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).
It’s after a showdown between Jesus and a crowd. Jesus had just fed thousands with bread and fish in an awesome miracle, but many looked to make him a King against the Romans – an attitude missing what Jesus was trying to do. Jesus slipped away to Capernaum to teach at the synagogue, where they finally found him and asked to be wowed with some free bread. Jesus identified Himself as true bread, His own flesh, which gives life: “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (6. 54). But they didn’t get it. It’s a metaphor for believing in Jesus who gave His life so He could give eternal life. But they’re thinking cannibalism. So folks hiked it out of there:
“As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘You do not want to go away too do you?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6.66-69)
The twelve were confused too. The scoffing words of these other guys who abandoned Jesus must have sounded pretty right-on. He’s nuts! Doesn’t make any sense! Plus, the sway of majority opinion, as A.B. Bruce notes “Mighty is the power of sympathy! How ready are we to follow the multitude, regardless of where they are going!” (145)* It’s the same today. In our limited minds we’re confused with what Jesus says in the Bible, with what other people say, with what’s happening in our lives, why God is allowing it, or causing it, etc.
But Peter’s answer cuts through all of that. I love Bruce’s treatment on this event, which I’ll follow: Peter reflects 3 anchors that helped the twelve ride out this storm: “Religious earnestness or sincerity, a clear perception of the alternatives before them, and implicit confidence in the character and attachment to the person of their Master.” (148).
1. The twelve were very ordinary guys, and in many ways sort of stumbled along in trying to follow Jesus — often dense, lacked faith, and prone to say stupid things. But they were sincere. Jesus had said as much, that everyone who is sincere in seeking truth and learning about God will come to Him (John 3.21, 6.45).“Their concern was not about the meat that perisheth, but about the higher heavenly food of the soul” (148), something Jesus had. The Greek text even emphasizes “eternal life” by placing it ahead of the verb, literally reading “words of eternal life you have.”
2.The disciples had nowhere else to go — after going with Christ this far. As low as things were with Jesus, nothing else compared. Their John the Baptist was killed and would only point to Christ anyway, hypocritical religious people offered no hope, and the crowds didn’t offer any real alternatives. Bruce notes that anyone tempted to renounce Christianity should
“pause if he understood that the alternatives open to him were to abide with Christ, or to become an atheist, ignoring God and the world to come; that when he leaves Christ, he must go to school to some of the great masters of thoroughgoing unbelief.” (151)
Today that would be Richard Dawkins, Bart Ehrman, Oprah, Tom Cruise… all of whom leave much to be desired when compared with Christ.
3. Christ! Once they were immersed in Christ, they knew He was it. No going back:
“Such implicit confidence as the twelve had in Jesus is possible only through intimate knowledge; for one canot thus trust a stranger. All, therefore, who desire to get the benefit of this trust, must be willing to spend time and take trouble to get into the heart of the Gospel story, and of its great subject. The sure anchorage is not attainable by a listless, random reading of the evangelic narratives, but by a close, careful, prayerful study, pursued it may be for years. Those who grudge the trouble are in imminent danger of the fate which befell the ignorant multutide, being liable to be thrown into panic by every new infidel book, or be scandalized by every strange utterance of the Object of faith. Those, on the other hand, who do take the trouble will be rewarded for their pains. Storm-tossed for a time, they shall at length reach the harbor . . . the cardinal facts and truths of the faith, as taught by Jesus in the Capernaum discourse, and as afterwards taught by the men who passed safely through the Capernaum crisis. May God in His mercy guide all souls now out in the tempestuous sea of doubt into that haven of rest!” (154)
They were confused and looked like fools to everyone else, but they were convinced eternal life is found in no one else. If there is any such thing as eternal life at all, it’s in Jesus. If anybody has eternal life to give, it’s Jesus.
So let us, with Peter and the rest of that small band, hold on to following this awesome Person, Jesus Christ. He has words of eternal life.
*All quotes fromThe Training of the Twelve (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1988).
From looking around, there seems to be every reason to be afraid and doubtful about everything. Debt, inflation, and economic downturn threaten to strangle our livelihood; revolutions in the Middle East skyrocket oil prices across the world; governments and businesses ravage the environment to unsustainable levels; natural disasters strike indiscriminately and violently all the time.
Contra this uncertain world, God speaks to anyone who would listen, “Having come in the form of the man, Jesus of Nazareth, I am the Deliverer you really need.” If we trust in Him, He brings us through this world’s storms to eternal salvation with joy and fellowship forever with Him after death. Nothing can really hurt us.
One time twelve of Jesus’ men were on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee during a violent storm. This is a terrifying and uncertain experience when you’re on a small boat that might sink. While trying to survive this crisis, they saw Jesus walking to them on the water, impervious to the squall. At first they didn’t know who it was, but Jesus called out to them through the noise of the waves and wind, “Take courage, it is I! Do not be afraid!” One of them, Peter, the most impulsive of the disciples, called back “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” Jesus responded “Come!” and out leapt Peter from the boat. But he didn’t submerge – he just stood there. An obvious miracle. Yet as he started to walk out to Jesus, he began looking around. That wind sure is blowing hard. The water sure is churning. Peter wasn’t looking at Jesus anymore but on the vicious forces of nature around him. He began to sink. At this point Peter must have been in total panic and fear. Kind of the feeling you’d get if you just lost balance on the edge on the roof of a skyscraper, or you see your car is about to hydro-plane into a pole. He cried for Jesus to save him, then Jesus grabbed hold of Peter in a flash and hoisted his trembling disciple back into the boat. “You of little faith! Why do you doubt?” Jesus asked him.*
We all have storms of our own. It looks as though we’re going to be engulfed by our trials as it is, but Jesus asks us to go further – get out of the boat! Take even greater risks than we ever would have dreamed to be nearer to our Deliverer. But our degree of success or failure in the middle of this turbulent and uncertain world is never to be the foundation on which we stand. Never look at yourself or at anything in your surroundings. Because you fail, and your surroundings deceive and are unstable. We must look at Christ, and Christ alone. Here are three applications of this:
1.Never look to yourself for assurance you’re saved. You’ll only become uncertain as you see all your failures, or worse, prone to pride in thinking you’ve not done too bad a job at holy living, calloused to how much more sanctification you really need. Assurance of our salvation is in Christ alone. Christ promised “he who believes in Me has everlasting life.” (John 6.47) Do you trust in Christ for eternal salvation? Then you have God’s irrevocable life right now. Look to Christ, His person, His promise, His adequacy, His sufficiency – not your own person, promises, adequacies, and sufficiency. He is a Man who keeps His word, because He’s the Son of God.
2.Never look to yourself for assurance of getting through a hard time of life – you really have no control over the bigger situation, and when things get worse and don’t go your way, panic will set in. Paul the Apostle speaks of a dark situation he was in, saying “we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope” (2Corinthians 1.8b-10a) Even in hard times so bad that it looks like death, trust in God, who ultimately will save your eternal soul but also is fully able to deliver you through the difficult season.
3.Never look to yourself for assurance when setting out to do an important task or mission in life – to start a business, pursue a career, become a parent, etc. As ready as you may feel, you’re not “all that” and pride is a precursor to failure. You have no real control over your success. Many brilliant and talented people fail. Paul told the Corinthians of his great task – how his Apostolic ministry is of the Holy Spirit, written on human hearts and abounding in glory even far beyond when Moses spoke with God to receive the Torah… but Paul was careful to note: “Not that we are adequate in ourselves or consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.” (2Corin 3.5) They trusted in God for the effectiveness of their ministry.
We can be totally confident in Him. Such confidence seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But must be believed for us to have any certainty in this world. Christ is our assurance. Cling to Him for assurance. He’s the only place you’ll find it.
*Story found in Matthew 14.22-33