The Chosen and Eyewitness Testimony

I watched The Chosen Christmas special episode this past Sunday. Although I could have done without the long musical intro, and setting aside evangelical vs. Catholic understandings of Mary’s experiences of the virgin birth (for a Catholic perspective, see here), I wanted to note something I really love that this series does in this episode, as well as in the first episode of season 2: the writers try to imagine not only the experiences of the first followers of Jesus when they met him and followed him during his ministry; they also try to imagine what it might have looked like for these disciples after the death, resurrection, and ascension, as they began translating their experiences of Jesus into written accounts that later would be gathered into the New Testament Scriptures. It’s something that we do not consider enough.

For me, the best part of the Christmas episode was the way in which the writers imagined how details of the Christmas story came down to us. There is a beautiful focus on the Magnificat (Lk: 1:46-55) and Mary and Joseph’s encounters with the “messengers” (Lk: 1:26-48; Mt: 1:18-24) and the fact that Jesus, like a spotless lamb set aside by shepherds for sacrifice in the Temple, was “wrapped in swaddling clothes” by his mother (Lk: 2:7). These are details which, if we believe them to be accurate in any meaningful sense, must have been reported to the evangelist Luke ultimately by Mary herself.

The Chosen writers have Mary Magdalene come to visit the mother of the Lord shortly before she dies to be given the privilege of carefully writing down the words of the Magnificat and delivering them to Luke on Our Lady’s behalf.

Obviously, we have no way of knowing if this is how the information was transmitted to Luke, and perhaps this scenario is not very likely, but there is nevertheless something very beautiful about the show emphasizing Mary Magdalene’s role as “apostle to the apostles” even years after the resurrection and her initial announcement to them of the good news (cf. Mark 16:9-11, Matthew 28:1-10, Luke 24:10-11, John 20:1-18).

It is clear to me, regardless, that there must have been a special relationship between Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene — as they were profoundly united together by witnessing the suffering of Jesus and standing beneath his cross as he died (John 19:25). In the episode, Mary Magdalene movingly calls Mary “Mother,” and the mother of Jesus says that Mary Magdalene has always been “like a daughter” to her. Mary Magdalene’s role as one of the very first witnesses of the resurrection would also, no doubt, have united her in a special way to Mother Mary, who accompanied the apostles “and some women” in prayer in the Upper Room as they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:13-14).

The traditional site of the Upper Room on Mt Zion in Jerusalem

Unfortunately, much of the scholarship on these questions since the 19th century (and a disheartening view into a lot of Catholic seminary formation) is well summarized by Father Casey Cole, OFM on his Youtube video here. He critiques the show because it imagines the apostles John and Matthew taking notes on their experiences with Jesus: “[the creators] treat the Gospels as if they were eye-witness accounts, written down as they were happening,” he says, disapprovingly. Such an approach, he contends, causes scripture “to be treated as nothing more than a literal, entirely straightforward account of events.” Clearly, he is thinking about sola scriptura and un-nuanced views of the inerrancy of scripture here. But he also proffers the common view that the Gospel writers were primarily “theologians”, not historians, interested in portraying Jesus according to the needs of their “faith communities”—and not very interested with factual accuracy at all.

I’m always puzzled by this thesis, as if people 2,000 years ago were so unlike people today that they were mysteriously un-curious about facts. What the Chosen series does well is to help us imagine these people as if they were real human beings, and consider how they might respond to the amazing events they experienced.

The evangelist Luke himself, at the beginning of his Gospel, actually claims to be transmitting the accounts of eyewitnesses and seems rather intent on accuracy:

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received. (Luke 1:1-4)

Anglican priest and theologian Richard Bauckham, in his brilliant and well-researched work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, offers a corrective view on the origin of the Gospels. Here’s a taste, but if you’re interested in this topic I highly recommend diving into the whole work:

The full reality of Jesus as he historically was is not, of course, accessible to us. The world itself could not contain the books that would be needed to record even all that was empirically observable about Jesus, as the closing verse of the Gospel of John puts it. Like any other part of history, the Jesus who lived in first-century Palestine is knowable only through the evidence that has survived. We could therefore use the phrase “the historical Jesus” to mean, not all that Jesus was, but Jesus insofar as his historical reality is accessible to us. But here we reach the crucial methodological problem. For Christian faith this Jesus, the earthly Jesus as we can know him, is the Jesus of the canonical Gospels, Jesus as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John recount and portray him. There are difficulties, of course, in the fact that these four accounts of Jesus differ, but there is no doubt that the Jesus of the church’s faith through the centuries has been a Jesus found in these Gospels. That means that Christian faith has trusted these texts. Christian faith has trusted that in these texts we encounter the real Jesus, and it is hard to see how Christian faith and theology can work with a radically distrusting attitude to the Gospels.

Yet everything changes when historians suspect that these texts may be hiding the real Jesus from us, at best because they give us the historical Jesus filtered through the spectacles of early Christian faith, at worst because much of what they tell us is a Jesus constructed by the needs and interests of various groups in the early church. Then that phrase “the historical Jesus” comes to mean, not the Jesus of the Gospels, but the allegedly real Jesus behind the Gospels, the Jesus the historian must reconstruct by subjecting the Gospels to ruthlessly objective (so it is claimed) scrutiny. It is essential to realize that this is not just treating the Gospels as historical evidence. It is the application of a methodological skepticism that must test every aspect of the evidence so that what the historian establishes is not believable because the Gospels tell us it is, but because the historian has independently verified it. The result of such work is inevitably not one historical Jesus, but many.


All history — meaning all that historians write, all historiography — is an inextricable combination of fact and interpretation, the empirically observable and the intuited or constructed meaning. […]

I suggest that we need to recover the sense in which the Gospels are testimony. This does not mean that they are testimony rather than history. It means that the kind of historiography they are is testimony. An irreducible feature of testimony as a form of human utterance is that it asks to be trusted. This need not mean that it asks to be trusted uncritically, but it does mean that testimony should not be treated as credible only to the extent that it can be independently verified. There can be good reasons for trusting or distrusting a witness, but these are precisely reasons for trusting or distrusting. Trusting testimony is not an irrational act of faith that leaves critical rationality aside; it is, on the contrary, the rationally appropriate way of responding to authentic testimony. Gospels understood as testimony are the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical reality of Jesus. It is true that a powerful trend in the modern development of critical historical philosophy and method finds trusting testimony a stumbling-block in the way of the historian’s autonomous access to truth that she or he can verify independently. But it is also a rather neglected fact that all history, like all knowledge, relies on testimony. In the case of some kinds of historical event this is especially true, indeed obvious. In the last chapter we shall consider a remarkable modern instance, the Holocaust, where testimony is indispensable for adequate historical access to the events. We need to recognize that, historically speaking, testimony is a unique and uniquely valuable means of access to historical reality.

from Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Chapter 1

For a more direct rebuttal of Father Cole’s take, see Catholic apologist Trent Horn’s response here.

Why does our view of the Gospels as transmission of eyewitness testimony matter? It matters for much the same reason that going to specific places in the Holy Land does. The reason the ancient Church preserved these places and wrote these Gospels is because it was convinced that something utterly unthinkable actually happened. Christianity is not a literary story, or vague theological reflection cobbled together by the needs of various “faith communities.” It is a testimony about real events, or it is nothing. To appropriate Flannery O’Connor’s famous quip on the Eucharist, “if it’s just a symbol, then to hell with it.”

I appreciate that The Chosen show takes the historicity of the Gospels seriously, and as a work of art helps us enter imaginatively into the lives of these people. It seems to really embody St. Ignatius’ teaching on imaginative prayer. We are human, so abstract ideas are not enough to nourish faith. God himself, having made us, knew this and took on flesh and bones to meet us in our poverty. We need to set aside abstracting the Gospel stories into oblivion in order to meet him in his.

Judas, John and Jesus

Even when I read the Bible I am an English major. I cannot help but read the Gospels as stories. One of the relationships I find the most fascinating is that between Judas, John and Jesus.

The Last Supper by Natalia Tsarkova, 2002. Look how Jesus, John and Judas are portrayed in this scene.

I attend a wonderful Bible Study with a group of young Catholic women here in Denver, and this year we have been working our way through the Gospel of Mark. We read Mark 14 and 15 the other night, the chapters that recount the events leading up to and including the Passion. Chapter 14 begins with “the anointing at Bethany,” where a woman anoints Jesus with a very expensive “alabaster jar of perfumed oil.” Mark then notes,

There were some who were indignant. “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than three hundred days wages and the money given to the poor.” They were infuriated with her. (Mark 14:4-5)

Jesus, however, comes to the woman’s defense in a beautiful and powerful way:

Mary of Bethany

Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you  will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial. Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:6-9)

I have always found his remarks here to be so haunting. Indeed, though Mark does not tell us her name, he records the event so that everywhere in the whole world we remember this woman.

Interestingly, it is right after this scene at Bethany that Mark recounts the betrayal of Judas. Right after Jesus finishes speaking, it seems, “Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went off to the chief priests to hand him over to them” (Mark 14:10).

It seems as if this scene at Bethany was somehow the last straw for Judas. Mark does not tell us why.

Last year, we were reading the Gospel of John, which also recounts this scene. But notice the differences:

Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him. Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. (John 12:1-3)

We have a lot more detail here in John’s Gospel, which is one of the reasons I firmly believe this gospel does come from an eyewitness, the youngest apostle himself. I find it moving that the author remembers, even after so many years, how “the house was filled with the fragrance.”

But John also remembers who it was that objected to the woman’s — here, Mary of Bethany’s– lavish act of love:

Then Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days wages and given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions.

So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:1-8, emphasis added)

Note the commentary in italics. All four Gospels recount that Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus for money. And, in their listing of the apostles, they always give Judas the epithet “the one who betrayed him.” But it is John who seems to feel the sting of the betrayal so personally — so much so that he always portrays Judas in the worse possible light. Here, he makes it clear that it was Judas to objected to Mary’s act of love– it was Judas who thought the breaking of the jar a waste of money, and who brought up the obvious objection inspired perhaps by Jesus’ own previous teaching on the poor.

John’s bitter commentary here– “He said this not because he cared about the poor”– seems very moving to me. Even after all this time, he is still so angry with Judas. Even after knowing about the Resurrection, and the meaning of Christ’s suffering, he– the youngest apostle, the “one whom Jesus loved”, the gentle, courageous one who stayed with him by the Cross, who was given the gift of caring for Mary as Jesus died– still feels so hurt and so bitter here that he cannot write unfeelingly about Judas’ actions.

Clearly, Saints Mark and Luke were not apostles of Jesus themselves. Mark, according to tradition, wrote his gospel based on the preaching of Saint Peter and Luke was a companion of Saint Paul. It seems unlikely to me that the author of Matthew’s gospel was the apostle Matthew himself — he writes with the same objectivity and restraint as the other synoptic writers.

But the Gospel of John is not written like that at all. There are all sorts of details and personal touches that suggest an eyewitness, and I think the treatment of Judas in this gospel is especially telling.

Even after all these years — John is writing sometime in the 80s or 90s AD, as an old man — the betrayal of Judas brings back his anger. He notes, during the Last Supper, that “Satan enters [Judas]” and “it was night” when he departs to hand Jesus over to the authorities. Much earlier, in the famous Chapter 6 of the gospel where he recounts Jesus’ promise of the Eucharist, the bread of life discourse, John concludes Jesus’ words this way:

“But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. (John 6:64)

Even here, John connects one of Jesus most profound teachings with the betrayal of Judas. John seems to think that Judas’ rejection of Christ began far earlier than the synoptic gospels recount.

Significantly, John says no more about Judas after the betrayal in the garden. For him, nothing else needs to be said.

But Matthew does. And he even seems to view Judas with some compassion:

Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”

They said, “What is that to us? Look to it yourself.”

Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:3-5, emphasis added)

Judas betrays the Son of Man with a kiss. From “The Passion of the Christ.”

It will always be a mystery why Judas chose to betray Jesus. If he was the keeper of the money, as John says, in some way Jesus must have trusted him to give him such a task. Tradition seems to hold that Judas valued money more than Jesus — obviously he accepted the thirty pieces of silver– yet there must be more to it than that. I think the moment where the woman at Bethany anoints Jesus “for burial” is significant for Judas. Perhaps this is the moment where he realizes Jesus is not the Messiah Judas thought he was going to be. On the one hand, Jesus claims to be more important than even serving the poor, but on the other he indicates that his death is very near. He is not going to be the liberator of the Jewish people from Roman oppression, he is not going to restore Jewish life in the Promise Land. Instead, he is going to die. All of this is too much for Judas. He is disappointed.

I think Judas’ story is tragic and terrifying. We all betray Jesus for strange and stupid reasons every day, and we too are disappointed in Him. He disrupts our orderly plans and our constricted hopes and gives us the cross instead.

We all hope that when we do betray Jesus, we can be like Peter and seek His forgiveness. We hope that sometimes we can even be like John and not betray Him in the first place, and stay with Him by the cross until the very end.

But all too often we are like Judas. We are disappointed and so we give Him up — we stop praying, we turn away, we busy ourselves and ignore him. And then when we realize what we have done, we are so ashamed that we cannot bring ourselves to run back to Him. We refuse to go to Confession, we refuse to beg for His mercy because our pride says we do not deserve it.

Of course we don’t deserve it. That’s the point. Even John, the good apostle, the best friend of Jesus, the caretaker of Mary,  is clearly imperfect in his struggle to forgive Judas sixty years after the Passion took place.

The hard thing about Good Friday is that it remains only an invitation to mercy. You can kneel at the foot of the cross, or you can mock the cross, or you can simply turn away and go hang yourself on the tree of your own pride. But the cross still stands, and Jesus is still there waiting for us with outstretched arms.

John holds Mary, our Mother, at the foot of the cross. From “The Passion of the Christ.”