Is it reasonable to reject the Gospels as eyewitness accounts? Part 6

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

Objection: The gospels themselves in their own writings, never verify authorship.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were assumed names by Church History.

This objection makes sense only if it is absolutely necessary to know a document’s author’s identity in order to accept its contents as a reliable source of the information it contains.  In the case of the Gospel accounts, I would agree that it makes for a stronger case for their authenticity if we can know who the authors are so that we can be assured that they were in a position to know or verify their testimony.  To begin, I suppose a relevant question to ask is whether we should expect the Gospel accounts to contain a byline.

It is widely understood that because these documents were written on scrolls, their author attribution and title were not needed in the content itself, but was attached onto something like a “toe tag” on the end of the scroll so it could be easily identified by someone looking for it on a shelf, or in a box. I think this makes sense. It relieves someone from having to pick one up and open it to find the one they need.  A modern equivalent would be if a book’s author and title were written exclusively on its spine rather than on a title page.  But even a title page within a book is not placed there by the book’s author.  Ordinarily the book’s publisher includes it along with other publishing legalities.  Just looking at the books on my own book shelf I don’t see any from the four random selections which contain the author’s own attribution of his identity within the text of the book itself.  This apparently is a common practice even today.

Also, consider this: it is reasonable to conclude that the names weren’t assumed, but recognized. While there may be multiple gnostic gospels whose authenticity is in question — mainly because they were uncontestedly written centuries after the deaths of the purported authors — the authors of the four canonical Gospels have never been questioned by the Christian Church.  I think it speaks to their authenticity that their authorship has not been disputed internally going all the way back to the Christian movement’s genesis. Centuries before “the church” took on the role of what the Roman Catholic Church has become, the body of believers have always attributed the Gospels to their traditional authors.  The question is why haven’t the Gospels been internally disputed?

Upon reflection, doesn’t it strike you as odd that the Gospels weren’t penned under more authoritative attribution, like Peter, James, or Jesus Himself? Instead, the authoritative writings were accepted by authors such as Matthew, a relatively unmentioned Apostle; Mark, a mere student of Peter; Luke, not even a “member” of the Christian movement’s inner circle; and John, who was exiled and carried no place of ecclesiastical authority in the Christian movement like James, Paul, or Peter. Over all, these people commanded no authority of their own, they weren’t major players in “the church”. The only reason to accept the attributions of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John is because they actually authored the Gospels which bear their name.

We must also consider what may be called the scriptural ‘chain of custody‘ (this link thoroughly chronicles the Apostle’s own students and their writings as it relates to the authenticity of the Gospel’s authorship).  Essentially the authorship of the Gospels can be traced back through the writings of their disciples, and their disciples disciples.

Once Jesus had ascended, the Apostles didn’t just sit on their hands, or their story.  The Apostles spread out and had their own students.  These students also documented their teacher’s accounting of the life events of Jesus.  Eventually these students had students.  And though this might sound like an ancient version of the telephone game, it’s likeness is superficial.  What we have is not some centuries-later proclamation that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are the authors of the Gospel narratives by some far removed Church council relying on word of mouth accounting trying to close up loose ends, instead, we have a documented connect the dots in reverse order all the way back to the beginning, original Gospel authors themselves.

Taking into consideration that we have documentation tracing back to the Gospel authors themselves;  and that if the Church were in the business of inventing or guessing the authors of their most core authoritative writings they would likely choose more significant Movement figures. I believe it is more reasonable to accept Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John as the authors of the Gospel accounts which bear their names.  To reject their authentic authorship takes more speculation and speculative dismissal than is reasonable.

Comments

  1. An interesting series. I’ve read parts 1 to 6, and I agree substantially with most of your conclusions – that the objections you mention aren’t “show stoppers” for the eyewitness authorship case.

    What about:
    – accounts of Jesus’ trial, that nobody saw except the people present (Jesus and some Romans)
    – conflicting perspectives of the letters of Paul, which were written earlier (eg. differing account of Jesus’ resurrection)
    – the existence of other gospels such as the gospel of Thomas. Where do you draw the line? Or do they all exist on a scale of probability of first hand witness authorship.

    Separately: Later additions to the texts (eg. Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11). Do you consider these to be eyewitness accounts?

    I’ve listened to many historians (these guys do this stuff for a living). A good resource is http://www.earlychristianwritings.com

    In the end, the question of whether these texts were written by eyewitnesses is not very interesting. After Elvis’ death, so many people claimed to see him that it became a cliche. You can go and meet thousands of people who will tell you how they saw their favourite guru perform miracles, or how they saw aliens and ufos. Does the eyewitness account of an illiterate labourer from ancient palestine in a society soaked in mysticism carry more weight than a contemporary army of eyewitnesses?

    The better question to ask is: could it be true?

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