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“Eyewitnesses” and the Gospels

July 9, 2010

In view of the massive interest in Richard Bauckham’s book arguing that “eyewitnesses” played a crucial role in the formation of the Gospels, I point to a recent article that queries some matters:
John N. Collins, “Re-thinking ‘Eyewitnesses’ in the Light of ‘Servants of the Word’ (Luke 1:2),” Expository Times 121/9 (2010): 447-52.

In view of the continuing interest in this subject, I have put my own invited review of Bauckham’s book on the “Essays, etc” page of this blog. (I’m afraid that I don’t actually recall where the review appeared!  Too busy I guess.)

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20 Comments
  1. Dont’t worry, Dr. Hrtado, it was really better delete; I just got indignanted with the rashs collocations, but is better avoid fall on provocation.

  2. Friends, I suggest that we desist from further focus on this matter. Indeed, I hope that Rodrigo will accept that it’s probably best for me to delete his comment. I have asked Mr. Carr to refrain from venting his issues, and so it’s only fair not to make further comments about him.

  3. Todd V permalink

    Agree. The best blogs ban disruptive commenters who really are just blogging in the comments and not interacting. Prof. Hurtado don’t hesitate to “ban”.

    By the way, I’ve read your terrific book (took a long time to get through it in my “spare time”) on Jesus-Devotion. I also read Bauckham’s “Eyewitness” book and it was fairly persuasive to me (but I lean that way).

    The most interesting book I have read on potential “early dating” is “Birth of the Synoptics” by a French Old Testament Scholar (name escapes me right now). Clearly not the majority view but very interesting.

    Todd V

  4. Hi Folks,

    Agree with Rich virtually 100%. Often you will find the petulant posters, “look at me”, are really angling for a political harumph later ..

    “look, they could not answer my questions, they banned me !”. 🙂

    btw … Web forums are still fairly vibrant today, although moderation is very uneven. The email forums have lost a bit of their cachet, although a handful are very productive.

    The number of academics trying to engage in open dialog like Professor Hurtado is small … and to be encourage.

    #1) Posters should bend over backwards to let the dialog flow. Make your point, enhance it once if felt necessary, and move on.

    #2) The silencing (gasp) of agenda posters should be done happily and without a single care in the world. It is the only way to make these forums productive.

    Nobody wants to be the “bad guy” – free speech and all .. in some cases the principle might want to turn over moderation to a friend more familiar with the net world to offload the responsibility. However in this case, the initial tiresome stuff was actually fairly productive and educational and entertaining overall, so maybe that will not be necessary.

    Prof. Hurtado should understand that a diverse crew of posters, from evangelical to liberal, from orthodox to heterodoxl, support his endeavor and appreciate any efforts to keep the discussion focused, respectful, helpful, edifying.

    Shalom,
    Steven Avery
    Queens, NY

  5. OK. Mr. Carr. We’ve now had the full benefit of your set-piece presentation. Let this be your last word (and let others make of it what they wish). So you can now go off cruising for some other place where you can do your number.

  6. James, Jesus’ brother, is mentioned in Acts 15:13; 21:18. (James Zebedee’s death is related in 12:2. And the simple reference to “James” without need of any other qualifier is commonly taken as reflecting this figure well-known among early believers).

    Mr. Carr: I request that you read others’ postings more carefully. I have repeatedly granted that questions can be asked about the historicity of any character in the Gospels. I have simply reminded you that this does not require non-historicity of the characters. So, please stop distorting my comments as “all Hurtado can do is say that these people existed because they are in the Gospels”. That’s not what I’ve said. You seem to want constantly to polarize simplistically, rather than probe in honest investigation. If that’s the case, then go somewhere else. If you’re interested in honest investigation, then stop distorting what others say.

  7. Steven Carr permalink

    There is a lot to comment on in Professor Hurtado’s post.

    We don’t have members of the Judas Maccabbee fan club writing letters to each other within decades of his life, yet never mentioning any war.

    The way we have members of the Jesus Fan Club writing letters to each other, yet taking Esau as their model of a betrayer, and never mentioning such people as Lazarus, although we are told that Lazarus was ‘famous’.

    Were the authors of the Gospels known?

    Why was the author of the first Gospel not immediately known throughout Chrisendom? Why would he write a work that shows no sign of being intended as history? It has no author, no sources, no chronology, no provenance – none of the markers ancient authors used to indicate they were writing history.

    Luke/Acts does mention Titus/Barnabas, but almost the entire cast of Gospel characters disappear from church history as soon as there is a public church.

    ‘So, should we accuse the ancient gospels authors of wholesale deviousness and duplicity….’

    Because plagiarising other works is duplicity.

    Josephus, for example, gives sources, unlike the Gospels.

    Josephus mentions his sources frequently, among them: Berosus, Jerome, Mnaseas, Nicolaus, Manetho, Moschus, Hesiod, Menander, Dios, Herodotus, Megasthenes, Philostratus, 1 Maccabees, Polybius, Strabo, Livy, etc.

    Not all these sources are good but at least we can see where Josephus is coming from. Some of these sources are still extant and we can see how Josephus used them.

    We can see where Josephus changed from one source to the next, as his knowledge gets more or less detailed.

    This is in stark contrast to ‘Mark’, whose only source we can find is the Old Testament, as my article http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/mirc1.htm shows

    I do find it interesting that Professor Hurtado cannot show any evidence that Judas existed, and seems to think the burden of proof is on sceptics.

    It isn’t.

    I am an amateur,but one thing I know is that professional New Testament scholars cannot produce any evidence for the existence of the vast cast of Gospel characters that are untraceable in church history, except by declarations that these people existed because they are in the Gospels.

    • It’s getting a bit wearisome to have to correct repeatedly Mr. Carr’s sweeping claims and his polemical (i.e., he’s made up his mind) approach/tone. But, for the record, a few commnents more.
      We *do* have historical documents referring to all the “cast of characters” for which Carr (and, Lordy, the rest of us too) would like still further information and references. OK. Carr would like more, and is suspicious of what we have. But it’s not a *lack* of evidence, only a body of evidence of which he’s suspicious. OK. We’re done with that. No need to keep on re-asserting that you’re suspicious, Mr. Carr. We’ve got it.
      Now what on earth he means by some of his other statements, I can’t figure out. The authorship of the Gospel of Mark was not disputed. The only name we have attached to it in ancient tradition is “Mark”. That may be right or wrong, but ancient Christians don’t seem to have felt confused about the matter. So, there’s no mystery to allege as suggesting some sort of conspiracy.

      We don’t have references in Paul’s letters to lots of narrative events in the Gospels, Judas and lots. So?? These letters presuppose readers already converted, already introduced to the Christian message and Lord knows what body of traditions. Letters to churches are one genre, and gospel narratives another.

      I repeat again that it’s a fair *question* whether any of the named or unnamed characters in the Gospels might be legendary (aside, of course, from those in the parables, etc., who are presented as instructive fictions). But that it is a *question* does not make the question itself an answer to anything. And the questions have been explored quite considerably by scholars, and with various proposals. So, we don’t need Mr. Carr suddenly to burst into the room as if we’ve all been stupidly plodding along in our naivete. Pa-leese!

      Carr refers to “plagiarising”, but I don’t get the reference. In any case, people in the ancient world operated often with a different sense of authorship than moderns, and often felt much freer to appropriate from other works. Indeed, the anonymous authorship of the Gospels suggests no desire to claim ownership of what they wrote, not an intention to deceive.

      Anyway, Mr. Carr, if you think that the whole guild of NT scholars is so incompetent as you judge (as a mere amateur you think yourself able to show us all up), then perhaps you have nothing to learn from this site and should bid your farewell. Or visit as you choose. But we all have your views well in mind now. So, thanks, and selah.

  8. In critical historical work we try to keep our assumptions as controlled as we can. So, it’s a fair point to note that Paul doesn’t mentiond Judas. But what to *make* of that? Ah, that’s the real question. Options: (1) Could be Paul didn’t know about Judas, and pehaps because the Judas-story came along later (not a new suggestion); (2) Could be that this isn’t significant at all or has some other reason behind it.

    Paul (in the uncontested letters) doesn’t refer to Pilate’s involvement, or the temple authorities, or Roman soldiers, either, however, so should we call all these characters into question too? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe this isn’t an entirely adequate way of determining the authenticity of all these characters and their actions.

    Now it’s true that the passion narratives are studded with allusions to, and appropriations of, OT texts, this intended to bring out the religious meaning of the events narrated. SOme have proposed that the OT texts may even have been mined to construct some/all the passion narratives. Possibly. But that’s a very strong claim that requires a very strong argument, not simply asserting it. The commentaries, and serious books have canvassed all this. (Contrary to some assumptions, the Internet hasn’t really produced much in the way of new thoughts, just a wider circulation of them, including a lot of discredited ones.)

    For one detailed study the following:
    Raymond E. Brown, _The Death of the Messiah. From Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels_ (2 vols.; New York: Doubleday, 1994).

  9. Mr Carr raises very valid and interesting objections though.

    It’s also interesting, although of course not new, to point out that the texts of Paul, which according to most NT scholars were written before the Gospels and Acts, do not, for example, mention a betrayal by Judas even though they could easily have referred to it. One wonders why if Jesus was indeed betrayed by Judas. Paul himself seems to have been more convinced that God delivered Jesus over to Death to destroy it. At least that’s how he used the word ‘paradidomi’ in his texts. So why assume on that word alone that Paul knew of an alleged betrayal by Judas (who conveniently could easily be seen as representing ‘the Jews’) or was referring to it?

  10. I repeat that Mr. Carr echoes legitimate questions about the gospels and their narratives (but neither he nor others should labor under the impression that they’re new or unconsidered questions, one needs only to probe the scholarly literature beyond web banter to find the discussions). We can discuss any such question here, but as this is my seminar (so to speak), I do ask that participants express themselves as serious interlocutors, not as shcool-yard feisties.

    So, e.g., Mr. Carr, what leads you to *assume* (and without any reason for doing so given) that the Gospels’ authors “hide” their identify for unnworthy reasons? *Much* of ancient literature is anonymous, from our earliest pieces (e.g., the Enuma Elish) onward. Indeed, “signed” writings begin to appear in the Hellenistic period a bit more, but it was still a relatively newer literary practice.

    The gospels are judged by most scholars (of whatever persuasion on religious matters) to have been “in house” texts, i.e., written by/for fellow Christians. Indeed, many scholars believe that the authors (or some of them) wrote to/for particular circles of Christians, and so may well have been known to the original recipients.
    But the authors also seem to have seen their task as formulating and giving a “rendition” (NB: musical analogy, not the CIA) of Jesus-tradition that was largely already known.

    So, e.g., Mark introduces “Pilate” without bothering to indicate what he was, suggesting that stories of Jesus’ crucifixion were already circulating before Mark wrote.
    So, it is more commonly thought by scholars that the anonymity of the Gospels sprang from the authors’ sense that they were serving a *community* of interests, conveying what they believed was sacred truth/tradition, and, so out of modesty felt it inappropriate to present their accounts as their own literary products (even though it is evident that each author seems to have exercised considerable editorial control over the finished accounts).

    As for corroboration that the cast of characters in the Gospels were real people, I repeat, a fair question. But, again, why the antagonistic tone to it, Mr. Carr? (You have your own web site where you can rant and engage in school-yard fisticuffs, so please restrain yourself to calm discussion here. If you aren’t interested in learning anything, but merely wish to joust and work out personal “issues”, this isn’t the place for it.)

    We don’t have anyone from the 2nd century BCE who verifies that he met Judas Maccabee either. Yet virtually all serious scholars take 1 Maccabees (with its cast of characters) as a basis for trying to reconstruct the Jewish revolt againt Antiochus IV. The point, again, is that the absence of corroboration isn’t proof of fiction. That’s what’s called a non sequitur.

    We do have corroboration of some characters. E.g., in Paul’s letter to the Galatians we have first-hand references to Kephas (Peter), James (Jesus’ brother), John (Zebedee), Barnabas, and Titus (all of whom are also mentioned in Luke-Acts.

    Now, unfortunately, it appears that first-century Christians didn’t think to lay aside the sort of affidavits that Mr. Carr (and, dear me, all of us) would have liked. So, should we accuse the ancient gospels authors of wholesale deviousness and duplicity, or leave open the likelihood that the uncorroborated characters might well be as real as the ones corroborated? “You pays your money and you takes your choice.”

    As I tell my students, in history lots of things are possible; the job of critical historical work is to judge what among the possibilities may be more likely. That requires a lot of knowledge, a lot of weighing of options, and trying to be as clear-headed and unpolemical as you can.

    Now, unless I’m a bit premature, I think we’ve just about run out this thread, so let’s move on to something else. Results: (1) We don’t have first-century affidavits testifying to the existence of a lot of people, well, for most people, including a number mentioned in the Gospels; (2) this can be taken as proof that they (and, uh, most people in antiquity) never existed and any references to them in narratives of any kind are fiction and devious duplicity, or as accidents of history (like Forrest Gump’s mama said, “Shit happens”.)

    For those interested in serious scholarly investigation of relevant matters, I recommend, inter alia, another book by Richard Bauckham, _Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church_ (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990), which will also have ooodles of bibiography for still further reading.

  11. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘Martin Hengel, for one, argued that the Gospels must have been associated with names as soon as there was more than one Gospel in existence – so that they could be differentiated.’

    Doesn’t Justin just refer to ‘Memoirs’?

    The Gospels might have been associated with names.

    But the authors are anonymous and hide behind a mask of anonymity.

    Nor does the first Gospel , that of ‘Mark’ indicate that it is meant to be history. It has no author, no attempt at chronology, no attempt at producing sources or explaining how these facts came to be known to the author.

    And it has a vast cast of characters who never appear in any historical record, not even in Acts, where these people vanish from Christian memory as though they had never been.

  12. Steven Carr:

    You say: “No Christian in the first century named himself as having heard of them. They only exist in works that cannot be sourced and have no provenance.”

    The idea that the Gospels circulated as anonymous texts before being related to named authors is not held universally. Martin Hengel, for one, argued that the Gospels must have been associated with names as soon as there was more than one Gospel in existence – so that they could be differentiated.

    Matthew

  13. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘e.g. when he talked about John the Baptist,…’

    There is no evidence that John the Baptist ever met Jesus,apart from unsourced, unprovenanced works which plagiarise each other and hide their identity from their readers.

    Until ‘Mark’ wrote, no Christian had ever mentioned any connection between John the Baptist and Jesus.

    Josephus never does. He called John a good man, apparently unaware that John approved of a sect that were worshipping a crucified criminal , which would have been blasphemy.

    In fact, the baptism of Jesus by John in Mark’s story proved embarrassing to Christians. Almost immediately ,spin was put on it by Christians.

    This meant that the story in Mark had not been refined by 30 years of spin before he wrote it.

    Or else it would have already shown the signs of spin that the story got almost as soon as it was published.

    • Jon permalink

      Steven Carr
      “Until ‘Mark’ wrote, no Christian had ever mentioned any connection between John the Baptist and Jesus.”

      The Book of Acts mentions a dis-connection between John the Baptist and Jesus (Acts 19:1-6).

      It seems a little odd that 30 or so years after the crucifixion, 12 disciples of the man who supposedly announced Jesus as the Messiah had never heard of Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

      Acts 19

      There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
      They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

      3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
      “John’s baptism,” they replied.

      4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.

      Matthew 3

      11 “I (John the Baptist) baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

  14. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘He suggested that the Gospel’s hearers (as Greek speakers) would have heard Aramaic phrases such as “Talitha koum” as implicit claims to eyewitness testimony.’

    Really? People would have thought it came from an eyewitness if it was in Aramaic?

    Of course, we do have first-century documents by named people who claimed to have heard of Julius Caesar.

    But not one Christian for 30 years ever indicated he had heard of the vast cast of Gospel characters who disappear from church history in Acts as soon as there is a public church with the possibility of public records.

    The Rufus of Romans 16:13 is never referred to as being in any way related to the GospelRufus.

    Paul mentions vast numbers of people, but, of course,like the author of 1 Peter,James, Jude and Hebrews , virtually nobody from the Gospels is ever referred to.

    Most of the Gospel characters are as well-attested as the Magi who visited the Infant Jesus,or the Roman centurion who heard the cross speak in the Gospel of Peter.

    ‘With all due allowance for the growth of legend etc., we should recall that people often speculated that Pontius Pilate was a fictional character too, until the inscription mentioning him turned up in Caesarea Maritima in the 60s.’

    Of course, people didn’t,apart perhaps from one mad German in the early 19th century.

    At least, nobody has ever come up with the names of 2 sceptics who claimed that Pontius Pilate was a fictional character. (Actually, people have come up with names, but never produced quotes of them saying Pilate never existed.)

    There is no evidence that Judas existed. When the earliest Christians wanted an example of somebody who betrayed something valuable in return for something of little value, they naturally turned to Esau for their exemplar.

    Hebrews 12:16 ‘See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.’

    • Mr. Carr: I know that web-blogging seems to invite the “fire-from-the-hip” approach to issues and by anyone with an opinion. I do invite open discussion and debate on relevant matters. But the truculent tone of your contributions does cause me to give some advice.
      It’s rather important in serious critical discussion of historical matters to understand that an assertion doesn’t amount to proof of anything, and that the absence of corroborating evidence for individuals (e.g., of the sort you say you’d like) doesn’t justify the conclusion that they never existed. It’s one possibility, which in turn would have to be tested with equal critical scrutiny, and on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, it is legitimate to consider whether there may be legendary characters in the Gospels narratives, entirely possible in principle. But sweeping generalizations of the sort you’ve lobbed aren’t sound method.

      So, go off and do the critical research and publish it in a proper refereed journal or with a respectable publisher and get critical reviews. That’s how we scholars make and try to establish our views. You’ve made your claims clear. Thanks. But they’re no more established by making them than there were before doing so. So, do the detailed analysis required. Publish it. And give us the reference(s) when it’s out. I think that there are some criticisms that can be levied at some of Bauckham’s arguments and claims, too. But at least he’s done the hard work involved (acquiring the languages, working through the scholarly literature, etc.) that justifies his work being critically considered.

  15. I’m not sure what Steven Carr would count as evidence. He asks for signed affidavits of first century people, but that’s not available for anyone from antiquity, Julius Caesar, anyone.
    So, what do historians usually work with? Well, texts of first-century provenance that appear to posit personages as real people. So, e.g., in the Gospel accounts we have a number of named figures, without any other introduction, which would suggest that the authors expected their readers to recognize the figures. Technically, of course, this suggests only that they were known names/figures, which could still allow for them being fictional-but-already-accepted figures at the date of writing. In the case of Simon of Cyrene, Mark’s gospel identifies him as “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mark 15:21), again without further introduction, which most scholars have taken as alluding to two guys known to the original readers. We have a Rufus mentioned in Romans 16:13, for example, whom some suggest could be the same guy mentioned in Mark.
    With all due allowance for the growth of legend etc., we should recall that people often speculated that Pontius Pilate was a fictional character too, until the inscription mentioning him turned up in Caesarea Maritima in the 60s.

  16. Steven Carr permalink

    I still cannot understand what Stephen Avery writes.

    All I want is some evidence that Judas or Thomas,or Lazarus, or Nicodemus, Joanna, Mary Magdalene, Simon of Cyrene, Joseph of Arimithea, Bartimaeus, Jairus, Martha, Barabbas etc etc existed.

    No Christian in the first century named himself as having heard of them.

    They only exist in works that cannot be sourced and have no provenance.

    They are as fictional as the Magi who travelled to see the infant Jesus.

  17. Dear Steven Avery,

    What is your blog URL? I see that your nick links to a forum/BBS. But do you have a blog where you post essays or original thoughts? I am always looking to add new people’s blog URLs to my Google reader.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

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