How do catholic apologists define an "eyewitness?"

Is there a formal definition of what is meant by “eyewitness” when the term is used in catholic apologetics?

I would define an “eyewitness” the same way you would in a courtroom generally-- someone who can testify about an event because they perceived it directly via one of the five senses. The Gospels are often described/defended as eyewitness accounts, in that they were penned by followers of Jesus who lived contemporaneously with him, such as from an apostle (John), or close associates of the apostles who recorded their first-hand accounts. However, there is much in the Gospels that could not be eyewitness accounts given the way the events themselves are described, if one uses the definition above.

Take, for example, meetings that the disciples could not have attended. In Matthew 26:3, verses 3-5, a meeting is described where the Jewish chief priests and elders secretly schemed to arrest and kill Jesus. The description includes a quote from the meeting. Who was the eyewitness to this meeting? Not Matthew or any of the disciples surely. So how did the details of this event reach Matthew’s ears? Similarly, a meeting between Judas and the priests is described in verses 14-16, where Judas is quoted negotiating as to his payment. Again, no disciples or their associates could have been present (other than Judas) – in fact, they were all shocked to learn that one of them would betray Jesus in verse 22. Had any follower of Jesus known of Judas’s impending betrayal, surely he or she would have warned Jesus and the disciples. So how did the details of the meeting between Judas and the priests reach Matthew—did Judas go up to the disciples after Jesus’s arrest to describe the meeting to them? That seems unlikely. Another problematic meeting is found in Matthew 27, verses 62-66. Here, the priests and Pharisees meet with Pontius Pilate himself, and scheme to put a guard on Jesus’s tomb. Quotes abound, suggesting that there was an “eyewitness” scribe there taking notes. But who could imagine Matthew or any other close associate of Jesus attending this meeting and jotting down quotes?

The Gospels also contain many scenes where an individual is alone or even dreaming when something miraculous happens, so none of the Gospel writers could have been eyewitnesses. In Matthew 20, verse 20, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. A dream isn’t an event that is perceived through one of the five senses, so Joseph is arguably not even an eyewitness here. How could Matthew be? In Luke 1 verse 11, an angel appears to Zechariah when he is by himself in the temple. In verse 28, the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary when she is alone. Mary and Zechariah can be considered eyewitnesses, but their testimony could not be confirmed by others, only passed along. Testimony that is passed along by word of mouth is heresay, not eyewitness testimony. So how could Matthew or Luke be described as eyewitnesses?

The Gosepl writers spoke with other eyewitnesses. I believe it was Luke who wrote much of the first few chapters according to Mary.

But who could they have spoken with in regards the meetings I cited? For example–the secret meeting where Judas plotted with the priests to betray Jesus. Did the priests go and talk to the disciples? Judas? Why would they? Again, how did Matthew find out?

If your definition is that an “eyewitness” can include both the person who witnessed an event (Person A), and the first person that Person A told about the event (Person B), then I’d disagree. Person A is an eyewitness, but Person B can only report what Person A asserted. Person B cannot corroborate Person A’s account, because s/he was not there. If your definition extends more broadly than that–Person B tells Person C who tells Person D who tells…and then Person ZZZZ tells Matthew or Mark or Luke or John, making them “eyewitnesses”–then the definition has been stretched beyond recognition.

You’re right that the evangelists (even if they were the people traditionally named as the writers of their respective Gospels) were not eyewitnesses to every incident they recount.

Matthew and John, if they were “the” Matthew and John, were apostles of Jesus and witnesses to many events of His life and ministry, but not every single one. (Matthew writes about Jesus’ infancy and John about His pre-existence in Heaven!)

Mark and Luke were acquaintances of Paul. Mark may have met Jesus a time or two (there is a common belief that the young man who ran away naked from Jesus’ arrest is a reference to the evangelist himself), but as far as we know Luke never did. Indeed, Luke’s Gospel is explicitly identified as the product of research into previous accounts of Jesus’ life. Luke operated as an historian, not an eyewitness himself.

So, yeah, apologists are going too far if they claim every bit of every Gospel as an eyewitness account. As you point out, that doesn’t even make sense. (And, to be fair to them, I doubt that’s what they mean, though they may fail to be sufficiently precise in their language when talking about the topic.)

As far as how there can be precise quotations in scenes that left no living or sympathetic witnesses, I suspect the incidents became known and the quotations themselves were manufactured to fit the occasion, just as a modern biopic will often invent the details of scenes in a famous person’s life that we know or can assume occurred but have no transcripts of.

I suppose some Christians might claim that the evangelists, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could have been given the exact words spoken on those occasions even without human witnesses to consult. I don’t think that’s necessary, though. We know that the books of the Bible are written in a variety of genres and styles, most of which did not call for the kind of “just the facts” reporting we expect from the news nowadays. Of course, as readers we must remember that and not expect a level of accuracy the original writers and audience wouldn’t have expected. Too often we fail at that, and imagine that having God as its primary author means that the Bible is a blow-by-blow account of every event, even those like the Creation that no human could have witnessed.

Usagi

Your definition is very modern.

The Gospels are often described/defended as eyewitness accounts, in that they were penned by followers of Jesus who lived contemporaneously with him, such as from an apostle (John), or close associates of the apostles who recorded their first-hand accounts.

You say, “Such as from an Apostle (John),” whom (as I am sure you know) was actually the ONLY Apostle to write a Gospel. The other three were ALL Gentiles, and not Apostles, and those three were not “eyewitnesses” (according to your very modern definition of the term). So you say “such as,” while citing the only exception to the rule. This makes you seem a bit dishonest in your question.

However, there is much in the Gospels that could not be eyewitness accounts given the way the events themselves are described, if one uses the definition above.

You are forgetting about Saul (later named Paul), who wrote about 2/3 of the New Testament. He was a Jewish Pharisee and was an early persecutor of Christians. He was convinced of the errors of his ways on the road to Damascus, and shortly thereafter presented himself to Peter and the Apostles at Jerusalem (he was distrusted and feared at first, but Barnabas brought him forth and testified to his conversion).

Saul (Paul) would have been privy to the discussions you mention, and he could have told them to the Apostles. Thus, these conversations would become “common knowledge” within the Christian community. So it is possible (and probable) that the early Christians would have gained “inside knowledge” of the plans of the Jewish leadership.

To answer your core question,

How do catholic apologists define an “eyewitness?”

I would say that Catholic apologists use the same judicial definition that was used in whichever era the “eyewitness” testimony was given. Which is NOT the same judicial definition that you have proposed.

I should mention that there are other ways the Apostles could have acquired “inside firsthand knowledge” of the activity of the Jewish leaders. Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin - the Jewish leaders who questioned Jesus and sent him to Pilate for execution. And so was Nicodemus - the one who visited Jesus by night to ask him questions (from which we get the “water of life” discourse) and assisted Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial.

Joseph was called a “disciple” of Jesus in the Bible (twice), and Nicodemus was obviously sympathetic.

Both of these men (and probably many more) would have had complete knowledge of the plans of the Jewish leaders (because they were in that circle themselves). Both men were clearly opposed to the execution of Jesus. Either of these men could have told the Apostles all about the plans from their firsthand (by your modern definition) testimony (and probably did). The testimony of the Gospels could be admitted in modern US Court as evidence because it is testimony of people (or, at least, John) who heard a first hand account from an eyewitness (this would not be “hearsay” evidence, which is inadmissible. “Hearsay” is when you testify that someone told you that someone told HIM something, which is third-hand. Accounts of firsthand information are not hearsay). The Apostles could have given admissible evidence in open US Court based on what Joseph, Nicodemus, Saul (Paul), and probably others told them.

There are LOTS of ways the Early Church could have learned these things, in plenty of time to incorporate them into the yet-unwritten Gospel texts.

Well, my post is asking about how Catholic apologists define an eyewitness. This website is devoted to Catholic apologetics. Defining terms is an important aspect of most all scholarly pursuits, including apologetics. I would have thought that defining an oft-used term like “eyewitness” would be part of their scholarship. Why shouldn’t it be a modern definition?? Are apologists today under some obligation to use some archaic, ancient definition of an eyewitness?

You say, “Such as from an Apostle (John),” whom (as I am sure you know) was actually the ONLY Apostle to write a Gospel. The other three were ALL Gentiles, and not Apostles, and those three were not “eyewitnesses” (according to your very modern definition of the term). So you say “such as,” while citing the only exception to the rule. This makes you seem a bit dishonest in your question.

Not at all. I didn’t say the four Gospels were each written by an Apostle. In fact, I was writing it to convey the meaning you are now suggesting I was trying to avoid. John was an Apostle, the other Gospel writers are traditionally attributed to associates of the first apostles. And my definition didn’t say only JEWS could be eyewitnesses! BTW, no one knows who actually wrote the four Gospels (none of the authors identify themselves by name, as Paul does in his letters, and none are written in the first person, as someone recording their observations regarding their interactions with Jesus would), and it is highly doubtful that the Apostle John wrote “John” because John was very likely illiterate. Read any of the books of the respected Bible scholar Bart Ehrman on the subject.

You are forgetting about Saul (later named Paul), who wrote about 2/3 of the New Testament. He was a Jewish Pharisee and was an early persecutor of Christians. He was convinced of the errors of his ways on the road to Damascus, and shortly thereafter presented himself to Peter and the Apostles at Jerusalem (he was distrusted and feared at first, but Barnabas brought him forth and testified to his conversion).

Saul (Paul) would have been privy to the discussions you mention, and he could have told them to the Apostles. Thus, these conversations would become “common knowledge” within the Christian community. So it is possible (and probable) that the early Christians would have gained “inside knowledge” of the plans of the Jewish leadership.

You are adding to Scripture and making assertions not supported by any evidence. You are telling me that, during Jesus’s ministry, Paul was in Jerusalem and actively going to meetings with Jewish leaders, to discuss what to do about this troublemaker from Nazareth? Was he in the Temple when Jesus threw out the moneymakers, and at his trial before Pilate? Why on Earth wouldn’t Paul write about these experiences in any of his letters? Or by “privy” do you mean he heard it from somebody who heard it from somebody who heard it from somebody,etc., which makes Paul an eyewitness?

Also, you don’t even caveat that this is at most a possibility, albeit one with no support from Scripture–you say he “would have been privy”, and that it was “probable” the early Christians had inside knowledge. What evidence do you have for such claims?

To answer your core question, I would say that Catholic apologists use the same judicial definition that was used in whichever era the “eyewitness” testimony was given. Which is NOT the same judicial definition that you have proposed.

This is not a scholarly approach at all. Apologists are not bound by how the ancients defined an eyewitness, as they research Biblical texts. Besides, if you are going to say that, then the ancient Jews often required TWO eyewitnesses in judicial matters. Even Jesus himself said as much (John 5:vs 31 and 32): “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who testifies in my favor [referring to John the Baptist], and I know that his testimony about me is true.”

Have you ever read the NT? I suggest reading it several times a year. The answer to your question is here:

Acts 4:36-37
36Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Levites are members of the priesthood.

Acts 6:7
7So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

Some of those who were present at the meetings later became Christians.

John 3:1-3
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Nicodemus was a Pharisee and would have attended these meetings or known those who did. Later, he became a Christian.

Mark 15:42-44
42 It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43 **Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, **who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.

John 19:38-40
Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.

Joseph of Arimathea was a Pharisee and a disciple of Jesus.

Because we have only the testimony of the ancients. If an ancient told us of an “eyewitness” of the fall of Troy, we have no means to determine if the source was actually an eyewitness (according to modern terminology) or was told by third or fourth or fifth hand testimony (as was accepted as an “eyewitness” in the ancient world. We can only work with the clay we have).

Chain of custody of evidence, and chain of testimony is rather important in the modern world. In the modern world (at least in US jurisprudence), if John testified that Fred told him something, this would be accepted into evidence. If John testified that Fred told him something that Alicia said, it would be dismissed (as third-hand “hearsay” testimony).

But, in the not-so-ancient world (merely 200 or 300 years ago in many Anglican jurisdictions, but still in place in many other jurisdictions), it would be accepted that Fred “told” John this thing. And this “fact” could be admitted into the record.

It is possible that ancient records could omit Alicia (which would establish the “evidence” as “hearsay” by modern US judicial standards (and could be rejected by standards which seem more “judicial” than “scholarly”).

You are adding to Scripture and making assertions not supported by any evidence. You are telling me that, during Jesus’s ministry, Paul was in Jerusalem and actively going to meetings with Jewish leaders, to discuss what to do about this troublemaker from Nazareth?

Since Paul was among the very first of the Pharisees (and the only one we know of by name) who went out to persecute early Christians, I don’t think I’m being unrealistic in this claim. You seem to be claiming that is is statistically unlikely that Paul (being one of MANY Pharisees) would have had “inside knowledge” of the Sanhedrin’s plot against Jesus. But the fact that he was the ONLY early persecutor of the Early Church makes it more probable that he had a horse in this race from the beginning.

Did you even read my subsequent post? There were TWO other guys who were MEMBERS of the Sanhedrin (but were disciples of Jesus). They were THERE at the trial???

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