Can the Gospels Be Defended as Eyewitness Accounts?
A cold case detective who spent his whole career evaluating testimony applies his skills to the gospels.
I’m sometimes surprised skeptics resist the claim (at least) that the gospels are written as eyewitness accounts. We can argue about whether or not the gospels are pure fiction, or whether or not they are accurate. But the idea that the gospels can be read as eyewitness accounts is rather unremarkable to me. The gospels record events from the perspective of writers who either saw the events themselves or had access to those who did. The author of John’s gospel describes a meeting between Jesus and his disciples. This meeting appears to include the author and he makes the following claim:
“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.” (John 21:24)
It certainly appears that the author considers himself to be both a participant in the narrative and a reporter (eyewitness) of the event. That seems rather unremarkable to me. Even if the author is someone other than John, the claim (at the very least) that the author is an eyewitness seems plain. In addition, the author of Luke’s gospel describes himself as a historian who had access to the eyewitnesses:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word…”
Even if the author of Luke was not himself an eyewitness, it does appear that he believed he was recording true history as delivered to him from eyewitnesses. Once again, this seems unremarkable.
The Gospel Accounts Are Written By Known Authors
But what if we don’t know precisely who wrote the gospels? Does this invalidate them as eyewitness testimony? I don’t see why it should. Let me offer a simple observation. Most people who claim that the gospels have been attributed to people who are not the true authors argue that the early Church attempted to validate the texts by attributing them falsely. If so, why use Mark and Luke as attributions? Why not use someone with more status? Have you noticed that the late fictional gospels (like the gospels of Judas, Mary, Phillip or Thomas) are far more likely to have been attributed to authors who were close to Jesus and close to the action?
Meanwhile, two of the four accounts that appear earliest in history (the four canonical gospels) are attributed to people who don’t even claim to have been present during Jesus’ ministry! If I were trying to pull one over on gullible potential converts, I would have pick better false attributions for these two gospels. And concerning the gospels of Matthew and John, I’m not sure why it matters if they have been properly attributed (although I believe they have). Their names aren’t in the text, they were inserted after. So the real question is simply whether or not these accounts can be trusted. Are they reliable?
The Gospel Accounts Were Written Early
The most important issue, it seems to me, is whether or not the gospels were written early enough to be verified or falsified by those who actually lived at the time the events transpired. I’ve already written quite a bit about the early dating of the gospels and the chain of custody that guarantees their reliability, so I won’t write about that again in this post. Instead let me make a simple analogy.
Imagine that I told you about an amazing event in the past. Did you know that there was once an inventor in the late 1700s who, using crude supplies, was able to construct a computer and invent the Internet? That’s right, the computer and Internet were actually invented in the 1790s. But while this inventor became famous for his invention, he eventually died and no one was able to replicate his work. It was nearly 170 years before the technology was replicated.
If I told you this story and claimed that it was true, I bet you would doubt my claim. If for no other reason, you would ask yourself why you had never heard of such a thing prior to my assertion. After all, the invention of the computer and Internet would certainly have left an impression on people at the time. Wouldn’t somebody have written about it? Shouldn’t you have hears something about it prior to my claim? Something? It seems to me that it would be even more difficult to make a claim about a miracle-working man who rose from the dead and once lived in your part of the world. Wouldn’t the second or third century Galileans wonder why it was that they hadn’t heard something about this man? Something? It seems unreasonable to me that a late historical claim about a man like Jesus would be palatable to people who were at least familiar with their own history.
The Gospel Accounts Have Been Consistent Over Time
If the gospels are early, the only question left to ask is if their content has been modified. And that’s where the writing of Church Fathers is extremely helpful. The writings of Ignatius, Polycarp and Clement paint a picture of what was being taught by the Apostles in the first century. No one doubts that the Apostles lived in the first century; skeptics simply doubt that the Apostles wrote anything or that their writings have survived uncorrupted. But the teaching of Ignatius, Polycarp and Clement closely mirror those of their teachers (John and Paul). Skeptics can quibble about specific gospel details if they want, but the overarching picture of Jesus as a miracle-working man who claimed to be God and rose from the dead is just as clear in the writing of these first students as it was in the writing of their mentors, the very people who claimed to be eyewitnesses of the risen Christ.
So why do skeptics deny the early dating of the New Testament documents? Is this based on some manuscript discovery that demonstrates the late arrival of the text? No. The more we discover related to ancient manuscript evidence, the earlier we are able to date scraps and partial texts of the gospels.
Plenty of Evidence
It turns out that skeptics deny the early dating of the gospels primarily on the basis of their naturalistic presuppositions. Jesus, after all, predicted the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 24); skeptics can’t accept the supernatural attributes of prophecy, so this passage must have been written after 70AD (the date of the destruction). In addition, other miracles described in the gospels must have been written long after any living eyewitnesses could have lived to deny them, right?
There is more than enough evidence to place the gospels early in history and determine their reliability from the writings of those who sat at the feet of the Apostles. Skeptical resistance may have less to do with the evidence here than with the presuppositions held by those who are examining the evidence. There is more than enough evidence to place the gospels early in history and determine their reliability from the writings of those who sat at the feet of the Apostles.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (Updated and Revised Edition!). This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
Originally published at ColdCaseChristianity.com and republished with permission. Join J. Warner’s Cold-Case Christianity Community for access to a downloadable Bible Insert on this topic. J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline-featured cold-case homicide detective, popular national speaker and best-selling author. He continues to consult on cold-case investigations while serving as a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology and Biola University, and a faculty member at Summit Ministries.