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Eyewitness testimony or the telephone game?

In the opening verses of his Gospel, Luke asserts that he is providing a thoroughly researched account rooted in eyewitness testimony:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (1:1-4 ESV)

The New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, a prominent skeptic, offers a very different model for the origin of the Gospels:

What do you suppose happened to the stories [about Jesus] over the years, as they were told and retold, not as disinterred news stories reported by eyewitnesses but as propaganda meant to convert people to faith, told by people who had themselves heard them fifth- or sixth- or nineteenth-hand? Did you or your kids ever play the telephone game at a birthday party? (Jesus, Interrupted, 146-47)

In this post, I present two reasons for preferring Luke’s eyewitness model over Ehrman’s telephone game model.

1. The eyewitnesses were influential in the early church.

Scholars (including Ehrman) agree that Paul wrote Galatians and 1 Corinthians. Furthermore, scholars agree that Paul wrote these letters in the 50s, or in the case of Galatians, perhaps the late 40s. Jesus was crucified around AD 30, and thus Paul's letters provide an important window into the early decades of the Christian movement. As illustrated below, these letters reveal that Cephas (Peter), James the brother of Jesus, and other eyewitnesses were active in the early church:

When James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me. (Gal 2:9)
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. (Gal 2:11-12 )
Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? (1 Cor 9:5)
[Jesus] appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Cor 15:5-7)

Consider in particular Paul's statement in 1 Cor 1:11-12:

For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow Cephas," or "I follow Christ."

Even in a place as far away from Palestine as Corinth, there was evidently a group of Christians who not only knew the teachings of Peter but even considered themselves to be in some sense his disciples.

Note that James, mentioned in Paul's letters, is also mentioned by Josephus, a Jewish historian born in Jerusalem around AD 37. Josephus tells us that "James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ," was stoned to death in Jerusalem around AD 62 (Ant. 20.199-203 LCL).

The Gospel of Mark also contains an intriguing clue that eyewitnesses were known in the early church.

And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. (Mark 15:21)

Why does Mark mention Alexander and Rufus, two men who appear nowhere else in his narrative? The most plausible answer is that these men were known to the community for whom Mark writes. Note that Mark’s explanation of Jewish customs (7:3-4) reveals that he is not writing to an audience in Palestine. Thus Mark's comment in 15:21 is one more clue that, even in communities outside of Palestine, Christians had connections with eyewitnesses.

2. The author of Luke-Acts met James and other eyewitnesses.

Not only do we know that eyewitnesses were active in the early church; we also know that the author of the third Gospel had direct contact with them. How do we know this? Consider the intriguing change of pronouns in the following passage from Acts:

And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (16:7-10)

How might we explain this phenomenon? Some scholars have suggested that the use of a fictional "we" was a literary device employed in ancient travel narratives. However, these scholars have failed to demonstrate the existence of such a literary convention in the ancient world.

Another suggestion is that the author of Acts used as one of his sources a travel journal made by a companion of Paul. (This is the alternative Ehrman seems to prefer.) However, we are fortunate to have access to one of Luke's written sources. Scholars agree that Luke used Mark. When we compare Mark and Luke side by side, we see that Luke smoothly incorporates Mark's material into his narrative and often improves Mark's rough grammar. Thus the notion that Luke carelessly copied a travel journal into his story without even bothering to update the pronouns does not align with the hard evidence we have concerning Luke's method.

A third suggestion is that the author of Acts simply fabricated the "we" to give his narrative more credibility. But if the author really was in a position to pass himself off as a travelling companion of Paul, why is his claim so subtle? Furthermore, why are the "we" passages so infrequent and sporadic? They often appear in relatively minor episodes, such as Paul's journey from Troas to Philippi, but are absent from more important events, such as Paul's lengthy ministries in Corinth (18:11) and Ephesus (19:10).

Here the best answer is the most obvious one: the author of Acts used "we" because he was a travelling companion of Paul. Notice the striking geographical consistency in the use of "we"/"us" pronouns. They first appear abruptly as Paul travels from Troas to Philippi. When Paul and his company leave Philippi for Thessalonica, the author resumes using "they" and "them." The third-person pronouns continue for many chapters, covering critical years of Paul's ministry. Then, on his way to Jerusalem, Paul passes through Philippi, and the "we"/"us" pronouns abruptly resume. The best explanation for this phenomenon is not that the author of Acts carefully crafted a clever ruse to deceive modern historians. The best explanation is that that the author of Acts was indeed a travelling companion of Paul who stayed in Philippi, perhaps to help the fledgling Christian community (16:15), and rejoined Paul years later when Paul returned to Philippi.

Now this conclusion is enormously significant for assessing Ehrman's telephone game model. Scholars agree that the same person who wrote Acts also wrote Luke. These books are clearly two volumes produced by the same author. As argued above, the evidence strongly suggest that the author of Acts was indeed a travelling companion of Paul. This places the author of the third Gospel in Jerusalem with James and other elders, many of whom were no doubt eyewitnesses:

When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. (21:17-18)

Moreover, the author not only travelled to Jerusalem and met eyewitnesses, but perhaps stayed in Palestine for years. Shortly after arriving in Jerusalem, Paul is attacked by a mob and taken into Roman custody. We are told that, due to corruption, his trial is delayed for "two years" (24:26-27). Finally, Paul appeals to Caesar. When his journey to Rome begins, the "we"/"us" pronouns continue. This suggests that the author may have remained in Palestine while Paul was in custody.

In conclusion, the evidence we have simply does not support the nineteen-step telephone game model Ehrman proposes. On the contrary, our best evidence places the author of the third Gospel in direct contact with the eyewitnesses.

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