Eyewitness claims in the New Testament

When considering whether a document has within it eyewitness testimony, probably the first question that should be asked is: Does the writer of said document claimed to be an eyewitness or claims to get information from eyewitnesses? I think we have this in the New Testament.

When taking the New Testament as a whole, both the apostles and those who wrote the New Testament documents claim to be eyewitnesses. In addition to Peter’s proclamation throughout the early part of Acts (Acts 2; 3; 4; 5; 10) and John’s writing in his own gospel (John 19 & 20), we have many more examples.  Here’s a sampling:

1 Corinthians 15:3-8, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

1 Peter 5:1, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and an eyewitness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed…

2 Peter 1:16, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

1 John 1:1-2, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us

It’s kind of hard to not get the impression that they actually saw something. In addition, Luke (Luke 1:1-2) and the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 2:3-4) claim to be informed by eyewitnesses.

At the very least, Peter, Paul, and John all claim to be eyewitnesses, and Luke and the writer of Hebrews claim to be informed by eyewitnesses. Paul cites in the 1 Corinthians 15 oral creed that Jesus appeared to over 500 people as well as to the disciples and himself. In addition, Matthew and Luke confirm the appearances to the apostles. All four Gospels mention the women as eyewitnesses. Not only do the apostles claim to be eyewitnesses, on several occasions they tell their audience that everyone knows what they’re saying is true. These are radically bold statements to make in front of people.

Probably the boldest eyewitness claim was from Paul in front of King Agrippa and Governor Festus while he was on trial. Paul was explaining why he converted to Christianity and how Christ rose from the dead as predicted by the Old Testament when suddenly Festus interrupts and exclaims that Paul is insane! The exchange is recorded by Luke in Acts 26:24-28:

While Paul was saying this in his defense, Festus said in a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad.”

But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth. For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know that you do.”
Agrippa replied to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian?”

Do you see how brave and brash Paul is? He not only boldly witnesses to the king and his governor, but he has the audacity to tell the king that he already knows Paul is telling the truth! Why is Paul so confident of this? Because the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were “not done in a corner.” They were common knowledge and surely had not “escaped [the king’s] notice.” Imagine a defendant challenging a ruler or judge in that way! Such a witness must know that the events he describes are well known.

This approach is taken by several New Testament characters, who are not shy about challenging their hearers to test the truth of their testimony. For example, the apostles, led by Peter, are just as brash and confident when the angry Jewish authorities question them. Luke records the incident in Acts 5:27-32:

Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

Peter and other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are eyewitnesses of these things, and so it’s the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

The account goes on to say that the Jewish authorities “were furious and wanted to put [the apostles] to death,” but a well-respected Pharisee named Gamaliel talked them out of it.

The risk Paul, Peter, and the other apostles took to claim that they were providing eyewitness testimony certainly suggests that they were telling the truth. If these accounts are true, the apostle’s uncompromising testimony and bold challenges demonstrate that they were eyewitnesses who really believed Jesus rose from the dead.

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