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The following is a book review of Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans, 2006). 538 pgs.
For hundreds of years now, Christians have been told their main sources for the person of Jesus are corrupt. The real historical Jesus, if he can be known at all, cannot be known by the NT gospels.
Does history, then, undermine faith?
Bauckham does not think so, and he makes an unprecedented historical case for understanding the gospels as faithfully representing the eyewitness testimony of early Christians who knew Jesus and witnessed his ministry, miracles, and resurrection. His exceptionally conservative approach, although not shared by most scholars and historians, has created a splash in New Testament studies. His case cannot simply be ignored.
Bacukham’s proposal in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for understanding the Gospels as eyewitness testimony, though lucid and cogent, is nevertheless complex and multifaceted. The ingenious originality of this work, combined with its broad scope of unexplored possibilities, have led at least one reviewer to criticize it on the grounds that “the sheer amount of information and analysis … presented is overwhelming at times” (Byron, 115).
To get a handle on a quick summary, this review will attempt to first explain the significance of the work by setting it in the context of mainstream scholarship on the gospels. Second, we will briefly highlight Bauckham’s reconstruction of the historiographic context in which the gospels were written, how oral tradition and memory fit into his argument, his explanation of the unexplained phenomenon of names in the gospels, and finally, his case for the identity of the “beloved disciple.”
Uncontrolled Oral Transmission Over Several Generations
Central to the current project of form criticism, argues Bauckham, is this assumption: by the time the oral Jesus traditions crystallized in the written gospels of the Christian canon, they no longer faithfully preserved the real history of Jesus of Nazareth. This is because such oral traditions were, according to form critics, subjected to “a long process of anonymous transmission” relatively uncontrolled (6, 8). The original arguments of form critics such as Bultmann compared the oral transmission process to folklore, which passed from generation to generation over long periods of time. Such a model, it was thought, explains why such a wide variety of both similarity and dissimilarity exists between the gospels.
Such a model is now rejected. The unchecked presupposition of form critics that the anonymous transmission over a long span of time, however, stubbornly remains (7, 249). Thus, speculations about what Sitz im Leben each literary unit originated from leave the impression that the gospels shed more light on the early church’s faith than the historical person of Jesus (244). Such a dichotomy inevitably forces historians to reconstruct alternative Jesus’s with imaginative speculations (3).
The “generally accepted” dates for the gospels make any comparison with folklore entirely inappropriate by severely limiting the intervening period of time between the events of Jesus’ ministry and the writing of the Jesus traditions (7). Furthermore, the assumptions by which form critics understood themselves to be discovering the pure form of the oral tradition have been undermined by subsequent scholarship. For example, Mark’s gospel was thought to be composed of short saying or stories about Jesus superficially strung together by the redactor (242).
More sophisticated connectivity and plot, however, have long since been recognized in Mark by form critics themselves (243). Scandinavian scholars have examined models of oral transmission in rabbinic Judaism (as opposed to Folklore or Hellenistic literature) and concluded that it provides a model for understanding the early Jesus traditions (249). Kenneth Baily’s studies on oral tradition have also influenced scholars like N. T. Wright and James Dunn, moving scholarship well beyond the initial form critical mold (252). Scholars now openly challenge Bultmann’s “laws” of tradition (247) and believe “the kind of tradition history Bultmann thought could be reconstructed did not exist” (248).
The Historiographic Context of Early Christianity
Contrary to form critical orthodoxy, the earliest evidence for how the early Christians would have conceived of the composition of the gospels suggests that the Jesus traditions were “attached to specific named eyewitnesses” or “tradents” (20). Papias might have written in 110 C.E., but the time period he recalls when the Jesus traditions were still being sought after was much earlier, which makes the Papian fragments crucial evidence for the “historiographic context” in which the gospels were composed (14, 24). Bauckham’s analysis concludes that Papias’s wording reflects the “historiographic ‘best practice’” of valuing first-hand eyewitness as the most important source in historical accounts (24).
Borrowing the language of Byrskog, Bauckham understands Papias to have sought either “autopsy” or “indirect autopsy” (from living eyewitnesses such as John the Elder or disciples of such tradents such as Aristion) according to the standard practice of the day for writing history (24). His “deliberate” language of the viva vox had “wide currency” during this time (cf. Loveday Alexander’s research, 21-23) and therefore is the proper historiographic context for understanding how the gospels were written (22, 25). Eyewitness testimony was considered the most important source, but the job of the historian was to preserve these faithfully while giving them the “properly ordered form,” as Kürzinger’s translation makes more clear in Papias’s intentional appeal to this language (26).
For Bauckham, “a key implication” is this: the evidence of the Papian fragments shows that the Jesus traditions were tied to the eyewitnesses who originated them (28). Diametrically opposed to the assumptions of form critics, Papias’s account shows that the more “anonymous” the tradition was, the less valuable it was to Papias (29). If this is the earliest extra-biblical evidence for how early Christians sought to write their own account of Jesus’ life and ministry, we should expect that the gospels were written with the same historiographic goal in mind. This would make sense, for example, of the strong extrabiblical tradition that the gospel of Mark was derived chiefly from the eyewitness of Peter, and the parallel to Papias’s Prologue in Luke’s introduction (Luke 1:2).
Formally Controlled Transmission with Limited Flexibility
Bauckham borrows from Bailey’s work (as do Wright and Dunn) to suggest that the historiographic context (in which individual tradents of the Jesus tradition were authoritative guarantors) calls for a more nuanced conception in which the essentials of the oral tradition were “formally controlled” from the outset by eyewitness who were such “from the beginning” (262) while a limited amount of flexibility was allowed regarding the retelling of peripheral details (258, 287). In this case, a reasonable use of Ockham’s Razor would suggest that “there is no good reason to suppose that the range of variation of particular traditions was even greater than the range we find in the Gospels themselves” (259).
This is confirmed by Pauline language of “the traditions” (1 Cor 11:2) that he “received” and subsequently “delivered,” expecting them to “hold fast” to it (e.g. 1 Cor 15:1,3; Gal 1:9; Col 2:6; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6) without corrupting it (264). Paul understood himself to be the “mechanism of control” (258) of this tradition in the Christian communities while the Jerusalem church still played the central role of authority (265-266).
The Role and Reliability of Memory
Bauckham also wants to rid readers of the impression that once oral tradition is absorbed into the “collective memory” of a community, it becomes disconnected with the individual memory of the eyewitness tradent (292-293). Since the content of these formally controlled traditions involves memory, and since reconstructive theories have tended to emphasize the unreliability of memory, Bauckham navigates the research to explore how the evidence of such research can in fact support the general reliability of the eyewitness testimony of the earliest disciples, and how “deferred meaning” can be a legitimate way of making better sense of the whole of one’s experience, retrospectively constructing a more satisfying “meaning” in the present from the “facts” of the past (319-357).
The Phenomenon of Names & The Synoptic Problem
If Papias was so eager to tell his readers that his rendition of the Jesus traditions was informed by eyewitness sources, and this was so important to the early Christian community—why are the gospels not also prefaced with attributes to their sources? With some qualifications, Bauckham is able to argue that the gospels, in a subtle way, do in fact attribute the whole of their account to eyewitness.
Although eyewitnesses other than the twelve appear in the gospels indicating eyewitness testimony of minor tradents (especially for Luke’s account), the outstanding preservation of lists of those who were with Jesus “from the beginning” also demonstrates their central role in the controlling of the traditions (114-147). Bauckham’s chapter on Palestinian Jewish names shows that it is unlikely these names were simply added as literary devices (67-84). This makes the claim that they were preserved because they were the sources behind the traditions more plausible (84).
Although among the twelve disciples only a few of them have any significant roles in these gospels, their names are carefully preserved with Peter always at the front of the list due to the chief role of his eyewitness authority. There are traces of a “Peterine perspective in Mark” along with what Bauckham calls the literary devise of inclusio in which Peter’s name is carefully placed at the beginning and end of the book to indicate qualification for being the authentic eyewitness source for Mark’s gospel (155-182).
This is confirmed again by Papias’s fragments that speak of Mark as Peter’s “interpreter” (which just means he had to translate Peter’s Aramaic into Greek like a secretary, 206). Certain anonymous persons who aided Jesus, anointed him as Messiah in his messianic visit to Jerusalem, or defended him with use of violence at his arrest remain anonymous for protective purposes (this he calls “protective anonymity,” 183-201).
Bauckham argues that Papias must have compared Mark unfavorably to the other gospels, however, for its lack of chronological order (taxis), and this explains why the other synoptic gospels were written (219). Luke’s gospel built off Peter’s testimony in Mark, and therefore similarly has the Petrine inclusio, yet is especially enriched by the women eyewitnesses and thus forms a double inclusio (130-132).
Mark’s lack of taxis also helps explain why Matthew wrote his gospel, according to Papias, in “the Hebrew language” with taxis, but then the ordinary freedom others took in translating it tarnished this order (222-224). This helps explain, in turn, why the gospel of John, with its more precise chronology, was written (225), which contains the name of its eyewitness author—the “beloved disciple” (227-228).
The Case for the Identity of the Gospel of John
Bauckham reestablishes the epilogue as authentic and integral to the gospel then argues that the author of the gospel who speaks with an “authoritative we” in John is none other than “the beloved disciple”—an eyewitness “from the beginning” according to that gospel (358-383). The author wrote this gospel through self autopsy with the help of other individual disciples; this explains the gospel’s eccentricity (403). It is the most theologically audacious gospel also for this reason—it was the only gospel written by an eyewitness “from the beginning” (411). But who is its author?
Papias’s Johannine language, list of disciples, and favoring of John’s gospel, along with his talk about “John the Elder,” makes it plausible that this John was the author of the gospel (417-423) but Eusebius edited his comments about this due to his own bias (424). The Muratorian Canon also appears to rely on Papias (427). Polycrates identifies John of Ephesus as “a priest, wearing the high-priestly frontlet,” the most unambiguous way to designate him as high priest (445-446). The simplest explanation, suggests Bauckham, is that Polycrates and the Ephesus tradition simply identified John with the John in Acts 4:6, for such exegetical identification was common in the early Christian movement (451). But this means they did not identify him with John the son of Zebedee (452). Finally, Irenaeus, who came from the province of Asia, identifies the John of Ephesus with the author of the gospel of John (453).
STARING ACROSS LESSING’S GREAT DITCH
Details of Bauckham’s case may be disputed, but his approach as a whole, as Bond points out, depends on “whether the hypothesis as a whole accounts for the evidence better than that of the form critics” (Bond, 270). If it stands the test of further research, scholars who have become cozy and comfortable in their skepticism may find themselves uncomfortably close to the real Jesus of history. Rather than a chasm between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history, Lessing’s Great Ditch will be narrowed to only a short leap. For many this might open the floodgates of exciting new possibilities for a union between synoptic historical integrity and Christian faith.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: OTHER REVIEWS CONSULTED
Bond, Helen K. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Journal of Theological Studies, no. 1 (April, 2008): 268 – 271.
Byron, John. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Ashland Theological Journal 39 (2007): 113 – 115.
Downing, Gerald F. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Theology 111, no. 861 (May-June, 2008): 190 – 191.
Köstenberger, Andreas J. Stephen O. Stout. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Bulletin for Biblical Research 18, no. 2 (2008): 209 – 231.
Paget, James Carleton. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Journal of Ecclesiastical History 59, no. 1 (January, 2008): 83 – 84.
Palmer, Darryl W. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Austrailian Biblical Review 56 (2008): 77 – 79.
Perry, Peter S. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Currents in Theology and Mission 35, no. 6 (December, 2008): 450.
Scaer, Peter J. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Logia 16, no. 4 (2007): 58 – 60.
Taylor, Nicholas H. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30, no. 5 (2008): 40 – 41.
Tolppanen, Kari. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Toronto Journal of Theology 24, no. 1 (2008): 98 – 100.
Wicker, James R. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Southwestern Journal of Theology 50, no. 1 (2007): 96 – 98.