Were the four Gospels eye witness testimony?

Ancient handwriting   © 2014 Simon Peter Sutherland

Ancient handwriting
© 2014 Simon Peter Sutherland

One common notion people are presented with today is the claim that scholars now know the four Gospels of the New Testament were not written by eye witnesses or people who actually knew Jesus of Nazareth.

This type of claim is quite a common place today. We read it in books, hear it on the BBC radio, see and hear it on television and in countless documentaries. Likewise within the world of scholarship I continuously run into a head on collision with this argument by people who, when it is all said and done, know more about this argument than the narratives themselves.

One problem I see is that many of the people who make these claims do not make them off their own back, neither did they originate them. The claims themselves go back quite a while to the dawn of modern scholarship and one can easily find the early church disputing who wrote the Gospels.

In the 19th century, a fine Biblical commentator and Anglican Bishop of Liverpool J. C. Ryle wrote concerning this issue in his exposition of John 5: 2 and said the following;

These words, it is thought, show that Jerusalem was yet standing, and not taken and destroyed by the Romans, when John wrote his Gospel. Otherwise, it is argued, he would have said, “There was at Jerusalem.”. J. C. Ryle. (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. Volume 3. P 269)

At the time when Ryle wrote this there was no evidence for the exact location of this pool, but it was discovered in the 19th century and now sits within the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. Thus, demonstrating that although evidence for this pool had not been found until around nineteen hundred years or so after the text was written, the Bible was correct all along. And today it is widely recognised and visitors to Jerusalem can visit the site.

The text of John 5: 2 reads like so; “Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market (or pool) a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Beth-es-da, having five porches”.

In this text John is clearly communicating that, not only was John writing for Gentiles and not Jews, which confirms the position of Eusebius in his ecclesiastical history that John wrote this Gospel from Ephesus to expand on things not previously written by Matthew and Mark, but that he wrote in the way that is communicating that Jerusalem was still standing at the time.

There is ample evidence that John had already read Matthew, Mark and Luke by the time he was to write his Gospel and noticed that there was other points concerning Jesus’ life that the Synoptic writers did not mention. For this reason, John wrote concerning the final year of Jesus’ ministry. This is just one of many reasons to claim historically and textually that the Gospels were written by eye witnesses and based upon eye witness testimonies.

Eusebius claimed Irenaeus wrote in Against Heresies, 111.1.2 that Matthew published his Gospel first in the Hebrew tongue and Mark recorded the words of Peter from his preaching. He connects Luke’s Gospel to Paul, which could be confirmed by Luke’s opening passage in his Gospel. (Eusubius. The History of the Church. 8)

Thus, if Eusebius was correct, then this places the date of authorship for Matthew and Mark to well before AD 50’s and not anywhere the proposed dates that modern academic communities claim.

 Simon Peter Sutherland at Ephesus  © 2013 Simon Peter Sutherland

Simon Peter Sutherland at Ephesus
© 2013 Simon Peter Sutherland

From my own research into the Gospels, I have found them to date no later than this era, even as early as AD 30’s for Matthew and as late as AD 60 for Luke. The problem is that modern scholars claim that Matthew could not have been written prior to the events of AD 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem, since they think it not plausible that Jesus could have prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem as He did. Thus, the Gospel of Matthew must have been written after these events. The problem then grows because people would rather believe the negative suggestion rather than think and research for themselves. People are often fooled into thinking that they are researching something when in reality all they are doing is reading other peoples opinions.

Thus, John 5: 2 is just one of many Biblical texts which leave me wondering what on earth so many of these modern scholars are thinking when they date the gospels? What are they up to? I suspect it is a legal game like those in a court of law who look for contradictions in eye witness accounts, thus if they find them, they argue the texts as void.

But I have not found contradictions in the Gospels, the only contradictions I find are the interpretations of those passages by Western thinkers. The Gospels and the entire Bible was written by Jewish people, and when it is all said and done, the critics for the most part, know very little of ancient Judaism.

But concerning John 5: 2, the problem with the academic communities dating methods for the Gospels is that they are not consistent when one understands that John was here stating the sheep gate or market was still standing at the time of his composition. But the problem is, if this text was written when these scholars claim it was then to anyone who knows what the text claims, it is impossible to believe them. The reason being that the sheep gate or market in Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 by prince Titus. Thus, internal evidence from John’s Gospel gives us a composition date of AD 50’s at the very latest. And examples like this can be found throughout the Gospels and the New Testament.

Thus, concerning John’s Gospel, J. C. Ryle was certainly correct and he was not afraid or fooled into believing that because scholars say so, it must be true. He had the character and strength enough to disagree with what scholars and critics of his day claimed. Ryle let the text speak for itself and then explored it, that is what makes his expository thoughts on the Gospels so good. But the problem which happens today is that scholars such as Francesca Stravrakopoulou often make wild assumptions concerning the Bible and then publishes what she thinks the text is saying and then judges it according to that thinking. But Francesca Stravrakopoulou is not original in her thinking and neither is she convincing, in fact she in a long line of scholars who often leave both myself and others baffled at their claims.

People are swift to believe the documentary hypothesis of modern scholars, yet they are not so swift to research the actual text for themselves. If they were, the world would be full of people who do not agree with the speculative claims of the academic communities.

In this, I never fail to tire at hearing them, especially when the single minded media barons give those people all the air time. not singularly as an issue of truth or the quest for truth, but something far more earthly and possessive. We are living in a time where all but the sinful depraved nature of man is uncertain. Our age lacks identity and absolutes. Scientists are single minded in presenting their ideas alongside Theology and history, as though everything should be judged scientifically. Regardless of the fact that science merely means ‘knowledge’ people think of science as some kind of test tube analysis, which when it is all said and done is not a method used to judge history.

A person cannot put a historical document in a test tube and measure it according the that method, you have to find some other way of testing things. Each method is an interpretation only and not factual.

The Gospel of John in Greek  © 2014 Simon Peter Sutherland

The Gospel of John in Greek
© 2014 Simon Peter Sutherland

For example, if I were to measure the Gospels, I would look at them internally and measure their claims. I would never go along with what state education claims, but would measure the claims according to what I know. For this reason, I absolutely disagree with many claims made by modern scholars who take a text, a verse, a claim, a science, a majority vote and so one and measure the texts through those eyes. Thus, whatever one makes of that, it is certainly not the method used by the early church through to the reformation and beyond, where devotion and Theological insight must first be established in order to see the text clearly. In other words, a person cannot measure a text and judge it if they have failed to understand what the text is saying.

Let us take Biblical archaeology for example; if I go to Jerusalem, I can find plenty of evidence for the Bible there, the reason being, because that is the central location for the majority of Biblical events. So if I go and search for evidence of King Solomon’s temple in Babylon, I’m not going to find very much, but if I first look at what the text says, interpret it correctly, then see where the Biblical narrative is leading me, I will find it. I suppose what I am saying is that people should first find out what the Bible is saying before they critique it.

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  1. #1 by nonsupernaturalist on June 28, 2016 - 7:23 PM

    Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

    But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus’ death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60’s, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

    How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

    I challenge Christians to list the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

    If you can’t list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole…or…the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?

  2. #2 by simonpetersutherland2013 on June 29, 2016 - 11:54 AM

    Thank you for you comment.

    Firstly, if I’m reading you correctly, your basic premise is in error for a number of reasons.

    For example, the claim that links any eye witnesses to Jesus’ life and resurrection to people who lived in Jerusalem in AD 70 is in part unfounded. For one, the majority of eye witnesses had left Jerusalem long before AD 70, probably beginning as early as the 30’s AD and after the Great Commission. The believers who remained in Jerusalem were probably the people mentioned in the epistle to the Hebrews. Likewise, your claim that the Gospels were not written before AD 70 is also unfounded. The total opposite is the more probable truth. In fact, there are many who would agree with me that the entire New Testament was written before the events of AD 66-70. Internal evidence and ecclesiastical history reveals that the four Gospels were probably all written before AD 70. Acts of the Apostles was written from eye witness testimony about 60 AD.

    likewise, the letters of St.Paul were certainly written before AD 66. The epistle to the Hebrews was written about AD 64. The letter of James was written prior to the Jewish wars and is probably related to that episode.

    As for the book of Revelation, I think it was written in the 50’s AD, but some think 90’s. Ecclesiastical history presents the claims, but remains uncertain as to an exact composition date.

    Secondly, concerning your claim about assumptions; in Theology we have learned over the years to never assume anything. In your comment you have claimed that Christians assume the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. My answer is that such a claim has never been an assumption, but a documented ecclesiastical statement.

    Yes, modern ‘secular’ scholarship claims the Gospels were not written before AD 70, but the burden of proof is on them, but they have no actual proof, not a shred of evidence. Yes, ‘secular’ scholarship denies the authenticity of the Gospels as eye witness testimonies, but ‘secular’ scholarship is not a final authority on the Bible. In fact ecclesiastical history affirms the Gospels were written by eye witnesses, including John, Peter, Mary, Matthew and more.

    There is no proof that Matthews Gospel was not written by Matthew himself. He was an eye witness, ecclesiastical history affirms that. One of the main reasons modern ‘secular’ scholarship denies the eye witness claim is because Matthew’s narrative prophesies the event of AD 70 and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. They merely rule out any supernatural inspiration or divine foreknowledge.

    Likewise, Ecclesiastical history records the Gospel of Mark was actually written by St.Peter, Mark acted as a scribe for him. Peter was certainly an eye witness and ancient documents affirm that Peter was executed around 64-66 AD in Rome, so this Gospel must have been written long before then. Even if it were possible that Peter was not executed in Rome, then what basis do we have to know what happened to him? Since he does not appear in history beyond that time frame.

    Likewise, the Gospel of John was written by John, probably in the 50’s AD (see my article) and his writing of that account was witnessed by others, as ancient testimonial required; this is recorded in John 21: 24.

    Likewise, Luke, a close companion of Paul, interviewed the eye witnesses before 60 AD. As is recorded in Luke 1: 1-4.

    Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: 6 stated that Jesus appeared to 500 people at one time “most of whom are still living”. That letter was written from Ephesus, and is often dated to AD 50’s.

    Regards
    Simon Peter Sutherland

  3. #3 by Gary on November 14, 2016 - 4:35 AM

    Hi Simon Peter,

    New information for you: The majority of NT scholars, including NT Wright, now say that the Gospels were most likely NOT written by eyewitnesses:

    https://lutherwasnotbornagaincom.wordpress.com/2016/11/08/majority-of-scholars-agree-the-gospels-were-not-written-by-eyewitnesses/

    • #4 by simonpetersutherland2013 on November 15, 2016 - 9:54 PM

      Thank you for your comment. Where I would disagree with you is that there is anything “new” here. Scholars have been claiming the Gospels were not eyewitness testimonies for years, that is precisely the claim that I disagree with.

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