Why I Am A Christian (#1): The Gospels as Eyewitness Accounts

Peter von Cornelius, ‘The Three Marys at the Tomb’ (between 1815 and 1822). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Peter von Cornelius, ‘The Three Marys at the Tomb’ (between 1815 and 1822). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

[Contents] [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11]

The Christian faith is not infrequently derided as irrational, delusional, fairyland. Though such arguments are sometimes made in an intellectually vigorous manner, I would argue that at least as often such arguments are made facilely, and without any proper understanding of what Christianity claims or teaches.

In spite of such attacks on the Christian faith (intellectually vigorous or otherwise), I remain a believing Christian, convinced of the truth of God’s revealed word, the Bible. In a new series of posts, I would like to outline some of the reasons why I still find the Christian faith compelling and convincing.

Because there are many — and multi-faceted — reasons why I believe the Christian faith stands up to scrutiny (there is not some ‘magic bullet’ reason, either why the Christian faith is true, or, conversely, why it is false), this is going to be a series in eleven parts. Indeed, my reasons for accepting the Christian faith as true will not be exhausted by these eleven parts: I could have added many more; but let the reader take these as a selection of eleven significant reasons.

Reason #1: The Gospels as Eyewitness Accounts

“One reason why I find the Christian faith so convincing — and undoubtedly why many millions of people throughout history have likewise, as well as do so today — is that the Gospels present themselves as eyewitness testimony.”

One reason why I find the Christian faith so convincing — and undoubtedly why many millions of people throughout history have likewise, as well as do so today — is that the Gospels present themselves as eyewitness testimony.

The traditionally-held view of authorship of the four New Testament Gospels is that they were written by:

  • Matthew, a former tax-collector (Matthew 9:9) and one of the twelve disciples of Jesus;
  • Mark, a companion of the apostle Peter who wrote down his Gospel based on what was related to him by Peter[1];
  • Luke, a physician and travelling-companion of the apostle Paul (Colossians 4:14);
  • John, another of the twelve disciples (Matthew 4:21-22; Acts 3:1).[2]

If this is incorrect, then two of the four Gospel writers (Matthew and John) were eyewitnesses of what Jesus said and did during his entire public ministry; another (Mark) was in an excellent position to write down the things Jesus said and did, having another of Jesus’ eyewitnesses, Peter, as his source.

“The fact is that the Gospels all read as first- or second-hand eyewitness accounts. There is a qualitative difference between, e.g., an ancient myth such as the Sumerian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Gospels.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact is that the Gospels all read as first- or second-hand eyewitness accounts. There is a qualitative difference between, e.g., an ancient myth such as the Sumerian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh,[3] and the Gospels: the former reads like a mythical tale, whereas the latter read like recorded (even if remarkable) history.

In my opinion, no more so is this the case than with the Gospel of John (which, you will recall, was one of our two ‘first-hand’ eyewitness accounts).

Consider the following passages from this Gospel:—

Excerpt A: John 1:28-34

“These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him, and said…”

John 1:28-29

These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
John 1:28-34[4]

Excerpt B: John 4:1-3

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee.
John 4:1-3[5]

Excerpt C: John 5:1-5

“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades.”

John 5:2

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralysed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.
John 5:1-5[6]

And finally, this remarkable passage from the chapter in which John[7] reports the resurrection of Jesus on what we now call the first ‘Easter Sunday’[8]:—

Excerpt D: John 20:2-7

“So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going towards the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.”

John 20:3-4

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going towards the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.
John 20:2-7[9]

These are remarkable details, which speak of the eyewitness testimony of someone who was there, watching these things unfold. And John the writer is at pains to make this clear to the reader. As he says in one passage describing the death of Jesus on the cross,

Excerpt E: John 19:34-35

But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.
John 19:34-35[10]

“I first read John’s Gospel when I was nineteen years old and studying at university. Before reading this Gospel, I had long held to a default position of atheism. Previously I had simply assumed that the Gospels were merely fairy stories, with as much historicity as ‘The Tortoise and the Hare.’”

John’s Gospel was the first book of the Bible I ever read, and it was the force of this apparent historicity — together with the remarkable claims which Jesus makes for himself in it — which initially led me to believe. I read it when I was nineteen years old and studying at university. Before reading this Gospel, I had long held to a default position of atheism. Previously I had simply assumed that the Gospels were merely fairy stories, with as much historicity as ‘The Tortoise and the Hare.’

Besides the forceful claim to historicity made by John’s Gospel, another aspect of it which most impressed me was the claims which Jesus made for himself.

I would like to leave the reader with the claim made by Jesus which most impressed me on my first reading of this Gospel. It comes in a long section (13:31—16:33) reporting the speech given by Jesus to his eleven disciples in the hours before his arrest, interspersed with occasional remarks and questions by the disciples themselves.

Speaking to the disciples, at one point in this speech Jesus promises them,

Excerpt F: John 14:14

“If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.”
John 14:14[11]

This is a claim so astonishing that, by the end of reading the Gospel, I found myself well and truly convinced that these things — however improbable, however implausible — must be true.

*        *        *

In the next part of this series, I will consider how another major section of the New Testament — the Letters — gives further evidence for the truth of Christianity.

 

[Contents] [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11]

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] See, e.g., here.

[2] It should be noted that this is the “traditionally-held view” in so far as the four Gospels themselves are all anonymous works — none of the writers gives his own name as the writer of the work. The evidence for these four individuals is, however, fairly solid, since the attribution of these four names to the works in question goes back to the 2nd century A.D. See here for further details.

[3] You can find the text of this ancient story here. In the same category of ‘obvious myth’ I might also include St. Jerome’s Life of Paul of Thebes, a legendary hagiography written in the late 4th century A.D. See Carolinne White, Early Christian Lives (Penguin Classics, 1998), 71–84. (n.b. The date of 337 for the composition of this work given in White, 73, is obviously incorrect.)

[4] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+1%3A28-34&version=ESVUK

[5] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+4%3A1-3&version=ESVUK

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+5%3A1-5&version=ESVUK

[7] Although the authorship is not quite certain, for the remainder of this article I am going to refer to the writer of this Gospel as ‘John’ without further comment.

[8] I accept that ‘Easter Sunday’ is an anachronistic term, characteristic of a later age. To the Jews who were in Jerusalem on the day this event took place, the day would have been at the end of that year’s Passover festival.

[9] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+20%3A2-7&version=ESVUK

[10] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+19%3A34-35&version=ESVUK

[11] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+14%3A14&version=ESVUK

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