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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.

 

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QUESTION

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.

RESPONSE

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

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    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.

  2. Avatar
    Hon Wai  October 2, 2018

    Hello Bart, I have some questions concerning your research in memory studies and eyewitness testimonies. It will become clear I have in mind a contemporary situation. I want to ask these questions, as your research has relevant things to say. Short yes/no/maybe answers are suffice. I will try to stay on topic, by posing the questions in general terms, and by relating them to your research. You have highlighted many cases where eyewitnesses, including a group of eyewitnesses, testifying with earnestness and sincerity that an event took place, when it turned out it never happened. Let’s suppose the only evidence available to us are the competing testimonies of two people, one alleged an incident almost 4 decades ago happened, while the other denied it. We have no written records, no corroborating evidence, both people appear credible in their testimonies, the accused produces credible evidence he probably was not at the scene of the incident. The accuser does not remember the exact location, or how they got there, and never told anyone about the incident until recent years.

    1) Is it fair to say that despite the unreliability of eyewitness testimonies concerning details of a purported incident, when there is a credible eyewitness who has nothing to gain from fabricating or embellishing an incident, more probable than not, the incident did happen despite uncertainty over the details?

    2) Are memories concerning traumatic experiences usually reliable, despite the purported incident occurring almost 4 decades ago, and despite 3 other people alleged to be present at the incident denying knowledge of the broader context (e.g. person A claims persons B and C and D were present in a gathering where a private incident involving only A and B alleged occurred, but B C and D denied the gathering took place)?

    3) In cases of traumatic experiences, if the incident did happen, is it highly unlikely the witness mistakes the identity of the perpetuator by name?

    My personal take is the incident did happen, more or less as alleged, but the level of doubt concerning mistaken identity is too high to allow conviction of the accused, who probably genuinely believes it never happened due to the unremarkableness (from his perspective) of the brief incident from so long ago. His view of himself as a morally incorruptible scrupulous member of society in the subsequent decades (as he justifiably was), reinforces his conviction that the incident never happened.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2018

      I won’t answer the questions too directly, because they appear to be referring to very recent political events, and I choose not to go there on the blog. But yes, if one of two people must be lying, the one who has more to lose and more to gain is automatically the one who is more suspect. Doesn’t mean she or he is lying, but you have to ask: who has something to gain from this? And yes, eyewitness testimony is often inaccurate.

  3. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 23, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    What do you make of the “Some Doubted” comment in Matt. 28? It sounds like criterion of embarrassment; do you think this is the writer informing us that not all of the apostles were so easily convinced that Jesus rose?

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