The Eyewitness Evidence: Can the Biographies of Jesus Be Trusted?
Welcome to the second part of this 16-part series on Lee’s Strobel’s “The Case for Christ.” If you missed it, here is Part I.
Strobel now gets to the meat of the book designed to investigate the trustworthiness of the New Testament authors and their accounts of the life of Jesus.
In Chapter 1, Strobel interviews Christian apologist Craig Blomberg and asks him how we know that the Matthew, Mark and Luke are the actual authors of the first three gospels. Blomberg then points, not to two sources outside of the church who can vouch for the authorship or the validity of the claims, but to two early church bishops, Papias (70 to about 155 A.D.) and Irenaeus (130-202 A.D.).
According to Blomberg,
Papias, who in about A.D. 125 specifically affirmed that Mark had carefully and accurately recorded Peter’s eyewitness observations. In fact, he said Mark “made no mistake” and did not include “any false statement.” And Papias said Matthews had preserved the teachings of Jesus as well.
Blomberg then read a quote from Irenaeus recounting that Mark was an interpreter of Peter and wrote down his teachings, while Luke wrote down the preachments of his teacher, Paul.
Strobel, in response to this news, said:
If we can have confidence that the gospels were written by the disciples Matthew and John, by Mark, the companion of the disciple Peter, and by Luke, the historian, the companion of Paul, and sort of a first-century journalist, we can be assured that the events they record are based on either direct or indirect eyewitness testimony?
“Exactly,” Blomberg responded.
A few points here before we move on. First, there is no such thing as “indirect” eyewitness testimony. Either the event was witnessed in person or it is second-hand information. And the entirety of the gospels is from secondary sources. Mark, the earliest gospel written (c. 70, or perhaps a few years earlier), was allegedly a recreation from conversations with Peter and does not claim to be a direct witness to the event. Further, Papias and Irenaeus are not unbiased sources. They were church leaders, so of course they are going to vouch for the authenticity of the gospels.
Further still, Matthew never claims to be an eyewitness. Indeed, the quote that Blomberg reads from Irenaeus looks mysteriously similar to a quote from Papias. During their interview, Strobel said Blomberg reached for “a book” from which to read the quote from Irenaeus but conveniently did not provide the source of the quote itself. Consider the following:
- “Matthew published his own Gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church there.” — unsourced quote from Irenaeus read by Blomberg
- “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” — Papias, Eusebius in Hist. Eccl. 3.39
We know that Irenaeus had read Papias, and it is most likely that Irenaeus was guided by the statement he found there. That statement in Papias itself is considered to be unfounded because the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek and relied largely upon Mark, not the author’s first-hand experience.
But let’s grant it. What if at least one of the gospels was written by someone who was actually there? Would that change anything about the gospel’s reliability?
Doubtful. Since Strobel constantly reminds us that he is a journalist, one would think that he would know that eyewitness testimony, in court cases and in written accounts, are not reliable because our memories are not reliable. The psychology has shown this.
In a lecture titled, “The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony,” by Stanford University professors Barbara Tversky and George Fisher, said several studies have been conducted that document people’s propensity to concoct events that didn’t happen:
Elizabeth Loftus performed experiments in the mid-seventies demonstrating the effect of a third party’s introducing false facts into memory.4 Subjects were shown a slide of a car at an intersection with either a yield sign or a stop sign. Experimenters asked participants questions, falsely introducing the term “stop sign” into the question instead of referring to the yield sign participants had actually seen. Similarly, experimenters falsely substituted the term “yield sign” in questions directed to participants who had actually seen the stop sign slide. The results indicated that subjects remembered seeing the false image.
After some more discussion, Blomberg and Strobel move to the alleged claim that Jesus was God. Strobel asked Blomberg about the theological differences between the John and the other three gospels on the divinity of Jesus. Blomberg claimed that the gospels of Matthews and Mark included implicit references to Jesus’ deity:
Think of the story of Jesus walking on the water, found in Matthew 14:22-33 and Mark 6:45-52. Most English translations hide the Greek by quoting Jesus as saying, “Fear not, it is I.” Actually, the Greek literally says, “Fear not, I am.” Those last words were identical to what Jesus said in John 8:58, when he took upon himself the divine name “I am” …
OK, so investigating this claim is easy to do. Here is the original Greek in
- Matthew 14:27: “εὐθὺς δὲ ἐλάλησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς αὐτοῖς λέγων θαρσεῖτε ἐγώ εἰμι μὴ φοβεῖσθε” or in English: “But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.”
- Mark 6:50: “πάντες γὰρ αὐτὸν εἶδον καὶ ἐταράχθησαν ὁ δὲ εὐθὺς ἐλάλησεν μετ’ αὐτῶν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς θαρσεῖτε ἐγώ εἰμι μὴ φοβεῖσθε” and in English: ”For they all saw him, and were troubled. And immediately he talked with them, and saith unto them, Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid.”
If you look carefully toward the end of the verse in Greek, you will find this word: “ἐγώ” in both verses. It is simply the word “I.” While the end of John 8:58 appears nearly identical in the Greek to the “I” reference in the other two verses, ”εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί,” the verse in John is written in a completely different context than in Matthew and Mark. In the earlier two gospels, the disciples appear troubled by a man coming across the water, and Jesus verifies for them that it’s him. But in John, however, Jesus is speaking with the Jews and mentioned that Abraham was glad to see him come along. The Jews questioned how he could have spoken with Abraham given his young age. Jesus then replied, “Before Abraham was, I am,” where the words “ἐγὼ εἰμί” actually mean, ” I exist.” First, the various “I am” passages that appear in John are to be taken with a grain of salt anyway because John was the last and most embellished gospel of them all. Second, the early church editors would have wanted to make the New Testament appear to be a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, so they probably tied as many New Testament passages to the old, most notably in this case, Exodus 3:14, in which Yahweh handed down a tautology for the ages, “I am that I am.”
Blomberg was also misleading when asked about the “Son of Man” title often conferred on Jesus in the New Testament:
“Look, contrary to popular belief, ‘Son of Man’ does not primarily refer to Jesus’ humanity. Instead, it’s a direct allusion to Daniel 7:13-14.”
With that, he opened the Old Testament and read those words of the prophet Daniel.
Strobel’s language, “read those words,” seem to indicate a reverence for scripture, not the language of an objective reporter.
In any case, I suppose we’re just supposed to take Blomberg’s word for it that the passage “Son of Man” means is a “title of great exaltation” in Daniel and that the “Son of Man” references in the New Testament look back to Daniel. Again, the New Testament writers and their editors wouldn’t have it any other way.
Just one more quick point. Blombergs points out late in the chapter that the two earliest biographies we have of Alexander the Great were more than 400 years after his death, where as the first gospel was penned within closer proximity of Jesus’ death:
So whether the gospels were written sixty years or thirty years after the life of Jesus, the amount of time is negligible by comparison. It’s almost a nonissue.
This is an often-touted apologetic line. I won’t bother to look up when the first accounts were written of such and such figure in antiquity but the important point is this: no matter when the first account of other historic figures were written, this historic figure, Jesus, is supposed to be the most important figure in all of humanity, and all we have are four relatively short narratives that are equally short on detail. Why couldn’t several of the disciples get together to write an account? If their god were real and all-powerful, he could have made sure it passed through the ages unblemished. How about the 500 people who supposed saw Jesus after the resurrection? Where are their accounts? Comparing Alexander to a person who made the claims that Jesus did just will not do.