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Does the Temple Prediction Invalidate the Early Dating of the Gospels?

While the absence of any description of the temple’s destruction can reasonably be interpreted as a piece of circumstantial evidence supporting the early dating of the New Testament accounts, skeptics sometimes use this fact to make just the opposite case. Many have proposed that Jesus’s prediction related to the destruction was inserted to legitimize the text and make it appear that He had some prophetic power. If this was the case, the Gospels would clearly date to after the event (post AD 70), as the writers already knew the outcome before they cleverly inserted the prediction.

But, this sort of skepticism is clearly rooted in the presupposition I describe on this website and in my book, Cold-Case Christianity. If we begin from a position of philosophical naturalism (the presumption that nothing supernatural is possible), we have no choice but to describe the supernatural elements we find in the Gospels as lies. From a naturalistic perspective, prophetic claims are impossible. The skeptic, therefore, must find another explanation for Jesus’s prediction related to the temple; critics typically move the date of authorship beyond the date when the prophecy was fulfilled to avoid the appearance of supernatural confirmation. But as we described earlier, a fair examination of the evidence that supports supernaturalism must at least allow for the possibility of supernaturalism in the first place. The naturalistic bias of these critics prevents them from accepting any dating that precedes the destruction of the temple in AD 70 and forces them to ignore all the circumstantial evidence that supports the early dating.

When explaining why the destruction of the temple itself was not included in the gospel record, skeptics have argued that the gospel writers intentionally omitted the fulfillment to make the accounts look like they were written early. But if this was the case, why were the gospel writers unafraid to describe the fulfillment of prophecy in other passages in the Gospels? Over and over again we see the fulfillment of Old Testament messianic prophecies that are attributed to Jesus in one manner or another.

In addition to this, on several occasions Jesus predicted His own resurrection. The gospel writers readily described the fulfillment of these predictions in the resurrection accounts. Why would they be willing to describe this aspect of fulfilled prophecy, but shy away from discussing the destruction of the temple?

In addition, Luke freely admitted that he was not an eyewitness to the events in his gospel. He told us from the onset that he was writing at some point well after the events actually occurred, working as a careful historian. Why not include the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple? There was no reason to be shy here. Other Old Testament authors wrote from a perspective that followed the events they described and were unafraid to say so. Moses, Joshua, and Samuel, for example, repeatedly reported on events that took place well before their written account; they often wrote that the conditions they were describing continued from the point of the event “to this day” (indicating the late point at which they were actually writing). Why wouldn’t Luke take a similar approach to the destruction of the temple, especially given the fact that he made no pretense about writing as a historian?

While it is certainly possible that the Gospels were all written after the destruction of the temple, it is not evidentially reasonable. In fact, the primary motivation for denying the early authorship of the Gospels is simply the bias against supernaturalism that leads skeptics to re-date the Scriptures to some point following the fulfillment of Jesus’s prophecy.

This article was excerpted from my first book. To learn more, please refer to Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels, and be sure to request our free teaching outlines so you can share the case with others.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, and God’s Crime Scene.

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There’s No Good Reason to Deny the Early Dating of the Gospels

Not long ago, Daniel Wallace (no relationship to me, except that all us Wallace’s claim to descend from William) posted some great news about an early fragment of the Book of Romans that was recently discovered. This fragment dates to the early third century which puts it in rare company. It contains Romans 9:18–21 and small portions of Romans 10. Wallace made news a few years back when he mentioned an early fragment of the Gospel of Mark that has yet to be published. The fragment of Mark is said to be as early as the first century.

dating gospels

I had the great pleasure of visiting with Dan Wallace at an event where we got the chance to examine a number of very ancient manuscript fragments. Some of these were Biblical fragments; some of these were non-Biblical ancient documents. We were the first people to examine the documents in nearly two thousand years. By the end of the day it was clear to me that there are literally thousands of fragments of ancient texts still out there to be discovered and examined. We have only touched the tip of the iceberg and as our ability to find and examine these fragments continues to improve, we’ll surely discover much more evidence that the New Testament was written very early and transmitted faithfully.

In fact, this is the focus of my book, Cold Case Christianity. I’ve been studying this issue from the perspective of a detective for some time now and I’ve written about the evidence for early dating and about the reliable transmission of the documents at ColdCaseChristianity.com.  If the New Testament eyewitness accounts were written as early as the evidence infers, many of the objections of skeptics are impotent. Early manuscripts mean that the original witnesses to the life of Jesus were (1) available to write the documents we now have, and (2) early observers of Jesus’ life would have been available to deny the testimony of the gospel authors. The continuing discovery of early fragments of New Testament documents corroborates this early dating.

When visiting with Dan Wallace, Greg Koukl and I asked him about the skepticism on the part of people like Bart Ehrman related to early dating. We asked Wallace if there was some specific manuscript evidence that inclined people to deny the early dating of the Gospel accounts. Wallace said there was no such evidence. We then asked why people continued to deny the early dating if, in fact, we were continuing to find early fragments and there was no contrary manuscript evidence. It turns out that the late dating of the gospels is due primarily to a denial of supernaturalism.

One of the primary reasons why skeptics date the gospels later than 70AD is the fact that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple in the gospel accounts (i.e. Matthew 23). Secular history records that the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, fulfilling this alleged prediction by Jesus. In order to avoid the accurate prophecy from Jesus, skeptics argue that the gospel must have been written after the temple was destroyed. After all, how could Jesus possess the supernatural power of prophecy if nothing supernatural exists? The philosophical naturalism of the secular historian prevents him from accepting the possibility of accurate prophecy.

The gospels also contain many descriptions of miracles. The philosophical naturalist must also deny the truthfulness of these supernatural accounts. Skeptics, therefore, date the gospel accounts very late, arguing that eyewitnesses to these events were already dead and unavailable to deny the claims. It turns out that the presupposition of philosophical naturalism is at work in the minds of those who would deny the early dating of the gospels. When this presuppositional bias is removed, the remaining evidence confirms that the gospels were written in the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, and God’s Crime Scene.

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Can We Trust the Gospels, Even If They Were Transmitted Orally?

One common challenge leveled at the gospels is related to the manner in which they were first recorded. How early were the texts written, and how was the material transmitted prior to being documented by the gospel eyewitnesses? I’ve assembled a cumulative circumstantial case for the early dating of the gospels, but even if the gospels were written early enough to have been authored by eyewitnesses, wouldn’t 15-20 years be enough time for the authors to forget something important or add something errant, especially if they were only retelling the story orally?

Gospels transmitted Orally

When we offer this kind of objection, we start (of course) by denying the supernatural power of God to guide the Biblical authors and protect their memory. But as an atheist, I had no problem beginning with this denial; I was already denying the existence of God, let alone God’s power to protect the eyewitness account. My distrust in the ability of eyewitnesses to recall and transmit the account orally seemed very reasonable back when I was a non-believer. I simply could not fathom the writers being able to transmit the necessary and important details from one person to another without corruption or loss of information. After investigating this more thoroughly, however, I do think we have good reason to trust the accurate transmission of the gospels.

Personal Reverence
The content of the gospel message was of critical importance to both those who communicated it and those who accepted it (and later re-communicated it to the next generation). These folks weren’t passing along mom’s meatloaf recipe; hey were testifying as eyewitnesses to the greatest life ever lived, and they understood their role as eyewitnesses from the start (read through the Book of Acts to see what I mean).

Persistent Repetition
We’ve also got to remember that the first century culture in which the disciples operated was a culture of oral transmission. A lot has been written about this, but let me give you an example I experienced personally last week, as I visited and ministered with Andy Steiger from Apologetics Canada. Andy is a slave driver, and he asked me to give 10 talks over a period of 7 days. Most of these were talks on the reliability of the Bible; the same talk, repeated many times over the course of that week. An important volunteer at Apologetics Canada, Tyson Bradley, came to every event. At one point, after hearing the same talk about 5 times in a row, he told me that he could finish, my sentences for me. I laughed until he started to repeat me line for line (it wasn’t so funny then).  In just five repetitions, Tyson had memorized my message. Imagine what he could do if he hung out with me for three years like the disciples did with Jesus.

Prompt Recording
Beyond this, those who memorized the repeated teaching of Jesus offered what they remembered to those who recorded it within the lifetimes of the original eyewitnesses. The early church Bishop, Papias, claimed that Mark recorded the preaching of Peter as he described the life and teaching of Jesus. Having access to the man (Peter) who (like Tyson) sat under repeated teaching until he had memorized it thoroughly, Mark then recorded the truth about Jesus as Peter delivered it to him. The case for early dating helps us to have confidence that this occurred very early in history.

As a skeptic, even without embracing the divine protection of the gospel accounts, I found that the circumstances surrounding their transmission and authorship was reasonable. Now, as a Christian, I realize that God protected this entire process and orchestrated the events in such a way as to allow us to have a reliable record of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene.

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Rapid Response: “The Gospels Have Been Altered”

In our Rapid Response series, we tackle common concerns about (and objections to) the Christian worldview by providing short, conversational responses. These posts are designed to model what our answers might look like in a one-on-one setting, while talking to a friend or family member. Imagine if someone made the following claim: “I can’t believe what the Gospels say because they were altered over the years.” How would you respond to such an objection? Here is a conversational example of how I recently replied:

Gospels Altered

“I understand the objection, because that was one of my first doubts as a skeptic. I held two suspicions as a committed atheist (I didn’t examine the Gospels until I was in my thirties). First, I didn’t think the Gospels were written early in history, because they contained so many miraculous stories. I was a committed philosophical naturalist and I rejected miracles. So, I figured the Gospels must have been written late in history, after all the people who knew the truth about Jesus were already dead and gone. Secondly, even if the Gospels were written early, I suspected the supernatural elements were inserted later. I believed the earliest versions of the Gospel accounts were probably much less supernatural. Maybe, in the first versions of the story, Jesus was a simple guy who was a good teacher, but not a miracle worker. He didn’t walk on water and didn’t rise from the dead; all those elements, in my opinion, were inserted later.

But there’s a process we employ in criminal investigations that we can use here to investigate the possibility of tampering in the Gospels. In my criminal cases, we must demonstrate to the jury that the evidence we’re presenting at trial wasn’t altered after we collected it from the crime scene. We must assemble what is known as the ‘Chain of Custody.’ Let me give you an example. Let’s say we present a bullet casing to the jury during a homicide trial and highlight the existence of an extractor pin mark on the casing. We tell the jury this pin mark identifies the casing as having come from the defendant’s handgun. But how can the jury be sure the pin mark was on the casing when officers originally recovered it at the crime scene? Isn’t it possible that an unsavory officer altered the casing after the fact by secretly etching the mark on the casing to fool the jury? The ‘Chain of Custody’ will help us determine if the casing was altered.

We begin by asking a few simple questions: Did someone take a photograph of (or write a detailed report describing) the casing at the crime scene? Who collected it? To whom did the officer give the casing? Who was the next officer (or criminalist) in the ‘Chain of Custody’? Who booked it into the Property Room? Who handled it while it was there? Who collected the casing from the Property Room and delivered it to the Crime Lab? Who picked it up from the Crime Lab and brought it to the courtroom? Did these involved parties document the existence of the pin mark along the way? If we have repeated images or reports describing the casing, we’ll be able to determine if it was altered over time.

We can do something similar when we examine the Gospels. Let’s look, for example, at the Gospel of John. How do we know that the Gospel accepted by the Council of Laodicea in 363AD wasn’t altered dramatically in the 300 years between its original authorship and this historic council? Lucky for us, we can assemble a ‘Chain of Custody’ for the Gospel of John. John was the ‘officer at the scene,’ documenting what he saw at the time. He then gave his account to the next ‘officers’ in the ‘Chain of Custody’; John had three personal students named Papius, Ignatius, and Polycarp. After John died, these men became leaders in the Church and wrote their own letters to local congregations. These letters aren’t in our Bible, but they have survived as ancient documents. We can read these letters to see if their description of Jesus was different than John’s. Two of these men, Ignatius and Polycarp, had a student named Irenaeus, the next ‘link’ in the ‘Chain of Custody’. Irenaeus also wrote about what he learned from his teachers. He then had a student of his own named Hippolytus. This latter ‘link’ also wrote about what he learned from his teacher.

These ancient men form a Gospel of John ‘Chain of Custody’. We can examine each ‘link’ in this ‘chain’ to see if their description of Jesus is evolving or changing over time. We can examine all the ‘links’ in the ‘chain’ to see if the story of Jesus was altered. As it turns out, the story of Jesus never changed. The description of Jesus wasn’t altered. From the first ‘link’ to the last, Jesus was born of a virgin, worked miracles, preached sermons, died on a cross, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and seated at the right hand of the Father. Nothing about the Jesus story has been altered. You may not believe it’s true, but we can demonstrate with certainty that the content of the Gospels and the story of Jesus has not been altered.”

This brief answer was modified from my interview with Bobby Conway. To learn more and watch many other short answers to difficult questions, please visit the One-Minute Apologist website.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, and God’s Crime Scene.

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Jesus’ Authority Was Based in His Deity

In Cold-Case Christianity, I make the case for the reliability of the New Testament Gospels based on a template we use to test eyewitnesses in criminal trials. This book traces my own personal journey as I investigated the Gospels and ultimately became a Christian. When I first started considering the words of Jesus, I was only interested in gleaning some wisdom from an ancient sage. But the more I read through the Gospel narratives, the more I realized Jesus spoke and taught as though He were God Himself. Jesus possessed more than the authority of a wise teacher; He demonstrated a power and authority that can only be described as Divine:

The Authority to Create
The writers of Scripture described Jesus as more than simply our Savior. According the Bible, Jesus is also our creator:

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:3)

For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. (Colossians 1:16)

The Authority to Forgive
Jesus also repeatedly demonstrated His Divine authority to forgive sin:

Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . .” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe. (Matthew 9:1-8)

The Authority to Grant Eternal Life
As the creator of life, Jesus also demonstrated the ability to give of eternal life:

I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:28)

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)

The Authority to Judge
As the author of our lives, Jesus proclaimed the right to evaluate how we have lived as His creation:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” (Matthew 25:31-33)

The Biblical eyewitnesses described Jesus as a uniquely authoritative teacher. But this authority appears to be rooted in much more than exceptional wisdom or persuasive communication skills. Jesus’ authority is grounded in His power; a Divine power that separated Him from other wise rabbis. Jesus’ authority was based on His Deity.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene.

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A Witness Can Be Wrong and Reliable

In every crime scene I’ve ever worked, both evidence and artifacts were present; it’s my job to separate one from the other. Did the murderer cause this blood smear, or was it caused by the paramedic who responded before me and tried to resuscitate the victim? Some smears may be evidence I can use to reconstruct the struggle, others may simply be artifacts that are completely unrelated to the crime. The evidence matters, the artifacts are inconsequential.

The “evidence” of scripture also contains unrelated “artifacts”. Bart Ehrman, for example, has drawn attention to the number of textual variations (artifacts) in the New Testament. In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman describes his own descent from faith:

“There was an obvious problem, however, with the claim that the Bible was verbally inspired – down to its very words. As we learned at Moody in one of the first courses in the curriculum, we don’t actually have the original writings of the New Testament. What we have are copies of these writings, made years later, in most cases, many years later. Moreover, none of these copies is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places. All scribes did this. So rather than actually having the inspired words of the autographs (i.e., the originals) of the Bible, what we have are the error-ridden copies of the autographs… Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later – much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places… The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book. Just as human scribes had copied, and changed, the texts of scripture, so too had human authors originally written the texts of scripture. This was a human book from beginning to end.”

It’s clear that Ehrman was troubled by the existence of the textual “artifacts” and eventually came to believe that he couldn’t trust any of the Biblical “evidence” that shared space on the pages of scripture. Imagine if I took that same approach to my crime scenes. If I threw my hands up every time I encountered a scene that wasn’t evidentially pure, I wouldn’t solve a single case. Every crime scene has artifacts. Get over it. That’s why we have to learn to be good detectives; it’s our job to sort through the evidence and the artifacts. We can’t just give up because the scene is less tidy than we might like.

It’s also important to recognize that Ehrman’s initial expectation of Biblical inerrancy caused him to lose confidence in the Bible once he discovered anything that didn’t belong in the text. Maybe that’s because he was raised in the Church and the teaching on inerrancy was foundational to his belief. As a 35 year old atheist detective, I came from a very different place when I first discovered the presence of scribal variations in the Biblical text. I’d already tried a number of robbery and murder suspects prior to reading the gospels. I was very familiar with the nature, texture and properties of eyewitness statements, long before I began to examine the claims of the gospel writers. My expectations of eyewitnesses were far lower than Ehrman’s. I already acknowledged two things about witnesses: they seldom agree about every detail and they are sometimes mistaken about some aspect of their testimony. In spite of this, witnesses can be deemed reliable and trusted once we do the hard work of determining why they might see something differently or incorrectly. In fact, judges in the state of California instruct juries that they are not to distrust a witness just because that witness may be wrong about some aspect of his or her testimony:

“Do not automatically reject testimony just because of inconsistencies or conflicts. Consider whether the differences are important or not. People sometimes honestly forget things or make mistakes about what they remember. Also, two people may witness the same event yet see or hear it differently” (Section 105, Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions, 2006)

Witnesses can be wrong in some aspect of their testimony, yet be considered reliable, over all. Once the jury understands why the witness might be mistaken in a detail, they are encouraged to consider the rest of the testimony reliable.

Let me be clear about something here: after examining the gospel accounts, I don’t believe that they contain any true contradictions or factual errors. I do, believe however, that they contain scribal variants, and these variants are already identified on the pages of scripture by the publishers of our modern translations. While I do believe in the inerrancy of the original text of the New Testament, I entered my examination of the gospels with a very different standard; I didn’t demand that the witnesses be inerrant, just reliable. A witness can be mistaken about some small detail, yet considered reliable related to his or her larger claims. Although it is clear that the New Testament we possess today contains “variants” that we have accurately identified by comparing over 24,000 manuscripts fragments and larger documents, this has no bearing on whether or not they are reliable. These variants may be an excuse for some to lazily dismiss the claims of scripture, but good investigators don’t have the luxury of being lazy. Instead, it’s our duty to separate the artifacts from the evidence so we can solve the case and determine what really happened at the crime scene. Similar diligence is needed if we are ever going to fairly assess the claims of Christianity.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene.

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Examining Jesus by the Historical Method (Part 6: Eyewitness Testimony–The Case for the Gospels)

By Brian Chilton

As we have engaged in our evaluation of Jesus according to the historical method, my previous articles have demonstrated that the historical Jesus passes the historical method with flying colors. However, we must continue our quest in asking, “Do we have eyewitness testimony concerning Jesus of Nazareth?” That is, do we have the accounts of Jesus from those who personally knew him? If someone is investigating a person or an event of history, the investigator will want testimony from those who actually knew the person, or witnessed the event.

Admittedly, this area of study pertaining to the historical Jesus is among the most controversial. Many prominent New Testament scholars hold that the accounts that we have of Jesus come from second-hand sources, which would eliminate any eyewitness account that one possesses of the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

But hold on! Not so fast! There are just as many scholars who hold that the testimonies in the New Testament come from eyewitnesses. This article will examine the reasons for holding that the Evangelists record eyewitness testimony. The second installment will look into the weight of this eyewitness testimony as it tells us who provides the witness. For this investigation, we will examine the Four Gospels. Since at least 7 letters of Paul are undisputed and since I have previously discussed the pre-NT traditions found in Paul’s letters, we will not focus on proving the eyewitness nature for his material.[1]

Internal Evidence of the Gospels

Within the Gospels, one can find reasons to hold that the testimony comes from eyewitness testimony.

Internal Testimony of Matthew

Matthew has traditionally been ascribed to the disciple Matthew who was a former tax-collector. It is odd that the church would ascribe the Gospel to one who was a tax-collector if it was not true. Tax-collectors were hated in ancient times. Internally, one finds reasons for holding Matthean authorship. Blomberg writes,

This author, at least of an original draft of this book (or one of its major sources), seems quite probably to have been the converted toll collector, also named Levi, who became one of Jesus’ twelve apostles (cf. 10:3; 9:9–13; Mark 2:14–17).”[2] In addition, Cabal adds that “The Gospel also contains clear evidence that the author possessed a strong command of both Aramaic and Greek, something that would be a prerequisite for most tax collectors. Furthermore, the author of Matthew used the more precise term nomisma for the coin used in the dispute over tribute (Mt 22:19) than Mark’s and Luke’s denarion (Mk 12:15; Lk 20:24).”[3]

This would have been something that a tax-collector would have known.

Internal Evidence of Mark

The church unanimously agreed that John Mark had recorded the eyewitness testimony of Simon Peter in the Second Gospel. The internal nature of Mark’s Gospel seems to indicate that John Mark was indeed the author. Grassmick notes that

“Several features also point to the author’s connection with Peter: (a) the vividness and unusual detail of the narratives, that suggest that they were derived from the reminiscences of an “inner-circle” apostolic eyewitness such as Peter (cf 1:16–20, 29–31, 35–38; 5:21–24, 35–43; 6:39, 53–54; 9:14–15; 10:32, 46; 14:32–42); (b) the author’s use of Peter’s words and deeds (cf. 8:29, 32–33; 9:5–6; 10:28–30; 14:29–31, 66–72); (c) the inclusion of the words “and Peter” in 16:7, which are unique to this Gospel; and (d) the striking similarity between the broad outline of this Gospel and Peter’s sermon in Caesarea (cf. Acts 10:34–43).”[4]

The tradition that Mark records Simon Peter’s testimony is affirmed by the internal nature of the Gospel as well as the external witness which will be given later in the article.

 Internal Evidence of Luke

The physician Luke is normally ascribed to have been the author of the Third Gospel. Internally, one finds evidence for this association. While Luke was not an eyewitness, Luke acknowledges his use of eyewitness material by saying, “just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us” (Luke 1:2).[5] Thus, Luke never claims to be an eyewitness but uses eyewitness material.

Internal Evidence of John

The Fourth Gospel is normally ascribed to the apostle John. John is nearly universally agreed to have been the last Gospel written. While some may disagree, the episodes of the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20) within the Gospel points to an inner circle disciple. Peter and James are mentioned in such episodes, but never John. The Gospel ends by saying, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know his testimony is true” (John 21:24). In addition, the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is assigned by Jesus to care for Jesus’ mother Mary (John 19:27). The letters of early church leader Ignatius confirms this report. Thus, the internal evidence is clear. John the apostle wrote the Fourth Gospel either by his own hand or dictating the information to a student.

Now that we have considered the eyewitness testimony of the Gospels by the internal evidence, let us consider the eyewitness testimony of the Gospels given by external testimony.

 External Evidence of the Gospels

The early church was unanimous in their acceptance of the four canonical Gospels. Early on, church father Papias provides a glimpse at how the Gospels were written.

Testimony of Papias of Hierapolis (c. AD 95-130)

Papias may not have personally known John the apostle, although he may have heard John speak.[6] Nevertheless, Papias knew Polycarp and others who knew John well. Papias recorded the following pertaining to the writings of the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew that he received from the presbyter (presumably John, but perhaps Polycarp):

“And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements…Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”[7]

It must be remembered that we do not possess the entirety of Papias’ writings. However, we are benefited by the documentation of those who knew Papias’ writings well.

Testimony of Irenaeus of Lyons (c. AD 175)

Irenaeus of Lyons probably knew the writings of Papias well. Irenaeus describes the writing of all four Gospels by documenting the following:

“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”[8]

 These testimonies would find further corroboration by church historian Eusebius.

Testimony of Eusebius of Caesaria (c. AD 325)

Eusebius of Caesaria was a church historian writing around AD 325. He writes the following pertaining to the writing of the Gospels:

“But Luke, who was of Antiochian parentage and a physician by profession, and who was especially intimate with Paul and well acquainted with the rest of the apostles, has left us, in two inspired books, proofs of that spiritual healing art which he learned from them.”[9]

“For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence.

And when Mark and Luke had already published their Gospels, they say that John, who had employed all his time in proclaiming the Gospel orally, finally proceeded to write for the following reason. The three Gospels already mentioned having come into the hands of all and into his own too, they say that he accepted them and bore witness to their truthfulness; but that there was lacking in them an account of the deeds done by Christ at the beginning of his ministry.”[10]

 Evidence from Dating

We mentioned in a previous article that good reasons exist for holding that the three canonical Gospels were all written before AD 64. Primarily, it was argued that Luke does not record the death of Paul and Peter, quite odd if Acts was written after Peter and Paul’s execution. Some scholars hold that Peter and Paul died around AD 64. If this is true, then Acts must have been written before AD 64, forcing the Gospel of Luke and the borrowed material from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark prior to the 60s. An early dating bodes well for claiming that the Gospels hold eyewitness testimony because the time-frame puts the writings well within the time of the eyewitnesses.

Conclusion

While there are many who deny the authenticity of eyewitness testimony in the four canonical Gospels, I feel that the evidence strongly supports the assertion that the Gospels are based upon eyewitness testimony. If the findings of this article are true, then Matthew and John provide first hand eyewitness testimony, whereas Mark and Luke provide documentation of eyewitness testimonials. In the next section of this article which will be published next week, we will look at the number of eyewitnesses we have in the New Testament alone. The historical Jesus continues to pass the historical methodological test.

Copyright February 1st, 2016. Brian Chilton.

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Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig. Matthew. The New American Commentary, Volume 22. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.

Cabal, Ted, et al. The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith.Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007.

Eusebius of Caesaria. “The Church History of Eusebius.” In Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Volume 1. Second Series. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890.

Grassmick, John D. “Mark.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Edited by J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985.

Irenaeus of Lyons. “Irenæus against Heresies.” In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.

Papias. “Fragments of Papias.”In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.

Endnotes

[1] In addition, we are looking for material for those who knew Jesus during his earthly ministry.

[2] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 44.

[3] Ted Cabal et al., The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith(Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 1402.

[4] John D. Grassmick, “Mark,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 95–96.

[5] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

[6] This is an area of dispute. It depends on one’s understanding of Papias’ testimony.

[7] Papias, “Fragments of Papias,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 154–155.

[8] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 414.

[9] Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 136.

[10] Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 152–153.