Monday, October 26, 2009

Did any of the gospels claim to have been written by an eyewitness?

Many of the Christians I know are aware that the fourth gospel contains an explicit claim to be written by an eyewitness: "This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down" (John 21:24). This is common knowledge among Christians who discuss the Bible with non-Christians; it is basic "Apologetics 101" level material. Yet the charge has been circulating that no gospels claim to have been written by an eyewitness. This charge bears the marks of someone who is simply not that familiar with the material.

This claim has been made by Bart Ehrman. In his book Lost Christianities he asserts that none of the canonical gospels "claims to be written by an eyewitness or a companion to an eyewitness" (p. 135 of the 2003 Oxford U. printing available at my library).

It is unfortunate that his book contains a misstatement of fact that could have been easily avoided by a more thorough knowledge of the subject. Sometimes, when meeting claims against Christianity, it helps to remember that the level of Biblical literacy in our society is at very low levels, and some patience is called for as we seek to inject some more knowledge of the texts into the current discussions about them.


Chris Duckworth said...

Quick question:
Is there a danger in trying to use scientific means (historical-critical methods) to demonstrate the reliability of the Scriptures, when an argument could be made that the trustworthiness of the Biblical witness is not based on scientific measures but on the measure of faith? That is, are these texts faithful because they were penned by eyewitnesses, or are they faithful because the earliest Christians saw in these texts a true witness to their experience of the Savior?

In general, I get nervous when Christians begin using science to prove the power of prayer, the existence of God, or the veracity of scripture. I fear the faith that is founded on scientific reasoning ....

Faith and science are not opposites, as some Christians contend, but neither are they entirely synchronous.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Chris

In this series, I'm just trying to build some bridges for non-Christians. This particular claim by Bart Ehrman is just factually incorrect, and demonstrates a low level of familiarity with the fourth gospel on his part.

So while I'm not trying to "prove the Bible with science", I think it is worthwhile to take the time to show that the Bible is more reliable than they give it credit for. ;)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Jim Bridges said...

The quotation from John 21:24 does not make the claim that the Gospel itself was written by an eyewitness, only that eyewitness testimony that was written down was used by the "we" referred to in the verse. See also 19:35 where the testimony of the beloved disciple is referred to by another. It is the beloved disciple who is the eyewitness and whose preaching may have been the foundation of the community. The Gospel offers clear indications that it is someone other than the beloved disciple who is the (final) author/editor of the text.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Jim

Thanks for commenting. Actually, the quote does make exactly that claim; I wonder if I should have quoted a little more for context. At any rate, the text claims that "this" (in context, the beloved disciple who has been a main character for some time in the text) is the same person who wrote the things down. It's unfortunate that such a bad misstatement of fact made it to publication in Ehrman's book.

I wonder how many people aren't familiar enough with the "beloved disciple" in the fourth gospel to catch the implications of that verse saying that he's the one who wrote it down.

You may also be interested in some ancient records about how the fourth gospel was originally envisioned as a "group writing" type project by the surviving disciples. The early church in the 100's was well aware of the editing; Peter's brother Andrew is named among the editors in the ancient records we have. Bart Ehrman shows awareness of the document which records this -- and of its early date. Still, he never really comes to terms with the implications for authorship.

Take care & God bless

John H said...


I define apology as "pre-evangelism" and view it as a means to remove folks implausibility structures.

Certainly, I doubt anyone is going to believe in Christ for intellectual or scientific reasons - nor is a mature faith going to be based on fact.

However, as my pastor said:

Forty percent of Christians in evangelical Churches in America no longer believe in the concept of absolute truth. Was Jesus really taken outside Jerusalem and nailed to a cross; or did that happen because you believe He was, or you wish He was? Is it part of your religious system of belief, or did it really, objectively happen?

That is the struggle we are in today. We are in a struggle for truth and the authority of that truth. We go to school and learn "the truth"; our parents teach us "the truth"; we open books and read "the truth" - and it doesn't take us very long to realize these are different stories. . . How do we trust the authority of the Bible? Christians are famous for circular reasoning: we believe the Bible is the word of God and study it because in the Bible it says it is the word of God. So, how do we know it is the word of God (without circular reasoning)? This is a question we should be able to answer. . .

With the Bart Erhman's and Bishop Spong's of the world spiritualizing the fact of the resurrection - I think we need, as Peter said, to be prepared to answer to where our hope comes from.