If the disciples Matthew and John are the authors of the gospels which bear their names, why do they never write in the first person?
This one of the questions I posed for Rob Martin on his blog, here.
I raised the question following the Unbelievable Facebook page following the podcast debate between Tim McGrew and Bart Ehrman, here
Tim McGrew came out fighting. If he had posted a more thoughtful and polite response then I might (I don’t know for sure – counterfactuals are always tricky) just have accepted what he said and wandered off. But stung by his obnoxious tone, I decided to do a bit of digging around the subject and posted back.
You can follow the exchange on the link above.
Actually, I have never regarded the question as a “killer” point for attacking the gospels as eye-witness testimony. I have always tended to assume that there must be a reasonable answer because you never hear sceptical biblical historians, such as Bart Ehrman, use it to attack the eye-witness theory. I suppose I might turn one of McGrew’s own arguments back on him and say that it is now so well-established that the gospels of Matthew and John were not written by those disciples that sceptics do not even bother to argue the point. But I don’t think that can be the real reason. Bart Ehrman never used the argument during the debate with Tim McGrew whom he would have known to be a supporter of the direct authorship theory, which suggests that he does not consider the point to be of much merit.
Anyway, if there is a good answer to the question, it wasn’t forthcoming from Tim McGrew. The more he was challenged, the fantastical and absurd his claims became. Some were actually laugh out loud funny, such as that the normal education for a Jewish boy in Israel 1CE would have included
reading, writing, arithmetic, and the rudiments of natural science as they were known at that time.
So obviously that’s without going into the extras, such as business management and fine arts, which were also no doubt on offer to the sons of fishermen at that time.
OK, I am not and do not pretend to be anything other than a lay person in the field of history, but I don’t think you need to be a qualified historian to know that for almost all of human history the majority of people led hard lives with little time or money to spare for education or leisure activities. That sort of thing was, until very recently, the preserve of the rich.
In his last post Tim starts to run a completely different (and somewhat better) argument, which is that John didn’t necessarily write the gospel: he dictated it. Tim tries to pretend that this was what he was arguing the whole time and that by “literate” what he meant was “able to speak and therefore dictate to a third person”. Of course, if that is his argument, then every single thing he had written in his previous posts was utterly and entirely beside the point.
So, in short, I am still open to good answers to the question as to why an actual eye-witness would choose to write an account of events which, had they happened would be the most important events in human history, in such a way as to disguise what would have been their USP: that the writer was actually there.