Eyewitness to Jesus: Amazing New Manuscript Evidence about the Origin of the Gospels
By Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew D'Ancona
Doubleday, 206 pp., $23.95
On the surface it seems the perfect scenario for an esoteric James Bond movie: a classic book whose authenticity and authorship are in question; minute manuscript fragments that cast a controversial new light on the book; a string of interesting and exotic locales, from the oases of Egypt to the medieval halls of Oxford University.
"Eyewitness to Jesus," however, is not a work of fiction, or about international intrigue. This slim volume deals with one of the great mysteries of Bible scholarship: Where did the Gospels come from?
Many Christians may be surprised to discover that the origin of the Gospels is actually a matter of controversy. Carsten Peter Thide and Matthew D'Ancona, the authors of "Eyewitness to Jesus," depart from the safely skeptical and generally accepted view that the accounts of Jesus' life and works given by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John date (at the earliest) from the late first or early second century.
Many scholars, in fact, regard the Gospels as expressions of political and theological exigencies rather than deeply felt historical narratives.
The focus of "Eyewitness to Jesus" is astonishingly small: three tiny papyrus fragments of the Gospel of Matthew, housed in a display case in the library of Magdalen College, Oxford. Several years ago, Dr. Thiede, who is a recognized authority in the field of papyrology (the study of ancient papyrus manuscripts) found himself in Oxford for a family celebration.
While there he asked to see the Magdalen papyrus, merely as an act of scholarly curiosity. He was amazed to discover that the fragments were much older than previously believed, old enough to have been handled by the "five hundred brethren" (I Corinthians 15:6) whom St. Paul declares had seen the resurrected Jesus with their own eyes.
The publicity surrounding Thiede's discovery (much of it written by D'Ancona, an English journalist), has led to a bitter controversy.
"Eyewitness to Jesus" describes and discusses in fascinating (and at times nearly unfathomable) detail why the Magdalen Papyrus and an array of other manuscripts must be redated and reconsidered as early testaments of the Christian faith.
The breadth of topics covered by the authors is extraordinary. The physical characteristics of the Magdalen College fragments are examined in great detail. We learn of the significant (and insignificant) differences between its text and the standard text of the book of Matthew, and how these and numerous other factors point to an early date.
"Eyewitness to Jesus" also devotes a chapter to Charles Huleatt, the obscure English clergyman who discovered the papyrus fragments in Egypt and donated them to the college at the turn of the century.
Many other topics, from archaeological discoveries to the habits of early eyewitness scribes to the Greek influence in New Testament Palestine, are covered as well.
As fascinating as this detective work is, the heart of the book lies in its concluding pages. The authors point out that "to ask how old the Gospels are and why they were written is to plumb the deepest wells of the social system which we inhabit. These questions are not the preserve of the theologian."
They examine trends in Bible scholarship over the past century, where religious skepticism has so influenced scholarship that crucial evidence has been ignored or summarily dismissed.
The authors, however, strongly emphasize that redating the Gospels does not prove that every incident related in the New Testament is unquestionably true: "No scientist can say that the Gospels are true. But he or she can form a judgment as to whether they are authentic."
Although "Eyewitness to Jesus" is interesting and approachable, it is almost too complete. Suffice-to-say that the dating and deciphering of Graeco-Roman manuscripts are difficult tasks.
The lay reader may find it difficult to navigate the many complex issues of historical Bible research. The scholarly footnotes will not be read by most, but the brief glossary and detailed index are extremely helpful.
Are Thiede and D'Ancona correct in their thesis that the four Gospels were written while the Apostles lived at the same time as those who had witnessed healing and heard Jesus preached?
Only further research and analysis will tell. But a new era in Bible scholarship may be opening as Christianity reaches its second millennium.
"Eyewitness to Jesus" helps all of us understand and appreciate this exciting prospect.
*Judy Huenneke is an archivist and lives in Cambridge, Mass.