Does the Catholic Church Believe that the Gospels were Written by Eyewitnesses?

Image result for image of pope addressing crowd in st. peter's square
St. Peter’s square

Debate the evidence for the alleged resurrection of Jesus with any evangelical or conservative Protestant Christian and you will usually get this claim:  “The historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is as good if not better than any other event in ancient history.  This is true because we have multiple eyewitness accounts of this event, found in the four Gospels of the New Testament.”

When presented with the fact that most modern New Testament scholars doubt or even reject the eyewitness/associate of eyewitness authorship of the Gospels, many conservative Protestants and evangelicals will respond: Most modern New Testament scholars are liberals, agnostics, or atheists.  They are biased against the supernatural.  Therefore, conservative Christians can ignore the opinion of the majority of New Testament scholars.”

But there is a big problem with this argument.  If the only scholars who doubt the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels were liberals, agnostics, and atheists, then the claim that this position is based on a bias against the supernatural might be credible.  The fact is, however, that a large percentage of New Testament scholars who very much believe in the supernatural, miracles, the virgin birth, and the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus also doubt or reject the eyewitness/associate of eyewitness authorship of the Gospels.  Who are these scholars?   Roman Catholic New Testament scholars.

So conservative Protestant Christians must ask themselves this question:  If the evidence for the eyewitness/associate of eyewitness authorship of the Gospels is so good, why do so many scholars who do not have a bias against the supernatural doubt or reject this claim? Let’s see what the Catholic Church says about the authorship of the Gospels, beginning with the Gospel of Matthew:

Statement by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

The Gospel According to Matthew:

The questions of authorship, sources, and the time of composition of this gospel have received many answers, none of which can claim more than a greater or lesser degree of probability. The one now favored by the majority of scholars is the following.

The ancient tradition that the author was the disciple and apostle of Jesus named Matthew (see Mt 10:3) is untenable because the gospel is based, in large part, on the Gospel according to Mark (almost all the verses of that gospel have been utilized in this), and it is hardly likely that a companion of Jesus would have followed so extensively an account that came from one who admittedly never had such an association rather than rely on his own memories. The attribution of the gospel to the disciple Matthew may have been due to his having been responsible for some of the traditions found in it, but that is far from certain.

The unknown author, whom we shall continue to call Matthew for the sake of convenience, drew not only upon the Gospel according to Mark but upon a large body of material (principally, sayings of Jesus) not found in Mark that corresponds, sometimes exactly, to material found also in the Gospel according to Luke. This material, called “Q” (probably from the first letter of the German word Quelle, meaning “source”), represents traditions, written and oral, used by both Matthew and Luke. Mark and Q are sources common to the two other synoptic gospels; hence the name the “Two-Source Theory” given to this explanation of the relation among the synoptics.

In addition to what Matthew drew from Mark and Q, his gospel contains material that is found only there. This is often designated “M,” written or oral tradition that was available to the author. Since Mark was written shortly before or shortly after A.D. 70 (see Introduction to Mark), Matthew was composed certainly after that date, which marks the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans at the time of the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66–70), and probably at least a decade later since Matthew’s use of Mark presupposes a wide diffusion of that gospel. The post-A.D. 70 date is confirmed within the text by Mt 22:7, which refers to the destruction of Jerusalem.

Source: the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops


I have already said that I do not think of the evangelists themselves as eyewitnesses of the passion [of Jesus]; nor do I think that eyewitness memories of Jesus came down to the evangelists without considerable reshaping and development.

—Distinguished Roman Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah, p. 14

Dear Reader:  Catholics believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, not because of eyewitness testimony, but because they have faith in the judgment of the “Holy Mother Church” (the Magisterium).  Protestants reject the Church and church tradition as the final authority on Christian doctrine and teaching.  For Protestants, Scripture alone is the final authority.  So if the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts, and therefore their historical reliability is in question, in what should Protestants place their faith?  Their warm, fuzzy feelings that a spirit (ghost) has taken up residence inside their body??

Trust evidence, folks, not warm, fuzzy feelings!  The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is poor.  Jesus was a good man, but he was not a god.  He is not living inside your body.  He is not sitting on a golden throne at the edge of the Cosmos.  Abandon ancient superstitions and embrace reason and science!

Next Post:  The Catholic Church on the authorship of the Gospel of Mark



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