Could Matthew and John not be eyewitness accounts?


My friend sent me this critique on the gospels of Matthew and John not being eyewitness accounts.

He said, according to the majority viewpoint, this gospel is unlikely to have been written by an eyewitness. While Papias reported that Matthew had written the Logia this can hardly be a reference to the Gospel of Matthew. The author was probably a Jewish Christian writing for other Jewish Christians. Biblical scholars generally hold that Matthew was composed between the years c. 70 and 100, and also Matthew was most likely written at Antioch, then part of Roman Syria. Most scholars hold that Matthew drew heavily on Mark and added teaching from the Q document. While Matthew arranged this material into compilations, such as the Sermon on the Mount, much of the material goes back to the historical Jesus. The infancy narrative, however, is apparently an invention. Matthew presents Jesus' ministry as limited to the Jews, though the resurrected Jesus later commissions the disciples to preach to all the world. Geza Vermes judges that the ministry of Jesus was exclusively for Jews and that the order to proclaim the gospel to all nations was an early Christian development.

And then for John, in the majority viewpoint, it is unlikely that John the Apostle wrote the Gospel of John. Rather than a plain account of Jesus' ministry, the gospel is a deeply meditated representation of Jesus' character and teachings, making direct apostolic authorship unlikely. Opinion, however, is widely divided on this issue and there is no widespread consensus. Most scholars date the Gospel of John to c. 80–95. John was composed at Ephesus. Jesus' teaching in this gospel cannot be reconciled with that found in the Synoptics, and scholars prefer the Synoptics for a view of Jesus' teaching. The gospel identifies its author as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." The text does not actually name this disciple, but by the beginning of the second century, a tradition began to form which identified him with John the apostle, one of the Twelve (Jesus's innermost circle). Today the majority of scholars do not believe that John or any other eyewitness wrote it, and trace it instead to a "Johannine community" which traced its traditions to John; the gospel itself shows signs of having been composed in three "layers," reaching its final form about 90-100 AD. According to the Church Fathers, the Bishops of Asia Minor requested John, in his old age, to write a gospel in response to Cerinthus, the Ebionites, and other Hebrew groups which they deemed heretical. This understanding remained in place until the end of the 18th century. The Gospel of John developed over a period of time in various stages, summarized by Raymond E. Brown as follows: An initial version based on personal experience of Jesus; a structured literary creation by the evangelist which draws upon additional sources; the final harmony that presently exists in the New Testament canon, around 85-90 AD. In view of this complex and multi-layered history, it is meaningless to speak of a single "author" of John, but the title perhaps belongs best to the evangelist who came at the end of this process. The final composition's comparatively late date, and its insistence upon Jesus as a divine being walking the earth in human form, renders it highly problematical to scholars who attempt to evaluate Jesus' life in terms of literal historical truth.

This is against what I mostly was taught, but I'm just wondering what your view of this is?


Ah, the debunked foolishness of "higher criticism" raises its ugly head once again. I first ran into this nonsense 35 years ago when in college and it has always been people who imagine themselves to be scholars but who have no clue what biblical scholarship is like.

First, notice the attempts to bolster a weak position by citing unnamed "scholars." Because they are unnamed their credentials cannot be verified, nor can these statements be checked to see how they are used in context. Also the claim of a "majority viewpoint;" majority of whom?

What actual facts are cited?

  • Papias is mentioned as attributing the Gospel of Matthew to Matthew, but that fact is dismissed -- not from evidence, but the opinion that Papias could not have been referring to the Gospel of Matthew.
  • A reference to Geza Vermes' opinion that Jesus' ministry was solely for the Jews. Vermes is a noted Jewish scholar who has been trying to redefine Jesus as a Jewish only prophet.
  • A claim that Jesus' teaching in John cannot be reconciled with the other three gospels. Having not long ago taught a class on the harmony of the Gospels, I know this claim is false.
  • A claim that John was written at the request of elders in Asia Minor, but the source is conveniently left at "church fathers."

Perhaps I overlooked something but everything else is couched in terms of opinions, "perhaps," "could be," "apparently," etc. There are claims of development in stages, but the intermediary documents do not exist -- they are only figments of a few people's imaginations. It is a "Just So" story where some decided this is how the Gospels had to have developed because that is how they would have done it if it was up to them. Even the "facts" list above are really nothing more than opinions.

What I want you to note is that claims are being made that are not supported. But it is up to the one making the claim to prove his point is true. If this were a court of law, the case would be thrown out on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Let me illustrate the absurdity of what is being done. "The majority of friends tell me that you are continuing to beat your girlfriend." Do you have to defend against this absurd claim or does the claimant have to prove his point? I hope you see it is the latter. You probably can prove him wrong easily, but you don't need to get defensive because a claim is not proof.

Let's take a look at the claim that Papias was not talking about the Gospel of Matthew.

"Some of critical bent have found in Papias' reference 'Matthew composed the logia in Hebrew (Aramaic) language' a reference not to our canonical Matthew but to a primitive source book of Jesus' sayings which is commonly denominated 'Q.' This view is considered at length by Zahn. It seems highly artificial. There is no source book referred to in all of the other patristic writing. If one ever existed -- which is problematical -- its memory had evidently been replaced by the second century. That Papias would refer to it in these terms when the canonical Matthew was already a well-known book, likely even translated into Syriac, and that he would not distinquish between the one and the other, would be impossible to believe. Furthermore, the reference to Mark is clearly to the canonical Gospel. Inasmuch as Papias says that Mark did not write the gospel story in order, some have argued that he must have been speaking of a proto-Mark rather than our canonical Gospel. Regarding this Westcott remarks,

'In short, we must suppose that two different books were current under the same name in the times of Papias and Irenaeus -- that in the interval, which was less than fifty years, the older document had passed entirely into oblivion, or at least lost its first title -- that this substitution of the one book for the other was so secret that there is not the slightest trace of the time, the motive, the mode of its accomplishment, and so complete that Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement, Origen, and Eusebius applied to the later Gospel only what was true of that which it had replaced. And all this must be believed because it is assumed that John could not have spoken of our present Gospel as not arranged "in order." But it would surely be far more reasonable to conclude that he was mistaken in his criticism than to admit an explanation burdened with such a series of improbabilities.'

Westcott continues to point out that Mark actually is not a chronological biography and would suit the description that Papias quotes from Elder John. Westcott's argument should be allowed its full force, and the same argument is applicable to Papias' testimony concerning the canonical Matthew and the alleged Q." [R. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canoncity of the Bible, 1957].

How about the dating of Matthew? The date range of AD 70-100 is actually not what you find among the scholars. The usually proposed dates are from AD 40 to 100. The earliest known quotation of Matthew is by Ignatius, who died in AD 115. Therefore, for Ignatius to be familiar with this book, it had to have been written well before AD 115. The sole reason people insist on a date after AD 70 is because Matthew contains a prophecy concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in AD 70. These "higher critics" can't imagine anyone being able to accurately prophesy an event in advance, so they assume that it was written after the event. Lack of belief is not evidence that it could not have been written prior to AD 70. A secondary problem is that many early Christian writers say that the apostle Matthew wrote Matthew. Given that these writers were more closely associated with people who knew the apostles, their words carry more weight than skeptics living 2,000 years later. Interestingly the Gospel of Matthew has always carried that title, even to our earliest copies of the book. So, accepting that Matthew wrote the book by his name, there is the small problem that later dates would mean that Matthew lived to an extremely old age -- something that is not supported by tradition or records.

The dating of John has evidence as well. We have a scrap of papyrus that is dated around AD 125. For a copy to exist, the original had to have predated the copy by quite a few years. Clement was the bishop of Rome in AD 95 and alludes to John's Gospel in his writings, so it clearly predated him. (Clement, by the way, mentions the star that is only recorded in Matthew's Gospel.) Ignatius' writings show that he was familiar with the Gospel of John. Matthew and John appear to have been Ignatius' two favorite books. There is evidence also among the gnostic writers. While their views were false, they sought to prove themselves by quoting the New Testament. Basilides was one of the earliest of these writers, writing shortly after the age of the apostles (about AD 117-135). He clears quotes from John as one of his sources. Another early group was called the Ophities and they too quote from John. The idea that the Gospel of John was written by some mystical group is simply a modern-day myth that has no historical support but presented to explain away the presence of John.

The rejection of John as present in the New Testament early on is driven by the fact that it is deep and philosophical. To "higher critics" such deep thinking had to have been developed over many years and by a group instead of an individual. It isn't that they have proof that it was developed or came late. They start with the notion that it had to have come late and then all the theories explain away the facts that it came too early for them.

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life-- the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us-- that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full" (I John 1:1-4).

"And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe" (John 19:35).

"This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen" (John 21:24-25).

John claims to be an eyewitness account and evidence exists that it was accepted from the beginning as Scripture. Evidence exists that it was in circulation during the first century. Your friend claims that these statements are lies, but he only offers opinions as "proof." If this were a court case, I would find your friend guilty of false testimony.

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