Did the gospel authors tend to ground their material in witness approval directly or nearly directly?

  • Our question

    Here we ask more than whether Gospel Jesus-bio is a subset of witnesses testimony, because it could be a subset of witness testimony by accident. Instead, we are asking this: in writing the gospels, did the gospel authors directly consult and relay the testimony or witnesses, or at least those who knew well what the witnesses were saying? Does the information included in the four gospels generally trace back to directly or nearly direct eyewitness testimony, in a way that will—other things being normal—make for a generally confidence-inspiring pedigree. Considered from the other direction, is little or none of the Gospel material grounded in the sloppy or dishonest imagination of the gospel author or some liar further upstream who he or his source irresponsibly trusted? In writing about Jesus-biography, did the gospels directly consult and relay the testimony of witnesses?

  • What historians say

    • Samuel Byrskog: “The gospel narratives […] are thus syntheses of history and story, of the oral history of an eyewitness and the interpretative and narrativizing procedures of an author.” [Story as History - History as Story (Mohr Siebeck, 2019) 304-305.]
    • Richard Bauckham: “This is what gives the Gospels their character as testimony. They embody the testimony of eyewitnesses, not of course without editing and interpretation, but in a way that is substantially faithful to how the eyewitnesses themselves told it, since the Evangelists were in more or less direct contact with eyewitnesses, not removed from them by a long process of anonymous transmission of the traditions.”[Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 2nd ed. (Eerdmans, 2017), 6.]
    • Ben Witherington: “[t]he Gospel traditions were not anonymous to begin with, nor were the Gospels themselves. The traditions and then the documents were linked to named persons—well-known named persons—and it was the early Jewish practice to memorize sacred traditions so they could be passed on faithfully from one tradent to another. There was not a long period of transmission of these traditions, and there was often a direct link, or a close link, with eyewitnesses. The analogy Bauckham draws between modern oral historians and ancient Gospel writers, both of whom sought out eyewitnesses to hear the stories ‘from the horse’s mouth’ is plausible, indeed far more plausible than the view that early Christian traditions underwent a long gestation period that is analogous to the way folk literature and myth develop. [“Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” review at biblicalarchaeology.org]
    • Michael Bird: “[The Gospel authors] were probably not eyewitnesses but were informed by eyewitness accounts.” [“The Purpose and Preservation of the Jesus Tradition: Moderate Evidence for a Conserving Force in its Transmission” in Bulletin for Biblical Research 15:2 (2005), 173.]
“Yes, after all…
  • Justin Martyr oft calls the gospels apostolic “memoirs”

    The early Christian intellectual Justin Martyr (c. 100 -c.165) habitually referred to the Gospels as if they were widely known as the “memoirs” (απομνημονεύματα [recollections, memoranda]) of the apostles.

    • Justin Martyr (in AD 155-57) — “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs [απομνημονεύματα] of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.” [1 Apology 67.3]
    • See also 1 Apol. 66.3.
    • See also Dial. 101.3; 103.6; 104.1; 105.6; 106.3; 107.1.
  • The Gospels claimed to be witness-based

    Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John eached claimed to be relayings of witness-testimony, or witness-based history more broadly.

    This page analyzes 6 arguments:

    • Lk 1:1 explicitly says Lk is witness-based.
    • E.g. Gospel traditions appeal-cite witness names.
    • Lk, Mt etc. endorsed Mk & Q etc. as witness-based.
    • Christians circulated the gospels (popular lit).
    • Greco-Roman histories self-identify as witness grounded.
    • The Gospels are witness-based.
  • 60+ year old events didn’t elude historians

    In the Greco-Roman world, one could inquire about widely-witness 60 year-old events and obtain reliable witness-based information quite easily.

    This page analyzes 3 examples/arguments:

    • E.g. Herodotus’, in worst-case, can’t lose truth in 60 years.
    • E.g. Arrian & Plutarch can’t lose truth within 60 years.
    • E.g. Historians habitually break through any recent legend.
  • In AD 70 witness-based Jesus facts pervaded

    Above a map of the mediterranean are many speech bubbles with Jesus's head inside. Each has a check mark next to it.

    In AD 30-70, witness testimony on Jesus predominated over any Jesus legends. That is to say, a Jesus-biographer was in an environment which made it easy for him to obtain and discern truth. In fact, the overwhelming pervasiveness of witness-based Jesus stories arguably made it too hard to fail.

    This page analyzes these 4 arguments:

    • Witness-based truth always beats legend for 50+ years.
    • Warranted Jesus-bio thrived in AD 30-70 Med.1
    • False Jesus-bio did not thrive.
    • Gospel content is a subset of what witnesses say.

    This is relevant because the Gospel authors did more than what was easy; they did not blindly accept whatever stories they heard; they put genuine effort into checking and discerning true from false Jesus-bio[Forthcoming].

    1. Mats Wahlberg: “It is uncontroversial that at least Mark was written well within the lifetime of many of the eyewitnesses. If the disciples were not ‘translated to heaven immediately after the resurrection,’ why would they not have been consulted as authoritative sources of information about Jesus by the young Palestinian Christian communities?” [Revelation as Testimony (Eerdmans, 2014), 179.]
  • The Gospel authors didn't lie-invent Jesus-bio

    person writing at table with a speech bubble of jesus and a thought bubble of jesus

    Rather than inventing Jesus-biography, the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—as editors/redactors—were honest in writing their Gospel reports.

    This page analyzes 4 arguments:

    • The Gospels are Greco-Roman histories.
    • Gospel claims are all inherited/sourced.
    • Gospel authors strove to know true Jesus-bio.
    • In general, Gospel traditions aren’t lies/legends.
  • Gospel content is a subset of what witnesses say

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

    Most of the Jesus-biographical content reported in the gospels faithfully falls within what the relevant witnesses were themselves saying and approving.

    This page analyzes 6 arguments:

    • Gospel authors got it all witness-approved or close.
    • Gospels spew witness-based stories.
    • Gospel stories are not lies/legends.
    • Gospel stories are a subset of 1st church’s.
    • The Gospels are historically reliable.
    • Pop Jesus-bio was a subset of what witnesses said.

    This is relevant if the contents are quite complex and unlikely to be matching witness testimony by chance (which they are). The conformity is best explained by the gospels adeptly inheriting witness testimony directly or nearly directly through some reliable means.

    But no…

    • The Gospels are not historically reliable.
    • The Gospel stories are lies/legends.
    • Gospels only ask to be read as myth.


    • They inherited it as alleged witness testimony, but only 3rd hand, 4th hand, 5th hand or worse.
    • Mt and Lk just got it from Mk.
  • AD 70 historiographers got witness-approval or close

    1st-2nd century Greco-Roman historiographers tended to successfully ground their material in witness testimony or approval.

    This page analyzes 6 arguments:

    • E.g. Bios of Ortho (Seutonius-Tacitus-Plutarch’s) super-cohere.
    • E.g. Diaspora Jewish works stuck to sources.
    • Greco-Roman histories self-claim to be true.
    • Greco-Roman histories self-identify as witness-grounded.
    • GrRom histories strove to be 1st-hand-as-possible.
    • Historians felt 2nd hand+ was unacceptable.

    This is relevant if the Gospels are biographies (histories) which were written in the 1st-2nd century. If so (which it is), it…

    • Craig Keener: “…reinforces the likelihood that the Evangelists had significant interest in recounting genuine historical information about their biographee. That they speak about a figure within living memory suggests that they had substantial information available. … [t]he evidence already surveyed supports the likelihood that works composed as soon after the events as the Gospels ordinarily would depend especially on material that the Evangelists believed went back to the eyewitnesses, and that they had good reason to believe that it did.” [Christobiography (Eerdmans, 2019), 97, 273.]
“No, after all…
  • Mk was not witness testimony nor close

    [Forthcoming.] This is relevant given Mark is a Gospel, but also given Luke and Matthew are gospels which depend on Mk.1

    1. Stephen Patterson: “For whether or not Mark was based on eyewitness testimony, Matthew and Luke most certainly relied on Mark, and by most accounts a second written source, Q. In spite of ‘Luke’s’ claim finally to have set the record straight by consulting ‘eyewitnesses who were there from the beginning’ (Lk. 1.2), this turns out to be a mere literary contrivance. The author of the third Gospel did not actually do as Polybius says the historian must, he only pretended to.2 ‘Matthew’ used those same sources, not eyewitnesses— but, of course, the first Gospel makes no claim to a basis in eyewitness testimony.”
  • E.g. Stylized oral tradition can't be 1st hand memory

    [Forthcoming.] This would be relevant if much of the Gospel content was styled.

    But no... [Forthcoming]

    • Re-told auto-bio naturally gets stylized.
    • Auto-bio designed to spread naturally gets stylized.
    • E.g. The Jlao Kru people, when witnesses, stylize their reports.