Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

  • Richard Bauckham
  • Jan 1, 2007
  • Series: Volume 10 - 2007

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006. xiii + 538 pp. $32.00. ISBN 0-8028-3162-1.

This is the last academic year that Richard Bauckham teaches full-time in his post as professor of New Testament studies and Bishop Wardlaw Professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland before his retirement. We can only hope that Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is far from the last major monograph that he composes. This work might just be the most important one that he has ever written. But given my bias for the significance of the topic of Gospels' reliability, my perspective may be slightly skewed!

In a short introductory chapter, Bauckham stakes out his turf in the crowded field of studies that relate the canonical Gospels to the historical Jesus. The key word for what the Gospels supply is "testimony"--a term with both historical and theological implications. Good historians in the ancient Mediterranean world relied on as much participation in events as they could and next on eyewitness testimony. More distant dependence on second-hand written sources was considered less exemplary. But testimony inevitably reflects how one or more people remembered events and thus creates selectivity and distinctive emphases and ways of retelling the story, which we see in the New Testament Gospels as well.

In the body of the book, Bauckham launches immediately into the case for eyewitness testimony behind the Gospels. Papias' testimony, to be dated to A.D. 130 at the latest, is sufficiently modest so as to betray no signs of apologetic exaggeration. As in previous works, Bauckham defends a distinction between John the Elder and John the apostle in Papias' writing, and believes the former rather than the latter wrote the Fourth Gospel.

With respect to the Synoptics, Bauckham mounts an intriguing case for the number of instances in which non-apostolic, named characters could have functioned as precisely such eyewitnesses and their names initially would have served as guarantors of the tradition. Contra Bultmann's long-touted law of increasing distinctness, as one moves from Mark to the other Gospels, and then to the earliest non-canonical Gospels, names drop out more than they are added. Not until the fourth and fifth centuries does that situation reverse itself, a time by which little new historical information not already preserved was likely to emerge.

Utilizing Tal Ilan's Lexicon of Jewish Names in Antiquity, Bauckham demonstrates how almost all the names in the Gospels recur elsewhere in other ancient documents or inscriptions, many of them distinctively Palestinian names, not likely to be chosen by someone writing later in the diaspora without accurate historical information. Even the frequency of various names corresponds approximately to the frequency in Ilan's catalogue. The ways the lists of the disciples' names are recorded, along with their ordering and specific collection of similarities and differences, likewise suggests that they were looked to as guarantors of the tradition.

In his prologue, Luke speaks of obtaining his information from those who were "from the beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the word," established historiographic language intended to claim careful preservation of the information about the life and teachings of Jesus. The first and last disciple named in Mark, singled out for special mention at the calling of the Jesus' first four followers and when the women are told to tell them to meet up with Jesus in Galilee after the resurrection, is Peter, perhaps confirming Papias' testimony about Mark relying especially on Petrine tradition. John contains a similar inclusio concerning the "beloved disciple" (assuming he is to be equated with the anonymous disciple of the two mentioned in John 1:35, not subsequently identified as Andrew--v. 40), the eyewitness who authenticates the testimony of the Fourth Gospel.

Further support for a Petrine background to Mark comes from the fourteen places in which the narrator begins in the plural referring to the disciples but then shifts to an unidentified "he" and continues in the singular. In context, the "he" almost always means Jesus, but the way of narrating is strange unless Mark picked it up from one of the disciples themselves and, given the places in which the phenomenon occurs, one of the inner core of followers who was used to speaking this way about his master without necessarily mentioning him by name. The notable absence of a positive, prominent role for Peter in this Gospel (unlike the others) is best explained if the role he plays in this narrative is not related to the offices he would later occupy in leading the Christian community. And, when he did come into leadership, would the denials of Jesus by Peter have been recorded, remaining stable and stressed in all four Gospels, unless Peter had authorized their preservation?

A few anonymous characters in the Gospels may also have functioned as eyewitness tradents, with their names omitted in a kind of ancient "witness-protection" plan--the man in whose home the Jesus and the Twelve ate the last Passover, the man whose donkeys Jesus borrowed for the so-called triumphal entry, the man who fled naked from the garden of Gethsemane, the woman who anointed Jesus (not named until John's later Gospel), and the man who cut off the ear of the high priest's slave and that slave himself (again not identified until John's day). Bauckham wonders, too, if Lazarus' complete absence from the Synoptics is not for this same reason: none of the early traditions included his name and they were faithfully recorded as they were received. Only at the end of the first century, when doubtless all these characters who played significant roles in the events leading up to and including Christ�s crucifixion were dead, was it completely safe to name them.

At this juncture, Bauckham returns to Papias' testimony to argue that Mark played the role not so much as Peter's "interpreter" but as his "translator," that the phrase often rendered "according to needs" (pros tas chreias) actually means that Mark used the Greek rhetorical form of chreia (or anecdote), and that Mark's lack of "order" referred to lack of chronological order (or even high literary order) given his frequent more topical outline and simpler and more orally based writing style. Papias� testimony about Matthew then falls into place nicely, with logia referring to more than just isolated sayings and hermeneuō again meaning "to translate" (from Aramaic into Greek).

A particularly helpful and persuasive section turns to the flurry of recent study of oral tradition, remembered history, social memory, and the like. Bauckham is dissatisfied with a taxonomy (as presented by K. E. Bailey) that offers only the three options of formal and controlled, informal but controlled, or informal and uncontrolled tradition. In essence, he opts for an intermediate position between the first two of these. One of the reasons for doing so follows from Vansina's study of oral traditions in primitive African cultures, in which (fictitious) tales and (historical) accounts are distinguished and greater care is taken to preserve the latter. This distinction "refutes all claims that Gospels scholars, from the form critics onward, have made to the effect that early Christians, in the transmission of Jesus traditions, would not have made any distinction between the past time of the history of Jesus and their own present because oral societies do not make such distinctions" (p. 273). With Lemcio, the numerous distinctions between the Gospels' emphases about Jesus and the rest of the New Testament's highlights further reinforces the conviction that the two time periods were kept separate in early Christians' minds.

Pushing the issue one step further, Bauckham demonstrates that there is no ancient support for the idea of the collective anonymous. Traditions are labeled and identified with sources. Sometimes those sources form a group, as with the Twelve, but the danger in applying the study of social memory associated with Halbwachs, suddenly popular in various biblical circles, is that no room is left for individual memories' distinctives. Three dimensions must be distinguished: "(1) the social dimension of individual recollection, (2) the shared recollections of a group, and (3) collective memory" (p. 313)--that which no one member of the group actually recalls but which all have been told about repeatedly. The last of these is what social memory theorists often study and apply to the Gospels most, even though it is the dimension, within the first generation of Christianity, that least fits!

What needs further analysis, therefore, is eyewitness memory. Without a doubt, vivid and important events in someone's life, especially as a young person or young adult, can stay with them for decades, especially if frequently rehearsed and/or retold. When gaps occur in one's memory, however, they may be filled with other memories from similar events on separate occasions. Overall, in daily life, though, memory successes far outnumber memory failures. All these trends need to be applied to the formation of the Gospels much more than they have been heretofore.

Additional chapters treat signs of eyewitness material throughout the Fourth Gospel, the role of "witness" as a central theme in that Gospel, and the "beloved disciple" as the eyewitness source behind the narrative. Interestingly, Peter still remains the leader and most prominent of the Twelve; the beloved disciple is superior only in his ability to testify to the veracity of the account. Bauckham concludes that "it is hard to believe that a pseudepigraphical writer would have invented a character who required such a brilliant strategy to establish his claim as an eyewitness" (p .409).

A final return to Papias defends the view that his statements about the origins of the Fourth Gospel disclose that John the Elder, perhaps urged on by other elders, who together had known various members of the Twelve, wrote the Gospel as we know it. These elders are the "we" who vouchsafe for the truth of the narrative in 21:24. The twist that Bauckham puts on this reconstruction (from many who have adopted an otherwise similar one) is that this John the Elder was himself the Beloved Disciple and the aged eyewitness of the events narrated. Thus he functions virtually in the same fashion that John the apostle does on the traditional view. Bauckham goes on to discuss the testimony of Polycrates and Irenaeus, which he believes supports and elaborates his interpretation.

A closing chapter brings the study full circle to the question of the Jesus of testimony. Noting that it is a modern, unwise and somewhat arrogant notion to think that historians do not need to stand on the shoulders of the giants of the past but can reinvestigate ancient and complex topics from scratch, as it were, independent of their predecessors, Bauckham appeals to Ricoeur and a critical realist approach to historiography. He uses the comparison with holocaust testimony to show how one can be both passionately committed to a cause that one's testimony supports and provide accurate testimony. Indeed, certain kinds of causes, such as arguing for God acting uniquely in the history of the Christ-event, demand it.

As in all of his works, Bauckham has ransacked obscure secondary literature for little-known but immensely helpful information. He has thought creatively about time-worn problems and uncovered possible interpretations of subtle features of ancient testimony--both in the Gospels and about them--with the shrewdness of a good detective. Almost none of his proposals prove implausible, even if some seem more probable than others. The cumulative effect of the volume is to suggest that there still remain more avenues to explore that support the historical reliability of the Gospels and the eyewitness testimony on which it is based. I am particularly grateful that the book appeared six weeks before the revised edition of my Historical Reliability of the Gospels was due at the publisher, so I could incorporate some of Bauckham's material into my revisions. This is a volume to be commended most warmly to anyone interested in the topic and especially to any tempted to be led astray by alternate, more skeptical models of the formation of the Gospels and the truthfulness of their contents.

Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
January 2007

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