Are the Gospels based on eyewitness accounts? 10 key considerations

Street Theologian
17 min readJan 11, 2024
We’re only touching the tip of the iceberg. Source: Wikimedia Commons. All other images from Wikimedia Commons unless stated otherwise.

Lord, liar, lunatic or legend?

Were the Gospels fabricated by later Christians who weren’t connected with eyewitnesses of Jesus?

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Lord, liar, lunatic, or legend?

This article was initially published in June 2023 and has undergone some minor formatting changes.

CS Lewis claimed one must either consider Jesus Lord, liar, or lunatic. Yet, in recent years sceptics such as Bart Ehrman have suggested a fourth alternative- legend. Perhaps the Gospels weren’t based on eyewitness accounts.

Maybe they’re based on myths fabricated by later Christians who weren’t even in contact with the eyewitnesses who were with Jesus.

In our guide to the resurrection we outlined several approaches to determining key facts which need explaining which are not dependent on the Gospels being largely based on eyewitness testimony.

However, the question of whether or not the Gospels are based on eyewitness accounts is crucial in understanding what really took place in the life of Jesus.

Here we outline a cumulative, varied case for the Gospels being written based on eyewitness accounts.

This means the points need to be considered as a whole and help support each other like links in chain mail rather than a chain that is only as strong as the weakest link.

  1. Manuscript and historical evidence shows consistent naming of the four Gospels
  2. Undesigned coincidences
  3. Historical precision
  4. Names
  5. Multiple attestation and multiple forms
  6. Jesus’ favourite title for himself
  7. The Gospels differ from early church wording/ issue so can’t be a direct result of it
  8. Geographical precision
  9. Unusual customs
  10. Embarrassing details

TEXTUAL TRANSMISSION NOT THE KEY ISSUE

Even Ehrman admits the main issue is not reliable textual transmission, rather the issue is if the original texts were not based on eyewitness accounts.

Bart Ehrman claims in an interview found in the appendix of Misquoting Jesus (p. 252), “there would be very few points of disagreement — maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands. The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.”

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS?

To be based on eyewitness accounts is different from being written by an eyewitness. As we outlined in our last article, Mark and Luke were not eyewitnesses.

However, there is evidence they contain information from eyewitnesses or information from eyewitness testimony. With this in mind let’s get into it:

1. Manuscript and historical evidence points to consistently named Gospel accounts

In a recent article on if the 4 Gospels were given fake names, we covered 5 key points which pointed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John being the original authors of the 4 Gospels.

Gathercole shows John was the best attested in the 2nd century while Luke the worst. However, with Luke we have the least reasons to be concerned he was an original author, for as Bauckham notes, “The clearest case (for an original title) is Luke because of the dedication of the work to Theophilus (1:3), probably a patron. It is inconceivable that a work with a named dedicatee should have been anonymous (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p. 301).” The 5 points we covered were as follows:

  1. Manuscript evidence points to consistently named manuscripts
  2. Truly anonymous books were treated differently
  3. Historical writings consistently point to 4 key Gospel authors
  4. Meet 2nd century Bart Ehrman who disagreed with Ehrman- Celsus
  5. Choose some better fake names

Key tables we included are outlined below:

Brant Pitre Case for Jesus p.20

(For a discussion on the dates of the manuscripts see the work of Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration)

Case for Jesus, page 24

Case for Jesus, p.40

Simon Gathercole, 2018

2. Undesigned coincidences

In another recent article, we covered undesigned coincidences. Subtle details between accounts complement each other in such a way that it is more plausible to conclude these accounts were based on eyewitness testimony than later fabrications.

Key undesigned coincidences we covered in the Gospels included:

  • Two Brothers: John explains why in Mark, James and John are called “sons of thunder”
  • Mending Nets: Luke explains why in Matthew, James and John were mending their nets when they met Jesus
  • Green Grass and Festivals: John’s reference to the Passover explains the green grass and large crowds in Mark
  • Josephus and John the Baptist: The Synoptic Gospels explain a tension between Herod and John the Baptist as recorded by Josephus
  • Inside Herod’s Palace: Luke provides a potential explanation of how in Matthew we are able to understand what was discussed in Herod’s palace.
  • Evening Healing Session: Mark explains why in Matthew, crowds waited until the evening to bring people to Jesus
  • Tell No One: Mark explains why in Luke the disciples tell no one concerning the transfiguration
  • Two Sisters: John and Luke provide consistent portraits of Mary and Martha across different events
  • Philip and the Bakers: Luke helps explain why in John, Jesus asked Philip where to buy bread
  • Bethsaida and a Mighty Work: Luke helps explain a mighty work referred to in Matthew in passing
  • Destroying and Rebuilding a Temple: John helps explain a reference in a different context in Mark to Jesus destroying and rebuilding the temple
  • Jesus and Pilate: John helps explain why in Luke Jesus was considered not guilty despite admitting to a charge

3. Historical precision

William Paley outlined 41 facts confirmed in the New Testament. Craig Blomberg outlined 59 confirmed or historically probable facts in the Gospel of John. There have also been numerous archaeological discoveries that agree with New Testament details. Here is a quick snapshot below:

  • Archelaus: Matthew 2:22 says Joseph did not go into Judea as he heard Archelaus was ruling there so he went into Galilee instead. This confirms Josephus who stated that while Herod the Great ruled over all Israel, Archelaus looked only after Judea (Ant 17.13).
  • Too many chiefs: Matthew 26:59 refers to chief priests in plural form (strange to have more than one chief) yet this matches the wording of Josephus and evidence in Acts that Caiaphas and Anas shared many of the same powers (Acts 4:6)
  • Scourging: Josephus confirms beating and scourges happened before crucifixion
  • Carry your cross: Plutarch refers to doers of evil carrying their own cross
  • The well: Archaeology confirms the proper place of Jacob’s well (John 4:6)
  • Pool: Pool of Bethsaida from John 5 discovered
  • Teacher: “Rabboni” is the Aramaic word for teacher (John 20:16)
  • Philip’s tomb: Archaeologist Francesco D’Andria claims to have found the tomb of the Apostle Philip
  • Caiaphas: High Priest Caiaphas’ name found on an ossuary
  • Trial: Archaeologists found possible site of Jesus’ trial in Jerusalem
  • The shaking: Earthquake study matches date of Jesus’ death in the Gospels
  • James’ ossuary: A 2014 scientific paper revealed, “An archaeometric analysis of the James Ossuary inscription “James Son of Joseph Brother of Jesus” strengthens the contention that the ossuary and its engravings are authentic”. This was despite previous claims the inscription may have been fake. It was highly unlikely someone’s brother would be mentioned by name on an ossuary unless the brother was a particularly prominent figure.

Bethsaida Pool- Biblical Archaeology

4. Names

Scholar Richard Bauckham has assessed the relative frequency of different personal Jewish names in Palestine. He investigated names from 330 BC to 200 AD with the bulk of the data coming from 50 BC to 135 AD. He excludes clearly fictional names. He has found “2953 occurrences of 521 names, comprising 2625 occurrences of 447 male names and 328 occurrences of 74 female names” (Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 71). Note his comparison of the most popular Jewish names in Palestine with the number of NT individuals.

Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 70.

Bauckham also compared correlations of categories of names in Gospels/ Acts with what was found in Palestinian Jews and the numbers (particularly the male numbers) are reasonably similar.

Williams 2018, p.52

JEWS FROM ELSEWHERE?

Perhaps Jews from somewhere else in the world knew what Jews are normally called and helped fabricate the Gospel names? Or maybe not… Jews in Egypt had different names from Jews in Palestine, as did Jews in Libya, western Turkey and most definitely Rome.

Williams 2018, p.52

DISAMBIGUATION

Moreover, Bauckham highlights that the Gospels use disambiguation to distinguish between the more popular names. Common ways of removing ambiguity included adding a father’s name, a profession, or a place or origin.

For example, Simon Peter (Mark 3:16), Simon the Zealot (Mark 3:18), Simon the Leper (Mark 14:3) and Simon the Cyrenian (Mark 15:21). For Mary, we have Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James and Joseph.

APOCRYPHAL GOSPELS DON’T COMPARE

The apocryphal Gospels do a poor job by comparison. The Gospel of Thomas is the best of the worst and mentions James the Just, Jesus, Mary, Matthew, Salome, Simon Peter and Thomas. The Gospel of Mary mentions only five names: Andrew, Levi, Mary, Peter and the Saviour (not even Jesus by name- a clear later embellishment).

The Gospel of Judas mentions Judas and Jesus but introduces many names from the Greek Bible and contemporary mysticism: Adam, Adamas, Adonaios, Barbelo, Eve = Zoe, Gabriel, Galila, Harmathoth, Michael, Nebro, Saklas, Seth, Sophia, Yaldabaoth and Yobel. (Source Williams Can we Trust the Gospels? 2018, p.69).

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5. Multiple attestation and multiple forms

We don’t just have one Gospel about the life of Jesus in the Bible. We have four. Moreover, within these four Gospels, we have different literary forms such as parables, pronouncement stories, sayings, stories concerning Jesus, miracle stories and so forth.

Four Portraits of Jesus: Zondervan Academic

Multiple attestation relates to similar points regarding Jesus made across different sources while multiple forms relates to similar points regarding Jesus being made across different literary types (eg. a parable and a saying).

Both of these criteria when satisfied increase the probability that Jesus actually taught a particular idea.

Some key examples relating to multiple attestation:

  • Kingdom of God at hand: Jesus taught a realised eschatology where the Kingdom of God was at hand in different contexts across all four Gospels (eg. Mark 2:21–22, Luke 11:20, Matt. 5:17, Luke 17:20–21, John 12:31 etc)
  • Female witnesses: The first witnesses of Christ’s empty tomb/ resurrection were women (Matt. 28:1–15, Mark 16:7–9, Luke 24:1–12, John 20:11–18)
  • Divine self-understanding: Jesus thought he was God by making comments which reflected a divine self-understanding (Mark 2:10, 14:60–64, Matthew 21:16, Luke 6:5, 7:48–50, John 8:58, 12:41–43 etc)
  • Son of Man: Jesus called himself the Son of Man (Mark 2:10, Matthew 9:6, Luke 9:26, John 12:34) and was charged with blasphemy for it (Mark 14:60–64, Matthew 26:64–65, Luke 23:66–71,
  • Much more: Jesus was crucified, fed the five thousand, performed miracles and Peter denies Jesus in all four Gospels

Some key examples relating to multiple forms:

  • Kingdom of God: Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God through both parable (eg. Matt 13) and teaching/ sayings (Mark 1:15).
  • Son of God: Jesus suggesting he is the Son of God through both anabasis in a teaching section (Mark 13:32) and the parable of the wicked tenants (Luke 20:9–19)
  • Here to save the lost: Jesus shows he is on earth to seek and save the lost through both parable (Luke 15:1–32) and saying (Luke 19:10, Matt. 20:28)
  • The judge: Jesus demonstrates he will determine the final judgement of people through both parables (Matt. 25) and teaching (Luke 6:46, Matt. 7:21–28).
  • Divinity: Jesus illustrates he believed he had divine traits through a miracle story where he claims he can forgive sins (Mark 2:1–11, Matthew 9:1–8), a story about Jesus concerning the Sabbath (John 5:15–18), a trial before a council (Matt. 26:64–65) and a statement after a triumphal entry and temple cleansing (Matt. 21:1–16) where Jesus applies an OT YHWH passage to himself.

6. Jesus’ favourite title for himself

In the Gospels, Jesus’ favourite title for himself is the Son of Man. “Son of Man” appears 81 times (most cases are from quotes of Jesus) across the four Gospels in Greek- 30 times in Matthew, 14 times in Mark, 25 times in Luke and 12 in John (Caragounis, 1986).

Yet, outside of the Gospels, this is only found 3 times in Acts 7:56, Revelation 1:13 and Revelation 14:14 to describe Jesus. Habermas and Licona point out in the Case for the Resurrection of Jesusonly three times in early Christian writings during the first 120 years following Jesus (p.166)” is the Son of Man used to describe Jesus.

Moreover, they emphasise the following:

  • Page not found: Practically a total absence of Son of Man title describing Jesus in Pauline and other epistles
  • Multiple attestation: All four Gospels refer to Jesus as the Son of Man- meets multiple attestation criterion
  • Lack of evolution: Son of Man title lacks signs of theological evolution as at first glance it has more of an emphasis on Christ’s humanity than divinity

Do you really think the early church fabricated the Gospels by having Jesus call himself a name that they practically never called him themselves? Doubt it.

On the contrary, it is far more reasonable to conclude Jesus did actually call himself the Son of Man and that is exactly what an eyewitness would tell you as opposed to someone 100 years after Jesus coming up with new ideas.

7. The Gospels differ from early church wording/ issues so can’t be a direct result of it

If the Gospels were mere fabrications of the early church, distant from the true life of Jesus, one would expect Jesus would make lots of comments in these fabricated writings which were relevant to issues in the early church. Perhaps issues like the following:

  • Gentiles and circumcision: Whether Gentile believers should be circumcised
  • Leaders: Requirements for deacons and elders
  • Festivals: If Jewish Festivals should be observed by Christians
  • Spiritual gifts: The role of different spiritual gifts in the church
  • Orderly service: How to run an orderly church service
  • Food for idols: If food sacrificed to idols should be eaten
  • Strange ideas: How important pagan philosophies should be in the life of believers (eg. as outlined in Colossians)
  • Widows: How to treat widows in believing communities
  • Unbelieving spouse: How to treat an unbelieving spouse or if one should remain married to one

These are the types of issues which come up in the rest of the New Testament (some come up many many times) and the early church, yet the Gospels say virtually nothing on these topics in any direct sense.

Am I really supposed to believe the same people quarrelling about the very issues above would write a fake book about Jesus and not include Jesus saying anything on these topics which would force their opponents to shut their mouths once and for all?

GEHENNA

Jesus repeatedly mentions Gehenna as a reference to final judgement (appears 11 times in Gospels). Yet, in Acts, the Pauline, Petrine and Johannine epistles there are no references to it and barely any direct references to hell overall. Gehenna was a place outside of Jerusalem, filled with waste which was then burnt. Jesus gives a local reference a Jewish audience would understand (had OT relevance too) yet his followers who supposedly fabricated this barely used any similar wording themselves!

8. Geographical Precision

The geographical precision of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John compared to dismissed gospels such as Thomas and Judas indicates Thomas and Judas were later embellishments.

In an era where Google maps did not exist, The Gospel of Thomas mentions Judaea once but no other location. The Gospel of Judas names no locations. The Gospel of Philip names Jerusalem ( four times), Nazara/ Nazareth (once) and the Jordan (once). Meanwhile, Matthew refers to 90 places (towns, regions, bodies of water, other places etc), Mark 60, Luke 99 and John 76 (for more read Can We Trust the Gospels by Peter J Williams).

Williams 2018, p.41

  • Sea: Gospels know that Bethsaida and Capernaum are towns located by the Sea of Galilee (Mt. 4:13, Mark 6:45)
  • To the hills: Matthew and Mark know you can go from the Sea of Galilee directly into hill country (Mt 14:22–23, 15:29; Mark 3:13, 3:7).
  • Desert near river: Matthew, Mark and Luke know there is a Judaean desert near the Jordan (Mt. 3:1, 4:1, 11:7; Mark 1:3–4, 12; Luke 3:2–4, 4:1)
  • Going up: All four Gospels know travelling to Jerusalem is described as going up for Jerusalem was elevated around 750 metres (Matt 20:17, 18; Mark 10;32, 33; Luke 2:4, 42; 18:31, 19:28; John 2:13, 5:1, 11:55 etc)
  • Going down: Mark and Luke know that leaving Jerusalem is described as going down (Mark 3:22; Luke 2:51, 18:14).
  • Below sea level: The Samaritan attacked by robbers in the parable is correctly described as going down from Jerusalem to Jericho as Jericho is approx 250 metres below sea level (Luke 10:25–37)
  • Going down again: John 2:12 correctly describes journey from Cana to Capernaum as going down (approx 200 metres above to 200 metres below sea level)
  • Two ways to travel: Luke and John both indicate they know there are two routes between Judaea and Galilee (hilly via Samaria and indirect avoiding Samaritan areas via Jordan Valley). See Luke 9:51–53, 18:35, 19:29 and John 4:4; 12:1.

9. Unusual customs

In the Gospels we find unusual or unique customs that Jewish literature shows were to be expected of Jews in Palestine during the time of Christ. For example:

  • Hymns at Passover: Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 mention Jesus singing a hymn before going to the Mount of Olives. We know from rabbinic tradition the Hallel (Psalms 113–118) had to be sung at Passover time (Mishnah Pesachim 9.3)
  • Priests and clubs: In the Garden of Gethsemane a band of people from the chief priest approach Jesus carrying clubs (Matt. 26:47, Mark 14:43, Luke 22:52) and we know from rabbinic sources that the priests’ servants carried clubs (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 57a)
  • Tearing clothes to blasphemy: In Mark 14:63 the high priest tears his clothes in response to Jesus allegedly blaspheming which again the rabbinic literature reveals was something done in response to blasphemy (Babylonian Talmud Moed Qatan 26a)

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10. Embarrassing details

Say you’re trying to get a new business to sign a contract with your business. How likely is it that embarrassing facts you tell them about your past are made up?

What about if you’re dating someone and telling them details about your past you’re not proud of? Are the details likely fake?

The Gospels contain a lot of details potentially embarrassing to both Jesus and the disciples. This increases the probability the Gospels were based on reliable eyewitness testimony rather than late fabrication. Some examples below:

  • You wouldn’t make up a Messiah like Jesus: As Ehrman argues you wouldn’t make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and killed by enemies for a Messiah
  • Women: Female followers play a prominent role in the life of Jesus and were the first evangelists to share the news of the risen Jesus (female testimony was not regarded highly)
  • Burial: Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea of the Sanhedrin, the Council who Christians despised (Luke 23:50)
  • Evil followers: Jesus calls his followers evil (Matt. 7:11)
  • No foreigners: When Jesus sends out the twelve he tells them to go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no Samaritan town (Matt. 10:5)
  • Forsaken: Jesus saying God had forsaken him (Matt. 27:46)
  • Doesn’t know the day or hour: Jesus saying no one knows the day or hour of his return except the Father (Mark 13:32)
  • Get behind me Satan: Jesus rebuking Peter “get behind me Satan” (Mark 8:33)
  • Dogs: Jesus implicitly referred to Gentiles as dogs which was unlikely invented by Gentile fabricators who believed in Jesus (Mark 7:27)
  • Early church leader denies Jesus: Peter denies Jesus (Mark 14:66–72, John 18:15–27 etc)
  • Doubting Thomas: Thomas doubts the risen Jesus (John 20:24–29)
  • Brothers and church leaders rebuked: Jesus rebukes James and John (Luke 9:51–56)

WHAT ABOUT CONTRADICTIONS AND ERRORS?

Some will try and point to contradictions or errors in the Gospels.

For starters, simply going to contradictions or biblical errors without considering the evidence above is failing to explain the data we have available.

If a person says some things wrong that doesn’t automatically mean you dismiss everything they said as unreliable. Particularly, if they show signs of reliability as well.

The evidence we have outlined shows that it is likely eyewitnesses provided accounts of Christ’s life and teaching. This needs to be explained.

Second, we need to be consistent in how we apply standards.

There are differing, seemingly contradictory accounts as to the great fire of Rome under Nero but this doesn’t mean we doubt any eyewitnesses provided an account of the fire or conclude the fire never happened.

Third, the fact there are some differences between the Gospels further strengthens the case from multiple attestation as it demonstrates we have multiple sources on the life of Jesus.

Fourth, I would argue many, if not all, of these alleged contradictions, are reconcilable differences. For anyone who wants to look into this further I would recommend the following as a starting point:

CONCLUSION

Would a late fabricator from Greece or Egypt or Syria or Rome trying to convince you to become a Christian make all this up with such an intricate knowledge of Palestinian geography, culture, names and while conceding many embarrassing details about church leaders? When we consider the evidence as a whole:

  1. Manuscript and historical evidence shows consistent naming of the four Gospels
  2. Undesigned coincidences
  3. Historical precision
  4. Names
  5. Multiple attestation and multiple forms
  6. Jesus’ favourite title for himself
  7. The Gospels differ from early church wording/ issue so can’t be a direct result of it
  8. Geographical precision
  9. Unusual customs
  10. Embarrassing details

We are left with a reality that there is wide and varied support for eyewitness accounts of Jesus claiming to be divine, teaching difficult things, having followers who misunderstood or even doubted him much of his ministry, dying on a Roman cross and rising from the dead.

The level of detail, precision and embarrassing honesty in these accounts make it highly probable that at the very least reasonable portions of the Gospels are based on eyewitness accounts.

There is far more we could have covered.. This is merely the tip of the iceberg. What do you make of this reality?

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Street Theologian

Theology and apologetics for those who want to get their hands dirty