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

This is the third part of an article series entitled ‘Are the Gospels Reliable Sources?’. To read the rest of the series and the full bibliography click here.

As explained in the first article, form criticism is not a viable way of explaining the oral tradition behind the Gospels. An alternative was postulated in 1961 by Birger Gerhardsson in his book, Memory and Manuscript. He examined “oral transmission in Rabbinic Judaism” and presented it as the closest thing to how oral transmission must have functioned in the early church. Rabbis’ disciples had to know their teaching by heart, sometimes their exact words. Jesus’ disciples would have had to do the same thing. Gerhardsson did factor in a level of evolution in the oral transmission. However, because his argument was made at the same that the problems of using rabbinic traditions to make assertions about Judaism prior to 70CE were highlighted, he was accused of making an argument rooted in the wrong period. But the main reason his explanation was not accepted was that it was too rigid; it did not explain the variations found in the Gospels, and there was not enough evidence to support his point that the traditions in Rabbinic Judaism were as tightly controlled from Jerusalem in the way he asserted. 

Kenneth Bailey’s 1991 journal article on the Gospels and how they relate to oral tradition was very significant. He had spent more than three decades living in the Middle East and presented a via media between Bultmann and Gerhardsson. The type of oral tradition advocated by the form critics he called ‘informal uncontrolled’ tradition. It was uncontrolled as the community did not try to regulate the contents, and informal because there were no individuals or organised groups controlling how it spread. This does exist in the Middle East today, but only when people want the tradition to be changed and when no one is able to control it. It is how the average person on the street in the United Kingdom would assume the oral tradition behind the Gospels worked. Gerhardsson’s description was called ‘formal controlled’ tradition. This is the opposite of ‘informal uncontrolled’ tradition as there was an obvious teacher to student relationship where the content was reliably passed on. This can also be found in the Middle East. Indeed, Bailey advocated a third option, ‘informal controlled’ tradition. Here, the community is the one making sure that the tradition is passed on correctly. No individual or group of individuals has that responsibility, instead, everyone holds everyone else to account. This happens regularly in Middle Eastern villages.  

Critically, Bailey’s model fails to account for “mechanisms of control”, and it struggles to explain how the model started and how long it lasted. He argues that ‘informal controlled’ tradition lasted until the Romans destroyed village structures in 70CE and it was then replaced with ‘formal controlled’ tradition. Bailey’s description of who is allowed to be a teacher in the new ‘formal controlled’ tradition contradicts itself and he struggles to fit eyewitnesses into his model.  The inflexibility of Gerhardsson’s ‘formal controlled’ tradition is often falsely seen as an integral part of that tradition. In practice, a more flexible ‘formal controlled’ model with eyewitness from the beginning, provides a better explanation for how the oral tradition behind the Gospels spread before it was written down. 

There is evidence of ‘formal’ tradition in the letters of Paul. He uses the Greek words paradidōmi (1 Cor 11:2; 23)‘handing on a tradition’ and paralamabanō (1 Cor 15:1, 3; Gal 1:9; Col 2:6; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6), ‘receiving a tradition’. In their Greek usage, they described a formal passing on of information in the Hellenistic schools. It is important because ‘receiving’ a tradition means learning it and ‘handing on’x| a tradition involves making sure the other person receives it. To place this translation in more relatable terms; if someone is running a relay race, they do not just throw the baton at the vague direction of the next runner, they make sure they have it in their hand. With regards to the letters, Paul talks about himself receiving the tradition (1 Cor 15:3), showing how the tradition got passed reliably from one person to another. He had met Peter (Gal 1:18) and appears to have an understanding of the same account of the last supper as Luke (1 Cor 11:23-32; Luke 22:19-20). There were people who functioned as teachers in the first churches (Rom 12:7; 1 Cor 12:28-29; Gal 6:6; Eph 4:11; Acts 13:1, Didache 15:1-2). At the same time Paul writes to entire churches and acts like he explained the gospel to them, as a group. A helpful comparison can be found with how Josephus describes the Pharisees. 

I want to explain here that the Pharisees passed on (paredosan) to the people (tǭ dēmǭ) certain ordinances from a succession of fathers (ek paterōn diadochēs), which are not written down in the laws of Moses. For this reason, the party of the Sadduces dismisses these ordinances, averring that one need only recognise the written ordinances, whereas those from the tradition of the fathers (ek paradoseōs tōn paterōn) need not be observed (Ant. 13.297). 

Josephus uses the same vocabulary to describe one-to-one teaching and, teaching a group. Likewise, Paul passed on traditions to the group, whilst at the same time appointing individuals to maintain and protect the traditions. He provides an example of how transmission of information functioned in the Early Church. 

Jan Vansina has pointed out that oral societies draw a big distinction between tales, which are allowed to be changed, and historical accounts, which are not. He shows how the early Christians would not have seen the stories about Jesus as something which they were free to alter. Eugene Lemico’s book, The Past of Jesus in the Gospels, showed how the Gospel authors made sure that they did not mix up the past and the present in their accounts. For example, Jesus before the resurrection regularly calls himself the “Son of Man”, rarely the “Messiah” or the “Son of God”. This is not the same as how the Early Church – post-resurrection – refer to him. These two scholars disprove two of the form critics’ main claims; that the communities were free to change the Gospel accounts, and that they tell us more about the Early Church than Jesus. 

The world in which the Early Church was born was “predominantly oral” but made use of written texts. Memorisation, of both written and oral material, was fundamental to any level of education. Elementary Hellenistic education required students to memorise chreiai (anecdotes) and sayings of important people and teachers. For Jews, scripture would be memorised word for word, but for other stories only the plot was important. Here, memorisation would not always be to the letter but was important for passing on information accurately. At the same time, teachers would construct their teaching in such a way to help people remember it. Jesus can be seen doing this, especially in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke. Memorisation would have allowed for a faithful rendition of Jesus’ teaching from his disciples and other eyewitnesses. 

One of the most common arguments against the Gospels as eyewitness accounts, and the reliability of the Gospels more generally is the idea that the Gospels were originally anonymous and the titles as we have them today were added later. There are no claims to authorship within the texts themselves. If there was no knowledge of who wrote the Gospel, what would the chance be that they were either an eyewitness, or had thoroughly researched with eyewitnesses?  

However, there are good reasons for rejecting this hypothesis. The Gospels are not unique in this regard, there were many ancient texts which did not contain a formal claim to authorship in the body of the text. An example of this is Lucian’s Life of Demonax, an ancient biography which speaks in the first person and assumes readers have knowledge of who the author is. In Matthew, Luke, and John there are all hints that people would have known the authors. Luke is dedicated to a patron, Theophilus (1:3), so people would have known who had written it. Throughout John, the beloved disciple is presented as a figure whom at least some of the readerships were familiar with. Matthew has a small emphasis on the disciple Matthew as an individual, especially compared to the other Gospels. This is not definitive in any way, but hints that Matthew is behind the Gospel. The argument for Gospel anonymity is also totally speculative as we have no evidence of anonymous Gospels. All our manuscripts have titles saying, ‘according to…’. There is no such thing as an anonymous Gospel manuscript. The theory also holds that very early on random names were associated with the Gospels. Only two of the Gospel authors were purported to be disciples, only one of those was an important disciple, and his Gospel is the last one to be written. If you were going to make up an author you would pick Peter, or James, not relatively obscure figures such as, John, Mark, and Luke. 

The only Gospel that claims to be written by an eyewitness in the text itself is John. ‘This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true’ (21:24 NRSV). Bauckham argues that the ‘we’ here is a ‘we’ of authoritative testimony and means the same as ‘I’. In John, the Beloved Disciple is both the author and the main eyewitness source. As already mentioned, the inclusio in John highlights the Beloved Disciple. Here, he is always referred to in the third person. This can be compared to what ancient authors like Thucydides, Polybius and Josephus also did. It maintains the distance between the author’s roles as character and narrator. The question arises of who the Beloved Disciple was. There are two main candidates; John the Son of Zebedee, one of the most important members of the twelve disciples, and John the Elder, another, less prominent disciple of Jesus who was not part of the twelve. Bauckham believes that the latter is the author of the Gospel. He cites the emphasis on Jerusalem and certain groups in the Gospel, seeing this as evidence that the author was in Jerusalem and only moved in certain circles, unlike the twelve who would have known more people. He also uses Papias’ list of disciples to argue that there is a distinction between the anonymous disciple and John, son of Zebedee. Bauckham cites Papias’ use of the title, ‘the elder’ and other Church fathers, like Irenaeus. In contrast to this, other scholars, such as Craig Blomberg and Brant Pitre argue that the author of John’s Gospel was John Son of Zebedee. Both Blomber and Pitre also cite Irenaeus. As Iranaeus isn’t specific, Tertullian and Eusebius are also cited. However, when it comes to the debate about historical reliability it does not matter which of the two Johns it was. Both knew Jesus well and were eyewitnesses to his life and both were teachers in the Early Church therefore both would be reliable sources for the life of Christ. 

Papias also advocated that Matthew, was the author of the Gospel attributed to him. He wrote that, ‘Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew dialect and each person interpreted them as best as he could’. He is backed up by Irenaeus who said, 

Now Matthew published among the Hebrews a written gospel also in their own tongue while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome and founding the church. 

Clement of Alexandria said: 

Of all those who had been with the Lord only Matthew and John left us their recollections, and tradition says they took to writing perforce. Matthew had first preached to the Hebrews, and when he was on the point of going to others, he transmitted in writing in his native language the Gospel according to himself, and thus supplied by writing the lack of his own presence to those from whom he was sent.  

The Church Fathers are unanimous that Matthew was behind his Gospel. 

Our sources for the origin of Luke’s Gospel are not quite as old as the sources for Matthew’s Gospel. Irenaeus said, ‘Luke also, who was a follower of Paul, put down in a book the gospel which was preached by him.’ The Muratorian Fragment writes,  

The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke. Luke, the well-known physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken him with him as one zealous for the law, composed it in his own name, according to the [general] belief. Yet he himself had not seen the Lord in the flesh; and therefore, as he was able to ascertain events, so indeed he begins to tell the story from the birth of John.  

This viewpoint is also backed up by Tertullian of Carthage and Origen of Alexandria. Once again, the evidence from the early Church supports the attributed author of the Gospel being the actual author. If Luke’s accounts in Acts are correct, he spent time with the apostles and would have been able to hear their eyewitness testimony.           

But even if the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, or based on eyewitness testimony, how reliable would that testimony be? Everyone knows that memory is not perfect. Memory can be very good, and it can be very bad. If decades had passed between Jesus’ life and the Gospels being written, how accurate would they actually be? Bauckham engaged with psychological studies on recollective memory to try and answer this question. Our understanding of how memories function is not complete. There is an element of reconstruction, but that this does not necessarily mean inaccuracy. The brain can reconstruct with a high level of accuracy, though what is remembered is selective. Bauckham listed a group of factors that is important in determining whether something is remembered accurately. 

  1. Unique or unusual event – Usually more memorable. 
  1. Salient or consequential event – Easier to remember. 
  1. An event in which the person is emotionally involved – Although some studies show it is easier to remember, this one is less certain. 
  1. Vivid imagery – Accurate memories tend to have vivid imagery. 
  1. Irrelevant detail – Accurate memories tend to include irrelevant detail. 
  1. Point of view – ‘field memories’ and ‘observer memories’ tend to be similarly accurate and can be switched between. 
  1. Dating – Recollective memories don’t tend to recall exact times. 
  1. Gist and details – Gists are how the person makes sense of the event, does not necessarily have to affect accuracy. 
  1. Frequent rehearsal – Frequently going over a memory makes it more likely that it will be remembered and remembered accurately. 

He then tested them against the memories behind the Gospels. 

  1. Unique or unusual event – Many events, such as healings and exorcisms are, although repeated throughout Jesus’ ministry, unusual. 
  1. Salient or consequential event – Many of the events in Jesus’ ministry would have had huge personal significance for those involved. 
  1. An event in which the person is emotionally involved – The eyewitnesses often were involved and had emotional stakes in what was going on, although this is rarely mentioned. 
  1. Vivid imagery – Vivid imagery in the Gospels is not prominent. Where it is found, it is usually in Mark, with Luke and Matthew tending to give more concise versions of events. 
  1. Irrelevant detail – There is not much irrelevant detail in the Gospels, though there are hidden coincidences. 
  1. Point of view – Mostly ‘field memories’ but are elements of an ‘observer’ perspective.  
  1. Dating – Chronological information in the Gospels fits recollective memory. Here, John’s more precise chronology is based around Jewish festivals. 
  1. Gist and details – Details important to the ‘gist’ of the accounts are remembered. 
  1. Frequent rehearsal – Jesus would have taught the same lessons multiple times, would have been repeated for his disciples. Oral accounts of the events would have been repeated by eyewitnesses soon after the events. Although a long period of time would have passed between the events and their being written down, the entire time the disciples would have been preaching and recollecting what they had seen. 

All these elements seem to suggest that the eyewitness accounts behind the Gospels would have been accurately remembered. 

The evidence of the last two articles suggests that the Gospels are either written by eyewitnesses or based upon eyewitness testimony. There are also good reasons for attributing them to their traditionally ascribed authors. At the same time, it makes sense to trust the eyewitness testimony, which would have been both accurately remembered and passed down. The eyewitness testimony also appears to be recorded at the best time. Accounts written much later after events are much less likely to be accurate, but as an event was happening, or just after it had taken place, was seen as more likely to be biased by ancient historians because it would be affected by other factors, such as political pressure. The Gospels were written not so close to the events to be affected by factors like political pressure, but not so late that the eyewitness testimony would be lost. 

Written by Alex Smith


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