The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006, 504 pages
Reviewed by Ben Witherington, III
There are books that are interesting, there are books that are important and then there are seminal studies that serve as road markers for the field, pointing the way forward. Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is in the latter category, to be sure. It thus deserves a thorough review, but a little background is in order.
Richard Bauckham and I have been friends for many years and have encouraged each other’s work. I was in St. Andrews University, in Scotland, last July to spend a week with Richard just before a wonderful conference on the Book of Hebrews, and the proofs of this book were sitting on his coffee table. He offered to let me read it, and I did. I realized at once the book’s importance, and Richard himself told me, in his reserved and understated British way, “I think this may be my most important book thus far.” I agree; it is indeed a seminal study, and we may be grateful for it coming now in the midst of so much nonsense being published about early Christianity and its documents.
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is to a great extent based on a close reading of the Papias traditions found in Eusebius and elsewhere. Papias was Bishop of Hierapolis, in Turkey, and was one of those bridging figures in Christian history who lived during the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century A.D. and thus had occasional contact with eyewitnesses to events in the New Testament and with those who had heard the eyewitnesses. Though Papias was a literate man, like so many in his oral culture he preferred the viva voce, the living voice, of oral testimony.
Bauckham believes very much in the importance of eyewitness testimony, including that of Papias, which suggests that there was a close connection between various of the canonical Gospels and eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus, with Mark connected to Peter, and John connected to at least John the Elder (otherwise known as John of Patmos, the author of Revelation but not of the other Johannine documents), whom Papias himself met and discoursed with.
Part of Bauckham’s intention is to show that the old form-critical ways of looking at Gospel traditions were wrong. According to classic form criticism (the basis of the work of the Jesus Seminar), early Christian traditions circulated anonymously in communities that were viewed as if they were faceless collectives (for example, the “Q community”). Bauckham thinks this theory is deeply flawed and suggests instead that there were personal links from the Jesus tradition to known and named tradents (carriers of tradition) throughout the period of transmission right down to when these traditions were included in the Gospels. Bauckham is quite right to insist that analogies with modern folklore to explain how ancient Gospel traditions were handled are simply wrong and anachronistic. The period between the time of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels is relatively short (between 30 and 60-some years, depending on the Gospel), and during that entire time there were still eyewitnesses who could act as checks and balances to the formation of the early Christian tradition. The “period between the ?historical’ Jesus and the Gospels was actually spanned, not by anonymous community transmission, but by the continuing presence and testimony of eyewitnesses, who remained the authoritative sources of their traditions until their deaths,” Bauckham writes.
The Papias traditions, as Bauckham reminds us, are available to us only in fragments, mainly in quotations from Eusebius. Eusebius had no high opinion of Papias, but for a particular reason. He called Papias a “stupid” man because he was a millenarian, which means that Papias believed that when Jesus returned from heaven there would be a paradise-like state upon the earth for some one thousand years. Eusebius’ dislike for this eschatology led to his dislike for those who promoted it, such as Papias. But, begrudgingly, Eusebius allows that Papias had some important contacts and knew some important things about the first two generations of Christians. Papias was personally acquainted with the daughters of Philip the Evangelist (Acts 21:8-9) and he also had met and talked with John the Elder. From these sorts of people he learned about the Twelve and other original apostles and eyewitnesses (see Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae 3.39.9).
Bauckham is not merely inclined to think that Papias tells us the truth about such things as the origins of the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John; he is convinced that these documents are based ultimately on reliable eyewitness testimony. Bauckham throughout the study seeks to provide a model for considering the issue of eyewitness testimony that comports with the early Jewish environment from which these testimonies came. He believes that trustworthy testimony can and should be believed, but he is not appealing to some sort of uncritical or pre-critical way of handling such data, nor does he accept the old canard that ancient historians and biographers, such as the writers of the Gospels, were incapable of thinking critically about history and other related matters. For instance, Bauckham quotes Polybius one of the foremost Greek historians of the Hellenistic era, who describes the historian’s task as “to believe those worthy of belief and to be a good critic of the reports that reach him.”
As the book progresses we discover that Bauckham deals in some detail with how sacred and historical traditions were passed down in early Judaism and then in early Christianity. As he points out, the Gospel traditions were not anonymous to begin with, nor were the Gospels themselves. The traditions and then the documents were linked to named persons—well-known named persons—and it was the early Jewish practice to memorize sacred traditions so they could be passed on faithfully from one tradent to another. There was not a long period of transmission of these traditions, and there was often a direct link, or a close link, with eyewitnesses. The analogy Bauckham draws between modern oral historians and ancient Gospel writers, both of whom sought out eyewitnesses to hear the stories “from the horse’s mouth” is plausible, indeed far more plausible than the view that early Christian traditions underwent a long gestation period that is analogous to the way folk literature and myth develop.
Bauckham also reminds us that ancient historians thought that history had to be written during a time when eyewitnesses were still available to be cross-examined. This is why, for example, Luke’s preface in 1:1-4 reads as it does. Unlike modern historians, who range over a much longer chronological trajectory examining sources that they certainly cannot double-check by turning to eyewitnesses, most ancient historians and biographers (especially the former) limited themselves to subjects that could be addressed while the living voice and the eyewitness were still available.
One of the more interesting analogies Bauckham draws is between modern eyewitness testimonies to the Holocaust and ancient testimonies about the Christ event. Very few modern historians would discredit all such Holocaust testimonies (the President of Iran not withstanding), and indeed most find such eyewitness testimonies very credible and personal, even if they should be critically sifted and even though we are now some 60 years beyond the end of the Second World War. Bauckham’s point is that people such as the Gospel writers, and Papias after them, operated in a similar environment—dealing with history-making events that were vividly remembered and often faithfully reported. Further, those writers, like modern Holocaust survivors, were anxious that the story be told straight and that it get out and be widely disseminated. Finally, there is also the point that the distance in time between modern Holocaust survivors’ current testimonies and the events, and the Gospels and the events they record is the same—even in the case of the latest of the Gospels to be written, the Fourth Gospel, called John’s.
There is much more to interact with and commend in this fine book, but in a brief review we must be content with asking, What is the upshot of Bauckham’s discussion? It is that the original Christian Gospels need to be taken far more seriously as sources of reliable historical testimony about the life of Jesus, his words and deeds, his disciples and demise, and the aftermath thereto. They were neither created nor passed along in the form that modern form critics (such as Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius) thought. We do not have in those Gospels “cleverly devised myths” or stories only loosely based on history, but rather eyewitness testimonies and traditions that in many cases the witnesses were prepared to die for, so profoundly did they believe them to be true.
The Gospels were written by people who were indeed in touch with vivid eyewitness testimony about events that had been seared into their memory and had left indelible impressions. As it turns out, we may know more about the historical Jesus and his first followers than modern skeptics have suggested—far more, if Bauckham is right.
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