In light of the multitude of cable and internet exposes on early Christianity, I’m occasionally asked if the canonical Gospel writers were eyewitnesses of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Since a great deal of modern Christian belief and practice finds its foundation in the words of Jesus recorded in the New Testament, this seems a perfectly legitimate query, and an important one too. Were the Gospel writers eyewitnesses?
Before formulating any response to this question, two important factors must be taken into consideration. First, one must consider what people are really attempting to ask with this question. That is, what is at stake when it comes to the “eyewitness” of the gospel writers? This question assumes a few things, most importantly that the gospels claim to be authoritative (as the Great Christian tradition holds them to be). Cultural critics like Bill Maher make claims which should be understood to questing the authority and reliability of the gospels, not just who wrote them. Thus, an important secondary consideration to the “eyewitness” question concerns the reliability of the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Second (and following from the previous point), one must note that the gospels themselves to not designate their authorship, audience, date of writing, or any other such historical datum that remains traditionally attached to them. The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are merely titles applied by the early Church to the now-canonical gospel narratives. Thus, even if the answer to a question “were the gospel writers eyewitnesses?” is negative, such an answer does not necessarily require a negative answer to the authoritative and reliability questions. In other words, to prove that the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses does not necessitate that the accounts are inaccurate, overly biased, or maliciously false.
Over the next two weeks, Pursuing Veritas will be examining the question “Were the Gospel writers eyewitnesses” to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as the attendant secondary question concerning the possibility of the gospel writers as reliable historians. The content of this series is directed toward a general audience.