The subject of eyewitness testimony is quite literally crucial in apologetics. For this reason, intelligent debate on the reliability of the information about Jesus contained in the four canonical gospels centres on whether they are the product of eyewitness accounts or not. For example, you can listen to Bart Ehrman and Richard Bauckham on the topic here and here.
Other blogs similar to mine have discussed this, of course. Without any input from the relevant discipline (paleodemography), however, how can you do anything but fall back into assuming whatever lifespan you need in order to justify the beliefs you already hold? The Christian blogger argues here that people often lived to celebrate their 70th birthdays, and hence the gospels were still written when eyewitnesses were alive – hurray! The atheist blogger argues here that people only lived to be around 45 – how convenient!
Were all the witnesses to Jesus’s life, death and purported resurrection already dead by the time anything got written down? Unfortunately, almost certainly yes, because the unbelieving blogger above happens to be about right. Men lived to about 42 and women to around 34. Even assuming young apostles, you simply wouldn’t have any eyewitnesses alive when the gospels were being first written and then circulated.
1. In the days of Jesus, how old could you be?
As our main historical source for the era, what do Biblical books suggest? Psalm 90:10 states that a life of 80 years is unusual and only down to exceptional strength. David, despite being strong, only made it to 70. However, this – and other numbers – should be treated with caution, since 70 is a ‘biblical number’, such as 3, 6, 7, 12 and 40. Many Jewish heroes were given long lifespans to: (a) enhance their legendary standing; (b) align them with the great antediluvian ancestors.1 After Noah’s Flood, human lifespans were capped at 120 years due to angel-human intercourse and resulting offspring, the Nephilim.
The kings of Judah died at an average age of 53 if the figures can be believed,2 yet this only representative of the highest elite of society hundreds of years before Jesus’s time. Fortunately, to address this knowledge gap, we have a wealth of extrabiblical evidence, admittedly unknown to the general layperson, thanks to people finding and analysing dead bodies for us.
For example, skeletal remains of 108 individuals in caves around the Judean wilderness from the Hellenistic period give a mean age at death of 44 years for males, 35 for females, with the Roman period afterwards being significantly shorter.3 This is bad news if Judean women who are old enough to have raised fully grown children are reportedly the key witnesses. Of 35 individuals in a different study from the Roman period at Giv’at ha-Mivtar, nine (26%) died as a result of either violence or starvation, including a crucified young man and three teenagers.4 The average age of the remaining eleven males was 43 years, and the twelve females 32 years. Only 2 of the 35 (6%) were just over 60 years old.
These results from the Judean region specifically can be compared with more general figures for the Eastern Mediterranean from the anthropologist John Angel.5 Based on a sample of 127 adults (i.e. fifteen or over) from the Roman era, he reaches figures of 40 for males and 34 for females. We have to be careful to exclude infant mortality, which would otherwise skew our numbers downwards, yet also bear in mind how violent the times for which we are estimating dying ages actually were.
Combining the evidence, this results in typical death ages of 42 for men and 34 for women with a 6% margin of error at 95% confidence. Simply put, we can be 95% sure that male eyewitnesses would be dead on average between 40 and 45 and females between 32 and 36.6 Given this, we next need to work out how old these folk would have been at the time of the crucifixion. That will then give us the probable dates that this generation would have died out by.
2. How old were the reported witnesses to the crucifixion?
The honest answer is here that we don’t know. The first and most important witnesses, all gospel writers agreed, were a group of women, though it’s not clear they agreed how many. They, besides the Apostles, are the only ones given names in the text and therefore are the only ones we could have “investigated” and “relied on”. How old might they have been?
Mary, the mother of James and Joses, was a woman with two grown children, which I propose would make her at least 34 if she married at 16, had her two children back-to-back at 17 and 18. Presuming that Salome is identified with ‘the mother of the sons of Zebedee‘, that means she was a mother whose two grown children had followed Jesus for three years, so is 37 or older. Joanna (only mentioned by “Luke”) was the wife of Chuza, who served as a senior official to Herod Antipas, so she was clearly of some means to support Jesus. This, plus the association with Mary and Salome, gives me the idea she might have been around 30. As for Mary Magdalene, for similar reasons, we can imagine her around 30 years old.
What of the Twelve? Well, academic resources are thin on the ground and the New Testament gives us no strong clues. There exists only a very theologically driven article on JSTOR by Cary and Cary (1917), which proposes that the disciples were all under 20 except Peter, who would be over 20 due to him being both married and in the scope of the ‘two-drachma tax’.7 Ray Vander Laan is another vocal advocate of teenage apostles. Feel free to check out his view here or his books on the subject.8
The most detailed discussion of this topic, however, is a dissertation by Laurence Cox, which instead suggests the early twenties as the most likely age of calling.9 The rationale for this runs roughly as follows:
- There is evidence associating Jesus with young followers (Mk. 14:51, Mt. 19:20, Lk. 7:14). This word for ‘young man’ (‘neaniskos’), featuring 11 times in the NT, appears to refer to a person aged 18-22 in extrabiblical sources, though the definite upper boundary is 30 years old.
- ‘Young men’ in the NT are implicitly unmarried, e.g. 1 John 2:13-14, where the people are addressed in three groups: children, ‘young men’, and fathers. ‘Young women’ are told to love their husbands in the pseudo-Pauline Epistle to Titus (2:2-10), yet ‘young men’ are told to be self-controlled and chaste, suggesting ‘young women’ were married, though not to ‘young men’.
- ‘Young men’ in the Septuagint (Greek translation of HB/OT) are either ready for (Gen. 34:19) – or in the first few years of – marriage (2 Sam. 14:21).
- Only Peter is (explicitly) married when called by Jesus in the NT. However, 1 Cor. 9:5 indicates all other disciples are married at the time of writing (53-54 CE). This gives weight to an idea of ‘ready to be married though not yet married’ age-wise.
- Rabbinic sources indicate 18-20 as the ‘age of marriage’, yet this ought to be interpreted as a minimum rather than definitive age. You can get married at 18, but you don’t have to, much like today albeit with far more pressure on getting married in those times. There is extra-biblical evidence of marriages between the ages of 20 and 30 for ordinary men.
- Economic independence was the key determinant of when you would get married, given that weddings were pretty expensive then, and they still are now! Look at the fitting age of marriage given to the Patriarch Levi at 28 by the author of his pseudonymous Testament. For Issachar, the writer thought he would have been 30.
Given their low-income backgrounds in small villages, and their wandering around with an itinerant preacher for a few years, it would have taken a number of years for Jesus’s initial disciples to become married,10 so I generously assume they had an average age of 23 at the crucifixion.
3. When did the generation die out?
We can now form the evidentially-driven and reasonable expectation that roughly nine identifiable eyewitnesses (all apostles; no women) might have been alive to consult by the time Paul writes his earliest known letter (1 Thessalonians, c. 51 CE). Notice that by Paul’s last letter (2 Corinthians, c. 57 CE), we have no mentions of the other disciples, whereas he includes dramatic mention of them in his earliest ones.11
This eyewitness tally falls dramatically to one person, John – based generously on Christian traditions of him being the youngest – for most of the rest of Paul’s letters and the writing of the first gospel, Mark (c. 68 CE). For the sake of argument and testing the model, I have assumed he was called by Jesus in 30 CE at the age of 13.
It would be more probable than not that he was dead by 59 CE (age c. 42), so would not have been alive by the time that most scholars believe the other gospels and Acts were written. If we believed tradition,12 that he died around 100 CE in Ephesus, we would also have to – ideally via non-circular means – believe that a rural fisherman’s son could make it to his 90s in the ancient world, spreading a religion, generally received with some hostility, without being killed. This well exceeds the top lifespan given by the evidence at 65 years old.13
This thought leads us nicely to our next question: “being generous and presuming the eyewitnesses had not died of natural causes, were there any unnatural ones which may have wiped them out before their time?”
4. Siege of Jerusalem
Josephus, the alleged author of the infamous ‘Testimonium Flavianum’, tells us that 1.1 million people were killed in the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE by Titus and his armies, and 97,000 people taken as slaves.14 The other source, Tacitus, proclaims 600,000 were caught up in the siege, though he does not say how many died.15 I mean, nobody counted, so these are all estimations; Tacitus himself admits the figure is hearsay via his use of accepimus (“we have heard”).
The point, however, is that a massive proportion of the Jesus-era folk who had so far avoided death by natural causes was highly likely to have met their end by unnatural ones in this bloody annihilation. In the relevant passage (V.13) in his Histories, Tacitus is emphatic:
‘All who were able bore arms, and a number, more than proportionate to the population, had the courage to do so. Men and women showed equal resolution, and life seemed more terrible than death, if they were to be forced to leave their country.’
All of this combined means that after 70 CE, when the Gospels were being written and distributed, none of the witnesses would be alive. This is why Christian apologists like Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell need the Gospels to be produced pre-70CE. In fact, the whole (problematic) “who would die for a lie” apologetic explicitly asserts that most of the apostles boldly went to their deaths either in the 70s or even earlier. (These legendary stories are known to us at the very earliest from 150 years after the “event”.) You can’t have it both ways – either they bravely died or they were alive and could correct false stories.
5. What if they were still alive, though?
Regardless, even if they were still around, they would have been at least old and infirm and unable to travel. Also, if the Four Evangelists had met the apostles or other eyewitnesses, they would have said so, as is true of any author, ancient or modern.
More critically, literacy rates were dismal. The most rigorous examination of the evidence comes from a Professor of Jewish Studies, Catherine Hezser, who works out a sound estimation that only 3% of Jews in Roman Palestine were literate.16 Even then, of this fraction, varying degrees of reading and writing ability would have existed. Bear in mind that these literate folk would all be: (a) male; (b) wealthy; (c) in privileged social positions.
We are told that Peter and John are ‘agrammatos’ (“unlettered”) and ‘idiótés’ (“uneducated”); this is hardly surprising for fisherman and craftsmen from a small coastal village (Capernaum, population = c. 1,500). Roughly 45 people in this town could read and it’s worth remembering the large sums of money required for private schools or tutors, plus the fact that reading and writing were taught as separate skills in classical education.
So even if some of the Twelve survived the Great Revolt (66-73 CE), would these individuals also have been able to read these complex Greek narratives and even more so challenge any inaccuracies in them? Due to how costly writing materials were, it is also improbable that they would have had access to them at any rate either. This gives a rather damning overall probability for this apologetic’s veracity.
As is true of biblical inerrancy (see here), we are talking about a complex conjunctive (“AND”/”∧”) type argument, i.e. “P1 and P2 must both be true for the conclusion C to be true”. The probability that supposed eyewitnesses were readily available to correct any dubious legends which grew up around the historical Jesus is minimal once you start multiplying the component parts:
Related: The Mad Maths of Inerrancy
What of the apologetic that the authors were not themselves nor spoke to eyewitnesses, yet had heard their stories second-hand? This is far more reasonable. Nevertheless, is second-hand testimony (“hearsay”) generally trusted in a law court setting for deciding contentious truth even in modern times? Besides, what evidence did anyone ever have for this eyewitness sources assumption in the first place, other than Luke‘s introductory paragraphs and “being generous” to past “historians”?
What do you think? Are you a defender or a critic of the claim that the Gospels were the product of eyewitness testimony? Why do you believe this? Why not drop a comment below, or follow the Facebook page?
- Blenkinsopp, J. (1997), ‘Life Expectancy in Ancient Palestine’, Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, 11:1, pp. 44-55. People lived for 750-950 years in pre-Flood genealogies and even longer (up to 43,200 years) in comparable works, e.g. the Sumerian King List. For more insight into Genesis, please see my article here. ↩
- Brîn, G. (2001), The Concept of Time in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Brill: Boston), p. 203. ↩
- B. Arensburg, M.S. Goldstein et al. (1980), ‘Skeletal Remains of Jews from the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Periods in Israel’, Bull, et Mém. de la Société d’Anthropologie de Paris, 7:3, pp. 175-186; B. Arensburg, M.S. Goldstein, Y. Rak (1985), ‘Observations on the Pathology of the Jewish Population in Israel (100 B.C.E. to 600 C.E.)’, Koroth, 9:1-2, pp. 73-83. ↩
- Haas, N. (1970), ‘Anthropological Observations on the Skeletal Remains from Giv’at ha-Mivtar’, Israel Exploration Journal, 20:1-2, pp. 38-59; Smith, P. (1977), ‘The Human Skeletal Remains from Abba Cave’, Israel Exploration Journal, 27:2-3, pp. 121-124. ↩
- Angel, J.L. (1972), ‘Ecology and Population in the Eastern Mediterranean’, World Archaeology, 4:1, pp. 88-105. The Hellenistic period sample (n=126) had slightly higher ages at death of 43 for men and 37 for women. Counter-intuitively, his table shows a continuous decline in adult life expectancy from 650 BCE until the Romantic period from 1800 CE onwards. ↩
- Figures rounded to nearest integer for readability; see spreadsheet for more precise values. The margin of error (±5.96%) has been calculated for a 95% confidence interval, a population estimate of 1 million (various sources converge on this figure) and a sample of 270. Our sample size could be larger, granted, yet not by much, since ‘in general skeletal remains recovered from ossuaries in the Jerusalem area are poorly preserved, a fact attributable to the damp environment’; see Smith, P. (1977), ‘The Human Skeletal Remains from Abba Cave’, Israel Exploration Journal, 27:2-3, pp. 121-124. ↩
- Matthew 17:24-27. This ‘two-drachma tax’ was owed by every male Jew over 20 years old for the upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem, as per Exodus 30:11-13. We should treat this incident, as ever, with a source-critical mindset. We are talking over 40 years after the event by an author who was obviously not present in this conversation and likely never met Jesus’s disciples either. ↩
- Laan, R. V. (2006), In the Dust of the Rabbi: Learning to Live as Jesus Lived (Zondervan: Grand Rapids). ↩
- Cox, L. (2016), How Old Were Jesus and His Disciples?, a dissertation submitted in the course of Graduate Diploma in Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London, pp. 1-35. This is the lengthiest academic treatment of the subject of the age of Jesus and the Twelve to date, and its argument is pretty compelling for a topic where real evidence is scarce. ↩
- Safrai, S. et al. (1974), The Jewish People in the First Century (Brill: Boston), vols. 1-2. ↩
- We do have references to ‘super-apostles’ (ὑπερλίαν ἀποστόλων) in 2 Corinthians (11:5, 12:11). If you are a Christian who reveres the apostolic era, however, surely you would not want to believe that this refers to all or some of the Twelve? It would be odd that he chose not to refer to any good models of apostleship, other than himself, were the others alive at this point. I concede, in fairness, that his likely penultimate authentic letter, Romans (16:7), makes a present tense remark about Andronicus and Junia being ‘prominent among the apostles’. I think this should be interpreted simply to mean that Paul had a wide definition of ‘apostles’ and that Andronicus and Junia were considered ‘of note’ within this ‘messenger’ group, of which he himself was one. After all, Paul also designates Silas and Timothy ‘apostles’. He explicitly mentions the Twelve in his earlier letters, such as 1 Corinthians and Galatians, yet does not mention them in his later ones. This is a weaker “argument by silence”, yet it is worth noting and gives a picture that Peter, Matthew and a few key others may have died in the intermittent period. For a good defence of the translation ‘prominent among’ vs. ‘well known to’, see (among others): Bauckham, R. (2002), Gospel Women: Studies of Named Women in the Gospels (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids). ↩
- Besides a historically meaningless martyrdom rumour put forward in the 5th century and then falsely attributed to Papias of Hierapolis, earlier sources attest to John the Apostle dying of natural causes. ↩
- Nagar, Y. and Torgeë, H. (2003), ‘Biological Characteristics of Jewish Burial in the Hellenistic and Early Roman Periods’, Israel Exploration Journal, 53:2, p. 167. The sample in this study comprises 227 individuals and the rough lifespan top-end limit at 65 years old is not contradicted by any other paper I have read in researching this post. ↩
- Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, VI.9.3. (Link) ↩
- Tacitus, Histories, V.13. (Link) ↩
- Hezser, C. (2001), Jewish Literacy in Ancient Palestine (Mohr Siebeck: Tübingen). A summary of Hezser’s view is available here. ↩