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I've come across some criticism of the gospels as historical accounts based on the author’s ability to know certain events that seem unknowable, or at least hard to know, like the quote below:

Mark’s narrator can describe the inner feelings of the characters – their compassion, anger, fear, sadness, amazement and love. The narrator tells when characters are dazed, stunned, puzzled, pleased, terrified or dejected. The narrator also tells the audience what the characters are thinking, for example, that the opponents think Jesus is a blasphemer or that Pilate knows the high priests are envious. The narrator explains why characters do things and when characters do not understand and when they do not know what to say.


Source: Quora post by Dick Harfield referencing Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel, 3rd Ed (2012) by Rhoads, Dewey and Michie

When a narrator is omniscient, audiences tend to be unaware of the narrator's biases, values and conception of the world, and therefore tend to trust the narrator as a neutral, objective teller of the events.


Source: Google preview of Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel, 3rd Ed (2012) by Rhoads, Dewey and Michie, Chapter 2: The Narrator, Section "The Narrator's Point of View", Subsection "The narrator is not neutral"

Whilst this quote pertains to Mark, there are multiple instances in the gospels, or even Acts, where things appear to be written from an omniscient narrator perspective, or at least written regarding things the disciples weren’t present at.

Consider:

“Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭2:7-8‬ ‭

“About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business.” ‭‭Acts‬ ‭19:23-25‬ ‭

There are multiple other examples, such as when the gospels record the discussion of the Pharisees amongst themselves, etc.

I have heard that the gospels aren’t verbatim transcripts, but there are just some events where it seems hard to believe that the writers could have even known what happened, or even what was said.

So then, how are the gospels able to record some events like omniscient narrators when they would not have even been present, let alone be able to record the private discussions of individuals?

How would one refute the quote posted above? Does the (potential) use of omniscient narration impact the reliability of the gospels / their ability to be historical biographies?

Please note: I’m not saying there is or isn’t omniscient narration, but for the purpose of asking about it, I've included it in the title of my question. Irrespective of whether you think it is omniscient narration or not, there are some private events in the Bible that are described by the authors which seem difficult for them to be present at.

I'm not asking this question to be critical and I understand it may be broad. But, I guess I just want a clarity on how certain events in the gospels can be recorded if the disciples weren’t there?

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    Not sure why there is a downvote. I don’t mean to play devils advocate in my presuppositions in the question, or seem aggressive at all, im just trying to present the quote and the arguments made by skeptics so as to receive an answer that addresses it. the ability of some narrators in the bible to record things that seem unknowable has always made me wonder and sometimes troubles me in approaching the bible as a true text, so I just want clarity.
    – ellied
    Jul 13, 2022 at 13:35
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    not entirely sure why someone would downvote this question either, except the answer, to many Christians, is implicit in the belief that scripture is inspired. This means different things to different believers, but at the very least it means it's as trustworthy as if God spoke it Himself. One problem with the question is that it is too broad, like I noted, there's too many ways to start to answer this question. Concentrating on one Christian denomination or faith tradition is a good way to get particular answers.
    – Peter Turner
    Jul 13, 2022 at 13:40
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    @PeterTurner to be completely honest, I’m not overly fussed about the type of denominations or tradition in my response. Im happy to see a variety of answers, and I can discern from there. I could perhaps ask the question on the hermeneutics site, but it doesn’t seem overly fitting there and im happy with (relatively) any christian response here.
    – ellied
    Jul 13, 2022 at 13:45
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    ok that might explain the downvotes, the site is not designed to support a variety of answers. You can ask an overview question, but you need to specifically say that you're asking what various Christian denominations say. christianity.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/870/…
    – Peter Turner
    Jul 13, 2022 at 13:53
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    The Magi were witnesses who would surely have told Mary and Joseph about those occasions! And if they didn't, then God could have revealed it directly to the Gospel authors.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 13, 2022 at 14:07

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The "omniscient narrator" style is not unique to the Gospels/Acts; it is abundant in ancient Roman, Greek, and Jewish writing (e.g. Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Thucydides, Josephus, all over the Old Testament, etc.).

The use of this style does not automatically disqualify the reliability of the text, but rather, leads to the question a historian should be asking of any text: can I trust this author?

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Reliable authors

The reliability of the Gospel authors is an immense subject on its own, and one's conclusions are easily swayed by pre-existing beliefs.

  • For a brief, early defense of the reliability of the Gospel authors, see Irenaeus of Lyons Against Heresies 3.3.1, showing that the people who authored these texts were in a position to know what they were talking about.
  • For an extensive discussion from the standpoint of a historian, my video series here may be of interest. Among other things, I examine why it is rational to believe in the reliability of several New Testament authors, regardless of one's theological leanings.

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Specific Examples

This post on the Hermeneutics site walks through 5 such examples and may be of interest.

Mark and people's inner feelings

We have multiple, early historical attestation that the Gospel of Mark was based upon the teachings of Peter (e.g. Papias, Clement of Alexandria, see a more extensive discussion in the video series linked above).

If true, this means we're seeing people's reactions through the observations of someone who was there and knew these people personally. Though Peter surely did not know their every thought, powerful emotions can be readily noticed by an observer.

Re The narrator explains why characters do things, we can simply rephrase this as The narrator explains his understanding of why characters do things, in which case this question largely collapses into the question on the reliability of the author, addressed above.

Pharisees thinking evil in their hearts

Our source for knowing what the Pharisees were thinking in this case is Jesus Himself. If the rest of the text gives us reason to believe Jesus is a reliable source and these are His words, there is no obstacle here.

Pilate knew they were envious

The hostile politics between Pilate and the Jewish leaders was general knowledge, as was the Sanhedrin's envy of Jesus' popularity with the people.

Herod's conversation with the Magi

Although Matthew probably didn't get this information from Herod, it would not have been difficult to get the story from the Magi or their associates. Do we really think the Magi, recognizing who Jesus was, just disappeared after their trip to Judea and never said or did anything about it ever again?

Demetrius

His ill intent against Paul became publicly known when they leveled accusations against Paul before the town clerk a few verses later.

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Conclusion

If we are simply trying to answer the modest, historical question of whether the events reported in the Gospels/Acts could have been known and reliably reported by the authors, the answer is a resounding yes.

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  • "The events of the Gospels" is a very broad category. There's historical accounts (that is, accounts that were ancient history to the gospel writers) such as the (not exactly consistent) genealogies of Jesus. There are private events with only a few witness (Gabriel visiting Mary, the temptations of Jesus, Jesus in the garden, Jesus on the cross), major events (a census described in a nonsensical manner that there is no historical evidence for), etc. Jul 14, 2022 at 3:09
  • "The use of this style does not automatically disqualify the reliability of the text" It does seriously cast doubt on them, especially since the writing of the gospels was supposedly directed by a being who both was perfectly capable of directing the writers to write in a convincing manner, and fully aware that the unconvincing manner would be used as an argument against the gospels. "powerful emotions can be readily noticed by an observer." Failing to distinguish between things one directly knows, and things one has inferred, degrades one's trustworthiness. Jul 14, 2022 at 3:10
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    @Acccumulation I have offered a historical argument for reliability rather than a theological argument for inerrancy. The objection you raise regarding degrading trustworthiness could just as well be made against Thucydides or Tacitus (whom even naturalistic scholars take seriously) Jul 14, 2022 at 17:48
  • @Acccumulation re the census, see discussion of the context & the Greek involved here. If you'd like a deeper dive on other specific events (Mary, garden, etc), I'd be happy to share my thoughts if you'd like to ask a question about them on the main site. Jul 14, 2022 at 17:51
  • "The objection you raise regarding degrading trustworthiness could just as well be made" Which one? "re the census, see discussion of the context & the Greek involved here" I don't see how that's relevant. The issue is why the Romans would require everyone to go to their ancestral city, and why there are no other historical accounts of them. Jul 15, 2022 at 0:21
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I think there are two lines of defense.

First, the authors weren't writing in a vacuum. It's entirely possible that they spoke with people that would have had first-hand knowledge. While this doesn't, as you note, necessarily guarantee word-for-word accuracy of any recounting, it would suggest that we might expect at least the accuracy of any other historical retelling of past events.

Second, scripture is inspired by God (n.b. 2 Timothy 3:16, also Biblical inspiration and Biblical inerrancy), who, being omniscient, certainly would know what happened, even to the extent of verbatim accounts of what was said.

On a related note, the quote mentions omniscient narration with respect to bias, i.e. an increased lack thereof. In fact, when you read through the bible, one thing that stands out is how often it records events that are, shall we say, less than flattering. I wouldn't call the Bible "unbiased", but the bias is primarily God's bias, rather than that of the authors, who are generally reporting what happened in an honest and frank manner. (Particular examples include the disciples running away at the Crucifixion and the empty tomb being initially discovered by women.)

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