Eyewitnesss accounts

Jim Deardorff asks in the comments section of my last post

Where do heavily redacted eye-witness accounts fit into this? Are they considered non-eye-witness accounts?

I’ve moved this out of the comments section to respond to it, because I think it’s moved away from the purpose of the original post.

This is an interesting question although I think I’d pose it slightly differently and ask how heavily an eye-witness account needs to be redacted before we stop regarding it as an eyewitness account. I would suggest that once it gets to the point where none of the people present at the original event would recognise it as something they witnessed, you no longer have an eyewitness account. Of course, we have no way of determining this because of the distance between the events and now.

It’s possible that when we have accounts in several gospels of which we ask “is this the same story?”, we have several heavily redacted pieces of eyewitness material. We might, however, equally have accounts of several different events. For example, in the various accounts of a woman washing/annointing Jesus’ feet (John 12: 1-11; Matt 26: 6-13; Mark 14: 3-9) I think it’s quite likely that we have material that is so heavily redacted (by John) that it has almost moved to the stage where it can no longer be called “eyewitness” because I think it’s fairly unlikely that this kind of event happened more than once. When we’re dealing with different versions of parables, however, I think it’s equally likely that we have examples of Jesus using the same basic illustration but with different twists to illustrate slightly different points on different occasions. An example of this would be the Treasure parable in Matt 13:44 and Thomas 109.

How you deal with this question depends, of course on what you understand the canonical and non-canonical texts to be. At one end of the spectrum, you get an approach that accepts that Jesus was a real, historical figure and treats the canonical gospels as virtually minutes of Jesus’ life and ministry and the non-canonical texts are heretical documents written to draw people away from the One True Faith. At the other end are people who believe that Jesus was not a real historical figure and that the various canonical and non-canonical texts were written by people who were either attempting to illustrate what they considered were spiritual truths or to trick the gullible into doing what they wanted, depending on how charitable the person is feeling towards the early Christians.

Somewhere in the middle you get those who, like me, believe that Jesus was a real, historical figure but do not consider the early Christian documents as minutes of Jesus’ ministry. Rather, they are accounts written by early Christians whose lives had been changed by an encounter with God to help others to understand how God was working in their lives. Some people in this group believe that all the canonical gospel material is based on eyewitness accounts of contact with the historical Jesus, while others believe that some has a basis in fact and some is myth, written to illustrate Truth.

I don’t happen to think that picking up eyewitness accounts from several different times and putting them together for the purposes of furthering a theological argument renders the individual pieces of material “non-eyewitness”, even though the longer theological passage cannot be viewed as eyewitness.

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