The New Testament writers assert on a number of occasions that the accounts of Jesus’ life and work were based on eyewitness testimony.
Perhaps the most famous of these assertions is the statement by Luke at the beginning of his gospel. Peter also insists that ‘we did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye-witnesses of his majesty’ (2 Pet 1:16). Similarly, the writer to the Hebrews (Heb 2:3) speaks of an unbroken chain of communication regarding ‘this salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.’
The importance of eyewitnesses in the early Church is seen in the immediate replacement of Judas by ‘one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.’ (Acts 1:21f). See also Acts 4:20; 10:39; 1 Cor. 15:6; Jn. 19:35; 21:24; 1 Jn. 1:1–3; 1 Pet. 5:1.
The assumption of form criticism, that the Gospels are, to a considerable extent, the later products of the various Christian communities, reflecting their interests, concerns and preoccupations, seems to neglect not on the importance of eyewitness testimony in the mind of the early Church, but the continuing availability of many of those eyewitnesses to shape the Gospel tradition in the decades following our Lord’s death and resurrection.
(On the above, see the relevant article in ISBE, 2nd ed.)
Testing eyewitness knowledge
For us to be able to claim with confidence that an account is based on reliable eyewitness testimony, that account has to pass a battery of tests. Specifically, it needs to demonstrate accuracy with regard to: agriculture, architecture, botany, culture, economics, geography, language, law, personal names, politics, religion, social stratification, topography, and weather. (See this).
Richard Bauckham, in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, sets out several lines of detailed argument that supports this general understanding of the Gospels as based on eyewitness testimony. One line of evidence concerns the use of personal names (which is extraordinarily true to the setting of the gospels in terms of place, time and culture). Another concerns the likelihood that certain named individuals within the gospels were the actual people providing the eyewitness testimony. Another suggests that Mark’s record is indeed based on the testimony of Peter, as tradition has long held, and yet another that John’s Gospel is also based on the testimony of an individual (although not, in Bauckham’s view, John the Apostle).
Bauckham has helpfully summarised his substantial book ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony’ in a short booklet entitled ‘The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony’ (Grove Booklets, 2008). What now follows is a precis of this shorter work.
Both popular thinking (represented by Dan Brown’s ‘The Dan Vinci Code’) and much scholarly thinking has taken the view that the canonical Gospels are historically unreliable. It has been fashionable to drive a wedge between ‘the Christ of Faith’ and ‘the Jesus of History’. The former is the object of our devotions; the latter, a more or less shadowy figure about whom we have little reliable information.
This scepticism about the historical Jesus stems in large from from the methods and conclusions of form criticism. According to Bultmann, Dibelius, and others, the Gospels were written up as a result of a long process of development. Although they started off with material based on eyewitness testimony, these traditions were altered and added to as they were passed on via oral tradition. The Gospels that emerged at the end of this process told us more about the interests and needs of the communities who had shaped them, than they did about the life and teaching of Jesus himself. These communities were interested only in contemporary relevance, not in history.
Of course, some form critics have been more radical than others in their conclusions. But New Testament scholars have generally worked within this framework.
However, if. as is generally accepted, the first Gospel reached its present form within about four decades of Jesus’ death, then throughout this period there must have been eyewitnesses who could confirm or, if necessary, deny, the events there recorded. There must, therefore, have been a severe limit on the extent to which the early Christian communities could have ‘created’ the Gospel material to suit their own needs and purposes. As Vincent Taylor, who himself favoured a moderate version of form criticism, wryly put it, ‘if the form critics were right, the eyewitnesses must have ascended to heaven almost as soon as Jesus did!
So supposing the availability of eyewitnesses, were need to ask whether it was likely that they would have contributed to the writing of the Gospels in any significant way, and whether there is any evidence that they in fact did so.
The original readers and hearers of the Gospels would have understood them as biographies in the Greco-Roman sense of that genre, and would have expected them to be based on eyewitness testimony. Those readers and hearers might well notice various indications of who the eyewitnesses were. For example, they might notice that many of the eyewitnesses had been named.
We know that a number of major eyewitnesses were available. After all, Jesus himself appointed twelve of them to be just such (see, for example, Acts 1:21f). Their names are carefully catalogued in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, with additional epithets (‘sons of Zebedee’, ‘the zealot’, and so on) added for those with names that were the most common in that time and region. The care with which this is done suggests that the writers are giving their readers the credentials of their eyewitness sources. The Apostles would have been well known in the early church, and in touch with the various Christian communities. Acts 1:23 informs us that there were others, too, who functioned as major eyewitnesses. Luke appeals to the presence of such eyewitnesses at the beginning of his Gospel (Lk 1:2f), emphasising that he has consulted eyewitnesses who could tell the story right from the beginning. The same principle applies in John’s Gospel (Jn 15:27).
There is an important series of events – surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and the discovery of his empty tomb – from which the twelve apostles were absent. The first readers and hearers of the Gospels would have expected to know the source of this vitally important material. Here we have the women disciples, who is Mark (and Matthew) only appear at this point in the narrative, and who are named as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome. All three are present at the cross, two at the burial, and all three at the empty tomb (Mk 14:40f, 47; 16:1). They are repeatedly described as ‘seeing’ the events in question (Mk 15:40, 47; 16:4-6).
In addition to these major eyewitnesses, there were many minor ones, who were able to tell of the particular miracle (for example) that they had experienced.
Paul, writing about 20 years after the event, catalogues the people who had seen Jesus alive after his resurrection (1 Cor 15:6). He mentions an appearance to about 500 people, ‘many of whom are still alive’: the obvious implication from Paul is, ‘If you don’t believe me, you can ask any of them.’
In the Gospels, we would expect major personages, such as Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas, to be named. We would also expected to see the names of people who have important roles within the narrative, such as Peter, Mary Magdalene. But among the minor characters, whereas many of these remain anonymous, some are given names. Why is it, we might ask, that in Mark’s Gospel the recipients of Jesus’ healing miracles are all anonymous, with the exception of Jairus and Bartimaus (Mk 6:3; 10:46)? Why is it that in Luke’s Gospel one of the two disciples who meet the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus is named (Cleopas), but the other is not (Lk 24:18)? Why does Mark give the name not only of Simon of Cyrene but also the names of his two sons (Mk 15:21)? Why does Luke name Zacchaus the Tax Collector (Lk 19:2) and Simon the Pharisee (Lk 7:40)? It is reasonable to conclude that these names are given because they all became members of the early Christian community and had themselves related the accounts in which they appear in the Gospels.
One way in which key sources are identified is by the use of an inclusio device. Readers of ancient literature would have understood that the mention of the same name at the beginning and the end of a segment of text had the effect of ‘bracketing off’ that segment of text. In Mark’s Gospel we notice that Peter is both the first of Jesus’ disciples to be named and also the last (Mk 1:16; 16:7). Moreover, Peter is mentioned by name much more in the intervening material than any other disciple. It is quite probable that Mark is thus signalling to his readers the identity of the primary source of his material.
Interestingly, Luke also names Peter first and last, but within his own unique material (indicating that this was not some arbitrary copying across of Mark’s material). There is a further possible inclusio in Luke’s Gospel, involving the naming of the women who accompanied Jesus during his ministry (Lk 8:2f; 24:6-10). It is likely that these women provided Luke with some of the material that is unique to his Gospel.
John’s is the only Gospel that claims to have actually been written by an eyewitness – an unnamed disciple often referred to as ‘the beloved disciple’. John has his own inclusio, involving the beloved disciple, with Peter being mentioned just after the first ‘bookend’, and just before the second (Jn 1:35-40; 21:20-24). It is as if John is saying: I know about Peter’s testimony, and respect it. However, there is plenty left to say, and I have chosen to make my own unique contribution.’ Although the author of the Fourth Gospel is traditionally identified as John the Apostle, his material overlaps so little with the material in the Synoptics that derives from the Twelve (and, more particularly, from events involving the sons of Zebedee) that many scholars think it more likely that the author was not one of the Twelve, but a follower of Jesus who did not travel extensively with him, but normally resided in Jerusalem.
With regard to the very significant differences between John and the Synoptics, we note that John, unlike them, has no list of names of the Twelve (in fact he only mentioned them as a group once, Jn 6:70). We may infer from this that John makes no claim to reflect the testimony of the twelve apostles. Apart from Peter and Mary Magdalene, the disciples who prominent in the Synoptics are not prominent in John, and vice versa (Thomas, Philip, Martha and Mary of Bethany, Nathanael, Nicodemus, Lazarus are either not prominent in the Synoptics, or not mentioned at all in them). His account would seem to be based on a different circle of eyewitnesses, giving him access additional teaching and events, or in some cases presenting the same teaching or events from a different perspective.
It is clear that includes much more way way of reflection on the events and teaching he is recording. But, rather than suggesting that he was not an eyewitness, it may have been John’s very closeness to Jesus that led him to feel consider that he was in a position to interpret and develop the teaching of his Master. An important difference between the Synoptics and John is that in the former Jesus is reticent about who he is, whereas in John he is more forthcoming, making very explicit claims about his divine identity. But John’s is a more selective gospel anyway, and this selectivity gives him more scope to develop the material that he chooses to bring to his readers’ attention. That John fully knew that his was an interpretative gospel is indicated by presence, accompanying Jesus’ first and last public acts, of comments that the disciples only realised the true significance of these events after the resurrection (Jn 2:22; 12:16; cf. Jn 14:26).
To emphasise the role of eyewitness testimony is not to deny a place for oral history. It is clear that Paul, for example, received and passed on traditions that he had received from people such as Peter and Barnabas. But recent evidence has shown that the form critics seriously over-estimated the extent to which communities shaped and adapted the material. The accounts that we have in the New Testament were not passed down through many generations, but were rather written up within living memory of the events. In oral communities, whereas tales might be endlessly varied, but historical traditions would generally be treated much more conservatively. Then, as now, people were concerned to know ‘what really happened’. Moreover, oral societies frequently exercise control over important historical traditions, such as involving designated individuals to whom the traditions can be entrusted. In the early Christian church, the eyewitnesses themselves were obvious candidates for this role. Towards the end of the eyewitness period, the Gospel writers took over in order to preserve the eyewitness testimony.
But can we trust the memories of the eyewitnesses? Recent studies have shown that unusual events tend to be remembered well; that the gist of an event is often remembered more accurately than the details; that frequent rehearsal leads to good recall; and that memory tends to structure the events it recalls, and once this has taken place the event is recalled quite consistently throughout the eyewitnesses’ lifetime. In all these respects, the events recollected in the Gospels score well.
Of course, there is still a place for the Evangelists themselves, not only in collecting material from the eyewitnesses, but also in shaping it into an overall narrative and in offering a theological interpretation of it. But there is no reason to think that in doing so they distorted the traditions that had received.
But can eyewitness testimony be believed?
But we still need to ask whether ‘testimony’ is believable. Would it not be better to have some kind of objective evidence? On reflection, we realise that testimony (that is, what people say when they expect us to believe them on their mere say-so) is a normal aspect of human knowing. We know all kinds of things because people have told us, and it is neither necessary nor reasonable to systematically doubt such sources of knowledge. ‘Testimony is as basic a means of knowledge as perception, memory, and inference.’
Our trust in the eyewitness should not be uncritical. But if we judge an eyewitness to be trustworthy, we will believe on his word all sorts of things that we cannot personally verify. One of the problems with form criticism was that it required each and every unity of tradition to be assessed separately for its authenticity. But we simply cannot verify everything for ourselves. Critical historical research proceeds by assessing the general reliability of the sources, not by attempting to verify each item within the sources. So we must assess the overall trustworthiness of the Gospels, and we can do this in part by considering how coherent the accounts are with everything we know about first-century Palestinian Judaism.
Eyewitness testimony may either be from uninvolved bystanders or from involved participants. Whereas we modern might worry about a lack of objectivity with regard to the latter, ancient historians actually valued such testimony, because they realised that insiders were in a better position to judge what was really going on. And such testimony becomes especially valuable when it relates to unusual, history-shaping events. Our knowledge of the Holocaust would be much more limited if we did not have the testimonies of survivors. And so it is with the momentous events of Jesus’ life.
One important feature of testimony is that fact and meaning coinhere: the witnesses tell the story and communicate its significance. And that is what we have in the four Gospels.