Are the Gospels Eyewitness Accounts?

My thanks are due to Larry A. Taylor, who brought to my attention many of the points in this article. I rely very heavily on his work. Naturally, any mistakes made in this article are mine and mine alone.

Many Christians say the the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony. Of course, they realise that Mark and Luke were not disciples, but they claim that these were written by people who were very close to the disciples and apostles.

Are these claims reasonable?

A Brief Background

There are four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the 'Synoptic' Gospels. This is because many episodes in them are similar enough that all three Gospels can be put together in one book, or 'synopsis', and textual differences compared.

As a result of these textual comparisons, it was noticed that Matthew and Luke seemed to be written after Mark and to use Mark as a written source. Of the 661 verses in Marks' Gospel, Matthew's Gospel uses about 607 and Luke's Gospel uses about 360. There are also about 230 verses which are very similar in Matthew and Luke, but which are not in Mark. Many Biblical scholars argue that , for these verses, Matthew and Luke must have used another written source, which is usually called "Q". The existence of Q is disputed, however it is almost universally agreed that Matthew and Luke knew of, and used, Mark.

Whatever the exact sequence, it is very clear that the similarity of Matthew, Mark and Luke means that some Gospels were used as sources for other Gospels.

But were they eyewitnesses?

This raises some interesting questions. Why would an eyewitness like Matthew need to use ninety percent of somebody else's book? Why would Luke, a companion of Paul, need to use a written source like Mark? If Luke knew Paul and Paul knew Peter, and Peter told Paul many stories about Jesus, then Luke could have written about Jesus from what he himself had heard, rather than relying on second or third-hand information.

Even if it seems that Matthew and Luke were relying on written third or fourth hand testimony, all is not lost if Christians can show that Mark was based on eye-witness testimony. Then the Gospels would be based on eyewitness reports. Perhaps they had gone through one or two people before Matthew and Luke retold the stories, but there would still be a connection between the disciples and the Gospel writers.

Was Mark's Gospel based on an eyewitness?

This has always been the traditional Christian view. Eusebius, writing in the 4th century, quotes Papias, writing in the 2nd century as saying "Mark, having become Peter's interpreter, wrote down accurately whatever he remembered of what was said or done by the Lord, however not in order." So it seems that the evidence that Mark's Gospel was based on Peter's witness is a quote centuries later, of a lost work, by someone who gives no arguments or explanation as to why we should assume that he was correct.

But was he correct? Was the author of Mark's Gospel a companion of Peter and therefore either an Aramaic-speaking Jew from Palestine, or at least someone who had a good knowledge of Aramaic and Judaism and Palestine?

Mark was not by Mark!

To determine that, it is necessary to look very closely at how Luke and especially Matthew used Mark's Gospel. Time and time again, we see Matthew correcting Mark's blunders about Judaism. Clearly Matthew was a Jew and Mark, despite Papias' bold assertion, was not very close to the Jerusalem Church.

More dubious statements by a "Companion of Peter"

Places where Matthew adds Jewish elements which 'Mark' overlooked

Mark has to explain Jewish features.

Mark never explains Gentile matters, such as who Pilate was. However, he assumes that his intended readers know even less about Judaism than he does and he has to explain the most elementary features. By contrast, Matthew makes more use of Judaism and assumes his readers are up to speed. Was Mark really a Jewish companion of Peter, or someone who was very close to the earliest, Jewish , followers of Jesus?

Mark as a a companion and friend of Peter.

Mark never acknowledges Peter's authority. Contrast Matthew 16:17-20, Luke 22:28-32, John 21:15-17.

There is nothing in Mark which a well educated Roman Gentile would not have known. For example, when Mark 15:38 talks about the curtain of the Temple, Roman Gentiles would have known that the Temple had a curtain, as it was taken to Rome after Jerusalem was sacked (Book 7, Chapter 5 in 'Wars of the Jews' by Josephus).

Contradictions and problems in Mark's stories

Mark 4:11 says that the secret of the kingdom of God has been given to the disciples. What was this secret? When was it given to the disciples, who seem totally ignorant of who Jesus was (Mark 4:41)?

In Mark 6:7-13 till 29-30 the disciples are sent out to preach and teach.

As the disciples did not know Jesus was the Messiah until Mark 8:30, that must have been interesing!

Peter - Repent of your sins, and follow Jesus of Nazareth.

Bystander in the crowd - Is he the Messiah who will rid us of the cursed Roman occupation?

Peter - I never thought to ask him. I don't know. I'll ask him when I see him again, and get back to you.

What could the disciples have preached and taught in Mark 6 that had anything to do with the secret of the kingdom of God? Why send people out to teach without explaining that you are the Messiah?

They were also given power over evil spirits, but it is not until Mark 9:29 that Jesus explains that they have to pray first before driving out a demon. How did the disciples drive out demons before that, when Jesus had neglected to give them such basic instruction as to pray first?

Mark 7:14 gives some instruction about the Law which a simpleton could grasp, yet Jesus tells the disciples in verse 18 that they are without understanding. These are the preacher-teachers who had been given the secret of the kingdom of God.

Despite not being able to understand, and not knowing, elementary instruction about the Law, they had already by chapter 3 had liberal practices on fasting and the Sabbath,and the whole teaching of chapter 7 (which the disciples did not understand) was caused by a question about the practices of those same disciples!

Don't forget that these preacher-teachers , who had been given the secret of the Kingdom of God in 4:11, had had their hearts hardened in 6:52, so that they did not understand even such a blatant miracle as walking on water.

Why give the disciples the secret of the kingdom of God and then harden their hearts so that they don't understand it?

Surely the average Christian would fall about laughing if he read such stories in the Book of Mormon or the Qu'ran.

A response - 30th January 1999


The amount of work you've put in is terrifying!

I have only read your first Biblical evidence essay and feel compelled to put across an alternative thesis. This cannot be an original idea although in my (very) limited reading I have yet to come across it clearly stated.

I come from the opposite corner but like many people have been an atheist in the past. Ironically I turned theistic and then Catholic while studying for a physics degree. This means my particular bugbear is people claiming science and Christianity (as opposed to scientists and Christians) are in conflict.

To be clear, the Gospels were written by humans and not God. Not even 'inspired' humans. They are also quite capable of being in error and I have no intention of trying to justify the bits that don't fit.

You show convincingly that Mark was not a Jew. If he wrote after Peter died based on what he was told we would expect Mark to be writing in Rome. Therefore we should hardly be surprised the work appears to be addressed to educated Romans. They would have spoken Greek as well as Latin and indeed Greek was the lingua franca of half the empire.

I have no idea who Mark was. The idea put forward that he is the naked man who ran off has always struck me as unfounded. Paul mentions a Mark but it is hardly an unusual name in the Roman Empire. I do not see why he must have been an Aramaic speaking Jew to be Peter's companion. It is entirely possible that Peter (who has a letter or two to his name) spoke Greek in his later years but needed a Latin interpreter. There is no reason to believe Mark had ever been anywhere near Palestine.

Peter had just been crucified, probably by Nero. Under those circumstances Mark is hardly going to suggest Peter was indispensable. Peter didn't rise from the dead so suggesting he was appointed by Jesus in a successor role (like Matthew seems to) would be a daft thing to do.

Finally to Papias via Eusebius. It is probably a reactionary thing to do but why not take him at face value? Papias states Mark is in the wrong order. You clearly agree with this. There is also the point that it seems to have bits missing (there is even a pseudo historical 'Secret Gospel' around claiming to fill these bits in). The entire end has dropped off to be replaced at a much later date. It is clearly a very rough work thrown together under very trying circumstances.

What does Papias say about Matthew? Well, that he wrote down Jesus's saying in Hebrew/Aramaic (I forget which) before Mark wrote his Gospel. Let us assume that this character - proto Matthew - was the apostle and that he wrote down what he remembered Jesus saying. The precedent for this is, of course, the Gospel of Thomas discovered at Nag Hammadi which is also only a collection of sayings.

The evangelist 'Matthew', an educated Greek speaking Jew, comes along many years later (probably c100AD). He has a copy of Mark (in Greek), the sayings and some oral tradition. He edits and corrects Mark, inserts the nativity stories he has heard, adds the sayings mainly as a coherent sermon on the mount and produces a rather more polished product. Following the usual practice of the time, he credits the work to his illustrious predecessor, the apostle.

I am sorry my account here is less than polished but I felt compelled to reply to your finely argued piece. I look forward to seeing what damage you have done to John. I was always rather fond of John...

Best wishes, James

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