Eye-Witness or Bird’s-Eye Gospel Narratives

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by Neil Godfrey

There is a mind game I sometimes play when assessing claims that the gospel authors used eye-witness reports as their sources. The game is to attempt to position oneself in the mind of the author as one reads, and to imagine with each word picture the author actually recalling the words of a reporting eye-witness. It is only a mind game and not a fool proof methodology, but it nonetheless can help one ask important questions in response to specific arguments for eye-witness sources.

Playing the mind-game

Take, for example, Mark 6:45-53, where Jesus walks on water:

And straightway he constrained his disciples to get into the ship, and to go to the other side before unto Bethsaida, while he sent away the people.
And when he had sent them away, he departed into a mountain to pray.
And when even was come, the ship was in the midst of the sea, and he alone on the land.
And he saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them: and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea, and would have passed by them.
But when they saw him walking upon the sea, they supposed it had been a spirit, and cried out:
For they all saw him, and were troubled. And immediately he talked with them, and saith unto them, Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid.
And he went up unto them into the ship; and the wind ceased: and they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered.
For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened.
And when they had passed over, they came into the land of Gennesaret, and drew to the shore.

When I read the first verse, “And straightway he constrained his disciples to get into the ship, and to go to the other side before unto Bethsaida, while he sent away the people”, I find no difficulty at imagining that it could have come from an eye-witness. Someone, a disciple presumably, was there with Jesus and the others, heard and saw Jesus tell him and his companions to get into the ship and row to Bethsaida, while he explained to them that he was going to send the crowds back home. One can imagine an author recalling the message of an eye-witness to all of this.

But with the next verse the game runs into a difficulty. How did that eyewitness, after having been sent off by Jesus with the other disciples, know that Jesus then went to a mountain, and went there to pray? The way it is written does not follow easily from my initial image of that eyewitness telling his story to the author. The only way I can make it work is to imagine that the eye-witness told the author that Jesus also said to them that after they left he was going to go up into yonder mountain for a bit of quiet prayer time. Possible, of course, but my initial image of clear-cut reporting to author is smudged a little to make it work.

Then in the opening of the third verse, I can again return to my image of the eye-witness relating how he was in the “ship” at “sea” when it grew dark. But the last part does not work its way easily into that same image. The eye-witness reports from his perspective what he sees and knows. The image of Jesus “alone on the land” does not come from an eye-witness in the boat at sea in the dark. The last this witness had seen of Jesus was when he was with crowds and ordering him to launch out and row to Bethsaida.

The image of Jesus alone on the land comes from the imagination of the author. He adds it into what he recalls from the eyewitness. But for him to do that, he must have some distance from what the time of the eye-witness’s narration and time to reflect to imagine a broader picture. The author had no reason to think Jesus was alone apart from what his own imagination suggested or inferred from what he had heard.

Next, it gets worse for maintaining the mind-game of imagining the author recalling his eye-witness account. He writes, “And he saw them toiling in rowing“. Now this is a clear instance of the author’s creativity. No eye-witness saw Jesus watching them row.

Continuing, the author wrote that Jesus “would have passed by them“. Again, this does not come from an eyewitness. An eyewitness witnesses actions, not intentions of the mind, least of all from a distance in the darkest morning hours. An eyewitness report might say that he walked past them, or appeared to be walking away from them, but not what he would have done. Again, we have authorial creativity at work here.

Finally, did the eyewitness really think at the time, or even afterwards at the time of his reporting to the author, that his and his colleague’s fear was the result of failing to understand the miracle of the loaves? It is hard to imagine. Otherwise, we should expect the same eyewitness to have explained the connection between that miracle and the water-walk, and for the author to have passed this on to his readers.

Conclusion of the author mind-game

This line is in fact a giveaway that the author is creating his own story with a cryptic moral for insiders to understand. It throws into sharper relief the earlier passages that had to have originated in the same author’s imagination.

The story, as it stands, does not come from an eye-witness. It is a bird’s eye narrative that contains images that could only come from the mind of a creative author.

Such a game does not, of course, prove there was no eye-witness involvement at any stage. But it does demonstrate that an eye-witness theory of origins of this story must also find a way to account for non-eyewitness data getting into the mix.

The more interesting play

It gets much better, however, if we attempt to imagine ourselves being interviewed for our public claims to have seen a ghost at sea turn into Jesus.

If the original author ever toyed with such a mind-game himself he had enough sense to keep the narrative to the bare bones of what was required to teach the moral.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Eye-Witness or Bird’s-Eye Gospel Narratives”

  1. Hi,

    This was an interesting exercise. It is exactly like a few I have had in attempting to imagine the unwritten facts in Bible stories.

    Like who was there to relate Jesus’ prayer in the garden when the disciples were all asleep – twice. So who could tell us that Christ asked that if possible, let that cup pass?

    I get a similar feeling when trying to imagine how it was that Mary at the tomb had thought Jesus to be the gardener. Why the gardener? Was he wearing clothing that would be associated with gardening? Where did he get whatever clothing he might have been wearing? Maybe he just borrowed the gardener’s clothing which was conveniently left nearby.


    1. Interesting point. I have read that gardens and tombs went together like cups and flying saucers, but in the real world the clothing would give the game away. No-one (except Mary?) suggests Jesus was resurrected looking/dressed like a gardener. This is surely another giveaway of the author’s all-knowing (“Creator”) vantage point as opposed to an intention to record and pass on an eye-witness record.

  2. Yeah, but if they didn’t care about making some assumptions for the sake of telling what they thought was a more compelling narrative then the exercise is kind of fruitless. “he must have been thinking x” could easily have come from an eyewitness who isn’t overly concerned with whether he/she could actually be sure of that.

    1. In this case, I think, we would expect the narrator (who is supposedly recording the message of the eyewitness) would say, “The disciples thought/feared/hoped (they still thought he was a ghost) that he would pass them by.

      The all-knowing perspective of the narrator comes from his own mind, not eye-witness sources.

      But familiarity blinds us to the more obvious questions. Imagine an author hearing someone tell him of a time he believed he saw a ghost walking on water. What details would you expect to be conveyed/sought? Assuming such an observation was not an everyday occurrence, I would expect a little more detail to both impress and satisfy readers — and this would have been sought diligently from the beginning.

      I recall years ago some friends of mine claiming to have had an experience with the supernatural. Details details details was all we could think of asking and communicating (and fabricating?), among both the sceptical and the believing. I don’t think we were unusual in this respect.

      1. That just depends though. I don’t think these were spooky stories to them to be over-analyzed in all their ontological respects. If people are more interested in the theological implications, then inquiring into extraordinary detail is simply a second class citizen. All we see that all the time in modern stories where Christians think supernatural encounters have specific personal meanings. When you ask them probing questions they get all defensive. So right there is a big obvious category that I’m sure you are aware of.

        Ultimately I think you are probably right, but proving it explicitly gives us just kind of a weak case. Of course that weak case is just as “strong” as many Christian claims about the texts as well, but I don’t think we should make more of it than is warranted. That just leads to piles of over-inflated weak arguments erected way too high towards some somewhat absurd skeptical end. Granted, you’d probably win on balance with a fair audience, given the competition, but still.


  3. Agreed. I would never suggest such an argument should be presented as a case for non-historicity of the narratives to any “hardened believer”, even though I personally might think it does point in that direction. The gospels really are very short and spare narratives (even in their resurrection accounts) compared with contemporary lit, and they are (to me) clearly constructed as bare-bones (narrator-all-knowing) illustrations of moral and theological lessons.

    As for supernatural encounters, we recognize two types of course — those that others see as mere coincidences or lucky circumstances, and those that result from some mental illusion or fabrication. In the real world, those latter are the ones that invariably invite a strong interest in all the details.

    Thanks for the encouragement to take on a “fair audience” only 🙂

  4. haha, a fair audience on these issues is kind of like Narnia. Someday I might stumble into one through a random wardrobe or icebox.

    One story in particular struck me as so obviously contrived that I came to an obvious skeptical conclusion that I later abandoned. When John the baptist leaps in the womb because he knows via the Holy Spirit that the messiah is in the womb next door (like that even computes in those baby neurons), it was just so obvious it was some quaint morale tale that as a 15 year old I had no problem confronting my incredulous pastor about it. I do wish I’d stuck with those kind of evaluations, but unfortunately I took the scenic route back to common sense.

    You use Mark 6:45-53, but if I were a Christian, I would just assume that Peter was the eyewitness who told Mark about what he thought happened and filled in whatever Jesus details to make sense of things from his perspective. Some things can be plausibly overlooked and some are just…”uh…wow.” I’d just like to see the best examples on display.


  5. Ben wrote–“…if I were a Christian, I would just assume that Peter was the eyewitness who told Mark about what he thought happened…”

    And why would Mark, who himself seems to have been a very minor player in early Christianity, not clearly indicate that this information came straight from one of the most significant people in the Christian community? That’s a detail that’s worth squeezing in somewhere, don’t you think?

  6. Keith,

    I was just falling back on the interpretative tradition as far as Neil’s argument here goes and clearly what’s been said by him on this post would roll off of a somewhat informed Christian like water.

    If you want to bring up other considerations, that’s fine. I can play devil’s advocate there, too.

    You’ve made an argument from silence based on modern conceptions of accountability. That doesn’t prove the gospel authors did anything dubious, or that it wasn’t Mark who wrote Mark based off Peter’s testimony.

    Naturally I have a response to this, but you are free to offer yours just for fun. 😀


  7. While I understand where each of you is coming from, Keith’s point has a validity in its own right. Ancient historians, with only rare exceptions, did very often cite their sources to add credibility to their claims. Teachers (philosophers, theologians) would sometimes go as far as writing in the names of their “chief source of information”. Mark’s anonymity and failure to cite a source, whether believers accept the argument or not, should be addressed squarely (not ad hoc) in any discussion of historicity.

  8. What I find really strange is that the Catholic church actually destroyed gospels that did narrate in the first peron like the gospel of Peter and the gospel of the 12 apostles. Sure they may have been docetic, but so were Paul’s letters before Catholic editing. Why didn’t they just edit the gospel of the 12 apostles, Catholicize it, and shove it in the canon? Strangely, they wanted these birds-eye view gospels and to establish a notion of them all being somehow dictated by the spirit rather than as eye witness accounts. They clearly chose the wrong method of presentation, but they can never admit it.

  9. The official explanation of the development of the gospels goes entirely against nature and what is natural. One would expect an original gospel ascribed to ‘Mark’ to have an understanding that Mark received a heavenly revelation like Moses or Mohammed. And yet it does the exact opposite.

    I won’t get into how this was accomplished – in short the Dialogues of Adamantius, Tertullian etc already say that the earliest tradition ascribes the authorship of the Gospel to ‘God’ and so the receiver of the revelation is a mere ‘vessel’ etc. – nevertheless anyone who has ever read Irenaeus WITH A CRITICAL EYE (that excludes most anyone who has ever bothered to read this Church Father) it is apparent that this original ‘supernatural’ explanation has been extended by means of a Holy Spirit associated with four winds (owing to the natural association of ‘winds’ and ‘spirit’ in ancient languages) and four mostly imaginary or invented apostolic ‘witnesses.’

    The unmistakable point is that when Christianity ceased to be a Middle Easter or Semitic religion it stopped needing to make sense. The word ‘apostle’ no longer means anything. It isn’t rooted in the concept of a messianic figure like Moses (who is consistently identified as ‘the Apostle’ in Samaritan writings).

    The original paradigm of what a messiah is supposed to appear like has been utterly thrown into the trash and a new ‘spiritual’ doctrine – undoubtedly developed through Montanism – a ‘democratization’ of the original understanding of the ‘chosen one’ and his appointed relationship with God to the point that anyone and everyone could make up ‘prophetic truths’ and then an immediate contradiction of this tendency in the age of Irenaeus to a limit of four such ‘apostles’ and a recognition that prophesy DID extend into the contemporary age but was now limited to the period up to the day Irenaeus established the ‘new edition’ of the New Testament canon.

    I think there is this three stage process and the same thing happened in Islam – i.e. the revelation of Mohammed passing through voices that were later identified as ghulut http://books.google.com/books?id=P4oL0uGlMS8C&pg=PA378&lpg=PA378&dq=heresies+islam+exaggerator&source=bl&ots=kd1XbaTtMv&sig=jWscvUSC5C1v5OrEu2YdppiE5kk&hl=en&ei=gHr0SoncM4rGMdWo5egF&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CBgQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=heresies%20islam%20exaggerator&f=false

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