Eyewitnesses or People Who Personally Knew Eyewitnesses
I was just a little too young (thank God!) to have had to serve in the Vietnam War. Close relatives of mine and colleagues I’ve known well through the years did, however, serve in the steamy Mekong Delta or in the uplands of Vietnam. I’ve heard them recount true stories of dead mortar rounds in foxholes and of bullets finding their way through unlikely openings in bullet-proof vests. Those men will never forget the things they saw, heard, felt, or even smelled all those years ago. Extraordinary events have a way of indelibly etching impressions deeply on the mind.
Each of the New Testament authors was either the personal eyewitness of Jesus Christ during his ministry in Galilee and Judea or was able to have talked at length with those who were actual eyewitnesses. Surely, as extraordinary as the events were that they had seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears and even smelled and touched, the details of those episodes would have left a vivid and lasting imprint on their memory.
Citizens in a Culture of Memorization
Jewish culture at the time of Jesus was indeed a culture of memorization. And it wasn’t simply individual memorization. People relied on the collective memory of the village or of the nation. They commonly committed entire books of scripture to memory.
Jewish culture at the time of Jesus was, also, extremely committed to accurately recounting the history of their people. Genealogies were committed to memory. Events were recounted repeatedly. The whole community stood as the guardians of historical accuracy. If someone retold an episode incorrectly, those who had heard the account over and over were there to say, “No, that’s not the way it happened.” The same would have been the case with the events related to the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. People—some of them quite influential—were there to correct any falsely publicized stories about Jesus.
Even before writing it down, the history of Jesus was committed to poetry, creeds, or hymns that his followers recited often. The apostles and other disciples would not have forgotten.
Men with Nothing to Gain and Everything to Lose
It has been said that history is always written by the winners. At least with regard to military or political victory, this saying is patently false when it comes to the history written by Jesus’ disciples.
Within a very few years of the death and resurrection of Jesus, believers came under intense social, religious, and legal pressure simply because of their devotion to Christ. Christ-followers were ostracized, imprisoned, and even executed on account of their faith alone. Testimony to this is easily found in the New Testament books of Acts, Hebrews, and 1 Peter, as well as in the extra-biblical letters of the Roman governor Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan and the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus. All that had to be done to avoid this extreme persecution was to distance oneself from the church or to renounce devotion to Jesus.
So if the New Testament authors were knowingly fabricating falsehoods, manufacturing myths, or lubricating legends about Jesus of Nazareth, what could they expect to gain? Wealth? They were far more likely to lose what little property they may have had. Influence? Rome wouldn’t tolerate that.
On the other hand, what could they lose by persisting in their faith in Christ? Acceptance by family and former friends … their very lives …
Men of Character
Nothing in the Bible or outside of the Bible implicates the New Testament authors as men of base character. On the contrary, they were known for their generosity, care for the poor, care for widows, and more. The Roman satirist Lucian, in his work The Death of Peregrine, even mocked Christians for being too generous!
Content and Style of the New Testament Documents: All Wrong for a Fabricated Story
If the apostles had been trying to perpetrate a hoax on the world, they certainly were not going about it in right way. Falsehoods are usually concocted out of the public eye with lots of tight lips and distractions all around, just as illusionists set up “the prestige” with a clever distraction.
On the other hand, the New Testament message, the gospel of Jesus Christ was openly proclaimed—right in downtown Jerusalem, mere blocks from where Jesus had been publicly executed and entombed. And when the New Testament authors began to record their message in writing, they laid it out there with local and regional officials—religious and political—cited by name. Dates and precise place names were affixed to events. (See Luke 2:1-2; 3:1-2; Matthew 27:2; Mk. 15:15; Luke 23:12; John19:13; and John 19:17.)
Two of the Gospels include full, easily traceable genealogies. If anyone in those families cared to refute the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, they certainly could have done so. And again, legends are not concocted with those kinds of open links to real people, both hostile and amenable. In fact, Jesus’ half-brothers James and Jude (See Matthew 13:55) both rejected the claims of their sibling before his death and resurrection (See John 7:3-5). If they knew their brother to have been mortal only (i.e. still dead), they certainly would not have shifted from unbelief to belief. Yet both brothers did come to embrace the deity of Jesus. James became a leader of the church in Jerusalem itself (Acts 15:13), and each wrote a letter that is now part of the Christian New Testament.
Again, if the Gospels were myths, they would be poorly invented myths. They include cultural faux pas, embarrassing examples of self-deprecation, and a strange absence of critical, culturally relevant materials. For example, the testimony of women was not even admissible in court in the culture of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, and yet all four Gospels record women as the first to see the resurrected Jesus.
And no one in Judea would have wanted to openly declare devotion to a person who had been crucified. Hanging on a tree was considered a curse by the Jews, and it was an offense so detestable to Greco-Roman culture that it was considered extremely bad taste to even mention it in polite company—hardly the place to start if you wanted to convince someone in that culture to worship a person as God.
Even Heretics Appealed to the Apostles
So tightly linked were the authentic accounts of the life of Christ to the apostles and early disciples that later, heretical authors almost invariably attempted to invoke the name of an apostle in the titles of their versions. The heretic Marcion not only did not accept the extra-biblical gospels of others, but he also limited his own teaching (although incorrect) to certain New Testament documents.
The weight of evidence regarding the New Testament authors is that they were honorable men with no good reason to manufacture or to manipulate stories about Jesus. They remain credible witnesses to literal history.
For Further Reading: