Why Do So Many Catholic Bible Scholars Doubt the Eyewitness Authorship of the Gospels?

Gary: Roman Catholic scholars may believe that some of the supernatural claims in the Gospels are non-historical, such as Matthew’s claim of dead saints shaken out of the graves, but so do some evangelicals (Michael Licona). That is not what I am saying. I am saying that the overwhelming majority of Roman Catholic scholars do not discount ALL supernatural claims in the Gospels simply because they involve the supernatural.

Ian Paul, theologian and blogger:

Hi Gary. A few things worth teasing out here.

1. Catholic scholarship has had a mixed relationship with ‘critical hermeneutics’ since the late 19th C.

2. Those who are anti-supernaturalist don’t believe the gospels were eye-witness accounts. That does not imply that all those who don’t believe the gospels are eye-witness accounts are anti-supernaturalist.

3. No gospel makes any claim about authorship. So whether Matthew wrote Matthew is not a judgement about the reliability of the gospel.

4. In fact, no-one who is attributed authorship actually wrote their gospel, since texts were written by scribes, not by the attributed authors. In the same way, Paul wrote none of his own letters; that is not how things were written in the first century.

5. I think the question of why a disciple would copy over from another gospel is interesting, but not decisive by any means.
a. There is a bigger question of why anyone would write another gospel when others were already written. It is clear that all were circulated to all; I am not aware of a convincing answer to this anywhere, other than that of Irenaeus.
b. I don’t think we need to believe that Matthew wrote Matthew in order to believe that the gospel is based on the eye-witness testimony, possibly of the apostle Matthew.
c. If Mark was indeed based on Peter’s testimony, the inclusion of Markan material in fact plays into the idea that all the gospels are eye-witness accounts.
d. How do we account for ‘M’, the material unique to Matthew? There is simply zero evidence of the long period of oral transmission which is foundational to form criticism.

So I think the question is more nuanced than the either/or I think you are implying.

And for all the gospels, if they are not connected with eye-witness accounts, how do we account for the remarkable onomastic (naming) and geographical details, as set out by [Richard] Bauckham?

Gary: Good morning, Ian.

“Those who are anti-supernaturalist don’t believe the gospels were eye-witness accounts. That does not imply that all those who don’t believe the gospels are eye-witness accounts are anti-supernaturalist.”

Very good. The question is then: Why do almost all liberal Protestant, moderate Protestant, and Roman Catholic scholars doubt the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels, when a sizable percentage of these scholars have no bias against the supernatural? Why is it that only very conservative Protestants and evangelicals hold to the eyewitness/associate of eyewitness authorship of the Gospels? Is it possible that THEY are the ones with the bias? After all, these Christians have only Scripture as their final authority. They cannot appeal to a Magisterium. So to admit that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses or the associates of eyewitness would call into question the historical reliability of these ancient Christian texts. Such an admission would be devastating for conservative Christian apologetics!

You believe that even if the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses they are still historically reliable. But that is not the position of many Bible scholars, including Roman Catholic Bible scholars who do not have an anti-supernatural bias:

Roman Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown: “No gospel identifies its author. The common designations placed before the Gospels, e.g., “The Gospel according to Matthew” stem from the late 2d cent. and represent an educated estimate of the authorship by church scholars of that period who were putting together traditions and guesses pertinent to attribution. To this a caution must be added: The ancient concept of authorship was often less rigorous than our own, at times amounting to identifying only the authority behind a work (however distant) rather than the writer. …Among the four, John manifests the most detailed knowledge of Palestine.

Jesus did not write an account of his passion; nor did anyone who had been present write an eyewitness account. Available to us are four different accounts written some thirty to seventy years later in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, all of which were dependent on tradition that had come down from an intervening generation or generations. That intervening preGospel tradition was not preserved even if at times we may be able to detect the broad lines of its content. When we seek to reconstruct it or, even more adventurously, the actual situation of Jesus himself, we are speculating.

Source: The Death of the Messiah, pp. 4-5

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

Source: The Death of the Messiah, p. 14

“Without considerable reshaping and development”= embellishments! Fiction! How can anyone claim that stories written by unknown authors in the first century CE, which most scholars believe contain considerable embellishments, are historically reliable? It is just not a rational argument, Ian. I suggest you consider the strong possibility that your position is based on bias.

Evangelical NT scholar Richard Bauckham may believe that the Gospels are historically accurate, but he admits in his master work, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” that this is not the position of “almost all” of recent scholarship. Why is “almost all” of recent scholarship wrong, and he and his evangelical brethren, which by his own admission represent a small minority scholarly opinion, right??

“The argument of this book [Jesus and the Eyewitnesses]–that the texts of our Gospels are close to the eyewitness reports of the words and deeds of Jesus–runs counter to almost all recent scholarship. …the prevalent view is that a long period of oral transmission in the churches intervened between whatever the eyewitnesses said and the Jesus traditions as they reached the Evangelists [the authors of the Gospels]. No doubt the eyewitnesses started the process of oral tradition, but it passed through many retellings, reformulations, and expansions before the Evangelists themselves did their own editorial work on it.” p. 240 ” –Richard Bauckham

Gary: I again suggest that the reason evangelicals and conservative Protestants hold to the minority position on the authorship and historical reliability of the Gospels is not due to evidence, but due to their fear (bias) that in admitting that the Gospels contain significant embellishments (fiction) , the believability of their supernatural belief system becomes much, much less defendable.










End of post.


15 thoughts on “Why Do So Many Catholic Bible Scholars Doubt the Eyewitness Authorship of the Gospels?

  1. Ian makes a lot of assumptions. Maybe he can back them up but doesn’t just for brevity’s sake? Number 4, as an example:

    “ 4. In fact, no-one who is attributed authorship actually wrote their gospel, since texts were written by scribes, not by the attributed authors. In the same way, Paul wrote none of his own letters; that is not how things were written in the first century.”

    Back when I subscribed to Ehrman’s blog, I recall he had several posts arguing the opposite. I didn’t find them totally convincing, he didn’t think Peter would have dictated the epistles credited to him, but I assume Ehrman’s position would be representative of non evangelical scholorship.


  2. Evangelical (and very conservative Protestant) scholars, theologians, historians, and apologists tell us that the majority of scholars, including Roman Catholic scholars, reject the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels based on an anti-supernatural bias. And I will bet that they will allege the same bias for the majority scholarly position, including that of most Roman Catholic scholars, that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are non-historical.

    I agree that if two groups of experts examine the same evidence and come away with two very different conclusions, it is entirely possible that one group’s position is based on a bias, not evidence. One strong indicator of which group is more likely to hold a bias is which group has the most to lose by changing their position.

    What would Roman Catholics lose if their Bible scholars one day declared that the evidence indicates that the birth narratives are historical? How much revision to the teachings of the Catholic Church would be required? How many Catholics would walk out of their parishes in protest of this change in position?

    Now, what would happen in the evangelical world if evangelical Bible scholars, theologians, and historians one day announce that the evidence does not support the historicity of the birth narratives? How long would Gary Habermas keep his faculty position at Liberty University? How long would Biola University maintain its ties with William Lane Craig? How many evangelical pastors would denounce these experts from their pulpits? What effect would this change in position have on lay evangelicals in the pews. I suggest there would be mass outrage and disbelief.

    So which group of experts has the bias? I suggest that probability tells us that it is much more likely that evangelical/conservative Protestant scholars, theologians, and apologists operate from a bias than do Roman Catholic scholars. They have much more to lose in changing positions: It would devastate the credibility of their entire belief system.


  3. Christian commenter on Ian Paul’s blog: “If you don’t think the narratives about Jesus’ birth are historically accurate, on what basis can you possibly think that the narratives about His death, and what happened afterwards, are?”

    Gary: Excellent point, S.

    And this is why I believe evangelicals and very conservative Protestants refuse to acknowledge the existence of ANY embellishments in the Gospels and Acts: They know that if they concede that even one (non-parable) story in these texts is embellished (fictional), then ALL stories in the entire Bible are historically suspect. And this admission would destroy the credibility of the only source of authority for the evangelical and conservative Protestant belief system: sola scriptura. Roman Catholics can appeal to tradition and the Magisterium to maintain their belief in the Bible’s supernatural claims.

    Evangelical scholar Michael Licona found out the hard way what happens when an evangelical scholar questions the historicity of any story in the Gospels (in his case, Matthew’s story of dead saints shaken alive out of their graves by an earthquake to roam the streets of a major city). He was fired.


          1. Why are so many Christian bloggers so long-winded? Do they feel the need to “explain and document” their perspective to make sure readers are convinced? And to take it a step further, do they feel their “God” can’t speak for itself?

            Liked by 1 person

            1. The hiddenness of God is the reason any of these discussions take place. It’s almost like he/she/it doesn’t exist. Or at least that its existence is indistinguishable from its non existence.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Notice how infuriated they became when I kept presenting the evidence that most Roman Catholic scholars reject the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels. They were even telling other readers not to respond to my comments to shut me down. But I was completely on topic. They just don’t want to hear anything that contradicts their cherished superstitions.

                As the saying goes, you are usually not going to deconvert people with evidence who originally believed due to their emotions.


                1. Although he provided no actual examples or numbers, I am intrigued by the one commenter’s suggestion that other country’s Catholic bishop’s conferences may disagree with the US conference. I’m not knowledgeable enough about Catholic hierarchies to know if different conferences can disagree and never have the dispute decided by some higher group – cardinals? the Pope?


                  1. That is why I kept saying: If you can show me a statement by Pope Benedict or Pope Francis stating that the new Catholic scholarly consensus or majority opinion is that the authors of the Gospels were eyewitnesses (and the birth narratives are historically reliable) please provide it and I will admit my error.

                    No one gave such a statement.


          2. Interesting that while several commenters took shots at Brown, only one addressed the US Catholic Bishop’s consensus – by basically saying the rest of the world’s groups of Bishops would over ride them, except he doesn’t say what they actually think. Maybe they agree? Who knows.
            The Psehizo blog doesn’t seem like an apologetics blog. How do find these guys?


            1. How did I find them? I search the web for interesting posts on the top of the Resurrection, the historical reliability of the Bible, etc..

              Paul considers himself a “Bible scholar”, but I think he is actually only a theologian.


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