I’m often challenged about status of the Gospels as eyewitness accounts of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Many skeptics reject the eyewitness authority of these accounts, even though the early Church selected and embraced the canonical Gospels based primarily on the eyewitness authority of their authors. Some skeptics argue the Gospels were never even intended to be seen as eyewitness testimony, in spite of the fact the earliest students of the apostles (and first Church leaders) repeated the content of the Gospels in their own letters, affirming the eyewitness status of the Gospels. It might be helpful, therefore, to review the context in which the Gospel events were first observed, recorded and transmitted in the 1st Century:
Eyewitness Authority Is Inherent to the Gospels
The Gospel accounts are written as historical narratives. The life of Jesus is intertwined with historical events locating it geographically and historically. The Gospels repeatedly affirmed their own historical, eyewitness nature, mentioning key figures who served to validate the history of Jesus as eyewitnesses:
There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him.
Eyewitness Authority Was Commissioned by Jesus
Jesus understood the eyewitness status of the Apostles. In fact, he commissioned them to grow the Kingdom on the basis of their eyewitness observations:
Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
Eyewitness Authority Was Affirmed By the Gospel Authors
The authors of the Gospels proclaimed their authority as eyewitnesses (or as chroniclers of the eyewitnesses). While some skeptics have attempted to disassociate the Biblical statements from the Gospel authors to refute the authorship of the Gospels, the earliest believers embraced the traditional authorship of the eyewitnesses (and we can also make good circumstantial cases for the traditional authorship). The Gospel authors (and their sources) repeatedly identified themselves as eyewitnesses:
1 Peter 5:1
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed…
2 Peter 1:16-17
For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.
1 John 1:1-3
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life – and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us – what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us…
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
Eyewitness Authority Was Confirmed By the First Believers
The early believers and Church Fathers accepted the Gospel accounts as eyewitness documents. In fact, many Church fathers wrote about the Gospels. Papias, when describing the authorship of the Gospel of Mark, said, “Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ.” In addition, Papias, Ireneaus, Origen and Jerome affirmed the authorship of Matthew’s Gospel by the tax collector described in the account, written for the Hebrews in his native dialect and translated as he was able.
Eyewitness Authority Was Foundational to the Growth of the Church
It really shouldn’t surprise us that the authority of the Gospels was grounded in their eyewitness status. The eyewitness authority of the Apostles was key to the expansion of the early Church. The apostles were unified in the manner in which they proclaimed Christ. They repeatedly identified themselves, first and foremost, as eyewitnesses:
Acts 2:23-24, 32
“This man (Jesus) was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him… God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.”
“You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.”
“For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard”
With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.
“We are witnesses of everything he (Jesus) did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.”
Eyewitness Authority Was Used to Validate New Testament Writings
Even Paul understood the importance of eyewitness authority. He continually referred to his own encounter with Jesus to establish the authenticity of his office and writings. Paul also directed his readers to other eyewitnesses who could corroborate his claims:
1 Corinthians 15:3-8
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
The Gospels were written as eyewitness accounts within the long and rich evidential tradition of the early Christian community. The early Church placed a high value on the evidence provided by Jesus and the authority of the apostles as eyewitnesses. The Gospels were accepted and affirmed due largely to their status as eyewitness accounts. This authority was inherent to the Gospels, commissioned by Jesus, affirmed by the Gospel authors, confirmed by the first believers, foundational to the growth of the Church and used to validate the New Testament canon.