History Without Witnesses? A Question of Apostolic Knowledge

I love a good question.  It can provide an opportunity for new thinking, and new insights.

Many people presume that because I am an academic in a “secular” discipline, that there must be some tension between my Christian faith and my intellectual activities.  I know of none.  While I certainly don’t have all the answers I would like to have, I do regard Christian faith as fully intellectually satisfying (as well as, more importantly, spiritually salvific), and I regard the biblical texts (rightly interpreted) as first-class historical sources.

Recently I was asked how I, as a historian, deal with episodes in the gospels which specify that the apostles were not there.  I mean, we may regard the apostles as eyewitnesses in a general sense, but how could the authors of the gospels know what they themselves admit that they could not have witnessed?  The result of this line of thinking surprised me.

The specific question was about the conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at the well, after he sent his apostles into town to get food (John 4:5-26).  How could the author of the gospel know what they said?  In this case, there are several possible answers, including that Jesus filled in the apostles after the fact (“And then I said…”).  But perhaps the most plausible answer in human terms is that the woman herself told everyone who would listen, “You won’t believe what he said to me!”  Some glimpse of this may be seen in John 4:39 and 42.  But there were many opportunities for the account of this discussion to reach those who were not there to hear it at first hand.

Let’s consider a harder case: what Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39, 42, 44; Mark 14:35-36 and 39; Luke 22:41-42).  We are told that most of the disciples were left behind, and the three who accompanied Jesus fell asleep (Mark 14:33, 37).  So who was there to hear Jesus’s prayer?  On the other hand, afterward events moved rather quickly: Jesus was immediately arrested, and was not with his disciples again before his death, so unless he was quickly narrating what he prayed while Judas was coming up with the crowd, the disciples would not have heard it from him.

The typical answer, of course, is that the disciples just made it up.  It is certainly true that many ancient authors did not balk at making up all sorts of accounts of events they could not possibly have known.  But if that is the case here, what did the apostles make up in this instance?  According to this theory, we must believe that the devoted followers of a religious leader, whom they suspected was the divinely chosen Messiah sent to redeem God’s people to foreign enslavement, prayed to God for deliverance and it did not work.  At the time when the authors of these accounts would have been making them up, they knew that Jesus was in fact executed.  Yet rather than a good, safe prayer, full of pious platitudes, this theory of apostolic inventiveness asks us to believe that the apostles concocted after the fact a prayer in which Jesus asks for what the apostles already knew would not happen.  They knowingly invented an unanswered prayer.

Had the gospel authors invented the content of Jesus’s prayer, it probably would have gone something like this: “Father, I know that you love me, and I have almost completed the task for which you sent me.  The world will think it a defeat, but I know that your will will triumph.  Protect those who follow me and keep them from the snares of the evil one.”  If the apostles were particularly scrupulous in making a prayer consistent with Jesus’s own statement about being “overwhelmed with sorrow” (Mark 14:34), they could have inserted a line requesting for strength to endure.  But instead of such safe sentiments, the gospels depict Jesus as saying, almost, “God, I don’t have to do this”!  Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane has been a challenge to Christians ever since it was written.

I am not finding fault with the biblical text, and indeed, I find the very humanity of that prayer encouraging even in its challenge.  But I have found no parallel in ancient Christian literature, much less the literature of other ancient religions.  This is not the kind of story that ancient Mediterranean people would have found comforting.  So I am finding fault with the theory that the very human authors of the gospel accounts would have made up a prayer like that after Jesus’s death, as the typical materialist account would have us believe.

But what alternative is there?  If the early Christian authors of these accounts did not make them up themselves, they must have included them because they were compelled to believe that they were true.  From a materialist perspective, the source of that compulsion must, I suppose, be passed over in silence as inaccessible apart from pure speculation.  But from a Christian perspective, this is where we talk about inspiration.  The death of Christ was followed by his resurrection, and in the forty days that followed, our Lord could have filled in the apostles and what he prayed and why.  Or if not then, the Holy Spirit could have revealed to the biblical authors what was prayed.  We need not be dogmatic about which option is most plausible.

It is a good question, asking how the apostles knew what happened in the gospel records.  The apostles were eyewitnesses in a general sense, but were not direct witnesses of everything contained in the gospels.  Some events are recounted where the apostles are declared to be elsewhere, so how did they know what happened?  The hardest of these nuts to crack is the prayer of Jesus on the night he was betrayed, in the garden of Gethsemane.  It is a spiritually challenging passage for Christians, but we are left with only a few options.  From a materialist perspective, either the apostles made up something completely out of character for pious fictions the world over, inventing a religious difficulty where none need exist, or the apostles were fully convinced, but by what, we simply cannot say.  The former is an absurd explanation, and the latter no real explanation at all.  By contrast, a Christian perspective on the passage has no difficulty presenting multiple possible explanations for how the authors could have known and been convinced of what Jesus said by himself in prayer.  Far from vitiating my faith, my professional training as a historian actually helps me to see ways in which Christian explanations are superior to materialist ones.

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