Is it reasonable to reject the Gospels as eyewitness accounts? Part 1

This is part 1 of a six part series. PART 2, PART 3, PART 4, PART 5, PART 6

Most reasonable people would agree that certain kinds of claims should be scrutinized more heavily than others.  For some, religious texts making claims of the miraculous should be more scrutinized than other non-extraordinary literary works.  Perhaps they’re correct.  I don’t object to the notion that religious texts be examined and held up to investigation, it is the degree to which they are scrutinized I usually disagree with. In the previous post, The “miracle” of Christmas, I offer what I believe to be a critique of the oft offered reason to reject the Biblical accounts of the miraculous, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Those who offer this slogan seem to be prone to holding the Bible to unreasonable standards in what seems to be an effort to afford themselves an easy out from having to accept as accurate the claims about Jesus of Nazareth.  But unreasonable rejections aside, are there there reasonable objections to be offered, and more importantly, are there rejoinders to those objections?  Before we consider the information contained within the Bible, or the specifically the Gospel accounts of the life, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus; is it reasonable to believe those four books are indeed eyewitness accounts to the events they claim to be, if only implicitly?

Over the course of this series, I will address six reasons offered as to why it is reasonable to reject the four Gospel accounts as eyewitness accounts of the events for which they claim to be.  These reasons offered to reject the Gospels as eyewitness accounts I believe are reasonable, but more importantly, I believe there exists compelling rebuttals to these objections which make it more reasonable to reject the rejections, if that makes sense.  Something to keep in mind when considering this series, we are discussing what is reasonable, not what is ideal.

Objection: When looking at the four Gospels, they are not four independent accounts, but really two accounts, with one of the accounts being rewritten three different times, (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). And this is important, because in proving something true, you want independent eyewitness accounts.

Two things need to be considered with this first objection.  First, is it true?  And second, does it matter?

It is rather uncontroversial to recognize that there are not only similarities between the synoptic Gospels, but there also seems to be identically worded content shared among them.  It’s this, what I’ll call shared content, which leads people to conclude that the Synoptics are neither independent or eyewitness accounts.  Rather they are copied from one another or copied from some outside source.  But so what?

The Synoptics do seem to be drawing from either Mark’s Gospel (usually granted as the earliest), or a common source used by all three.  Many New Testament scholars hypothesize a document “Q” (from the German quelle meaning source) as the source for the similarities.  However, even if true, I don’t consider this to be a liability for either the authenticity or authority (in respect to being a reliable and genuine account of what people heard and saw Jesus do) of the Gospel accounts.  I think the overarching detail for consideration is what the Gospel authors were intending to convey and why.

The authors were documenting what they considered to be of serious importance: A man who was born among them who claimed to speak for God, who placed himself on the same level with God, who performed miracles, who was killed by the Roman government, and who was raised from the dead.  If this message was true, it’s reasonable to conclude their primary concern was the accuracy of their message, and not necessarily that it was penned in their own words.

It’s generally accepted that the Gospel accounts were authored between 15-40 years after the death of Jesus.  Considering the objection, I don’t believe it’s necessary to have different wordings for each work in order to assess them as representing the author’s witness perspective. If we can reasonably presume that each author’s biggest concern was accuracy of events, and I think we can, then if they believed their own recollections matched a previously written account, it shouldn’t be considered a liability that they draw from a source which they believed to best represent their memory.

The Synoptics, however, are not entirely similar.  The events are arranged in various order and mingled about with other non-shared narrative on Jesus.  What can reasonably explain this?  Each author was relaying their own experiences with Jesus (except for Luke who compiled witness accounts).  Given that there was only one Jesus, who was only in one place at a time, with rather large crowds surrounding him at times, shouldn’t we consider it a real possibility that they were all privy to the same events — as well as some to which they were independently apart of?  I think so.

Even though the Synoptics contain portions of narrative which are shared with each other in large part, I don’t believe it is reasonable to conclude from this that the Gospel writers were not independent eyewitnesses to the shared events themselves.  If we consider that the authors’ goal was to create a document which accurately represented their own experience and memory, the use of an outside source has a negligible impact on their authority as eyewitnesses, and is a mere technicality at best.  And so I don’t think we can reasonably dismiss the Gospel accounts as eyewitnesses simply because they share content.  Something I think we can all sympathize with is that sometimes someone else knows how to say what we want to say better than we can say it ourselves.

Comments

  1. Is it reasonable to accept the Gospels, and if so, which parts is it reasonable to accept. You commit a core fallacy when you assume we should accept something. You set yourself up to be fooled when you set your default position to be accepting whatever you are told.
    And from a theological perspective, It sounds to me like you’re saying that the Bible was not in fact divinely inspired, literal word of God but rather the approximate recollections of authors some decades later. I think that perspective (sincere writings that may have errors) is a reasonable assessment. Maybe they were deliberate frauds as some have claimed, but that claim may require evidence of its own. Don’t attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence (or so the saying goes).

  2. I agree with Jason. Of course you could be right – but “could be” isn’t enough. You claim something extreme has happened and only offer “but it could have been”. Not enough. You picture these guys as some modern age scientists, who observe everything neutrally and then write a paper about it. But if you want to see how these people probably felt, simply look to one of the the many sects that exist today: Many members of these sects will be ready to testify that their leader really IS god/Messiah/the Easter Bunny/whatever and that he does miracles all the time. And if a dozen of these guys from one sect write a book – bingo, you got the bible.
    (And just as a side note: Eye witnesses only written about don’t count, especially if you can’t even prove that the guy doing the writing was really an eyewitness himself.)

    • jason

      Which fallacy is it when you argue against a point I didn’t make? This post isn’t so much about why we should accept the Gospels as much as it is about defeating a reason to reject them. It might sound like splitting hairs, but it is an important distinction nonetheless.

      You also seem to think God could not have superintended a particular author’s recollection. Doesn’t it seem to be the case that God could have done that if it were the case that the Bible was divinely inspired? I also didnt use the term “approximate” when discussing the authors’ recollection. Rather I argue that it is at least as likely as not that the authors utilized a prior written account which matched their own memories and experiences, which is also far different from what you paint.

    • Atomic Mutant

      Thanks for offering your thought. I am inclined to try to get you to move from an argument I’m not really making her. Like Jason, you are kind of countering a point I didn’t make. This post isn’t so much about the content of the Gospel accounts and whether that content is accurate. Instead this post deals with whether we could reasonably conclude that the Gospels are separate accounts of different eyewitnesses despite the fact that they share so much content in whole or in part.

      But to your point. I also don’t trust the Gospels (or the New Testament as a whole) on the basis that it “could be” true. That would be a terrible reason to believe anything. However, I don’t ascribe to a hyper-skeptical approach. I don’t simply doubt and presume something is false until it’s proven true. I take claims on their own and address them on their merits. This is NOT to say I just accept things as true with no investigation either, just that I don’t dismiss things and work my way backwards. And if you don’t accept written accounts as at least reasonably reliable, we are out of luck when it comes to history, by and large.

  3. Hello JB

    Clanging Rants of an angry atheist hear (J/K)

    Good article, I really like the fact that you stayed on point in the rebuttal. Now the only thing I see in question is the notion of taking the assumption, the authors intended to write for purposed of accuracy. Then yes that would partially justify your answer, but still that would not make them independent. As too whether that would matter, I won’t try to rebuttal that point, because your article does make a decent point, in suggesting the assumption that if accuracy was the primary goal of the writers/authors than it would not all necessary matter as much.

    However I would like to attack the assumption, that they authors primary goal was accuracy and precision.

    Think of a reporter or even regular person, re-telling a story. If accuracy was a primary goal, There would be certain indicators as to suggest that accuracy was a primary goal.

    -Dates
    -Verification of Quotes and sources of information
    – Similar tellings of Big Major events and things (I.E. The resurrection, the Crucification, ) These major things shouldn’t have discrepancies, because they are major points in any story.

    Look forward to reading the rest of your rebuttals

  4. John,

    None of the synoptic gospels claim to be eyewitness accounts, and only one of them, Matthew, is said to be an eyewitness account according to tradition.

    And yet the one supposed synoptic eyewitness relies extremely heavily on non-eyewitness accounts and others? And we are suppose to rely on these to confirm claims of a miraculous nature?

  5. JB said “Which fallacy is it when you argue against a point I didn’t make?”
    That would be a straw man, sometimes. Or at least changing the subject. I am guilty of changing the subject, but I stand by my desire to push aside distractions to get to the core of the matter. It may not be the discussion you want to have, but I think I bring up the relevant discussion that should be have.

    JB said “You also seem to think God could not have superintended a particular author’s recollection.”
    “God did it” is not a rational argument. “God works in mysterious ways” is a cop-out, not an appeal to reason.

    The science-minded won’t be particularly compelled by eye-witness accounts alone. People see Jesus in toast and Mary in Palm oil stains and God in Presidential campaigns. They’re telling the truth as they understand it, but without some additional forensics and whatnot, we shouldn’t let one account trump all other evidence.

    • jason

      OK, so you are adopting the Z method of discussion: Comment on the post you think I should have written rather than the one I actually wrote. Well I’d rather not play that game.

      I’m also not playing the “Goddidit” card either. You asked about whether their memories could be reliable when writing these accounts. My response is that if they were superintended by God, it’s certainly reasonable that He would ensure an accurate memory. It seems as though we should all adopt your naturalist and atheist worldview when discussing all things God. Why do you get that preeminence I wonder? Well, I don’t see how that is reasonable, so instead of me just presuming that you are correct, and instead of discussing what you think I should have written about, I think we’ll stick to the topic at hand.

  6. “if they were superintended by God…” Using that mode of reasoning to support your conclusion is the very definition of the “Goddidit” card.

    “we should all adopt your naturalist and atheist worldview” – no. You can’t expect anyone to believe you unless they already share your particular view of a personal god that supports your world view. You don’t have to adopt my world view, but you shouldn’t be surprised that the Goddidit card does not sway me.

  7. Here’s the short version of this article:
    Proposition: “Matthew and Luke copied much of their text from Mark. Thus Matthew and Luke were probably not first hand eyewitnesses.”
    Your response: “Matthew and Luke did indeed copy much of their text from Mark. BUT, they still might have been first hand eyewitnesses!”

    It’s true, but trivial. A historian tries to use the available evidence to assign probabilities to historical events. If an author is copying other sources, it lowers the probability that the author is an eyewitness.

    • I don’t think it lowers the probability at all. I don’t think it says anything about it. In the first century oral culture, a fairly singular version of events was known to be “the way it happened”, using a written source which confirms your recollection and would be known by your intended audience would serve them better than your unique perspective which no one would be familiar with.

  8. It’s the criterion of multiple attestation. Luke and Matthew do not provide multiple attestation to to Mark because they are not independent sources – they are dependent on Mark. This whole blog article is about the issue of multiple attestation of the gospels – whether they essentially boil down to two independent sources, or four. The synoptic gospels are dependent on each other.

    When I said it lowers the probability, I just meant that if they were shown to be independent and therefore multiply attested, it would give more credence to the contents. They are not independent, so they do not get this multiple attestation.

    When you say the authors might have just been conveying their experience via familiar material, you’re suggesting that the sources are less dependent than they appear. They appear to have drawn most of their text from several sources. There’s a great chart at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synoptic_Gospels. These are highly dependent texts – not the sort of independent attestation you’d expect from an eyewitness, more like an edited compilation.

    There are variations of the gospel of Matthew, for example, used by the Ebionites. Perhaps this variant was penned by someone who was also an eyewitness, who just chose to re-use Matthew’s text? We don’t know for sure – we have to look at the evidence.

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