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Jesus and the Eyewitnesses--a blog review, Part II

In this follow-up (part I is here), I'll be discussing some "pros" of Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Most of the "cons" were in Part I.


--It's good to remember that Richard Bauckham was the man who brought the work of Israeli scholar Tal Ilan to the knowledge of New Testament scholars. He cataloged her lists of names from 1st-century Palestine and compared these with the gospels, showing the extremely good fit between the name frequencies in the gospels and the probable name frequencies in that region at that time. In that region as opposed to other regions with Jewish communities--Alexandria, for example.This information is discussed in chapter 3 of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

While someone like Bart Ehrman will be willfully dense and say that this doesn't mean that the documents are reliable, the relevance should be evident. There was no Google back then, no Wikipedia, not even a hard-cover set of encyclopedia Britannica. If you wanted to write fiction and were not personally familiar with the actual Jewish names used in Palestine during the time of Jesus' ministry, you would have no way of just looking this up. Does that entail that the incidents the gospels relate are true? No, but it certainly does show that they were written by people of the time and the region or by authors whose material came from such people. This certainly confirms, though it does not establish beyond doubt, the idea that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses of the purported events or companions of such eyewitnesses. This is especially striking in light of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and in light of such facts as that the gospel of John was almost certainly written in and disseminated from Asia Minor, not Palestine.

--Bauckham’s most valuable contribution may be his general willingness to take seriously the role of eyewitness testimony in the gospels. In the current scholarly milieu, this is no small matter and shows an independence of thought and the intrusion of good sense that are unusual and important. Because Bauckham can hardly be considered a “fundamentalist,” and because he is genuinely learned and undeniably credentialed, his willingness to take such things seriously will have a lot more clout and influence than, say, my saying the same things.

It's useful to compare here Bauckham's discussion of the infancy narrative in Luke, reprinted here by Steve Hays. As Hays notes, Bauckham is overly concessive both in tone and in some particulars (e.g., just assuming that Luke invented the canticles in the infancy narrative out of his own head). The article about the infancy narrative is very typically Bauckham-ite, and this includes its notable good sense as well as its occasional lapses. For an example of good sense, Bauckham takes with complete seriousness the idea that Luke got the material for his infancy narrative from the family of Jesus--what a shocking thought! He also answers with complete competence, using his extensive learning, the poor objections that have been made concerning the narrative of Mary's purification and Jesus' presentation in the Temple.

This willingness just to say, "Yeah, maybe Mark did get his info. from Peter," "Sure, maybe Luke really was in contact with Jesus' family" and also to use flexible historical imagination to answer exaggerated objections are unfortunately pretty novel in NT studies, and the fact that Bauckham does such things gives, as one might say, permission to younger scholars to take such ideas seriously as well.

In this same vein, Bauckham's general willingness to take seriously patristic evidence on the authorship of the gospels is a refreshing break in the clouds of NT scholarship, which tends to dismiss the patristic evidence--a very irresponsible historical procedure.

--Bauckham has a pretty interesting argument concerning the final two verses of John--John 21:24-25. These are often considered a kind of authenticating coda written by some other person about the gospel. And that could still be true, even if the rest of the book, including the rest of chapter 21, came from the beloved disciple.

The chief argument that verses 24-25 are by another hand is the reference in vs. 24 to the author of the work in the third person by someone who seems to speak of himself as part of a group constituting a "we" who certify the testimony of the author:

This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

Again, even if someone else wrote this sort of imprimatur at the end of the book, that doesn't give any great "handle" to liberal critics of the book, though I believe some have used it to try to argue that all of chapter 21 is by someone else.

Bauckham, however, takes the bull by the horns and argues vigorously that the author here is using a kind of authorial "we" to refer to himself. On pp. 369ff he discusses what he calls "the 'we' of authoritative testimony." This section has several good functions: It reminds the reader of the authorial "we" that exists even in modern English and points out that such an authorial "we" certainly did exist in the ancient world. (Bauckham even sometimes deliberately uses the authorial "we" for himself, I think with the goal of reminding the reader of its existence.) Bauckham also shows using examples how ancient writers of Greek seemed to jump back and forth between "we" and "I," which is very useful in light of the use of "I" in verse 25:

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

This section draws attention as well to various places in the New Testament where "we" apparently meaning "I" is especially used for reasons of emphasis in discussing testimony. Jesus himself uses it in John 3:11:

Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.

Bauckham shows how this use of "we" meaning "I" in cases where testimony is being emphasized shows up repeatedly in Johannine writings and argues that the same interpretation should be given in 21:24.

My remaining objection is that it's a little odd that 21:24 switches immediately to referring to the author as "he." It would seem like a more consistent parallel with John 3:11, using the authorial "we" of authoritative testimony, would be "we know that our testimony is true." But perhaps this was precluded by the way that the sentence begins: "This is the disciple..." It would perhaps have been an awkward ending, and even more awkward to begin, "We are the disciple..."

So I lean toward Bauckham's conclusion and consider it a good corrective to a widespread assumption that 21:24 is not by the author himself. Still more important in staving off any critical assumption that the whole of chapter 21 is inauthentic.

--Bauckham has a very interesting argument concerning Mark (which actually carries over to Matthew and Luke, though he doesn't use it in that way). He calls it the "plural-to-singular narrative device" (pp. 156-164). Readers know what a rampaging skeptic I am of "devices," even the "inclusio of eyewitness testimony" (see previous post). So when I say that there may be something to the plural-to-singular narrative device, you know that's a pretty big compliment, coming from me, even though qualified.

Briefly, the idea is something like this: The gospels sometimes start a sentence with the plural description of a group of people moving from one place to another, and then suddenly switch to the singular describing Jesus. Examples:

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him...(Mark 8:22)

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry (Mark 11:12)

Bauckham gives more of these. His idea is that the "they" in the beginnings of the sentences may reflect the "we" used by Peter (or, for that matter, it could be another disciple) when telling the story: "When we came from Bethany, he was hungry." Etc. In this way, he suggests, the gospel offers in its very language a perspective from within the group of the disciples, going along with Jesus. It's a fascinating idea.

Where I think Bauckham goes off the rails a bit is in an attempt to argue that this construction falls into a pattern whereby it is found more in Mark than in Matthew or Luke. The sample size is much too small to have much statistical significance for any difference between Mark and the other two synoptic gospels. In any event, they often have it when Mark does (perhaps through literary influence), and sometimes when they do not, it is because they have no parallel passage to the passage in Mark. Interestingly, I believe that I've found one case where Matthew has it that Mark does not:

And as they went out of Jericho, a great crowd followed him. (Matthew 20:29)

Contrast Mark, which expresses the presence of the crowd without this shift from plural to singular:

And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. (Mark 10:46)

If there is anything in this plural-to-singular transition as far as showing the perspective of the Twelve, it seems to carry over in many cases to the other synoptics as well. Bauckham is straining a bit to make it emphasize the Petrine perspective in Mark as opposed to Matthew and Luke. But the suggestion of the "device" in general is worth consideration.

--Bauckham has a discussion of some scholars' attempt to reinterpret John 21:24 that warmed my heart. The theory he's writing against here is that, when John 21:24 says that the beloved disciple (mentioned in vs. 23) is the one "who has written these things," it just means that the beloved disciple was in some vague sense behind the gospel, not that he was its author in any stronger sense. The Greek word for "written" here is just graphein, and Bauckham, who knows his Greek, gets positively hot against the irresponsible attempt to reinterpret the Greek so as to distance the beloved disciple from the book, twisting the plain meaning of the words.

Writing about an author named Schrenk, Bauckham says,

The progression of thought in these three sentences is breathtaking. Somehow Schrenk finds it possible to move from the "incontrovertible fact" that graphein can refer to dictation to claiming "it would be difficult to press the formula" to mean more than that the Beloved Disciple had "spiritual responsibility for what is contained in the book." Not a single example is given of the use of graphein to assert no more than "spiritual responsibility" for the content of a book....What is even more remarkable is the way in which this staggeringly faulty piece of argument has been uncritically followed by scholar after scholar. (p. 360)

Ahhh, now he's talkin' my language. I love the smell of righteous scholarly indignation in the morning. This is great stuff, calling out gross carelessness and shoddy reasoning as it should be done.

--This brings me to mention that Bauckham integrates his Greek learnedness into the book. The reader is never left wondering why he's going into a digression on "the Greek." He never merely flaunts his learning or drags it in but always uses it in a way that makes good sense in the context, whether you agree with his conclusion in the passage or not.

--The notion of a dark period between the events of Jesus' life and the writing of the gospels, a time during which the accounts could have morphed by oral repetition in an unreliable direction, is one of those myths that just doesn't die. I just had someone (a Christian, not a skeptic) bring it up to me on Facebook last week as an established fact. It deserves to be in a list of "things scholars know about the gospels that ain't so," and as we all know, it's not what you don't know that will get you but what you "know" that isn't so.

Bauckham does good work in hammering on this type of thing in chapters 10-11, calling it one of the assumptions of form criticism. He rightly emphasizes the difference between oral tradition and oral history (p. 30ff). The former is a matter of corporate memory whereas the latter is a matter of mining the memories of living participants, as Papias said that he did. In chapters 10-11 Bauckham suggests that the transmission of knowledge about Jesus was controlled by the eyewitnesses. It didn't just morph along all by itself. While these sections of the book introduce some slightly annoying jargon terminology like "tradent," they provide a useful alternative to the form-critical model of the "telephone game" prior to the setting down of the gospels.

I should clarify that I'm not necessarily endorsing the degree of relevance Bauckham grants to anthropological research into controlled transmission in Middle Eastern cultures. In the main, though, Bauckham uses these as jumping-off points for his own development of a plausible model for the teaching of the material that was written down in the gospels.

Bauckham's perspective here is, in my opinion, better than the perspective of authors who simply emphasize that "oral cultures" tend to perform prodigious feats of memorization of tradition, which can then be transmitted word-for-word over hundreds of years. While this is interesting as it bears upon the amazing power of the human memory (see next category), it shouldn't be taken to mean that the pathway followed by the information between the events and the writing of the gospels really was a game of telephone, but merely a game of telephone with a higher-than-usual level of fidelity because "oral cultures" are better than our own at that sort of thing. Rather, as Bauckham emphasizes, the gospels were written during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses, who would have been "authorized tradents" to exercise quality control over what was recorded and made official.

--The research that Bauckham describes in chapter 13 on eyewitness testimony is useful to have on hand, especially in view of a recent anti-Christian skeptic tactic of calling all eyewitness testimony into question as, per se, unreliable. (This would, of course, vitiate science as well--a point the skeptics don't seem to want to acknowledge. We depend upon scientists' reports of the experiments they have made.)

In this chapter Bauckham emphasizes research showing that the unreliability of witness testimony has been overblown. Moreover, he points to research that tends to show that the significance of an event does not in any way detract from our remembering it. On the contrary: Salience and importance tend to fix memories in place. Nor does the fact that significance of something is understood only later mean that the literal memory itself has been distorted. On the contrary; an event may be remembered because it was puzzling initially, even if one comes to understand it better later. The relevance of such points for the gospels should be self-evident.

--Bauckham counters any sort of confused idea that the "witness" of the author of the fourth gospel was merely a non-empirical witnessing to higher, spiritual truth. (I'm lookin' at you, Richard Burridge.) He lists, as I have done elsewhere, the fact that in John 19:35 the author testifies to what he has literally seen--the blood and water flow from Jesus' side. (p. 376) He emphasizes that, while the author may well have understanding (and in that case "sight") that goes beyond physical sight, "it is hard to see how the author could have referred more clearly to apprehension by the physical senses." (This is in reference to I John 1:1-3.) And he emphasizes that John's use of the concept of "seeing" in his gospel is irreducibly both temporal and empirical--he is the one who saw, because he is the one who was there at the right time to see certain real things that happened. (pp. 404-406)

In this latter section, Bauckham probably gives too much "rope" to a critic named Andrew Lincoln, who tries to argue that the language of "seeing" in John is related to the language of the courtroom, hence to a metaphor of "God's lawsuit," and hence not to be taken to mean that the author is an eyewitness. Bauckham concedes the "God's lawsuit" metaphor (about which I'm at least initially dubious--sounds too much like an unnecessary literary theory) while vigorously questioning the inference that this should be taken as evidence against the empirical meaning of sight in John's witness.

--There are a couple of areas where Bauckham's just collecting material is useful even for purposes that he himself doesn't emphasize. For example, Chapter 2 on Papias and the eyewitnesses brings in quotations on the great importance to the ancients of getting to talk to people who actually participated in events. Papias's words "the living and surviving voice" are a standing rebuke to the whole notion of ancient people as not caring about literal, historical truth. In general, the importance of oral history from participants falsifies that entire, trendy idea that the ancients didn't care about pesky empirical truth.

If Papias' idea of the importance of the "living and surviving voice" really took hold, perhaps even more so than Bauckham himself realizes, it would revolutionize New Testament studies. For example, John would be (in a sense) preferable as a source to Mark, if John was an eyewitness and Mark wasn't. That is not, of course, to insult Mark. But it is to suggest that we should replace "early tradition" and "late tradition" and a knee-jerk preference for the former with the concept of the number of removes that an account is from eyewitnessing. By this standard, the mere fact that John's gospel was written last should be irrelevant to its reliability.

--Bauckham also just draws attention to various verses that are sometimes overlooked. For example, this coincidence between Acts and John concerning "witnesses from the beginning" was inspired by Bauckham's chapter 6, where he emphasizes the importance of this phrase in Jesus' words and in Acts.

It was also Bauckham's emphasis upon the fact that the women from Galilee personally remembered Jesus' words, per Luke 24:6 (pp. 130-131), that caused me to come up with a different coincidence concerning the women at the cross. (I should add here that a scholar who shall for the moment remain nameless suggests that Luke 24:6 is Luke's fictional redaction of the words of the angel in order to avoid mentioning a trip to Galilee, since he is eliminating the trip to Galilee. But look here! They participate in an undesigned coincidence, which tends to confirm their accuracy.)

Bauckham is trying to use the verse (Luke 24:6) to argue for an inclusio of witness testimony in Luke for the women, combined with Luke 8:2-3. I don't think this works, not only because I don't think Bauckham has demonstrated the existence of such a device at all (see previous post), but also because in this case it is highly dubious that the women would have been Luke's source for all or even most of the material between Chapter 8 and Chapter 24. (Including the Last Supper??) Not that Bauckham is saying that they are, exactly, but if they aren't the source for the material in between the brackets, then the whole concept of the inclusio here becomes even more obviously unsupported.

But that's by the way. My point here is that, since Bauckham has an interesting mind, an interesting project, and an eye for significant Scripture verses, he sometimes brings important things to one's attention even when one doesn't agree with what he is trying to say in the passage.

--Finally, I want to mention Bauckham's parallel between the gospel narratives and Holocaust memoirs in chapter 18, on pp. 493ff. Here I'm not endorsing Bauckham's use in this section of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur. I think he could have made his points just as well or better without bringing in Ricoeur. But Bauckham is using the analogy to Holocaust memoirs to make a point that can't be emphasized too strongly: The fact that an author is deeply impressed by the spiritual or ideological importance of an event, even that he is writing to make a point about the importance of that event, does not mean that his recounting of the event itself is factually suspect. If the author himself was a witness of an event that did have, in the nature of the case, enormous significance, then of course that significance will come home to him, if he is a mentally capable and morally alert human being at all.

Hence, argues Bauckham, the gospel authors and their eyewitness sources are no more to be distrusted about what they saw because they are Christians and in that sense "partisan" than Holocaust survivors are to be distrusted about what they saw just because they are keenly aware of the way that what they saw illustrated the evil of mankind in general and Nazism in particular. This parallels the more pedestrian way of making the point: Skeptics will often ask why the events of the New Testament, particularly the resurrection, are not more noted by "non-Christian sources." The obvious answer, which Christian apologists patiently give over and over again, is that it would be likely that anyone who believed in Jesus' resurrection would have become a Christian!

Bauckham's way of making the point by using Holocaust memoirs is visceral, vivid, and fresh. (At least, if you haven't heard the comparison before.) His quotations from Holocaust memoirs show how survivors, like the gospel authors, weave together vivid memory, the literal accuracy of which we don't have reason to doubt, with the implications of what they remembered. I suspect that this analogy will be useful to apologists when certain objections are raised to Christianity.

Bauckham is at his best when he is least theoretical and most commonsensical. Fortunately, he is often commonsensical, while also displaying genuine learnedness, a combination that makes the book well worth reading.

Comments (4)

If it was as easy to write ancient historical fiction as Carrier and Ehrman alleged, why are apocryphal Gospels, apocryphal Acts and other pseudepigrapha so anachronistic?

Guess Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were just super-talented, huh? :-)

About the name frequencies: Except for the most common names, it would be hard to create a story that matched the name frequency even if you were from the area from the era. There were no books of most common baby names back then.

Presumably you'd do it as we would--by using the names of real people you know around you while putting them into fictional situations.

But all of that is anachronistic anyway, since that type of highly realistic fiction simply didn't exist at the time.

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