Article: The Passion: Eyewitness Evidence & the Gospels

The Passion: Eyewitness Evidence & the Gospels, by Donal Anthony Foley

The controversy generated by the Mel Gibson film, ‘The Passion,’ which details the last hours and death of Christ, has focused particularly on his use of the writings of Catherine Emmerich, the visionary and stigmatic who died in the early nineteenth century and whose Cause is proceeding once more. The aim of this article, though, is to focus rather on those details of the Passion which we find set down in the Gospels, and which have always been traditionally seen as the result of eyewitness evidence.

The modern theological “tendency” goes against this approach, and sees the accounts of the Passion as more the result of the reminisces and reflections of various “communities” which were circulating in the early Church, and which were then attached to the name of either an Apostle—in the case of Saints Matthew and John—or an associate of an Apostle—in the case of Saints Mark and Luke. The latter two are traditionally seen as being closely identified with Saints Peter and St Paul respectively.

But apart from this there are many critics who question the truthfulness of other aspects of the Gospel accounts of the Passion, with some seeing them as “anti-Semitic” because they fix the blame for the Crucifixion primarily on the Jewish religious leaders rather than the Roman Authorities.[1] Others point to various alleged historical inaccuracies, and similarly it is argued, and this is part of the modern “mainstream” theological approach, that we cannot have much faith in the Gospel accounts anyway because they were all, or nearly all—Mark’s Gospel being the exception—written after the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Thus it is alleged that there would have been a gap of at least forty years, and in the case of John anything up to 70 years, between the Crucifixion and the various Gospel accounts being put down on paper.[2]

As already indicated, according to some of these modern critics, the Gospels were not authored by the named evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but were, to a greater or lesser extent, the products of the early Christian communities, who were quite willing to “shape” the historical material before them as their evolving circumstances required.[3]

Thus it is alleged, for example, that as polemics between the early Christians and the Jews developed as the first century progressed, then the Gospels took on a more “anti-Semitic” tone. So the general conclusion is drawn that the Gospels are not reliable historically. The focus in this type of research has been on St John’s Gospel, but obviously this approach can also be applied to the other Gospels too, although it is usually more of an implicit charge: if, for example, Luke’s Gospel is dated around 80-85 AD, that is fifty years after the crucifixion, then it is clear that it is likely there would be few eyewitnesses still around at that date to give evidence—thus the reliance on the collective memory of the “community.” Sadly, this general view is not unknown in many sections of the Catholic Church, or at least among people who claim to be Catholics.

Another “assured conclusion of modern theological investigation” is that the order in which the Gospels were written, unlike the one traditionally accepted by Catholics—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—should really put Mark’s Gospel first, because it is allegedly the most “primitive.” This is probably the lynch pin of the modern critical position, and has likewise gained much acceptance amongst Catholics, despite the fact that the whole tradition of the Church sees Matthew’s Gospel as the primary document of the early Church.[4]

This new position of regarding St Mark’s Gospel as first, or Marcan priority, grew out of the Kulturkampf, the struggle between Bismarck and the Papacy in the late nineteenth century. Bismarck and his supporters took this stance, because it could then be claimed that Jesus’ commission to Peter, making him the first Pope, as found in Matthew 16:18-19, was a later addition and not part of the primitive teaching of the Church. Thus the promotion of Marcan priority essentially arose out of an anti-Papal motive.[5]

St Matthew’s Gospel only makes sense as the product of a Jewish-Christian community, that is the community which existed for a relatively short period—probably as an integral unit for not much more than a couple of decades after the Passion—before the Apostles turned their attentions more fully towards the Gentiles. Thus is was almost certainly written within twenty years of the Crucifixion. According to tradition, it was originally compiled in Aramaic and only later translated into Greek—which means that the Aramaic Matthew may have been very early indeed.[6]

This Gospel was followed by that of Mark, who was described by St Augustine as, “the follower and abbreviator of Matthew,” and is regarded as the secretary of St Peter, and thus the one who wrote down his “memoirs.” This Gospel was traditionally published in Rome, as was Luke’s Gospel, which almost certainly cannot be dated much later than the early 60s. The date of St John’s Gospel is uncertain, but it most probably reached it’s final form towards the end of the first century—although that doesn’t mean that it may not have been assembled, but not “published,” before that date.[7]

The above is a summary of the traditional Catholic position, and it has found support even from the pen of John A. Robinson, the Anglican theologian, who, in his fascinating work, Redating the New Testament, incurred the wrath of his colleagues for questioning the whole modern dating system for the Gospels, even to the extent of claiming that they could all have been written before 70 AD.

Of course, the Church’s traditional position on the historicity and essential accuracy of the Gospels is enough for any orthodox Catholic, but it is natural to inquire whether we can glean any additional information from the New Testament itself, information which will aid our faith. The following arguments attempt to provide such information, and to show that even after two thousand years, the Gospels still bear the unmistakable imprint of true history, and true history as recalled by eyewitnesses at that.[8]

If we look at the New Testament accounts of the Crucifixion in some detail, it appears, at first sight, that although they generally follow the same pattern, there are also serious discrepancies between them. While Matthew and Mark seem to follow the same common tradition, St Luke takes a different approach using some sources of his own, to the extent that he seems to contradict the other synoptic Gospels in some areas, as well as providing extra information they do not give.

While they describe the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus as taunting him, Luke disagrees with this stating that only one of the criminals insulted him while the other argued with his fellow thief to the effect that Jesus was innocent. A glance at the parallel synoptic accounts shows that Luke compresses the mocking of Christ by the bystanders found in both Matthew, (27:39-43), and Mark, (15:29-32), to a few lines, as well as leaving out Jesus’ words of seeming desolation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and the response of the bystanders, (Matt. 27:46-49; Mark 15:34-36). This agonizing phrase is taken from Psalm 22, which itself prophetically foretold the sufferings and hopes of Jesus’ during his crucifixion. This cry of Jesus however should not be seen as an expression of despair as the psalm itself goes on to speak of God’s final victory.

Luke is actually the only synoptic writer to report several of the last sayings of Jesus from the cross. He tells us that Jesus prayed to his Father for the forgiveness of his tormentors, (Luke 23:34), as well as reporting his last words (Luke 23:46). On an incidental level he is also the only one to report Jesus’ words to the women of Jerusalem on the road to Calvary (Luke 23:27-31).

How can we explain all this? If the Gospels are regarded as community efforts compiled years after the event, then we can only really talk in vague general terms about different, and possibly faulty, traditions maintained in various communities, without being able to identify anyone in particular. If, though, we look at the Gospels as products of individual authors—the evangelists—working within a living tradition and based on eyewitness evidence, then a much more satisfactory approach is possible. Taking the different Gospel accounts seriously also means we can try to reconstruct the physical situation at the time of the crucifixion. This leads to some interesting conclusions.

If we try and picture the physical conditions on Calvary during the crucifixion, there are a number of factors to take into account including the identities of the various witnesses.

Some of them were hostile, such as the representatives of the Jewish authorities and the Jerusalem mob; others were indifferent including the Roman soldiers—it was just another execution to them—while Jesus’ followers were also represented. It does not seem that any of the Apostles were present, apart from the report in John’s Gospel about the presence of the “beloved disciple,” who traditionally has been identified with John the Evangelist himself.

Instead we are told about various groups of women including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, who according to both Matthew and Mark were “looking on from afar” (Matt 27:55; Mark 15:40). They are the only witnesses mentioned by the first two evangelists for this particular part of the Gospel, that is specifically mentioned as people who were watching the events of the crucifixion. This tends to suggest that they were the primary synoptic witnesses of Jesus’ death, although there were probably others who have not been named.

The most obvious thing about their testimony is its “general” character in that although they give details about the things passers by said to Jesus they don’t give too many details of what Jesus actually said from the cross, apart from his cry of dereliction, “My God, My God …”

This is important because it suggests that they were probably physically some distance away from the cross, that is near enough to see what was going on, but far enough away, amidst all the anguish, sadness and confusion of the occasion, to only hear what Jesus was saying in an indistinct manner. For instance both Matthew (27:50) and Mark (15:37) describe Jesus as giving a “loud cry”: it is only Luke who actually tells us what Jesus said: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). It is also quite likely that those involved in the mockery of Jesus would have been kept some distance away from him by the soldiers, which would have necessitated that they raise their voices.

If we imagine the situation in the early Church it is possible to reconstruct how these differences between the Gospel accounts could have arisen. In the period following the resurrection and the rapid growth of the Church, the main emphasis would have been on the essentials of the Gospel story, first in an oral and later in a written form, but it should also be emphasized that these two forms are not mutually exclusive, and it is possible to have an oral proclamation of the Gospel existing side by side with a written version.

The important thing, though, as far as the early Christian proclamation went, was that Jesus had died and risen again; mankind’s sins had been forgiven and a completely new life was possible for both Jews and Gentiles. However when Luke came to write his Gospel, as he tells us himself, others had previously written accounts of Jesus’ life which he presumably had access to; but he also seems to have had access to at least one new witness, someone who was able to add new information which had been left out by Matthew and Mark.

We know that the early Church greatly treasured the actual words of Jesus, and which of his words could have been more important than those he spoke as he hung dying on the cross, his last words to his faithful few followers and the world in general? When Luke wrote his Gospel, roughly thirty years after the crucifixion, it seems then that he had interviewed at least one other witness and obtained more information on Jesus’ death as part of his researches.

To identify this witness means anticipating somewhat and looking at St John’s account of the crucifixion. The fourth Gospel describes the onlookers to the crucifixion as the Blessed Virgin, and her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, as well as John himself, (John 19:25-27). These four people are mentioned particularly as standing near Jesus’ cross. We can probably eliminate the last two, as they were already mentioned by Matthew and Mark, and it is more natural to expect “new” evidence from previously unmentioned witnesses.

It’s also probable that the little groups of Jesus’ supporters who were present at the crucifixion were not static: similarly it is reasonable to suppose that Mary Magdalene, for instance, could have moved amongst the different groups at various distances from the cross itself. Now John himself gave his witness to Jesus’ death in the actual writing of his Gospel, which means that the probable source for the extra details found in Luke, or at least for some of them, is the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Luke tells us that she stored all the events and words of Jesus’ infancy in her heart (2:51), and given the absolute brutality she witnessed, and the terrible sadness into which the sight of her son being crucified must have plunged her, it is certainly not fanciful to expect that Mary, before all others, would have treasured the last words of Jesus from the cross, words which cost him so much suffering. If she remembered and pondered the happy events of his childhood, how much more that she should remember the painful events and words surrounding his death?

In any event, even if we can’t be certain that Mary was this actual witness, John’s testimony suggests that it was one of the four people he mentions. Now going back to the physical situation and how this relates to the extra information in Luke, the most reasonable explanation for this is also the simplest: that is that this extra, mainly spoken, information must have come from someone who was physically closer to the events described.

This is certainly the most logical explanation for the seeming discrepancy between the first two synoptics and Luke, in respect of the actions of the two thieves. Someone watching from a distance would have heard the first thief abusing Jesus, and indistinctly hearing the second speak assume that he too was insulting him. But a closer witness, as Luke indicates, would have heard the whole exchange more clearly and could offer a more exact explanation (Luke 23:39-43).

What makes this more convincing is the fact that this exchange, in the overall context of the crucifixion, was a minor affair, and something which could easily have been overlooked when the first Gospel was written.

By Luke’s time of course with his desire to tell us more about Jesus, this little episode perfectly illustrated the point that no one—not even the most abandoned or depraved—was excluded from the kingdom of God, providing they were prepared to acknowledge their sinfulness and accept Jesus’ infinite love and mercy.

This incident is also important in that it shows that the evangelists were independently minded individuals who were not afraid to seemingly contradict those who had gone before them; it emphasizes the point that we are dealing with faithful and reliable traditions, and not with “stories” dreamt up by later starry-eyed followers of Jesus.

It also indicates that Luke’s “witness” must have been a person of some standing, given that their account, on the point of the words of the two thieves, contradicted that found in the first two Gospels. And this again points to someone of great spiritual authority in the early Christian community, such as the Blessed Mother.

The same basic position holds of course for the words of Jesus from the cross reported by Luke (23:34; 23:46), as well as his words to the women of Jerusalem (23:27-31) which are not found in Matthew or Mark. They could have been quite easily missed by the crowd in all the noise and confusion of the crucifixion, except by those who were close to the actual event itself. But a witness following Jesus as he carried his cross along the “way of sorrows” or standing near him on Calvary could certainly have heard and remembered them.

These points taken together show that Luke, in his account of the crucifixion, was concerned to take the basic story given by Matthew and Mark, and amplify and explain certain points, so as to give his readers a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ death. The same can be said for John, the writer of the fourth Gospel, and if anything his desire to explain the full significance of the accounts given in the synoptic Gospels is more apparent.

For instance he explains why the soldiers had to “cast lots” (Matt 27:35; Mark 15:24) for Jesus’ clothes once they had crucified him, that is both so as not to tear his seamless garment, and also to unwittingly fulfil biblical prophecy (John 19:23-24) This was point not fully explained by the other evangelists, and so it seems John supplemented their accounts.

Similarly he explains why the soldiers offered Jesus a vinegar soaked sponge ( John 19: 28-29). Jesus had spoken in a prophetic sense of his thirst for the salvation of mankind, (Psalm 22:15), but undoubtedly, too, the ordeal of the crucifixion, with its great loss of blood and fever, must have left Jesus with an agonizing physical thirst too.

More crucially, as already mentioned, John tells us who was present at the foot of the cross, and records Jesus’ last and very important words to his mother: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19:26-27).

Again we have a further development of what was recorded in the synoptic Gospels and since these words of Jesus came in the very last stages of his agony, when he was at his weakest, only a very physically close witness could have been expected to hear them, which perhaps explains, along with their very personal nature, why the other Gospel writers failed to mention them.

In an overall sense, then, what is the significance of all this? Well, the thing which must surely stand out from this examination of the crucifixion as found in the Gospels is that it makes much more sense to see these as examples of reliable eyewitness testimony, rather than as “community” productions put together anything up to sixty or seventy years after the event, by people who were not intimately acquainted with the facts.

The extra details mentioned by Luke and John are not the sort of things we would expect to be circulating as common knowledge in the early Christian community; they are generally rather of a much more intimate nature and so it is much more likely that they represent details which only particular individuals, eyewitnesses, would know.

Similarly if we consider the accounts of the four evangelists as a whole, and the way they actually dovetail together so marvelously, despite seeming surface discrepancies, it becomes very difficult to imagine them as the products of later communities, or of anonymous individuals, who according to the critics, felt completely free to add or subtract details about Jesus’ life, or make up events to fit in with new situations in the life of the early Church. If that was the case we would either expect them to smooth over things, such as in the cases of the differences between Matthew and Mark’s account of the episode with the thieves and Luke’s extra information, or else in their ignorance of what really happened to make serious errors of fact.

But in reality we don’t find either of these developments and instead are presented with four accounts which have a lifelike and true feel, in that they reflect the sort of thing we would expect if any group of persons reported on some event they had individually witnessed. If they had produced identical accounts we would be suspicious of collusion, and if they made serious errors or their stories were totally improbable we would say they were undoubtedly lying or didn’t know what they were talking about. In the case of the Passion accounts in the Gospels, though, we have a middle ground between these extremes and this gives us confidence that we are dealing with history and not fantasy.

The publicity surrounding the film, “The Passion” has focused on its graphic nature and on its reliance on the visions of Catherine Emmerich, but ultimately, as Catholics, we have to depend on the texts of the Gospels. This is not to deny that the movie may well be a great help to many people in realizing the full extent of Christ’s sufferings, but it is perhaps dangerous to get too enamored with any private revelation on this matter. It is safer to stay within the textual traditions of the Church, even if the accounts we have are very brief: films, however gripping, come and go, but as St Peter said: “the word of the Lord abides forever.” (1 Peter 1:25)


[1] Cf. Metzger & Coogan, ed’s., The Oxford Companion to the Bible, (OUP, New York, 1993), s.v. “Anti-Semitism.”
[2] Cf. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1993), “Composition and Collection of New Testament Works,” 66:55 (Chart).
[3] Cf. Ibid., “Search for NT Communities,” 70:79(A). See also 42:2, 66:9-11, 62:3-5.
[4] Cf. John E. Steinmueller, A Companion to Scripture Studies, Vol. III, (Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, 1946), pp. 61-62; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, “The Priority of Mark and the Two-Source Theory,” 70:21(A).
[5] W. R. Farmer, “State Interesse and Marcan Priority,” in The Four Gospels: 1992, Vol. III, ed. F. Van Segbroeck et al, (Leuven University Press, 1992), pp. 2478, 2483-84, 2490-96.
[6] Steinmueller, Companion to Scripture Studies, Vol. III, pp. 56-61, 62-68.
[7] Ibid., pp. 81-85, 100-105, 143-54.
[8] The substance of the argument which follows was suggested by remarks in Mgsr. Ronald Knox’s, A New Testament Commentary, Volume One, The Gospels, (Burns, Oates & Washbourne, London, 1953), pp. 190-91. I have looked in various commentaries to find any other mention of it, but without success: this seems to be one of those considerations which have been largely forgotten in the modern Church.

This article appeared, in a slightly edited form, in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review