Were the Gospels Based on Eyewitness Accounts?

It’s a critically important question for every Christian to consider — and the video below, addressing this question, is called by John Piper “the most remarkable (video) lecture on the reliability of the Gospels I’ve ever heard.”  (HT Denny Burk)

Curious yet?  When young Christians study the Bible in the context of modern biblical scholarship today, they’re confronted very quickly with the question of whether the Gospels accurately and faithfully describe the life, ministry and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  Many scholars have made their names, and the Jesus Seminar has made a cottage industry for themselves, out of challenging or ostensibly debunking the historicity of certain Gospel stories.  And one of the most critical sub-questions in the whole debate — tied into questions regarding the authorship and the dating of the Gospels — is whether the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses to the events they describe.  We rightly and intuitively place greater trust in the recollections of people who were actually present at the events they describe than we do in second- or third-hand (or worse) recitations of what the eyewitnesses described.

Peter Williams, who addresses this question below, is the Warden at Tyndale House in Cambridge, one of the world’s greatest centers of biblical study and translation.  He’s a rising star in the world of evangelical scholarship, having taken his degrees at Cambridge and having taught at Cambridge and Aberdeen before taking this (very prestigious) position at Tyndale House.  Here are his thoughts on the question.

For more from Peter Williams, see Justin Taylor’s interview with him, on the occasion of his appointment as Warden, and his bio page (with links to articles and etc) at Tyndale House.

Note: This post was originally entitled “Were the Gospels Written by Eyewitnesses,” which did not precisely reflect the gist of Dr. Williams’ lecture, which does not say “written by” but “based on.”  Thanks to a commenter for the suggestion.

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About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • Ken Berry

    To be precise, I understand the title of the lecture was actually “New Evidences the Gospels were Based on Eyewitness Accounts.” “Based on Eyewitness Accounts” is not exactly the same as “written by eyewitnesses.” I have not watched and listened to the whole lecture yet, but a friend who attended it in person related that Williams drew quite a bit from the recent book by Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006).

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Yes, thank you, Ken.


  • http://ahoeyandhisblog.wordpress.com Jack III

    Thanks for posting this, Tim. I read Bauckham’s book a few years back based on a recommendation Tim Keller made in a lecture. Keller’s sense was that this new way of looking at the Gospels will be ignored for a while, since it effectively overturns a century of liberal NT scholarship. Bauckham’s book was a huge shift, but he only devoted (if I remember correctly) a chapter or two to the subject of names in the Gospels. So I thoroughly enjoyed hearing a lecture that went into such depth on the topic. Williams is an unusually gifted communicator for someone who spent his adult life in academia – no offense, of course. The great thing about evidence and research like this is that it removes the debate from the tired playing field where men like Bart Ehrman prefer to stay. It forces people to engage on a whole other level, in an entirely different way. Thanks again for the post.

  • Kevin Ford

    I got to hear the lecture at ELF with an astute audience that asked great questions. I’m now reading Bauckham’s book–I love this stuff!

  • http://www.theologymatters.com Sue Cyre

    Timothy, I an exec dir of Presbyterians for Faith, Family and Ministry and would like to talk about how we can make this video available to Presby churches on a DVD. Would you contact me? Thank you!

  • DougH

    That was a brilliant talk, thanks for linking to it.