In the AD 30-70 Mediterranean, did witness-based testimony on Jesus-bio thrive?

  • Our question

    There is a man with an eye for a head standing above a map of the Mediterannean. Two lines come out from behind him connecting him to two people behind him. Each of those people have two lines connect them to people even further back.

    While elsewhere we ask whether witness-based Jesus-biography predominated (which depends on the ratio of false to true information circulating throughout the Mediterranean), here we ask only whether true witness-based Jesus biography proliferated. Did it at least flourish, regardless of ratios?

  • What historians say

    At least regarding the first few decades of the Jesus movement, historians seem to largely agree that witness testimony predomintaed. The Gospel material certainly did:

    • Eric Eve: “[Bauckham] is almost certainly right to suggest that the kind of material that ended up in the Gospels would have been frequently narrated by the eyewitnesses,” [Behind the Gospels (Fortress, 2001), 106.]

    And it is extra certain that witness-based Jesus stories flourished in Palestine:

    • Vincent Taylor: “[t]he influence of eyewitnesses on the formation of the tradition cannot possibly be ignored. They did not go into permanent retreat; for at least a generation they moved among the young Palestinian communities, and through preaching and fellowship their recollections were at the disposal of those who sought information” [The Formation of the Gospel Tradition 2nd ed. (Macmillan, 1935), 41-42]
“Yes, after all…
  • Lk: “Jesus-bio witnesses were the teachers”

    Luke testifies that his eyewitness informants who saw Jesus “from the beginning” were also Christendom’s direct teachers (* Luke 1:1-4 — “[The stories of Jesus were] handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word...”).1

    A full page will discuss these arguments

    • Noun proximity & order favors it.
    • It fits Luke theme.2
    • Luke says “apostles are out there preaching Jesus.”3
    • The witnesses truly were the teachers.

    This is relevant because it is prima facie unlikely to be a lie,4 and teachers/performers of oral tradition by their very nature are the primary disseminators of trusted information. They held captive audiences who felt the given teacher was well-known and vetted, and so they were disposed to trust the teacher. (And, relevantly, oral teachers/performers in general felt proud and obligated to share their story with gusto.)

    1. Michael Bird: “[t]he grouping together of the “eyewitnesses” (ἀυτόπτης) with the “servants” (ὑπηρέτης) in Luke 1:2 under one definite article and the word order indicate that both terms probably refer to the same group, which acted in two stages, viz. as witnesses and then as servants, rather than denoting two separate entities separated by time. Luke’s remark here presupposes the existence and circulation of the first Christian leaders, who were Jesus’ companions and then leaders of the early church. This group is also distinguished from the “many” (πολλοί) who have already made written accounts about Jesus (i.e., Mark, Q, and/or Matthew). In which case, Luke, as a second-generation Christian, anchors his Gospel in the initial group who testified, taught, and transmitted the message about Jesus to others.” [The Gospels of the Lord (Eerdmans, 2014) 94.]
      Kenneth Bailey: “In his prologue Luke identifies his sources. Among them are ’the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word’. The single definite article makes it nearly certain that the eyewitnesses and the ministers are the same people.” [“Middle Eastern Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels” Expository Times (1995): 366.]
      Karl Kuhn: “‘from the beginning those who were eyewitnesses and those who were ministers of the word’ (viewing ‘eyewitnesses’ and ‘ministers of the word’ as two separate groups). This view is not held by many recent scholars,… the vast majority conclude it is the disciples who became apostles,” [“Beginning the Witness: The αὐτόπται καὶ ὑπηρέται of Luke's Infancy Narrative,” NTS 49 (2003): 237, 241.]
    2. Richard Dillon: “Only when the resurrected Christ demonstrated the fulfillment of prophecy in himself did puzzled Easter onlookers become prospective Easter witnesses (Luke 24.45–48). It is that ‘becoming,’ that graduation from {insert Greek}, that is already alluded to in the prologue’s characterization.” [Previewing’, 215–16.]
      Karl Kuhn: “The interpretation of the phrase offered by Dillon has become a near standard among readers of Luke” [“Beginning the Witness: The αὐτόπται καὶ ὑπηρέται of Luke's Infancy Narrative,” NTS 49 (2003): 239.]
    3. Luke elsewhere says they are out preaching Jesus death, resurrection, and other Messianic fulfillment scriptures:
      • Lk 24:46-48— He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. (cf. Luke recaptures this in Acts 1:8 — “you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria”) • Note: this inevitably involved preaching about Jesus-bio (e.g. what made them think he was the prophesied Messiah?) This is relevant because Luke’s audience (e.g. his benefactor, Theophilus) would know if the apostles/witnesses weren’t publicly out doing such a thing in all Judea and Samaria.
    4. Robert Stein: “Luke's own perception of the oral period is that the process of the transmission of the materials was carried out by eyewitnesses... ” [Gospels and Tradition, 45]
  • Apostles as witness-“teachers” oft taught Jesus-bio

    The apostles would habitually teach, traveling Palestine—and later the mediterranean—to do so. In the process they would found, check on, and strengthen churches.

    This page analyzes 11 kinds of evidence:

    • Solid examples can be demonstrated.
    • Acts oft says “the 12 are full-time teachers”.
    • 1 Jn and 1 Pt say “The 12 are teachers”.
    • Clement & Irenaeus: “the witnesses/apostles trained disciples’”.
    • 1st church taught Jesus-bio.
    • Christianity explosively grew in AD 30-60.
    • Christians super-honored the apostles.
    • The apostles did or were willing to die as martyrs.
    • Disciple-witnesses say Jesus ordered: “testify!”
    • In general, “teachers” oft taught & checked Jesus-bio.
    • In general, witnesses actively relayed their testimony/stories.

    This is relevant because, if the apostles were often checking up on churches, teaching, and event starting them, then we can anticipate that their witness-based testimony was constantly circulating among Christendom.

  • The 1st church passed down tons of Jesus-bio

    The Jerusalem church pass-down Jesus-bio (delivering to their successors and even other churches).

    A full page will analyze these arguments:

    • 1st church strove to pass it down.
    • Christians often visited 1st church.
    • Christians often received/invited teachers.
    • In general, Christians passed down Jesus-bio.
    • Apostles oft started & visited churches.
    • All Jesus-bio conformed to 1st church’s.
    • Warranted Jesus-bio thrived in AD 30-70 Med.

    This is relevant because the Jerusalem church--which included the apostles and many witnesses from the area--would have being a true hub of eyewitness testimony.

    But so what?

    • Jesus-bio in the 1st church wasn't witness-based. (A page on this will be located at /jerusalem-church/jesus-biography/aligns-with/witness-testimony).
  • Witnesses etc. were actively relaying testimony

    A man with an eye for a head is chasing another man in a relay race above a map. The baton is a cross and the person with an eye for a head has a speech bubble with Jesus in it.

    Whether or not it predominated over legend (a seperate question) in the AD 30-70 Mediterranean, witness-based testimony on Jesus’s life and ministry truly thrived.

    This page analyzes 10 arguments:

    • Apostles oft taught & started churches.
    • Witnesses etc. were actively relaying testimony.
    • Christians habitually passed down Jesus-stories.
    • 1st church passed down tons of Jesus-bio.
    • Lk 1:1-4 says Jesus-biographies were oft written.
    • Lk: “Jesus-bio witnesses were the teachers.”
    • Christians knew Jesus-bio well
    • Disciple-witnesses say Jesus ordered: “testify!”
    • Early Christian Jesus-bio is a subset of 1st church’s.
    • Witness testimony abounded.

    This is relevant because if the witnesses were actively teaching the churches, then of course witness-based Jesus-biography would thrive.

  • Christians were orally passing down Jesus-stories

    AD 30-70 Christians orally inherited and passed down (i.e. popularized) storied reports about Jesus’s ministry.

    A page at /early-christians/pass-down/jesus-biography will analyze 7 arguments:

    • Examples abound.
    • Christians faithfully passed down Jesus-bio.
    • Christians strove to faithfully pass down known Jesus-bio.
    • Christians oft strove to repeat/group-remember Jesus.
    • Teachers acted as primary transmitters of Jesus-bio.
    • Witnesses were actively relaying their testimony.
    • In general, they orally passed down community info (e.g. creeds).

    This is relevant because for each passing down, the amount known Jesus-bio would increase (and so thrive).

    But no…

    • Gospel Jesus-bio was not passed down.
    • Christian Jesus-bio didn’t thrive.
    • They wouldn’t strive to faithfully pass it down.

    But so what?

  • Lk says Jesus-biographies were being written

    The Gospel of Luke opens up with a note informing readers that, in fact, many written biographies of Jesus had already been circulated.

    • Luke 1:1-4 — “Since many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting to me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in an orderly sequence, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.”

    This is relevant because it is unlikely to be a baldfaced lie (there was not even a motive for this); his own patron—Theophilus—would likely know better. And if others had put together complications of the Jesus stories, then it seems true indeed that such stories were circulating and circulating well.