Tag Archives: are the gospels based on eyewitness testimony

Debate Review: Are the New Testament Gospels Based on Eyewitness Testimony?

On Saturday 20th October, Attorney Yusuf Ismail debated a UK-based Biologist, Jonathan McLatchie on the topic of, “Are the New Testament Gospels Based on Eyewitness Testimony?”. Presented here is an amended review of the initial review posted on our Facebook page.

Roughly one year ago, the same Christian, UK-based Biologist was called out by this website for plagiarizing during another debate with Attorney Yusuf Ismail. We initially published a video detailing one instance of plagiarism:

Consequently, the Christian speaker issued a statement indicating that this was a one-off occurrence that did not happen throughout the rest of that debate or any debate previously. Contrary to this, we then published another video detailing multiple instances of plagiarism:

What followed was a tale of abject dishonesty and personal hostility on the part of the Christian speaker who became incensed due to our expose, we ignored this behaviour. He eventually conceded that he had in fact, had his opening statement (presentation) for that debate, written by another Christian speaker. This was not surprising given the evidence we had published. This year we had hoped that he learned his lesson and would be professional at this event. This was not the case (information forthcoming), but for a large part, his opening statement this year was largely written by him and consisted of a lecture he had been delivering in various Churches on “undesigned coincidences” in the Gospel narratives.

Jonathan McLatchie’s main and only argument was that the Gospels corroborate each other in some minor details therefore they must be based on eyewitness testimony. This approach is problematic because the manuscript record actually shows that the gospel authors and editors had a tendency to harmonize details between the gospels to make their stories more coherent:

“Colwell and Royse both recognize a tendency to harmonize readings with remote parallels in other Gospels (Colwell, 112-114; Royse, 536-544).”

This is as stated by the conservative New Testament British textual critic, Timothy Mitchell citing:

  • Royse, James R., “Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri.” NTTSD 36. Leiden: Brill, 2008.
  • Colwell, Ernest C., “Method in Evaluating Scribal Habits: A Study of P45, P66, P75,” pages 106-124 in “Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the New Testament.” NTTS 9. Leiden: Brill, 1969.

This fundamentally undermines the Christian’s claims during the debate. In fact, I, myself lost count of the verses he quoted from the Gospel attributed to John where papyrus 66 (a manuscript of the gospel of John that is dated between 150 – 399), does not confirm what the modern English versions were saying. He was effectively quoting the gospel attributed to John where the initial author’s writing was changed by later correctors to match/ harmonize what the other gospels said by later editors. A simple review of basic textual critical resources would have easily indicated to him that this was both a bad line of reasoning and counter-evidential to his position.

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(Left) Attorney Yusuf Ismail, (Right) Jonathan McLatchie

At the start of the debate the Christian speaker claimed his beliefs in Christianity were based on evidence, however when challenged on his views on the dead rising in the gospel attributed to Matthew he claimed he believed in a literal rising miracle of the dead in Jerusalem (back to life) without any evidence, thus proving himself wrong. At this point he also became hostile and in a raised voice, demanded to know why such a question was relevant in the first place, it is possible that he had a memory lapse at this point or had become plainly aware of his earlier statement, thus his reaction was largely based on embarrassment.

He also conceded during a rebuttal period that several verses in the gospel attributed to John were written by anonymous authors and therefore they were not authored by eyewitnesses thus conceding the debate to Attorney Yusuf Ismail.

On the other hand, I was duly impressed by Attorney Yusuf Ismail who is currently pursuing theological studies. I found his presentation and citation of classical Christian authorities on the anonymity of the Gospels to both be stringently academic and quite diverse. Meaning then, that he did not isolate these statements from “liberal” scholarship, nor did he quote-mine. In fact, during their cross-examination section, Attorney Yusuf Ismail produced a brilliant quote by Richard Bauckham which justified his position on the Gospels being anonymous in authorship. In addition to this, it was his opponent that had cited Bauckham as an authority in the first place, thus adding to the strength of Attorney Yusuf Ismail’s position. When reminded of this, the Christian speaker decried the reference, stating that he did not agree with everything Bauckham said, while this is a reasonable position, the Christian speaker did not clarify on what well-researched basis he made this distinction of agreeing and disagreeing with the author.

Surprisingly, Yusuf Ismail did not end there, he was on a roll. McLatchie was asked if he accepted Matthaean Priority (that is, the view that Matthew was authored first, followed by Mark and Luke). McLatchie (the Christian speaker) acknowledged that this was the position he was leaning towards. This is where I believe Yusuf Ismail showed his brilliance, he asked McLatchie if he accepted Papias’ (an unreliable early Church Father, as per Eusebius) claim that the gospel attributed to Matthew was initially written in Hebrew (and then translated into Koine Greek). McLatchie confusingly stated he did not study this position on the gospel attributed to Matthew. It therefore is problematic that he in one instance claims that he can lean towards one view on the original authorship of the gospel and then in another state he had not studied it at all. If he had not studied the genesis of Matthew’s gospel, how then can he lean to its position in authorship? This effectively summarized what was an overall brilliant evening for Yusuf and a disaster for McLatchie.

The debate can be viewed here on Facebook:

and Allah knows best.