1. Re eye-witness claims – John makes them, Luke specifically says he wasn’t, Matthew & Mark aren’t clear. The late Maurice Casey (who was a non-believer) concluded both Matthew & Mark had significant direct eye-witness sources including the apostle Matthew for Matthew (surprise!). I don’t think that’s representative of all scholars, but it shows it is a respectable view.
2. I don’t think Papias is the reason why the gospels have the traditional names. I think Bauckham and others say that while the names aren’t in the text, they were most likely written on the outside of the scroll. So the names, right or wrong, were quite likely those by which they were popularly known even before Papias.
3. I agree with you about the accuracy of copying. The fact that we don’t have the originals isn’t important. We have copies of copies produced independently in various parts of the Empire, and it is beyond belief that the same errors were made consistently in all these different locations. So two (say) 5th century texts from different parts of the Empire which agree are not very likely to be in error in that piece of text. This technique isn’t all that different in principle to how they do DNA tracing to establish ancient population movements (e.g. whether the Pacific Islanders came from Asia or South America).
4. The accurate reference to places and titles certainly doesn’t prove accuracy of everything else, but it does show the sources were reasonably contemporary, and not written a century later and a thousand miles away.
5. Your question about inerrancy is very interesting. Inerrancy is like a base-level dogma to many christians in the US, but not so much elsewhere I don’t think, and coming under severe questioning from evangelical christians even in the US. So I believe we are in a transition time, when some people will no longer believe in it (at least as it used to be formulated) but don’t feel free to rock the boat just yet. Some will, like Peter Enns, some won’t, but I think most major social movements include people from both inside and outside the “system”.
It is amazing what weak evidence conservative Christians will use to cling to their belief that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, and therefore proof that a first century dead man walked out of his tomb with a superhero’s magical body.
Here is the (very weak) evidence:
1. Large sections of Matthew and Luke are direct quotes from Mark.
2. John seems to follow the same basic story of the Synoptics, but the Jesus of John is very different from the Jesus of the Synoptics. In the Synoptics, Jesus speaks in confusing parables and seems to want to hide his messiahship from the public. Jesus never specifically refers to himself as the Son of God. In John, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of God all over the place and preaches in long sermons. What happened to the parables and the secrecy?
So why would Matthew, an alleged eyewitness, need to borrow material from Mark (a non-eyewitness) to write his Gospel? And why would John, an alleged eyewitness, have such a different recollection of the preaching of Jesus (sermons instead of parables) as Matthew?
These facts alone are sufficient evidence to me that the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts, but then add on top of this all the discrepancies in the four resurrection accounts (read the accounts in parallel) and the evidence is overwhelming against eyewitness authorship.
3. The author of Mark doesn’t seem to know his Palestine geography. He makes numerous errors. This indicates that the author of Mark was not from the Palestine region and was most likely not John Mark.
4. And here is the biggest issue: the authorship of the Gospels. What evidence is there that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote these books?
a. Because the books are anonymous they must be eyewitness accounts. Nonsense! Conjecture!
b. The original scrolls “most likely” had the names of the authors written on the outside of the scrolls. Conjecture!!
c. Papias, writing 90-100 years after the death of Jesus, records that presbyter John told him that John Mark, Peter’s companion, had written a “gospel”. He does not identify the gospel. Papias also mentions that oral sources had told him that the apostle Matthew may have written a gospel in Hebrew. That’s it.
Think about this: If Matthew wrote a gospel in Hebrew, and Mark wrote his gospel in Greek, how is it that the Greek translation of Matthew’s Hebrew gospel is in many places word for word the same as Mark’s Greek gospel? Any one who has translated from another language knows how ridiculous that assertion is.
5. No Christian writer refers to the specific authorship of the four gospels we have today until Ireneaus and the Muratorian fragment in the late second century. Early Christians quote from these four books (and they quoted from many non-canonical gospels as well), but never mention authorship. For instance, no one in the early second century says, “The Gospel of the apostle John tells us, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God…” If early Christians knew that apostles or associates of the apostles had written these four gospels, isn’t it odd that not ONE of them mentions that fact??
Bottom line: Probabilities. Which is more probable:
1. Jesus lived, Jesus was executed by the Romans. Jesus’ body was thrown into a unmarked, common grave with other executed criminals as was the Roman custom. Oral legends soon developed about Jesus. Paul hears them and writes down that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again, but no empty tomb. Other than the Words of Institution for the Lord’s Supper, that is ALL that Paul tells us about the life and teachings of Jesus. The author of Mark writes down the version of the oral story that he hears which does not include post-resurrection appearances, just an empty tomb. Matthew writes down the version of the oral legend he hears which includes earthquakes and zombies roaming the streets of Jerusalem, but uses Mark as a template. Luke admits that he received his information at best second hand, he also uses Mark as a template and then adds other details from other, unknown, sources. Then the author of John uses the Synoptics as a template, but instead of copying Jesus’ actual sayings, he creates sermons on theological topics important to that particular time in the Church.
None of these authors were eyewitnesses. None of them were lying. All of them believed what they were writing was true.
2. A decomposing dead man walked out of his grave with a superhuman body that could walk through locked doors, teleport between towns, and levitate into outer space.
Conclusion: We have all seen how an oral story can grow as it is told and retold, with wild details added, even within a matter of days. None of us have seen a zombie.
It’s a legend, folks. If there was good evidence, we agnostics and atheists, would accept it. But there isn’t.