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I am reading the Gospels and sometimes I wonder how can some stories have been recorded and then written down. The case is when Jesus is basically by himself and nobody there to witness or when he is talking to a person and no disciples are around.

Example 1 from Luke 22:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.[c]

45 When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow.

Example 2 from John 4:

7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.[a])

How can we trust what is written in the Gospel then? There are many other examples... According to this logic many parts of the Gospels may have no real validity since they could have been made up... Can anyone help me solve this dilemma in a intellectually honest way (so no Holy Spirit inspiration answers possibly :) )?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Bach, Dan, user2672, Nigel J, רבות מחשבות Apr 23 '18 at 19:37

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • I voted to close this question for being primarily opinion-based. – Bach Apr 17 '18 at 17:15
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    As someone else pointed out, Jesus could have spoken to the Apostles about the events later (e.g. after the Resurrection). The Samaritan woman herself (who, according to early Church tradition, was called Photini) also could have given John an account of what happened at the well. But you do touch on an interesting point: the New Testament is not a sort of Christian Koran that dropped from the sky; it is most essentially a written account of things by human witnesses (the Apostles). – user33515 Apr 17 '18 at 18:51
  • It's not opinion based... I'm asking for an explanation my brother – Federico Gentile Apr 17 '18 at 18:55
  • Aren't they more biographical accounts than eye witness? It's still debatable whether these were written a century after the event. FWIW the 'real validity' of the Gospels is in their human experience of spirituality. Regardless of whether events happened precisely as described, trust that genuine experiences by real humans prompted what is written as the best way they could see of sharing their experience with others. The words, the narratives are human tools - the experience behind them is real. – Possibility Apr 18 '18 at 1:31
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    I think examples where Jesus was alone might avoid a lot of the distractions, (like when he was in the wilderness being tempted by Satan). But, I believe the question would be greatly improved by asking "how can this Hearsay be trusted if the writers were not there as a witness". So answers like, "Well, the disciples heard it from others" would clearly not be sufficient - because "hearsay" isn't trustable and is certainly not a standard for truth, or a remotely acceptable answer for the dilemma. – elika kohen Apr 18 '18 at 17:45
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He may have spoken to the apostles off screen about it (during one of the post Resurrection appearances in example one).

However both of your examples have other possible explanations

In example one the part quoted does not seem long enough for the apostles to fall asleep. He may have said that audibly before they slept and continued praying after they fell asleep. We know from other accounts that he prayed for about an hour.

In example two the Samaritan woman was a witness and may have spoken to John or John may have heard what she had said to the town people while they stayed there.

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    They stayed in Sychar for two days (John 4:43). That was plenty of time to hear the story from either the woman or Jesus. – Perry Webb Apr 17 '18 at 13:23
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    Note many of the stories in the New Testament, especially discourses, were condensed to fit. For example Peter's sermon in Acts 2 was probably much longer. – Perry Webb Apr 17 '18 at 13:26
  • This answer has a lot of "holes". Most notably, the instances where Jesus was by himself, (like in the wilderness being tempted by Satan). Sure, Jesus might have told them afterwards... But the question is about the credibility of this "hearsay". So, to say that the "hearsay" in these books can be believed because their writers are relying on "hearsay" is non-sequitor, (circular reasoning). – elika kohen Apr 18 '18 at 17:40
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1. Question Restatement

How can we trust the Gospels if nobody was there to witness?

Note: There seem to be two different questions here: 1. What is the standard for determining the truth of indirect testimony; and 2: Can the Gospels be trusted?


2. Definitions

Disciples:

As the original question points out: It is difficult to accept the Gospels as credible eyewitness testimony if the writers were not even present, as John 4 appears to point out in some narratives.

But, this is inconclusive because "disciples" is often used in various ways that includes all, or some, or even just one of the disciples. For example, when the "disciples" or "Judas only" objected to the use of the ointment on Jesus. So, it seems reasonable to interpret "Disciples" as a rhetorical device similar to the "Royal We".

NIV, Matthew 26:8 - When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. 9 “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

NASB, John 12:4 - But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?”

Primary Sources:

In history, a Primary Source is an original source of information created at the "time under study".

Genesis, (if written by Moses), is a great example of what a Primary Source is NOT. However, the Tablets of Stone inside the Ark were intended as "witnesses" and Primary Sources.

Eyewitness Testimony:

Eyewitness Testimony is an odd classification of evidence. But in all cases, this testimony is a declaration made under oath. In court, judges will sometimes make a Credibility Determination, (Legal Definition) regarding eyewitness testimony.

If a Credibility Determination is valued in courts, then it is reasonable for people to make credibility determinations themselves. The distinction is the necessity of "a wise judge", who is experienced in the matter, and objectivity.

Other than the Gospel of John, the other Gospels do not appear to be either testimony nor primary sources - nor do they claim to be. (1 John DOES claim to be eyewitness testimony.)

Hearsay:

In the Gospels, there are instances where Jesus was by himself, (like in the wilderness being tempted by Satan). Sure, Jesus might have told the disciples afterwards, who later told scribes ... But the question is about the credibility of this "hearsay". So, to say that the "hearsay" in these books can be believed because their writers are relying on "hearsay" is non-sequitor, (circular reasoning).

Actually, a bigger problem is the third degree of "hearsay" that occurred when Jesus "knew others hearts" - since the Disciples would have had to rely on Jesus' own "hearsay", or recounting Jesus' trials in the wilderness:

NASB, Luke 11:17 - But He knew their thoughts and said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and a house divided against itself falls.

So ultimately, if the writers intended to persuade their readers, then it is expected that readers exercise their own discretion, (as impartial judges). The Gospels were never intended to serve as Dispositive Evidence, (and they never claimed to be). There is nothing in any of the four gospels inconsistent with good-faith testimony from a group of people that endured a traumatic experience together. But, not finding serious fault doesn't establish credibility.


2. Narrowing it down to one Gospel - John:

If only one book of the Gospels was considered "credible" - it would have to be the Gospel of John - for many reasons:

The only book in the Gospels that appears to be eyewitness testimony is the Gospel of John. Its credibility begins by appearing to be written by someone with expert knowledge of Judaic practice through their penchant for pointing out facts that are super relevant to Judaism. It is also "prima facie" that the Gospel of John was intended as "eyewitness testimony" is because the text appeals to the personal pathos of the author by their consistent portrayal of the divisions in Judaism and their animosity against "the Jews", (but not against the "Hebrews"). The text also relates events that require this witness to have notable standing in Israel, being "privileged" enough to have been in very isolated situations with Jesus, (like being present at Jesus' trial, and also in Pilot's Praetorium). In fact, John's accounting for events is the only one that takes into consideration the Temple reckoning of days, (beginning at Sunrise), rather than the Halakhic/Babylonian reckoning. This text is also the only one that represents the crucifixion without contradiction.

Jesus' trial was recounted by someone there, who had authority:
But, Peter ultimately didn't get away with it.

NASB, John 18:16 - but Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the doorkeeper, and brought Peter in. 17 Then the slave-girl who kept the door *said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He *said, “I am not.” ...

None of the other Gospels come remotely close to the Gospel of John in authenticity.


3. "Christ Crucified" is the only "fact" the Gospels rely on

Ultimately, the Gospels are not necessary to "prove" the validity of Christianity. The only necessary fact that they themselves rely on is that Jesus acted in obedience to God: to advocate for mercy, unconditionally for everyone, even unto death, even death on a cross, (Philippians 2:8); and that, God granted life again, (to him and everyone else), for trusting that Jesus' unconditional advocacy for the world, (and our own advocacy for others), will bring life.

This is why Paul argued from nothing but "Christ Crucified":

NASB, 1 Corinthians 2:2 - For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
Note: It is important to note that even Jesus said resurrection would be proof of anything, (Luke 16:31).

Jesus affirmed his own suffering was the necessary proof:

NASB, Luke 25:25 - And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?”

None of the New Testament writers felt it needed to be proven what Jesus did to be persecuted, (his advocacy), nor that he died, and not even that he rose again - because their Jewish audiences had all seen these three "facts" for themselves, (Acts 2). The Greeks, however, were persuaded by the "presence" of God, (the Holy Spirit).

NASB, 1 Corinthians 1 - 22 For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.


4. Answer - The Gospels were never intended as "Proof"

The audience of all of the gospels, and every other New Testament argument can reasonably be intuited as a hypothetical "friend of God", ("Theophilus", a court term for a friend of the court, or lawyer (Roman Term) - pointed out somewhere else on this site). And all of these arguments to "Theophilus" appealed to the Hebrew Scriptures as "facts". The only relevant material facts that could persuade Jews and Gentiles both were that: A.) Jesus advocated in mercy - for all, B.) That he suffered because of this advocacy; and C.) To support the conclusions that this advocacy is the only reasonable, sufficient, condition that can possibly bring abundant life, justification, as well as impart the Holy Spirit.


5. Conclusion - God is perfectly capable of proving himself

The misconception is that any Biblical writer intended these texts to be "proof". The Gospels are essentially Legal Argument, which appeals to what people witnessed as the "Basis in Fact", and pairing it with Prophecy as a sort of "Basis in Law". No lawyer expects their own arguments to suffice as "Proof" and "Evidence". And, this is why no Gospel writer would have intended their own writings to serve as proof.

NASB, 1 Corinthians 2:4 - ... and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.

NASB, Jeremiah 31 - 31 “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant ... “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Note: Jeremiah 31 is sometimes argued to be "post-apocalyptic", but if so - no new covenant was made by Jesus.

NASB, Ezekiel 20:41 - ... and I will prove Myself holy among you in the sight of the nations.

It is not, and was never, necessary to "prove the existence" of God and that Jesus is the Messiah. God is more than capable of proving this himself. The fact that Christians rely on texts as "proof" is a horrible repercussion of the "Sola Scriptura movement".

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First, the Gospels and all Scripture is inspired:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, (2 Timothy 3:16) [ESV]

In this case, the words come from the Holy Spirit, who knows all things.

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13)

The Spirit is able to tell what is yet to happen (fore-telling of a future event) and so the Spirit is able to tell has already happened (forth-telling of an actual event):

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)

But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (John 15:26)

In particular, Jesus was not alone in Gethsemane. The Holy Spirit was with Him; His words and actions were known by the Spirit, who could repeat them to the writers.

Second, the writers could use typical human methods:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

Luke's opening statement describes an account which was researched. The events in Samaria could have been learned from the woman and others in the town. It is true John does not include a statement similar to Luke saying he researched, but John does say there were many things he which he left out:

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25)

Also, human research does not preclude the work of the Spirit who could guide a person to those who had the first hand accounts as well as guide a person to discern between factual and embellished or inaccurate accounts.

  • I understand this traditional point of view, but it has never helped resolve the dilemma, (obviously). 1.) This answer begins with a "reasoning error", by "begging the question". Ephesians claims inspiration, (of the Hebrew Scriptures), but Ephesians is based on the validity of the Gospels - and it is their validity that is being called into question. 2.) Also, just because a text does have verifiable facts, it does not mean it is true as a whole. After all, "The best lies stay close to the truth.” ― Cornelia Funke, Reckless – elika kohen Apr 18 '18 at 17:34
  • @elikakohen He is the Spirit of Truth who gives all truth. The best lie which stays close to the truth is a deception, which is from a much different source. – Revelation Lad Apr 18 '18 at 17:56
  • - Revelation Lad: Like I said, I completely understand your point of view. I think you represented that view very well. However, I am simply pointing out a reasonable objection. I think the question was posted in the spirit of "reasoning", and I feel like they were looking for a non-subjective answer. I think they are looking for an answer that they can use in response to others who are also trying to reason. – elika kohen Apr 18 '18 at 18:08
  • @elikakohen The deception of reasoning is the belief objective means produce a result by "reasoning" in which belief plays no part, except in conclusion. In fact everything begins as a belief which is either proven true or proven false. The deception lies in presenting the starting point as one in which only reason is present and belief is absent. Truth is a process which always begins with believing, continues by consistent application (of what is believed) which produces truth: either the initial belief is true or false. If false it should be replaced with a new belief to be tested. – Revelation Lad Apr 18 '18 at 18:21
  • - Revelation Lad: If there was such a risk in "reasoning" ... then God failed miserably at avoiding it - since nearly every prophet, Job, and the the entire New Testament appeals to "reason". Also, there is no such thing as "blind faith" in Scripture. "Trust" is always based on experience, (according to Hebrews 11): "Sarah judged God trustworthy, who had promised." Based off of her experience, her judgment was pretty valid. – elika kohen Apr 18 '18 at 18:24

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