In prefacing his Gospel, Luke indicates that his orderly account of the life of Jesus was based at least in part on his investigation of the things handed down by eyewitnesses:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4, NASB)
Naturally, this raises the question, can we trust Luke’s eyewitnesses? If so, on what grounds? In fact, one might even wonder whether there were eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus still living at the time of Luke’s writing. In his monumental work, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, Dr. Craig Blomberg offers two helpful answers:
- Eyewitnesses were living at the time of Luke’s writing. Internal evidence suggests that the book of Luke, written prior to Acts (Acts 1:1), must have been written prior to the final events described in Acts which are traditionally dated to AD 62. If this is correct, then eyewitnesses who were in their teens during the ministry of Jesus would only be in there early fifties at the time of Luke’s writing. Not only is this a comparatively short time from events to written record, but it is one that would surely allow for living eyewitnesses to do exactly what Luke claims — hand down eyewitness testimony of the events of the life of Jesus. Was it possible for there to be living eyewitnesses as Luke claimed? Definitely! Dr. Blomberg concludes:
Whether written thirty, forty, or fifty years after Jesus’s death, the Gospels were produced well within the lifetimes of some who were eyewitnesses of Jesus’s ministry. By ancient standards this was a short period of time between the life of a famous individual and the appearance of biographies about him.
2. First-century Jewish and Greek culture protected sacred tradition through memorization and oral transmission. In the first-century culture of Jews and Greeks, it was common for boys to be taught the guarded traditions of the culture, the Old Testament in the case of Jews, and Homer in the case of Greeks. Consequently, it was not uncommon for Jewish and Greek men to have memorized large sections of scripture. It is reasonable then to think that early Christians would have guarded their sacred traditions in the same way. To this point, Blomberg notes four conditions of the oral culture at that time that lend credence to Luke’s claim:
- Members of traditional, oral cultures often cultivated the ability to listen and reproduce much longer stretches of speech than we do or can.
- Since even they had their limits, ancient rabbis allowed disciples to take notes on their talks with a kind of shorthand to help preserve the details of longer discourses, even though they then stressed committing them to memory.
- Most of Jesus’s teachings would have been repeated dozens of times as the disciples followed Christ in his itinerant ministry. If Jesus preached in most or all of the more than 200 villages in Galilee (cf. Matt 9: 35; Josephus Life 45.235), his followers who regularly accompanied him could easily have heard his messages often enough to cement them in their memories.
- Jesus sent out the Twelve, even during his lifetime, to replicate his ministry (Matt 10: 5– 42), so the apostles would have had practice relating many of those identical teachings as they traveled about, announcing the kingdom of God and healing the sick. By going out in pairs, if one person forgot or misrepresented Jesus’s message, the other would have been able to help out or correct him.
Dr. Blomberg concludes and we concur that “the culture of memorization inspires a general confidence in the reliability of the Gospel tradition.” In other words, it is absolutely reasonable to think that Luke’s eyewitnesses existed and were trustworthy. Can we trust Luke’s eyewitnesses? Absolutely!
- Blomberg, Craig L.. The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs (B&h Studies in Christian Apologetics) (Kindle Location 742 - 798). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Ibid., location 1095-1096.
- Ibid., location 1099-1100.
- Ibid., location 11-1-1104.
- Ibid., location 1105-1108.