We have previously established that there is multiple attestation for the existence of the historical person of Jesus. We have also established that the Gospels were written early and within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus.
Our next question: Were the authors of the Gospels recording eyewitness testimony or not?
External Evidence of Eyewitness Authorship
One way to assess if the Gospels were recording the testimony of eyewitnesses is to ask about the authorship: Were the authors known to be eyewitnesses or did they have access to eyewitnesses?
In the early church, there is unanimous evidence about the authorship of the Gospels:
- Matthew, the disciple, writing from his own eyewitness experience
- Mark, the interpreter of Peter, recording the eyewitness experience of Peter
- Luke, the companion of Paul, recording the experiences of many eyewitnesses
- John, the disciple, recording his own eyewitness experience.
Early church father, Tertullian (200AD) states the Gospels were written by the Apostles Matthew and John and the apostolic witnesses of Luke and Mark:
“We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned by the Lord Himself this office of publishing the gospel. Since, however, there are apostolic men also, they are yet not alone, but appear with apostles and after apostles… Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; while of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards.” (Against Marcion 4.2.1-2)
Irenaeus (180AD) states:
“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.” (Against Heresies 3.1.1-2)
The Muratorian Fragment (170AD) is an early canon of scripture. Unfortunately, the first page of this has been lost, but the second page starts with a declaration of eyewitnesses, and discussion of the third and fourth Gospels, Luke and John:
”…at which he was present, and thus he wrote them down. The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke. Luke, the well known physician, when Paul had taken him with him after the ascension of Christ, as one skilled in writing, wrote from report in his own name…The fourth of the gospels is that of John, one of the disciples. To his fellow disciples and bishops, who had been urging him [to write]” (Grant, 118)
Papias (125AD) in a quote we have today because it was preserved by Eusibius, states:
“This, too, the elder used to say: Mark who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of his followers, but later, as I sad, one of Peter’s. Peter used to adapt his teaching to the occasion without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing he had heard and to make no misstatement about it” (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 3.39.14-15)
All of these citations show clearly there is early attestation that the names we currently associate with the Gospels are correct.
Some make the objection that these early church attributions are too late. Some say that these documents were simply floating around and then one day someone slapped the names of the apostles on them to make them seem more authoritative. But there are two major problems with this idea:
First, why not choose better names for Mark and Luke? Why not choose more authoritative voices? Why not choose one of the 12 disciples instead? Mark and Luke were recording the statements of the eyewitnesses, but they were not eyewitnesses themselves. If the names were simply made up later, it would have made a lot more sense to name these two Gospels after someone else.who’s name was better known in the story of Jesus.
Second, we have no competing theories for other names. There is actually no competing evidence whatsoever that the Gospels were EVER named anything different than what we know them as today. According to Dr. Brad Pitre, in his book, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence For Christ, “The first and perhaps biggest problem for the theory of the anonymous Gospels is this: no anonymous copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John have ever been found. They do not exist. As far as we know, they never have.” (2016)
One cannot argue that they were definitively called another name if no other names have been found. That would be like saying, “I believe George Washington was actually named something else. I don’t know any other names he may have gone by, but it definitely wasn’t George Washington.”
With four different Gospels, all telling the same story, there would have needed to be names to differentiate them. If they were not the names attested to by the early church fathers, what were they? There is no evidence to back up this objection.
As we can see from the external evidence above, there is good reason to believe that the names we have attached to the Gospels today were the actual authors, and there is no competing evidence to suggest otherwise.
Internal Evidence of Eyewitness Testimony
Now that we’ve looked at the external evidence for the authorship of the gospels, let’s examine the texts themselves and see what indications we can see regarding their eyewitness.
While it is true that the authors of the Gospels do not name themselves explicitly as is common in our modern Western standard, that does not mean that they were written anonymously. Leaving the names off of their histories was common practice in this day and age. It was actually thought that putting your name on the historical account lessened its authority. We see this in other ancient authors such as Plutarch, who wrote 50 biographies, and in all of his writings never once names himself as the author. Plato, Porphyry, and Clement of Rome are other famous examples. We attribute these works to these authors because of the tradition that names them as such, not from any internal attribution in the text. This was standard practice for historical writings.
E.P. Sanders, a secular historian, states in his book The Historical Figure of Jesus, “The claim of an anonymous history was higher than that of a named work in the ancient world. An anonymous book, rather like an encyclopedia article today implicitly claimed complete knowledge and reliability.” (p. 66)
This was common practice for the time and the authors of the Gospels leaving their own names out of the text itself should not lead us to believe that the earliest Christians had no idea who wrote the gospels.
Finally, are the names associated with the authors of the gospels the only reason we should believe they are eyewitness accounts? No.
If we had no names associated the gospels, would we still believe they were eyewitness accounts of the life of Christ? Yes.
The authorship of the Gospels is one way to show that they are recording eyewitness testimony, but it is not the only way. There’s a great deal more evidence to look at inside the pages of the Gospels that points to authentic eyewitness testimony.
Apostles Claimed Eyewitness Authority
Here are some specific claims of eyewitness authority from Peter and John, often speaking on behalf of the entire group of apostles:
- “…we are all witnesses…” Acts 2:32 (Peter)
- “….we are witnesses of this.” Acts 3:15 (Peter)
- “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” Acts 4:20 (Peter and John)
- “We are witnesses of these things…” Acts 5:32 (Peter and the Apostles)
- ‘…I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ sufferings…” 1 Peter 5:1 (Peter)
- “…we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” 2 Peter 1:16 (Peter)
- “…the man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true.” John 19:35 (John)
- “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched– this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 1 John 1:1-2 (John)
One event that is especially significant to this topic is that in Acts, when the disciples are gathering after Jesus ascends to heaven, they know they must choose a disciple to take the place that Judas Iscariot once held as the twelfth disciple. This was the qualification they knew was needed:
“One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22, ESV)
Their number one priority for this replacement was that he was with them since the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, being an eyewitness of all until he ascended into heaven, including the crucifixion and the resurrection. There were two men put forward and one, Mathias, was chosen. This is a clear indication of just how important eyewitness authority was to the disciples and the early church.
Luke does not claim to be an eyewitness but claims to have written based on the gathering of eyewitness testimony.
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.” (Luke 1:1-3, ESV)
What makes these claims especially compelling is that being an eyewitness was a very dangerous claim. They were attesting to things that could get them killed, and in most cases actually did . There’s a specific instance in Acts where Peter enlists his authority as an eyewitness of Jesus, gives testimony to the resurrection of Jesus and the deity of Jesus. The authorities respond by wanting to have him killed, but they are talked out of it by one of their own. The Apostles, even after nearly being condemned to death, continued to preach that Jesus was the Messiah. (Acts 5:27-41)
Being an eyewitness wasn’t safe. It didn’t gain them any money, political power, or safety. But, because their hope was in the power of Jesus whom they had seen risen from the dead, they declared his divinity regardless of the consequences.
“Jasmine was so excited to see Matt yesterday! She jumped into his arms and started giving him lots of kisses. Matt’s wife, Anne, even took a picture!”
Well, it’s awkward if you don’t already know that Jasmine is a dog.
Have you ever told a story and left bits of it out because you assume that your listeners/readers already have that information? You don’t think to tell them something that might seem so obvious to you because you were there.
The same is true for the authors of the gospels. It speaks to the authenticity of the eyewitness accounts that these four documents have numerous undesigned coincidences.
Undesigned coincidences are pieces of information in different gospels that either unintentionally fill in gaps for each other or confirm claims made in the other independently.
That might sound a bit abstract in theory, but it makes sense in practice. Let’s look at some examples:
The Beating of Jesus
In Matthew, we read the following detail about Jesus being mocked in front of Caiaphas, the high priest.
“Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, “Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?” (Matthew 26:67-68, ESV)
This by itself doesn’t make a lot of sense. Someone slaps you and then asks you to tell them who slapped you? Wouldn’t you know?
Until we see what Luke wrote about this event:
“The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, “Prophesy! Who hit you?” (Luke 22:63-64, ESV)
We see that Jesus was blindfolded. That makes a great deal more sense.
This is an example of a subtle clarifying, where one eyewitness account leaves out a small detail, but another fills in that gap in a very natural way.
Jesus Feeding 5,000 Men
We read in John of how Jesus fed 5,000 men (plus an unknown number of women and children) with just five loaves of bread and two fish:
“Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?’” (John 6:5, ESV)
Why would he ask Philip? Judas was the one who held the money and asking Philip doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense without more information.
That is, until we learn why in Luke at the beginning of the account for this miracle:
“On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida.” (Luke 9:10, ESV)
We learn in Luke that for the feeding of the 5,000 men, they were outside the town of Bethsaida.
Going back to an earlier section in John, we know from Philip was from Bethsaida:
“Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.” (John 1:44, ESV)
Now it makes sense.
Jesus asked Philip where they could buy bread because he knew Philip was from the town they were visiting. We need both the gospels of Luke and John to have all these details.
The Calling of the First Disciples
In Mark 1, we read of how Jesus called his first disciples. First he calls Simon and Andrew, then he find James and John:
“And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.”
(Mark 1: 19-20, ESV)
What were they doing when Jesus called them? Mending their nets. Now, that might seem like an insignificant detail, randomly thrown in to show the setting, until we look at this same story in Luke 5:1-11.
Here we have much more information about how the calling of these four men happened, how Jesus told them to cast their nets down again after they had caught nothing all day, and how that time, their nets came up completely full. It’s an incredible story of faith in Jesus, but here’s the detail I want to focus in on:
“And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking.” (Luke 5:6, ESV)
Their nets broke! They needed repairing because of the miraculous number of fish they just caught. An additional question then is why weren’t Simon and Andrew repairing the nets? Why James and John? Again, we see the answer in Luke:
For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. (Luke 5:9-10, ESV)
James and John were the business partners of Simon and Andrew. How cool is that? What one seemingly random fact one gospel mentions in passing, the other explains.
Doesn’t that sound like authentic eyewitness testimony?
This is another piece of evidence that these are eyewitness testimonies as they seem to unintentionally corroborate each other and fill in the gaps, giving us a fuller picture of what happened.
We’ll go more in depth with many more examples of this internal confirmation of eyewitness accounts another time, as I think this is one of the more exciting and underrepresented areas of study in apologetics at the moment.
(Note: If you’re really interested in this area of study, there’s a great book by Lydia McGrew that gives a wide array of examples: Hidden in Plain View)
Names Used in the New Testament:
Another aspect that is incredibly interesting is the use of names in the gospels.
This one might not be the first thing someone might think of to show the reliability of a document, but the evidence is actually very compelling.
If I asked you to create a story about a person in France 100 years ago, and you had to use the correct ratio of the most popular names at the time, could you do it? More importantly, could you do it without the internet or any formal collection of naming statistics? Would you know that you need to name your characters Jean, Andre, Marcel, Pierre, Rene, Marie, Jeanne, Madeleine, Yvonne, and Suzanne? Would you know that roughly 15% of your male characters should be named Jean or Andre and 17% of your female characters should be named Marie or Jeanne?
I, for one, think that would be a pretty difficult thing to correctly guess.
Even for our own time and culture, if I told you to write a story about your town that correctly uses the popular names for that location with 200 different characters, what names would you choose? For example, my home state is Washington. If I were to write a novel about a group of people born in 2000, would you know that I should have 3 Jacobs, 2 Michaels, 2 Joshuas, 3 Emilys, 2 Hannahs, 2 Madisons for it to be statistically accurate?
This may seem like an odd line of argument for the eyewitness reliability of the gospels, so what am I getting at? Why is this important to consider?
The names used in the New Testament are closely correlated with 1st century Palestine, prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, and used in correct proportion. It is particularly stronger with the male names, which makes sense since there is a much greater sample size.
Someone writing from a different place or a different time, or even just trying to make a story up would have a really difficult time accurately using the names that would have been popular during the time of Jesus and in the correct proportion. It’s almost as if these were real people organically involved in the storyline of the life of Jesus.
Note: There are many more male names present in the gospels, so the accuracy of the male statistics is stronger than with the females.
Let’s review the evidence:
- The testimony of the early church of the authorship of the Gospels, with no competing evidence to suggest other authors.
- The claims of eyewitness authority within the Gospels
- The undesigned coincidences that are indicative of eyewitness testimony
- The correct proportion of the names attributed to people within the gospel accounts.
These factors together build an incredibly compelling case that the Gospel accounts are recording authentic eyewitness testimony about the life of Jesus.
Again, I’m not asking you to believe the Gospels are theologically true at this point. I’m not asking you to believe that the miracles really happened. I’m not asking you to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.
I’m asking you to believe that people who were real eyewitnesses to his life, death and the events thereafter said these things and those statements are recorded in the Gospels.
Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 16). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Bauckham, Richard (2017). Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Grant, R.M. Second-Century Christianity: A Collection of Fragments (London: SPCK, 1946) 118 (Translation slightly adapted by Richard Bauckham in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses)
Sanders, E.P. (1993) The Historical Figure of Jesus. Penguin Books. pp. 66