Walking on WaterI'm currently in the process of working on my research essay for my Apologetics class (PDF course outline). We're allowed to choose any topic we want for our essays, so I chose the historical reliability of the New Testament. One book that I was sure I wanted to use was Richard Bauckham's newest, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which argues that "the four Gospels are closely based on eyewitness testimony of those who knew Jesus". (Bauckham is professor of New Testament at St. Andrews University in Scotland.) I haven't had a chance to read the entire book yet (this topic comprises only part of my overall argument in my essay) but it seems like a fantastic book so far; thoroughly researched and convincing, as well as being evenhanded and logical.

Here is the relevant excerpt from my paper. The footnotes are removed; the majority of the references are from Dr Bauckham's book. (See "Further Reading" below for more sources.)


Although everyone recognizes the limitations of eyewitness testimony, it is still powerful evidence that was highly valued in the ancient world and is still valued highly today. Communication in the first century was primarily oral, necessitating that people develop strong memory skills. Some first century Rabbis even memorized entire books of the Old Testament! (I personally once witnessed a man dramatically recite the entire book of Luke from memory.) This lends credibility to the idea that the eyewitness accounts would still be reliable many years after the events themselves took place; even today amazing feats of memory are still possible, especially when the circumstances are ripe for strong memory retention.

Ancient historians did not place as high a value on recording the exact words spoken by an individual, and instead attempted to communicate the speaker's intended meaning as fully as possible. Therefore, while different authors may record a speaker's words slightly differently, their testimonies can still be reliable. Additionally, if the stories in the gospel were all related in exactly the same way, we might suspect collusion between the authors: If the gospels were too consistent, that in itself would invalidate them as independent witnesses. (Craig L. Blomberg) That the gospels relate the same events but in slightly different ways suggests that what they present is a common historical core from different perspectives.

Doubting ThomasIf the New Testament material comes directly from eyewitness accounts rather than secondary or tertiary accounts, the case for the reliability of the New Testament is strengthened. Since the New Testament was written within the lifespans of those who observed the events it records, the eyewitnesses to the events would still be alive to verify the contents of the New Testament when it was written and began to be circulated. [Note: In the full essay I develop the case for the early dating of the New Testament texts.]

A good case can be made that Mark's gospel is based on eyewitness testimony, namely that of Peter, and perhaps also of Mark himself and others. (Cases can also be made for other New Testament documents.) Firstly, Mark's gospel places more emphasis on Peter than any other gospel. For example, Mark notes Jesus speaks to Peter directly twice in Gethsemane, whereas the other gospels are more general. Mark also mentions Peter more times per page than any other gospel writer. Secondly, Mark uses the technique of inclusio (a literary framing device) at the beginning and end of his gospel which likely indicates that Peter is the source of the gospel's material. Finally, external testimony from Papias in the late first or early second century (as quoted by Eusebius) confirms Mark as author of the gospel and his use of Peter as a source. Taken together, this evidence strongly suggests that Mark's gospel is based on testimony from Peter, a direct eyewitness to Jesus' ministry. (Bauckham also suggests several other lines of evidence, such as the curious wording of section 13 of the "Gospel of Thomas".)

A unique and puzzling detail in Mark's gospel is recorded in Mark 14:51-52: A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. This seemingly inconsequential incident does not appear in the other gospels. Why did the author choose to include it? It seems quite possible that the author himself was the young man … following Jesus (the young man was not one of the apostles) and therefore chose to include this incident in the gospel because it involved himself. This theory is inconclusive, but nonetheless an intriguing possibility, and regardless it is an example of one of many anonymous witnesses in the gospels, any of which are probable eyewitness sources for the gospels.

Further Reading: