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Eyewitnesses and the Gospels: A Blast From the Past

Five years ago today I received and answered this question on the blog.  I thought it would make a nice break from my current discussion of my change of faith, a topic to which I’ll return tomorrow.  For now, here’s a blast from the past.




One of the major points of your work (if I understand correctly) is that the contents of the New Testament are at a vast remove in time, place, and source from any eyewitness account of Jesus’ life. But when I consider this point in my ignorance, and simply from the perspective of chronology (from the time of Jesus to the accounts in the earliest gospels), it seems to me that at least one very old eyewitness of Jesus’ life might have been able to report a significant amount of information about Jesus and his teachings directly to, say, Mark. In view of this, I wonder how scholars know that no New Testament account of Jesus could have been received directly from any eyewitness.


It’s a very good question, and one that I get asked, in a variety of ways, a lot. My view is this: when Mark was writing his Gospel (the first to be written) in say 65 or 70 CE, there probably were indeed people still living who were familiar with Jesus. At least I would assume that Mark himself thought so. Otherwise it is hard to explain why he included what is now Mark 9:1, where Jesus tells his disciples “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.” If everyone from the first generation had already died, then it seems implausible that Mark would leave a saying of Jesus indicating that the End would come before they all died. (I do not, by the way, think that Mark’s Jesus was referring to the day of Pentecost, to the coming of the church, or even to his own Transfiguration, as some interpreters claim, in order to get around the fact that Jesus declared that the end would come before all the disciples died when, in fact, it did not).

But onto my point. Even though there may well have been eyewitnesses alive some 35-40 years after Jesus’ death, there is no guarantee – or, I would argue, no reason to think – that any of them were consulted by the authors of the Gospels when writing their accounts. The eyewitnesses would have been Aramaic speaking peasants almost entirely from rural Galilee. Mark was a highly educated, Greek speaking Christian living in an urban area outside of Palestine (Rome?), who never traveled, probably, to Galilee. So the existence of eyewitnesses would not have much if any effect on his Gospel.

The same is true, even more so, with the later Gospels. Luke begins his Gospel by saying that eyewitnesses started passing along the oral traditions he had heard (Luke 1:1-4), but he never indicates that he had ever talked to one. He has simply heard stories that had been around from the days of the eyewitnesses. And if the standard dating of his Gospel – and Matthew’s – is correct, they were writing about 50 years or more after Jesus’ death. John’s Gospel was even later.

My sense is that most of the eyewitnesses (and who knows how many there were?! Hundreds? Probably not. Dozens?) had died before the Gospels were written; those that survived were carrying on their lives in rural Galilee or Jerusalem. And the Gospel writers, who never say they consulted any of them, probably never did consult with any of them. The Gospels are based on oral traditions that had been in circulation – and changed as a result – for decades before the Gospel writers had even heard them.

And as anyone knows who has been subject to oral traditions – this would include all of us – the stories told about a person can change absolutely overnight! It happens all the time. What happens, then, to stories in circulation for 40 or 50 years, in different countries, told in different languages, among people who never laid an eye on an eyewitness or on anyone else who had? My sense is that the stories get changed, often a lot; and many of the stories simply get made up. It’s just the way it happens And it can be shown to have happened with the Gospels, since the same story is often told in very different ways. Every historian will tell you: evidence matters!

Fundamentalism and the Truth of the Bible
Finding More Problems in the Old Testament



  1. Michael  May 14, 2017

    Question: When people believe stories that are later proven to be false, but before they discover the falsehoods, they were absolutely convinced that their intuitions were confirming the accounts in question: is this an example of how our intuitions are not exactly reliable?

  2. Lev
    Lev  May 14, 2017

    Hi Bart,

    Thanks for this – very interesting!

    Doesn’t Luke explicitly say that he was given the accounts of Jesus “by those” who were eyewitnesses from the beginning? Luke 1:2 “just as they were handed on to us *by those* who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (NRSVA) That seems to be an emphatic statement that he collected his accounts from the apostles themselves.

    When would you place Q? Some scholars place it very early, within the 30s, and if correct, surely this would place much of the material found in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and Thomas within the fresh memory timespans of all the apostles and key eyewitnesses?

    Finally, how would you assess the statement of Papias that he knew of two living eyewitnesses (John and Ariston) toward the end of the 1st century who were still active? If two eyewitnesses were still ministering to the early church throughout the length of the 1st century, would they not have acted as a form of authoritative control over the materials they were using?

    Many thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 14, 2017

      No, he actually doesn’t say that (at all). He says that the stories were handed by eyewitnesses. That’s what people today still say — but it doesn’t mean that he actually talked ot an eyewitness, and he never says he did! (Any more than people today have)

      • Lev
        Lev  May 14, 2017

        I can’t read Greek, but my interlinear directly translates the Greek as follows: “as delivered to us the [ones] from [the] beginning eyewitnesses and attendants becoming of the Word (logos)”.

        It sounds like he’s saying the narrative was “delivered to us” by those who were the “eyewitnesses and attendants” of the Word (logos). Isn’t that Luke saying “I got these accounts of Jesus from the eyewitnesses and his attendants”?

        I suppose much will hang on what “delivered to us” means. I guess it could mean either transmitted through a chain of oral tradition or by a process of interviewing the eyewitnesses themselves. How do you determine which is a more accurate meaning?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 15, 2017

          I think it’s most striking that he never actually does say that he himself talked to eyewitnesses. His comment is instead like people *today* say “We know these are true because they come to us from eyewitness reports.” That doesn’t mean any of us has actually spoken with an eyewitness.

          • James Cotter  May 15, 2017

            he is imagining a chain of narration and he is not eyewitness to the first person in the chain? so it is like a tradition which he believes in ?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 16, 2017

            Yup, that’s it.

          • Lev
            Lev  May 15, 2017

            You’re right that Luke does not explicitly say that he talked with eyewitnesses in Luke 1:2, but ‘paredosan’ suggests a formal transmission (handed down / delivered to) of eyewitness testimony as Luke is using the same terminology that Paul does in 1 Cor 9:2 (“maintain the traditions just as I *handed them on* to you.”)

            As for whether Luke ever met eyewitnesses, in his second volume (Acts 21:16-18) Luke describes how he met Mnason (an early disciple) and James (Jesus’ brother). If John Mark was the young man who fled naked at Jesus’ arrest in Mark’s gospel, then his eyewitness account of the arrest would be of some value. Paul describes Luke and Mark being with him in Colossians 4.

            Luke spends as much as two years in Palestine from 58-60 while Paul is imprisoned in Caesarea, so it is highly probable that Luke met other eyewitnesses during this time. Perhaps he spent those two years interviewing eyewitnesses, collecting traditions and working on his gospel?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 16, 2017

            What would be the evidence for that? And if he relied on eyewitnesses so much, why is most of his Gospel actually taken from Mark’s?

          • Lev
            Lev  May 15, 2017

            (that should read “1 Cor 11:2”)

          • James Cotter  May 16, 2017

            ” Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us,”

            “since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning”

            would he need to say any of this if he himself was talking to eyewitnesses?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 17, 2017

            Good point!

          • James Cotter  May 16, 2017

            and for arguments sake, if one assumes he is an eyewitness, then is he aware that in his time people are telling stories he does not agree with? if yes, then doesn’t this refute the apologists claim that :

            These memorized stories were passed on to others with extreme care for detail and accuracy.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 17, 2017

            Good point!

          • Lev
            Lev  May 16, 2017

            Yes, I do think Luke made use of Mark and Q, but he gathered his unique material from eyewitnesses (former disciples of John the Baptist, Rhoda the servant girl at Mary and John Mark’s home, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, etc). Unless we consider Mark and Q’s material to be incorrect, I doubt any eyewitnesses would have objected to Luke’s inclusion of that material in his gospel.

            I understand Dr Adolf Harnack wrestled with the dating of Acts for over 15 years before concluding that 62 was the latest possible date of composition, and as Luke’s gospel would necessarily pre-date Acts, the labour of collecting his unique material would find a natural home during his stay in Palestine 58-60 whilst Paul was imprisoned. It’s circumstantial evidence, but in my view, it’s ruddy good circumstantial evidence. 🙂

          • Bart
            Bart  May 17, 2017

            Many scholars today are dating Luke-Acts to 120 or so, as it turns out. I think that’s too late — though I’m open to being convinced; but I don’t think Harnack can be right. I think the best evidence points to the 80s or so.

          • Lev
            Lev  May 17, 2017

            What’s the evidence for a date in the 80s or so?

            Harnack seems to have settled on 62 because he feels it’s less likely that Luke would have spent 8 chapters building up the narrative to Paul’s trial, only to leave his readers disappointed with the lack of outcome. He feels this would be akin to writing his gospel and ending it at Jesus’ trial with Pilate. If an 80 date is correct, why would Luke have ended the narrative there? (And miss out the execution of James, Paul and Peter, the destruction of the temple and the aftermath?)

            I find Harnack’s argument convincing as the alternatives seem too convoluted. A date in the 80s (or later) only seems necessary if one starts with the premise that the gospels *had* to be written late. In my view, if one approaches this with an open and critical mind then 62 seems the most likely and plausible date.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 19, 2017

            No one thinks that Luke-Acts *has* to be late. But there are clear indications that the author knows about the destruction of Jerusalem, for example (ch. 21). He ends teh book of Acts where he does because one of his entire points is precisely that nothing can stop Paul and his mission, so it would not make sense for him to show that the Romans did in fact stop it by executing him.

          • Lev
            Lev  May 19, 2017

            Aye, but if it is true that Paul was released and went onto Spain, surely that would have been an even better place to end his narrative – Paul liberated to continue his mission spreading the gospel to the very western limit of the known world, “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8)

            If Paul’s liberation from prison occurred and his mission fulfilled Jesus’ commission in Acts 1, it would have been the perfect bow that tied the beginning and end of Acts together.

            Of course, if Paul was not released and met his execution in 62, then ending it there would make some sense, but the early evidence suggests otherwise (1 Clement 5: “After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to *the extreme limit of the west*, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.”)

          • Bart
            Bart  May 21, 2017

            Unfortunately it’s not clear either that Paul did go to Spain or that the author of Acts knew that he had planned to go to Spain.

          • James Cotter  May 20, 2017

            Dr Ehrman

            if paul was killed by christians or died by disease, i don’t think that it would fit the writing purpose of the writer of acts, do you agree? also, i don’t think any of the non-canonical gospels mention the destruction of the temple in the following words:
            “the temple was destroyed”
            can i ask, was the jewish temple something important in early christianity considering that earlier christians thought their messiah replaced jewish temple ? so why talk about a destroyed temple? talk about the item which replaced, right?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 21, 2017

            No, none of the Gospels says that. If they did, well, there wouldn’t be much detective work involved! And yes, the temple appears to have been important to the Christians at first (see the very end of Luke and the book of Acts)

          • Lev
            Lev  May 22, 2017

            Two other early independent sources are the Muratorian fragment and the Acts of Peter, which both specifically mention Paul’s trip to Spain:

            “Moreover, the acts of all the apostles were written in one book. For ‘most excellent Theophilus’ Luke compiled the individual events that took place in his presence — as he plainly shows by omitting the martyrdom of Peter as well as the departure of Paul from the city [of Rome] when he journeyed to Spain.” ~ Muratorian fragment (c170)

            “And after Paul had fasted three days and asked of the Lord that which should be profitable for him, he saw a vision, even the Lord saying unto him: Arise, Paul, and become a physician in thy body (i.e. by going thither in person) to them that are in Spain… and they put all that was needful on the ship and delivered him two young men, believers, to sail with him, and bade him farewell” ~ Acts of Peter (c150-200)

            The Acts of Peter contains a lot of fantasy, and whilst I wouldn’t put a lot of weight upon the contents (if any at all in some sections) it does at least confirm the tradition found in other, more reliable sources (1 Clement and the Muratorian fragment). It is also early, dating to the second century, so we do have multiple early independent sources (two of which are reliable) that state Paul went to Spain. I know of no other ancient source that claims otherwise.

            If Acts was completed in 62 before Paul was released, then the author would not have known if Paul would make it there. However, if Acts was written later (80s or so) then I find it very difficult to imagine the reasons why Acts did not include it, especially as it would tie the commission of Jesus in the beginning of Acts together so neatly with the end (if the author was inclined to end it so thematically).

          • Bart
            Bart  May 22, 2017

            Yes, these are late second century sources, written long after it was commonly believed that Paul went to Spain. Whether he did or not is very difficult to say.

          • Lev
            Lev  May 22, 2017

            Although most scholars date 1 Clement to 95-97, a minority opt for the 70 on numerous grounds (present tense when speaking of sacrifices taking place at the temple, the “the sudden and recent calamities” could refer to the year of the four emperors in 69, the infancy of clerical offices where presbyters and bishops are referred to synonymously and by referring to Peter and Paul belonging to the same generation), but even if it weren’t written that early, and instead was written around Domitian, it would certainly be within the lifespans of those who would have known Paul.

            As you say, the other two sources are about 100 years later, but as they don’t share much of the same language or formulation with one another so it’s likely the tradition was transmitted loosely and independently from each source. Perhaps this suggests greater reliability?

            Nevertheless, we don’t have any record of where exactly Paul went, if he established any Spanish churches or any traditions from Spain itself so as you say, it’s difficult to find much hard evidence. I guess if we unearthed “St Paul’s Epistle to the Valentians” we would find more secure footing. 🙂

          • Bart
            Bart  May 23, 2017

            I’m out of town and away from my books right now. Who dates 1 Clement to as early as 70 CE? (Present tense when speaking about the sacrifices? You find that in the Talmud 500 years later as well!)

          • Lev
            Lev  May 23, 2017

            J A T Robinson in Redating the New Testament, opts for 70, and he mostly relies upon Edmundson (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edmundson/church.pdf – see pages 141-153). Robinson notes: “I confess that when I first read that I thought that if he can persuade me of that, he can persuade me of anything. But I am convinced that his case merits the most serious consideration.”

            As for the temple reference, Edmundson makes the following point:

            “It is difficult to see how the evidential value of chapter 41 can be explained away. It is so important as a witness for the early date that it must be given in full.

            ‘Let each of you, brethren, in his own order give thanks [at the Eucharist], keeping a good conscience without passing beyond the appointed rule of his service with reverence. Not in every place, brethren, are the perpetual daily sacrifices offered, or the free-will offerings or the sin offerings and the trespass offerings, but in Jerusalem alone, and there not in every place is it offered, but before the sanctuary in the altar-court; after the victim which is being offered has been inspected for blemishes by the high priest and the aforesaid ministry. They then who do anything contrary to the seemly order of His [God’s] will have death as their punishment. Ye see, brethren, how in proportion as we have been deemed worthy of fuller knowledge, so much the greater is the danger to which we are exposed.’

            Those who cling to the Domitianic date for this Epistle are driven to strange shifts to find any plausible argument for denying to this passage its obvious sense, that at the time when it was written the Temple at Jerusalem was still standing, and the daily sacrifice had not ceased. Lightfoot and others bring forward Josephus’ account of the Mosaic sacrifices (‘Ant.’ iii. cc. 9, 10) written in 93 A.D., in which the historic present is freely used. But as Hefele pointed out some years ago, there is a wide distinction between the two cases. Josephus, in describing a ritual system that had passed away, employs a well-known artifice of the historian in order to lend vividness to his narrative. Clement, on the other hand, brings before the eyes of his readers the fixed order of the Jewish worship with the purpose of showing to them that the maintenance of such order was a Divine institution.

            But if the Temple had been destroyed and that order of worship had been violently brought to an end, would not his whole argument fall to the ground and his opponents be able to retort that the complete disappearance of the Jewish sanctuary, its official hierarchy and ordered ritual was a proof that such a system no longer could claim the divine sanction?” ~ The Church in Rome, p 145-6

            It’s also worth having a glance through Edmunson’s ‘Chronological Table of Events Mentioned in the Lectures’ on p 178-80 to see where he dates much of the New Testament.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 24, 2017

            Robinson, of course, was not a Patristics scholar and so far as I know had no expertise in the Apostolic Fathers. I’m not aware of any experts who date 1 Clement that early, but if you learn of any, do let me know!

          • tompicard
            tompicard  May 23, 2017

            Lev & Bart
            thanks for the back and forth and new information to me regarding dating of Acts – which thereby defines a latest possible date for the Gospel of Luke.
            To me, the simplest and most reasonable explanation of why the author of Acts doesn’t comment on any of Paul’s activities post house arrest in Rome, has always seemed that the document was written prior to any of those activities. (i.e. year 62 or year 63)

          • Bart
            Bart  May 24, 2017

            One problem with that, of course, is that he almost certainly used the Gospel of Mark as one of his sources, and Mark is almost always dated to around 70 CE.

          • Lev
            Lev  May 24, 2017

            Another scholar who opts for a 70 date of 1 Clement is Carsten Peter Thiede in ‘Rekindling the Word: In Search of Gospel Truth’, p.71

            On the issue of Luke’s dependence of Mark’s gospel post 70 – I wrote earlier: “A date in the 80s (or later) only seems necessary if one starts with the premise that the gospels *had* to be written late.” To which you responded: “No one thinks that Luke-Acts *has* to be late.” If you start with the premise of Mark’s gospel being composed c70 (as I don’t) and Matthew and Luke depend on Mark (as we do) then all other gospels *have* to be late.

            However, I would argue we have strong evidence placing Mark’s gospel within Peter’s lifetime after a mission to Rome in the early 40s. There’s a lot of early evidence, but one of the best pieces comes from Roman Historian Suetonius who states in Lives of the Twelve Caesars (121 AD) that Claudius expelled the Jewish population after the spread of Christianity caused disturbances: “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Christ, he expelled them from Rome.” As for the date of this, we find in a fragment of one of Josephus’ lost works “In his ninth year (49 AD) the Jews were expelled by Claudius from the city.” (cited by Paulus Orosius, Historiarum adversum paganos, libri VII 7.6.15-16)

            How did Christianity grow so rapidly within Rome in the 40s? And what was the cause of such acute disturbances amongst the Jewish population that the Emporer had to expel an entire sub-section of the population? *Something* had to have *caused* this.

            It’s difficult to explain the spread of Christianity on a scale that would cause such disturbances in the 40s on the back of a handful of Jewish converts returning or migrating from Palestine. They would have been insufficient in numbers and without the necessary authority or boldness to challenge entrenched Jewish orthodoxy.

            The best explanation is that an apostolic mission occurred, and just as Paul experienced whenever he preached the gospel, strong opposition quickly emerged. I suspect it was a combination of the proclamation that Jesus rose from the dead (and was, therefore, the Christ) and that gentiles are admitted into the Kingdom of God (Peter had already baptised Cornelius and his family) that caused the trouble.

            If Peter had embarked upon a mission to Rome in the early 40s and Mark wrote his gospel in the mid-40s before both Peter and Mark return to Jerusalem, then this would match the ancient tradition: “The Gospel according to Mark had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it. When Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it.” (Attributed to Clement of Alexandria, but some believe Clement was quoting from Papias, who in turn was quoting the Apostle John).

            This gospel (or a copy of it), perhaps with the final page containing the resurrection account ripped out by an angry Jewish Roman during the disturbances, probably made its way to Jerusalem with some of the Jewish Roman Christians who were expelled in 49. This would have meant that Luke would have had access to the gospel when he composed his in the late 50s whilst waiting for Paul to be released from his imprisonment in Palestine.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 26, 2017

            I’m afraid Thiede is also another scholar who is not an expert in early Patristic and who spins theories that no one buys. That’s the problem: I don’t think you’ll find any serious scholar of early Christianty who dates 1 Clement before 90 CE. Since the work of Lightfoot and Zahn, every authority, to my knowledge, puts it around 95-96 CE, for pretty compelling reasons. I spell them out in my edition in the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press).

          • James Cotter  May 25, 2017

            “less likely that Luke would have spent 8 chapters building up the narrative to Paul’s trial, only to leave his readers disappointed with the lack of outcome. ”

            there are responses to this

            quote :

            We don’t know how Paul died. We don’t know when. How can we say the author of Acts would certainly include Paul’s death, if we don’t even know how and when he died? Would the author have included it if Paul died by shipwreck? By disease? By a knife fight in an alley? By being martyred? By other Christians?

            The outcome of Paul’s trial is equally problematic. Did he win? Did he lose? Did it even happen? Again, if Paul died from disease prior to the trial, this makes perfect sense why it wasn’t listed. Or if he lost. We simply don’t know, and to speculate what happened adds silence upon silence, removing all but a feather’s weight of credibility.

            (Sometimes people claim Luke wrote so much about the trial leading up to the ending and he wouldn’t have mentioned it at all if Paul lost. Not true—if Paul lost, that is all the MORE reason to give the long-winded substantiation. In my practice, at times, I ask the question, “Have you been convicted of a felony?” I receive two answers:

            1) “No.”

            2) “Let me tell you what happened….”

            No one says outright, “Yes, I was convicted”—first they want to give an explanation. Like Luke does for Paul.)

          • James Cotter  May 25, 2017

            i wonder why paul did not mention any of jesus’ predictions about the temples destruction , did paul think of happy times ahead?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 26, 2017

            My guess is that he never heard about these predictions by Jesus.

          • Lev
            Lev  May 26, 2017

            Thanks Bart. I think I’ve found it here: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674996076

            I’ve got a lot of time and respect for experts, but ultimately it’s the weight of argument and evidence that persuades me. I’ll check out your views in your book on Clement, which I’ll probably buy as you also cover Ignatius, Polycarp, etc, who are really fascinating early Church fathers.

            What do you think of the composition of Mark in the mid-40s theory?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 28, 2017

            Yes of course!! Always go with the evidence!

          • Lev
            Lev  May 29, 2017

            I hope you can forgive me for gnawing at the Clement bone again – if we accept the majority view that 1 Clement dates to 95/96, why would we still consider Clement’s account of Paul’s mission to Spain unreliable?

            Clement was at the very least a high-ranking official in the Roman Church (if not the Bishop) at the time, so he must have spent a significant amount of time in the city. Even if he wasn’t around in the mid to late 60s when Paul is said to have been executed, surely he would be aware of the local accounts that would still be available from people who knew Paul?

            Furthermore, would it not be incredibly risky to spin a tale he knows not to be true given his position within the church and the close proximity of the truth (hardly 30 years would have elapsed)? What would be his motivation to deceive?

            I’m struggling to find a reason to doubt Clement’s account of Paul’s final mission.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 30, 2017

            He doesn’t say Paul went to Spain. He says he went to the “ends of the earth.” So my *guess* is that he means Spain. This would have been written 35 years after Paul’s journey, if he made it, by someone who didn’t know him. I assume 1 Clement heard it from somewhere. At about the same time as 1 Clement was being written the book of Acts was produced. And we *know* that Acts — also written by someone who didn’t know Paul — is chock full of inaccuracies (we know this because we can compare what Acts says about Paul with what Paul says about Paul when they are talking about the same thing). So someone writing at that time based on what he has heard is not *necessarily* accurate. One has to look for supporting evidenc.e

          • Lev
            Lev  May 30, 2017

            I suppose for the sake of this argument it doesn’t matter if Paul really did go to Spain or not. What’s most important is that the tradition did exist – and this tradition was sufficiently credible that a senior officer of the Roman Church (I have my doubts over whether Clement was Bishop at the time) was able to pass it on as authoritative to the Corinthians 30 years later.

            Given a credible tradition was circulating at the time (even if it were not historically accurate), and given that Acts is supposed to have been written around this time, why then did Luke end with Paul in Rome and not take advantage of the Spanish tradition?

            If Luke’s purpose was to demonstrate that no one could stop his hero from preaching the gospel, surely it would have been much better to end with the Spanish tradition, neatly tying Jesus’ commission at the beginning “you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) with a tradition placing his unstoppable hero literally at the “ends of the [known] earth.” (1 Clement ch 5)

            Perhaps this is an example of a theological truth that was available to the author of Acts, but inexplicitly, not used?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 1, 2017

            I don’t think the fact that someone in Rome thought Paul went to Spain would indicate that the author of Acts, living in a different time and place, had any knowledge of it.

      • Factfinder
        Factfinder  May 14, 2017

        I don’t know many facts about Q,M, and L, but when i mentioned to a learned teacher at church that Q was a possible source for content in the gospels, he dismissed it and said you must be listening to Bart Ehrman, that’s not a real document, its only “theoretical” . i replied yes i was, and quite a bit actually. His credentials are outstanding, and he seems to be a reliable source for scholarly insight. Later i was watching a lecture by Daniel Wallace, and herd him mention Q as a source. It appears most scholars agree the deeper i look. its amazing that people discard critical thinking, logic AND evidence when it comes to the Bible. Thank you Dr. Ehrman for not being afraid to share you work with the public – im scared to say anything im thinking at church for fear of being “church Disciplined” i stopped going….

        • Bart
          Bart  May 15, 2017

          Good grief. As if I myself came up with that view. It’s been the dominant view among scholars since the 19th century!!

      • James Cotter  May 25, 2017

        lev wrote :
        And miss out the execution of James, Paul and Peter,

        here is an interesting response :

        Dear Patrick Sele,

        “I think your analogy is not appropriate. The problem is not the idea that the author of Acts may have written his accounts of certain events decades later after these events had happened, but that he didn’t write about events that one may expect appearing in his account if he knew about them. This applies to the outcome of Paul’s trial in Rome or to Paul’s death.”

        The difficulty with your objection is whether we should “expect” Paul’s death to appear in the narrative at all, especially if the author of Acts only had the intention of writing about events up until 63 CE. As both Herodotus and Suetonius show, ancient historians would often close their narratives several decades before the present moment. Why should I expect Paul’s death to be included in the narrative, if it was designed to end several years earlier? And, regardless, there are plausible allusions to Paul’s death, such as in Acts 20:36-38, so that even if the narrative closes several years earlier, there still seem to be hints of the outcome.

        “To use your example of Suetonius’ accounts concerning Roman emperors, if Suetonius wrote only about the early years of Domitian’s reign, but would have mentioned the later years of Domitian’s reign and Domitian’s death, one may reasonably conclude that Suetonius wrote his account during Domitian’s reign and not decades later.”

        I think you are missing a couple points here. To begin with, the way that Suetonius structures his biographies, he begins with the birth of each emperor and ends with their death. If there was a biography in Suetonius’ De Vita Caesarum that lacked a narrative of death, therefore, that would be very odd, indeed, since none of the other biographies lack this detail. You might be able to explain such an oddity by arguing that Suetonius was writing during the reign of that emperor. However, the book of Acts does not narrate the life of each of its characters up until their deaths, so it is not an oddity for these details to be missing. The only apostle mentioned to die at all is James the son of Zebedee in Acts 12:2 (and briefly, at that). It is therefore not a structural expectation in Acts that it will follow Paul all the way to the scene of his death. Acts is not a book about the deaths of the apostles, but rather the spread of the Christian church to Rome.

        But, furthermore, your objection needs to address things that Suetonius could have narrated, if knew about them, but yet left out of his narrative. Suetonius mentions the emperor Nerva coming to power, for example, in Life of Domitian 1.1; however, Suetonius does not write about the death of Nerva. The reason why is that Suetonius closes his narrative around 96 CE, even if one could argue that we should “expect” him to write about later things that he knew in the following years, such as the reign of Nerva.

        To argue that Acts should have included Paul’s death in the narrative, therefore, you have to argue why the author could not have simply ended the narrative at 63 CE. There are plenty of ancient historians who ended their historical works before major events that they could have included in the narrative. I don’t think that the Acts ending in 63 CE, and failing to mention certain later events, therefore, prevents it from still being written in the 80’s to early 2nd century CE.


  3. talmoore
    talmoore  May 14, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, if I were to take a wild stab at speculating what happened to the original “eyewitnesses” of Jesus (i.e. the original disciples and followers), I would guess that:
    A) A handful of them were martyred in Jerusalem in the 30s, being arrested and executed for sedition.
    B) Many more were martyred in the 40s, especially following the tumult of Caligula trying to place his statue in the Temple, and Herod Agrippa’s mopping up operations throughout his new kingdom. Legend has it that this is when James the brother of Jesus was martyred, for example.
    C) A splinter group in the 50s chose to flee Jerusalem as things were getting worse for the nascent Church, eventually ending up in some neutral town, possibly Beit She’an (i.e. Scythopolis), as legend has it. This splinter group would have no connection at all with the eventual gentile churches united across the empire. The Ebionites may or may not have been the descendents of this splinter group.
    D) Any remaining Christians in Jerusalem who were eyewitnesses to Jesus would later die in the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

    • Rick
      Rick  May 22, 2017

      Isn’t it likely some of them (perhaps those according to Dr. Ehrman’s view who did not have, or buy into ,visions of Jesus) stayed in the Galilee and lived out their lives?

  4. mjt  May 14, 2017

    As you mentioned, there are those who claim that Mark 9:1 refers to the Transfiguration, because that story immediately follows. It seems to me though that the Transfiguration story is a completely new thought, and Mark 9:1 is the conclusion of what was stated at the end of Mark 8. Is that your understanding?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      Originally I htink they were separate stories; but Mark combined them for a reason, I think.

  5. screwtape  May 14, 2017

    I take it you don’t put much stock in the “traditional” view that Peter was the source for Mark.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      No, I don’t. I discuss it in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

      • screwtape  May 15, 2017

        Geesh I read it a few months ago. I guess my memory is slipping faster than I knew.

        I also found one of your older posts on the subject by googling “was peter the source for mark”, but it’s always interesting to note how much fundamentalist views predominate in google searches.

  6. RonaldTaska  May 14, 2017

    For those new to this blog, Dr. Ehrman’s “Jesus Before the Gospels” explains this post in more detail. It is a very good book.

    I would think that if the author of Mark were getting his information from an eyewitness, he would have mentioned this and identified who this was in order to increase the credibility of his account.

  7. hasankhan  May 14, 2017

    Why do Christians today claim that Bible is word of God when it seems its simply narrations and oral traditions written down by different authors. Where did this concept of it being word of God and being free of errors come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      Ah, that’s a very long story indeed. Shortest version: the modern fundamentalist views developed during the Niagara conferences at the end of the 19th century. But long before that view, the Bible has been held to be God’s word, in *some* sense, since the second century.

  8. doug  May 14, 2017

    Good point that if the gospel writers had spoken to witnesses of Jesus, they probably would have clearly said so, since it would have given them more credibility.

    Question: How do we know that the author of Mark lived “in an urban area outside of Palestine”?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      Because he is highly literate and wrote in Greek as his first language. Literacy was primarily an urban phenomenon.

  9. seahawk41  May 14, 2017

    This doesn’t relate directly to the above post, but I’ve been thinking about tossing it out there, so here goes! Are you familiar with the book Pontius Pilate by Aldo Schiavone? I read this one a few weeks ago, and found it to be a fascinating read. Some parts of it make pretty good sense to me, such as his analysis of the events leading up to Jesus’ arrest. I’m more puzzled about his downplaying what Josephus and Philo have to say about Pilate. I can buy his assertion that their descriptions of Pilate are almost boiler plate; i.e, this is the way any leader of a foreign occupation force would be described. But Philo and Josephus also relate some very explicit things that they claim Pilate did, and I think most historians accept this as evidence of Pilate’s character–not a very nice guy, in other words. Unless, of course, Philo and Josephus made this stuff up out of their anger at Pilate. What are your thoughts?

  10. godspell  May 14, 2017

    Mark could have corresponded with the few literate people in the scattered Christian communities in Palestine, and gotten some information that way–with significant probability of errors in transmission, and how would he even know who was a legitimate witness? And since all roads lead to Rome, some survivors could have made their way there, to help form Christian churches there. There’s a lot of possibilities, but it’s not possible Mark could have done what we would now consider sound historical research. Nor would it be reasonable to expect that of him. Livy and Tacitus didn’t do that either. Plutarch most definitely did not.

    Bart, as a work of history (which is not what it was primarily intended to be), how would you rank Mark’s gospel against more secular histories produced in that general time period (all of which are similarly suspect in many respects)?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      It is striking that Mark does not claim to be writing a history, but a “Gospel” — that is, a “proclamation of good news.” His work is not as historically based as histories of the period (e.g., Josephus), but then again, it doesn’t claim or mean to be.

      • godspell  May 15, 2017

        I think that you have a draw a line between a chronicle–which is simply setting out the known facts relating to some incident or general time period, an eyewitness account in many cases–and a history, which is an attempt to analyze and understand what happened, generally before the author’s time, though it may also be trying to reconstruct events retroactively, a sort of forensic exercise.

        What Mark was doing was different from either of these, though it contains elements of both. He’s collected bits and pieces of chronicled events from Jesus’ life, and molded them into a fairly harmonious narrative (which is what writers of fiction do, even when writing about documented historical events and persons). I think we have to say that one of his motivations was to better understand this man who had become so all-important to him. But there are very distinct limits placed on how deep he wants to dig. He’s not trying to prove to anyone that Jesus existed, or even that Jesus was Messiah, because his intended audience takes the latter as a given, and nobody at all was saying Jesus was a myth. Nobody so much as suggested that until the 18th century.

        The job for the gospel authors was to figure out what it all meant, and how believers should interpret Jesus’ life and teaching.

        What always gets me about Mark, more than any of the other gospels, is that you can still feel a living breathing person in there, under all the mystery and mythologizing. Mark made these stories come alive, and for all the distortions of fact that must have existed within them, he, above all others, gives you that “Ecce Homo” experience. Perhaps it’s impossible to ever fully understand another human being, great or small–but biography is an attempt to do just that. And I think we can say Mark was a biographer, even if he never aspired to be an historian.

        • godspell  May 15, 2017

          I should have said ‘perceived chronicled events from Jesus’ life’, because obviously it’s not likely that Jesus could control the weather or raise the dead. But to Mark, these would be taken as chronicles, as would the many more mundane (but still fascinating) stories circulating about Jesus.

          Came across this quote today, on Talking Points Memo, in relation to a story currently much discussed, and I think it’s worth citing here, even though it’s in a very different field. Josh Marshall was trained as an historian before going into his current field, and I think that’s one reason he often does such a good job interpreting the behavior of certain persons of interest in our political system.

          “To be clear, using the term ‘myth’ in this way doesn’t mean something that is false. A myth is a story that we tell about the past or the world or a person to wring meaning and coherence from it. It can never comprehend all the facts of the matter but it may well capture larger truths about it.”

          As they say in Irish, Sin-é! (that’s it).

          And I’d post a link to the piece, but perhaps there are subjects today even more controversial than the factual truth of the gospels. And I really wouldn’t have thought that would ever be possible. But with Trump, all things are possible. :\

  11. dragonfly  May 14, 2017

    I’ve decided to see if I can teach myself greek, starting with John, but I’ve got stuck on the first verse. “…and the word was God”, both “word” and “God” are in the nominative so how do you tell if “the word was God” or “God was the word”?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      I won’t be able to answer all your Greek questions, I’m afraid! But in this case, notice that only λογος has the article. That makes it the subject and θεος the predicate.

  12. searchingfortruthineverything  May 14, 2017

    Some churches used wrong interpretation of certain Bible Scriptures to try to convince people that Galileo was wrong about earth’s rotation around sun.

    So what other Bible Scriptures has the churches misinterpreted or mistranslated to try to convince people that false doctrines are Bible truth???

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      Ah, that’s a long story. Think slavery, for example.

    • Petter Häggholm  May 16, 2017

      I don’t see why you describe that as “wrong interpretation” of the Bible. There are many parts of the Bible that seem quite clear that the Earth is at the centre, and presumably flat: it has pillars and foundations, the ‘firmament’ is a solid dome above it keeping out the waters above, God stops the sun in the sky at Joshua’s request, &c.

      The people writing it weren’t stupid, but they were ignorant of many things that we know today—and the modern facts of astronomy are among them.

      Interestingly, though, the Galileo affair is one where it seems the Church gets more flak than it deserves (and I say this as a fairly ardent atheist); in his lifetime, the Ptolemaic geocentric model gave objectively better predictions of astronomical measurements than his heliocentric model (it needed Kepler and his ellipses). When the Church opposed Galileo’s heliocentrism, it had the scientific consensus on its side, and it may not have helped that when Galileo presented his argument in the form of a dialogue (as was then usual), the traditional position held by the Church (and most others) was represented by a character named “Simplicio”.

  13. searchingfortruthineverything  May 14, 2017

    Some interpret the transfiguration as a vision of Christ returning in the Kingdom.


    What I learned a lot time ago… . . . Question your so called orthodoxies. One person’s heresy is another person’s orthodoxy and vice versa.

    Some churches used wrong interpretation of certain Bible Scriptures to try to convince people that Galileo was wrong about earth’s rotation around the sun.

    Certain ancient church theologians and priests and pastors claimed that certain Bible Scriptures in Psalms proved that the sun literally rises and the sun literally sets and the earth did not move to try to convince people that Galileo was wrong about earth’s rotation.

    Some ancients even claimed Bible Scriptures such as the Bible Scripture “the four corners of the earth” proved that the earth was flat instead of other Bible Scripture that says “the circle of the earth” or the earth is a sphere.

    So what other Bible Scriptures has the churches misinterpreted or mistranslated to try to convince people that other false doctrines or other lies are Bible truth? ? ?

  14. Tempo1936  May 14, 2017

    Many passages claim eyewitness accounts.
    Why do you believe they are all lying?
    Heb 2:3; 1 pet 5:1; 2 pet 1:16; 1john 1:1

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      You may want to read my book Forged — or if you really want to get into it, my book Forgery and Counterforgery. In both I talk about ancient views of, opinions toward, and uses of lying.

      • Petter Häggholm  May 16, 2017

        Or both! As a lay reader, I did not start reading Bart’s books with anything remotely resembling the background knowledge to read Forgery and Counter-forgery, but having read Forged! and a few others to do the groundwork, I read F&CF and now mentally place it on my list of favourite non-fiction books.

      • Tempo1936  May 16, 2017


  15. Gary  May 15, 2017

    But you are forgetting one very important issue, Dr. Ehrman. First century Jews were not like people today. First century Jewish culture was a culture which highly valued the accuracy of oral stories and traditions. Unlike the game “Telephone” which skeptics frequently use as an analogy for how a rumor or legend develops today, first century Jews would memorize their oral stories. These memorized stories were passed on to others with extreme care for detail and accuracy. Therefore, Christians today can be certain that the historical events and statements of Jesus were accurately preserved until the authors of the Gospels wrote them down. It would have been impossible for the authors of the Gospels to have included inaccurate information in their books because every Christian in every church would have known the stories by heart and would have pointed out and rejected any inaccuracies. Hallelujah! The critics of the Bible have been defeated again!

    🙂 I am being facetious. I do not believe the above to be true, but the above argument is frequently used by Christian apologists in response to skeptics’ statements, such as the one you have given in this post, regarding the historical non-reliability and non-eyewitness character of the Gospels. Care to comment on how you would respond to this?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      I am so glad you are being facetious. This, as you probably know, is the issue I address head-on in my book Jesus Before the Gospels

    • HawksJ  May 15, 2017

      I too am relieved you were being facetious. That would have been the ultimate troll.

      One way to respond is to paint the picture of how what you wrote actually would look in the real world. Imagine you hear the ‘Good News’ in a scenario like Bart paints above; you hear it from an excited member of your wife’s family.

      Before you share it with, say, your brother, do you wait until you’ve heard it ‘recited’ (as-it-were) by your in-law 5-10 times so that you could properly memorize it (in truth, if it was truly unwritten, it would take more times than that to actually memorize it)?

      Of course not. If you were excited about it, you’d share it after the first ‘hearing’. And your version would absolutely be different than the one you heard.

      In other words, even if what they claim about the oral transmission was generally true, it would only apply to formal communications, certainly not to everyday interactions – which is the main way such stories would have spread.

      Another, simple, way to respond: we know the stories changed – which is why Paul spends so much time correcting them!

    • flyboydh1  May 18, 2017

      The accounts of the Gospels have no resemblance to that of Jewish oral tradition. All you have to do is read a few sentences in the Talmud and you will see the vast differences in how Jews passed down oral tradition. Jewish Sages were extraordinary in their ascription of oral tradition to specific people.

  16. peterstone  May 15, 2017

    Thanks for this. Very interesting. One question–when you say, “Mark was a highly educated, Greek speaking Christian living in an urban area outside of Palestine (Rome?), who never traveled, probably, to Galilee. So the existence of eyewitnesses would not have much if any effect on his Gospel.” How do we know the author of Mark could not have been from Palestine?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2017

      Greek is his first language; and he doesn’t seem to know the customs or geography of Palestine. (Customs, e.g., Mark 6, his claim that “all Jews” wash their hands before eating. Not even close to true. If he had grown up among Jews he would have known that.)

  17. jmmarine1  May 15, 2017

    This past Easter I read more than one article written by a conservative Christian that stated that the Gospels are historically reliable. The need for eyewitness testimony, as well as historical reliability, among conservative Christians puzzles me because what is usually at odds with their understanding of the NT has little to do with historical verisimilitude and much more to do with theological interpretation. Just because John or Mark got this or that historical fact correct in their gospels, this does not mean that the theological interpretation that has been given to the event narrated is necessarily correct. Just because an inscription has been found with the name Pontus Pilate does not mean that when he oversaw the death of Jesus it was for the sin(s) of the world; which, from what I can gather, seems to be implied when Christians cite historical/archaeological reliability of the texts in question.

  18. James Cotter  May 15, 2017

    in mark, why would it say that people thought jesus was calling out to eli-yah when he said “my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?”

    how did mark know what the PEOPLE said? how is it possible they got confused between “eloi” and “eli-ya” ?

    and how is it possible after hearing the psalms, they thought it was not the psalms being quoted but eli-ya being called out?

    is mark countering an oral tradition which said that jesus , in his last hour, was asking eli-ya to come and help him?

  19. Petter Häggholm  May 16, 2017

    Apologists often make arguments in the rough form of “even if this stuff wasn’t written by eyewitnesses, there were some still alive who would have corrected them”. This always struck me as questionable, since it’s not like someone in Smyrna could have sent a quick email off to their friends in Antioch or Jerusalem, or even taken a flight from Rome. In fact, if Christianity was (as I understand it) especially attractive to the lower classes—slaves and women and poor people—wouldn’t these on average have been people who would have had great trouble taking any time at all off from their work, or having resources to travel? (As well as, of course, being largely illiterate and hence unable to carry out correspondence even if they’d known someone so far away.)

    Moreover, it seems to me that within the Christian community, there would have been very little motivation to do any kind of arduous fact-checking. After all, by virtue of being within the community, they already believed in the basic tenets of the faith! If some people did fact-checking and found that it didn’t check out, well, we wouldn’t hear from them because they’d remain pagans.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2017

      Yes, that is one of the theses of my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

  20. flyboydh1  May 18, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman how do Christians understand the Gospels to be “eye witness accounts” when much of Mark and Q are found in Mt. and Lk.? Aren’t these the opposite of “eye witness accounts?” There are several apologists who tout their law enforcement and or attorney background to push their Christian views and evidence for the gospels as eyewitness accounts, yet they would apply opposite standards to what an eyewitness account is when examining a crime scene. I just don’t see how they completely disconnect the two standards?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      yes, it’s a bit of a problem I’d say. I suppose they imagine that Mark is based on eyewitnesses and Matthew and Luke augmented that eyewitness account with eyewitness accounts of their own.

  21. anthonygale  May 26, 2017

    Did writers of ancient biographies do research, analogous to at least some degree, that a modern day biographer would do? I realize that in the ancient world it was a lot harder to travel and for books to circulate. But if someone was so motivated, they could search available sources, interview eyewitnesses, travel to do so, or send a letter asking someone to send them a copy (hopefully without too many mistakes). Even if Jesus himself never had any followers that could read and write, surely the apostles converted literate people. Paul could write, met the apostles, and established churches in many cities. Based on that, I think the chances are good that written documents once existed based on eyewitness accounts. If that is correct, the question is what is the likelihood the gospel writers got their hands on those documents, which would improve if they searched hard to find them. What do you think of those chances and why?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      Yes, ancient biographers did research — interviewing people and so on. But my sense is that virtually all the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and teachings (e.g., the disciples) were illiterate. We have no indication that anyone wrote a single word about him at the time.

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