Reliability of the Gospels IV

Phase 2: Defense of Controlled Oral History (Cont.)

Having shown that the Gospel of Mark is the eyewitness testimony of the Apostle Peter, we now turn to the other Gospels.

The Gospel of Luke as Eyewitness Testimony

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

LUKE 1:1-4

Right out of the gate, Luke tells us that he has done the hard work of historical research for his readers.  Those who were “from the beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” is no doubt a reference to the Apostles or those who met the qualification to be an Apostle (John 15:27; Acts 1:21-22).  Luke interviewed eyewitnesses, fact-checked, verified information, and wrote an “orderly account” of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Do we know which eyewitnesses Luke received his information from?  Yes we do!

  1. The Gospel of Luke contains ~60% of the Gospel of Mark.  That might sound peculiar or even suspicious, but I assure you it is a good thing that this is the case.Luke tells us upfront he is aware of and utilized previously written Gospel “narratives” (v. 1:1).  Peter’s eyewitness account, as recorded by Mark, was simply one of the sources Luke used as a historian gathering accounts to construct his Gospel.  Because he chose to use Mark, at least 60% of Mark shows up 2x in the New Testament.  Due to the degree of homology between each reference, we can demonstrate that the Gospels were carefully preserved.
  2. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is likely another source used by Luke.  I make this case for two reasons.  First, Luke has the most extensive birth of Jesus narrative in the Gospels and the only account of His boyhood.Where did Luke get that information?  Considering Mary’s personal insight into the childhood of Christ, it makes sense that she would be able to supply him with that information.  More than that, Luke tells us that after Jesus’ birth and after they found the boy Jesus in the temple, Mary “treasured these things in her heart” (Lk. 2:19, 51).  The only way Luke would know that Mary treasured these moments in her heart is if she was one of the eyewitnesses he said to have interviewed.Secondly, Luke has the only account of John the Baptist’s birth.  Mary is a likely source for this information as well given the fact that she visited John’s mother, her cousin, Elizabeth when they were both pregnant (Lk. 1:56).
  3. Given Luke’s extensive ministry with the Apostles (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-37; 28:1-16; Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:12; Philemon 1:24), he certainly had access to all the eyewitnesses he desired, especially the Apostle Paul who witnessed the risen Lord on the Damascus road.According to 2nd century pastor, Irenaeus (AD 130 – 202), Paul was an important eyewitness for Luke’s Gospel:

Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.


The Gospel of Matthew as Matthew’s Testimony

It is easier to identify the eyewitness sources in the next two Gospels as they are both written by eyewitnesses.  The Gospel of Matthew was written by the Apostle and former tax-collector, Matthew (Mt. 9:9; 10:1-4).

Second century theologian and educator, Clement of Alexandria, confirms this:

Of all those who had been with the Lord only Matthew and John left us their recollections, and tradition says they took to writing perforce. Matthew had first preached to the Hebrews, and when he was on the point of going to others he transmitted in writing in his native language the Gospel according to himself, and thus supplied by writing the lack of his own presence to those from whom he was sent.


The Gospel of John as the Beloved Disciple’s Testimony

This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if every one of them were written down, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written.

JOHN 21:24-25

The fourth Gospel self-attests to be the eyewitness testimony of the author, who is identified in the narrative as “the Beloved disciple” (13:23-26; 19:25-27, 35; 20:2-10; 21:2, 7; 21:20-24), the friend of the high priest (18:15-16), and the disciple at the cross (19:26, 35).

Irenaeus, again, supports the self-attestation of the Gospels:

Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.


All of this goes to show that, contrary to the first faulty assumption, the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry remained an authoritative presence throughout the oral period all the way to the time the Gospels were written.

Faulty Assumption #2: The Early Church Didn’t Value the Eyewitness Testimony Enough to Ensure Accurate Transmission

Claiming that the eyewitness testimony changed during the oral period also assumes that the early church had such a low view of the testimonies that they didn’t put measures in place to secure accurate transmission.  However, that is not what the historical record tells us.  In fact, we find that the early church had various controls in place:

  1. The first control that we find lays with the Apostles themselves.  Their authoritative presence throughout the oral period ensured their testimonies did not evolve without them.Let’s consider Papias again on this matter:

Nor did I enjoy those who recall someone else’s commandments, but those who remember the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the truth itself. And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders should come by my way, I inquired about the words of the elders – what Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas, or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying


For Papias, he didn’t want second-hand information; he wanted to hear the Jesus stories from the very eyewitnesses themselves, specifically the Apostles. Not only does his writings indicate their central presence in the Christian community even toward the end of the first century, it also shows us the value that the church placed on the oral tradition that doesn’t coincide with the assumption skeptics make.

    2.  Another control is the community checks and balances. 

Just as the telephone game analogy fails to take into consideration the enduring influence of the eyewitnesses, it also neglects the fact that the Jesus tradition was shared in a communal setting, providing a checks and balances to the transmission. According to the telephone game analogy, one person tells another who tells another who tells another, each in isolation. However, this is not how the life of Jesus was articulated. It was told in the context of the community (Acts 2:42-47), many of whom were eyewitnesses themselves and would be able to correct the story-teller if he deviated from the truth.

    3. Finally, the church’s competency requirement for teaching. 

The author of Hebrews indicates a level of knowledge required before one can teach (Heb. 5:11-6:3).  James says that not everyone should teach (Jas. 3:1), and Paul says that those who do teach have an important part to play in the Body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-16). All of this value given to the office of teacher indicates value given to the content he is teaching.

Controlled Oral History

What would the early Christian community have to look like for the “telephone game” analogy to be a reality?  The eyewitnesses would need to be absent and the community would need to be apathetic and negligent with the testimony they were transmitting.  History allows neither to be assumed.

On the contrary, we see the early church took great strides to ensure the eyewitness testimony would be preserved throughout this period.  When the eyewitnesses began to die off (or, as Clement above said, “[as they were] on the point of going to the others”), the church took to writing their accounts of Jesus down so that the authoritative message of the Apostles would remain even after their deaths.

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