Are the Gospel stories based in eyewitness testimony?

  • Question

    A speech bubble from the bible has a jesus head in it, while standing witnesses with a speech bubble includes or subsumes it.

    Rather than deviating from what the relevant eyewitnesses themselves were saying, did the Jesus biography recorded in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) essentially fit, align, and fall within their testimony on Jesus’s deeds and sayings?1 Did all (or virtually all) the Gospel stories originate with or closely echo the testimony of relevant eyewitnesses, where a relevant eyewitness for any given event would be one that was present to observe the truth of the matter?

    1. By “essentially fit, align, and fall within” we don’t mean to deny the reporters any degree of creative expression, e.g. in keeping with contemporary Greco-Roman biographical conventions; we only mean that contemporary hearers/readers would not feel mislead if they knew the exact truth and compared it to the report. This standard is plenty strict.
  • Historians

    • Martin Hengel: “[i]n the Synoptics, the overall impact of Jesus upon the tradition was remarkably maintained. This was possible because the tradition was at first secured by many witnesses.” [“Eye-witness memory and the writing of the Gospels” in The Written Gospel, ed. Bockmuehl & Hagner (Cambridge, 2005), 76.]
“Yes, after all…
  • NT name-ratios precisely match Palestine’s

    There is a surprised man standing above a graph labeled "Names". The left and right sides of the graph are exactly equal.

    Specialists in onomastic studies have catalogued over 3,000 names from tomb inscriptions and similar writings around 1st century Palestine. That's a lot. And as a result, we now know that the very specific Jewish names and name-ratios of in 1st century Palestine precisely matches the combined names and name-ratios in the four Gospels and the book of Acts (a robust sample size).

    This page looks at 4 arguments:

    This is relevant because the name-ratio correspondance to onomastic studies is easy to explain if the material in the Gospels and Acts is witness-based, that is to say, if the eyewitness-sources were simply recounting the genuinely random names of people involved in authentic historical episodes in the time and place they claim to be located. By contrast, no other explanation can easily explain this correspondence. (For example, even liars perfectly located in AD 30 Palestine would be unlikely to conjure up a genuine random sampling of names that gets the ratios right, and for legend-makers outside of Palestine it would be straightforwardly impossible [for example the name-ratios in Egypt at this time are completely different]).1 Moreover, since Jewish names pervade the Gospels and Acts, this correspondence is a statement on the Gospels and Acts as a whole, so if any real number of fabricated stories were even mixed in with the Gospels and Acts, this correspondence could be put in jeopardy.

      • Richard Bauckham: “This correspondence is very unlikely to have resulted from addition of names to the traditions, even within Palestinian Jewish Christianity, and could not possibly have resulted from the addition of names to the traditions outside Jewish Palestine, since the pattern of Jewish name usage in the Diaspora was very different. The usages of the Gospels also correspond closely to the variety of ways in which persons bearing the same very popular names could be distinguished in Palestinian Jewish usage. Again these features of the New Testament data would be difficult to explain as the result of random invention of names within Palestinian Jewish Christianity and impossible to explain as the result of such invention outside Jewish Palestine. All the evidence indicates the general authenticity of the personal names in the Gospels.” [Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2008), 84.]
  • Gospels spew witness-based content

    A book is open and has several eyes on it. Two of the eyes have speech bubbles that have nothing in them, the last eye has a speech bubble that has Jesus in it.

    The Gospels abound in stories which we can—for reasons internal to the story itself— conclude came ultimately from the testimony of one or more witnesses.

    This page analyzes 5 arguments:

    • The Gospel stories abound vividly realistic accounts. (See 30+ exmaples, including memorable details, gratuitous incidentals, and detailed content that Christians would have no interest in, other than historical interest). While realism can be faked by biographers, it is the exception rather than the rule.
    • The Gospels spew complex internal coherences, including intricately interconnecting chronologies, consistent character profiles across accounts/books, interconnections of detail, and cross-source patterns in Jesus's preaching style and tendencies. This makes perfect sence if the reports are accurate, being grounded in witness-testimony, but are hard to explain otherwise. Chance is nearly impossible, and conspiracy hypotheses would be uncomfortably complex and contrived.
    • The Gospel stories are regularly fine-tuned to AD 30 Palestine, like it's use of an obscure city's pre-AD 30 name ("Bethsaida"), or certan ruler-titles that became outdated soon-after AD 30-70 Palestine--examples abound. This is of course what we would expect if the Gospel's were witness-based accounts, because witnesses would have been reporting these things as they are. By contrast, it becomes increasingly difficult to explain this common feature of stories by referance to legend or other methods which are unreliable.
    • The Gospels spew non-legendary content, including a host of un-churchy stories (e.g. talking in ways uncharacteristic of the church), or church-hated content (e.g. that embarrasses itself or equips its enemies), or self-exposing content, "doomed-to-fail" content, and the like. Insofar as the Gospels spew stories that the church would not invent, it spews stories that are inevitably witness-based. That's the only remaining kind of story they could plausibly be.
    • The Gospel stories spew undisputed accuracies. And like the point above, this is best explained by these accurate stories being more specifically "eyewitness-based" stories; otherwise, whence the accuracy?

    This is relevant because it means mechanisms were in place which resulted in authentic eyewitness-testimony abounding in the Gospels. By contrast, while there may be evidence of some flexibility in story-telling side-details, there is no example-based evidence of mechanisms operating in Gospel construction which would lead us to think seriously fabricated Jesus-biography was incorporated. Extrapolating from these two results, we can infer that probably most or all of the Gospel material is witness-based and not fabricated.

  • Gospel authors got witness-approval or close

    Rather than just writing down willy-nilly whatever they heard, the gospel authors tended to diligently ground or confirm their material in the testimony of living witnesses, either interviewing them directly or taking extra steps to ensure their content properly traces back to a witness (for example, by interviewing and running content by friends or relatives who would know the truth).

    This page analyzes 9 arguments:

    • Justin Martyr (c. AD 100-c. 165) oft called the gospels “memoirs,” as if it were a widely recognized fact. This confident testimony from an earily intellectual is not surprising if the Gospels really were memoirs, but becomes more surprising if they were not (we would need a plausible theory/story explaining how someone as close-up to the facts and intellectual adept as Justin came to be so wrong, and attempts aren't necessarily easy to defend).
    • The Gospels claimed to be from or use witnesses, as overtly seen in Luke 1:1, or in how the Gospels cite-appeal to witness-names, or in how Mt and Lk implicitly endorsed the reliability of their sources sources (Mk & Q) by using them as reliable, and how early Christians in general circulated the gospels as witness-based literature, and even in how the very genre of the Gospels--being Greco-Roman biographies--suggests they are self-proclaimed endeavors to relay authentic witness testimony. And if the Gospels actually were based in eyewitness-testimony, then this all makes sense. But it quickly becomes awkward to explain otherwise, e.g. it becomes quite contrived to say they were lies deliberately dressed up as eyewitness testimony, along with several other problems with trying to dismiss the accounts as lies.
    • Greco-Roman historians easily get solid info on any < 60 year old events, or at least relatively public/popular ones (as in the case of Jesus's public ministry, actions, and teachings). As test cases, one can look at instances from Herodotus, or reports from Arrian and Plutarch. Breaking through any recent legend is par-for-the-course. The Gospel authors likewise would have had an easy time of it.
    • In AD 70 witness-based Jesus facts pervaded Christendom, meaning anyone would-be biographer of Jesus's life would have a very easy job, and might struggle to find "legend" even if he tried; he'd constantly bump into accounts fromed from witness-testimony and memory. This is fairly standard for events for the first 50+ years, and warranted Jesus-bio in particular thrived for the first 50+ years. By contrast, false Jesus-bio struggled to thrive; there were no good mechanisms for it, and overall Gospel content ended up being a subset of witness-based testimony. This matters because, when Gospel authors went to work reporting on Jesus, we can be sure their content was in part a product of this pervasive testimony (even if double-checked with actual witnesses).
    • In general, AD 70 historiographers got witness-approval or close, even if the public didn't. We can see this exampled in the bios of Orthod (Seutonius's, Tacitus's, and Plutarch's). We can also see how Diaspora Jews responsibly used sources, and how Grec-Roman histories in general self-claimed to be wtness-based and true. In fact, historians in this era found testimony that was unnecessariily distant from witnesses to be unacceptable. The take-away is that the Gospels--which were themselves Greco-Roman biographies--would likewise have gotten directly witness-approved information, or sufficiently close so-as to be rationally trustworthy.
    • The Gospel authors didn't lie-invent Jesus-bio. The majority of their material was demonstrably sourced (e.g. in the so-called pre-Markan material and Q material, L-materal and M-material, etc.). They show solid signs of having worked hard to relay true iniformation. But if the Gospel authors didn't invent this content, where did it come from? It would've come from other liars or from witness-testimony, and only the latter holds up under scrutiny.
    • Gospel content is a subset of what witnesses say, as seen by the onslaught of confirmed witness-based stories, the fact that the material fit within what the Jerusalem church was reporting, the general problems with legend hypothesis, and so forth. And if the Gospel content is a subset of eyewitness-testimony, then this would've have happened by chance. Inevitably, it was from the Gospels investing some effort in echoing authentic witness testimony.
    • Gospels were written because witnesses were dying. If true, this becomes quickly relevant because the motivator then would be precisely to interview and echo witnesses.

    If we grant that the Gospel authors generally ensured that their reports were grounded in witness-testimony, it matters insofar as it essentially entails that the Gospel traditions (i.e. the Jesus-bio which the Gospel authors ultimately incorporated into the gospels) echoed what eyewitnesses said and/or were saying.

    But no... [All forthcoming]

    • The Gospels in large part invented their Jesus-bio.
    • The Gospels spew errors.
    • Mk was not witness testimony nor close.
    • Q was not based in witness testimony nor close.
    • Stylized oral tradition can't be 1st hand memory.
  • Gospel stories formed honestly (not lies/legends)

    one man with a bible for a head is talking with a speech bubble and a thought bible which both have jesus face

    Whether the Gospel stories originated prior to the Gospels being written or not, when they did form, they formed in an honest way, rather than as the result of someone inventing them; the content is not legendary.

    This page analyzes 5 branches of evidences…

    • The Gospels abound in local Palestinian content, everything from referring accurately to 14 local rulers in AD 30 to the 50+ Palestinian sites, cogent travel-plans, accuracy society details, natural flora and fauna, coinage and the list goes on (see 15+ categories in the article above). This is extremely difficult to explain f the Gospels were not formed honestly, but are hallmarks of reports grounded in eyewitness testimony.
    • The Gospels spew confirmed non-legendary content, stuff that is quite "un-churchy" (e.g., using verbiage on actor lips that the church didn't use, or failing to use language that they would), material that liars would not expect to get away with if false, material which we can show is extremely early (i.e. originated at/near the relevant time), and more. With so much confirmed to be non-legendary, and an arguable/ostensible absence of material that iis legendary, a rational bias emerges in favor of belief that the Gospels forming through quite honest means.
    • The Gospels are full of details but lack anatopisms, i.e. geographically inappropriate set pieces, and this is sooner what we'd expect to find f the Gospel storied formed later (whence most Christians were no longer in the relevant area nor knew about it).
    • The Gospels are full of details but nevertheless lack anachronisms, i.e. temporally misplaced set pieces. Again, this fits perfectly if the Gospels are simply honest reports (grounded in witness testimony) but if the Gospels have any significant degree of legend we'd expect to find anachronisms since most would-be story-tellers would be misinformed on the barrage of details of that time and area.
    • In general, early Christian Jesus-bio was honest, which we can show through analyzing motives (which would strongly disincline Christians in the first decades from inventing Jesus-bio), along with known characteristics of the known main propagators of Jesus-biography.

    This is relevant because, if the content is not legendary, then that leaves few or no other ways the Gospel traditions could have entered into circulation. The hypothesis that the content simply formed from eyewitnesses remembering Jesus and talking about it stands strongest.

  • Gospel’s Jesus-bio is a subset of 1st church’s

    Most Jesus biography that was reported in the gospels faithfully falls within what the Jerusalem church was saying and circulating.

    A coming page debates 6 arguments…

    • Gospel Jesus-bio pre-dates the Gospels.
    • Gospel-recorded events are multi-attested.
    • Christians relayed the gospel’s Jesus-bio.
    • Gospels relayed oral tradition (pre-markan).
    • Gospels strove to be witness-warranted.
    • Gospels are a subset of witness testimony.

    This is relevant if the Jerusalem church’s Jesus-bio is a subset of eyewitness testimony (e.g. it is where the apostles and major witnesses resided). So, there is a transitive relation here: if the Gospels' content is a subset of the Jerusalem church's, and the Jerusalem church's teachings on Jesus is a subset of what witnesses were saying, then by transitivity the Gospels content is a subset of what eyewitnesses were saying.

    But so what? Plausibly…

    • The 1st church’s Jesus-bio wasn’t as subset of witnesses’ (a forthcoming page)
  • Jesus-bio before AD 80 was all (or mostly all) witness-based

    Did the Jesus biography circulated by early Christians closely align with what eyewitnesses remembered and testified to, rather than deviating from the original message(s) and what the witnesses themselves would've said?

    This page explores 4 reasons to agree:

    • Witness-based truth consistently outpaces legend for 50+ years, at least in the AD 30 Mediterranean, and if it outgrows legend during this time-frame with a similar origin point, it essentially entails that reliable Jesus-biography was the rule during this period, and substantive legends was the rare exception (if any took hold at all).
    • Warranted Jesus-bio thrived in the AD 30-70 Mediterranean, as we can infer from the evidence that Jesus-bio witnesses were the teachers (see Lk), the evidence that the apostles were the info-propagators and church-starters, that the hundreds of witnesses in general were the info-spreaders, and that biographers were actively writing about Jesus at this time. And recall the above point about how truth outpaces legend in general. But given the proliferation of so much reliable info on Jesus, we are virtually guaranteed that in the first several decades of the Jesus movement the interested people would have the facts essentially right.
    • False Jesus-bio did not thrive, and several factors point to this: we know that over time details in oral tradition generally drop rather than get added, that Christians in particular passed on Jesus-info in a particularly reliable way, and that they were quite invested in snuffing out incompetent Jesus-bio. Several factors mitigated against Christians even trying to lie-invent Jesus-bio. Overall, and in conjunction with the pressures and incentives to propagate true Jesus-bio, this made it fairly difficult to even encounter legendary material on Jesus's life--at least in the first several decades.
    • Gospel content is a subset of what witnesses say, which we know because of the measures taken by the Gospel authors to ensure their material was witness-based, the independently confirmed outflow of witness-based stories in them, the compelling case against the various reports being legendary, and the case for the reports flowing largely from Jerusalem (where the witnesses were in control), among other things. The Gospel stories were in part a reflection of what was popular in Christendom as a whole, and so if these stories were witness-based, we can infer that Christendom as a whole had generally faithful-to-facts understandings of Jesus's ministry and teachings.

    Given Early Mediterranean Jesus-bio was in general witness-based, it would help show that the Gospels were likewise witness-based because biographies (like the Gospels) were even more responsibly produced than contemporary pop info. The Gospels depended on sources for virtually all of their content, and if eyewitness-based Jesus-bio predominated in this era, then that means the Gospel authors would’ve likely included witness-based stories even without putting in any work to check; i.e. it would have been harder for them to find and relay a false legend, even if they tried.

“No, after all…
  • The Gospels are not historically reliable

    The Gospels are regularly inaccurate; they are not historically reliable.

    See this page to ultimately evaluate this argument:

    • The Gospels spew verified inaccuracies.1

    This is relevant because if the Gospels were witness-based, then we would expect them to be generally reliable.

    1. Details are forthcoming, but for an example of one scholar drawing out the relevance:
      • Stephen Patterson: “Moreover, he [Richard Bauckham] does not explain how Gospels shaped by a single authoritative body could present such widely divergent views of Jesus as one finds in John and the Synoptics. If both John and Mark relied on eyewitness testimony, one of the witnesses was very unreliable. This makes it doubtful that the Twelve, or any other body exercised the control Bauckham imagines.” [Can you Trust a Gospel? in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 6(2) (2008): 200.]
  • The Gospel stories are lies/legends

    Many/most Gospel accounts are in fact dishonest fabrications—created lies drawn up from human minds.

    [This content is forthcoming]

    This is relevant given that legendary content obviously does not trace back to witness testimony (and if a story is a partial legend, then the legendary part doesn’t trace back to witness testimony).

    But no,

    • See Green evidence above for “they are not lies or legends.”
  • Gospels only ask to be read as myth

    The Gospels were meant to be read as fictional histories (i.e. myths), not as literal truths.

    [The evidences for this are forthcoming]

    This is relevant because if the Gospel stories are not intended to be historical recountings, then obvious they are not rooted in witness testimony.

    But no, they intended their works to be read as non-fictional histories...

    • Gospel authors strove for witness-based Jesus-bio.
    • Gospel authors aimed to fit respected oral tradition.
    • The Gospels faithfully relay their text-sources.
    • The Gospels self-identify as biography/history.
    • Gospel authors would strive for accuracy.
    • The Gospels were usually accurate.