Is Matthew an eyewitness account? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
A friend of Deeper Waters a few weeks ago shared a video wanting my response to it. I just recently took the time to watch it. I found it interesting, and in some ways more informed than other skeptics, but also lacking. It was a response to J. Warner Wallace on eyewitness testimony and can be found here.
So let’s start with something minor. In the video, he shows Wallace saying he thought before his conversion that the Gospels were second century works. Ben, the person making the video response, says “Really?” and that’s it. I see no reason to think Wallace is lying on this point and if Ben thinks there is, he really needs to demonstrate that.
Ben does make a statement about how good something like Wallace sounds if you believe in inerrancy. I have no idea why inerrancy is made an issue here, other than the usual that it’s treated as an essential to Christianity and if you destroy it, you destroy Christianity. This is not at all the case and yet too many skeptics do have this kind of approach.
However, Ben chooses to look at Matthew. He has three points to what he says ultimately. I find all of them lacking. Let’s look at the first. The first is that the writers do not use a 1st-person in their work. You don’t see Matthew saying “Jesus said to me, follow me.” Jesus instead speaks in third person. Isn’t this unusual?
Sounds good, but really, this is an old objection. It goes all the way back to the time of Augustine even.
Contra Faustum 17.1
Faustus said: You ask why we do not receive the law and the prophets, when Christ said that he came not to destroy them, but to fulfill them. Where do we learn that Jesus said this? From Matthew, who declares that he said it on the mount. In whose presence was it said? In the presence of Peter, Andrew, James, and John—only these four; for the rest, including Matthew himself, were not yet chosen. Is it not the case that one of these four—John, namely—wrote a Gospel? It is. Does he mention this saying of Jesus? No. How, then, does it happen that what is not recorded by John, who was on the mount, is recorded by Matthew, who became a follower of Christ long after He came down from the mount? In the first place, then, we must doubt whether Jesus ever said these words, since the proper witness is silent on the matter, and we have only the authority of a less trustworthy witness. But, besides this, we shall find that it is not Matthew that has imposed upon us, but some one else under his name, as is evident from the indirect style of the narrative. Thus we read: “As Jesus passed by, He saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom, and called him; and he immediately rose up, and followed Him.” [Matthew 9:9] No one writing of himself would say, He saw a man, and called him; and he followed Him; but, He saw me, and called me, and I followed Him. Evidently this was written not by Matthew himself, but by some one else under his name. Since, then, the passage already quoted would not be true even if it had been written by Matthew, since he was not present when Jesus spoke on the mount; much more is its falsehood evident from the fact that the writer was not Matthew himself, but some one borrowing the names both of Jesus and of Matthew.
Augustine replied: What amazing folly, to disbelieve what Matthew records of Christ, while you believe Manichæus! If Matthew is not to be believed because he was not present when Christ said, “I came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill,” was Manichæus present, was he even born, when Christ appeared among men? According, then, to your rule, you should not believe anything that Manichæus says of Christ. On the other hand, we refuse to believe what Manichæus says of Christ; not because he was not present as a witness of Christ’s words and actions, but because he contradicts Christ’s disciples, and the Gospel which rests on their authority. The apostle, speaking in the Holy Spirit, tells us that such teachers would arise. With reference to such, he says to believers: “If any man preaches to you another gospel than that you have received, let him be accursed.” [Galatians 1:9] If no one can say what is true of Christ unless he has himself seen and heard Him, no one now can be trusted. But if believers can now say what is true of Christ because the truth has been handed down in word or writing by those who saw and heard, why might not Matthew have heard the truth from his fellow disciple John, if John was present and he himself was not, as from the writings of John both we who are born so long after and those who shall be born after us can learn the truth about Christ? In this way, the Gospels of Luke and Mark, who were companions of the disciples, as well as the Gospel of Matthew, have the same authority as that of John. Besides, the Lord Himself might have told Matthew what those called before him had already been witnesses of.
Your idea is, that John should have recorded this saying of the Lord, as he was present on the occasion. As if it might not happen that, since it was impossible to write all that be heard from the Lord, he set himself to write some, omitting this among others. Does he not say at the close of his Gospel: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written”? [John 21:25] This proves that he omitted many things intentionally. But if you choose John as an authority regarding the law and the prophets, I ask you only to believe his testimony to them. It is John who writes that Isaiah saw the glory of Christ. [John 12:41] It is in his Gospel we find the text already treated of: “If you believed Moses, you would also believe me; for he wrote of me.” [John 5:46] Your evasions are met on every side. You ought to say plainly that you do not believe the gospel of Christ. For to believe what you please, and not to believe what you please, is to believe yourselves, and not the gospel.
Faustus thinks himself wonderfully clever in proving that Matthew was not the writer of this Gospel, because, when speaking of his own election, he says not, He saw me, and said to me, Follow me; but, He saw him, and said to him, Follow me. This must have been said either in ignorance or from a design to mislead. Faustus can hardly be so ignorant as not to have read or heard that narrators, when speaking of themselves, often use a construction as if speaking of another. It is more probable that Faustus wished to bewilder those more ignorant than himself, in the hope of getting hold on not a few unacquainted with these things. It is needless to resort to other writings to quote examples of this construction from profane authors for the information of our friends, and for the refutation of Faustus. We find examples in passages quoted above from Moses by Faustus himself, without any denial, or rather with the assertion, that they were written by Moses, only not written of Christ. When Moses, then, writes of himself, does he say, I said this, or I did that, and not rather, Moses said, and Moses did? Or does he say, The Lord called me, The Lord said to me, and not rather, The Lord called Moses, The Lord said to Moses, and so on? So Matthew, too, speaks of himself in the third person.
And John does the same; for towards the end of his book he says: “Peter, turning, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved, who also lay on His breast at supper, and who said to the Lord, Who is it that shall betray You?” Does he say, Peter, turning, saw me? Or will you argue from this that John did not write this Gospel? But he adds a little after: “This is the disciple that testifies of Jesus, and has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.” [John 21:20-24] Does he say, I am the disciple who testify of Jesus, and who have written these things, and we know that my testimony is true? Evidently this style is common in writers of narratives. There are innumerable instances in which the Lord Himself uses it. “When the Son of man,” He says, “comes, shall He find faith on the earth?” [Luke 18:8] Not, When I come, shall I find? Again, “The Son of man came eating and drinking;” [Matthew 11:19] not, I came. Again, “The hour shall come, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live;” [John 5:25] not, My voice. And so in many other places. This may suffice to satisfy inquirers and to refute scoffers.
Xenophon does the same in Book 3, Chap. 1 of Anabasis.
“There was in the army a certain Xenophon, an Athenian, who accompanied the army neither as a general nor as a captain nor as a private soldier; but Proxenos, an old acquaintance, had sent for him.”
See also Anabasis 1.8.15; 2.5.40; 3.1.10, 47, etc.
Ben says that Thucydides refers to himself in the first person. Look at chapter 26 of Book 5.
I certainly remember that all along, when the war began and until it ended,
there were many who prophesied that it must last thrice nine years. I lived
through all of it when I was of an age to comprehend and had my mind
engaged, in order to know with some exactness; it also happened that I was
exiled from my city for twenty years after the command at Amphipolis
and, being present at the activities of both sides, especially the Peloponnesians, unoccupied because of my exile, I understood these all the more.
Accordingly, I will relate the disagreement after the ten years and violation
of the truce and how the war was fought from then on.
That sounds good. However, let’s look earlier in that section.
The same Thucydides, an Athenian, has recorded these events as
well, in the order that they occurred according to summers and winters,
up to the point when the Lacedaemonians and their allies overthrew the
empire of the Athenians and captured the long walls and the Peiraeus.
In the Jewish War account by Josephus in 2.20.4, he does the same thing.
4. They also chose other generals for Idumea; Jesus, the son of Sapphias, one of the high priests; and Eleazar, the son of Ananias, the high priest; they also enjoined Niger, the then governor of Idumea, who was of a family that belonged to Perea, beyond Jordan, and was thence called the Peraite, that he should be obedient to those fore-named commanders. Nor did they neglect the care of other parts of the country; but Joseph the son of Simon was sent as general to Jericho, as was Manasseh to Perea, and John, the Esscue, to the toparchy of Thamna; Lydda was also added to his portion, and Joppa, and Emmaus. But John, the son of Matthias, was made governor of the toparchies of Gophnitica and Acrabattene; as was Josephus, the son of Matthias, of both the Galilees. Gamala also, which was the strongest city in those parts, was put under his command.
And in book 7, chapter 1, of the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar, we find the same thing.
When it was reported to Caesar that they were attempting to make their route through our Province he hastens to set out from the city, and, by as great marches as he can, proceeds to Further Gaul, and arrives at Geneva. He orders the whole Province [to furnish] as great a number of soldiers as possible, as there was in all only one legion in Further Gaul: he orders the bridge at Geneva to be broken down. When the Helvetii are apprized of his arrival they send to him, as embassadors, the most illustrious men of their state (in which embassy Numeius and Verudoctius held the chief place), to say “that it was their intention to march through the Province without doing any harm, because they had” [according to their own representations,] “no other route: that they requested, they might be allowed to do so with his consent.” Caesar, inasmuch as he kept in remembrance that Lucius Cassius, the consul, had been slain, and his army routed and made to pass under the yoke by the Helvetii, did not think that [their request] ought to be granted: nor was he of opinion that men of hostile disposition, if an opportunity of marching through the Province were given them, would abstain from outrage and mischief. Yet, in order that a period might intervene, until the soldiers whom he had ordered [to be furnished] should assemble, he replied to the ambassadors, that he would take time to deliberate; if they wanted any thing, they might return on the day before the ides of April [on April 12th].
(All of these are cut and paste and so I have not made any changes to the texts cited.)
E.P. Sanders is not wanting to give a defense of Christianity, but when writing about why a first person is not used in the Gospels says:
The authors probably wanted to eliminate interest in who wrote the story and to focus the reader on the subject. More important, the claim of an anonymous history was higher than that of a named work. In the ancient world an anonymous book, rather like an encyclopedia article today, implicitly claimed complete knowledge and reliability. It would have reduced the impact of the Gospel of Matthew had the author written ‘this is my version’ instead of ‘this is what Jesus said and did.’ – The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders page 66.
Ben will need to tell why these other writers didn’t follow the same pattern or didn’t always. For now, let’s move on to the second crack supposedly. What about events for which Matthew was not an eyewitness.
Are we at best dealing with knowledge that is secondhand for those accounts? Yes.
And the problem is?
No one is claiming that Matthew was an eyewitness for everything in the Gospels by saying the Gospels are eyewitness accounts any more than Josephus could possibly be an eyewitness for everything in his account of the Jewish War or Thucydides and eyewitness for everything in the Peloponnesian War. This would be all-or-nothing thinking if done this way. Matthew certainly would not have been an eyewitness of the virgin birth, which I do affirm, but some examples Ben gives are odd. How would Matthew know what was said in the Sermon on the Mount?
For one, no one thinks the whole of the sermon is recorded in the account, save perhaps diehard fundamentalists. For another, if you are a speaker, you know you give a talk you know well more than once. Finally, this was a public event. There were numerous people who could corroborate. How did Matthew know about what happened with Judas giving the money to the priests or the account of the Sanhedrin trial? He could very well have relied on Joseph of Arimathea or any of the priests and Pharisees who we hear came to faith in Acts. Again, if you think everything Matthew reported had to be firsthand, then that is your problem. I do not share it.
Also, the evangelists never name themselves, but what of it? Plutarch doesn’t name himself either. Perhaps this was something done in Greco-Roman biography. It would be fascinating to see if any research has been done on that. However, that there is at least an exception in Plutarch should give us pause on making a big deal about this, as well as E.P. Sanders’s quote. Also, just because the author is not named in the body of the work does not mean he would not be named in some other way on a scroll being delivered to be read. (And keep in mind, Paul is named in several letters that skeptics insist he did not write.)
Finally, what about the relationship between the book of Matthew and Mark? The case for Marcan priority in Mark being the first Gospel is that most scholars hold to this. That is certainly a good point, but it is not by any means final. I myself have not really looked at the Synoptic Problem yet, but I do know enough to know that it is not a done deal. There are those who do hold to Matthean priority. So what about similarities between Matthew and Mark?
What of it? Why should we think none of the Gospels ever used another Gospel. Why would Matthew use Mark if he did? Because Mark includes accounts from Peter that Matthew would not be present for and could use. Furthermore, why reinvent the wheel? If Matthew likes how Mark has phrased a matter, why change it? If the situation is reversed, the same applies. This really isn’t troubling.
Finally, Ben says if the edifice falls, everything falls, but most scholars do not build their case on inerrancy even if they focus on the Gospels and many use the epistles of Paul instead. The accounts are still safe.
I also find it disappointing that Ben nowhere interacts with Richard Bauckham’s work on this topic, a real scholar who has the most in-depth research on this. Another good read would be Keener’s Christobiography. I do appreciate he does give some citations, but I find the case again lacking.
(And I affirm the virgin birth)