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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

No Trustworthy Accounts of Jesus after the Resurrection?

This is the next-to-last installment of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73. Mr. Martin's article is being reprinted this spring in a book by Prometheus Press. The entire response is also available here.

Martin makes a series of interrelated claims about the New Testament records of Jesus’ resurrection. He claims that there were no contemporary eyewitness reports of seeing Jesus after the resurrection other than Paul and that the other "alleged" eyewitnesses who saw Jesus after the resurrection may not have been reliable and trustworthy. From there he continues to multiply layers, that those who heard the eyewitnesses and passed on their reports may not have been reliable and trustworthy, and that those who recorded the accounts (supposedly third-hand) may not have been reliable and trustworthy. How do Mr. Martin's claims hold up against what we know? We will quickly review the history of the four gospels.

John: Its own value and the added value of the appendix

To begin with, there are not so many layers between the resurrection and our most direct account of it as Mr. Martin suggests. No matter your view of which person is "the disciple whom Jesus loved", the main author of the Gospel According to John, this person still claims to have seen the risen Jesus in person on more than one occasion, each time with a number of Jesus’ other disciples also present. The author claims that he himself had eaten with Jesus and spoken with Jesus on a number of occasions after Jesus was raised from the dead.

There is an interesting claim that certain people make about the Gospel of John, which is that John cannot have written it -- or that it had been "tampered with" -- because there is a separate part at the end, apparently an appendix of sorts, and it includes the comment "we know that his (the author’s) testimony is true." From this, the speculation begins about revisions and late dates. But there is an equally interesting history about the Gospel of John and how it was written. According to an ancient list of authoritative Christian writings, the Muratorian canon or Muratorian fragment, the Gospel of John involved a number of Jesus’ surviving disciples:

The same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John in his own name should write down everything and that they should all revise it.

While the date of the Muratorian Canon (like everything else involving Jesus) is disputed, the document makes references to events from the mid-100's C.E. as happening "quite recently, in our own time" -- so the most likely date for the Muratorian Canon will remain in the second half of the 100's C.E. The "mystery appendix" to the Gospel of John is actually part of the known history of the document and not an unknown addition. We have separate confirmation of what the document itself tells us, that it was reviewed by other people. In this light, the book’s comment "we know that his testimony is true" (John 21:24) has support for what it claims to be: the confirmation of other eyewitnesses that it happened just as recorded. Contrary to the common skeptical view that the Gospel of John is to be taken less seriously than the other gospels because of its later date and "appendix", instead we have here, even in the latest of the accounts, a strong and direct claim to first-hand material, with support from more than one source that this material had been reviewed and confirmed by other witnesses.

Mark: Traveling companion to Peter, known to other disciples of Jesus

The Gospel of Mark is often lightly dismissed because Mark himself was not a disciple of Jesus. But Mark was a disciple of Simon Peter, the leader among Jesus’ followers and privileged to be with Jesus on certain special occasions when only a few of the disciples were present. Mark was known to have traveled with Simon Peter – see 1 Peter 5:13, where Simon Peter writes a greeting to his readers from Mark. He also here refers to Mark as "son". It was common to call someone "son" if there was a close relationship such as a spiritual mentorship, and this is the usual understanding of the relationship between Peter and Mark. It is against this background, that Peter and Mark were close, and that Mark traveled with Peter, that we can see the implications of our histories of how the Gospel of Mark came to be written.

But was Mark's gospel ever read by those who had known Jesus? Here the early writer Papias quotes what he learned from one of Jesus' disciples, here called the "elder" or "presbyter":

The presbyter used to say, 'Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he [Mark] had not heard the Lord or been one of His followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter’s. Peter used to adapt his teachings to the occasion without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard and to make no misstatement about it.' -- Papias, quote preserved in Eusebius' History 3:39

Note that this early quote, preserved in Eusebius' History, records one of Jesus' disciples approving Mark's diligence and the contents (if not the sequence) of Mark's writings. So here the person who has written the accounts is not far-removed from true knowledge, but someone who wants to leave an accurate record of what he heard from his mentor, who in this case was Peter, among the best sources of information available regarding Jesus.

Luke: Diligent researcher who met with eyewitnesses

Of other early Christian records, much is made of the possibility of Luke borrowing from Mark. We have good reason to believe that they met and knew each other (see v 24 of Philemon, in which Paul mentions both Luke and Mark among his fellow-workers, probably part of the Christian community in early Rome). But we also have good reason to believe that Luke traveled with Paul (the "we" sections of the book of Acts which suggest that the writer was, at that time, traveling with Paul). Luke had been to Jerusalem with Paul and met some of the key figures of ancient Christianity, including some of the eyewitnesses of the resurrection such as Jesus’ brother Jacob ("James").

When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present" (Luke, in Acts 21:17-18).

So Luke is known to have personally met some of those who knew Jesus directly. His writings explain how he has made every effort to write an orderly and well-researched account of Jesus’ life. Again, we do not have some supposedly untrustworthy and far-removed source, but a conscientious person who knows the value of being accurate and talking to the original sources, as he says, "Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." (Luke 1:3-4)

Matthew: A complex history but a useful source

Probably the most controversial authorship for the records of Jesus’ life is the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew. The early church records are unanimous that it was written by Matthew (also known as Levi), one of Jesus’ twelve closest disciples, and that it was written in "the Hebrew tongue" for the benefit of Jewish Christians. At some point early in church history, the book underwent at least a translation; the traditional text we follow now is in Greek. The authorship question arises because of textual comparisons: certain sections of Mark’s account and certain sections of Matthew’s are nearly identical.

The different sides of the dispute have made claims ranging from that Matthew had never seen any of the material in Mark (which seems unlikely) to that Matthew "slavishly followed" Mark, which is at least a serious overstatement based on the documents we have before us. Whatever relationship there may be between certain accounts, the majority of material in Matthew is not found in Mark, roughly a quarter of the material in Mark is not found in Matthew either, and a number of the accounts found in both documents are in different order or vary in certain details. There are a number of instances where the accounts preserved in Matthew appear to be older than the corresponding accounts in Mark, and some vice versa where the accounts in Mark appear to be older than those in Matthew, so there is plenty of material to occupy the textual scholars for some time. (One plausible theory is that Matthew and Mark both owe to a previous earlier source. For further discussion and substantiation of the figures quoted, read here.)

While the debate is far from over about the exact relationship between the material in Matthew and Mark, the amount of independent material in Matthew is enough to make it a worthwhile source in its own right regardless of the outcome of that discussion. It seems premature to rule out Matthew’s involvement solely on the basis of shared sections between Matthew and Mark, though of course any particular piece of information would not count as coming from two separate sources in cases where those accounts are shown to share a common source. If it turns out, as seems likely, that Matthew incorporated material from a pre-Markan document instead of from Mark itself, then it will also become likely that Matthew was written at an earlier date than would be supposed if he had the full text of Mark; the earlier date would be consistent with direct involvement of Jesus’ disciple Matthew (Levi) who is referenced in every historical record of how the document was written.

Closing words on the accounts in the gospels

What is left of Martin’s general claims about the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection? Not much. We have first-hand accounts from people who themselves saw Jesus after his resurrection. For most documents we have a reasonably clear picture of who wrote them and how the authors got their information. The authors showed themselves to be careful and earnest in what they recorded. We have records showing that the documents were written early enough that a number of eyewitnesses were still on the scene commenting, giving information, or even (in the case of the Gospel of John) adding notes vouching for the reliability of the reports.

Beyond that, there are even more basic reasons why many people, reading the gospels, believe them: writers who are basically honest do not make up things like that. Writers who are basically sane are not wrong on that level for that length of time about what they see. The gospels come across as having been written by people who are, like most people, basically sane and honest. It is difficult to believe that all of these authors were entirely wrong about everything important in their writings. Leaving aside questions of "infallibility", if the authors were merely sane, honest, and reasonably careful then what they have recorded is of monumental importance.

The response to Mr. Martin will be continued here. For those interested in reading the remainder of the response to Martin at this time, the entire response is also available here.


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