and they are likely representative of the very early Church at large. 

Bauckham highlights how Luke, Mark and John all use a subtle literary device called inclusio to hint at eyewitness testimony. Inclusio is the emphasis of a name or individual over others. For example, in Mark this is Peter (or Simon until his name is changed at 3:16). 

‘As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Simon’s brother Andrew casting a net into the sea’ (Mark 1:16 NRSV altered by Bauckham to make better English out of the Greek). Rather than just saying his brother Andrew, Simon is emphasised. Mark’s Gospel has the names Simon (when talking about Simon Peter) seven times, and Peter 19 times. This is much higher proportionally in Mark’s Gospel than in the others, even though Matthew has ‘a special interest in Peter’. This could indicate that Peter is the main eyewitness source used by Mark, as advocated by Papias. John has the same thing with the beloved disciple, and Luke has the women for when they are recorded to be present. Inclusio is also present in the Greek biographies (written by Lucian and Porphyry). Because of this subtlety, it is unlikely that it would be used if trying to make an obvious claim to eyewitness testimony.     

Papias wrote: 

And the elder [John] used to say this: “Mark, having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately everything he remembered, though not in order, of the things either said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, followed Peter, who adapted his teachings as needed but had no intention of giving an ordered account of the Lord’s sayings. Consequently, Mark did nothing wrong in writing down some things as he remembered them, for he made it his one concern not to omit anything that he heard or make any false statement in them.

Papias believes that Mark accurately wrote down what he learned from Peter. Many modern scholars dismiss Papias’ claim, but there are reasons to take it seriously. Firstly, there is the use of inclusio. Mark’s Gospel is also deliberately constructed so that it tells the story from a mostly Petrine perspective. It is presented as the view of one of the twelve, as part of the group, explaining why there are no unique moments between just Jesus and Peter. He uses a Plural-to-Singular narrative device far more than Matthew and Luke, which gives the direct perspective of the group travelling with Jesus. At the same time Peter is the most fleshed out of all the disciples and has his own personal story and character growth. If Papias is reporting what John the Elder said, then this is good evidence because John the Elder, as one of the disciples (not one of the twelve but there since the beginning), would be well placed to know if Peter was behind Luke’s Gospel.    

Bauckham also finds the names in the Gospels important. Some people of equal importance are named while others are not. It would make sense that those who are named were known to the early Christians, and if so, that they were eyewitnesses to these events.  

Written by Alex Smith


Bibliography

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