Thursday, February 25, 2010

Were the Gospels Written by Eyewitnesses?

It is often alleged that the Apostles of Jesus couldn’t have written the Gospels because they were illiterate. Bart Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in the DaVinci Code, writes:

“The only explicit reference to their literacy comes in the book of Acts, which indicates that two of the chief disciples, Peter and John, were in fact illiterate (Acts 4:13). What about the others? There’s little reason to think the story was different for them.” (p. 107)

When people make such claims, we always need to examine their supporting evidence. In this case, Ehrman offers only one piece of evidence:

Acts 4:13 – When they [the Sanhedrin] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled (“agrammatos” = “illiterate?”), ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.

By itself, it’s hard to gauge what “agrammatos” means. It is only used one time in the NT. Therefore, we are restricted to deducing its meaning from the context, which I think argues decisively for “unschooled.”

Notice that this had been the assessment of the educated Sanhedrin, the ruling spiritual body of Israel. This body formed their opinion about Peter and John based upon what they “saw” and “realized” about them! They couldn’t see or gauge whether or not they were illiterate – they would have needed a written test to assess this – but they could see that the two were simple, “unschooled and ordinary men.” Clearly, these disciples weren’t graduates of the “University of Jerusalem.”

I am not aware of even one Bible translation that translates “agrammatos” as does Ehrman. Given the context, this is entirely unsurprising. Why then does Ehrman promote such a counter-evidential conclusion?

Even if the Apostles were illiterate, what was there to prevent them from dictating their Gospels to a scribe? Only the presuppositions of our present-day scholars!


  1. Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

    But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus' death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60's, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

    How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

    I challenge Christians to list in the comment section below, the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

    If you can't list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole...or...the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?

  2. Gary, You might consider that you are placing undue weight upon the proclamations of the modern critics.

    For one thing, they make their claims without any hard evidence.

    For another, they do not show ample respect for the testimony of the early church.

    Lastly, they go beyond what even the ancient critics had gone. Celsus (150 AD) had never charged that the Apostles had not written the Gospels. Instead he had claimed that they had been making up lies.

    1. Ok. So you don't accept the opinions of experts? Wouldn't that make life very difficult in our modern world if we all rejected expert opinion?

    2. "Accept expert opinion?" No! Consider or interact with it? Yes!

      However, expert opinion that is less amenable to prejudice I receive with more confidence, especially if I'm ignorant in that area, like my dentist's judgment.

  3. The experts, New Testament scholars, believe that the Gospels were NOT written by eyewitnesses or the associates of eyewitnesses. Why do Christians insist that skeptics believe in the historicity of Jesus based on expert opinion, but then turn around and reject the opinion of these same experts on the authorship of the Gospels?

    I have compiled a list of sources which confirm the majority expert opinion on this issue:

    1. Gary, While I am willing to discuss evidence with you, I am not willing to tally how many experts we both have in our pocket.

      If I was interested in experts, I'd be more interested in the experts from the first and second centuries.

    2. Are you a scholar, Daniel? I am not.

      If neither one of us is a NT scholar, our discussion regarding "evidence" would be no different that two non-scientists debating Heliocentricity. The discussion might prove interesting, and the person arguing against Heliocentricity might be able to present reasonable evidence for his position. But the experts have spoken on this issue. We should accept the overwhelming majority opinion of the experts.