Richard Bauckham. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 680 pp.
We’ve all played the telephone game in our youth. Whisper a sentence in your neighbor’s ear and they whisper it in their neighbor’s ear and so on around the circle. We also all know how that ends: the original message is barely recognizable.
It can be disheartening for the Christian to see just how many skeptics assume that something like that crude picture characterizes the formation of the New Testament. While Gospel scholarship was never that crude, the dominance of form criticism in the twentieth century has contributed to the perpetuation of a skepticism somewhat reminiscent of the telephone game. According to the form critics, the history of the Gospels begins with stories of the words and deeds of Jesus being told and retold in early Christian communities. These stories of anonymous origin circulated in this manner for decades, gradually changing in the retelling until finally some anonymous individual(s) gathered them together into the various “Gospels” that are included within the Christian Bible. Needless to say, this picture creates a yawning gap between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.
As Richard Bauckham notes, the assumptions underlying the form critic’s story have gradually been eroded over several decades. Despite that fact, the ghost of form criticism continues to haunt Gospel studies down to the crude telephone game analogy one often hears from the armchair skeptic. From that perspective, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses may be thought of as one long exorcism. As Bauckham puts it,
“I was proposing that we exorcise that lingering ghost of form criticism. Once we look hard at it we shall see that it is no more than a ghost, haunting the corridors of Gospel studies for far too long after its substance, the fully fleshed theories of the form critics, has perished.” (603)
Testimony and Eyewitnesses
Bauckham’s exorcism goes to the heart of the form critic’s assumptions that the stories of Jesus’ words and deeds circulated anonymously over a long period of time. On the contrary, he insists that there are excellent reasons to believe the Gospels are rooted in eyewitness testimony: “the Gospel texts are much closer to the form in which the eyewitnesses told their stories or passed on their traditions than is commonly envisaged in current scholarship.” (6)
Key to Bauckham’s argument is to challenge the form critic’s assumption that the Gospels are guilty until proven innocent. As Bauckham observes, “Young scholars, learning their historical method from Gospels scholars, often treat it as self-evident that the more skeptical they are toward their sources, the more rigorous will be their historical method.” (486; cf. 613) Further, the critic assumes that “It is the application of a methodological skepticism that must test every aspect of the evidence so that what the historian establishes is not believable because the gospels tell us it is, but because the historian has independently verified it.” (3)
As Bauckham rightly argues, this hermeneutic of suspicion is unjustified. On the contrary, a proper epistemology of testimony adopts a prima facie position of trust toward the sources. Just as the rational person considers other basic sources of belief and knowledge (e.g. sense perception; memory; rational intuition) as innocent until proven guilty, so one should offer a prima facie trust to the Gospel testimonies.
Papias, Mark, and John
The form critic’s hermeneutic of suspicion may be unjustified and their account of the origin of the Gospels may be on shaky ground, but we should still ask what reason we have to believe that the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony. Answering this question brings us to the heart of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Like a masterful barrister (if I may depart from the exorcist motif for a moment), Bauckham draws together several lines of evidence to support the basis of the Gospels in eyewitness testimony.
That argument begins with the repristination of Papias and his testimony on the Gospels. Papias knew the daughters of Philip the Evangelist (13) and his testimony as bishop of Hierapolis can be traced to the early second century. He follows other ancient historians in stating his valuation of the “living and surviving voice” (27) in reconstructing the past. This is not, however, a valuation of oral tradition simpliciter, but rather the primacy of eyewitness reports in establishing the core content of the Gospels (24).
In chapter 5 Bauckham defends the accuracy of the Gospel lists of the Apostles while chapter 6 is devoted to the importance of “eyewitnesses from the beginning” both in Luke’s methodological prolegomena as well as the subtle but important use of the inclusio in Mark and John to signal the pivotal role of Peter (Mark) and the Beloved Disciple (John) (124-129).
Bauckham devotes significant attention to establishing the role of Peter as the key eyewitness in Mark (chapter 7). But I was particularly fascinated by his nuanced argument that the author of John, who Papias refers to as “John the Elder,” is not John the Apostle but rather an obscure disciple likely based in Jerusalem who had a particularly close friendship with Jesus (hence, the Beloved). There is much to commend Bauckham’s case. For example, this interpretation of Johannine authorship explains the obvious differences between the Synoptics and John: while the former three Gospels are written from the perspective of apostles who followed Jesus on his itinerant ministry in Palestine, John is written from the perspective of a friend, confident, and follower who likely remained in Jerusalem: hence, we get a focus in the Gospel of John on Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem along with a different circle of friends (e.g. Lazarus, Nicodemus, Mary and Martha) than we find in the Galilee-focused Synoptics.
Beyond the Primary Witnesses
Bauckham’s argument focuses not simply on primary witnesses like Peter and John but also many additional eyewitnesses who provide testimony for several pericopes from Jesus’ life.
A key aspect of Bauckham’s argument focuses on naming. There are certain individuals that we would expect to be named including public persons and key disciples of Jesus. But other figures in the narrative are relatively minor and insignificant and as a result, it is curious why they should be provided proper names at all. That is, unless the naming serves to root the pericope in question in the testimonial witness of the person so named. As Bauckham states:
“I want to suggest now the possibility that many of these named characters were eyewitnesses who not only originated the traditions to which their names are attached but also continued to tell these stories as authoritative guarantors of their traditions.” (39)
For example, Bauckham asks, “Why should one of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus be named (Cleopas) and the other not?” (40) He concludes, “There seems no plausible reason for naming him other than to indicate that he was the source of this tradition.” (47) And then we have the naming of several women at the cross and tomb (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Salome, Joanna). Here too the specific naming identifies them as eyewitnesses to the testimony that forms the narrative (48-51).
In other cases, the fact that some characters are not named raises additional suspicion. On that topic, in chapter 8 Bauckham defends the concept of “protective anonymity” which would explain the omission of proper names within the narrative as a means to protect the individuals involved. This would support an early dating of these stories as rooted in testimony.
Chapter 4 offers something of an interlude to the main argument in which Bauckham provides a fascinating study of Palestinian Jewish names. Based on a database of Palestinian names in the first century, Bauckham demonstrates that the occurrence of common and unusual names in the Gospels reflects the statistical frequency in the database. This fact provides an intriguing line of support for the authenticity of these names (84).
When it was originally published in 2006, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses was a significant work of 18 chapters and 500 pages. Now in its second edition (2017) it adds three chapters and more than 100 additional pages. Those new chapters are largely dedicated to dealing with criticism of the first edition. In particular, Bauckham defends his claim that Mark is based on Petrine testimony (including the application of the inclusio) (chapter 19), he addresses critics to his claim that the Beloved Disciple is an obscure figure (chapter 20) and he offers a final comprehensive critique of form criticism (chapter 21). The cumulative force of this expansive argument provides excellent reasons to sustain Bauckham’s thesis that “It is in the Jesus of testimony that history and theology meet.” (508)
Whether you ultimately agree with Bauckham’s argument or not, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is justly lauded as a landmark book. Not only is it essential reading for New Testament scholars, but it is also written with admirable accessibility for the layperson. Bauckham himself notes in the introduction to the second edition that he was surprised at the extent to which the first edition of the book was “read and enjoyed by many readers who would not normally read an academic work in the field of biblical studies, especially not one as long and demanding as this one.” (xviii)
Bauckham shouldn’t have been surprised. To begin with, he took admirable steps to maximize the book’s reach including the choice to romanize his use of Hebrew and Greek words for those not familiar with the alphabets. In addition, he always writes with clarity and precision. And the way he builds his case elevates sections of the book to a genuine page-turner. (I was particularly entranced by the section defending his view of Johannine authorship.)
Finally, the book is interdisciplinary in the best sense. As one who has done doctoral work in epistemology, I was pleased and gratified by Bauckham’s judicious treatment of the epistemology of testimony. (However, if there is ever a third edition, Bauckham should invoke Richard Swinburne’s helpful principles of credulity and testimony.) And I was fascinated by his discussion of the power of memory and Holocaust testimony (493 ff.).
Sadly, some folks will never read a six-hundred-page book. For those people I have good news: Chris Tilling is reportedly authoring a shortened version of the argument in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for a general readership (xvi). (Think, by comparison, of James K.A. Smith’s How not to be Secular as a short distillation of Charles Taylor’s magnum opus A Secular Age.)
I am sure Tilling’s book will be well worth reading. That said, nothing beats the original: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is a tour-de-force. Consider the ghost exorcised.
My thanks to Eerdmans for providing a review copy of the book.