Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006). 508 pp. + indices.
Bauckham begins his study by introducing what is to me the key contribution his work makes: the category of eyewitnesses. He points out that the way a lot of form critics of the NT operate it is as if they assume that the disciples (or eyewitnesses) first told the Gospel story and then went on permanent retreat, never to be heard from again. The argument that the Gospels are in the majority constructions of later Christianity is nonsensical in light of the fact that “The gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount” (7). Furthermore, he points out that contrary to our modern view of history, in the ancient world the most reliable witnesses to an event were those that were not only present at the event, but were intimately involved in the event which allowed them “to understand and interpret the significance of what [they] had seen” (9). In this regard, Bauckham notes, “the Gospels are much closer to the methods and aims of ancient historiography than they are to typical modern historiography” (11) but they must be understood as historiography in some form.
He next turns to a discussion of Papias (who we know only through citations in Eusebius). He will return to examine in detail Papias’ view of the Gospels in chs. 9 and 16. For his purposes here, he establishes the importance of eyewitness testimony in that it was considered “the best practice of historians” (27) to be most reliant upon eyewitness testimony in constructing a history.
The next several chapters (chs. 3-5) Bauckham focuses on the phenomenon of names in the Gospel accounts. He argues that the named individuals in the Gospels correspond exactly with the gamut of names we would expect from first century Palestine and that the names serve as identifiable witnesses to certain events in the Gospels.
Bauckham then turns to a discussion (chs. 7-8; 10-13) making the case for the origin of the Gospels as eyewitness testimony and the reliability of eyewitness memory. He argues for a Petrine perspective in Mark based on what he calls the “inclusio of eyewitness testimony” (155), which basically means that Peter is the first and last eyewitness mentioned in Mark, and the distinct plural-to-singular narrative device (e.g., Mk. 5:1-2), whereby the narrative switch from plural to singular “closely reproduces the way Peter told the story” (156) and functions to give the reader “the ‘point of view’ of the group of disciples” (161). He then argues that oral tradition is much more capable of “preserving traditions faithfully, even across much longer periods than that between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels” (240). This is not a new argument, it has often been recognized that the arguments of form critics require much longer to develop than was present between Jesus life (ca. 30 CE) to the writing of the Gospels (ca. 60-70 CE). Furthermore, he goes into some depth in looking at memory studies and finds that the kind of events that scholars of memory argue are most likely to be remembered in detail are precisely the kind of events that the disciples lived through.
Finally, Bauckham turns to a detailed discussion on the authorship of the Gospel of John. John, he argues is John the Elder, identified by Papias and also the ‘beloved disciple’ who is not to be equated with John the son of Zebedee. Whether or not you agree with his identification of the author of John, I believe that Bauckham’s analysis of John as the best example of complete ancient historiography we have in the Gospels will begin to change the way we view this Gospel. While the Gospel of John is often viewed as the most ‘theologized’ of the gospels and therefore the least historically reliable, Bauckham argues the opposite. He argues that the Gospel of John represents the most intimate portrait of the events by an intimate eyewitness that is a better example of ancient historiography than the Synoptic Gospels. He argues that Papias understood that John was better ordered because John, unlike the Synoptics, was able to order the events in order to bring out their significance more than the Synoptics, which were probably not actually penned by an eyewitness as was John.
Regardless of how you view Bauckham’s contribution, it is significant and his arguments must be taken seriously. For me, I cannot see how you can read Bauckham’s detailed work and not conclude that the Gospels reflect clear eyewitness testimony. Now, that is not to say that there are not reasons for distrusting eyewitness testimony. But if the discussion is able to shift to ‘the testimony is accurate until proven otherwise’ I think Gospel scholarship will be in a much better place.