GI-9: ARE THE GOSPELS RELIABLE EYEWITNESSES OF JESUS? Part 1

In the last article I looked at some non-Christian and Christian extra-biblical sources that all mention Jesus. There are ten non-Christian sources who mention Jesus within 150 years of his life, death, and resurrection. By way of contrast, over that same 150-year period, there are only 9 non-Christian sources that mention Tiberius, the Roman emperor at the time of Jesus. So, Jesus is mentioned by one more non-Christian source than the emperor Tiberius.

Some of the non-Christian sources are not just non-Christian, they are anti-Christian, such as the writings of Tacitus and the Jewish Talmud (the Babylonian Talmud). Whenever those writers mention Jesus or Christians, it is clearly with an anti-Christian tone. However, we learn from the ten non-Christian sources that they admit to a number of facts about early Christianity that help us piece together a storyline that is strikingly similar to what we learn in the New Testament.

A few months ago, I was an eyewitness to a car accident. A pick-up truck going south on a four-lane city street turned left in front of a northbound car which struck the truck broadside. I immediately pulled over to help anyone who might have been injured and stayed around to give the police my statement of what I witnessed.

The truck driver accepted total blame for causing the accident. When I reported what I saw to the officer, was my statement biased? In this case, if giving a favorable statement for the driver of the car versus giving an unfavorable statement against the driver of the pickup truck, then I guess some might say that I was biased.

If I happened to know the driver of the car, some might say I was biased. But, in either case, I was only reporting what I witnessed. If the police officer who arrived on the scene of the accident had formed his own conclusions without talking to any participants or eyewitnesses in the accident, it would be justifiable to accuse him of bias.

What if the writers of the gospels and Acts were simply reporting what they had seen, or what an eyewitness told them what they had seen. Would that make them biased? No, not any more than any other eyewitness of any other event that has ever reported. Is bias possible? Yes. But, in fairness, we cannot begin with the assumption of the authors’ bias any more than we begin with the assumption of guilt in a criminal trial. To do so reflects our own bias. We must try to evaluate the evidence without bias, as best we can.

I’m going to approach this the way a crime scene investigator would approach evaluating eyewitness reports to a crime. In his book, “Cold-Case Christianity,” former homicide and cold-case Detective J. Warner Wallace writes,

“The first criterion of an eyewitness’s reliability requires us to answer the question ‘Were the alleged eyewitnesses present in the first place?’”

If the gospels were written in the 2nd or 3rd centuries, as some skeptics claim, then of course there were no eyewitnesses and the gospels are fabrications, works of fiction, and possibly outright lies presented as truth. So, let’s begin with the 1st criterion: Were the alleged eyewitnesses present in the first place? We’ll follow that up in another article with the 2nd criterion: When were the gospels actually written?

Did you know there were at least 519 eyewitnesses who saw Jesus alive after his resurrection? Let me begin with just a few quotes from the book of Acts (2:32; 10:39-40). There are other verses with the same theme, but let’s look at a couple written by Peter and John.

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” 2 Peter 1:16

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us…” 1 John 1:1-2

The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 that Jesus appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. In other words, to all of the 12. So, that’s 12. Then he appeared to 500, then to James (Jesus’ half-brother), then to Paul, giving us a total of 514. We’re still a little short. Ah, but all four gospels mention women as eyewitnesses: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Luke also adds Joanna. So that is four more, which leaves us one short. However, in Acts 1 Luke also mentions Joseph called Barsabbas, which gives a total of 519. And that is a minimum number. There were likely more.

Not only do the apostles claim to be eyewitnesses, on several occasions they tell their audiences that everyone knows what they are saying is true. These are not casual comments, but bold proclamations made to powerful people. In Acts 26 Luke records Paul’s testimony of his conversion to King Agrippa following his arrest for preaching the gospel. Festus, appointed by emperor Nero as governor of Judea, interrupted Paul at one point, shouting, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane.” Paul replied,

“I am not insane, most excellent Festus. What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”

Paul not only boldly witnesses to Felix and Agrippa, who were powerful men with the authority of life and death, but he has the audacity to tell the King that he already knows what Paul is saying is the truth (26:25). Those events, Paul says, were not done secretly in a corner. They were common knowledge (26:26).

In Acts 5, Peter also makes some bold statements to Jewish authorities regard the fact that he and others were eyewitnesses to the events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection. The risk that Peter and Paul and other apostles took to claim they were providing eyewitness testimony suggests they were telling the truth. If those accounts were true, the apostles’ unwavering testimony and provocative challenges to powerful people demonstrate that they were eyewitnesses who really believed Jesus rose from the dead. However, claiming to be an eyewitness and actually being an eyewitness are two different things. What other evidence is there in the New Testament that the writers of the gospels and Acts were really eyewitnesses or had access to eyewitnesses?

In their book, “I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist,” Turek and Geisler point out that even though Luke was not a direct eyewitness to Jesus, he carefully investigated the facts surrounding Jesus’ life, death and resurrection by interviewing many direct eyewitnesses and then he wrote down an orderly account of all that he learned. In other words, he was not making it up. In fact, I think we will see what famed scholar, archeologist and noted skeptic, Sir William Ramsay came to believe that Luke was a first-rate historian in his day.

In the second half of Acts Luke records more than 80 historical facts that have been confirmed historically and archaeologically. Historian Colin Hemer, in a well-researched study of Acts and with painstaking detail, identified 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts. I am not going to list all 84, but here are a few:

  • The correct implication that sea travel is the most convenient way of reaching Athens, with the favoring east winds of summer sailing (17:14-15)
  • The abundant presence of images in Athens (17:16)
  • The accurate depiction of the Athenian life of philosophical debate in the Agora (17:17)
  • The altar to an unknown god (17:23)
  • The appropriate route passing across the open sea south of Cyprus favored by persistent northwest winds (21:3)
  • The right of appeal for Roman citizens (25:11)
  • The severe liability on guards who permitted a prisoner to escape (27:42)

That’s just 7 out of 84. At the very least, Luke had access to reliable eyewitness testimony and obviously spent a lot of time researching these facts. In Acts we learn also that Luke was a travelling companion of Paul and would have experienced many of the events as an eyewitness. What more could Luke have done to prove his authenticity as a historian?

Many skeptics are uncomfortable with Acts because in addition to reporting more than 80 historical details accurately, he also records 35 miracles. But they start with a bias toward anything supernatural and, therefore, dismiss any claims of miracles. In the second half of Acts, Luke records several miracles of Paul. For example,

  • Luke records that Paul temporarily blinded a sorcerer (13:11)
  • He records that Paul cured a man who was crippled from birth (14:8)
  • That Paul exorcised a demon from a possessed girl (16:18)
  • That he performed “many miracles” that convinced many in the city of Ephesus to turn from sorcery to Jesus (19:11-20)
  • That he raised a man from the dead who had died after falling out of a window during Paul’s long sermon (20:9-10)
  • That he healed Publius’s father of dysentery, and healed a number of others who were sick on Malta (28:8-9)

Those are just the recorded incidents of Paul’s miracles. That doesn’t include the other miracles performed by other apostles earlier in Acts. So, what does that tell us? First, it tells us that all these miracles are included in the same historical narrative that has been confirmed as authentic as the 84 historical facts that I mentioned earlier. Second, the accounts of miracles are recorded without any signs of embellishment or exaggeration. They are told with the same matter-of-fact approach as the rest of the historical narrative in Acts.

Ask yourself this question, why would Luke be so accurate and meticulous by including such insignificant details as wind directions, water depths, and odd town names, but not be accurate when it came to important events like miracles? Luke has proven to be so accurate and precise in so many details, the only reason to dismiss the inclusion of miracles is solely due to an anti-supernatural bias on the part of skeptics.

Now, let’s begin our examination of Luke’s gospel by asking if we should expect the same measure of accuracy that we saw in Acts? Judging by his meticulous, careful, and detailed work in Acts, Luke is certainly a historian we can trust. In fact, at the beginning of his gospel he writes…

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.” Luke 1:1-3

Not only does Luke record a number of verified historical facts in the book of Acts, he also names 11 historically confirmed leaders in the first three chapters of his gospel: Herod the Great (1:5), Caesar Augustus (2:1), and Quirinius (2:2).

Then in chapter three he mentions 7 more: Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Does this sound like Luke is making up a story? Of course not.

Another interesting and historically accurate detail can be found in Luke 22. After the last supper Jesus and his disciples went to the Mt. of Olives where Jesus went off on his own to pray, leaving the disciples to pray and keep watch with him. Here’s Luke’s account…

“And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” 

Jesus experienced a rare stress-induced condition known today as HE-MA-TO-HI-DRO-SIS, which is a condition that occurs when capillary blood vessels that feed the sweat glands rupture, causing them to exude blood. This happens under conditions of extreme physical or emotional stress, thus allowing blood to mix with sweat. It was probably because Luke was a physician that he included this detail. Again, why would he make up something like this?

Now here is a very crucial point: If Luke is telling the truth, then so are Mark and Matthew. Why? Because their gospels tell the same basic story. Luke often repeated or quoted entire passages that were previously offered in either Mark’s gospel or Matthew’s. In fact, 350 verses from Mark’s gospel also appear in Luke’s gospel; 250 verses from Matthew’s gospel also appear in Luke’s gospel. So, it appears that Luke copied and inserted those verses into his own gospel. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that, at the very least, Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts were probably already recognized, accepted, and available to Luke prior to the time when he wrote his gospel.

So, is it possible that Luke, Mark, and Matthew were eyewitnesses of, or had access to eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? Yes. Is it the most reasonable inference? Once again, the circumstantial evidence makes a compelling case that these three gospel accounts are accurate and reliable, pointing us to the reasonable inference that these accounts were provided by eyewitnesses. But, what about John’s gospel?

Critics claim that John’s gospel is a much later work and that his emphasis on the deity of Jesus was invented. (I’ll get to the dating of the gospels and Acts in the next article.) But, if the critics are wrong like they are with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts, then John provides us with one more reliable eyewitness.

Like the work Colin Hemer did on Acts, Craig Blomberg has done a detailed study of the Gospel of John. He examines John verse by verse and identifies 59 historical details. Here are just ten:

  1. Archaeology confirms the use of stone water jars in New Testament times (John 2:6).
  2. Archaeology confirms the proper place of Jacob’s well where Jesus met the Samaritan woman (4:6).
  3. Josephus confirms there was significant hostility between Jews and Samaritans during Jesus’ time (4:9).
  4. Archaeology confirms the proper location and description of the five colonnades at the pool of Bethsaida (5:2).
  5. Archaeology confirms the existence and location of the Pool of Siloam (9:7).
  6. Jesus’ crucifixion is affirmed by non-Christian sources such as Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, and the Jewish-Babylonian Talmud (as I mentioned before).
  7. Josephus confirms that crucifixion was an execution technique used by the Romans.
  8. Sudden and severe squalls are common on the Sea of Galilee (6:18). I have witnessed them firsthand.
  9. Josephus confirms that Caiaphas was indeed the high priest from AD 18-37.
  10. Josephus confirms that spices were used for royal burials. These spices were awfully expensive and there were 75 lbs. of them.

That’s only 10 of 59. So, is it possible that John was an eyewitness to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection? Yes. When we consider John’s knowledge of Jesus’ personal conversations in his gospel with those 59 details, there’s very little room for doubt that John was an eyewitness. Is it a reasonable inference that John was indeed an eyewitness? What do you think?

Were the alleged eyewitnesses present in the first place? I believe that we have examined some significant evidence which points us to the reliability of the gospels as providing us with reliable eyewitness testimony of Jesus. Can we prove that with 100% certainty? Truthfully, no. But, can we make a reasonable inference from the available evidence that it is highly probable that the gospels are reliable eyewitness accounts. Yes we can based on the available evidence. Next time we will examine the second criterion of an eyewitness’s reliability by examining the question, “When were the gospels written?”

Remember, “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect.”

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