Do the Gospels claim to largely be (or to relay) witness testimony?

  • Question

    Do the Gospels deliberately portray themselves as historical works, specifically ones aiming to accurately relay facts grounded in eyewitness testimony? Do they self-identify as witness-based history?

“Yes, after all…
  • Greco-Roman histories self-identify as witness grounded

    A man puts put a poster on a notification wall labelled "witness based". Books are on display as well.

    Historical works from the Greco-Roman mediterranean proudly self-identity as relaying witness testimony.

    See this page to analyze 4 arguments:

    • Polybius etc. testify that they did.
    • Historians oft say: “I saw this all 1st hand.”
    • Histories cited witnesses via emphasis.
    • Histories DID get witness-testimony or close.
  • Luke chapter 1 says it is witness-based

    In Luke 1:1-4, the Gospel of Luke self-identifies itself as being witness-based biography.1

    • Lk 1:1-4 -- Since many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 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; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

    This is relevant because the Gospel of Luke is presumably the same genre as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John. It is certainly our our closest analogue to them, and so we can expect that they were also understood to be witness-based.

    1. Richard Bauckham: “[w]hether or not autoptai would have been recognized as a technical historiographical term in Luke’s preface, there is no doubt, from its total context in Luke-Acts, that it carries the historiographic meaning of people who witnessed firsthand the events of Luke’s gospel story.” [Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006), 119.]
  • E.g. Gospel traditions appeal-cite witness names

    There is a large scroll with writing on it in the background. Two pairs of eyes are looking at the scroll and two arrows are coming from the eyes to different words in the text.

    Gospel stories had attached to them eyewitness names who, in being so attached, were thereby cited as the relevant witness sources of the story.

    See this page which mentions these evidences:

    • Papias: “Apostle’s protege’s still teach in their name.”
    • E.g. Gospels cite their witnesses via story-emphasis.
    • Christians preserved official lists of witnesses.
    • E.g. Mk inclusios Peter as his source.
    • AD 30 Christians prized witnesses.

    This is relevant because in appealing to witness names by citing them, one is implicitly saying the person cited is a witness source on which the relevant information is based.

    But no…

    • The names were invented.
    • Ancients didn’t cite witnesses via odd mention.
    • The gospels were not witnesses-based.
    • The gospels didn’t prize witness-testimony.
  • E.g. Mk & Q etc. are witness-based, say Mt & Lk

    The Gospels of Matthew and Luke quote the Gospel of Mark regularly, and some other common material often referred to as "Q"; in fact, most of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are constituted by echoing these two sources. This is relevant because:

    • Craig Keener: “On the usual reconstruction of Gospel sources, Matthew and Luke clearly depend heavily on prior information (at least Mark and Q), and source-dependent Matthew and Luke, who undoubtedly knew the circumstances of Mark’s writing better than we do, would use these sources for information only if they believed that these sources likewise depended on prior information.” [Christobiography (Eerdmans, 2019), 73.]
  • The Gospel of Mark etc. was well-circulated

    The Gospels (especially Mark) were popular literature that was well circulated by early Christians in the latter half of the 1st century.

    We know this for a few reasons...

    • They were quickly accepted as canon (e.g. Mk was used by Mt and Lk).
    • They were widely accepted as canon.
    • They were well-preserved with mountains of copies.1

    This is relevant because they were specifically circulated as authentic witness-based history. The Gospels would not be so popular if they were theological tales It must at least consist of memories (chreiae)—i.e. uninvented historical content2—otherwise the gospels would not have had nearly so much appeal.2

    1. Even later Christian lie-inventors (e.g. Apocrypha) didn’t try to override their authority.

      Craig Blomberg: “Most of the New Testament Apocrypha show little overlap with the information found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This fact alone is significant; it means that even in those circles where early Christians apparently felt free to invent stories about Jesus, they almost never tried to deny the truth of the canonical accounts. Instead they went about ‘filling in the gaps’ in the historical record, imagining what Jesus’ childhood was like, describing his correspondence and travels to other lands, and adding adventures of his disciples…” (op. cit. p 216)

    2. Ben Witherington: “But an actual study of how ancient biographers used chreiae and formed their material for their works will reveal it was more often a matter of editing source material down to chreia form, not creating the material out of thin air. Of course there was expansion, arrangement, rephrasing, but source material was indeed used. This was even true when chreiae were formed as a school exercise.” [The Gospel of Mark (Eerdmans, 2001), 12.]
      R. O. P. Taylor: “[is right to say that these chreiae, which always are related to and about real historical persons,] “were not merely a literary form, but essentially a historical statement — So-and-so who was a known historical figure, actually said or did this…. Actual fact was demanded.” [Groundwork of the Gospels (1946), 78-79.]
      The word apomnemoneumata (memoirs, recollections, or memoranda) is important, for it is precisely the word Justin Martyr uses for the Gospel material (Apol. 1.67). They are based on the apostle’s memoirs or recollections, so to speak. Like the term diegesis, or narrative, which Luke uses (Luke 1:1-4), “recollections” can be seen as longer, less precisely formed pieces of tradition which could serve as the basis for the creation of a chreia.

    3. R. O. P. Taylor: “If then the Gospels had not some guarantee of this kind, if they could not be shown to be ascertained history, they would have failed in their appeal.” [Groundwork of the Gospels (1946), 78.]

  • The gospels were witness-based

    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.

    This is relevant because if the Gospels were witness-based—a feat often requiring significant work—then we can be sure that they claimed to be, at least implicitly through genre conventions.