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Bauckham on “Eyewitnesses” and the Gospels

November 19, 2013

In comments on my posting about Andrew Lincoln’s new book (Born of a Virgin?), Richard Bauckham’s views on the relationships of the Gospels to “eyewitnesses” came up.  I offered a brief response, inviting Bauckham to make his own comment.  He has now done so, and, given his prominence and that it is an issue in its own right (distinguishable from questions about the Gospel nativity narratives and the “virgin birth” tradition), I have taken the liberty of including his comments here in a posting.  That way, they’ll get the attention that they deserve.  I simply paste in his comment in the remainder of this posting without any comment from me.  So, what follows is Bauckham:

“I guess I ought to clarify my position on eyewitness testimony in the Gospels, since it has been raised and you, Larry, say: ‘As I understand him, he doesn’t mean that the Gospels are “eyewitness testimony” such as a court transcript would provide, but that the Gospels draw on “eyewitness testimony” as it circulated in early Christian circles.’ Well, no, certainly nothing like a court transcript, more like “oral history.” But my point was that the Gospels are CLOSE to the eyewitnesses’ own testimony, not removed from them by decades of oral tradition. I think there is a very good case for Papias’s claim that Mark got his much of his material directly from Peter (and I will substantiate this further with quite new evidence in the sequel to [my book] Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that I’m now writing). I think that the ‘Beloved Disciple’ himself wrote the Gospel of John as we have it, and that he was a disciple of Jesus and thus an eyewitness himself, as he claims, though not John the son of Zebedee. Of course, his Gospel is the product of his life-long reflection on what he had witnessed, the most interpretative of the Gospels, but still the only one actually written by an eyewitness, who, precisely because he was close to Jesus, felt entitled to interpret quite extensively. Luke, as well as incorporating written material (Mark’s Gospel, which he knew as substantially Peter’s version of the Gospel story, and probably some of the “Q” material was in written form), also, I think, did what ancient historians did: he took every opportunity to meet eyewitnesses and interviewed them. He has probably collected material from a number of minor eyewitnesses from whom he got individual stories or sayings. Matthew is the Gospel I understand least! But whatever accounts for Matthew it is not the form-critical picture of anonymous community traditions, which we really must now abandon!”

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  1. Whatever else the Gospels may be, it is reasonable to accept that the purpose of their authors (perhaps their primary purpose) included elicitation of faith in hearers and readers regarding the person and work of Jesus as the long awaited Messiah. One does not need to adopt a firm stand on the dates of composition or the nature of their underlying sources to accept that the Gospels functioned as a supplement to, and later a substitute for, the physical presence of the Apostles and others who were eyewitnesses of events in early first century Palestine.

    This evaluation of the overarching authorial purpose would appear to be sound, given the running theological interpretation permeating the narrative accounts. As such, the Gospels do not hold themselves out as presenting “uninterpreted” eyewitness testimony, such as one might expect to find in a deposition. And to the extent that the Gospels convey eyewitness testimony at all, (and different positions may be taken), it has been recast by the matrix of belief. But the theological purposes of the Evangelists should in no way invalidate the eyewitness testimony they incorporate.

    Philosophically, any document that makes explicit (or strongly implicit) claims as to its truth value must, to be validly taken as true, actually be true in its content. Neither authorial invention from whole cloth, nor the introduction of literary conventions (the birth of the hero, for example) drawn from writings having a fundamentally different purpose from the canonical Gospels, would be compatible with truth claims.

    This is why I have such an issue with Andrew Lincoln’s treatment of the Virgin Birth. No, the Virgin Birth is not included in all four canonical Gospels, but why should it be so? It doesn’t become untrue as a mere consequence. And surely the creator of the cosmos is able to supply a Y chromosome ex nihilo. Lincoln essentially argues that one can conveniently disbelieve the birth narratives without compromising Christian faith. But where does this unpicking end? And what is left at the end of the process? Isn’t this just the latest variant of demythologizing?

    If the authors of Luke and Matthew drew freely on pagan “birth of the hero” literary conventions to bolster Jesus’ claims to Messiahship, what else did they feel free to invent or elaborate upon? What about the miracles? What about the transfiguration, the resurrection and ascension, and Pentecost? Unravelling a historical foundation for the Gospels and Acts progressively strips them of any truth value. For anyone to base faith in Jesus Christ upon a small kernel of residual fact, lavishly embroidered with invention, would be pitiable.

    Allowing for considerable theological color in interpretation; allowing for the inherent variability in eyewitness accounts (well established in a forensic situations); and allowing that speech is unlikely to be reported verbatim, it is necessary, theologically, that the Gospels be historically reliable. And to be historically reliable, they must incorporate the testimony of eyewitnesses. Luke strongly implies as much in saying that he investigated everything thoroughly from the beginning in order to convince Theophilus of Christianity’s truth. It is not only reasonable, therefore, but highly likely that he, at least, interviewed such eyewitnesses as he could access, including Mary herself. To dismiss a first century historian as unreliable, simply because they did not and could not follow a modern method of historical inquiry, is to treat the ancients as fools and knaves.

    Twenty-first century historians will, of course, continue to test the Gospel content against the wider historical background, as both Dr Hurtado and Dr Bauckham have done in an exemplary fashion throughout their careers. The Gospels, if of any truth value, can withstand historical scrutiny that does not adopt radical skepticism and anti-supernaturalism as an a priori position.

    As an Orthodox Christian I don’t need to subscribe to hardline inerrancy, but the truths of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension and glorification are non-negotiable for faith, as is the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Otherwise we are still in our sins and existence is without ultimate meaning or purpose.

    • Peter: Just a few comments in response to your lengthy one. First, for a text to be “true” depends on the kind of truth that it depicts. A poem or a novel can be “true” to and as their respective genres, which is different from a serious work of investigative history and the nature of the “truth” it purports to present. So, the first question in assessing any text is the kind of text it is, and so what kind of truth-claim to detect and assess.
      Second, Lincoln’s argument is that the portrayal of a “virgin birth” of Jesus is NOT in the same category as, e.g., the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, precisely because the latter is widely and commonly affirmed in various NT writings, whereas the former is presented in only GMatthew and MLuke. So, there is no “domino theory” involved, he argues, and we should be able to assess the nature of the birth-narratives without panic that the whole of Christian faith is under threat.

      • Dr Hurtado, if I might be permitted a couple of comments in reply…

        While the nature of truth, and the criteria to be applied in determining it, is profoundly difficult metaphysically, it’s not unreasonable to argue that truth exists and operates contextually. If that’s accepted, the contextual truth values of a work of visual art or of narrative fiction are quite different ontologically from the truth values necessary for the Gospels to fulfill the purposes intended by their authors.

        The Gospels, explicitly or implicitly, are written both to witness to Jesus as the Christ and to convert hearts and minds. For their authors, believing the Gospel is of eternal significance. As such, the Gospels must be both historically and theologically true, in some objective sense.

        Of course, within the Gospels themselves are literary elements that can only be subjected to historical inquiry at the meta level. The application of historical criticism to the parables, for example, would extend only to assessing whether Jesus can reliably be considered to have used parables in his teaching, and not further, to evaluating the historicity of the parables of the prodigal son or the rich man and Lazarus per se!

        Truth, as it pertains to events in the life of Jesus (without theological glossing), must be determined by the historicity of such events. Thus, whether such events correspond to external reality (or are not disprovable on this basis) must be a necessary condition for truth within the context of the canonical Gospels. Invention of material would be fundamentally incompatible with authorial intention.

        Regarding the criterion of multiple NT attestation, upon which some of Dr Lincoln’s argument for his position on the virgin birth rests, consider the wedding at Cana and the changing of water into wine. This event is attested to only by John. Someone might therefore, following Dr Lincoln, adopt the stance that this pericope is inadequately attested and is not historically determinable, and thus is not of the essence of Christian faith. But, to John, this is the first of the signs by which Jesus manifested his glory and through which his disciples believed in him. So where does this leave us?
        My core point was that one’s view of the events in the Gospels that are presented as historical realities has unavoidable theological consequences. Dispensing with the virgin birth, and allowing Jesus to have had a human father, takes theology away from the Incarnational Christology of the post-Apostolic period towards something like Adoptionism. And, of course, it becomes impossible to subscribe to the historical Christianity witnessed to by the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed, or to make sense of the later Christological and Trinitarian formulations of the early church.

        In any event, one who is comfortable accepting the historical truth of the bodily resurrection of Jesus ought not to have any conceptual hurdle with the immaculate conception and virgin birth, irrespective of the frequency of NT attestation.

      • Peter: Can I just respond to a couple of your (insufficiently examined?) assumptions? E.g., in your 4th paragraph you assert that the truth of the Gospels requires their narratives to record “real” events and that “invention” is “fundamentally incompatible with authorial intention”. How would one know authorial intention, unless it is stated? And do you find any statement by Gospel authors that they sought to convey just “what happened” in some modern historical sense? I think not. Certainly (as per your next-to-last paragraph), traditional Christian faith involves historical claims (esp. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection), and were these events shown not to have any historical reality that would require, at the least, a serious adjustment in that faith. But Lincoln argues (and even Pope Benedict affirmed too) that the “virgin birth” isn’t necessary for the idea of Jesus as “divine incarnation”, and the position Lincoln holds out (that “virgin birth” is optional and only one of the ways that earliest Christians viewed Jesus’ birth) doesn’t actually tend toward “adoptionism”. As for the creeds, well, they’re historically conditioned statements too, and so instructive but framed in terms that sometimes are no longer meaningful (given the changed conceptual categories). As to your final statement, once again, Lincoln’s point isn’t the supposed difficulty of believing God could do this or that, but instead (1) that the “virgin birth” view appears to be confined to two NT writings, and other texts/writers appear to take different views; and (2) the traditional “virgin birth” notion appears wedded to ancient views of conception that we know to be wrong, and so may a “virgin birth” may in fact involve a less-than-fully-human Jesus, which would in itself be a major theological problem for traditional faith.
        But I think we’ve covered the ground now, and further discussion would simply be going round the houses again.

  2. Rod permalink

    I wonder if there is a space that we have to give to the doctrine of inspiration in the gospel writer’s testimony of the accounts (i.e. the Gospels as the Word of God, especially since Paul himself alluded to Luke’s account [I Tim 5:18] being Scripture). That, although conventions of ancient writing permitted the gospel writers to record their interpretation of Jesus’ words, what gave them the authority to do so was because they wrote the very words of God. Thank you for your thoughts, Profs. Hurtado and Bauckham.

    • Rod: We can’t use a doctrine to account for historical phenomena. A doctrine is typically a view of the significance of something, not an explanation of its historical origins.

      • Rod permalink

        It is a delight to read your response, Prof. Hurtado. Since it was Paul who acknowledged Luke’s gospel as Scripture, even putting it at par with Deuteronomy, shouldn’t we give weight to his statement in arguing for the authority of the gospel writers? Couldn’t Paul’s statement give us a better perspective on the historical origins of the gospel?

      • Er, uh, I can’t think of what you’re referring to in claiming that Paul endorsed any Gospel. None was written in his lifetime to endorse, and I can’t think of any text where he does what you describe.

      • Rod permalink

        I was thinking of 1 Timothy 5:18 (cf. Matt. 10:10; Lk. 10:7), assuming the veracity of the Pauline authorship tradition on 1 Timothy.

      • 1 Timothy 5:18?? There’s nothing there about the authorship of the Gospel of Luke!

      • Paddy permalink

        Hi. My NIV has a footnote referencing 1 Tim 5:18 to Luke 10:7 Yet I acknowledge you say this letter was written in the 50s and the gospel later , I think Norman Geisler puts Luke at circa 60 ( with Acts circa 62). Unsure how to marry all this up….

      • Well, Norman Geisler isn’t a NT scholar and has no record of contributions to the field. In any case, most of us who are NT scholars would put Luke-Acts ca. 75-95 CE.

    • Rod permalink

      Some at least have seen an allusion to Luke 10:7 in Paul’s quote, “The laborer deserves his wages.” Pardon my seemingly simplistic even absurd arguments, Professor. As a student of the Word though, I am ready to be enlightened by someone like you who has spent more time in studying the Word.

      • Rod: A possible allusion to a saying found also in Luke 10:7 wouldn’t require knowledge of Luke by the author of 1 Timothy. The Jesus-tradition was circulating widely, Jesus’ sayings conveyed and adapted variously, via “oral tradition” as well as via texts.

      • Rod permalink

        I notice that the main issue here is dating Luke (ca 60 [I believe that not a few NT scholars hold to an early date] or ca 75-95) because if you would grant me the earlier date then it is very much possible that Luke and Paul are aware of each other’s writings. Granting that premise, would my suggestion then be possible? I appreciate your patience and wisdom.

      • Rod: There are several critical/historical issues: (1) the date of Luke-Acts (most date it to ca. 75-95 CE); (2) the date and authorship of 1 Timothy (most regard it as posthumously written, some putting it into the 2nd century CE); and also (3) my previous point that an allusion to a Jesus-saying found also in GLuke isn’t necessarily an allusion to GLuke.

  3. Rod permalink

    If Prof. Bauckham is available to respond, how do you react to Chris Tilling’s evaluation of your proposal on “testimony” saying that “Christ-relation” is “more fundamental than testimony, and indeed its very basis, was a relationship with Jesus” (Tilling, Paul’s Divine Christology, 260-61)?

    • Rod, I think really I make Chris’s point in different terms when I say that the sort of testimony we have in the Gospels – which is the sort we need for faith as well as for more than superficial history – is ‘from the inside’ of the events, the testimony of witnesses who were themselves involved in and affected by what they witnessed. He puts it in a more christological way (since his is a book about Paul’s Christology), I put it in a way that has more to do with the kind of historiography the Gospels are, which was really my theme.

  4. ‘… I think, did what ancient historians did: he took every opportunity to meet eyewitnesses and interviewed them.’

    Did Luke interview Bartimaeus or did the community Luke moved in not know who Bartimaeus was?

    • In this case, Luke simply took the story over from Mark.

      • Although the story of Bartimaeus was well known because Peter preached it, Luke made sure to drop the name when he rewrote that story. I wonder why? Had nobody Luke was writing to read Mark’s Gospel already?

      • Steven, It’s even more complex: The Matthew parallel (20:29-34) has two blind beggars (neither named). So, you see here how a story gets transmitted in varying forms, but recognizably the same story.

      • Steven, why Luke dropped the name Bartimaeus I just don’t know. He keeps the name Jairus when he takes over that story from Mark. I think probably a lot of Luke’s readers would know Mark, which would have been circulating for a while before Luke wrote his Gospel. IN a Gentile author one could explain it by social status: Jairus was an important person, Bartimaeus only a beggar. But I don’t want to ascribe that motivation to Luke!
        Matthew has a strange propensity for doubling characters: he has two demoniacs in the story where Mark has only one (Legion). I don’t think I’ve come across a really convincing explanation. Is it symbolic (2 witnesses required)? Or did Matthew know other forms of the stories?

  5. J.J. permalink

    Thank you for posting this. I look forward to Bauckham’s sequel. I’m less optimistic about Papias’ testimony and Mark’s role. Papias doesn’t just claim that Mark got much of his material from Peter, he claims that Mark was careful not to omit anything from Peter, even though additional prominent episodes about Peter are known in Matthew, Luke, and John. If I didn’t know any external testimony about this Gospel we now call Mark’s, Peter would seem to be a good guess as the major source since he’s the most prominent character other than Jesus, and Mark (based on 1 Peter 5:13) would then be a good guess as to the writer of Peter’s material. So I sometimes wonder if Papias really didn’t know anything about the origins of this gospel we call Mark’s, and that he was conjecturing what seemed to be a likely chain of events for him, even though so much additional information about Peter is known in the other three gospels. Curious as to your thoughts. And thanks again for posting this. I look forward to Bauckham’s sequel.

    • Tim Henderson permalink

      J.J. – Please review the comments of Papias. He clearly is claiming that Mark wrote down whatever he “remembered” from Peter. And can’t we simply allow for some exaggeration on his part in the use of “everything,” without using that as a reason to say that he knew absolutely nothing about the matter? Another point to remember is that Papias is not claiming to be the source for this information – he indicates that it is info he has received from “the elder.”

  6. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Richard, you wrote:Luke,… also, I think, did what ancient historians did: he took every opportunity to meet eyewitnesses and interviewed them.

    I don’t think that ancient historians were as thorough as you have made out.

    • Geoff, you’re right that not all of them were. But ‘best practice’ in historiography was to meet eyewitnesses and interview them.

  7. Thank you for posting this – Bauckham’s works. “Eyewitnesses’ and ‘Testimony of the Beloved disciple’ are two of my favourites, and I am now looking forward to a sequel to the former – good news indeed. And thank you for this most enlightening blog – helps us amateurs no end 🙂 x

  8. It’s a brilliant book. I found it fascinating. The idea of the “inclusio” was an example of scholarship at its best and the book offers an excellent explanation of the use of different names in the Gospels for the same incidents. There is an excellent blog by Chris Tilling on the book and an interview with Richard Bauckham here:

    • Bauckham did truly brilliant work in discovering this technique of inclusio that ancient writers used and which had been lost (mislaid?) for two thousand years until Bauckham discovered it.

      What made his work more brilliant is that no writer or reader of antiquity had ever mentioned or hinted at such a technique being ever available or ever used which made Bauckham’s detective work in discovering its use both such a challenge to find and such a breakthrough once found..

  9. Ali Husain permalink

    Prof.Buakham ! , hi

    Proffesor Dale C Allison Jr in his book ‘Constructing Jesus:memory,imagination and history’ says on page 1 , footnote 1…”A notable recent attempt to link the canonical Gospels closely to eyewitness testimony is Richard Baukham, Jesus and eyewitness . Although he is ,in my view,overly optimistic about the reliability of the tradition,and although i believe that Gospels are further removed from eyewitness testimony than does he,…” . After reading your book , i agree with Prof. Allison that you are leanient with the tradition.

    Moreover , if the Gospel writers were soo sincere to include eyewitness testimony , why then did they redracted the words of Jesus , specially the Gospel of John . Would a beloved desciple do such a thing ?

    • First, it was one of accepted conventions of ancient writing of history that historians could put words in the mouths of their characters, provided the words were appropriate to the person and the context. Second, I don’t think John just puts his own ideas on Jesus’ lips. In the discourses he attributes to Jesus I think he interprets remembered words of Jesus, drawing out their full significance. I think it is plausible that someone who felt they had been especially close to Jesus should feel he was in a good position to do this.

  10. Victor Stevenson permalink

    It is a pity that the “ancient historians” or “eye witnesses” did not interview the “Saints” who rose from their graves, according to the NT.

    • Victor: You don’t “do” snide well. I presume, however, that you’re referring to Matthew 27:52-53, material unique to Matthew and unquestionably strange-sounding (at least to me). Can I suggest, however, that you’d do well to learn something about “ancient historians” before you go on referring to them in such a sneering and simplistic tone? Just sayin’.

      • There is no point in being so patronising Larry, the fact the event is recorded,( while you find it unquestionably strange-sounding), just goes to show how unreliable the eyewitness accounts are.

      • No, Victor, your comment shows how simplistic your understanding of issues is. Even on Bauckham’s “strong” reading of “eyewitnesses”, all it means is that the Gospels faithfully preserve the sorts of things that earliest “witnesses”were saying. He freely admits that a good deal of “interpretation” is included in that testimony. “Eyewitness” testimony can report varying things: e.g., check out what “witnesses” report about Kennedy’s assassination.

  11. Dear Professor Hurtado, excuse my lack of scholarship, but who was this “Beloved Disciple”.

    • Well, “the Beloved Disciple” is the scholarly argot for the character mentioned in GJohn (e.g., 13:23; 19:26) as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” As to his name, well, only God knows for sure!

    • I’ve seen theories point to: John son of Zebadiah (the traditional case), Simon Peter, James brother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and Lazarus.

      I’ve been convinced of the Lazarus theory for a few years now, but that’s just me.

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