The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

I missed last week’s Bible study at my church because I was sick, but I got to attend last night, and I also had an opportunity to read the transcript for last week’s DVD presentation that the group watched.

Essentially, what I’ll do is write a post today and a post on Monday, and both will touch on last night’s Bible study and the study of the week before.  Today’s post will be on whether or not the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony, and my post on Monday will talk about Jesus being a different kind of Messiah from what people were expecting.  My Bible study group is going through A Fragile Stone, Peter: Jesus’ Friend With Michael Card.

Michael Card appears to assume that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony to Jesus.  In the past, my mind would have been pretty closed to that, and I would have dismissed such a notion as uncritical naivety.  Why?  Well, one reason was that I was getting a different story in my academic New Testament classes.  Another reason was that the people I knew who did believe that the Gospels contained eyewitness testimony tended to rely on pious assumption or religious bullying rather than any appeal to argument.  To illustrate this point, I was talking with a friend about the contradictions between Mark and John on the day that Jesus died, and my friend responded: “But both writers were there when Jesus died, so wouldn’t you expect for them both to get the date right?”  I then said, “Actually, we don’t know who wrote the Gospels.”  It amazed and irritated me that my friend essentially assumed that I shared his conservative Christian beliefs about who wrote the Gospels.

Nowadays, I’m a little more open to the notion that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony, albeit I’m not overly dogmatic about it.  This is because of scholarly books I have read, or books I have read that draw from biblical scholarship, that argue that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony.  There was Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.  There was Lee Harmon’s John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, which will be coming out in January.  And, while I don’t particularly care for David Marshall’s apologetic chest-thumping in his books, I at least have to give him credit for presenting arguments that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony, rather than simply assuming that they do or resorting to religious bullying.  I regard the view that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony to be legitimate, even though I don’t think that it’s the only legitimate view out there.

But, if the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony, does that mean that I have to be an evangelical Christian?  If what we have is eyewitness testimony that the disciples saw the risen Jesus, does that entail me having to embrace, say, the inerrancy of Scripture?  A number of evangelicals believe so: they think that, once you accept the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead, you then have to believe in inerrancy, for Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates the truth of the Christian religion.  But I’m skeptical that I have to take that kind of step.  For one, even if Jesus rose from the dead, that doesn’t mean that every closed-minded, dogmatic, authoritarian, bullying, ignorant evangelical or fundamentalist depiction of God that I have ever heard is true.  Maybe Jesus rose from the dead and Jesus is a nice and loving person, even as a number of conservative Christians distort (unintentionally), misunderstand, or misapply the things that he said.  Second, even if Jesus rose from the dead, that doesn’t make the problems in the Bible go away—-the contradictions, the diverse ideologies, the troubling acts and commands of the Old Testament God, the patriarchalism, the ways that the Hebrew Bible reflects ancient Near Eastern culture, the incompatibility between the Bible and modern science and archaeology, the unfulfilled prophecies, and the list goes on.

Michael Card holds that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony.  But I wonder if, somewhere along the way, he was influenced by scholarly or apologetic arguments for this position, for he doesn’t seem to just assume that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony, but rather he actually appears to be informed about the issue.  He notes that the Gospel of John manifests awareness of certain details, such as the risen Jesus cooking over a coal-fire, and the name of the person whose ear Peter cut off being Malchus.  As Michael Card says, John tells the story of Peter’s denial in such detail because he was actually there: “He knows the girl at the gate, the servant girl.  In fact, she gives him permission to come in.”  Michael Card is also aware of the tradition that the Gospel of Mark contains Peter’s eyewitness testimony.  And he may believe that this point is relevant to what Mark excludes and what Luke contains: Card says that only Luke had the heart to narrate that, after Peter’s third denial of Jesus, Jesus turned and looked at Peter, which broke Peter’s heart.

In some of these cases, Card appears to overlap with Richard Bauckham’s arguments.  Bauckham highlights the importance of the naming of names in John’s Gospel, and Bauckham also argues that Mark’s Gospel draws from Peter’s testimony (see here, here, and here).  Card does not really offer a sustained argument for the latter, but he does note that John names names.  Moreover, Card, like David Marshall, seems to think that vividness of narrative is a sign of eyewitness testimony, but Bauckham diverges from that argument, since vividness may be a part of a literary style rather than an indication that the author is an eyewitness.  At the same time, it does seem to me that the author of John’s Gospel portrays the Disciple Jesus Loved, the source of the story in John’s Gospel, as present at the events that are narrated.  Could that be fraudulent, or a literary device?  I can’t disprove that it is either of those two.  But, in my opinion, it could also be an indication that John’s Gospel is based on eyewitness testimony.

People in my group were raising their own questions about whether the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony.  For example, after Jesus rises in Mark’s Gospel, a man tells a group of women to go tell the disciples—-and Peter—-that Jesus is going before them into Galilee (Mark 16:7).  You’ll notice that Peter is singled out.  One lady asked if Peter (the source of Mark’s Gospel) could be telling the story to make himself look important, and that’s why it singles Peter out.  Someone else asked how Peter knew that the man was singling Peter out when he was not even there with the women, and people in the group concluded that Peter must have gotten that piece of information from others.  In my opinion (and I did not express this in the group), even if the Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony, that still coincides with them having a human element: people having biases, people gathering information, people including some things and not others, etc.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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