The Gospels provide accounts of numerous things that Jesus said and did during his earthly ministry. They are the principal sources of historical evidence for our knowledge of his life.
But how did the Evangelists themselves come by this evidence?
First and Second Hand
In some cases, the evangelists were eyewitnesses to the events they recorded. The Gospel of Matthew is historically attributed to the tax collector Matthew Levi, who was one of the immediate followers of Jesus and who witnessed the events of his ministry.
This attribution is credible. It is hard to imagine that Matthew’s name could have become attached to the work if he had nothing to do with it. As a tax-collector, Matthew had held one of the most hated occupations in first century Judea (comparable to prostitute or thief), yet Matthew’s Gospel is the one most clearly aimed at a Jewish audience. If someone had a gospel of unknown authorship aimed at a Jewish audience, he would never attach the name of a tax-collector to it.
Even more clearly, the Gospel of John expressly claims to be written by an eyewitness—the “beloved disciple”—who at the end of the Gospel is described as “the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things” (Jn 21:24). The work also displays an intimate and accurate knowledge of first-century Palestine.
If Matthew and John were eyewitnesses of the ministry of Christ, what about Mark and Luke?
Mark’s case is less clear. Many have identified Mark with one of the unnamed figures in the Gospels, such as the man who runs away without his clothing on the night Jesus was arrested (Mk 14:51-52) or the man carrying water to the house where the Last Supper was held (Mk 14:13). If these identifications are accurate, then Mark was an eyewitness to at least some of the events recorded in the Gospels, but it is difficult to be certain because the individuals are not named.
Mark the Evangelist traditionally has been identified as John Mark, who is named for the first time in Acts 12:12, when Peter visits the house of his mother. John Mark thus may have lived in Jerusalem and witnessed many of the events of Christ’s ministry.
Yet it was not his own possible status as eyewitness that gave Mark’s Gospel most of its weight in the early Church. It was Mark’s role as a companion of Peter (1 Pt 5:13), and his Gospel was held to record the teachings and reminiscences of Peter—who was not only an eyewitness but also the man to whom Christ entrusted the Church (Mt 16:18).
Luke’s case is different. He implies that he was an eyewitness to many of the events of Acts by using the pronoun we in certain passages (e.g., “And when he [Paul] had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia”; Acts 16:10). But he appears to be a gentile (Col 4:10-14), and it is unlikely any gentiles were eyewitnesses to much of Jesus’ ministry.
Thus, in the introduction to his Gospel, Luke refers to the traditions concerning Jesus being “delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.”
He is not claiming to have been an eyewitness himself but to have based his account on a careful study—“having followed all things closely for some time past”—of what the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word reported.
So the Gospels seem to contain a mix of materials. Some of the events recorded were witnessed firsthand by the Evangelists themselves, but some of them were not.
Luke reports that already in his day “many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us.” It is therefore quite possible that he took some of the material in his Gospel from one or more of these written narratives.
From very early times, it was noted that Matthew and Mark share certain similarities with Luke, leading the three to be referred to as the “synoptic” Gospels (from Greek roots meaning “to view together”) because they paint a common portrait of Jesus’ ministry.
A theory that became very popular in the 20th century, known as the “two-source hypothesis,” claims to identify two of the sources Luke drew upon. One was the Gospel of Mark, and the other was a possibly written, possibly oral source called Q (from the German word Quelle, “source”). Q was said to contain material found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. It was claimed that Matthew used the same two sources, and scholars sometimes claimed that Q may have been a set of notes Matthew himself took on Jesus’ sayings during his ministry.
Despite the recent popularity of the two-source hypothesis, rival views deserve serious consideration. You don’t need to propose Q if Luke simply used Matthew as a source—or vice versa. And you can explain the similarities between Mark and the other synoptics if Mark wrote later and was drawing on and abridging Matthew and Luke.
There are therefore several possible explanations of how the synoptics may relate to each other, and one or another may be drawing upon a fellow Evangelist. In particular, Luke may be, since he acknowledges prior written narratives.
In some cases it seems possible to identify a particular individual as the source behind an Evangelist’s account. Consider the material in the first two chapters of Luke, the “infancy narrative” that records Jesus’ birth and childhood. It has long been noted that Luke’s infancy narrative focuses on Mary, in contrast to Matthew’s infancy narrative, which focuses on Joseph. Indeed, Luke’s narrative includes one event—the Annunciation—for which Mary is the only known eyewitness.
Could the Blessed Mother herself thus be a source for Luke’s Gospel? Did the beloved physician perhaps even interview her about Jesus’ birth and childhood? The text of Luke does not tell us, but it does strongly point to Mary as a source for the infancy narrative.
Two verses are particularly noteworthy. The first (2:19) occurs just at the end of the visit of the shepherds, and it tells us that “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” The second (2:51) occurs just after the finding in the Temple and says that Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.”
The double reference to the Virgin Mary treasuring the events described in her heart is a clear indication of the source of the material. Luke is telling us: Mary remembered these things and talked about them later. She, not Joseph or someone else, is the source for these events.
What’s in a Name?
A similar, more subtle, identification of sources may occur in other places. Many times the Gospels refer to anonymous individuals. For example, often the people Jesus heals are not given names. They are simply “a leper” or “a paralyzed man” or “a man with a withered hand.”
But other times people in the Gospels are given names, even though these are minor figures: Jairus, Bartimaeus, Simon of Cyrene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Salome, Cleopas.
What accounts for this difference? Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony explores the idea that in some cases the reason that an individual is named is because that individual was the eyewitness whose testimony is being recounted.
This could mean either that the Evangelist interviewed the person in question, or that he was known to the Evangelist as someone who continued to bear witness to what he had seen to the early Christian community. That could explain, for example, the curious fact that, at the end of Luke (24:13-33), two disciplines on the road to Emmaus meet Jesus, but we are only told the name of one of them: Cleopas. We are never told the name of the other. Why?
The other disciple remains anonymous possibly because Cleopas was the source of this account. He was the eyewitnesses Luke knew to have been involved in the incident. Luke may have interviewed him personally, or Cleopas may simply have continued in later years to recount what happened to him and Luke came to know of it. Either way, by naming Cleopas, Luke identifies an eyewitness source.
The minor named figures thus played a significant function for the first readers of the Gospels. Though otherwise unknown to us today, they were known in the early Christian community. By naming them as witnesses to various events, the Evangelists imply to their readers that these persons could confirm what the Gospel said about them.
For example, Mark 15:21 states that, during the Passion, Simon of Cyrene was coming in from the country and was forced to carry Jesus’ cross. It identifies this Simon as “the father of Alexander and Rufus.” The latter two were clearly known to Mark’s audience (presumably in Rome), because they are not otherwise identified. One of Mark’s readers could go to Alexander or Rufus and say, “Did your father really carry Jesus’ cross?” “Oh, yes,” the son would be expected to reply. “He talked about it all the time.”
We can conclude, then, that the inclusion of minor, named individuals in the Gospels is one way the Evangelists validated their accounts to readers.
That some Gospel figures go unnamed carries interesting implications. Certain people in the Passion narratives play significant roles but remain anonymous. These include the man who allowed Jesus and his disciples to eat the Passover at his house (Mt 26:17-18), the woman who anoints Jesus (Mt 26:6-13, Mk 14:3-9), and the disciple who cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant during Jesus’ arrest (Mt 26:51, Mk 14:47, Lk 22:50).
Any of these individuals could have faced trouble from the authorities (either the local Jewish ones or the imperial Roman ones) if their identities were known. The first gave shelter to a perceived revolutionary; the second could be perceived as anointing him for his revolutionary, messianic role; and the third committed a violent crime while trying to prevent his arrest.
Thus some scholars (e.g., H. B. Swete, Gerd Theissen, and Richard Bauckham) have suggested the reason these people go unnamed is that they needed protective anonymity. The early Christian community would have known who they were, but the synoptic Evangelists were reluctant to set their names down in writing.
Interestingly, John does name two of these individuals. The woman who anointed Jesus appears to be Mary, the sister of Lazarus (Jn 12:2-11), and the disciple who cut off the ear is identified as Peter himself (Jn 18:10).
Why does John feel at liberty to name them? It may be that the danger had passed. We have strong reason to think that John’s Gospel was written after Peter’s death (Jn 21:18-19). The authorities already had taken Peter (he was crucified upside down at Rome around A.D. 67), so his identity as the sword-wielder no longer needed to be protected.
If protective anonymity is why these figures are unnamed in the synoptic Gospels, then that fact indicates that the synoptics were written quite early, when the individuals were still alive and facing possible harm had they been named in writing.
John’s Gospel—as the product of an eyewitness—was also written early (probably by A.D. 70 since it does not record the destruction of the Temple), but the others were written earlier still.
The Ultimate Source
In at least some instances, it seems that the eyewitness that the Evangelists are drawing upon is Jesus himself. This may be the case with the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was some distance away from the disciples, who spent part of this time sleeping, and perhaps later he told them what happened from his perspective (possibly during the 40 days during which he appeared after the Resurrection; Acts 1:3).
On the other hand, the apostles may have witnessed enough of what happened that evening to provide the accounts as we have them, since the Gospels don’t indicate that they slept through everything or that Jesus was too far away to be seen or heard as he prayed.
One occurrence where it seems that Jesus himself must be the eyewitness is the temptation in the wilderness, which is not presented as a group experience. Indeed, it happened before Jesus called his disciples (cf. Mk 1:12-13 with 1:16-20).
Much more evidence can be offered for the historical reliability of the Gospels and the eyewitness testimony on which they are based. In any case, we see numerous indicators pointing to the facts that the Gospels were written early, when eyewitnesses were still alive, and that the Evangelists give enough information about their sources to allow early readers to validate what they recorded about the life of Christ.
Today, of course, we cannot consult these original witnesses, but the way the Evangelists point to them still provides credibility, with reasons to value the historical testimony offered by and in the Gospels.