The Gospels Are NOT Eyewitness Accounts
Traditional, literalist Christianity hinges upon the historical faithfulness and reliability of the Bible. No Bible means no Christianity, or at least no Literalist Christianity.
Consequently, it's no surprise that Literalists go to great lengths to defend the Bible as a uniquely reliable historical account while seeking to discredit the reliability of the holy books of other completing faiths. In doing so Literalists frequently employ arguments that undermine their own effort.
One such argument is that the gospels represent objectively reliable "eyewitness accounts". As I will show below, this contention is disingenuous for two reasons: (1) they demonstrably don't, and (2) Literalists deny the historical legitimacy of other holy books, such as the Book of Mormon, that are far, far better authenticated than the Bible.
The facts I document below are easily verifiable and well-known even to Literalist Bible scholars, though they will come as a surprise to many lay Literalists.
Hearsay Accounts are Not Eyewitness Accounts
The first major problem for Literalist Christians is that they have no way of authenticating any of the gospels. One reason for this is that no one knows who actually wrote them. While they were eventually attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John decades or centuries after they were written, educated Literalists admit that all four were, in fact, originally written anonymously. The startling fact is that none of our canonical gospels identify their respective authors (the "titles" of the "books" in our Bibles were added by editors long after the "books" themselves were written). In fact, the idea that the Gospels even represent eyewitness accounts arose decades, if not centuries, after they were written, when some later Christians in other countries came to view them as “memoirs of the apostles.” The gospels themselves, as we shall see, don't claim to be eyewitness accounts or memoirs at all.
In partial recognition of this, the early church never even bothered to argue that Mark and Luke were written by Jesus's contemporaries. Rather, based on rather dubious attributions that we will discuss shortly, it contended that the unknown author of the gospel that we now call “Mark” was a supposed companion of the disciple Peter (not even a disciple of Peter), and that the unknown author of that gospel we now call “Luke” was a companion (not even a disciple) of the apostle Paul.
Curiously though, neither book actually claims such status. If “Mark” did indeed intend to preserve the eyewitness testimony of such a notable apostle as Peter, and Luke of the greatest of all apostles, Paul, then why in the world didn't either of author begin their accounts by saying so?! For instance, why doesn't either say something like: “Thus is the testimony of Peter/Paul, apostle to the Lord and eyewitness to the resurrection, as transcribed by his devoted companion Mark/Luke at such-and-such place at such-and-thus time”? Why indeed.
Nevertheless, even if we accept on faith the the gospels of “Mark” and “Luke” were written by persons so named, and that those persons were indeed companions of Peter and Paul respectively, we are still left with a startling conclusion: These gospels constitute unreliable hearsay and not true eyewitness accounts.
Most Western courts, especially those from the English tradition, distinguish authentic eyewitness testimony from hearsay. True eyewitness testimony is that offered to us by the person who actually saw the events in question. By contrast, hearsay accounts are offered by someone who was not a witness himself but who nonetheless heard what an actual witness had to say on the matter (hence, the term "hearsay"). Western courts generally do no allow “hearsay” evidence except in limited circumstances because it is notoriously unreliable. To understand why, we must first better understand what hearsay is.
Hearsay occurs when a person in court seeks to offer the testimony of an actual witness to the events who is not in court in order to prove a contested issue. For instance, suppose that parties A and B were in a car accident at an intersection with a traffic light. Party A, who was injured in the accident, sues Party B alleging that Party B ran a red light. To prove this, Party A calls Person Y to the stand. Person Y testifies that she did not see the actual accident, but that Witness Z, who is not around, told her that he did see the accident and that Party B ran the red light. This statement is inadmissible as “hearsay” (i.e., Witness Y says in effect, “I heard Witness Z say that Party B ran the light”). Perhaps Y misunderstood Witness Z? Or, perhaps Witness Z got Party A and Party B's names mixed up? The court can't know because Witness Z isn't there to be questioned. Thus, we generally do not permit people to testify about things that they didn't themselves witness.
So, if we were to hold a trial to determine the reliability of the gospel known as Mark, how would the hearsay rule inform our conclusion? Well, at the very best (and this assumes much), all counsel for the Literalists could argue is that some person otherwise unknown to history named “Mark” wrote down what he heard Peter say. Same with “Luke” as regards Paul. Thus, as far as "testimony" goes, Mark and Luke's gospels are clearly hearsay accounts even if we assume the best possible facts. But actually, the facts get worse. Much, much worse.
For instance, the only reason that we even attribute our gospel called Mark to the stranger and supposed companion of Peter named “Mark” is thanks to the writings of Papias (c. 125 CE), writings that survive to the present only because portions of them were quoted extensively in later writings of some Church Fathers. In these surviving quotes, Papias explains how he came to learn that Mark authored "Mark". Specifically, Papias says that he had occasion to speak with a group of unnamed persons, persons that Papias refers to as “the elders” (or presbyters). Papias tells us that these unnamed elders told him that they had known some of Jesus' disciples. Papias continues:
This is what the elder used to say, “when Mark was the interpreter of Peter he wrote down accurately everything that he recalled of the Lord's words and deeds—but not in order. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him; but later, as I indicated, he accompanied Peter, who used to adapt his teachings for the needs at hand, not arranging, as it were, an orderly composition of the Lord's sayings. And so Mark did nothing wrong by writing some of the matters as he remembered them. For he was intent on just one purpose: not to leave out anything that he heard or to include any falsehood among them.
So, when it comes to establishing the validity of the testimony of the Gospel of Mark, all we have to rely on is the following: Certain Church Fathers say that they read writings (which we no longer have) of a person named Papias which said that Papias heard some otherwise unknown "elders" say that they heard unnamed disciples of the Lord say that a persona named Mark was an interpreter of Peter, and this Mark took it upon himself to write down what Peter said he heard Jesus say. Not only is this hearsay, but it is at least quintuple hearsay! And not only quintuple hearsay, but anonymous quintuple hearsay (since we don't know who the unnamed disciples were who shared this information with the unnamed Elders who shared it with Papias). Anyone familiar with modern news gathering knows how unreliable unnamed sources can be, and anyone familiar with the "telephone game" knows how things can be misinterpreted when repeated several times by different parties.
Furthermore, and disturbingly, it should be clear from the above quote that whatever gospel Papias attributed to Peter's companion named Mark, it wasn't our present day “Gospel of Mark”! For Papias is insistent that his Mark ways a "sayings" document that did not preserve the “Lord's words and deeds” in order. And yet, our present day Gospel of Mark is quite diligent at providing a very specific chronological account of Jesus deeds and sayings. There is nothing disorderly about it. Consider, for instance, 2:1, 2:23, 4:35, 6:2, 6:45, 6:53, 9:2, 9:30, etc. where our version of Mark goes out of its way to note the progress of time, order of happenings, and chronological changes of venue.
Papias' testimony is, plain and simple, the worst and least reliable kind of hearsay. And thus, so is our Gospel of Mark. One may, as a matter of pure faith, accept the Gospel of Mark as God's infallible word, but to claim that it represents eyewitness testimony is to make a mockery of the term.
But, we have yet more reasons to question Papias on these matters. One is that Papias has been discredited as a source on so many other points. His writings were so untrusted (or unorthodox?), in fact, that the early Christian Literalists failed to copy and preserve them except in quoted form, a fact that defies explanation since it is only the writings of Papias that permit us to attribute Mark to a supposed companion of Peter (and as we shall see, Matthew to Matthew). The only reason that we have any inkling today of what Papias once said about these elders and disciples and companions is because certain Church Fathers saw fit to quote him when doing so advanced their theological agenda. And yet, because none of Papia's writings survive in their original form, we have no way to confirm the quotations.
But, the words of Papias that do survive are telling in that they reveal a peculiar theological perspective, and contain quotes of Jesus's words handed down to Papias as hearsay by these same “elders”, quotes that are not found in our gospels and that no modern Christian (and few ancient ones) accept as authentic. Thus, it seems more than a bit disingenuous to accept the testimony of Papias and his “elders” when doing so conveniently advances one's theological agenda while rejecting or doubting it when it does not.
In short, we have no verifiable reason to believe that the Gospel of Mark was written by a companion of Peter so named. Our sole means of attribution, the testimony of Papias, is unreliable because it relies on numerous levels of hearsay and because the gospel that Papias attributes to Mark clearly wasn't our extant version of Mark. Thus, if we are honest, we must admit that we simply don't know who wrote Mark, whose testimony it purports to preserve, whether it was intended as "testimony" at all, exactly when it was written, or exactly where it was written (though the answers to these last two questions can be teased out with the aid of textual criticism). Can you imagine attempting to offer a writing in court as evidence to prove a matter when you can't even state with certainty who wrote it, when it was written, where it was written, or whose testimony it purports to preserve! How silly.
Arguments of Literalist Apologists
Literalists bend over backward to explain away such problems. One common explanation is that the writers of the gospels were just so humble, so modest, that they preferred to remain anonymous, thereby keeping the focus on Jesus. But, this explanation is too cute by half. First, one of the supposed (and in some cases explicit) purposes of writing these Gospels, according to Literalists and even the unknown gospel writers themselves (e.g., Luke 1: 3-4 and John 21: 24), is so that people who were not eyewitnesses to these events might believe. And yet, given that the gospels describe unlikely events and numerous miracles, the identity and credibility of the witnesses is therefore paramount in gauging their reliability. Thus, remaining anonymous for the sake of humility undermines the very purpose for which the gospels were written! If their purpose was to help the world believe, then the the identity of the witnesses whose testimony they preserve definitely matters and, under such circumstances, insisting upon anonymity is the height of self-indulgence.
Second, supposing that the authors of Mark and Luke were indeed motivated by modesty, this still does not explain why they don't at least identify their sources. For instance, an anonymous Mark could still say, “Thus is the account of Peter, disciple of the Lord, as relayed to good-ole-anonymous-me by Peter himself at such-and-thus place on such-and-such dates.” But, he doesn't. And Luke, were he indeed a companion of Paul (who based on his epistles didn't seem to share the evangelists' concern for anonymity), could say the same thing about Paul without compromising Luke's own identity. And finally, Luke could have easily named the sources that he says he consulted to compile his complete account (see again Luke 1: 1-3) while still remaining anonymous himself. But, he doesn't.
Another common Literalist defense is that the authors didn't identify themselves because the audience for which they were writing already knew their identity. But, if true, then there was no reason to remain anonymous out of humility, was there? In other words, if Mark's contemporary audience knew him personally and knew that he authored the text, then humble anonymity was out of the question from the beginning.
Furthermore, if true, the fact that Mark's contemporaries may have known him does nothing to help the modern day faithful, for we don't know him. If the first believers were expected to trust the authors of the Gospels primarily because they knew them personally—in other words, if the credibility of the testimony depended upon personal knowledge and trust of the testifiers—then why aren't today's Christians at least permitted to know with certainty who those testifiers were? Why are we expected to believe miraculous stories--stories that challenge everything that we know from personal experience is possible--without even knowing who wrote them, when they were written, or whose testimony they offer?
Moving beyond “Mark”, authenticating the other gospels is equally difficult.
The unnamed author that we call “Luke” tells us outright that his gospel is a hearsay one, compiled after a “careful investigation” on his part (no such investigation would have been required had he possessed first-hand knowledge of the events in question), which apparently included interviewing people who had received the Christian tradition directly from supposed eyewitnesses (see Luke 1:1-3, which curiously makes absolutely no mention of Paul, Luke's supposed mentor). Even though Luke mentions eyewitnesses, his account is not an eyewitness one, but only an admitted hearsay account. And, how many layers of hearsay is impossible to determine as Luke never says he himself interviewed eyewitnesses, only that he intends to preserve a story that has been "handed down to us" by eyewitnesses (1:2), with the "us" possibly referencing his generation of Christians as a whole and not necessarily himself in particular. In other words, Luke may have gotten his information not from supposed eyewitnesses themselves, but from other Christians who claim to have gotten their information from eyewitnesses. Given that Luke's stated objective (1:3) is to convince Theophilus that he can believe with “certainty” the things that he had been taught about Christ, it is curious that Luke fails to identify even a single of these witnesses by name.
So, who wrote Luke? We don't know as the book doesn't tell us. The author of “Luke” addresses the book to “Theophilus.” Who was Theophilus? We don't know as we aren't told. What investigation did Luke perform in order to compile his account for Theophilus? Who did he interview? Whose “eyewitness” testimony is it based upon? On all of these points, “Luke” is oddly silent.
Unfortunately, things don't get any better when we turn to the Gospel of “Matthew”. Attribution of “Matthew” to Jesus' disciple of the same name is again based on the testimony of Papias, but Papias tells us even less about Matthew's gospel than he does Mark's, saying (via Eusebius' Church History) only that:
Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew tongue, and each one interpreted them to to the best of his ability.
Unlike with Mark, Papias provides no source at all for this knowledge, not even unnamed "elders". Regardless, it is indisputable that our oldest surviving manuscripts of Mathew are not simply a collection of “sayings” of the Lord (but rather are a chronological biography), and they are all written in Greek (not Hebrew as Papias indicates was true of his copy). Thus, we have no reasonable basis for attributing authorship of our present day Gospel of “Matthew” to a disciple of Jesus' so named. Like Mark and Luke, we can't say who wrote the gospel of Matthew, when it was written, where it was written, or whose testimony it purports to offer.
So, what about the fourth gospel, John? Well, like Luke, John readily admits that his account is hearsay, saying in verse 21: 20-24 that it represents a compilation of the testimony of an unnamed “Beloved Disciple” of Jesus. The author of John never says that he is himself the Beloved Disciple, or that he ever actually met or talked to the Beloved Disciple. To the contrary, "John" only writes about the Beloved Disciple in the third person (e.g., in verse 21: 24 where he says “we know that his testimony is true”). In saying this, the author identifies himself among the “we” who knows that “his” testimony is true, not as the testifier himself. Thus, like Mark, Luke and Matthew, we have no firm basis for attributing authorship of John to a disciple of Jesus' so named. We don't know who wrote it, where it was written, when it was written, or whose testimony if purports to preserve.
How Little We Know and How Much We Could Have
The simple truth is that there is no verifiable basis for the historical claim that the gospels preserve reliable, eyewitness testimony about the events of Jesus' life. In fact, when viewed as evidence of the historical events described therein, they are incredibly weak sources--much weaker than one would expect from a "divinely inspired" biography of Christ. They were written anonymously at unknown times in unknown places. They don't identify the sources of their information. They present us with multiple levels of anonymous hearsay. They describe a highly unlikely series of events. And as I shall explain in another post, they offer contradictory accounts of the events in questions.
Most troubling, all of these problems of authenticity were clearly avoidable to someone with Jesus', or even his disciples', supposed capabilities. As noted previously, if Jesus had intended for his church to be built upon biographies of his life that preserved his teachings, he could have penned an authoritative one himself. He could even have done so in stone (as the Pharaohs did) so that it might be preserved indefinitely, and he could have written it in some self-authenticating, miraculous way, a way that would leave no doubt at to its authenticity. Or, in the alternative, he could have formally commissioned his biography and appointed an authorized, official biographer, one whose account could have been verified and authenticated (in customary ways of the time or in some miraculous way) by Jesus himself and specific, named disciples who were known to have traveled with him. Or, finally, he could have at least arranged for his life story to have been preserved by actual, known eyewitnesses, writing under their own names, and corroborating those accounts with testimony from even other witnesses and by inclusion in Roman and Jewish records of the time.
But, regrettably, none of this happened. Instead we have only the often contradictory “testimony” of unknown persons that we now call with undeserved confidence the Gospels According to ”Matthew”, “Mark”, “Luke”, and “John”.
A Mormon Example
It is troubling that Literalists insist that they are imminently reasonable in accepting the testimony of these unknown persons as God's infallible truth. They certainly would not accept the authenticity of other documents, especially religious ones, that are so weakly authenticated.
For instance, consider the evidence supporting the authenticity of the gospels, which we just discussed, with that offered by the Book of Mormon, at text that most Literalists dismiss as illegitimate at best and Satanic at worst.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e., Mormons), consider the Book of Mormon to be “another Testament of Jesus Christ.” Virtually all Literalists reject this claim out of hand despite the fact that the Book of Mormon is far, far better authenticated than the New Testament gospels. For instance, my copy of Book of Mormon (given to me by missionaries who knocked on my door several years ago) contains the following certification in its introduction(redacted for brevity):
TESTIMONY OF THE PROPHET JOSEPH SMITH
“On the evening of the...twenty-first of September ...I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God....
While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor.
[A detailed description of the personage follows]
He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of god to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.
He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account fo the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants;
Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates/ and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted Seers in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating this book.
[Detailed descriptions of additional visits by the personage follow]
Convenient to the village of Manchester, Ontario county, New York, stands a hill of considerable size, and the most elevated of any in the neighborhood. On the west side of this hill, not far from the top, under a stone of considerable size, lay the plates, deposited in a stone box. This stone was thick and rounding in the middle on the upper side, and thinner towards the edges, so that the middle part of it was visible above the ground, but the edge all around was covered with earth.
[A detailed descriptions of his recovery of the plates and stones follows, including attempts by others to steal them prior to translation]
Using the stones Urim and Thummim, Joseph Smith tells us in his testimony that he then translated the plates into modern English, resulting in the revelation of the Book of Mormon, "another testament of Jesus Christ". But, we don't have to take just Joseph Smith's word for it, we also have preserved for us the testimony of several named witnesses as follows (taken again from the Introduction to my Book of Mormon):
#THE TESTIMONY OF THREE WITNESSES
Be it know until all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, unto who this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know it is by the grace of god the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear a record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto that commandment of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the son, and to the Holy ghost, which is one God. Amen.
And additionally, we have the following (too taken from the introduction to the Book of Mormon):
THE TESTIMONY OF EIGHT WITNESSES
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it.
Christian Whitmer Hiram Page
Jacob Whitmer Joseph Smith, Sen.
Peter Whitmer, Jun. Hyrum Smith
John Whitmer Samuel H. Smith
Comparing now the testimony supporting the Book of Mormon to that of the New Testament, we can see that there is simply no comparison. The Book of Mormon identifies its discoverer/translator by name, Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith's testimony is written in the first person and describes events taking place at specific dates and locations where he was personally present. The existence of the plates and of Smith's translation of them is attested to in writing by eleven different named eyewitnesses, all of which are known historical personages. Unlike with the New Testament Gospels, we don't have to wonder who compiled the Book of Mormon, where they did it, when they did it, or whose testimony is represents. We know with certainty.
Does this mean that the Book of Mormon is "true"? Of course not, as most any mainline Literalist will insist. Mosts Literalists reject Mormonism as an inauthentic work of fiction and are often highly critical of it, some going so far as to label it Satanic. Imagine, if the reader would, just how much more critical and dismissive of the book Literalists would be if it were written by an unidentified person at an unknown place at an unnamed time, and counted for its authenticity only the testimony of a church historian with dubious motives who said the he was told by unnamed “elders” that the Book of Mormon had been written by Joseph Smith who said that they heard Joseph Smith say that he heard an angel named Moroni say certain things!
Those living in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Rather, they should move!
To the extent that the documents are intended to be "historical accounts" at all, they are demonstrably hearsay. As such, they are the very opposite of "eyewitness accounts".
Besides the unreliability of hearsay in general, we have a great many many other reasons for doubting the historical reliability of the gospels, not the least of which is the conflicts and inconsistencies among them. I will write on this subject in another post.