Where are the Eyewitness Accounts of Jesus?

October 31, 2010

Christians often argue that one reason we should believe in Jesus is because we have firsthand eyewitness accounts that testify of his divinity. They are speaking of the Gospels and Acts of course (Paul never claims to have met Jesus except in a dream). Yet the first Gospel in the Bible to be written (there are other Gospels that were not included in the Bible), the Gospel of Mark, wasn’t written until 65 – 80 years after the time that Jesus would have been crucified. Matthew wasn’t written for 80 – 100 years after, Luke & Acts – 80 to 130 years after, and John – 90 to 120 years after. These are hardly eyewitness accounts.

The lack of any eyewitness accounts of Jesus is a bigger problem than it may seem at first. It’s not just that there is one less reason to believe in Jesus. It’s that if the stories in the Gospels were true, there really should be eyewitness accounts – a lot of them.

Take Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth for example (Mat 2:16)

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi

Outside of the Gospel of Matthew written 80 to 100 years after Jesus would have been crucified, there are no firsthand accounts of Herod’s order to kill every Jewish firstborn in the city. Wouldn’t such a massacre be noteworthy? Shouldn’t we expect at least a mention of it in some writings from that period? In fact, there is no mention of it anywhere else.

Take Matthew’s story of Jesus’ death for another example (Mat 27:45, 27:51-53):

From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land … At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

Rocks spontaneously splitting, the temple curtain spontaneously tearing (that would be THE curtain that separates the rest of the temple from the Holy of Holies where the Arc of the Covenant was kept), and the dead coming back to life and walking around Jerusalem – how often to these sorts of things happen? How “normal” are these events? How many people should have seen at least one of these events?

How plausible is it that all of these events really occurred AND that there are no firsthand accounts of any of the events? Certainly the lack of any firsthand account is a good reason to doubt that the events really happened, but isn’t the Gospel of Matthew THE firsthand account? No, the Gospel of Matthew was an embellishment of the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Mark does not mention any of the events except for the tearing of the Temple curtain. Paul’s writings, the earliest writings in the New Testament, says nothing at all about any of these events.

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Word of God vs. Eyewitness Accounts

October 2, 2010

Christian groups, like Evangelicals, Southern Baptists, and others, accept the Bible as the literal Word of God. This view is often summed up as:

“God said it, I believe it, that settles it”.

In other words, any passage in the Bible should be taken as if the words proceeded directly from God’s mouth. They don’t all agree on how words from God got written into the Bible. Some theorize that God dictated the text word-for-word to the various authors of the Bible and the authors faithfully recorded the words.

Other theories, like Verbal, Plenary Inspiration, are a bit more nebulous in that no one is really willing to say exactly what they mean by “inspiration”. Nevertheless, this theory also holds that every word in the Bible proceeds (somehow) directly from God. The Christian Faith website presents a succinct summary this belief.

These same Christian groups claim that the Gospels are first-hand eyewitness accounts. They believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are reporting their own first-hand, eyewitness accounts of their encounters with Jesus. They are reporting what they’ve seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears. Since eyewitness accounts virtually always vary from person to person, the accounts in the different Gospels are different as we should expect. These accounts, though different and at times conflicting, are nevertheless compelling evidence of the historicity and the nature of Jesus. You and I should believe that Jesus is the Son of God based in part on these eyewitness accounts.

An eyewitness account by its very definition cannot be the Word of God.

If the words in the eyewitness accounts come from God, then the words are not the evangelist’s own eyewitness account. If the words are the evangelists own personal account, then the words are not God’s words. The two claims are incompatible: either all words in the Bible are from God (and there are no eyewitness accounts from the Evangelists), or the Bible contains eyewitness accounts which are not God’s words.

Of course it is also possible that words in the Bible do not come from God and that the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts. Those two claims are perfectly compatible.


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