Thoughts on “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” by Richard Bauckham

This has been a groundbreaking book since its arrival in 2006. I not only heard about it, but frequently saw it cited in other things I was reading. I finally picked it up and read it!

Bauckham’s thesis: there’s strong evidence the four gospels are “closely based on eyewitness testimony of those who personally knew Jesus.” The whole book forcefully and, let’s say, nonchalantly (can’t think of a better word) lays out a compelling case. I don’t call this a book review, because the author of this book is very much a scholar, and it would take someone else of that scholarly caliber to truly review the book.

But here are a few other things I liked:

~Proper historical argumentation. Bauckham argues purely as a historian, not as a theologian or even a Christian apologist. I wouldn’t be able to tell if he was a Christian on this book alone (as an aside, he is), even though his thesis, arguments, and conclusions are very compatible with it. As a history major myself, he writes exactly in the ideal of how I was taught to write: Masterful use of primary and secondary sources, tight analysis, studious citations, and attention to detail. ( Some folks criticize it as having too much detail, or “weeds” – but this is dead wrong. Don’t we have enough other sloppy pop-history with more holes than swiss-cheese already? I didn’t find unnecessary “weeds” of detail in this book.)

~Oral history. Bauckham brings a good deal of clarity to the oral background of the gospels. Scholars of every stripe agree that the gospel’s content was told orally before it was written down. Bauckham argues that these ancedotes shouldn’t be considered in the genre of “oral tradition,” as many scholars have done, which disengages the stories from the historical events they are meant to tell of. The term “oral tradition” refers to stories that happened in prior generations, perhaps going back centuries.  Since the stories were told and re-told frequently within the same generations as the events, and getting the actual facts about Jesus right was important to early Christians, the stories should be considered as oral history. He gives good evidence and nice surveys of relevant literature on this… as with everything else.

~First century name statistics. He demonstrates that what we now know of 1st century names fits well with the name statistics in the gospels. The proportions of common and rare first century names in Palestine are the same as those in the gospels, in some cases to 1% difference. This suggests that the gospels were first century literary creations concerning real first century people in real first century events.

~Comparisons between the gospels and ancient historiography. The charge against the gospels as being written by people biased toward Jesus with a biased agenda would be very odd by ancient history standards. For ancient historians, hearing from someone who actually lived and experienced the events was what was valuable, not being a dispassionate observer. By these historiographical standards, the gospels have a definite weight to them, though the format of the gospels has some differences from other histories of the time. Bauckham argues the early Christian historian Papias held John’s Gospel as the prime example of a piece of polished history, while other synoptic gospels, particularly Mark, were still in the form of a historians’ rough notes and anecdote-collections rather than polished history. Which leads us to:

~Mark’s Gospel from accounts of Peter. Bauckham argues that Mark’s Gospel is really the collection of stories from Peter, which Mark wrote down.  He reveals that Peter as a character is more heavily involved in Mark than any other gospel, and through Mark’s utilizing of the literary technique of inclusio (Peter is the first disciple to show up in the story and the last one mentioned), he demonstrates Peter to be the source of the material. Bauckham notes that Mark’s unusually frequent plural-to-singular constructions fit perfectly with Mark writing down Peter’s spoken-word stories. For example, Mark 11.12: “On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he [Jesus] was hungry.”  This is exactly how someone would tell the story if they were there with Jesus: “One the following day when we came from Bethany, he was hungry.” Mark would simply have changed the plural from the first person to third person. Bauckham spends some time on Matthew and Luke as well.

~John’s Gospel as Testimony. Bauckham points out that John’s Gospel is very comparable to what ancient historians would shoot for. It is sharply organized, in chronological order, and very smoothed out compared to the somewhat looser collections of anecdotes in the synoptics. He demonstrates that the author of this gospel meant for this to be an eyewitness account to Jesus: for instance, the numerous hints that he is the ideal witness to be telling these things (a witness to the cross itself), and again, the inclusio technique – he is the first and last disciple mentioned in the book.

~Memory. He has a great section on studies old and new on memory – how reliable it is, what people tend to remember, and how this compares with the gospels. He notes that gospels contain stories of things we would expect people to remember vividly – people tend to remember unusual events, events connected with strong emotions, monumentous/life-changing events, etc. His case-study comparisons between holocaust testimonies and gospel testimonies were fascinating.

 

… There’s more, including the unreasonableness of the form criticism method in gospel studies, the importance of testimony in epistemology, etc. but I can’t reproduce the whole book for you. On the other hand, some cons:

~Light on Matthew and Luke. Bauckham doesn’t spend as much time on Matthew and Luke as I expected. He dwells on Mark and John a bit more. Indeed, those are the most important two to focus on, since Matthew and Luke were based off of Mark anyway, and John is its own unique piece. But I would like to have seen more on Luke especially.

~Thin threads of arguments. A lot of Bauckham’s arguments depend on certain interpretations of things that may be easy to break down or dismiss. For example, he does excellent analysis and argumentation from fragments of Papias, but some of it seemed tenuous. That said, a lot of ancient history is well-reasoned guesswork anyway, this book was no exception. I had a difficult time coming up with counterarguments to even his more tenuous threads.

~Which John? He spends two chapters defending John the Elder as the author of the Gospel of John, not John the son of Zebedee.  This isn’t really a con I suppose, I just disagreed in the end. I must say, it is the best case for this view I’ve ever read. He argues that this John was indeed a disciple of Jesus, probably from Jerusalem, who was not one of the Twelve but among those other close disciples of Jesus. Whichever John wrote it, they’re giving eyewitness testimony.

~Slow going. My main problem with the book is this: it is often very difficult to read. Many sentences are long, dense, and awkward. Stringy sentences are a little too common. Nothing grammatically wrong (that I found anyway), just things like prepositional phrases in weird places, etc. I wish the editor would have smoothed it out a bit. I read it best when I had a few focused hours straight to get into the mindset of his writing style.

This book is a worthy read. I recommend it ideally to anyone who is a good reader and has some prior background in some of these things. But these things are important enough for anyone. So, whoever you are, take on a challenge!

Here are some quotes (though the nature of the book doesn’t lend itself to many good short quotes):

“As I shall argue in this book, the period between the ‘historical’ Jesus and the Gospels was actually spanned, not by anonymous community transmission, but by the continuing presence and testimony of the eyewitnesses, who remained the authoritative sources of their traditions until their deaths” (8).

“Only by failing as a disciple could Peter come to understand the necessity for the Messiah to take up the cross.” (179).

“Good historiography has two main characteristics: truth and artistic composition, and Papias claims both of them.” (218)

“We may conclude that the memories of eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus score highly by the criteria for likely reliability that have been established by the psychological study of recollective memory.” (346).

“Participant eyewitness testimony has a special role when it comes to events that transcend the common experience of historians and their readers. The more exceptional the event, the more historical imagination alone is liable to lead us seriously astray. Without the participant witness that confronts us with the sheer otherness of the event, we will reduce it to the measure of our own experience. In such cases, insider testimony may puzzle us or provoke disbelief, but, for the sake of maintaining the quest for the truth of history, we must allow the testimony to resist the limiting power of our own experiences and expectations.” (492).

“Eyewitness testimony offers us insider knowledge from involved participants. It also offers us engaged interpretation, for in testimony fact and meaning coinhere, and witnesses who give testimony do so with the conviction of significance that requires to be told. Witnesses of truly significant events speak out of their own ongoing attempts to understand.” (505).

2 comments

  1. Eric Zuesse

    Not a well-argued review, but one that merely regurgitates Bauckham’s argument uncritically. Bauckham pretends to be arguing for “the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony” but actually argues for the Gospels as hearsay testimony that was “based on” eyewitness testimony.

    • PB

      No, that’s not correct. If you read the book, he clearly argues that Matthew and John are direct eyewitness testimony. And while he does argue that Mark and Luke were not eyewitnesses themselves, it is the same as eyewitness testimony because their information is entirely from eyewitnesses. If Mark transcribed Peter’s teaching as closely as Bauckham indicates, it’s still technically eyewitness material.

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