The canonicity of the Gospels was an issue that arose in the period from the second to third century. In this time the church was determining the authority of these Gospels. In this article Richard Bauckham looks briefly at the way in which apostolic eyewitness functioned as a criterion of authenticity.

12 pages.

The Authenticity of Apostolic Eyewitness in the New Testament

I was asked to speak to you on ‘the authenticity of apostolic eyewitness in the New Testament’ and clearly this was an invitation to share with you some of content of my book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which I know some of you have read. It’s a big book, and so of course I shall merely pick out some key themes. But I thought that particular title might also suggest that I start in a different place from where I did in the book, and to look briefly at the way in which apostolic eyewitness functioned as a criterion of authenticity in the period, from the second to the third centuries, when mainstream Christianity was sorting out what we call the canon of the four Gospels, by which I mean an authoritative collection of four Gospels, no more and no less, the four Gospels we have in our New Testament, as authoritative Scripture for the church. This was a crucial process that in a sense was early mainstream Christianity’s way of defining itself. It meant that to be a Christian was to believe in the Jesus to which these four Gospels witness. And that of course remained the case throughout all the subsequent history of the church, and basically I think the more radical NT scholarship of recent years has not succeeded in changing it. It matters very much for Christian faith that these four Gospels are, in the sense the early church meant (which I have still to define) authentically apostolic.

The fourfold Gospel canon: how did it come about?🔗

The four Gospels we have in the New Testament were, I think, already from the time that they began to circulate around the various local communities of the early Christian movement regarded as ‘apostolic’ in the sense of being soundly based upon the testimony of those disciples of Jesus who had been close to him throughout the events of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. But by the later second century, at least, there were lots of Gospels around and most of them claimed to be apostolic, bearing the names not only of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but also of Thomas, Philip, James, Mary and others. How did the mainstream church’s four Gospel canon emerge from that plethora of candidates for authoritative Gospel status?

There were, after all, several possibilities. The church could have opted for just one Gospel, as one leader of a Christian sectarian group, Marcion, did, choosing Luke and carefully editing it to conform to his own teaching. Or the church could have adopted a Gospel narrative created out of all four or even more Gospels, the various sources interwoven and absorbed into a composite Gospel. Such a work – the Diatessaron of Tatian – was actually produced in the late second century. Thirdly, of course, more than four Gospels could have been accepted as authentic, the option some of the Gnostic groups took. It wasn’t necessarily obvious that the outcome of whatever processes of debate and discernment went on should be a canon of precisely these four Gospels.

The principal criterion of Gospel canonicity that operated in this process of discernment was evidently apostolicity. The elevation of these four Gospels into a canon, an exclusive position, rested on the claim that all four of these Gospels are apostolic and that only these four are apostolic. I’ll explain in a moment more carefully what was meant by ‘apostolic’ in this context, but it’s worth noticing first

how that term served to guarantee the retention of the four Gospels as such, as well as to rule out others that were deemed to be not authentically apostolic. It explains why the Gospel of Mark was retained despite the fact that it seems to have been very little used in the second century (or in the following centuries). Because nearly all of the content of Mark is also to be found in Matthew and Luke, it is easy to appreciate that people should have neglected Mark’s Gospel and preferred the more comprehensive Gospels. But Mark’s Gospel was believed to derive quite closely from the testimony of Peter, and so retained its place among the four Gospels because it was apostolic.

The criterion of apostolicity also, I think, prevented the church opting for something like Tatian’s Diatessaron, a combination of the contents of all four Gospels woven together as a single narrative. This must have been an attractive option, but was not, by and large, taken because it was the four Gospels as such that were regarded as apostolic. The sense was doubtless that they came from the apostolic age and should not be superseded even by a new Gospel compiled entirely from their contents.

Now what was meant by apostolicity? This notion as used by such authors as Irenaeus and the so-called Muratorian canon comprises three aspects.

  1. There was an important chronological aspect. Apostolic Gospels must derive from the apostolic age, which the Fathers thought of as ending c. 100, when the last of the four Gospels, John’s, was believed to have been written. So we find, for example, that the Muratorian canon disqualifies from canonicity a work known as the Shepherd of Hermas, a book by an early Christian prophet. The author of the Muratorian text actually recommends the Shepherd of Hermas for reading – he regards it as orthodox and valuable - but he does not think it should be read publicly in church worship, because of its post-apostolic date. Now that’s not a case of a Gospel, but even more so would the issue of date of origin apply in the case of Gospels.
  2. Apostolic Gospels come from the circle of the apostles of Jesus. This narrows the criterion: not only from the apostolic period, but from the circle of those whom Jesus himself gave the authority to preach the Christian message – not just, incidentally, the Twelve, but all of those Jesus had commissioned. The apostles were those who could be relied on to know what the true Gospel was. I’ve said ‘from the circle of the apostles,’ because Irenaeus and others like him did not think Mark and Luke were themselves personal disciples of Jesus. But their Gospels qualify because they were in close touch with apostles. So we need not take apostolic authorship too strictly. It means, rather more broadly, those who were really in a position to know what those who had been close to Jesus taught.
  3. Apostolicity implies conformity with the mainstream church’s tradition of teaching. Therefore, even if one could not otherwise determine the historical origin of a Gospel ascribed to Thomas or Mary (and the means of doing so were of course quite limited), one could still tell from its teaching whether it was authentically apostolic. This aspect is important and deserves more discussion, but for our purposes now I just want to stress the point that apostolic doctrine was not enough. Gospel authenticity required also the personal link with actual apostles, personal disciples of Jesus.

The fate of apostolicity in modern Gospels scholarship🔗

To validate the four Gospel canon as apostolic in the sense the early church intended one really has to give some credence both to the titles of the Gospels and to the early patristic testimonies to the origins of the Gospels, both of which indicate that the Gospels had close connexions with the apostolic eyewitnesses themselves, whether or not any of the Gospels was actually written by such an eyewitness. Such a view of the Gospels has become unusual in Gospels scholarship, but this was not always the case in modern NT scholarship. What has been overwhelmingly responsible for discrediting such a view of the Gospels is undoubtedly the approach to understanding the Gospels and their origins is the approach known as form criticism (Formgeschichte), pioneered by Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius around 1920. Form criticism had the effect of radically dissociating the Gospels from they eyewitnesses. So any attempt to reinstate the apostolic eyewitnesses as important to the origins and character of the Gospels must engage with form criticism, as I did in my book. Form criticism, I think, should now be recognized as a fundamentally misleading approach to the study of the Gospels. We need to cut loose from its continuing (if waning) influence and establish a different approach.

The form critical paradigm🔗

Absolutely fundamental for the form critics’ approach to the Gospels was their conviction that the Gospels are folk literature, which they compared with the material studied by the folklorists of their day. It was axiomatic for them that this type of oral tradition was formed and transmitted by the folk, not by individuals, and that the communities that valued such folklore had no interest of any kind in history. The Jesus traditions, they held, by analogy, were anonymous community traditions, passed down in the early Christian communities, not connected to individuals such as those who had been eyewitnesses of Jesus’ history, but only to the community itself. They were transmitted not by people concerned to relate past history, but for purposes orientated solely to the communities’ present, and could therefore be freely modified or even created de novo in accordance with the community’s present needs.

Working on these assumptions, the form critics attempted to classify the various forms in which individual units of Jesus tradition were cast and to relate each form to a particular function it would have fulfilled in the early communities. Closely associated was the notion of tradition history. Utilizing supposed laws of the tradition – standard ways in which the traditions were held to have developed – and the assumption that each tradition originally existed in pure form, unlike the mixed and anomalous forms that are found in the Gospels, it was supposed possible to trace the history of a tradition back from the Gospels to a reconstructed original or at least a form of the tradition earlier than that preserved in any of the Gospels. In this way the texts of the Gospels were put at a considerable distance from the beginnings of the Gospel tradition. Highly creative developments could be postulated.

However, tradition history as such could scarcely be a tool for reaching back to the historical Jesus himself, since there could be no guarantee that even the reconstructed early versions of traditions had anything to do with the historical Jesus. The communities, after all, had no concern with authenticity or history. For scholars unwilling to give up the quest of the historical Jesus, therefore, the famous criteria of authenticity became necessary. The fact such criteria are usually applied individually to each unit of Jesus tradition in the context of a sceptical view of the historical value of the Gospel traditions as a whole follows directly from the form critical view of the oral tradition. Since the search for authentic historical Jesus material runs against the grain of the oral tradition itself, the only way to proceed was to operate extremely rigorous criteria designed to rescue isolated bits of authentic tradition.

Criticisms of the form critical paradigm🔗

We shall begin with criticisms relating to the nature of oral tradition in the light of the much more plentiful evidence we now have from the study of oral societies. The early form critics may have used the best model available to them of the nature of oral tradition, but it was a model that cannot be supported now. One very important preliminary point to make is the wide variety, found in oral or predominantly oral societies, of types, contents, functions and means of transmission of oral traditions.

Most generalizations are hazardous, and so we should be suspicious of arguments about what must have been true of the Gospel traditions on the grounds that that is what oral tradition is like. Many features of oral traditions are culturally specific, not universally the same.

For example, it is not true that oral tradition is invariably communal, rather than being connected with particular individuals who compose and rehearse traditions. We now realise how important individual tradents are in many oral societies. The traditions are composed, preserved and performed by individuals, who, while operating, of course, in a community context, are the authorities and responsible for the form in which the traditions are known. Another unjustified generalization is that oral societies have no interest in the past and appear to speak of it only as a way of describing the present.

Interest in history varies from one oral society to another, and the issue must be considered in relation to the particularities of specific cultures. But it is common for oral societies to distinguish factual accounts from fictional tales, and to transmit the two differently, the former with more regard for faithful reproduction of content. An observation important for our purposes is that, at least in African oral societies, the kind of account that is treated with special care for its faithful reproduction is often that which recounts events within living memory.

It has been widely supposed, partly because of the well-known studies of the practice of south Slavic bards by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, that oral traditions are normally subject to creative variation from performance to performance, such variation being fully expected by their audience. But Ruth Finnegan challenges this generalization with evidence from other societies showing that ‘more or less exact memorization’ of oral texts is also a common pattern, perhaps not over centuries but over ‘shorter time spans,’ and interestingly for our purposes she observes that one case in which such memorization may be thought particularly important is that of ‘texts that have a definite religious value or function.’

An important point about significant variation, where it does occur, as, of course, it frequently does, is that one performance varies from another, but this is not a process of incremental change, such that each stage of tradition builds on the previous one, like a literary text edited again and again. This does not mean there cannot be significant changes over time, but that it is impossible to trace a tradition history back through a series of changes to a putative original form, as the form critics tried to do.

Perhaps the most important general point for our purposes is that oral societies treat different kinds of tradition differently, expecting faithful reproduction in some cases and creative variation in others. When faithful reproduction is required, such societies have a variety of means at their disposal to ensure it. Whether verbally exact reproduction can be achieved may be doubtful, though it is significant that in some cases this is attempted, but substantially faithful reproduction may be both desired and achieved. Methods of ensuring this include both entrusting the traditions to authorized, even trained guardians, and the checking against community memory that will often occur as a tradition is rehearsed.

It turns out, then, that the study of oral tradition in modern oral societies worldwide can set some parameters within which we might expect a particular case, such as the Jesus traditions, to fall, but permits very little specific determination of what the transmission of the Jesus traditions must have been like. For that we have to consider the specific cultural context in which it occurs and the evidence we actually have in the Gospels.

Before we turn to that, there is a more radical and far-reaching criticism to be made of the form critics’ concept of oral tradition in early Christianity: that at best they applied a model appropriate to transmission of traditions across many generations to a process that occurred within no more than a relatively long lifetime. While the notion of laws of tradition governing the changes that occur over time is dubious in any case, it is certainly not obvious that the same processes of change to which folklore transmitted over centuries may be subject are likely to occur over much shorter periods. We have already noticed that some oral societies certainly treat traditions differently if they recount events within living memory, and it is of crucial importance that the Gospels were written within living memory of the events, even though in some cases at the latest date when this could be true. It means that the Gospel writers’ relationship to the traditions was not that of recorders (and users) of oral traditions but that of writers of oral history.

Modern writers, such as Jan Vansina, who are concerned with the way history can be written on the basis of oral sources make a clear distinction between oral tradition and oral history. Traditions formulated and repeated by living eyewitnesses still belong to individual memories, which have not yet been superseded by collective memory. To a significant extent it was the writing of the Gospels themselves that made the recollections of eyewitnesses into the shared memory of the community. In the oral period, since it was the period of living memory, we must reckon with the eyewitnesses, something the form critics conspicuously did not do.

Aspects of the evidence🔗

We have seen that whether a particular oral society has a real sense of history and is concerned to transmit historical traditions relatively faithfully is a matter of specific culture that cannot be predicted a priori. In the case of early Christianity it has frequently been shown that Christians did have a clear sense of pastness. Not only the Gospels themselves but also the traditions they relate show consciousness of a distinction between the period of the ministry of Jesus and the period after his resurrection. Of course, Christians were interested not in the past purely for its own sake (very few people in the ancient world were), but in the religiously relevant past. But their concern, deriving no doubt from the early Christian movement’s strongly Jewish understanding of salvation history and eschatology, was precisely for the religiously relevant past. They did not collapse the past history of Jesus into the pure present of his exalted lordship and presence in the community.

This indicates that the early Christian movement had an interest in preserving the traditions about Jesus faithfully. This, of course, need not mean verbatim. It is quite consistent with a degree of variation from one performance to another. This again cannot be predicted a priori from a model of oral tradition, but must be determined from the evidence we have for the Jesus traditions. Our best evidence is the degree of variation that actually exists in parallel passages of the Gospels, especially if we can assume that the Gospel writers varied their sources in much the same way that one oral performance might differ from another. It has often been noticed that, as a general rule, there is more close verbal correspondence in the case of sayings of Jesus than there is in narratives. It would be entirely consistent with what we know of oral tradition if more or less exact reproduction was generally expected for sayings, whereas, in the case of narratives, what was expected to remain constant was the main structure and core elements, while inessential detail could vary.

Once we have abandoned form critical presuppositions about the way traditions must have developed, there is probably no reason to suppose that the degree of variation in the traditions was ever greater than the variation we can observe in the extant Gospels. We do not need to postulate original versions of traditions differing widely from the extant versions. Finally, since the evidence shows a broadly conservative preservation of traditions, we should not expect sayings of Jesus or stories about Jesus to have been regularly, as a matter of course, invented de novo and added to the tradition, as the form critics supposed.

In summary, then, the early Christian communities most likely distinguished historical accounts from fictional stories in the way many oral societies do. One performance of a tradition would vary from another, more so in the case of stories about Jesus than in the case of remembered sayings of Jesus. But variation was simply from one performance to another, not in the form of a unilinear development that would enable us to reconstruct tradition history in the form critical manner.

Interpretative modifications were made, but neither these modifications nor the more ordinary performative variations need have created greater differences than we can observe in the parallel material of the Gospels. If all this is correct, the crucial factor that remains to be considered is how the traditions were controlled. The form critics postulated entirely uncontrolled transmission by the community as such. To establish an alternative paradigm we need to determine how the substantially faithful preservation of the traditions was achieved.

An alternative paradigm: eyewitness testimony🔗

An eminent British New Testament scholar of the mid-twentieth century, Vincent Taylor, who was himself in favour of a moderate version of form criticism, once remarked that, if the form critics were right, the eyewitnesses to the history of Jesus must have ascended to heaven immediately after Jesus’ resurrection. He went on to point out that many eyewitness participants in the events of the Gospel narratives 'did not go into permanent retreat; for at least a generation they moved among the young Palestinian communities, and through preaching and fellowship their recollections were at the disposal of those who sought information.' The point was that, while the

form critics allowed that any authentic Jesus tradition must originally have derived from eyewitnesses, the eyewitnesses played no further part in their reconstruction of the transmission of the traditions. By omitting the eyewitnesses from any continuing role, the form critics were able to place several decades of oral transmission between the eyewitnesses and the Gospels

In Jesus and the Eyewitnesses I have tried to work through the implications of supposing that the eyewitnesses did not disappear from the early Christian movement as soon as they had formulated some traditions. The eyewitnesses were not only still alive through the relevant period, but were in touch with the Christian communities. The major eyewitnesses, such as the twelve apostles, were very well known. They would have remained throughout their lifetimes the accessible sources and authoritative guarantors of the traditions they themselves had formulated at the beginning. Moreover, as well as the major eyewitnesses, mostly the well known disciples of Jesus, there were also many minor eyewitnesses, who told the story perhaps of the miracle by which they themselves had been healed by Jesus or of some other encounter with Jesus that had changed their lives.

Paul, writing his first letter to the Corinthians around the year 50, twenty years after the event, recites a well-known catalogue of people to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection. Among them he mentions an appearance to five hundred believers at the same time, ‘many of whom,’ he adds, ‘are still alive’ (1 Cor 15:6). This comment would be pointless unless he meant, ‘If you don’t believe me, check it out with some of those people.’ If he could say that with regard to minor eyewitnesses, as most of the five hundred must have been, how much more would it have been true of the major eyewitnesses, people such as the twelve apostles and James the brother of Jesus, whom Paul also includes in his list. He did not need to say that they were still alive and well at the time of writing because his readers would have been well aware of that. That many eyewitnesses were not only still alive but also accessible is taken for granted.

We have seen that in oral societies traditions are not by any means necessarily the anonymous community traditions the form critics postulated, but can be closely associated with individuals. It could be the case that the Jesus traditions were in many cases associated with the named individuals or groups (such as the Twelve) from whom they originated. We shall shortly see reason to think this. If the eyewitnesses continued to be well known in the early Christian movement, it would be natural for them to be treated as the authoritative sources and guardians of their traditions. In the last resort it was they who could ensure the stability of the traditions.

We have observed already that, because they were written within living memory of the events, the Gospel writers should be seen, not so much as recorders of oral tradition, more as composers of oral history. The distinctive importance of accessing traditions within living memory, while eyewitnesses are still available, is common both to modern oral history and to the way history was envisaged in the Greco-Roman literary context of the Gospels. Ancient historians believed that history could only properly be written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses whom the historian could himself interview face to face. This demanding criterion of adequate testimony was, even if not always practised, at least widely regarded as historiographical best practice.

The form critics were right to envisage significant continuity between the texts of the Gospels and the oral traditions as they existed prior to the Gospels, but they were wrong to identify this continuity as what one would expect of folk literature. The Gospels, as has been convincingly argued by recent scholars, should be generically classified as Grcco-Roman biographies (bioi). As contemporary biographies, written within living memory of their subject, they are the sort of biography that would be expected to share the best practice of contemporary historiography with regard to sources. The continuity, therefore, between the Jesus traditions in oral form and their incorporation in the Gospels should be seen as resembling the continuity between the eyewitnesses sources and their incorporation in historiographical works, as Samuel Byrskog has argued. It is important to notice that, if the first readers or hearers of the Gospels identified them generically as historical biography, they would expect them to be closely based on eyewitness testimony, and alert to indications in them as to who the eyewitnesses were.

The Gospels are closer to oral storytelling than most of the examples of Greek and Roman biography that have come down to us. This is doubtless because the survival of classical literature strongly favoured literature written at a higher literary level than the Gospels, which probably resemble more the many popular biographies of their time that have not survived. But the incorporation of oral sources into a narrative composition was certainly not distinctive to the Gospels. On the contrary, as I have mentioned already, it was part of the best practice of Greco-Roman historiography.

The difference is rather that the more literary works assimilated their sources into a more complex and sophisticated narrative whole. The Gospel writers, especially Mark, seem to have deployed in writing the skills of the oral storyteller.

We turn now to some reasons for supposing that the Gospels are close to the testimony of the eyewitnesses, and that contemporary readers or hearers would have been able to identify at least the major eyewitnesses to which the narratives were indebted.

A starting-point for considering whether the Gospels actually indicate their eyewitness sources is to observe the way names occur in the Gospels, including a phenomenon that has not been adequately explained. It is not surprising that well- known public persons, such as Pontius Pilate the Roman governor and the high priest Caiaphas, are named in the Gospels. Nor is it surprising that disciples of Jesus who play a major part in the stories – Peter, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and so on – are named. Nor perhaps is it very surprising that most of the more minor characters are anonymous. The Gospels are full of unnamed individuals who come into contact with Jesus on just one occasion. What is difficult to explain is why just some of these minor characters are given names. Why is it that in Mark’s Gospel Jairus and Bartimaeus are named,1while all other recipients of Jesus’ healings are anonymous? Why does Luke, in his narrative of the two disciples who meet the risen Jesus on the way to Emmaus, name one of the two (Cleopas)2but not the other? Why does Mark go to the trouble of naming not only Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross to Calvary, but also his two sons, Alexander and Rufus?3 Why does Luke name Zacchaeus the tax collector and Simon the Pharisee?3Given that a very large majority of the minor characters in all the Gospels are anonymous, why do they name specifically those few who are named?

The only hypothesis I know that accounts for the evidence is that in most of these cases the named persons became members of the early Christian communities and themselves told the stories in which they appear in the Gospels. These traditions were transmitted under their names. It was from Bartimaeus himself that Mark’s narrative of his healing came, and from Cleopas, not his companion, that Luke’s story of the walk to Emmaus derived.

The principle of eyewitnesses “from the beginning”🔗

We can plausibly suppose that the Gospels incorporate some individual stories that were told by the individuals in question. But if the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony to any larger extent, there must have been eyewitnesses whose testimony covered all or much of the ministry of Jesus. In fact, we find just such a category of eyewitnesses singled out as of special importance in the New Testament itself, by both Luke and John. In the first chapter of Acts Luke tells the story of how Judas Iscariot was replaced by Matthias to make up the number of the twelve apostles. The qualification to be one of the Twelve was that such a person must (as Peter says) ‘have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day that he was taken up from us.’4The twelve apostles seem to have been seen as the official body of eyewitnesses of Jesus, but Luke’s narrative also indicates that there were others besides the Twelve who fulfilled that qualification.5Luke appeals to this principle also in the preface to his Gospel, where he says that he has recorded traditions as they were transmitted by those ‘who were eyewitnesses from the beginning,’ and, further, that he has familiarized himself with everything from the beginning.6He means he has consulted eyewitnesses who could tell the story from its beginning onwards.

We find the same principle in John’s Gospel, where Jesus speaks to his disciples about the way they are to give testimony about him in the future: ‘you are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.’7This principle of eyewitness testimony ‘from the beginning’ must have been current in the early church. It is precisely the kind of qualification that mattered in ancient historiography that depended on eyewitness testimony, and it shows that the Gospel writers were aware of and intended to meet the expectations of readers who understood their work to be historical biography and would therefore look for indications of its sources in eyewitness testimony. In addition, of course, this notion of eyewitness testimony from the beginning is close to the notion of apostolicity that Irenaeus and others used as a criterion of Gospel authenticity.

If readers or hearers of the Gospels wondered who could have given eyewitness testimony from the beginning to the end of the story, not necessarily including every event or saying within a Gospel, but encompassing the broad mass of the material, they might naturally think of the Twelve, that group of disciples who were singled out by Jesus for a special role in his movement, and who exercised an authoritative role in the movement as it developed in Jerusalem in the early days. In fact, all three of the Synoptic Gospels provide a full list of the twelve members of this group. The care with which the lists are presented suggests that they are setting out the credentials of those who were regarded as the official body of witnesses, those who would vouch for the most important material incorporated by each of these three Gospels.

If the Twelve were the major eyewitnesses for the broad mass of traditions we find in Mark’s Gospel and in the parallel material in Matthew and Luke, then we should also note that there is a key part of the narrative from which the Twelve are noticeably absent and could not have served as the eyewitnesses. This part of the narrative, including the story of the crucifixion and death of Jesus, his burial and the discovery of the empty tomb, is such a crucially important part of the whole Gospel narrative that eyewitness sources surely matter here more than anywhere. If not the Twelve, who were they? The first readers or hearers would surely expect to know. This is where Simon of Cyrene comes in, along with his sons, through whom, presumably, his story reached Mark. 8But even more important are the women disciples. Mark names three of them. All three are said to be present at the cross, two of these at the burial, and all three at the empty tomb.9Also noteworthy is the way they are continually the subject of verbs of seeing: they ‘were looking on’ when Jesus was crucified and died; they ‘saw’ where he was laid in the tomb; they ‘saw’ the stone rolled away; they ‘saw’ the young man sitting on the right side; and he invites them to ‘see’ the empty place where Jesus’ body had lain.10It could hardly be clearer that it is as eyewitnesses that they have their place in the narrative.

Incidentally some classical scholars are beginning to recognize that in Greco-Roman historiography names may sometimes be indications of eyewitness sources, and I now have some evidence of my own, from Plutarch’s lives, that further supports the case I made in my book.

The inclusio of eyewitness testimony🔗

An important way in which, I argue in my book, the Gospels of Mark and Luke indicate their major eyewitness sources is by the use of a literary device I call the inclusio of eyewitness testimony. (An inclusio is a common phenomenon in ancient literature - a sort of bookend structure, in which a passage, short or long, begins and ends with corresponding material.) If we look carefully at the way Mark’s Gospel uses names we may notice that the first of Jesus’ disciples to be named in the Gospel and the last disciple to be named are the same person: Simon Peter. Peter is also overwhelmingly the disciple most often named in the intervening material. Moreover, the first mention of Peter is emphasized by the repetition of the name in a way that was not actually necessary to the narrative (‘Simon and Andrew, Simon’s brother’). Peter therefore is the disciple whom the Gospel of Mark highlights as fulfilling the principle of eyewitness testimony from beginning to end. Mark’s inclusio of Peter is a way of indicating Mark’s major eyewitness source. (This point does not contradict what I have suggested about the role of the Twelve. Peter’s version of the traditions about Jesus would have been his own version of the traditions common to the Twelve.)

In my book I also traced the use of these same device – an inclusio of eyewitness testimony – in the Gospels of Luke and John, but for our purposes now I haven’t the scope to pursue that. I do want to make a brief comment about the evidence for such a literary device in ancient literature outside the Gospels. In the book, I was able to adduce examples only from literature later than the NT, and I’ve been criticized for this. I don’t think such evidence is irrelevant, but it clearly less valuable than evidence contemporary with or earlier than the Gospels. But in my subsequent work I have now found a very fine example from well before the NT period – the account of the Roman general Scipio Africanus in Polybius’s history. The pattern of reference in this account to the principal eyewitness on whom Polybius depended, Gaius Laelius, nmatches very closely the pattern of reference to Peter in Mark’s Gospel – both an inclusio and the frequent occurrence of the name within the inclusio.

Mark as Peter’s Gospel🔗

Are there other reasons, besides the inclusio of eyewitness testimony, to think that Peter’s testimony lies quite closely behind Mark’s narrative? Almost all introductions to commentaries on Mark cite, even if only to dismiss, the well-known fragment of the work of Papias of Hierapolis about the origin of Mark’s Gospel. In a statement echoed by many later writers in the early church, Papias claimed that Mark had worked as Peter’s interpreter and wrote down the Gospel traditions as Peter had recounted them. There was a time when most scholars thought this a credible and plausible view of Mark’s Gospel, but more recently most have dismissed it. The main reason is that the form critical way of conceiving of Gospel origins could not allow it. Now that the form critical paradigm can be seen to be fundamentally flawed, it is time to reconsider Papias’s credibility.

Papias was collecting traditions about Jesus originating from named disciples of Jesus, a few of them still alive and resident not far from his home town, in the late first century, around the time when the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John were being written. He wrote (or at least completed) his book some years later, but it was in the late first century that he assembled his material. So he really was in a position to know something about how the Gospels originated, and his evidence about Mark’s Gospel deserves to be taken more seriously than it has been in recent scholarship. But the plausibility of Papias’s account emerges particularly strongly when we can correlate it with indications in Mark’s Gospel itself that Peter was the main source of its traditions. We have already noticed the Petrine inclusio of eyewitness testimony in Mark, as well as the very frequent naming of Peter throughout the Gospel. In addition, I have argued in my book that Mark’s Gospel has been written in such a way as to give readers or hearers predominantly Peter’s perspective on the events as they unfold.

In conclusion, to understand the origins of the Gospels we can no longer rely on the form critical paradigm. Especially in the light of our current knowledge of the nature of oral tradition, that paradigm must be not merely modified but simply abandoned. I suggest that a more fruitful approach to our topic is provided by the paradigm of eyewitness testimony. The Gospels are oral history based on and even incorporating the testimony of eyewitnesses to the events. Such an approach brings us once again much closer to the assessment of the Gospels that was responsible for their inclusion in our NTs.


  1. ^ Mark 6:3; 10:46.
  2. ^ Luke 24:18.
  3. ^ Mark 15:21.
  4. ^ Acts 1:21-22.
  5. ^ Acts 1:23
  6. ^ Luke 1:2-3
  7. ^ John 15:27.
  8. ^ Mark 15:21; cf. Matt 27:32; Luke 23:26.
  9. ^ Mark 14:40-41, 47; 16:1; cf. Matt 27:55-56, 61; 28:1; Luke 24:10
  10. ^ Mark 15:40, 47; 16:4, 5, 6; cf. Matt 27:55; 28:1, 6; Luke 23:49, 55.

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