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Were the Gospels written by eye-witnesses?

Postby Newbie » Wed May 14, 2014 5:06 pm

I'm an atheist who believes that the Gospels were written anonymously and ascribed names after the fact. However, in the interest of knowing the truth, I would like to have this belief challenged and so I am asking anyone who has good evidence that the Gospels were in fact written by Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to give me some good reading material (or watching material).

Thanks in advance, I appreciate it :)
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Re: Were the Gospels written by eye-witnesses?

Postby jimwalton » Wed May 14, 2014 5:33 pm

The first century was a rhetorical culture, where oral and written speech interacted closely with each other. Oral composition was still the rule, and a premium was put on the spoken word. Written words were still, at the time, considered inferior and not as trustworthy. Memory skills were well-developed, but tended to be thematic rather than word for word.

The Gospels followed in form. They were oral renditions of the oral pronouncements of Jesus and the things he did. At the same time, however, we must understand that the Synoptics gospels fall into the category of what we would call "informal controlled oral tradition: villagers gathering for the narration of stories. Certain elements could be changed at will by the storyteller without reducing the authority of the story (casual news, parables, details of the story), but other ingredients were not allowed any flexibility (poems, proverbs, and particular portions of the parables, stories, and historical facets.

In that cultural environment, works such as those that are eventually written down were identified as coming from individual sources, such as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. While those four never wrote what is contained in the gospels, as far as we know, they were considered to the authority from which the book derived as the story was told and retold. Variants were not only common, but permissible, but only within certain restraints. Exact wording wasn't necessary to preserve and transmit reliable representations of inspired truth.

Eventually (within anywhere from 20-50 years) the oral texts were written down, and church history is unanimous that the authoritative sources of these records is Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There is no variation and no disagreement that these four were the ones whose records these were.

As to the particulars, each of the gospels is filled with evidences to substantiate the designations. The author of Matthew was a conservative-minded Jew, not inclined to sectarian views, interested in the Law, in ecclesiastical matters, and burdened about customs. Mark seems to have been a friend of Peter's, and his book speaks of Pete a lot. He doesn't speak so much as a Jew as a disciple. His gospel doesn't have as much eye-witness accounts in it, but the ones it does have seem to be from Peter's eyes. Luke clearly speaks as a historian. one can almost hear all the interviews in his style of writing. John, on the other hand, is replete with eye-witness details that could never have been known (or would have been bothered with) if one had not been there.

There is no reason to doubt the veracity of the unanimous claims to the authorship (original authority) of the oral reports that were eventually transcribed as coming from the names attached to them.
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Re: Were the Gospels written by eye-witnesses?

Postby I park 'em » Thu May 15, 2014 10:31 am

Thank you for the detailed reply. First let me make sure I am understanding you properly. While we may not know who actually wrote the Gospels, the stories that are preserved within them come from the people who's names are ascribed to them? From what I understand, Matthew and John would have been eye-witnesses, while Mark, as you point out, was a disciple of Peter who wrote from that perspective, while I have read that Luke was a disciple of Paul who wrote from a different perspective.

Assuming I have that correct, how would be able to verify this claim (in so far as we can verify anything from history)?
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Re: Were the Gospels written by eye-witnesses?

Postby jimwalton » Thu May 15, 2014 11:39 am

Yeah, you have the idea. There is a possibility that Mark was an occasional eye-witness, because many people believe that the escapee in Mk. 14.51-52 was Mark himself, so the guy may have followed Jesus around even though he wasn't part of the 12.

As far as Luke, he was a disciple of Paul and not an eye-witness of Jesus or anything he did, but he was a consummate researcher and historian.

So, since you have that correct, how is this claim verified? There are only two categories of evidence: direct evidence, and indirect (circumstantial). Since we have no direct evidence, we can only assess whether or not the claim is persuasive. What we're trying to evaluate is whether the claim is both possible and reasonable. Without evidentiary proof, we want to appraise the evidence to see if it brings us to a reasonable conclusion.

Were the sources (the alleged authors) eye-witnesses?

A fairly solid case can be made that the book of Acts was written in the early 60s. It doesn't mention the fall of Jerusalem (AD 70), Nero's persecutions (mid-60s), the martyrdom of James (61), or Peter (65), the Jewish war against Rome (66-70), etc. Many of the expressions in Acts are early and before Christianity became more institutionalized. And Acts deals with things that were especially important to the Christian community before Jerusalem's fall.

But if Acts was written in the early 60s, that means the gospel of Luke was written some time in the 50s. 1 Timothy quotes Luke 10, and 1 Corinthians 11 quotes Luke 22, so both of those are circulating possibly as early as 50. Many scholars believe Luke got some of his material from Mark, which may have been written in the early 50s, then, or the late 40s. Luke says he got his information from eye-witnesses, and that it's an "orderly account". Papias (about AD 100) says that Mark got his information from Peter, and Luke quotes from Mark, so Mark is pretty early, possible within 15 years of Jesus' death.

1 Cor. 15.3-4, by all appearances and scholarly assessment, is a creed that has been dated by scholars to within 2-8 years of Jesus' resurrection. It is likely that Paul received this material 3 years after his conversion (when he took his trip to Jerusalem) from Peter and James themselves. A number of the accounts in Acts 105, 10 and 13 also includes some creeds that report very early data about Jesus' death and resurrection. The earliest evidence we have have for the resurrection goes back to almost immediately after the event allegedly happened.

There is evidence that Mark got his information from an earlier source (speculated, and called "Q" by the scholars) that may have been written as early as the late 30s. In other words, we are VERY close to the event itself.

Ah, but how RELIABLE is all of this? We all know that the more time passes, it's harder to remember what actually happened, and the story has more opportunity to get changed. And we all know that the Gospel writers don't always seem to agree on some of the details.

Any cop investigating a crime would want to know if an officer on the scene had written a report, and where did the report go from there? in police work it's called a "chain of custody" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chain_of_custody).

So, John is "at the scene." but how do i know John's testimony hasn't changed over time? Ignatius of Antioch (AD 40ish - 100ish), Papias of Hierapolis, and Polycarp were all students of John. Ignatius writes letters to churches mentioning what John taught, as well as quoting from other gospels. Polycarp quoted from various Gospels, and from Paul's letters.

Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp. He wrote so much that we get from a him a list of 24 NT books, showing us that the NT is already recognized, somewhat assembled, and used. Irenaeus had a student named Hippolytus of Rome; Paul had students: his chain of custody goes through Clement of Rome all the way to Origen.

Peter taught Mark, who taught the first five African bishops, all the way to Eusebius.

In other words, we have a SUBSTANTIAL chain of custody. From very early on (even from Ignatius and Polycarp) Jesus is claimed to have been a born of a virgin, a worker of miracles, claimed to be God, and raised from the dead.

All of the church fathers, without exception, attribute the Gospel of Matthew to Matthew. The superscription "According to Matthew" appears on the earliest editions we have and is found on all known manuscripts of the gospel. There is no disagreement in the early church that John Mark wrote Mark, and that Luke wrote Luke. There are DOZENS of reasons (long lists) affirming John as the "author" (source) of John. The bottom line is that there is NO evidence from the 1st century that the authorship of any of the four gospels was ever in doubt.

There is every reason to believe the writings of the gospels were early and written by the assumed authors, and the chain of custody bears evidence. We can have confidence beyond a reasonable doubt.
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Re: Were the Gospels written by eye-witnesses?

Postby Solid State Radio » Tue May 09, 2017 9:09 am

As far as I'm aware, we only have the New Testament as a set of documents claiming to contain Jesus message.

We have the gospels, written by anonymous authors who didn't meet Jesus.

We have Acts, written by one of the gospel writers (so not an eyewitness).

We have the Pauline epistles, some written by Paul (not an eyewitness to Jesus' ministry, claimed to have met the resurrected Jesus), and some written by anonymous authors.

What reasons do we have to think that the writings we have available to us today accurately convey what Jesus taught?
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Re: Were the Gospels written by eye-witnesses?

Postby jimwalton » Tue May 09, 2017 9:10 am

> We have the gospels, written by anonymous authors who didn't meet Jesus.

Just because the authors are anonymous doesn't mean they didn't meet Jesus. It's just as possible that they did. Given the nature of the content, there is reason to believe some of the authors were eyewitnesses, and the other authors had done thorough and reliable research (Lk. 1.1-4).

> What reasons do we have to think that the writings we have available to us today accurately convey what Jesus taught?

The first century was a rhetorical culture, where oral and written speech interacted closely with each other. Oral composition was still the rule, and a premium was put on the spoken word. Written words were still, at the time, considered inferior and not as trustworthy. Memory skills were well-developed, but tended to be thematic rather than word for word.

The Gospels followed in form. They were oral renditions of the oral pronouncements of Jesus and the things he did. At the same time, however, we must understand that the Synoptics gospels fall into the category of what we would call "informal controlled oral tradition: villagers gathering for the narration of stories. Certain elements could be changed at will by the storyteller without reducing the authority of the story (casual news, parables, details of the story), but other ingredients were not allowed any flexibility (poems, proverbs, and particular portions of the parables, stories, and historical facets.

In that cultural environment, works such as those that are eventually written down were identified as coming from individual sources, such as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. All ancient sources, without exception, unanimously attribute the four Gospels to those four writers. We have no evidence to the contrary, or even doubting those designations. There is reasonable evidence that Mark wrote Mark himself in consultation with Peter in Rome in the late 50s. There is reasonable evidence that John wrote John (we don't know when, but estimates range from the late 60s to the early 90s). There is strong evidence that Luke wrote Luke.

As to the particulars, each of the gospels is filled with evidences to substantiate the designations. The author of Matthew was a conservative-minded Jew, not inclined to sectarian views, interested in the Law, in ecclesiastical matters, and burdened about customs. Mark seems to have been a friend of Peter's, and his book speaks of Pete a lot. He doesn't speak so much as a Jew as a disciple. His gospel doesn't have as much eye-witness accounts in it, but the ones it does have seem to be from Peter's eyes. Luke clearly speaks as a historian. one can almost hear all the interviews in his style of writing. John, on the other hand, is replete with eye-witness details that could never have been known (or would have been bothered with) if one had not been there.

There is no reason to doubt the veracity of the unanimous claims to the authorship (original authority) of the oral reports that were eventually transcribed as coming from the names attached to them. As far as we can deduce, we can know what Jesus' message was because we have some eyewitness accounts, four well-researched accounts, and a huge manuscript repository that gives us an accurate rendering of the Gospel writings.
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Re: Were the Gospels written by eye-witnesses?

Postby Solid State Radio » Wed May 10, 2017 3:40 pm

> It's just as possible that they did

None of them claim to have met Jesus though.

> the other authors had done thorough and reliable research (Lk. 1.1-4).

They claim to have done reliable research. Without knowing exactly what research they did we can't evaluate whether or not it was reliable and thorough.

> All ancient sources, without exception, unanimously attribute the four Gospels to those four writers. We have no evidence to the contrary, or even doubting those designations

This seems to fly in the face of contemporary critical scholarship. Can you source your later claims that the Gospel authors are the same people they are named after?
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Re: Were the Gospels written by eye-witnesses?

Postby jimwalton » Wed May 10, 2017 3:55 pm

> None of them claim to have met Jesus though.

Of course they claim to have met Jesus. Matthew claims to have met him in Matthew 9.9-10, and then travelled with him for the next several years. In John 21.24, we have the testimony of the writer as an eyewitness.

> Without knowing exactly what research they did we can't evaluate whether or not it was reliable and thorough.

That's not accurate either. Luke tells us in Luke 1.2 that he interviewed eyewitnesses and others who had first-hand access to events and first-hand knowledge of the culture surrounding the events.

> Can you source your later claims that the Gospel authors are the same people they are named after?

Of course I can. Have you done research yourself?

Matthew: The superscription "According to Matthew" was part of the first editions still extant (mid-2nd-c. AD) and is found on all known manuscripts of the Gospel, starting at around AD 125. It was attributed to Matthew by Papias (no one in the years surrounding Papias’s testimony challenged Matthean authorship; the tradition appears to have been unchallenged) of Hierapolis (born in AD 63, writing in about 125-130), Pantaenus, and also by Irenaeus in the 2nd century. The early church fathers were unanimous in attributing it to Matthew.

Mark: Papias also writes of the existence of Mark's Gospel, and attributes it to Mark. Justin Martyr attributes it to Mark, as does Irenaeus.

Luke: The uniform and unanimous testimony of the early church is that Luke was the author. The title "According to Luke" is on the oldest extant manuscripts.

John: The first record attributing it to John is Theophilus of Antioch (c. AD 180). Iranaeus (who says he got his information from Polycarp, who knew John personally) says it was John. Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian also consider John to be the author.

The titles of all four Gospels were unanimously accepted in the early church as having been written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There is absolutely no evidence to the contrary.
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Re: Were the Gospels written by eye-witnesses?

Postby Cicero » Wed May 10, 2017 4:09 pm

I don't have time at this moment to give your eloquent post the response it deserves, but I would like briefly to counter your in my view very uncritical assessment of the traditional authorship of the Gospels.

> The author of Matthew was a conservative-minded Jew, not inclined to sectarian views, interested in the Law, in ecclesiastical matters, and burdened about customs.

This doesn't prove he was the apostle, it just proves he was a conservative-minded Jew, not inclined to sectarian views, interested in the Law, in ecclesiastical matters, and burdened about customs. Don't really see where you're going here...

> Mark seems to have been a friend of Peter's, and his book speaks of Pete a lot.

Mark shows evidence of having been written in the 70s. By this time Peter was dead. Also, Mark shows the tell-tale structural signs of having been based on oral tradition, not eyewitness information.

> Luke clearly speaks as a historian.

This is just plain wrong, as I pointed out in a previous comment. It is an error of genre. The Gospel of Luke is a novellistic biography, not a work of history, and has very few of the normal indications of critical historiography (like explicit reflection on the sources he used)

> John, on the other hand, is replete with eye-witness details that could never have been known (or would have been bothered with) if one had not been there.

The vividity of the Johannine narrative might just as well be fiction. Evidence for this view is found, for instance, in the fact that events which John definitely didn't witness, like the conversation between Pilate and Jesus, are described very vividly too (in my view).

If you want to go into this further I'd be very glad to enumerate my reasons for holding that there is a huge amount of evidence against the proposition that the Gospels were written by these people (rather than merely responding to your claims, as I have now)
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Re: Were the Gospels written by eye-witnesses?

Postby jimwalton » Wed May 10, 2017 4:11 pm

We can go into further, if you wish. As you might guess, I was giving a very brief overview of the material available and the arguments pro and con. I have researched the authorship of the Gospels very deeply, have take thorough notes, and have come to the conclusion that the weight of evidence lies in favor of traditional authorship. I know others (and apparently you) disagree with me, and these conversations can drag on interminably. The indisputable fact is that in the early church, without except, the four Gospels were said to have been written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is not until our era (2000 years later) that scholars take a different position. As you know, all such scholarly treatises are based on interpretations of internal evidence, since all of the external evidence says the authors were Mt, Mk, Lk, and Jn.

I've actually had these conversations several times on this forum, and they don't go anywhere. I give my piles of evidence in favor of the traditional authorship, the other person gives their piles of evidence against traditional authorship, and we don't have a meeting of the minds.

Matthew: I mentioned a few points of my research, but certainly didn't dump it all out and write a wall of text. My point was that the nature, style, language, and themes of Matthew all point to the kind of guy we would expect Matthew to be. And since all external evidence identifies him as the author, there is a weight of argument there we are remiss to ignore.

Mark: Mark shows little evidence of having been written in the 70s, though some scholars still put it there. Justin Martyr (about AD 150) says Mark wrote it based on Peter's memoirs. Clement of Alexandria says it was written when Peter was alive. Papias says Mark was the interpreter of Peter. The evidence is far stronger than those arguing a post-70 writing.

Luke: Luke is well-respected as a reliable historical except by the most cynical and minimalist scholars.

John: "The vividity of the Johannine narrative might just as well be fiction." Of course it might be, but there's no substantive reason to take it as such. As far as the conversation between Pilate and Jesus, we have reason to believe John had friends in the Jerusalem priesthood, and later we know that Paul had inside access to the Praetorian guard. It's easy to come up with reasonable theories as to how this information was procured.

I don't know if the conversation is going to be worthwhile, but I'm willing to have it if you wish. I welcome any sincere dialogue.
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