However, i do challenge your comment that "we do know who wrote the gospels". Although mainstream scholarly opinion may point to community authorship, this does not tell us anything concrete about the authors; we may be able to label a community as Johannine, yet that does not tell us if the community were eyewitnesses to the events they describe, or whether they sought to accurately record those events; indeed, it tells us almost nothing about the methods or motivations of the community for writing the gospels.
I disagree. Certainly we can tell some things about the author of a document by reading the document. IF we cannot assume that this can be done we might as well disband all history departments, fire all English teachers and stop trying to teach liberal arts. If this is the case human communication and understanding between people is not possible and we can knowing about the past. The whole basis of modern history as an academic discipline is riding on this assumptions. This is what historians do, they learn about the past by approaching documents as artifacts. The Archaeologist has his artifact (the clay pot) we have ours, (documents).
It is true that we cannot know all things. We still have many questions, we will always have many questions. The spouses and children of academics thank God that we will always have questions, for it is their bread and butter. But that does not mean we can't answer some of them. No, we cannot know what specific individuals were in what community, but we can make some educated guesses. I say that's better than a shot in the dark, and it is better than writing off the Gospels as non existent or as lies which is what most atheists have tended to do. We can make better guesses about what the communities wanted than we can about what specific individuals were in them. There has always been a tendency on the part of skeptics to almost assume that if we don't know the particular people involved we cannot know anything, this does not follow.
Can we know who was in the communities?
It's more important to know what the communities wanted than it is to know the particular people in them. Unknown people can witness things. Now it is true that it helps more to know who they were exactly, but it is not the case that without this knowledge the documents tell us nothing about the events. We do not know, for example, who were the specific individuals who inhabited Troy 7A. Just because we can't say "this was Paris, this was Helen, this was Priam," doesn't mean we can't say, "they had a war, it was about trade, it lasted a long time," and things of that nature.
We can also make some good guesses about who was in which community. For example, it makes sense to me that the reason John centers on Mary as the only woman but still has her say "we don't know where they laid him," Because Mary Magdeline was the one woman of that group at the tomb who stayed with the John community. That fits the evidence of church tradition, that Mary stayed with John. The other women probably went into the other communities, and if we notice those accounts are less focussed on Mary Magdeline and more on the other women. OF course this is by no means certain. I am not sure it's even important. It explains some things about the writing of the account but does not being sure about it really mess up our understanding of the Gospels? It's an interesting little theory but it doesn't prove anything. Not being sure about it doesn't disprove anything.
Was Matthew in the Matthew community? We can't know that either but we have a clue that he had something to do with the writing of the Gospel even though he may or may not have lived in the community. Papias says he wrote a document called "the Logia."
Papias "Matthew composed the sayings (Logica) in Hebrew and each translated them as best he could." (Eusebius, Eccl. Histories 3.39.16).
Irenaeus: "Now Matthew Published among the Hebrews in their own tounge a witten Gospel, while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome...." (Eccl hist).
Does that mean the Gospel of Matthew? All Christian apologists assume it does. Of course there is no way to guarantee that. Even if we believe that Papias is 100% accurate (a "big if" as we used to say) that doesn't prove that the Logia was G.Mat. On the other hand, there's a good probability that the two are connected. We have no other fragments or even mentions of other Gospel's or epistles or documents connected with Matthew.Of course he might not have written anything. Papias might have been a total liar and an idiot to boot. why should we assume so? Because he's a Christian? I think most atheists see through that kind of shallow knee jerk skepticism. I hope they can. I would like to think that most people are not raging bigots who don't think.
Papias tells us that Matthew's document was translated by many as best they could translate it, although composed in Hebrew. while there is much debate as to the fabled "Hebrew original behind G.Mat" (and no actual proof) there are a few Heberwisms. My theory is that Matthew wrote a saying source. We know the saying source was the genre prior to the narrate gospel. This saying source was probably translated into Greek and then used to flesh out a latter narrative by someone in the community. A redactor combined the saying source with the many stories that were told and ordered to make a chronological account.
Ancient Christian Gosples
Unless one wants to assume that Papias is totally wrong on all counts,...Papias statement is better understood as a reference to an altogether different writing. The writing he describes would have been a collection of sayings composed in Hebrew and translated into Greek Several times. This characterization fits the Synoptic Saying Source quite well: it was probably composed originally in Greek but some of its part may have been translated from Aramaic into Greek more than once..." (Ancient Christian Gospels.317)
Here Koester is saying that the ur Mat is "Q." But we need not understand it as Q to understand it as the basis for the saying source in Matt. Of we can sort out this Q problem latter. The same process might be said about Mark. Koester and others have observed the Galilean nature of Mark.I will do more on Mark and the names sakes latter in another essay.
Can we Know that the communities were eye witnesses?
First, the concept of "the eye witness" is problematic. That phrase enters the vocabulary of Christian apologetics in the Nineteenth century when major jurists set themselves the task of proving the resurrection. The concept of providing scientific documentation was foreign to the authors of the Gospels, as was the idea of the "eye witness." They did not have the concept of the court room "eye witness" in first century AD. They did have the notion of "witnessing against your neighbor" but they didn't have it developed along the lines of a modern court room model.
so its problematic to even use the phrase. I think it's fair to say the real question is does the knowledge of the events and teachings we are given stack up as authentic representations of what the actual historical Jesus said and did? While we cannot be 100% certain we can be more certain about that than we can about what specific individuals were in the group.
Historians do no assume that without explicit definite proof we can make no assumptions. They do not assume that the Gospel communities were not eye witness just because they don't have a statement by a contemporary Roman historian saying that they were. We can get a glimpse into the assumptions that scholars do make by looking at what they say:
Koester says (above)
Ancient Christian Gosples
Unless one wants to assume that Papias information is totally wrong on all counts,...
This is a good example of the principle that the artifact does tell us something about the author. Another statement by a major scholars revealing his assumptions on this score:
seminar on x talk
My very general arguments are: (1) that existence is given in Christian, pagan, and Jewish sources; (2) it is never negated by even the most hostile critics of early Christianity (Jesus is a bastard and a fool but never a myth or a fiction!); (3) there are no historical parallels that I know of from that time and period that help me understand such a total creation. There is, however, a fourth point that I touched on in BofC 403-406. It is crucially important for me that Jesus sent out companions and told them to do exactly what he was doing (not in his name, but as part of the Kingdom of God). The most basic continuity that I see between Jesus and those companions was, as I put it, not in mnemonics, but in mimetics. In other words, they were imitating his lifestyle and not just remembering his words. I find that emphasized in the Q Gospel’s indictment of those who talk, but do not do, and in the Didache’s emphasis on the ways (tropoi) of the Lord (not just words/logoi). When, therefore, I look at a phrase such as "blessed are the destitute," and am quite willing to argue that it comes from the historical Jesus, I am always at least as sure that it represents the accurate summary of an attitude as the accurate recall of a saying.
What he's saying is that he's less certain of the exact wording of a teaching, but he assumes in general that the Gospels are artifacts revealing Jesus general lifestyle and indicative of that lifestyle. It is the lifestyle being emulated, not the letter of the letter of the law in his wording. He could not draw this conclusion if he was not willing to assume that there is a witness involved. He is not willing to just doubt Jesus existence and everything else merely because he doesn't have total absolute proof of it. He is not willing to assume that every single thing the Gospel authors say has to be lie because we don't know who they were. In other words we can assume this stuff is an artifact and it does tell us something.One thing it tells us is that the people who produced it must have had some contact with Jesus because they understood and emulated his way of life.
When we plug in Luke's testimony in Acts we have good reason to understand that this is the early formation of the community. While Luke was not thinking in terms of modern historical documentation, he clearly is making a claim to the teaching authority of the Pauline circle, and that authority is based upon the connection to the early community and it includes the witness of that community. The network we see tied together through Peter and the other Apostles we see these guys all knew each other. Half them were Jesus' cousins (Cleopus and his brood) or knew them.* I've seen internet skeptics try to deny that the Peter Paul Met was the Peter Clement of Rome spoke of or the one in the Gospels. That is based upon absolutely nothing more than the assumption that if something isn't totally proven without question we have to doubt it. Real scholars do not make this kind of assumption. We are going to do this stuff, and do it in a way that pretends to be educated, we should follow the lead of the professional, those who do it for a living and those who teach the classes we wish we could take. In some quarters atheists have forged their own er zots academy but there is no substitute for the real academy. You do not go to a a guy who reads a lot to remove your appendix. You go to a real doctor. NASA doesn't consult technically minded nerds to make launch decisions about the state of the O-rings. They get real engineers. Engineers do O-rings, historians do history.
Can we know what the community wanted?
While this might tend to color our understanding of what the story forms produced by the communities were about, it might also give us an insight into their motivations. What I mean is they were not trying to document things to prove to future generations that "Jesus existed because I saw him." That was the furtherest things from their minds. But it does give us a clue as to their motivations to understand that their use of these stories was to answer theological problems faced by the community. The pericopes had a sermonic function. They were little sermons.
We can assume that their purpose was not multilevel marketing or to hold a better flea markets. We can assume that they had a religious purpose. While they were hyped up on some form of eschatologcial expectation in the beginning, the absence of militaristic rhetoric and the attention to spiritual matters would indicate that thes e people had given up the conventional Messianic expectations of other Jews of the era. They clearly had some special understanding of the Messianic mission of Jesus that set him apart from the run of the mill Messianic claimant ("I should know a false messiah when I see one, I've followed enough of them in my time--" Life of Brian). Clearly at least the John community, if not all four communities were looking for an answer in the next life and that answer was connected to Jesus in some fundamental way.
I think these are pretty rock solid assumptions. Given that much we are armed with what we need to study the Gospels and to approach them as artifacts that give us insight in to Jesus, his teachings and his way of life. Of of this of course is a matter of probability. But history is probability. No historian claims that history is an exact science. the concept of Historical probability guides all historical study.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus, San Francisco: Harper, 1996,p.121
"...Non narrative New Testament wittings datable with some degree of probability before the year 70 year 70 testify to traditions circulating within the Christian movement concerning Jesus that correspond to important points within the Gospel narratives. Such traditions do not, by themselves, demonstrate historicity. But they demonstrate that memories about Jesus were in fairly wide circulation. This makes it less likely that the corresponding points within the Gospels were the invention of a single author. If that were the case than such invention would have to be early enough and authoritative enough to have been distributed and unchallenged across the diverse communities with which Paul delt. Such an hypothesis of course would work against the premise that Paul's form of Christianity had little to do with those shaping the memory of Jesus." "As I have tried to show, the character of the Gospel narratives does not allow a fully satisfying reconstruction of Jesus ministry. Nevertheless certain fundamental points when taken together with confirming lines of convergence from outside testimony and non-narrative New Testament evidence, can be regarded as historical with a high degree of probability.Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucification under the prefect Pontius Pilate, and continued to have followers after his death. These assertions are not mathematically or metaphysically certain, for certainty is not within the reach of history. But they enjoy a very high level of probability."
*PBS special "From Jesus To Christ," Jesus family tree from gospels on PBS website visited today. I've seen other accounts, not as authoritative which include a couple of Apostles as cousins and Salome who accompanied Mary tomb as his sister.