The witness is excused
Updated: Jan 16
The gospels of the New Testament are NOT eyewitness accounts.
Christian apologists often refer to the four gospels of the so-called New Testament as historical evidence for the existence of their slaughtered god Yeshua, because they regard them as witness accounts of what Jesus did and said during his short life and “ministry” in Galilea and Judea. We could join the debate on the historical reliability of the gospels and the accuracy of their account of this purported god. A lot of research has already been done by countless biblical scholars, Christian and non-Christian alike, in past and present. It is true that the gospels contain some very valuable historical elements. After all, the main character of these gospels is set in the real world of first century CE Palestine. The positions on the historical accuracy of the gospels range from one extreme (the stories are complete fiction) to the other (everything happened exactly as it was written). This article states that the gospels are not, and cannot be witness accounts of the stories told in them. Rather than join the thousands of learned and not so learned commentators on this matter, we will clarify our position by way of an analogy and two clear examples. The truth of the matter is indeed very simple.
Susan was a widow and had lived alone in her house for more than 15 years. She passed away just before her 98th birthday, on the eve of Christmas 2017. As she felt herself gently slip into oblivion, in the comfort of her own bedroom, her husband Eric, who had died all those years ago, appeared beside her bed and smiled upon her. Susan felt a warm, soothing feeling envelop her and she smiled back at Eric. “Are you here to take me back with you?” she asked. “I am,” Eric replied. “Good,” Susan said, “I am ready. How I have missed you.” Eric’s eyes filled with compassion. “You had to wait a long time,” he said, “but now your solitude has come to an end.” As Eric stretched out his right hand towards her, the bedroom filled with a warm, bright light and Susan felt herself being lifted from her bed. As she slowly rose higher, her room faded away and her final thoughts were of gratitude for a long, healthy and beautiful life. “Thank you, God,” she whispered. The following morning, one of her sons who came to visit her, found Susan and reported her passing to the local authorities.
As touching as this passage may be, it begs the question: how can anyone write an account of what Susan said, thought or felt, let alone know about an appearance of her husband, if Susan died all alone in her bedroom? The passage contains some very plausible, realistic elements: the fact that Susan was a widow; the fact that she passed away during the night of December 24th on December 25th, 2017; the fact that she was almost 98 years old and the fact that she was found by a son the following morning. Spite those very common, historically acceptable elements there is no way that whoever wrote this account could have known any of the other alleged words and events. It is clear that the story is a fiction. And before anyone would argue to the contrary, I, as author of this article, would like to stress that I made the entire passage up for the sake of this article.
There are many instances in the New Testament that are analogous to the above passage: passages that could not have been known by the author of the gospel. Said passages could neither have been known by any first-hand witness of Jesus (like one of his alleged disciples), let alone by a second- or third-hand witness. The words recorded by the author in these instances are therefore made up by the author himself, or by the author’s source. As said, we will give but two examples.
Jesus' agony in the garden of Gethsemane. The gospel writers are hidden behind the rock with their styluses and papyri, ready to record every word Jesus might utter for posteriority.
Mark 16 (bold text added): 1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
How could the author of the gospel or his source have known what the three women saw and heard? Not only was the author or his source not present at the scene, but the text itself clearly specifies that the women told no one what they saw and heard. Throughout the entire gospel, the author takes the “third person omniscient viewpoint”. The third person perspective is an element sometimes used to refute the possibility that the authors were eyewitnesses. This is not a good argument however. In fact, this third person viewpoint is/was so common a literary tool that we find someone like Flavius Josephus writing about himself in the third person, even when directly involved in the events described (i.e. The Wars of the Jews, book III, chapter 4). The stress here is on the apparent omniscience of the author, which is contradictory to the statement of verse 8’s second part. Explaining the knowledge of the author by arguing that the women did report the event after all, refutes the author’s own statement of the same verse, thus casting shadow on the author’s reliability. Either way, something’s got to give. If this first example is not compelling enough by itself, consider the second one that makes it even clearer.
Mark 14 (bold text and underlining added):
32 They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” 35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 37 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39 Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. 40 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him. 41 Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
Like our analogy above, in this passage Jesus is all alone when praying. So how could the author have known what Jesus’ exact words were? Were the three disciples Peter, James and John still near enough to overhear Jesus? Possibly, but they were asleep. Could Jesus have repeated his prayer verbatim to the disciples upon his return? That would have been a possibility if it weren’t for his immediate arrest. Even if somehow in the midst of his arrest, the conversation with Judas and his captors and the famous swordsmanship of one of his followers (not Peter!) Jesus would still have wanted to repeat his prayer, there simply were no followers around to repeat it to, for verse 50 tells how everyone deserted him and fled. The words of Jesus’ prayer could only have sprung from the author’s imagination, or someone telling him so.
We are not saying that everything in the gospels is pure fabrication or fiction. It is clear however that a lot of it is. To have an eyewitness account, you need to get information of an eyewitness. Having an eyewitness report doesn’t give you the guarantee that that eyewitness’ report is accurate (let alone 40 years after an event), or even told in truth. When the authors of the gospels are giving an ‘account’ of events that were not witnessed by anyone, it raises questions on their credibility and the veracity of events they describe. An eyewitness is by definition someone who was present at the event. In the above passages, confirmed by the text itself, there were no eyewitnesses. The gospels are not and cannot be considered eyewitness accounts.
Richard Dalet PHD, October 9th, 2020
The citations of the gospel according to Mark are taken from the New International Version (NIV) and compared with, among others, the SBL Greek New Testament, the 1550 Stephanus Greek New Testament (Editio Regia) and King James Version.
Image retrieved from: Mitch Finley, "Jesus' agony in the garden", the Word among us > prayer resources, a selection from the Revised and Updated Edition of The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers, and Those In Between by Mitch Finley (The Word Among Us Press, 2017) https://wau.org/resources/article/jesus_agony_in_the_garden/