The Primary Evidence that the Gospels are not Eyewitness Accounts

Excerpt from:  “Why I am not a Christian” by Keith M. Parsons

The main reason for thinking that the gospels are not eyewitness accounts is that many years of critical scholarship, using the tools of source criticism, have shown the gospels to be re-worked composites of earlier sources and traditions. The overwhelming consensus is that the gospels were not firsthand reports, but products of a fairly lengthy process of accumulation and synthesis of various oral and written sources.

Consider the famous “synoptic problem.” The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, share many passages, down to small details of phrasing, as G. A. Wells notes:

[A]ny synopsis, where parallel passages are set out in adjacent columns, will show that the first three of the four canonical gospels have passages which are identical, down to the same Greek particles. For instance, Matthew’s account, in the material it shares with Mark, is abbreviated and Mark’s 11,078 words are represented by 8555 yet of these 4230 are identical both in form and in sequence…. [T]he enormous number of identical phrases is not to be explained as being due to the community’s good memory of Jesus’s teaching, as more than half of such phrases are in the narrative, not the words of Jesus (Wells, 1996, p. 95).
 

Clearly, Matthew and Mark are not independent narratives. Any student submitting a paper sharing so much with a published source would immediately be convicted of plagiarism. So Matthew draws upon Mark, or Mark upon Matthew, or both from a common source. Luke also shares large blocks of material with Mark and has some in common with Matthew that is not found in Mark.

The standard solution is to view Mark, itself a synthesis of earlier materials, as a source for both Matthew and Luke, which also have access to their own particular sources. It is also thought that “Q,” the hypothetical sayings gospel, was used by Matthew and Luke, and accounts for materials they share with each other but not with Mark. The upshot is that the synoptics cannot be independent, firsthand witnesses of Jesus’s ministry or Resurrection. This, of course, does not mean that they are wholly unreliable or worthless as sources of historical information, but it does make the identification of a stratum of pristine, original eyewitness testimony very difficult if not impossible.

Of course, Ms. Ewen (a conservative Christian attorney and apologist) will have none of this. She argues that each of the gospels is an original and independent witness (Ewen, 1999, pp. 71-83). She contends: “As to the assertion that the Gospels were copied one from the other, a more straightforward response to this challenge is that the similarity among the three Gospels arose out of the fact that they all derived from, or based upon, the same oral teachings of Jesus (Ewen, 1999, p. 73).” However, this simply ignores the point, made above by Wells, that more than half the words identical in form and sequence in Matthew and Mark are in the narrative, not the recorded words of Jesus.

Worse, the original words of Jesus were in Aramaic. Ewen’s claim entails that each synoptic gospel contains an independent Greek translation of those original Aramaic sayings. It is simply absurd to think that three independent translations would agree in wording and sequence to such a degree. To illustrate, consider three different English translations of the same passage from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (lines 442-446):

Now listen while I tell of mortals’ pain, how primitive they were till I fired their wits. I tell you, not from disgust at men, but showing how much they owe me. Before then, they had eyes that blankly gazed, ears hearing empty sound.
 
What I did for mortals in their misery, hear now. At first mindless, I gave them mind and reason.What I say is not in censure of mankind, but showing you how all my gifts to them were guided by goodwill. In those days they had eyes, but sight was meaningless; Heard sounds, but could not listen…
 
…but hear what troubles there were among men, how I found them witless and gave them the use of their wits and made them masters of their minds. I will tell you this, not because I would blame men, but to explain the goodwill of my gift. For men at first had eyes but saw to no purpose; they had ears but did not hear.
 

That is how translation works: very different phrasing, different sentence structure, shared words different in form and/or sequence. There just is no way to explain the parallels in the synoptics other than collusion or interdependence of some sort.

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